This is how religion fails: Why the biggest religions never live up to their ideals

Religion talks of creating individuals of moral sensitivity and societies run by genuine ethics. Never quite works

Published March 5, 2016 7:00PM (EST)

Pope Francis, Bill Maher   (AP/Reuters/Max Rossi/Janet Van Ham/Photo montage by Salon)
Pope Francis, Bill Maher (AP/Reuters/Max Rossi/Janet Van Ham/Photo montage by Salon)

Excerpted from Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself

Over three thousand years ago, the fertile basin of the Middle East gave birth to a new idea that altered human and religious history. The idea was of one God, creator of the world, who is both singular in number and unique in quality; who is independent, self-sufficient, and transcendent, but at the same time profoundly interested in and concerned for the world and humanity; who is loving and forgiving, as well as judging and wrathful; who commands and challenges humanity to be loyal and faithful to the divine and compassionate and just with our fellow human beings.

This idea in turn gave rise over the millennia to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and their countless denominations and affiliations, each with a distinct take on how life with the one God should be lived. As these religions entered the world stage, alongside their charge to love God and love humanity, they began to wage war with those who preceded or followed them. Wherever monotheism developed, it was accompanied by the belief that the one God could be truly represented or correctly understood by only one faith community. Love of God, or more accurately being loved by God, was perceived to be a zero-sum game—the more one was loved, the less another could be.

And so, together with the love of neighbor came the hatred of the other. Together with kindness to those in need came the murder of those who disagreed. Monotheism became a mixed blessing and a double-edged sword.

Why have monotheistic religions produced such a checkered past? More important, what type of future do they have in store for us? These questions are particularly pressing since the last two decades have seen religion—particularly the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—emerge from the twentieth-century quasi-hibernation imposed on it by a coalition of secular nationalism, fascism, communism, and liberal democracy. In this time, we have seen religion arise as a central force in world politics and frequent instigator of global conflict.

The majority of the great conflicts and conflagrations of the twentieth century were clashes of a predominantly national and secular political nature. In the last decade of the twentieth century, however, this geopolitical picture began to shift. We witnessed the first stirrings of what would become the multiple manifestations of global Islamic terror, as the Middle East, Africa, and Asia became sites of pitched battles both within Islam and between Christianity and Islam. Semisecular dictators have been replaced by Islamic parties, and Muslim and Jewish religious ideologies are increasingly mainstreamed into political governance in ways that tend to fuel and exacerbate conflicts. Europe has become a frontline in the struggle between secular nationalism and Islam. In the United States, religion is playing an increasingly influential and often contentious role in political discourse and public policy. It is no understatement to say that the last two decades have been painting the twenty-first century in strongly religious hues.


The reemergence of God as a dominant force in world affairs, shaping both the fates of nations and the daily existence of ordinary individuals, poses fundamental questions about the role of religion in human life. One of the most significant of these, and the one that guides this book, is this: What does faith in God do to a person? That is, when God enters the conversation and dictates human ethical and social norms, is it a force for good or evil? For action or complacency? For moral progress or moral corruption?

To ask what faith in God does to a person is not the same as asking what faith in God gives to a person. This second question holds different answers for different types of religious personalities. For the spiritually attuned, the mere experience of God’s presence can fill one’s life with joy, awe, and love. For the more average person of faith, the religious “folk,” faith in God offers access, if not a substantive claim, to God’s power and grace, guidance and forgiveness, in this world and perhaps in the next. Both groups share a clear and profound intuition that something is fundamentally flawed in the notion of a world without God. For the spiritually attuned, it is the flatness of a life without transcendence. For ordinary religious believers, it is the emptiness of a life without hope for order, and the crushing sense of helplessness in confronting the daily challenges of pain and chaos without recourse to a transcendent source of power and agency. Those whose lives entail many journeys through the “valley of the shadow of death” quite understandably prefer to “fear no harm, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4), rather than to tread such treacherous paths unguided, unprotected, and alone.

For the person of faith, to believe is most often not a decision but an outcome of the search to fill a void that is experienced with palpable immediacy in everyday life. As a result, this faith is by and large impervious to critical analysis and counterclaims. The human species may or may not be under the spell of “the God delusion,” as Richard Dawkins claims, and Christopher Hitchens may or may not have been right that “God is not great.” The fact remains that no argument for either of these propositions will be likely to move the person of faith. For the spiritually attuned, the reality and intensity of the religious experience is its own self-validating confirmation. For the average believer, a deep existential need makes faithlessness unimaginable. As Clifford Geertz rightfully posits in "The Interpretation of Cultures," chaos does not undermine faith in God; rather, chaos makes faith in God necessary. Even after the Enlightenment and the Holocaust, the number of atheists in foxholes hovers steadily near zero.

My concern with the question of what faith in God does to a person is not meant to question the validity of faith nor undermine the legitimacy of the enterprise. Rather, it is meant to be an internal exploration of the practical and conceptual consequences of faith. The questions of whether God exists or is merely a human fabrication, of whether or what we ought to believe, already fill countless volumes, and belong to a different conversation from those that I explore in this book. I am more interested in examining how our beliefs, and the life path faith sets us on, affect our identities—the way we see ourselves and others, and the way we treat people. How does faith change us? Does it make us better people—kinder, gentler and more compassionate to others? Does it alter our perspective on things like violence, war, and suffering?

In light of religion’s resurgence as a significant power in shaping the world, it is critical that the faithful take an honest look at the types of people and communities our systems are producing and evaluate the results according to our own self-described values and aspirations. The broad geopolitical and socioeconomic impact of religion in the world today demands that people of faith take ownership over the consequences of their ideologies.


Based on some of the most oft-quoted verses in monotheistic scriptures—their “greatest hits,” if you will—it might seem surprising that religion could be anything other than an ennobling force in human life. One common feature of all the monotheistic traditions is that their God aspires to create kind, gentle, and compassionate people. Faith in God is not meant merely to inspire one to worship but to change those who worship, and to be a force for generating care and concern for all of God’s creatures, in particular those over whom one holds power. Here are a few prominent examples:

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth.” (Exodus 22:20–23)

“It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East or West (in prayer). But it is righteousness to believe in Allah and the Last Day and the Book and the Messengers. To spend of your substance out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves.” (Quran 2:177)

Against the backdrop of these sources, and thousands of similar others, the failure of religion to produce individuals and societies that champion the values advocated in them is both puzzling and deeply unsettling. Even more troubling is that often religious faith itself is the catalyst that emboldens individuals and governments to murder, maim, harm, and control others in the service of “their” God. While it is not credible to suggest that people of faith are definitively worse than those who do not believe, the fact that a life with God does not seem consistently to make people better is a failure of religion on its own terms, and ought to be a source of consternation for any serious believer.

This problem is not new, nor does it reflect an outsider’s critique of religion. In fact, it has hovered around monotheistic traditions since their inception, formulated and addressed by the very first carriers of the one God’s word, the biblical prophets:

Cry with full throat, without restraint, raise your voice like a horn and declare unto My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily, eager to learn My ways, as a nation that did righteousness and forsook not the ordinance of their God, they ask of Me righteous ordinances, they delight in drawing near to God. “Why have we fasted, and yet You do not see? Why have we afflicted our soul, and You pay no attention?” Behold, in the day of your fast you pursue your business, and perform all your labors. Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness. You fast not this day so as to make your voice to be heard on high; is this the fast I desire? The day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loosen the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to distribute your bread to the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him, and that thou hide not yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:1–7)

Isaiah’s admonitions evoke a rare moment in Jewish antiquity. Idolatry is the prevalent deviance of the biblical era, culminating in divine rejection and the Babylonian Exile. Indeed, for most of biblical history Jews rejected God and opted for idolatry. The Bible can be effectively summarized as the history of a Creator yearning to create a holy people who seek the divine and commit themselves to walking in its ways, but who regularly choose instead to ignore it and walk in the way of the idolatrous Ba’al. Isaiah, however, addresses a scenario in which people actually seem to be turning to God, expressing the desire for relationship through ritual devotion.

At first glance, this ought to be one of the great moments in the Bible. At long last, the Jewish people and God are on the same page: “They seek me daily, eager to learn my ways.” Is this not precisely the thing for which God has so long yearned? Yet it is at this very moment of rigorous ritual commitment that God must angrily intervene to let them know they have fallen far astray from the path; that they are lost. God tells them, in essence, that while claiming to be a people who want to follow the divine path, they have abandoned it by ignoring their moral responsibility to others. “Did you not hear Me,” God asks through the prophets, again and again. “There is something else that I want from you?”

Hear the words of the Lord, you chieftains of Sodom. Give ear to your gods’ instructions, you folk of Gomorrah. What need have I of all your sacrifices? I am sated with burnt offerings of rams and suet of fatling and bloods of bulls. I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before me, who asked this of you? Trample my courts no more. Bringing oblations is futile. Incense is offensive to me. New moon and Sabbath, proclaiming of solemnities, assemblies with inequity, I cannot abide. Your new moons and fixed seasons fill me with loathing. They have become a burden to me. I cannot endure them. And when you lift up your hands, I will turn my eyes away from you. Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Why? Because your hands are stained with crime. Wash yourselves clean. Put your evildoings away from my sight. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wrong. Uphold the rights of the orphan. Defend the cause of the widow. (Isaiah 1:10–17)

The people are eager for intimacy with God through the offering of sacrifices. They finally show up with passionate ritual devotion, and God’s response, in essence, is to say, Go away! Why is it that your religious life is completely defined by ritual, by devotion to me, to the exclusion of everything I said about how to treat others? Why are you ignoring the other part of what I have commanded?

Why does a life with God—a God who so clearly commands “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:18)—so consistently fail to achieve its own stated goals?


Advocates of religion tend to answer this question by ascribing religious failure exclusively to human weakness and ignorance. It is not a consequence of faith or tradition but of a flawed humanity consumed by a form of original sin. Contrary to the gospel of Woody Allen, who posited in his film Love and Death that God is an underachiever, defenders of the Almighty counter that people are the real underachievers, incapable of true commitment to perfect divine directives and to meeting the obligations that, if only followed correctly, would remake them, their families, and their communities. The Bible echoes this tradition when describing humanity in the aftermath of the Flood: “And the Lord said to Himself: Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” (Genesis 8:21)

God may charge us with a mission, to live a life of righteousness and justice . . . but the flesh is weak, and the bar perhaps unrealistically high. From this perspective, God is a romantic, perennially yearning for us to reach for standards of moral sensitivity that will require us to open our eyes and respond to the suffering surrounding us, but we cannot seem to muster the inner fortitude required to live up to those aspirations.

Conversely, religion’s critics locate the primary blame for the moral failure of religious people in religion itself. For them, this failure is not the consequence of ignoring the divine command but of fulfilling it. For such critics, religion itself is the original sin that “poisons everything,” as per Christopher Hitchens in "God Is Not Great." They argue that surrounding the scriptures’ advocacy of moral sensitivity and compassion are a multitude of sources commanding holy war, religious discrimination and persecution, and triumphalism, to say nothing of gender inequality, racism, and homophobia. These, they claim, are in fact the dominant themes of these traditions, far outweighing the others, and history seems to bear this reading out. It is no wonder, they argue, that religion has been the driving force behind so much bloodshed and oppression.

When the advocates of religion, on the one hand, and critics of God, on the other, make their claims and counterclaims, it is evident that they are reading completely different books. Confronting morally difficult or disturbing texts, advocates tend to rationalize, apologize, minimize, reinterpret, or otherwise divert attention away from them. Conversely, critics who claim that religion is inherently corrupt and corrupting either ignore these traditions’ powerful moral insights or marginalize them as insignificant, clearly outweighed by contradictory imperatives.

The interpretive moves of the advocates help to assuage the cognitive dissonance of the enlightened believer, but they do nothing to relieve the profound impact these texts have on the great many others who take their messages at face value. As Shakespeare sharply observed, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” and it is important to emphasize that the devil does not misquote scripture. He has no need, for the tradition provides him with all the ammunition he requires. Where religion serves to fuel injustice, it comes armed with chapter and verse.

On the other hand, the claims of the critics ignore the experienced reality of religious people, for whom these verses that enshrine positive ethics and values are a central, driving component of their religious consciousness, prompting intense moral striving and achievement. To trivialize or gloss over them is to overlook the positive impact that religion has on the lives of countless people and communities, inspiring and compelling them to compassion, charity, justice, and good deeds. The picture, ultimately, is more complex than either side tends to recognize.


The truth is that monotheistic religion is neither perfectly good—and thus its failures the exclusive result of human weakness— nor perfectly evil, poisoning the character of all who adopt it with a crippling spiritual disease. The central argument of this book is that religion’s (and religions’) spotty moral track record cannot be written off to either a core corruption in human nature or an inherently corrupt scripture. Rather it is my contention that a life of faith, while obligating moral sensitivity, also very often activates a critical flaw that supports and encourages immoral impulses. These impulses, given free rein to flourish under the cloak of religious piety, undermine the ultimate moral agendas of religions and the types of communities and societies they aspire to build. The argument of this book is that this critical flaw, when recognized, can be overcome.

This frequently overlooked phenomenon that accounts for the moral underachievement of our monotheistic traditions is what I term religion’s “autoimmune disease”—a disease in which the body’s immune system, which is designed to fight off external threats, instead attacks and destroys the body’s own healthy cells and tissues. This diagnosis is meant to help conceptualize the dynamics through which religions so often undermine their own deepest values and attack their professed goals. While God obligates the good and calls us into its service, God simultaneously and inadvertently makes us morally blind.

The nature of monotheism’s autoimmune disease is that God’s presence, and the human religious desire to live in relationship with God, often distracts religion’s adherents from their traditions’ core moral truths. Such a presence can so consume our field of vision that we see nothing other than God (a recipe for ethical bankruptcy); can lead to claims of chosenness that encourage self-aggrandizing reflexivity (transforming us into people who see only ourselves); or can cause us to see scripture as morally perfect, despite the failures embedded within it (thereby sanctifying the morally profane).

Ultimately, I believe that religion’s record of moral mediocrity will persist as long as communities of faith fail to recognize the ways in which our faith itself is working against us. In other words, only when we are able to discern, within ourselves and our traditions, the symptoms of religion’s autoimmune diseases, will we be able to begin developing remedies that enable religion to heal itself and reclaim its noble aspirations.

Excerpted from "Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself" by Rabbi Donniel Hartman (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

By Rabbi Donniel Hartman

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