Religion corrupts morality

by Eric Bright

UPDATE: 2020-03-11 typos, grammar, etc.

Pope holding on a golden staff while saluting an audience. The captions reads: Pray for the starving children while I hold this gold cross.
Pope holding a golden staff while saluting an audience. The caption reads:
“Pray for the starving children while I hold this gold cross.”
Note: This is written by an atheist for other atheists. You can rarely (if at all) convince a believer by an approach like this. Please don’t use this tone when conversing with your believer friends. It will not work.

Any believer I have ever seen so far, without a single exception, has had a moral standard that was at best equal to the lowest moral standards I keep seeing in non-believers, and at worse a degree of magnitude lower.

That does not prove anything of course. That is a personal observation and can be biased. Although the number of believers and non-believers I have seen is large, still someone can object to the sample being non-representative of the actual population. That can very well be the case.

I don’t have access to a few million dollars of research fund to conduct a field study. That is what must be done in order to determine the validity of an empirical claim such as the one I proposed above.

Theoretical aspect

I am glad that I can say a word or two on that front. So, I will attempt to re-frame my question in such a way that it can also be studied from a theoretical angle.

Given the major religions in the world, how can religion change a mind of its beholder regarding their moral behaviours?

This can be studied both through a field study and also conceptually. Because the religions are observable as they are, their institutions have been studied in depth by thousands of researchers, their sacred books and sayings are available to all, and as such, they can also be investigated conceptually.

Most religions, from shamanistic to pagan, to the latest Abrahamic religions, have a mechanism for repentance, divine forgiveness, sacrificial cleansing operations, and so one. These mechanisms are the source of the problem.

I am going to propose that any forgiveness mechanism, found in almost all religions with only a couple of exceptions, encourages immoral behaviour and heavily taxes moral actions.

How so? In order to behave morally, amongst many things, one needs to be aware of the consequences and also has to be emotionally charged by imagining those consequences. When a person only conceives of the consequences of their action but cannot emotionally engage with those images, things can and would go wrong badly. If they can get the emotional engagement but also are able to disengage their feelings, the same problems will happen.

For example the brains of psychopaths are not able to initiate corresponding emotions that needs to go with each imagined action. As a result, they cannot literally feel the consequences of what might happen next due to their actions or wrongdoings. It might be seen as an error in calculation in their eyes at worse, but it never ‘feels’ wrong. It does not ‘feel’ anything indeed.

The same horror would happen if a person trains themselves to effectively disengage their emotions from their actions without any remorse. This is not an easy task to do, but it can be done effectively and militaries around the world have excelled the art of making feeling-less robots for wars. As a result, the most hideous cruelties and atrocities are constantly perpetrated by war participants such as soldiers. In some cases where the robotization of a solder is not complete or effective enough, the soldiers end up being trapped in post-traumatic nightmares out of which some might never step for the rest of their lives.

What does this have to do with religion?

Religion is fully capable of effective robotization of individuals and has perfected this art through thousands of years of trial and error. Inducing and encouraging mindless obedience is only one break in that wall. The most important break in that wall, however, is forgiveness.

The idea of interpersonal forgiveness didn’t have a precedence before Christianity. “Forgiveness was God’s province, and it took a revolution in thought to bring it to earth and make it a human trait.” (Konstan, 2012) However, gods and spirits did have the power to forgive long before any of the today’s monotheistic religions emerged. Indeed, one of the few things we know about indigenous and ancient religions is, just that. In many cases, sacrifices were made to please the spirits and change their minds about what an individual has done, so to deflect any possible divine punishment (there have always been a huge number of other reasons for sacrifices, but this cause has always been amongst one of them).

Sacrifices were one way of buying gods’ or spirits’ favour. Thousands of years of ‘research and development’ in religious technologies has also created a suite of other ways to pacify gods’ and spirits’ anger at an individual: prayers, dances, rituals, omens, confessions, and one of the latest and most profitable one which is financial contributions.

These are all tools with which one buys the favour of the divines, so they buy an insurance policy and move under an umbrella that is supposed to protect them from divine wrath.

A cleansing operation, be it paying homage to the priest, going on a pilgrimage, offering a sacrifice, confessing, or whatever other means that they might find available to themselves to use, is an effective mental manoeuvre around human conscience. It can effectively and quickly disable the built-in guilt mechanism that has evolved in our species through millions of years of evolution and natural elimination/annihilation.

The human species has evolved to form a very strong bodily mechanism that allows it to attach ‘feelings’ to actions. If an action is going to hurt someone, a similar feeling is going to be simulated in the body of the actor who might have caused the hurt. This mechanism is so effective and strong that it can virtually replicate the same bodily reactions that might occur to someone else due to my actions if I start to just imagine it in my head. By imagining the trajectory of my actions I would be able to see, in my mind, the events that could have happened had I done it. Then my body experiences the same feelings that would have been experienced had I performed my actions had hurt someone in any way (see mirror neuron for more information).

That, amongst several other things, are the sources of human morality. Though, it can be effectively bypassed by religious techniques.

Religion corrupts morality

Religion can undo what took our species millions of years to develop. Religion can disable our moral senses.

When a person does something wrong to someone else, they can immediately feel the negative effects of the wrongdoing had it be done to themselves. That happens through the mental simulation of the trajectory of the events that could directly or indirectly affect others. This mechanism is broken in the body of psychopaths. That is why they cannot ‘feel’ the pain of their victims. It is all the same to them to tear a piece of paper or tear out the eyes of a two years old baby. These two do not ‘feel’ any different to them. The part of the body that is responsible for the orchestration that generates feelings or sympathy and other emotions either does not work at all or is broken at some level.

Religion does the same thing to a body via conceptual paralysis of the generation of the same feelings, and their future processes. Not only religion allows an infected mind to get around their human feeling and therefore behave morally, but also it encourages the bypass in many cases. An infected mind would perceive the clear possibility of forgiveness no matter what the consequences of their actions might be, and hence behaves a lot more uninhibited and unrestricted than they would have done had they not been under the influence of the infection.

A religion-infected body sees itself capable of dodge the mental bullet. It can imagine itself doing wrong, then repent, or buy forgiveness through available means. Once this perspective is introduced to a weak mind, and once it took root in it, the beholder of the religious belief can virtually do anything. The reason is that anything that is done, no matter how terrible the consequences might be, can be forgiven through the right kind of religious contributions. There won’t be any perceived, long-term consequences to one’s act once they start to believe that even if it hurts a bit, it can be fixed, the “sins” can be confessed, the forgiveness can be asked for, and through a suitable offering to the divine, the moral issues can be “dealt with” and the conscience can be cleansed.

The most horrible crimes against humanity can very easily manifest and be excused through this mental manoeuvre.

Here is a segment of a conversation between a believer and her pastor:

Pastor: What you have been doing is a sin.

Believer: Then what about you? Have you not sin in your life? And then how are you going to be ordained in future?

Pastor: “But by then, all of my sins are going to be dealt with.”

You can see one of the most dangerous mentalities one can ever come across in human populations. The pastor’s mentality allows for a huge breach of the moral codes that evolution has embedded in most of us through millions of years of trial and error. The pastor’s mentality can very easily bypass that. Not only that, such a mentality can also encourage almost any type of wrongdoing, because the pastor can easily imagine himself doing a few more rounds of cleansing and soul laundry before he would be pure again.

Religious moralities are inferior to most non-religious moralities

What if one is not a psychopath nor is he a religious person?

The chances are that a normal person without psychopathic tendencies would possess a normal human moral compass. A person who has not deliberately disabled or weakened his evolutionary moral compass would behave significantly more morally than a person whose evolutionary moral compass is significantly suppressed and impaired by a religion infection of the mind.

Such a normal non-believer would not be able to excuse themself and ignore the red-lights that would go on when he wants to attempt a wrongdoing. Even when he ignores them, they won’t disappear, they won’t go away, and they cannot be cleansed anyway. Anything wrong that is done by them intentionally will remain heavy on their conscience. There won’t be many tools or mechanism by which they can erase their past and purify or cleanse their conscience. They might learn how to leave with the guilt, but they won’t go away. They cannot simply close the chapter of a wrongdoing after a fair, private trial between them and an imaginary divinity is conducted during which they passed some under-table to the imaginary divinity (or his/her/ it representatives) to forgive everything that has happened and start from scratch. No such escape tribunal is available to them.

They are virtually alone to live with the consequences of their actions. On an unconscious level, they do not perceive any way out of their inner trouble that would eventually come back to bite them. They might not go through all of the stags I mentioned above, but they intuitively know that there is nothing there to make the memory of the immoral activity that they are contemplating on any less painful. They know it because there has never been one to do so for them. They have always been in this situation. So, they remember it naturally and without any conscious effort. That, this is it. Any time that anything has gone wrong due to their immoral actions, they couldn’t get rid of their inner voice. Now, they are conditioned in such a way that they are effectively immorality-averse. They might not know the process that has brought them to this point, but because this has always been the case, they find a strong aversion to intentionally doing something immoral, especially if they can vividly see its hurtful consequences on other people’s lives.

It would look simple to commit an immoral act, benefit from it while others might hurt badly. But, it immediately feels terrible to imagine others emotional distress. Not only that, but they would immediately feel an aversion to the perceived situation because of the conditioning they have gone through. They would feel repulsed at the idea of an intentional immoral act because subconsciously, their body remembers the times when they had gone through a moral dilemma, chose the wrong turn, and got stuck with a memory and a negative feeling that did not go away and could not be cleansed with any detergent. A religion-infested mind, in contrast, would immediately remember the possibility of a soul laundry and a religious purification via multiple devices provided by whatever religion in which he finds himself. These are two vastly different beasts.

Main causes of moral corruption

  • Religious indoctrination
  • Military training
  • Drug abuse
  • Psychopathy (catalysed by politics or finance)

These are the top five causes of the corruption of morality. The first one is the most widespread and pervasive cause, followed by other common causes. Some of the damages are absolute and permanent (like in psychopathy). That means the moral compass of an individual would definitely be impaired beyond repair in some cases. Psychopathy is the most damaging one because it can very easily be coupled with other, more pervasive causes of the corruption of morality.

Psychopathy and financial power make for bankers and the executives of major insurance companies we all know about today, i.e. the Wall Street persona. For example, it has been observed that psychopaths can manipulate their way up the ladder of leadership and end up in prominent positions in banks and other financial sectors. (Westerlaken & Woods, 2013) Coupled with greed, the lure of short-term financial gains at the expense of everyone else, and pure inability to feel any moral pressure, these psychopaths can go so far as to bring a full-fledged global crisis upon the inhabitants of the planet earth. Not only that, they would engage in the same act again and again in such a consistent pattern that one can even estimate the time of the next financial crisis within a few years of error.

Psychopathy and military power makes for Kim Jong-uns and Stalins. Now combine psychopathy with religiosity or both of them with military control, then you will get most of the famous monsters in the history of human kind from the priest-kings to Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi. The cruellest of all is usually one who has all three in one body. And curiously enough, they tend to be obsessed by a form of religion or religiosity to the point of being possessed by it (e.g. the kings and the queens of England are perfect examples of this. More ancient figures are Genghis Khan, the prophet of Islam, a few Russian Czars like Ivan the Terrible, Aztec Human Sacrifice, and more modern monsters such as Saddam Hussein). To have psychopaths to do terrible things, you need time. If you are impatient, then add religion to the mix. The point is that religion works with or without psychopathy.

Religion has the ability to disable the moral compass of humans directly and effectively. It works way better with such a compass, but works just fine without it too. And the scary part is that this ability is used to the fullest, every day, all around the world. The atrocities and misery that these deadly combinations bring upon humans are beyond measure. And directly or indirectly, religion is responsible for a good chunk of it. (White, 2012)


Konstan, D. (2012). Before forgiveness: the origins of a moral idea. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Westerlaken, K. M., & Woods, P. R. (2013). The relationship between psychopathy and the Full Range Leadership Model. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(1), 41–46. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.08.026

White, M. (2012). The great big book of horrible things: the definitive chronicle of history’s 100 worst atrocities. New York: W.W. Norton.

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