Christianity’s Social Harms

Many people extol churches for the work they do to alleviate problems such as hunger, sickness, and homelessness. Although churches deserve credit for their efforts in those areas, it shouldn’t be overlooked that much church activism is harmful to society. Church doctrines have caused numerous societal ills and continue to impede solutions to many problems.

Churches, with the exception of the Unitarian-Universalists, promote the Bible as a guidebook for human actions. As a result, each year in the U.S. dozens of people die and thousands more are injured or abused.

Some take seriously the Bible’s teachings to beat children, withhold medical treatment, handle snakes, drink poison, chop off hands and feet, pluck out eyes, and drive out demons and devils. Tragedy is the result, and often the victims are innocent children.

In the political arena, churches and their Bible are responsible for most of the opposition to a number of progressive ideas. Religious teachings are the main cause of hostility against sex education in the schools, equal rights for women, availability of contraceptives, stem-cell research, abolition of corporal punishment of children, elimination of the death penalty, eradication of discrimination against homosexuals, enactment of laws guaranteeing death with dignity, and liberalization of marriage and divorce laws.

Additionally, churches have been the driving force behind efforts to censor books, magazines and films; institute sectarian and divisive religious practices in public schools; annihilate the wall of separation between church and state; ban abortion; teach creationism as science to schoolchildren; and in general impose on society the type of narrow-minded and intolerant attitude that characterized Western civilization during the Dark Ages.

On the global level, the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraceptives is a major cause of overpopulation and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases – including AIDS – in the Third World. Overpopulation causes poverty, hunger, war, and disease. And it cripples the ability of poor nations to develop their economies.

Certain fundamentalist churches teach that, according to the prophecies of the Bible, the condition of the world will steadily grow worse until Christ returns. This doctrine leads some of their followers to believe there’s no use trying to solve the world’s problems.

Walter Lippmann described the reason for such attitudes: “As long as all evils are believed somehow to fit into a divine, if mysterious, plan, the effort to eradicate them must seem on the whole futile, and even impious.”

Similarly, Thomas Paine noted that “as certainly as a man predicts ill, he becomes inclined to wish it. The pride of having his judgment right hardens his heart, till at last he beholds with satisfaction, or sees with disappointment, the accomplishment or the failure of his predictions.”

Those attitudes also cause some to have little or no concern about the possibility of nuclear war. Because they view a nuclear holocaust as the prophesied end of the world that will usher in the millennium and the reign of Christ, they at times sound as if they welcome it.

As Charles Kimball explains in his book When Religion Becomes Evil: “When the views of millions are colored by such theologically shaded lenses, there is little incentive to encourage the United States or other governments to work for a sustainable peace in the Middle East or effective arms control; some openly discourage such efforts on the grounds that active peacemaking mitigates against the coming conflagration they anticipate.”

Adding to this problem is the fact that most Christians who believe in the “Rapture” don’t think a nuclear holocaust will be any skin off their noses. They expect to be supernaturally delivered up to heaven before the rest of us are nuked.

Throughout history, the churches and their Bible provided the bulk of support for slavery, the divine right of kings, the burning of witches and wizards, torture and execution of heretics, persecution of homosexuals, religious wars, opposition to science and education, censorship, outlawing of loans at interest, the degradation of women, and a host of other social and economic problems.

Concerning the enforcement of Christianity by law, James Madison argued for church-state separation by stating: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”

In regard to more recent history, many talk about religious support for the civil rights movement. But they forget that much of the opposition came from churches as well.

As Susan Jacoby writes in her book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism: “In the sixties, right-wing fundamentalists were, almost without exception, hard-core segregationists. They attacked the twentieth-century civil rights movement as their spiritual actual ancestors had attacked the nineteenth-century abolitionist and feminist movements.” She also reports that “most faithful white southern churchgoers in the early civil rights era, and most of their ministers, were staunch defenders of segregation.”

Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way in writing from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963: “When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white Church. . . . Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent.”

Further, churches teach people to engage in religious rituals in order to “worship God” and “serve God.” Often these practices benefit no one and are a waste of time.

If, for the sake of argument, there is a God powerful enough to create a universe, he doesn’t need anything from people and is able to take care of himself. But in this world many persons need help.

It would make sense, then, for churches to focus more on serving them than trying to appease an alleged God who, if he exists, needs nothing from humans. The philosopher Immanuel Kant was correct in stating: “Apart from moral conduct, all that man thinks himself able to do in order to become acceptable to God is mere superstition and religious folly.”

In allowing religious rituals to replace moral conduct, churches give people an easy way to avoid the work necessary to improve the world. Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Maxims: “Serving God is doing Good to Man, but praying is thought an easier service, and therefore more generally chosen.”

By pointing to only the good that churches do, many act as if the harms caused by religion don’t exist. But failing to speak out against the harms is itself a moral evil, in that it helps perpetuate them.

Clarence Darrow said: “As long as the world shall last there will be wrongs and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever.” To prevent the harms of religion from lasting, more people need to recognize and oppose the religious doctrines responsible for the harms.