The Top 3 Reasons Why Religion Is Immoral

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does “religion is immoral” mean? Are there any moral or ethical issues with religion?

Many people wonder if religion is immoral. Some believe that the power religious institutions exert over people and the control over their daily lives makes religion immoral.

Keep reading to find out if religion is immoral.

Religion Is Immoral: The Religious Placebo Effect

There are a few reasons why people believe religion is immoral. Religious people often claim that religion provides them with a sense of hope or comfort. A belief in the power of prayer, for example, might provide someone with a greater sense of control over the events in their lives. They are never powerless, because they can always appeal to God to intervene on their behalf. Similarly, a belief in the afterlife might make the grief and despair of losing a loved one more manageable, as the bereaved person can take comfort knowing that they will be reunited with their loved one in heaven. 

Holding such comforting beliefs might hypothetically make religious people less likely to succumb to stress-related maladies. If religious faith did indeed have this effect, it would confer an evolutionary advantage, as people of faith would have a greater likelihood of passing on their genes. Unfortunately for theists, the evidence for the health benefits of religious faith is weak; after controlling for other variables, religious people don’t demonstrate any better health outcomes than non-religious people. 

Religion might still work like a placebo, in which a dummy medication succeeds in producing positive health effects because the unaware patient believes they are taking a real drug. The placebo effect is very real and well-documented, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. However, it’s arguably far too small a phenomenon to explain the sheer ubiquity and power of religion. Religion is one of the most dominant forces in all of human history. It has to have arisen from something greater than the placebo effect.

Likewise,  we also can’t ignore the fact that religion also causes stress, often by threatening eternal damnation and torture if you don’t unquestioningly accept its claims. This would make religion an evolutionary disadvantage, as people of faith would be more likely to suffer from stress-related conditions and have a lower likelihood of passing on their genes. 

In-Group Solidarity and the Free-Rider Problem

While religious devotion might be disadvantageous to an individual—for example, because it causes emotional distress and often demands costly material sacrifices such as tithes and offerings to the priesthood—it could conceivably be advantageous to a group. This issue may be one of the reasons why religion is immoral. Common belief in the same God (or gods) is a powerful way to foster in-group solidarity and altruism (we’ll explore the origins of altruism in the next chapter). People within a tribe or confederation will be more likely to aid one another if they are members of the same religious faith. This, in turn, will make the survival of the group more likely and enable the transmission of religious belief as an advantageous Darwinian trait.

However,  this theory of the origin of religion through the mechanism of group selection runs into trouble when we consider the problem of free riders. One tribe, tightly knit by its shared devotion to a religious faith that emphasizes war and the slaughter of heathens, might indeed have a strong military (and thus, evolutionary) advantage over a rival tribe with no religion at all.

But a non-believing individual within that warlike tribe would benefit from hanging back in battle and letting his co-religionists engage in the slaughter instead. This free rider would have an advantage at the game of natural selection, because he would have all the advantages of being in the religious tribe (getting to subjugate and expropriate a rival tribe) with fewer of the disadvantages (getting killed because of religious zealotry).

Such a free rider would stand a better chance of passing on his genes to his offspring. Owing to their evolutionary advantage, those descended from non-believers would come to outnumber the progeny of the faithful. This is just one reason why religion is immoral.

The Moth to the Flame

The misfiring concept is easier to understand if we use a metaphor from the insect world. It is a commonly observed phenomenon that moths will sometimes fly directly into an open flame, burning themselves to death in the process. If we’re looking at it from a strictly evolutionary perspective, this makes no sense. Why would an animal concerned with survival and producing offspring do something so self-destructive and irrational?

The reason is that moths usually rely on sources of natural light like the stars and the moon to guide their way back home after a night of foraging and feeding. Moths survive by flying into the path of light.  This behavior with respect to light is a fixed-action pattern: Upon presentation of a certain stimulus (light), the moth instinctively engages in a behavior (flying toward it), because throughout almost their entire evolutionary history, this behavior is what maximized their chances of survival and producing offspring.

But with the relatively recent arrival of humans and their control of fire, the fixed-action pattern became scrambled. The stimulus appeared to be the same, but the corresponding behavior came at a deadly price. Thus, the act of suicide-by-flame is in fact an unintended by-product of an evolutionary instinct that is nearly always advantageous to the moth, and is another reason why people believe religion is immoral.

The Top 3 Reasons Why Religion Is Immoral

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  • Why Dawkins thinks religion has exerted a harmful influence on human society
  • How Dawkins concludes that the existence of God is unlikely
  • The 3 arguments that challenge the existence of God

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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