If Naturalism is True, Religion Cannot Cause Suffering


by Marcus Otte


One of the chief complaints against religion is that it is the cause of tremendous suffering worldwide. The crusades and inquisitions are the examples most often cited. Sometimes, it is (quite ludicrously) claimed that “most” wars have been caused by religion. Others worry that religious influence upon legislation is a slippery slope to theocracy, and therefore, to tyranny. The conviction that faith is inherently irrational is a common thread among those who make such arguments.



But the impact of religion upon history is so pervasive and complex, it requires a singularly narrow focus to see its hand primarily in war and torture. “To blame religion for the wars conducted in its name,” as Roger Scruton has said, “is like blaming love for the Trojan War.” Our English word “culture” comes from the Latin cultus, meaning both worship of the divine and the cultivation of land. Early cultures arose from communities brought together in worship and in food production. For most of human history civilization has been grounded upon worship. The thoroughly secular state is a recent experiment. Those ideas on which the secular state has staked its legitimacy—human dignity, equality, personal autonomy—are survivals of earlier, religiously formed cultures.


The complaint that religion is principally a cause of suffering is—I argue—imbalanced and myopic in perspective. But for this article, I will set that point aside. There is a more important critique to be made: the complaint that religion causes suffering is not consistent with the naturalist worldview. Naturalism is the belief that only natural things exist. It denies the existence of God, as well as souls, angels, supernatural virtues, etc. Virtually all modern atheists are naturalists.


If naturalism is true, then everything in the cosmos operates solely on the basis of natural laws. Whatever happens was bound to happen (setting aside indeterminacy at the quantum level), thanks to the antecedent conditions and the relevant scientific laws. But those conditions were themselves bound to happen by earlier events, and so on, back to the beginning of the cosmos.


On naturalism, the activities of your brain are simply part of this causal chain. Nothing non-physical can interfere in the chain. Either your conscious ideas are simply states of the brain (as Mind-Brain Identity Theory claims), or your ideas are indeed non-physical, but have no causal power at all. On the latter view, your ideas and conscious decisions are mere “epiphenomena,” or “supervenient,” or “emergent.” Your ideas and choices do not influence your actions, or anything else, in the slightest. They are side-effects of brain activity. Nothing can be allowed to break the chain of physical causes. The brain is running the whole show, in just the manner the cosmos determined from the beginning of time. Our conscious ideas are never part of the “input” that determines our actions.


But this means that, if naturalism is true, then no human idea has ever caused anything in history. Religious belief is among the set of ideas. So, the naturalist should hold that religious belief has never caused anything. If naturalism is true, then religion can do nothing to bring about suffering.


Now, a person might object that this is all quite silly. Of course, ideas have had an impact on history, and on the course of individual lives. I agree. This is an excellent reason to reject naturalism.

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