When Religion Does More Harm Than Good

A new poll reveals that the religious unaffiliated, the “Nones,” now constitute the majority of all such groups in America, topping even established religions. The Jan. 24, 2024, NPR article, opens in a new window“Religious ‘Nones’ are now the largest single group in the U.S.” details this finding. In 2007, the number of “Nones” stood at 16%. The new statistics, from 2023, show this figure has dramatically increased to 28%. Many of the “Nones” say that “religion does more harm than good” in contemporary American society.

If this is the case, then organized religion is in a sorry state. But we’ve known this for a long time. Conventional religion is often not filling peoples’ lives with meaning and providing them with purposeful goals. Why is this?

The reason, from my perspective, is because most Western religions do not provide experiential means to realize God. The largest slice of the American religious pie consists of Christians – mainly Protestants and Catholics. Attending a one-hour religious service once a week doth not transform lives. Reciting a codified dogma year after year can become an unmindful parroting of lifeless words when it lacks the mystical element. Socializing around commonly shared religious beliefs is often nothing more than attending a coffee klatch at church instead of the workplace. Religion especially turns ugly when used as a forum to propagate political beliefs or, more horrendously, to justify bigotry or war.

Now, many churchgoers do find meaning and purpose in their lives. The rousing Southern Baptist denominations get it right when pouring out their hearts in devotional outcries during services. Cultivating and expressing heartfelt devotion is an expedient path to God, and any devout practitioner can, by virtue of their single-minded devotion, transcend any limitations within their church. Orthodox Christians often follow mystical inner practices aimed at effectuating deep communion with God. And Catholicism has its own mystical practices, if one pokes around to find them.

But dogmatic religion, socializing religion, and political religion are not fulfilling the true mission of genuine religion. The word “religion” is derived from the Latin religāre, which means “to bind.” The true purpose of religion is to bind one’s soul back to God. This is accomplished by routinely undertaking practices, such as meditation, prayer, devotion, and selfless service, that help to change one’s essential nature and unfold their spiritual core.

Other than stating that religion “encourages superstition and causes division,” the new poll does not define why the “Nones” believe that religion does more harm than good. This is the fault of the polling organization, Pew Research Center, which failed to drill deep in order to ascertain this information. But I can only guess.

So, let’s further examine these terms. “Superstition” is a relative term. One person’s superstition is another’s Weltanschauung. “Causes division” – the pollsters neglected to define this. But we all know what happens when a group of dogmatic-minded individuals attempts to impose their myopic, often hate-filled fanatical views on others – this indeed creates division. And within religious factions, there are always power-hungry egotists who try to lord over others; these toxic pastors are often plagued by superiority complexes or at the very least are incorrigibly arrogant.

But I’ll offer some additional reasons. From Protestantism has emerged the unctuous – and odious – self-inflated preacher type, and, far worse, the shady, corrupt televangelists who are only in it for the money. If Dante’s vision of Hell were a reality, I can’t help but wonder if these charlatans are unsuspectingly using the ill-gotten gains they’ve pilfered from their gullible flocks to purchase for themselves a one-way ticket to the ninth circle of Hell, wherein Lucifer himself is said to dwell. You can perform an internet search to discover their net worth, which often rivals sports players, and you can view their mega-mansions in all their sprawling glory, all conferred on them in the name of Jesus (not!).

Within Catholicism, we’ve witnessed the Church’s deplorable historical atrocities alongside its staggering, excessive cumulative wealth, which is on full display while many of its followers live in abject poverty. It has participated in the very worst of sinful acts – for example, the Inquisition, the selling of papal indulgences, and more recently the abysmally horrific child sexual-abuse scandals, which are inexcusably heinous and should see the criminal perpetrators immediately defrocked and locked behind bars for life.

Now, I was raised Catholic and I am an advocate and practitioner of mystical Catholicism, which is a centuries-old rich spiritual tradition. I realize and am grateful that the Church hosts these practices and upholds this heritage. But these degenerate facets play no part in my Catholicism: I am among those who wholly denounce and categorically repudiate these appalling elements, which have no place in any religion. I believe Jesus would be sorely ashamed at, staunchly condemn, and vigorously rebuke the sanctioning of such chicanery and torturous killings; and he would especially revile the many exemplars of moral turpitude that have infested His church … and perhaps found a new church, minus these atrocities and depravities.

Of course, I’m focusing on the most visible, the most reprehensible, and the most condemnatory and contemptible acts within Catholicism and Protestantism – institutionalized priestly pedophilia and money-grubbing shysterism – but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see these may be some of the reasons why the “Nones” are amassing such huge numbers. And while Catholics have a 23% share of these metrics, and Evangelical Protestants another 24%, the vast majority of these and other Christian churches and congregations have nothing to do with these decadent and avaricious acts.

Also, when religion is used in the name of war or as a political mouthpiece, it ceases being a religion. Nor is religion a form of entertainment, although it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

Conversely, I’m not blindly upholding the “Nones” to some lofty standard. Most are atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular,” and hence they often have a bone to pick with organized religion … just because. They are entitled to their views, but they should respect the views of others.

Finally, this is a blatantly materialistic society, and both religious and non-religious persons and groups alike easily get caught up in the maelstrom of commercialism and often unwittingly and sometimes intentionally perpetuate the adoration of money and possessions alongside or even above all else. This is equally on par with and as equally abhorrent as the televangelists’ transgressions. We’re bombarded by commercial enticements round the clock; we must resist getting drawn into their insidious vortex and realize that, as with the title of the Police’s song, we are but “spirits in a material world,” and all such ephemeral trinkets pass away. Memento mori.

Religion does more harm than good when it strays from the only purpose for which it is and has always been intended – to lead others to God, and to enable others to experience God for themselves. Without this mystical element, religion can devolve into a meaningless social club or a political cult. The true, undiluted religious experience still exists – within the silent chamber of one’s heart.

2 thoughts on “When Religion Does More Harm Than Good”

  1. This is such an important topic, John! Far too much harm has been done in the name of religion, or of God, and not nearly enough healing done in its place. I tend to think that religion at its best points toward a deeply powerful force which is meant to be used for good, but when misunderstood or misappropriated can be used simply to prop up the ego, often at someone else’s expense. Power will always be seductive, as you point out. It is imperative that we exercise the kind of vigilance you recommend here.

    • Thank you, Elizabeth! You wrote, “I tend to think that religion at its best points toward a deeply powerful force which is meant to be used for good, but when misunderstood or misappropriated can be used simply to prop up the ego, often at someone else’s expense.” Ah, so true. Jesus taught the Golden Rule, “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). We find this principle in all the great religions. But, whether in religions or not, this should be the basic universal standard of courtesy between humans. All war, disharmony, discord, killing, fighting, and so forth, is simply the rampantly out-of-control ego on display in all its ugly grandeur.
      And to address your comment, “Far too much harm has been done in the name of religion,” in the context of the religious marketeers, it seems the one requirement for being a financially successful religious or spiritual teacher in this world is simply to hold an MBA degree. Master the art of selling, and that’s all it takes. Jesus needs to return in order to reform certain elements of his own Church! – John Roger Barrie


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