Psychology of Evil – The Role of Religion

After watching the evening news, it’s hard to make the argument that religion makes us kinder to one another.

ISIS in Iraq is murdering Christians and Shia Muslims alike under the guise of a Holy War. Israel’s merciless bombardment of Gaza has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of women and children- the youngest to be killed was ten days old, the oldest was 100. In Uganda, evangelical Christians are vowing to campaign to reinstate the death penalty for gay men. And in Burma, Buddhist monks preach hate against that country’s persecuted Muslim minority.

Amidst this whirlwind of sectarian hatred, it is time to finally recognise that not only is morality possible without god, morality is infinitely better without god.   

Religion Hinders Understanding

History clearly shows that the rejection of religious dogma is essential if we are to expand our capacities for love and understanding.

Let’s begin with understanding. In his book ‘Imagine There’s No Heaven’, Mitchell Stephens shows that the decline of religion was an essential precondition for advances in fields as diverse as history, medicine, science, politics and psychology.

The discipline of history began in ancient Greece when Thucydides wrote his account of the Peloponnesian War without recourse to the will of the gods or the fulfilment of prophecy.

The scientific basis of medicine can be traced to Hippocrates’ rejection of disease as having a divine origin, and his search for natural causes and remedies for psychical illnesses.

The progress of science, from Copernicus, through Galileo and Newton, to Darwin and beyond has been based on the rejection of divine causes, and the successes of evidence gathering, experimentation and rational explanation.

In politics, the weakening of religious monopoly on power in Europe during the Enlightenment allowed ideas such as political representation, equality within and between nations, and freedom of speech to emerge in serious opposition to monarchy, tyranny, and the divine will of kings.

And in psychology, Sigmund Freud, building on Darwin’s scientific account of nature, set out to develop an explanation of human psychology, as he put it, ‘without god in it’. The result has been an understanding of normal and abnormal psychology without recourse to possession by demons or revelations from the gods.

As Mitchell Stephens states, ‘The modern world was built by those who not only found the gods unbelievable but made them unnecessary by demonstrating how the world worked without them.’ [1]

Modern day religious fundamentalists, in their bloody quest to overturn centuries of progress, are a forceful reminder that the rejection of religious dogma is essential for the continued advancement of human understanding.

Religion Hinders Love

But it is not only our capacity for understanding that is diminished by religion, our capacity for love is too.

The argument that religion diminishes our capacity for love is easiest to make when we consider the restrictions that many religions impose on loving those of another faith. It is also murderously apparent in the hatred reserved for anyone who refuses to accept the existence of god. In thirteen countries atheism is still punishable by death.

The argument that a rejection of religious doctrine makes us more compassionate towards others is also easy to make in view of religion’s treatment of gay men and lesbians. Almost all the major religions sanction discrimination, at best, and murder, at worst, for those whose sexual orientation differs from the heterosexual majority. Evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Muslims, when not urging death upon on each other, find common cause in their hatred for sexual minorities.

But religious dogma has been most corrosive in its effects on humanity’s capacity to love women. In its dehumanisation of women and girls, religious dogma has sinned, and continues to sin, grievously against all of humankind.

In the film Salma, director Kim Longinotto tells the remarkable story of India’s leading Tamil poet and her lifelong struggle against the stifling misogynistic religious culture of her village in southern India. Besides demonstrating the suffocating effects of religion on the vitality of women and girls, the film also shows how men too become its victims. Trapped in the prison of their dominant status, their relationships with the women closest to them are impoverished by the men’s sexual immaturity and inherited superiority. Salma demonstrates how the rejection of religious dogma is necessary for relationships between men and women to be based on love rather than power.

photo credit: jalalspages via photopin cc

photo credit: jalalspages via photopin cc

Religion and Psychological Pathology

So why do religions so often stifle our capacities for love and understanding?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that some of the central characteristics of religion appeal to people with dangerous personality disorders. These include the claim to absolute truth, an insistence that proof is not necessary, widespread use of censorship to suppress dissent, and the threat of ultimate sanction for those who disagree. It is these characteristics that serve to forge the link between religious dogma, sectarian hatred, and the rise to power of violent religious bigots.

More specifically, sectarianism provides those with paranoid personality disorder with the perfect outlet for their talents as cheerleaders in whipping up hatred against the ‘enemy’. It provides narcissists with the comforting illusion that they are speaking for God, and allows them ready access to power and authority. And it provides psychopaths with unlimited opportunities to kill and maim countless innocents and be proclaimed heroes for doing so. This unholy combination means that religious dogma often provides a path to glory for the psychologically disordered.

Religion’s claim on absolute certainty, its insistence that no evidence is required to support its assertions, its use of censorship, and its threat of violence if religious beliefs are not adhered to, form the perfect recipe for tyrannical rule. In the words of author Reza Aslan, it transforms those who should be considered murderers and thugs into soldiers sanctioned by God [2].

Like alcoholics whose vision of life has been narrowed to their bottle of booze, modern day religious fundamentalists have narrowed the scope of their perception to a constricted arid mythology that denies the rich diversity of creation. Worshiping a god of gleeful ignorance, they are consumed with violence towards those who value real learning.

Science as a Candle in the Dark

Writing in the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot wrote, ‘Lost in an immense forest during the night I only have a small light to guide me. An unknown man appears and says to me “My friend, blow out your candle so you can better find your way.” This unknown man is a theologian.’ Two centuries later, religious fundamentalists are still intent on blowing out the candles of reason and compassion.

The real and present danger of religious fundamentalism comes from the resonance between religious dogma and the pathological psychology of those with dangerous personality disorders. In the place of questioning and doubt, this disordered minority seek to impose tyrannical authority. In the place of humility in the face of the immensity of the cosmos, they would enforce a monstrous narcissistic certainty.

Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley, who coined the term agnostic, wrote, ‘The little light of awakened human intelligence shines so mere a spark amidst the abyss of the unknown and the unknowable.’

Humility is an essential precondition for human progress. Substituting a desire to know with blind faith is a certain road to tyranny. And while religion often promotes humility on the part of its adherents, it is too often built around the arrogance and narcissism of religious leaders.

The Most Dangerous Channel for Evil

The discovery of personality disorders and their prevalence in every society on earth is giving us a deeper understanding of how violent personalities and religion interact. The psychological make-up of the majority of humanity leaves us susceptible to religion’s core messages of sin, repentance and redemption. However psychopathic personalities and those with narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders are not influenced by these core messages because they are simply incapable of compassion and guilt. Their vision of religion differs sharply from that of the majority.

Religions which tolerate both those who devote their lives to making this world a more humane and compassionate place, and those who commit mass murder in their efforts to ignite religious war are a channel for evil – perhaps the most dangerous channel for evil there is.

[1] Mitchell Stephens, Imagine There’s No Heaven: How atheism helped create the modern world, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014,  p28

[2] Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting radical religion, Arrow Books, 2010:5


8 thoughts on “Psychology of Evil – The Role of Religion

  1. There may be a psychological disorder which is being missed and could explain the warmongers among us.
    I had the letter below published recently in the British Psychological Society journal.

    Letter to British Psychological Society

    Dear Correspondent,

    As a writer and peace activist I read with particular interest your report entitled ‘Beyond the mythology of war’ (The Psychologist, July 2014). Some points come to mind which might be usefully raised in this context.
    Wars are started by middle aged and elderly men who send young men to fight them. They themselves and their families are usually not at risk. Even when they are risking a nuclear war by refusing to honour relevant treaties, spreading the technology and so on, they themselves and their families are not at risk since they have used their power to build nuclear shelters for themselves and those around them. Although some of the warmongers fit the category of psychopath many do not. These latter individuals clearly show the capacity for empathy and compassion in relation to their families and those closest to them. At the same time it is difficult not to view them as suffering from some form of psychopathology since many die as the result of their actions and they seem to experience this with equanimity. Mr Cameron wanted to bomb Syria. This would have been an act of war and many innocent people would have died. It is well known that in modern war at least fifteen times as many civilians die as combatants and the figure is often very much greater. Mr Cameron has illustrated that he cares deeply about his own family when at the same time he can advocate, illegally and in the opinion of many unjustly, the destruction of others. Psychologists could make a major contribution to the understanding of war if the mechanisms underlying this type of mentality were understood and if it could be determined whether it involves a specific type of psychopathology. No doubt denial and splitting are involved but could there be something else?
    A second area in which psychology could make a major contribution is suggested by Steve Taylor’s book ‘The Fall’. In the Introduction he states ‘For the last 6000 years, human beings have been suffering from a kind of collective psychosis. For almost all of recorded history human beings have been – at least to some degree – insane’. It is around this time that war (together with many other inhumane abuses) made its appearance. What is it about modern man that can consider war (a relatively recent invention) a ‘sane’ way of resolving disputes? What is the root of this ‘collective psychosis?

    Jim McCluskey BSc, MICE. MIStructE, MIHT, AILA,
    Middx. TW1 2LN.
    Tel: 020 8892 5704

    • Thank you for your comment Jim.
      You raise an important issue when you point out that not all individual leaders who commit psychopathic acts are themselves psychopaths. As you say, many 20th century leaders clearly were psychopaths – Hitler, Mao, Stalin and so on. But many leaders who committed horrendous acts of violence were not. How do we explain this?

      Two possible explanations come to mind. The first is that leaders with normal psychology will react to psychopathic opponents in ways that are outside of their normal ways of acting. The theory of realism in international affairs is based partly on such a premise. The nuclear arms race for example could be seen as a rational response by the leaders of both the USSR and the USA to a perceived psychopathic opponent.

      A second explanation (and one I adhere to) is that individuals with normal psychology acting within a psychopathically disordered group will often adopt the norms of that group. While the leader may not be a psychopath, influential advisors will be.

      I agree also with your point that humanity has been suffering from a collective psychosis. For all of history, human societies have been dominated by people with dangerous personality disorders, who have had an inordinate influence on culture. We do not yet know what a society based exclusively on the values of the 95 percent with normal psychology would look like, but it would be a lot more humane and empathic than the dominant cultures we currently suffer under.

  2. Lets not forget the role of saying Hail Marys, chanting the Torah on Yom Kippur, recanting on your deathbed, giving money to charity/doing unrelated good works, visiting Mecca and so-on in “removing” the burden of guilt from criminals, narcissists and the weak people who flock around them.

  3. Ian,
    Great essay. Your reflection that “Religions which tolerate both those who devote their lives to making this world a more humane and compassionate place, and those who commit mass murder in their efforts to ignite religious war are a channel for evil – perhaps the most dangerous channel for evil there is” resonates very powerfully with me – akin to political movements with paramilitary wings. Or the family closing ranks against the external.
    We’ve had and continue to have this good/evil dualism in many forms, e.g. the Catholic Church and pedophilia. A current example: nowadays, it strikes me that comment from within Islam on the genocidaires of IS is largely muted due to the same imperative.

  4. I’m late to the discussion, I’m not even sure if this forum is still active, but I’ve been stumbling on these pages while researching possible personality disorders of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recent prime example of narcissistic, paranoid and megalomaniac old men bringing destruction, instability and insanity upon us.

    You wrote: “I agree also with your point that humanity has been suffering from a collective psychosis. For all of history, human societies have been dominated by people with dangerous personality disorders, who have had an inordinate influence on culture. We do not yet know what a society based exclusively on the values of the 95 percent with normal psychology would look like, but it would be a lot more humane and empathic than the dominant cultures we currently suffer under.”

    I’ve been pondering this issue for a long time, years in fact – not just the insanity and psychological pathology of warfare, but also patriarchical, authoritarian societal structures, oppression of normal female/human sexuality, religious morals and so on in the history of our species.

    Why has it been so successful? It endangered and made life hard for 50% of the species (and arguably for the other 50%, too) for centuries now.

    It just seems so counterintuitive and, well, certifiably insane, to steer such a firm course over such a long period of time towards a mind-set that is so obviously not species-appropriate.

    We human are extremely ill equipped to effectively deal with long-term chronic stress, exactly the kind of stress that is caused in children growing up under these pathological societal pressures. If this is how humans are supposed to “normally” behave, wouldn’t the majority of the population be much better adapted to this kind of enviroment? Fact is, they are not, only a small percentage of non-bell-curve-typical humans flourishes under these perverse circumstances.

    On the other hand all neuroscientific and psychological research suggests that the vast majority of human apes are finely tuned to cooperative and egalitarian societal structures based on principles of reciprocity and empathy (mirror neurons etc.). The majority’s inherited psychological and physical make-up is perfectly adapted to sedentary societies which were pre-historically rather small, mostly matriarchal or equal hunter-gatherer tribes. In fact, 99% of our evolutionary history we spent in these kinds of societies.

    There must be an intellectually satisfying reason for this.

    Currently I like to think and read in this direction:
    Even though the violent conflict / sexual opression / patriarchical / authoritarian structure seems deeply evolutionary engrained to us right now, this mind-set really is just a blib on the radar of our long evolutionary history and only was a reaction to the trauma of the extremly recent advent of acriculture.
    (1. the new concept of possession, settlement and the thereby limited resources leads to the amassing/centralising of resources /problem of inheritance
    2. leads to the need to insure power/ fatherhood (a concept probably pretty foreign to our hunter/gatherer ancestors)
    3. leads to the restriction of female sexuality / opression of the majority of males under the rule of a few
    4. leads to religion ….).
    It only feels so “normal” to us because this is exactely when recorded history started, perpetrating the myth. So we do know of society based exclusively on the values of the 95 percent with normal psychology, they just predate recorded history.

    Basically what I’m pondering is whether we live as a species in a (probably transient) period of pathological aberration that favours abberant psychopathologies.

    In small, sedentary hunter-gatherer tribes, who had to rely heavily on cooperation and group cohesion for survival, pathological narcissism or psychopathy were probably not tolerated and therefore evolutionary unsuccessful, explaining why today the percentage of humans with these disorders is still so low.

    • Than you for your comment Dani. There is so much that you say that I totally agree with. I particularly love your point that the dominance of sexist, racist, homophobic authoritarian cultures does not provide an environment in which the majority of humanity can develop in a psychologically healthy way. That is so true. So we have to ask why have such cultures been dominant for so long right around the world? I think a big part of the answer to this is (1) the persistence of endemic poverty and (2) the absence of checks and balances on the power of the dangerously disordered minority in the form of the institutions and values of democracy. Please read my post on Psychopaths as Predators on the Poor. I think that is what history has looked like for most of humanity for most of recorded history. Also a third point we have to take into account is that although the psychology of those with personality disorders is extremely fixed, the psychology of the rest of us is very fluid. That bell curve of values you spoke about can shift left or right depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. And in an environment of threat or hopelessness many if us will shift our values to match those of the minority of psychopaths, narcissists and paranoids. I think that this is exactly what is happening in the U.S. and across Europe right now.

  5. I read this with a lot of interest. The examples are right. History is proof of massacres in the name of religion.
    There is, however, a lot not understood. About religion. On making priests the middle-men between God and You. On what exactly is God. On the significance of understanding God within one-self and looking for God outside of the self. And then again on what the self and the other is about– closely linked to the quest to find God. On the difference between institutionalized religion and a spiritual path.
    One of the crises in today’s world, or the rise of Disordered and Dangerous minds is the absence for this quest for God. It is a journey within one-self. Hail Marys’ and chanting shlokas’ without understanding why it is necessary to do so creates this kind of a dissonance this article is talking about. That is not why people like me, for instance, pursue God. That may be religion which the majority follows because it is easy and they have transferred their responsibility of the quest for God/ inner peace to others (priests for example) to deliver to them. The others (majority of priests, e.g.) have taken over this authority without understanding ‘the responsibility’ that comes with it. This ‘responsibility’ is not for self-aggrandisement but for the greater good/ enlightenment or whatever one/ or a community decides it is. This ‘responsibility’ is not to prove to others that one religion or spiritual path is better/higher than another.
    There is more perhaps from individual journeys which can be shared. From ordinary peoples’ lives.

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