There’s Too Much Evil and Cruelty in Religion

By David Madison | 28 June 2024
Debunking Christianity

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On the morning of September 11, 2001, I did my routine walk to work in Manhattan. Soon after I arrived at the office, the terror of the day began. In my diary for that day, I added a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the top of the page, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”  On the following Sunday, church attendance in the New York/New Jersey area was higher than usual. Apparently worshippers were seeking comfort—or perhaps trying to convince their god that our sins did not deserve such severe punishment. I would like to think that at least some who showed up for church wanted to scold their god for his negligence. He didn’t have the power on 9/11 to divert the aircraft? Or to moderate the rage in the minds of the terrorists? What’s the use of believing in—and worshipping—an all-powerful god if he can’t put his powers to use at crucial moments?

It would seem that the so-called new atheism emerged in the wake of this religious terrorism. Serious thinkers declared: Enough is enoughreligion is just too dangerous. Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith was published in 2004, and his Letter to a Christian Nation in 2007. Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion in 2006, and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything appeared in 2007. These works apparently set off a tsunami of sorts: they encouraged other secular thinkers to publish as well: since these books, well more than 500 others have appeared, explaining—in detail—the falsification of theism and Christianity. See especially, the remarkable output of John Loftus, who founded this blog.

But atheist and skeptical thinkers have been getting in trouble with the church for centuries, so the new atheism isn’t all that new; it was in 1974 that George H. Smith published Atheism: The Case Against God. Copies disappeared from libraries, destroyed no doubt by indignant believers. And another prominent advocate of critical thinking—thoroughly skeptical of religious claims—has been James A. Haught. Haught was born in 1932 in a small West Virginia town. By the time he was 21 he was hired by the Charleston Gazette. Over the course of his career, he has written twelve books and 150 magazine essays. I recently finished reading the 2019 collection of many of his essays, Blasphemy for Thinking People: Refuting Gods, Devils, Heaven, Hells, and the Rest of Holy Hokum.  (309 pages)

One of the most valuable sections of this book is a nine-part series of essays “on religious horrors, cruelties, atrocities and tragedies of all types.”

Millions claim that religion causes believers to be kind and brotherly. But an ugly flipside exists, a beast lurking in shadows behind supernatural faith. Few people grasp the wide variety of evils once done, or still done, for religion. (Kindle, Loc 1844)

He provides abundant examples of the violence caused by religions, especially Christianity. I suspect that, just as churchgoers are largely ignorant of the horrors and bad theology in their cherished Bible, they are unaware as well of the violence perpetrated by devout believers: Christian history is not their strong suit. If we asked folks leaving church, “Tell us about the implications of the Thirty Years War for your faith”—there would be few answers, even fewer people who would know anything about this war.

Haught explains: “The last great spasm of the Reformation was the Thirty Years War, from 1618 to 1648. It started because Protestant nobles entered a Prague palace and threw two Catholic ministers out a window onto a dungheap. Resulting Catholic-Protestant slaughter seemed unstoppable and killed millions in Germany, leaving starvation and poverty behind.” (Kindle Loc 2028)

One of the nine essays is titled Cult Tragedies. He provides details about Jonestown (the mass suicide of more than 900 people), Waco, Supreme Truth,

…a strange Japanese cult mixing Buddhism, The Book of Revelation, Yoga, and prophecies of Nostradamus. Founder Shoko Asahara was so beloved by followers that they paid $10,000 to sip his blood and lesser sums to drink his bathwater or kiss his big toe. (Kindle, Loc 2190)

He describes several other destructive cults as well, and concludes, “Why on Earth do some people swallow crackpot beliefs so intensely that they commit crimes and lose their money or their lives? It’s baffling.”  (Kindle, Loc 2246)

In the final essay in the series, Today’s Horrors, Haught discusses rape committed by the clergy:

In 2002, the Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for disclosing rampant sex crimes and church coverup in New England. In 2004, the Dallas Morning News did likewise for Texas. In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury report identified 300 Keystone State priests who molested more than 1,000 children. In 2019, Australian Cardinal George Pell was convicted. Etc., etc. Ironically, the spreading scandal blackened the Catholic Church worldwide—yet Protestant clergy, and men generally, commit child molestation at the same rate as Catholic priests. In 2019, two Texas newspapers revealed that 380 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers had molested more than 700 victims. (Kindle Loc 2277)

I have often wondered: “Why isn’t membership in the Catholic Church down to zero by now?” It’s probably because faithful churchgoers assume that their beloved priests would never do anything so evil. But it’s also hard to let go of a faith that promises escape from death.

Moreover, Catholicism specializes is over-the-top costuming and ritual: every celebration of the Mass is an impressive show. The gross superstition behind eating the body of a god, and drinking its blood—indeed, the magic potion aspect of it—is disguised by the spectacle. Hey, it seems to work! But is the Catholic Church ever bothered by the hypocrisy of spending vast amounts of money for costumes, sets, and scenery, when those funds could be used to help the poor?

There is another dimension of the Catholic intent-to-fool, in addition to the promise of eternal life. Its saint-business is thriving. Protestant are impressed only by its weirdness.  One of Haught’s recurring themes is the capacity of religions to imagine gods and the many beings that surround them in the spiritual realm:

Counting the number of gods is difficult. Christianity supposedly has three—father, son and Holy Ghost—but what about Satan? Is he a god? What about the Virgin Mary? If she hovers over humanity, miraculously appearing to the faithful, doesn’t that make her a supernatural spirit? What about angels and demons and the ‘heavenly host’? Are they godlets? What about saints, to whom believers pray? If they exist and receive prayers, they must be supernatural personages. The Catholic Church reveres around 11,000 saints, all canonized upon alleged evidence of miracles. If all 11,000 remain today in the spirit world answering prayers, are they 11,000 semi-gods? If you’re mentally honest, you might see a simple answer: The number of gods and invisible spirits is zero. They’re all figments of the imagination. (Kindle, Loc 3596)

Mental honesty is hard to find! Among the devout, willingness to think critically, skeptically, is hard to find—when it comes to their religion. Another of Haught’s essays is titled, When Thinking Is a Crime, which opens with this comment:

As prehistoric tribes evolved into early civilizations, tribal shamans were succeeded by elaborate priesthoods claiming to represent hundreds of magical gods. Priestcraft became a complex profession and gained enormous power over societies. Temples and sacrifices dominated many cultures. Shrewd men learned that they could live in luxury, instead of toiling like the rabble, if they were seen as conveyors of the holies…One way to guarantee the high status of priests was to inflict severe punishment on anyone who might question their supernatural connections. Thus blasphemy laws were born. (Kindle Loc 3380)

Thankfully, blasphemy laws have been cancelled (in the West, not in Islamic countries), but the faith-urge has not been stifled. I mentioned earlier that more than 500 books have been published in the last couple of decades by atheist/secular authors. But this output is dwarfed by the ongoing flood of devotional books written by clergy and theologians, designed to boost faith, especially in these times of rising doubt and skepticism. Asking the devout to read anything that doesn’t reinforce their beliefs is met with resistance. Over the years I have asked Christians to read and critique chapters of books I’ve written, but they usually refuse to do so. The most common excuse is that they can’t risk damaging their faith. This makes me suspect that doubts—very troubling doubts—are just below the surface.

For Catholics who might be curious enough to see what goes on out-of-sight, I would recommend Frédéric Martel’s 2019 In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy (a New York Times Best Seller). Also Tom Rastrelli’s 2020 Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary.

But for everyone, John A. Haught’s Blasphemy for Thinking People is a bracing dose of reality about the dangers religions pose to human health and well-being. Please, devout people, take a break from the devotional books. Study the brutal facts about how perilous religious devotion can be.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available.

His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.

Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught (with author Dr. David Madison)

Interview with ex pastor David Madison

Ten Tough Problems in Christian Belief with David Madison

God And Horrendous Suffering – John W. Loftus

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