The Case Against Religion

Dr. Albert Ellis

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, andunbigotedlyview 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 of 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.

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The Case Against Religion

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