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History proves that religion doesn’t make people good

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A painting of a religious scene. Overtop the painting is the title "History proves that religion doesn't make people good"
By Barbara G. Walker
Contributing Writer
Freedom From Religion Foundation

The impression that people have to be religious in order to be good is earnestly promulgated by religious organizations, which have a vested interest in denying all evidence to the contrary.

But is it really true that religion makes people more kindly, generous or loving? History tends to disprove this. The worst wars, the most vicious Inquisitions, the cruelest pogroms and persecutions were both fomented and supported by religion. Soldiers and crusaders have always been taught that the enemy consists of people who lack the true faith, and so deserve to be massacred. The biblical God who supposedly said “Thou shalt not kill” ordered hundreds of genocidal slaughters and summary executions (including the blood sacrifice of his allegedly beloved son). Chaplains are made handy to the battlefield, to assure soldiers that God says it’s OK to kill as many of the enemy as possible. Hitler was a Catholic, who assured his troops that God was on their side: “Gott mit uns.

As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane, there is no more potent force than religion. Men have been committing heinous acts in the name of God ever since they created a God for themselves.

Since St. Augustine announced collective female responsibility for the presence of sin and death in the world, rabid sexism has been a major pillar of patriarchal religious tradition. Clement of Alexandria said every woman should be ashamed of being female. The Gospel of Thomas said in so many words that women are not worthy of life. St. Thomas Aquinas said every woman is defective from birth and lower than a slave, only meant by God to be “in subjection” to her husband. St. Odo of Cluny said a woman is “a sack of dung.” According to the official handbook of the Inquisition, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer for Witches), “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.” Even the modern Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that the female sex is inferior to the male sex in both body and soul.

Marriage to a woman was not recommended by early Christian fathers. St. Ambrose called marriage a crime against God. Tatian called marriage “a polluted and foul way of life.” St. Bernard opined that it is easier to bring the dead back to life than for a man to live with a woman without endangering his own soul. For the first half of the Christian era, marriage was a civil ceremony only, having nothing to do with religion. It was not until the Council of Trent in 1538 that a Christian ceremony was considered essential to a valid marriage.

Marriage finally became acceptable to the churches when laws were established that could make it a means of depriving women of incomes and property. Some of the Eastern churches made it a wedding custom for a bride to kneel and place her bridegroom’s foot on her head, and accept a stroke from a fancy ceremonial whip. Wife-beating was so routine in Christian countries that the Alsatian decorative symbol for “marriage” was a toy man beating a toy wife. Martin Luther thought himself a very lenient husband because he didn’t beat his wife with a stick, but only punched her in the head to prevent her from “getting saucy.” In Victorian times, Blackstone’s legal “rule of thumb” decreed that a man could beat his wife with a stick as long as it was no thicker than his thumb, apparently since beatings with thicker clubs had been shown to result in broken bones that tended to interfere with wives’ getting their work done.

According to the Baptist Faith and Message, Article 18, of the Southern Baptist Convention, “A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” One minister explained to a sociologist: “Wife-beating is on the rise because men are no longer leaders in their homes. I tell women they must go back home and be more submissive.”

The duality implicit in heaven-and-hell belief leads to an elitism that assures the believer of his own superiority and the general unworthiness of The Other. Religion greatly enhances the We/They syndrome. “We” are destined for eternal bliss while “They” merit eternal agony — which has been exhaustively described, although the bliss remains undefined.

Over the centuries, religion seems to have generated more hatred than love, and more war than peace. We might wonder, then: Are people good because of religion, or in spite of it? Is it religiously generated fear that keeps most people from harming others, or is it simply a natural respect for one’s fellow beings, such as demonstrated all the time by animals? Do people really need the paranoia generated by horrendous descriptions of the tortures awaiting them in hell, in order to treat their fellow human beings decently? Or might these dreadful if imaginary fears tend to make people behave more cruelly toward others?

Indeed, Christianity’s idea of hell seems to have inspired a truly horrifying degree of sadism in its adherents, as shown by the fiendish tortures routinely used by the Inquisition and other Christian authorities. Even revered Church Fathers showed a certain repellent lip-licking anticipation when they envisioned the agonies of hell. Tertullian wrote, “How I shall laugh and be glad and exult when I see these wise philosophers, who teach that the gods are indifferent and men soulless, roasting and browning before their own disciples in hell.” And the blessed St. Thomas Aquinas promised similar pleasures to all faithful Christians: “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful and that they may give to God more copious thanks for it, they are permitted perfectly to behold the sufferings of the damned.” As Joseph McCabe remarked, “Any body of men who believe in hell will persecute whenever they have the power.”

Religion seems infinitely accommodating, in that its interpretations take the shape of whatever personality types are adopting it. Kindly people, raised by affectionate parents and taught altruistic values, embrace a religion of goodwill and view love as a primary virtue. Those who are harshly treated in childhood tend to become more rigid, righteous and prone to worship a god who hates and punishes. Religious scriptures, notoriously self-contradictory, have plenty of sanctions for either point of view.

So it may appear that culture shapes religion, rather than the other way around. Through the centuries up to modern times, the bible has been extensively revised and reinterpreted to sweeten its nastier passages and give its God a better profile. The barbaric central idea of the bloodthirsty Father demanding the sacrifice of the blameless Son is still intrinsic to Christianity, but in time even that may be found unacceptable and “reinterpreted” into an altogether different scenario.

Religious people often protest that it is wrong to attack religion, because religion alone can make people virtuous. History shows that this is hardly the case. Every improvement in criminal law, every progress in social humaneness has been opposed by organized religion, just as much as our progress in scientific understanding of our world has been so opposed. It would seem that religion does not initiate moral virtue in the community, but rather grudgingly reflects it, once the community has sufficiently overcome religious objections to its progress and become somewhat more enlightened. We should remember that in our country, churches endorsed slavery, public lynching, wife-beating, whipping of schoolchildren and many other abuses.

Religion may pretend to be all things to all people, but it might be beneficial to consider its costs. Huge amounts of time, and attention, and tax-free money are spent on religious trappings that would be better spent on improvement of living conditions for more people, or on genuine education rather than on mythical shadowlands. It is surely unfortunate that the religious imagination can so easily justify war, hatred and cruelty. As Stephen Weinberg said: “With or without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

As children naturally outgrow Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the ogre under the bed, so humanity in general may need to outgrow its gods and devils.

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3 Responses

  1. I love her work(s). I’m married to a Pentecostal woman (55 years,) we have a Pentecostal minister as a son, (I’m an atheist, & FFRF member too,) neither of them, although both keenly aware of the Bible’s contents, express the slightest concern for the welfare of women outside of their own religious settings. On the occasions that I’ve mentioned this topic to my wife (I’m keenly aware of biblical content also,) it’s as if I was talking to myself. I guess that’s the power of the cult!

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