A reader’s essay on why religion is at best superfluous

November 6, 2022 • 11:00 am

Reader Daniel Sharp, a student in Edinburgh (I’m informed that he’s now graduated), sent me a link to a very nice essay he wrote for his Substack. As you can see, it was intended for Quillette but fell through the cracks. His intro:

I just wanted to share with you a little piece I just published on my Substack. I was commissioned by Quillette to contribute to one of their ’roundtables’, where various people answer a particular question, either positively, negatively, or, if you like, agnostically. In this case, the question was about religion, and I had fun donning my ‘New Atheist’ hat. Alas, the feature wasn’t published because they couldn’t find anyone to take the middling position, so I published it on my Substack instead.

Click to read:

A couple of quotes (indented):

As a good old-fashioned New Atheist type, I have long been of the view that religion is most certainly not good for humanity. At best, it is irrelevant to the task of creating happy, free, and prosperous societies. At worst, it is an enemy of truth and a driver of hatred and conflict.

Let’s take truth first. The question at hand isn’t really about the veracity or otherwise of religion, but I think most people would consider truth, all else being equal, to be a good thing for humanity, as I do. This is by no means a given, I concede, and we shall have to skate over difficult metaphysical and epistemological questions about what exactly we mean by ‘truth’. But if we believe that truth (meaning, broadly, the accurate understanding of reality) is good, then religion, almost by definition, cannot be good for us.

I’m not one of those milquetoast atheists who hedges their bets, let alone a respectably stuffy agnostic. No, I think one can say, with great confidence, that Christianity, Islam, and the rest are utterly false. We know, and even believers have had to admit, that all the holy books are riddled with.

As for the idea that religion acts as a social glue, well, perhaps it does for members of a congregation or faith, but surely not for humanity as a whole. I can’t imaging a more divisive force save nationalism.

Questions of truth and knowledge aside, what of the social effects of religion? We live in a generally secular age, in which religion (or at least some religious sects, and mostly in the West) has been mostly defanged. I think this explains why so many people have a hard time understanding that genuinely held delusional beliefs can be a powerful motivator to action. This is why we find it hard to comprehend the cruelty of medieval inquisitors and the murderousness of modern jihadists. We rationalize their evils as being rooted in grievances or economics. But make no mistake: religion is an extraordinarily effective engine of evil.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that one could pick almost any conflict at random, historical or contemporary, and quickly see the poisonous influence of religion. Putin’s war on Ukraine, for example, like the missiles with which he slaughtered Syrians, has been blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin sees himself as the restorer of a pure Russianness, one based on a rejection of secular and liberal modernity and in search of an imperium over which to rule. For him, Russia is the last great hope of Christianity and traditional values, and Moscow is the “Third Rome”.

To head off another likely response: I am not saying that religion is the sole cause of every conflict. But it appears, one way or another, as motivation or motivator, in most of them, and makes them even harder to resolve. As Christopher Hitchens put it in his 2007 broadside against religion, god is not Great, “Religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred.”

After Jordan Peterson’s  quasi-religious spiel at the academic freedom conference yesterday, I was discussing with a friend the notion that “wokeness” is a form of religion—the claim of John McWhorter in his antiracism book.  Yes, I agree there are many parallels, but I couldn’t say that wokeness is a replacement for religion: filling the “God-shaped hole” that many are supposed to have.

I think the parallel is largely on the basis of similarities in some tenets of wokeism and of religion (e.g. “original sin”, authoritarianism, and moral purity), but the parallel goes only so far. There is nothing supernatural about wokeness; it’s a purely human phenomenon. This makes wokeness “religinoid” rather than “religious”. Moreover, when you look at countries outside the U.S.— countries that used to be religious but are now largely atheistic (e.g., Germany, Scandinavia, etc.), they are neither particularly “woke” nor do their inhabitants feel the need to replace religion with something similar.  The disappearance of religion doesn’t seem to have left a God-shaped hole. (What did Danes or Icelanders fill their God-shaped hole with?). Nor is Britain particularly religious compared to the U.S., though it is woke.

Rather, the tenets of “progressive leftism” that we consider illiberal come from tribalism, not religion. That may be a distinction without a difference, but I get queasy when I hear about that “God-shaped hole”. I see religion as something that arose when we didn’t understand the world, and because we were (and still are) afraid to die. Wokeness doesn’t fill either of those needs; science and reality do.

One could, I suppose, test the “GSH” hypotehsis by seeing if the woke, compared to, say, centrist liberals, used to be more religious but gave it up: they are more likely to be “nones.”

This is just a digression having nothing to do with Daniel’s fine review. But I put it out there because I’m sitting at the SF airport with nothing to do but write.

Daniel’s peroration:

In the end, I can make weaker and stronger versions of my argument. At its strongest, I can say that religion is not just harmless but harmful. At its weakest, I can say that religion is irrelevant. Either way, religion is not positively good for us. We have no need of it. Humanity is weak and foolish, yes, but it also contains what Saul Bellow in his great novel The Adventures of Augie March so beautifully called the “universal eligibility to be noble”.

I submit, finally, then, that the highest, noblest path that humanity can pursue is one without religion. We must face the uncaring universe with our chins up. . . .

Remember, when you’re arguing about whether the phenomenon of religion itself is now (or was in the past) a net good or net bad for the world, you have to consider all of humanity, not just the United States. If Northern Europe can survive perfectly well without either religion or a religion-resembling replacement, then so can we all.

52 thoughts on “A reader’s essay on why religion is at best superfluous

    1. Yes, I’m glad to see it featured in a post, and I’d like to add a harm to the list:
      Religion opens the door to magical thinking. If there’s a master controller above and beyond the forces of nature, we maybe don’t need to worry about global warming, or anything really. It all may be part of God’s plan or he could swoop in and save us with a miracle.

  1. As one who has lived in Sweden and spent considerable time in Denmark, I can report that the Nordics have found a substitute for religion that is good for the soul but perfectly free of supernatural religion’s toxic side-effects: herring.

  2. “A clue : no. ” ha!

    Andy Rooney said something like he’d be willing to go along the mumbo jumbo if it was clear that religion makes humanity better – but he didn’t think religion makes people treat other people better than without.

  3. … Jordan Peterson’s quasi-religious spiel at the academic freedom conference yesterday …

    What was Peterson on about with his claim that academia displays the “dark triad” — Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy — typical (according to him) of mentally unbalanced women?

    Thanks for posting a link to the trenchant piece by Daniel Sharp.

  4. If Northern Europe can survive perfectly well without either religion or a religion-resembling replacement, then so can we all.

    I’m not sure that Northern Europe doesn’t have a “religion-resembling replacement”. I’m wary of statism. Quite a bit of infrastructure that religion offers, governments do, too, from schools to care for the infirm to criminal justice. I’ve known far too many people who have Stockholm-syndrome-like loyalty to their governments the way many do to their churches. National Myths (like Washington’s cherry tree, Betsy Ross’s flag, and everything about Thanksgiving) are one pseudo-religious element that states use to cement emotional loyalty. Religions and governments are simple control mechanisms, they have their carrots and their sticks. I would trust them more if people weren’t emotionally loyal to their rulers.

  5. What a very good piece.
    I think Steven Weinberg put it even more succinctly: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”
    On an aside, I don’t get the “let alone a respectably stuffy agnostic”. One can be atheist, rightly rejecting all answers from any religion as BS, but still be an agnostic.
    Despite all the advances science has made: what is the true nature, the essence, of time and energy, or matter, for that matter? I remain kinda agnostic there.

  6. The underlying assumption of this piece is that if religion were to disappear somehow a better world would emerge, underpinned by evidence-based rationality. This conjecture is based on untested hope. The nature of society in a few, small, relatively homogeneous Scandinavian countries does not prove the point. Indeed, Sweden has recently elected a far-right government. The piece also assumes that humans are basically rational creatures and that for thousands of years religion has suppressed this rationality from emerging or due to some evolutionary leap humans are suddenly more rational. However, what we are seeing today is a flood of conspiracy theories, embraced by many millions that are threatening to upend societies.

    So, the unanswered question is will the disappearance of the major religions that now exist result in a better world or will they be replaced by wacky beliefs that are not explicitly religiously based (those that accept the existence of a deity) but just as dangerous? Looking at a world that is in a downward spiral, I see no evidence that human beings have suddenly evolved to be more rational creatures than was the case for thousands of years. Fifty years from now, people will be able to look back and assess whether the “decline of religion” thesis had any merit. I would like it to be true, but my money is on that it isn’t.

    1. I largely agree, but I do think two aspects unique to religion have aggravated humanity’s irrationality and destruction. First, the prospect of infinite reward or punishment. Second, an Absolute Authority to whom one can supposedly appeal for final answers. (Admittedly, some Trump, Putin, or Modi supporters, for examples, seem to prop these men up into the latter role. So maybe just the first aspect is unique.)

    2. Looking at a world that is in a downward spiral, I see no evidence that human beings have suddenly evolved to be more rational creatures than was the case for thousands of years.

      If you see no evidence, Steven Pinker’s last three books have plenty.

      Since the Enlightenment human society is obviously more rational. We have developed the means to test, preserve, and pass on knowledge, resulting in unprecedented flourishing. As David Deutsch puts it:

      Progress that is both rapid enough to be noticed and stable enough to continue over many generations has been achieved only once in the history of our species.

      1. The fact that there has been significant material progress since the Enlightenment does not mean that human beings are more rational. Since World War II, the world has had the ability to destroy itself. The world has been lucky for 77 years, which in historical terms has been the blink of an eye. One madman firing a nuclear weapon in earnest will wipe out all the progress. Pinker’s thesis was at best a snapshot in time and said nothing about the future because he nor anyone else can regarding “progress.”

        1. Pinker repeatedly states what he’s adduced is not a guarantee progress will continue. His point is that we have progressed, not that steep reversals are impossible, and that rationality yields the best prospects for continued flourishing.

      2. Deutsch simply puts down religion and those theoratic governed states as static societies. They are in a constant state of pessimism. A great desciption IMO. They have no means of error correction mainly by suppressing free speech and criticism.

        1. >> They have no means of error correction mainly by suppressing free speech and criticism.

          Don’t forget the built in abhorrence of new and different ideas.

    3. f I’m not mistaken, as one of the alternative evils ‘nationalism’ was actually mentioned, which basically is tribalism: us vs them (something shared with about all religions, of course). But there are probably several more evils indeed, The ‘us vs them’ appears to be a universal, innate in gregarious animals (as we are).

    4. Maybe, too, the eradication of drunk driving wouldn’t actually save lives since that hasn’t been tested.

    5. For one thing, people wouldn’t be killing each other in the name of religion, including the Shiites and Sunnis. If we didn’t have religion that would happen far less often. And I don’t think one could argue rationally that if one source of divisiveness disappeared, people would find another one that would prompt them to kill each other.

      1. I find your overall faith in humanity puzzling and would like to understand why you believe humans are unable to invent another source of divisiveness. Maybe, if we are lucky, you will treat us to a post regarding this topic or refer to one from the past.

        1. We have all the ingredients for disaster just waiting! I think I agree that with no religion, all the other pressures of food, resources, land, would not vanish. Indeed, the more people, the greater the pressure, & in a week or so the world will hit 8 billion… https://www.un.org/en/desa/world-population-reach-8-billion-15-november-2022 that plus the climate catastrophy gives plenty of scope for conflict, with or without religion, though in my view religion makes it far worse.

          I do wish world wide that education was better. With no religion, girls could be free to attend school in Afghanistan for example, raising the population out of poverty.

    6. There is a distinctively religious flavor to much of what we probably all think of when we think of the current “downward spiral.”

      Putin makes great use of the perception that he is a Christian warrior of sorts, and indeed, his supposed “Christian” cred is one reason millions of American evangelicals actually like him and what he’s doing.

      Trump is the furthest thing from a real Christian, but again, his minions are convinced that he has been “sent by God.”

      The Islamic nuttiness and fundamentalism. The continuing erosion of what was once a shining secular democracy in Israel.

      And, of course, while no deity is invoked, as John McWhorter and others have noted, “wokeism” has nearly all the hall marks of a religion.

      In short, I wouldn’t be too quick to blame secularists for the current downward spiral.

      “Religion poisons everything.” — Christopher Hitchens

    7. I think eliminating the easy fall back to faith as justification for actions would be a net plus. It would make it more difficult to short circuit rational discussion with an appeal to faith. There would still be people who believe because they believe but it would be harder to justify without the backing of an imaginary God that says faith is more important than reason. And once you try backing up your positions with reason it becomes at least a little bit more likely that you will be open to evidence you might never have looked at otherwise.

  7. Slight correction. Mr. Sharp recently graduated and is no longer a student. Aside from his substack and writing for other outlets, he continues as an editor for Areo.

  8. I should probably just give this one a bye, but I keep wishing that people like Daniel Sharp would make a distinction between organized religion and a simple belief in spiritual reality. I’m a pantheist, but I have no use for organized religion of any kind. Daniel is a good writer and takes pains to define what he means by truth—i.e., “broadly, the accurate understanding of reality”; but he makes no effort to define what he means by religion, though the context (talk about “holy books,” etc.) clearly reveals that he means organized religions of all stripes. I would agree that such religions preclude an “accurate understanding of reality,” but am also of the mind that no understanding of reality can be accurate if it excludes the spiritual. Note: I’m not asking anyone to accept the idea of spiritual reality, but simply to acknowledge that it’s different from a full-blown belief in religion.

    1. You never defined “spiritual reality,” so you’re just as guilty as Sharp. And until you do, and make a distinction between it and “material” (or “naturalistic”) really, I won’t acknowledge that “no understanding of reality can be accurate if it excludes the spiritual.” An example of how including the “spiritual” into a description of reality would be useful. (I presume you mean more than “some humans have spiritual feelings and that is a “reality”.)

    2. …but am also of the mind that no understanding of reality can be accurate if it excludes the spiritual.

      Why do you think that? What do you mean by ‘spiritual’? In saying that no understanding of reality can be accurate if it excludes the spiritual, do you mean that we need to better understand what humans mean when they say ‘spiritual’?

    3. To me “spirituality” is something psychological and belongs in that domain, not ontology. Of course psychology – how the mind works – is important to understanding reality. I would love for you to explain what spirituality is, if it isn’t a feeling that some people experience like many other emotions, which are of course features of reality.

    4. All the evidence of neurology and neuropsychology point directly away from dualism, and offer powerful evidence that “mind” and (if we must) “spirit” are admittedly ineffable features that are emergent properties of physical matter, namely, a brain. No brain, no “mind” and no “spirit.”

  9. I might miss some of the imagery if we completely did away with religion. 

    One of my favourites is when Jesus grabs a sickle and starts killing humans with his angel buddies. Mr. Meek and Mild is killing loads of people with single swipes, so he’s grown in size since we last saw him. I’m imagining humans fighting back, riddling Jesus with bullets. But, like any giant zombie, he can’t die again!

    Anyway, in the end, someone comes out to measure the amount of human blood flowing over the ground. For length, the measurer is using a standardized Roman stadia at 1600 (around 300 kms). For depth, they bring in a horse. Ah, yes, it is up to the horse’s bridle. Write that down! Revelation 14:14-20. 

    1. Yes, the Book of Revelations is one of the first, if not the first, stories to roll science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres into one, to be admired for its amazing, perfervid imaginings.

  10. I read Daniel’s essay on his Substack, Daniel’s Den, to which I’ve subscribed. To add a little more weight to Daniel’s weakest argument, I would say that something irrelevant or superfluous is not just useless but also a positive drag on progression, a hindrance to progress. I do, however, ally myself with Daniel’s strongest argument, namely, that religion in this day and age is a societal poison. For many decades I used to be a nonbeliever along the lines of James Randi, who one described religion as something quaint that humanity needed to leave behind. Now, in my old age, after these many decades of witnessing the poisonous effects of religion time after time; after reading the works of the Four Horsemen and Prof. Coyne; and after watching the videos of the Agatan Foundation, Mister Deity, and Paulogia, among other atheist YouTubers, I have taken on the mantle of an antitheist and have become sensitive to and am taking advantage of those occasions when I can safely and profitably criticize religion and belief. Thanks for your essay, Daniel, and BTW, you have an enviable prose style. Keep it up! 🙏

    1. StephenB have you seen any Forrest Valkai videos? I’ve only seen a few, but he communicates well. In the video below these two get into evolution’s contributions to morality (around the 37-38 minute mark). The entire video was enjoyable, but the part about morality was good to hear.

      1. Valkai’s videos have been popping up in my YT feed, but I haven’t yet watched any. I will now, thanks to your recommendation, Brian!

        1. Hey Stephen. Not sure if you will get this or not, but I just watched a few of Valkai’s videos. I’m not sure I’ll keep watching them. Good, but not great in my opinion. It is hard to find expert scientists that are making YouTube videos. 🤷🏽

          1. Brian, I’ve now watched a few of his videos, and I agree with you, good but not great. As a librarian and educator, I’m going to keep him in mind, however, for his in-person programs as a science instructor. Thanks again for the reference!

  11. The author does not seem to have engaged much with critics of New Atheism. Without the mentions of recent events, his article might have been penned when Dawkins and Hitchens were at the peak of their prominence. This is most apparent when Sharp repeats common New Atheist misunderstandings of history.

    Religions are not necessarily attempts to explain the world, because there is an enormous variety of religions that differ from the doctrinal Christianity most Westerners are familiar with. Religion has played little role in most wars, and is hardly the cause behind most of them. Christianity did not cause the Dark Ages.

    1. There’s so much wrong with what you’ve said, too, and I’ll also leave you to imagine the specifics. Anyway, they negate your whole argument.

    2. You are right in that religion is rarely “the cause” of a war, as the causes are (almost) always more complex and can rarely be attributed to a single cause.
      It is not the case, however, that “religion has played little role in most wars.” Religion almost always ends up playing a more or less significant role in war, on many different levels. To name just one, it would be a rare (or nonexistent) war indeed in which neither party invokes god or the gods as supporting its cause and its efforts; a rare war indeed in which its participants do not pray to their god or gods for success, protection, etc.

      1. My criticism is really aimed at the notion that without religion, there would be no or almost no wars. I heard this repeatedly during the heyday of New Atheism, from people like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Maher.

        Religion is responsible for the crusades, and it fueled atrocities in the Early Modern Period. Yet Christian princes fought each other all the time without belonging to different sects (to my knowledge, the Church did not encourage this and even came up with ideas like the Peace of God to limit the damage). Many ancient peoples accepted their enemies’ gods anyway, since the religions they believed in were much less concerned with orthodoxy than Christianity.

        I don’t think The Troubles could have easily been ended without religion, as Dawkins suggested. The Israel-Palestine conflict would be easier to solve without religion, but you would still have a more and a less successful ethnic group fighting over power and territories. There were Christians on both sides during the Civil War and segregation, and I’m not sure this made things worse.

        Perhaps we don’t actually disagree very much. I merely think the role of religion in war has been exaggerated by concentrating on events like 9/11 and the partition of India while ignoring many other events like the World Wars or the Falklands war.

  12. I read McWhorter’s book and I agree with you, Jerry. Wokeism has *some* of the elements of religion, but those are analogous similarities, not homologous. “Relignoid” is an excellent term! I’ll use it where appropriate, with the appropriate attribution.

    1. Because as we know, something can only be a religion if it is very special, meeting a broad, deep set of criteria, with grand vicissitudes of historical importance, serving as a source of inspiration – nay, the very creation of – all art, Nature, and life – the very origin of everything, and has to be approved by lots of people, accepted by all as non-overlapping magisteria.

      1. Careful! If your irony is too good, it won’t be noticed.

        I’ve seen McWhorter challenged on whether “wokeism” is a religion. It brought to mind debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – not particularly important. The common features he points out in religion and wokeism are important and this commonality is not flattering to either.

    2. Of course, we have a word for religious-like phenomena that have nothing to do with the supernatural, i.e. ideology. And it works quite well for wokeism.

  13. “For him, [Putin] Russia is the last great hope of Christianity and traditional values, and Moscow is the “Third Rome”.”

    Somewhat ironic given the early Soviet Union’s, i.e. Stalin’s, take on religious dogma and atheism.

  14. I’d argue that Religion is the result of animism being Organised, Professionalised and then made more sophisticated to paper over the cracks.

    Religion is arguably not the cause but an adjuvant to social change. After all various religions have supported slavery and then later supported the abolition of slavery. Perhaps social change would move more smoothly if the ‘boosters’ were disabled?

  15. ‘Putin’s war on Ukraine, for example, like the missiles with which he slaughtered Syrians, has been blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin sees himself as the restorer of a pure Russianness, one based on a rejection of secular and liberal modernity and in search of an imperium over which to rule. For him, Russia is the last great hope of Christianity and traditional values, and Moscow is the “Third Rome”.’

    I’ll look forward to the gentleman’s reflections on the efficacy of NATO eastward expansion during the last 20-plus years, and on the efficacy of the Monroe Doctrine.

    1. “…efficacy of NATO eastward expansion”? I dunno, but I would not really call it an ‘expansion’. That sounds so, well, expansionist? It is more the eastern countries that were eager to join NATO by their own desire. I can’t think of a better term though, but it is not so much an eastern ‘expansion’ of NATO as a veering to the ‘West’ by these eastern European countries.
      And for good reason, I’d say. How many NATO countries were invaded by Russia? How many non-NATO countries were? Exactly.

  16. The tendency to be religious varies between individuals (see this paper: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15745438/ ), so it isn’t surprising that countries that have historically had a low level of religiosity would also have a low level of wokeness in the present. These countries didn’t have a “god-shaped hole” to the same degree that the United States does, so they also didn’t have a need to fill that hole with something else. The U.S. has historically been much more religious than most European countries, so I think it’s to be expected that this would also be the country that’s become the most woke after traditional religions were abandoned.

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