Is religion the root of all evil?

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I wrote up an answer to this post this morning and felt my argument flowed so nicely it was worth giving it a bit more publicity. Hope you enjoy it too!

First, to define evil: I'll go with Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape and say that "good" is when sentient beings (i.e. humans and other animals) are thriving and happy; "evil" is when they're suffering. Many events happen every day that affect the well-being of sentient beings: Some good, some evil, some neutral.

Knowing that, we can easily excuse religion from "all evil." Clearly, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which killed thousands, was not religion's fault.

So we're down to evil as committed by humans. Again clearly, not all humans are motivated by religion. Many people are irreligious, and some of those do harmful things as well.

Mankind will likely always have a small component of psychopaths, people who lack our mental machinery for evaluating good and evil at the visceral level. Psychopaths tend to act purely in their own self-interest if they can get away with it. So psychopathy is a big cause of evil.

Those who don't have the "medical excuse" of psychopathy are involved in a constant struggle to weigh our own self-interest against the good of everybody. Nobody's perfect, and people make questionable decisions all the time. This is the normal way of things, with or without religion.

Coming finally to the role of religions: My mantra is "incorrect beliefs lead to incorrect actions," which usually translates to evil. There are many situations in life where a rational, reason-based look at reality leads to a certain course of action as being the most beneficial; and in many such situations, belief in things that ain't so, considering factors that are purely made up, will lead to a different, worse course of action. A simple example is the idea that contraception is evil and should be prevented. Hundreds of thousands of people in sub-Saharan Africa die every year for lack of the AIDS-hindering effect of condoms, and many families live in poverty and squalor as a result of overpopulation.

To be fair, religions claim a beneficial effect: By appealing to peoples' consciences, i.e. by reminding them to look at their actions more closely in terms of good and evil effects, they are often nudging people to act better than they otherwise might. People conscious of their religion may act a little more honestly and charitably. Interestingly, in experiments such an effect didn't need the harsh fire-and-brimstone stories of e.g. Christianity to bring about. Even a picture of an eye hung on the wall caused people to act more morally.

Personally, I feel that the harm caused by religion (those many deaths and the hand brake on human progress and prosperity) far outweighs the good that comes from inspiring already-decent people to be a little better. But that's an effect that's hard to quantize and capture in stats, so I can't be certain about such an assertion.

But the question can easily be resolved by considering humanism as an alternative to religion: If all churches, mosques and temples were to be replaced, as Dan Dennett suggests, by community centers where people can learn about reason and human kindness, people could be strengthened in their morals and enjoy the benefits of communal life without suffering the ills of basing their actions on untruths.

Conclusion: No, religions are certainly not the root of all evil. But they are irrefutably the root of much evil that could be easily avoided, and with net benefit to all of humanity, if religions were eliminated and replaced.

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changed February 20, 2011