You often hear people insisting that religion is a real force for good in the world. This is of course not a good reason to believe religion’s factual claims, but I also think that the assertion isn’t true in the first place (overall). Earlier this week we got another vivid example of what I’m talking about in this story about a congressional staffer who’s refusing to give his ex-wife a “get,” a formal Orthodox Jewish divorce. In some ways this is a really obvious example of the harm religion can do — Orthodox Judaism requires that a woman seeking a divorce must have her husband’s consent to do so, which is sexist and awful on many levels.
But why bring this up? Clearly there are more sexist and awful things being done in the name of religion all the time. Yet, the point I want to make here isn’t about how the people involved are so sexist — it’s about how they’re not sexist.
See, as the article explains, the Orthodox community usually pressures husbands who are using this power against their wives until they give in and grant the get. In this case, people are even taking to the streets to protest the man’s home. There are signs saying, “Free your wife,” and people shouting, “Withholding a get is abusive.” The people involved here are modern Americans, and they understand that this man’s actions are unacceptable.
But they’re protesting his house, not the local synagogue. Not the rabbi who refuses to let the man’s ex-wife remarry. Not the religious schools where the doctrine is taught. Because for these people, the religious doctrine is unassailable. They believe that husbands do have this power. It might be morally horrible ever to use it, but it’s beyond question to them that it exists.
When religious law teaches something, that thing becomes unimpeachable. It’s not open to logical debate or questioning. This isn’t true in the rest of society. There was a time when civil law was every bit as biased in favor of the husband over the wife as this religious law is. When people were sexist, this was societal consensus. When the consensus changed, however, we changed the law. Society moved forward. What we have here is a powerful example of religious law staying the same even though societal consensus has shifted. Religious law is encouraging these people to be sexist when they know sexism is wrong, and they have mental barriers in place to keep them from noticing that.
When discussing the harm done by religion, many people focus on the big horrible things — terrorism, the Crusades, etc. That stuff is all true and definitely horrible, but I think the core of the problem goes deeper. Religion exempts certain beliefs from the application of criticism and logic. Even “good” religions, which today sound completely moral to enlightened modern thinkers, freeze those ideas in place. They are elevated to a pedestal above simple societal consensus or law. But in the future, as circumstances change or our moral compass matures, these ideas too will look archaic and unjust. Social activists of the future will spend their lives trying to unseat them.
Of course, religious ideas can eventually be changed. Most Jews today aren’t Orthodox precisely because these ideas are anathema to most people in western society. New religions, sects, or interpretations come, and we get a slightly more progressive religious landscape. But religious faith is an obstacle. It is harder to unseat a religious teaching than a law or an opinion, so change happens slowly. Religion becomes a constant drag on societal progress.
Imagine how horrible it would be if we still lived by the moral laws of 1900. Our society would be complacent towards, or even supportive of, sexism, racism, killing of civilians in war, and so on. Chances are, our society today will look similarly terrible in to people living in the year 2100. And yet, if it weren’t for religion, we would probably be living in a society like that of 2100 already. Think of all the injustices that keep happening because of that failure to progress more quickly. That’s the real harm — bigger than any single atrocity committed in the name of religion. It’s the extension of permission for those atrocities, for years, maybe centuries or millennia, longer than we had to.