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The case against religion

by Albert Ellis Story Source March 5, 2008

Before we can talk sensibly about religion – or almost anything else – we should give some kind of definition of what we are talking about. Let me, therefore, start with what I think are some legitimate definitions of the term religion. Other concepts of this term, of course, exist; but what I am talking about when I use it is as follows.

According to Webster’s New Word Dictionary, religion is: “(1) belief in a divine or superhuman power or powers to be obeyed and worshipped as the creator(s) and ruler(s) of the universe; (2) expression of this belief in conduct and ritual.”

English and English, in their Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytical Terms (1958), define religion as “a system of beliefs by means of which individuals or a community put themselves in relation to god or to a supernatural world and often to each other, and from which the religious person derives a set of values by which to judge events in the natural world.”

The Columbia Encyclopedia notes that “when a man becomes conscious of a power above and beyond the human, and recognizes a dependence of himself upon that power, religion has become a factor in his being.”

These, then, are the definitions of religion which I accept and which I shall have in mind as I discuss the religious viewpoint in this paper. Religion, to me, must include some concept of a deity. When the term is used merely to denote a system of beliefs, practices, or ethical values which are not connected with any assumed higher power, then I believe it is used loosely and confusingly; since such a nonsupernatural system of beliefs can more accurately be described as a philosophy of life or a code of ethics, and it is misleading to confuse a believer in this general kind of philosophy or ethical code with a true religionist.

Every Atheist, in other words, has some kind of philosophy and some code of ethics; and many Atheists, in fact, have much more rigorous life philosophies and ethical systems than have most deists.

Someone Is Religious

It therefore seems silly to say that someone is religious because he happens to be philosophic or ethical; and unless we rigorously use the term religion to mean some kind of faith unfounded on fact, or dependency on some assumed superhuman entities, we broaden the definition of the word so greatly as to make it practically meaningless.

If religion is defined as man’s dependence of a power above and beyond the human, as a psychotherapist I find it to be exceptionally pernicious. For the psychotherapist is normally dedicated to helping human beings in general, and his patients in particular, to achieve certain goals of mental health, and virtually all these goals are antithetical to a truly religious viewpoint.

Let us look at the main psychotherapeutic goals. On the basis of twenty years of clinical experience, and in basic agreement with most of my professional colleagues (such as Brasten, 1961; Dreikurs, 1955; Fromm, 1955; Goldstein 1954; Maslow, 1954, Rogers, 1957; and Thorne, 1961), I would say that the psychotherapist tries to help his patients to be minimally anxious and hostile; and to this end, he tries to help them to acquire the following kind of personality traits:

1. Self-interest. The emotionally healthy individual should primarily be true to himself and not masochistically sacrifice himself for others. His kindness and consideration for others should be derived from the idea that he himself wants to enjoy freedom from unnecessary pain and restriction, and that he is only likely to do so by helping create a world in which the rights of others, as well as his own, are not needlessly curtailed.

2. Self-direction. He should assume responsibility for his own life, be able independently to work out his own problems, and while at times wanting or preferring the cooperation and help of others, not need their support for his effectiveness and well-being.

3. Tolerance. He should fully give other human beings the right to be wrong; and while disliking or abhorring some of their behavior, still not blame them, as persons, for performing this dislikeable behavior. He should accept the fact that all humans are remarkably fallible, never unrealistically expect them to be perfect, and refrain from despising or punishing them when they make inevitable mistakes and errors.

4. Acceptance of uncertainty. The emotionally mature individual should completely accept the fact that we live in a world of probability and chance, where there are not, nor probably ever will be, any absolute certainties, and should realize that it is not at all horrible, indeed – such a probabilistic, uncertain world is most conducive to free thought.

5. Flexibility. He should remain intellectually flexible, be open to change at all times, and unbigotedly view the infinitely varied people, ideas, and things in the world around him.

6. Scientific thinking. He should be objective, rational and scientific; and be able to apply the laws of logic and of scientific method not only to external people and events, but to himself and his interpersonal relationships.

7. Commitment. He should be vitally absorbed in something outside of himself, whether it be people, things, or ideas; and should preferably have at least one major creative interest, as well as some outstanding human involvement, which is highly important to him, and around which he structures a good part of his life.

8. Risk-taking. The emotionally sound person should be able to take risks, to ask himself what he really would like to do in life, and then to try to do this, even though he has to risk defeat or failure. He should be adventurous (though not necessarily foolhardy); be willing to try almost anything once, just to see how he likes it; and look forward to some breaks in his usual life routines.

9. Self-acceptance. He should normally be glad to be alive, and to like himself just because he is alive, because he exists, and because he (as a living being) invariably has some power to enjoy himself, to create happiness and joy. He should not equate his worth or value to himself on his extrinsic achievements, or on what others think of him, but on his personal existence; on his ability to think, feel, and act, and thereby to make some kind of an interesting, absorbed life for himself.

These, then, are the kind of personality traits which a psychotherapist is interested in helping his patients achieve and which he is also, prohylactically, interested in fostering in the lives of millions who will never be his patients.

Now, does religion – by which again, I mean faith unfounded on fact, or dependence on some supernatural deity – help human beings to achieve these healthy traits and thereby to avoid becoming anxious, depressed, and hostile?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t help at all; and in most respects it seriously sabotages mental health. For religion, first of all, is not self-interest; it is god-interest.

The religious person must, by virtual definition, be so concerned with whether or not his hypothesized god loves him, and whether he is doing the right thing to continue to keep in this god’s good graces, that he must, at very best, put himself second and must sacrifice some of his most cherished interests to appease this god. If, moreover, he is a member of any organized religion, then he must choose his god’s precepts first, those of this church and it’s clergy second, and his own views and preferences third.

No Views Of His Own

In a sense, the religious person must have no real views of his own; and it is presumptuous of him, in fact, to have any. In regard to sex-love affairs, to marriage and family relations, to business, to politics, and to virtually everything else that is important in his life, he must try to discover what his god and his clergy would like him to do; and he must primarily do their bidding.

Masochistic self-sacrifice is an integral part of almost all organized religions: as shown, for example, in the various forms of ritualistic self-deprivation that Jews, Christians, Mohammedans, and other religionists must continually undergo if they are to keep in good with their assumed gods.

Masochism, indeed, stems from an individuals’s deliberately inflicting pain on himself in order that he may guiltlessly permit himself to experience some kind of sexual or other pleasure; and the very essence of most organized religions is the performance of masochistic, guilt-soothing rituals, by which the religious individual gives himself permission to enjoy life.

Religiosity, to a large degree, essentially is masochism; and both are forms of mental sickness. In regard to self-direction, it can easily be seen from what just been said that the religious person is by necessity dependant and other-directed rather that independent and self-directed. If he is true to his religious beliefs he must first bow down to his god; to the clergy who this god’s church; and third, to all the members of his religious sect, who are eagle-eyedly watching him to see whether he defects an iota from the conduct his god and his church define as proper.

If religion, therefore, is largely masochism, it is even more dependency. For a man to be a true believer and to be strong and independent is impossible; religion and self-sufficiency are contradictory terms.

Tolerance again, is a trait that the firm religionist cannot possibly possess. “I am the Lord thy God and thou shalt have no other gods before me,” saith Jehovah. Which means in plain English, that whatever any given god and his clergy believe must be absolutely, positively true; and whatever any other person or group believes must be absolutely, positive false.

Democracy, permissiveness, and the acceptance of human fallibility are quite alien to the real religionist – since he can only believe that the creeds and commands of his particular deity should, ought, and must be obeyed, and that anyone who disobeys the is patently a knave.

Religion, with its definitional absolutes, can never rest with the concept of an individual’s wrong doing or making mistakes, but must inevitably all to this the notion of his sinning and of his deserving to be punished for his sins. For, if it is merely desirable for you to refrain from harming others or committing other misdeeds, as any non-religious code of ethics will inform you that it is, then if you make a mistake and do commit some misdeeds, you are merely a wrong-doer, or one who is doing an undesirable deed and who should try to correct himself and do less wrong in the future. But is it is god-given, absolute law that you shall not, must not do a wrong act, and actually do it, you are then a mean, miserable sinner, a worthless being, and must severely punish yourself (perhaps eternally, in hell) for being a wrongdoer, being a fallible human.

Religion, then, by setting up absolute, god-given standards, must make you self-deprecating and dehumanized when you err; and must lead you to despise and dehumanize others when they act badly. This kind of absolutistic, perfectionistic thinking is the prime creator of the two most corroding of human emotions: anxiety and hostility.

If one of the requisites for emotional health is acceptance of uncertainty, then religion is obviously the unhealthiest state imaginable: Since its prime reason for being is to enable the religionist to believe a mystical certainty.

Just because life is so uncertain, and because millions of people think that they cannot take its vicissitudes, they invent absolutistic gods, and thereby pretend that there is some final, invariant answer to things. Patently, these people are fooling themselves – and instead of healthfully admitting that they do not need certainty, but can live comfortably in this often disorderly world, they stubbornly protect their neurotic beliefs by insisting that there must be the kind of certainty that they foolishly believe that they need.

This is like a child’s believing that he must have a kindly father in order to survive; and then, when his father is unkindly, or perhaps has died and is nonexistent, he dreams up a father (who may be a neighbor, a movie star, or a pure figment of his imagination) and he insists that this dream-father actually exists.

The trait of flexibility, which is so essential to proper emotional functioning, is also blocked and sabotaged by religious belief. For the person who dogmatically believes in god, and who sustains this belief with a faith unfounded in fact, which a true religious of course must, clearly is not open to change and is necessarily bigoted.

If, for example, his scriptures or his church, tell him he shalt not even covet his neighbor’s wife – let alone have actual adulterous relations with her! – he cannot ask himself, “Why should I not lust after this women, as long as I don’t intend to do anything about my desire for her? What is really wrong about that?” For his god and his church have spoken; and there is no appeal from this arbitrary authority, once he has brought himself to accept it.

Any time, in fact, anyone unempirically establishes a god or a set of religious postulates which have a superhuman origin, he can thereafter use no empirical evidence whatever to question the dictates of this god or those postulates, since they are (by definition) beyond scientific validation.

The best he can do, if he wants to change any rules that stem from his religion, is to change the religion itself. Otherwise, he is stuck with the absolutistic axioms, and their logical corollaries, that he himself has initially accepted on faith. We may therefore note again that, just as religion is masochism, other-directedness, intolerance, and refusal to accept uncertainty, it also is mental and emotional inflexibility.

In regard to scientific thinking, it practically goes without saying that this kind of cerebration is quite antithetical to religiosity. The main canon of the scientific method – as Ayer (1947), Carnap (1953), Reichenbach (1953), and a host of other modern philosophers of science have pointed out – is that, at least in some final analysis, or in principle, all theories be confirmable by some form of human experience, some empirical referent. But all religions which are worthy of the name contend that their superhuman entities cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, or otherwise humanly experienced, and that their gods and their principles are therefore distinctly beyond science.

To believe in any of these religions, therefore, is to be unscientific at least to some extent; and it could be contended that the more religious one is, the less scientific one tends to be. Although a religious person need not be entirely unscientific (as, for that matter, a raving maniac need not be either), it is difficult to see how he could be perfectly scientific.

While a person may be both scientific and religious (as he may be at times sensible and at other times foolish) it is doubtful if an individual’s attitude may simultaneously be truly pious and objective.

In regard to the trait of commitment, the religious individual may – for once! – have some advantages. For if he is truly religious, he is seriously committed to his god, his church, or his creed; and to some extent, at least, he thereby acquires a major interest in life.

Religious commitment also frequently has its serious disadvantages, since it tends to be obsessive-compulsive; and it may well interfere with other kinds of healthy commitments – such as deep involvements in sex-love relations, in scientific pursuits, and even in artistic endeavors. Moreover, it is a commitment that is often motivated by guilt or hostility, and may serve as a frenzied covering-up mechanism which masks, but does not really eliminate, these underlying disturbed feelings. It is also the kind of commitment that is based on falsehoods and illusions, and that therefore easily can be shattered, thus plunging the previously committed individual into the depths of disillusionment and despair.

Not all forms of commitment, in other words, are equally healthy. The grand inquisitors of the medieval catholic church were utterly dedicated to their “holy” work, and Hitler and many of his associates were fanatically committed to their Nazi doctrines. But this hardly proves that they are emotionally human beings.

When religious individuals are happily committed to faith, they often tend to be fanatically and dogmatically committed in an obsessive-compulsive way that itself is hardly desirable. Religious commitment may well be better for a human being than no commitment to anything. But religion, to a large degree, is fanaticism – which, in turn, is an obsessive-compulsive, rigid form of holding to a viewpoint that invariably masks and provides a bulwark for the underlying insecurity of the obsessed individual.

In regard to risk-taking, it should be obvious that the religious person is highly determined not to be adventurous nor to take any of life’s normal risks. He strongly believes in unvalidatable assumptions precisely because he does not want to risk following his own preferences and aims, but wants the guarantee that some higher power will back him.

Enormously fearing failure, and falsely defining his own worth as a person in terms of achievement, he sacrifices time, energy, and material goods and pleasures to the worship of the assumed god, so that he can at least be sure that this god loves and supports him. All religions worthy of the names are distinctly inhibiting – which means, in effect, that the religious person sells his soul, surrenders his own basic urges and pleasures, so that he may feel comfortable with the heavenly helper that he himself has invented. Religion, then is needless inhibition.

Finally, in regard to self-acceptance, it should again be clear that the religious devotee cannot possibly accept himself just because he is alive, because he exists and has, by mere virtue of his aliveness, some power to enjoy himself. Rather, he must make his self-acceptance utterly contingent on the acceptance of his definitional god, the church and clergy who also serve this god, and all other true believers in his religion.

If all these extrinsic persons and things accept him, he is able – and even then only temporarily and with continued underlying anxiety – to accept himself. Which means, of course, that he defines himself only through the reflected appraisals of others and loses any real, existential self that he might otherwise keep creating. Religion, for such an individual, consequently is self-abasement and self-abnegation – as, of course, virtually all the saints and mystics have clearly stated that it is.

If we summarize what we have just been saying, the conclusion seems inescapable that religion is, on almost every conceivable count, directly opposed to the goals of mental health – since it basically consists of masochism, other-directness, intolerance, refusal to accept uncertainty, unscientific thinking, needless inhibition, and self-abasement. In the one area where religion has some advantages in terms of emotional hygiene – that of encouraging hearty commitment to a cause or project in which the person may vitally absorbed – it even tends to sabotage this advantage in two important ways: (a) it drives most of its adherents to commit themselves to its tenets for the wrong reasons – that is, to cover up instead of to face and rid themselves of their basic insecurities; and (b) it encourages a fanatic, obsessive-compulsive kind of commitment that is, in its own right, a form of mental illness.

If we want to look at the problems of human disturbance a little differently, we may ask ourselves, “What are the irrational ideas which people believe and through which they drive themselves into severe states of emotional sickness?”

Exploring the Question

After exploring this question for many years, and developing a new form of psychotherapy which is specifically directed at quickly unearthing and challenging the main irrational ideas which make people neurotic and psychotic, I have found that these ideas may be categorized under a few major headings (Ellis, 1962;Ellis and Harper, 1961a, 1961b). Here, for example, are five irrational notions, all or some of which are strongly held by practically every seriously disturbed person; here, along with these notions, are the connections between and commonly held religious beliefs.

Irrational idea No.1 is the idea that it is a dire necessity for an adult to be loved or approved of by all the significant figures in his life. This idea is bolstered by the religious philosophy that if you cannot get certain people to love or approve of you, you can always fall back on god’s love. The thought, however, that it is quite possible for you to live comfortably in the world whether or not other people accept you is quite foreign to both emotionally disturbed people and religionists.

Irrational idea No.2 is the idea that you must be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving in all possible respects, otherwise you are worthless. The religionists say that no, you need not be competent and achieving, and in fact can be thoroughly inadequate – as long as god loves you and you are a member in good standing of the church. But this means, of course, that you must be a competent and achieving religionist – else you are no damned good.

Irrational idea No.3 is the notion that certain people are bad, wicked, and villainous and that they should be severely blamed and punished for their sins. This is the ethical basis, of course, of virtually all true religions. The concepts of quilt, blaming, and sin are, in fact, almost synonymous with that of revealed religion.

Irrational idea No. 4 is the belief that it is horrible, terrible, and catastrophic when things are not going the way you would like them to go. This idea, again, is the very core of religiousity, since the religious person invariably believes that just because he cannot stand being frustrated, and just because he must keep worrying about things turning out badly, he needs a supreme deity to supervise his thoughts and deeds and to protect him from anxiety and frustrations.

Irrational idea No. 5 is the idea that human unhappiness is externally caused and that people have little or no ability to control their sorrows or rid themselves of their negative feelings. Once again, this notion is the essence of religion, since real religions invariably teach you that only by trusting in god and relying on praying to him will you be able to control your sorrows of counteract your negative emotions.

Similarly, if we had time to review all the other major irrational ideas that lead humans to become and to remain emotionally disturbed, we could quickly find that they are coextensive with, or are strongly encouraged by, religious tenets.

If you think about the matter carefully, you will see this close connection between mental illness and religion is inevitable and invariant, since neurosis or psychosis is something of a high-class name for childishness or dependency; and religion, when correctly used, is little more that a synonym for dependency.

In the final analysis, then, religion is neurosis. This is why I remarked, at a symposium on sin and psychotherapy held by the American Psychological Association a few years ago, that from a mental health standpoint Voltaire’s famous dictum should be reversed: for if there were a god, it would be necessary to uninvent him.

If the thesis of this article is correct, religion goes hand in hand with the basic irrational beliefs of human beings. These keep them dependant, anxious, and hostile, and thereby create and maintain their neuroses and psychoses. What then is the role of psychotherapy in dealing with the religious views of disturbed patients? Obviously, the sane and effective psychotherapist should not – as many contemporary psychoanalytic Jungian, client-centered, and existentialist therapists have contended he should – go along with the patients’ religious orientation and try to help these patients live successfully with their religions, for this is equivalent to trying to help them live successfully with their emotional illness.

Dr. Albert Ellis is a scholar who holds a Ph.D. degree in psychotherapy.