Does Religion Devalue Human Life?

HawkgrrrlCharity, christianity, church, curiosity, Happiness, inter-faith, Mormon, questioning, religion 31 Comments

Answer:  Yes.  Any questions?

In a secular environment, human life has the highest value. Its preservation is the unquestioned bastion of our humanity.  But in a religious environment, the worth of souls is greater than the life itself.  Here are some related conclusions to that premise (see how many of these you have heard implied before):

  • Prolonging life is of less value than saving souls.
  • Suicide is condemned by various religions as giving in to despair (dying in a sin) rather than the loss of a human life.
  • History has illustrated repeatedly that religious aims trump human life (e.g. Crusades, Inquisition, Salem witch trials, Islamic Jihad, etc.).
  • A focus on the afterlife and eternal reward can equate to less focus on the here and now.
  • Social responsibility is less important than proselyting.
  • Why worry about the planet – the second coming will take care of that anyway?

So, which do you think has a higher value:  human life or the salvation of souls?  Is it important to balance both or should salvation of souls always trump human life?  And does this mean that religion is a worse neighbor than secular humanism?


Comments 31

  1. Religion could be used to devalue life. But then again, so can Secular Humanism. What about the historically recent examples in Communism — where millions were sacrificed for the ultimate “good” of the safety and security of the state? They replace the worth of souls with the purity of the utopian ideal. Enemies of the ideal need to be purged to save the ideal.

    You make valid points though Hawkgrrrl. What is more important? The salvation of a soul or the physical life of a person? I think many might argue the salvation of the soul should take precendence when they are mutally exclusive. Many might be familiar with the terrible idea some parents might say: “I would rather see my child dead than not get married in the temple.” Do they really want that if if was either/or? I certainly hope not 🙁

    Also a good point about forgoing all joy or ignoring problems now because we are waiting for some reward later. If we aren’t happy now, what makes us think we will be happy later? Jesus said “the Kingdom of God is within us.”

  2. Dear Hawkgrrrl,

    Unfortunately, the variety of secular humanism you suggest is based on an unprovable axiom: “Existence is superior to non-existence”.

    Furthermore, human life is not the “highest” value in such a system: if one human life is valuable, are not two twice as valuable? And if the State is equated with the sum of all lives under its providence, then is not the value of the State greater than the value of one life, or of millions of human lives?

    (And what is human? Is “humanity” dependent upon skin color, country of national origin, race, religion, creed, or gender?)

    Don’t think that people haven’t reasoned in this way in the past.

    According to rabbinical teachings, God placed Adam alone in the Garden of Eden in order to teach us that “he who slays a lone man is as guilty as he who slays a nation.”

    The ultimate religious value is not the salvation of souls, but God’s Will (that is, preference, as opposed to sufferance or volition).

    With the acceptance of the ultimate value being God’s Will then we can create other, high-value assertions such as “I am a child of God. My soul is of great worth to my Father in Heaven”, “All of us are children of God”, “Our bodies are temples”, “The care of this earth is a holy stewardship for which we are accountable to God”, “Life is a precious gift of God”, “Moral agency is a precious gift from God”, “Our own weaknesses, trials and tribulations are a precious gift from God”, and so forth.

    By adding an element of the holy, these lead us to actually place greater value on our lives than the mere application of the “1>0” axiom.

  3. Hmmm. I didn’t answer my own questions. I’ll try:
    1 – Which do you think has a higher value: human life or the salvation of souls? I tend to think the kind of person you are and become is more important than the length of your life (quality over quantity).
    2 – Is it important to balance both or should salvation of souls always trump human life? There should be some balance, but in the end, helping people achieve their potential is probably more important than life itself.
    3 – And does this mean that religion is a worse neighbor than secular humanism? I kind of think it does.

  4. “does this mean that religion is a worse neighbor than secular humanism”

    18,000 married same-sex couples in CA would say yes.

    Pres Kimball’s lifelong preaching to his son, Spence, an accomplished attorney, and the resulting estrangement would seem to be an example of salvation vs. quality of human life. (I’ll make this life miserable for you, but it’s for your eternal good)

  5. Not wanting to derail this topic and make it a homosexuality-centric post, but when you look at the church’s view of homosexuality, you get that this life *is* very well being devalued at the expense of a spirit.

    To sum up (please correct me if I’ve gotten this wrong/am being too cynical [p.p.s. my numbering is probably really wonky and illogical, but oh well])
    1) Gender is eternal. Which can be interpreted loosely as applying to “proper” sexual orientation. So, everyone is straight “eternally,” which allows the church to justify its further positions.
    2) Homosexual orientation/SSA/(whatever the church wants to refer to it now) is just a temporal temptation. It in-and-of-itself is not a sin (so the church doesn’t damn gay people and doesn’t have to take a stance on whether SSA is chosen or not :3)
    3) To act on this temptation, however, is a sin. (And going back to number 1 which sets for us a “correct” model of “right” gender/orientation, the church can justify never budging from this position if they want. On the other hand, to get in line with the law of chastity as a straight person, you can marry.)
    4) It’s unfortunate that homosexuals are asked to be celibate in this life*, but hey, there are other unfortunate cases when people will be unlikely to marry in this world (*the church doesn’t condone [anymore] homosexuals marrying young daughters of God to sidestep this point until they’ve “overcome” their temptations, whatever that means).

    ^Now, this is a great line of reasoning when you focus on that next life (eternity lasts forever, after all), but it does require a devaluation of this life for the soul. It’s just that any member would justify that this is an obvious compromise (very short life vs. eternity)

  6. Seriously?? (I’ll sidestep the semantic question about how the soul actually involves the body in Mormon parlance)…

    Any ideology of *any* kind can and has been used to devalue the individual–secular and sacred alike. Feminist theory (see Adrienne Rich, Elaine Showalter), postcolonialism (Richard Dyer), poststructuralism (Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault)–all of them dehumanize some sector of the human existence, whether it be men, Caucasians, or believers in absolute truth. I dwell in the Ivory Tower, and people will cut off friendly relations based on a difference in their school of thought. As a member of the Church, I could never bring myself to do that–and believe me, I’ve faced down with some vitrolic critics of our Church’s stance.

    Anyone who defines themselves by their ideology (ideologues) will marginalize anyone who does not fit in their philosophy d’jour. Listen to Bob Dylan’s “The Times Are A-Changin'” and tell me if he’s particularly interested in an individual’s right to stay neutral in the “revolution.”

    And let’s remember, numerous prophets in many capacities have called the gift of life the greatest gift God has given us. I struggle to see what *isn’t* humanist about that.

  7. Holden:

    Yeah. I have a beef with them too. While they are sitting in their pleasant pews, I was riding through a winter snow storm fighting for every breath of life. Then we slide off the road, only so we can be pulled out of the bank illegally by a snow plow (and probably a non-member driver too). And then the Church has the gall to tell me that it’s all for my good, that I will be blessed with additional empathy and love, even as I lay nearly breathless on a LifeFlight or as I writhe with pain from chest tubes. If it weren’t for the pilot’s ability to direct the plane through that little space in the clouds…well, my parents would have been planning my funeral.

    Here’s the kicker: Oh, don’t worry, “the Brethren” say, you’ll be blessed in the end for it. It’s for my own good. “You can help others so much.” “These things shall give thee experience.” Sure, folks from the branch came to see me, told me how good of a job I was doing at recovering…but they didn’t know. All cliches…trite tropes that they had memorized from the wise-man-built-a-house-upon-a-rock days. They had the same deer-in-the-headlights look I had when I made my attempt to teach refugees in San Diego (who were we but distant AMericans to try to destroy their way of life/religion?). My decent-hearted visitors never had to “experience” the hallucinations of a stronger-than-heroin opiate. They never found themselves screaming for the imaginary rats to get off of their chest or for the dogs to leave the hospital room. While they’re talking about love, peace, and charity in their suits and skirts, nurses were restraining me shaking myself free from the bed. Oh they’re real keen on my life. Offer a token gesture of support, and then it’s back to Bain Capital for them…

  8. “Charity suffereth long and is kind.”

    Russell, I hope you find a way to let go of your bitterness and anger. I’m sure most, if not all, of the people who visited you were trying sincerely to offer whatever help they could – inadequately human and meager though it was.

  9. Russell, you are right. They have no idea of what you have gone through, nor do I. It is really easy to say “it’s all for your good” when the speaker has not gone through something. I sincerely hope you have a few listening and empathic ears. I do know that empty clichés mean nothing. Real friendship and patient non-judgmental, non-advice giving people in your life will help, as I’m sure you already know.

    Fwiw, I think people offer those sayings because they are scared or anxious (even if they don’t realize it) and don’t know what else to say. Saying things like “you’ll be blessed for it” probably makes them feel better. Otherwise, how could they deal with the dissonance of really bad stuff happening to good people?

    That was not a plug for my post, I’m just really into dissonance theory right now. 😉

  10. Well, for the record, all of those things happened…documented, verifiable truth. But I don’t view them in that light. The people who visited me were good-hearted. I was very pleased they came and considered them to be my lifeline. They included ward members, old school teachers, old friends. My parents were angels. My siblings were tremendous. They helped me to walk again, literally walking beside me along the way. I should thank the heavens every evening for the support system I received during those days–a support system that helped me to walk the best way I could, not to just let me languish in the bed.

    I just wanted Holden to know that because a person is born with pain and suffering, it doesn’t mean that we need to view the positive encouragement with cynicism. I don’t view the Brethren’s advice to me as dehumanizing, but ennobling. They offer us a way out. And yes, there was plenty of opportunity for me to turn that experience into pride and bitterness–as with any other debilitating condition. I don’t claim to know the difficulties of homosexuality in the Church, but I do know something about humanization under stressful times.

    And if we really believe that there is any hope for any of us to relate to each other, then I can say that if religion can support an asthmatic in spite of drugs and imaginary rats and atrophied legs–in essence, humanize me–religion can humanize a homosexual in the most beautiful sense of the word.

  11. Aw that makes more sense! Thanks for the clarification. As a part-time cynic myself, I can see Holden’s view, and feel cynical sometimes as well, but I agree with you, and believe that we see in the world what is inside us, not so much what is actually happening.

  12. Is it important to balance both or should salvation of souls always trump human life? And does this mean that religion is a worse neighbor than secular humanism?

    Apologies if I’m repeating someone else’s response. Human Life should always every time go before Salvation of Souls- Hierarchy of Needs etc.. God can sort out all our souls in the Millenium. There is plenty of time to Save the Souls of the dead then.

    Missionary work the same it should be based on Service the Ammon approach.

    I think our church spends way too much time in programs in my heart of heart people don’t truly believe in or come up with a Justification to make them feel good about it.

    I would like to see a complete turn around and become more of a Salvation Army service oriented church. Many say you can do both. But 20% of the members in the mission field do 80% of the work and they don’t have time or energy to do both and often feel unfulfilled.

  13. MAC: “Only if your neighbor isn’t Peter Singer or one of those angry anti-religion, politically progressive humanists who plaster the back of their cars with darwin fish and “Born OK the First Time” bumper stickers.” Good point! I suppose there are bad and good neighbors of both kinds. I suppose in general, though, that religion fosters more of a sense of self-satisfaction and “being righter” than other people than I usually encounter in non-religious folks. But there are certainly exceptions to that.

  14. Pingback: Guilt and Repentance « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  15. Hawkgrll: How does the liberal kool-aid taste?

    If you had ever studied the Salem witch trials, you would know that the witch trials were merely a way of punishing those who had what the powerful people wanted. To take their land, to remove them from power. The hysteria of the witch trial was merely the opportunity, not the motive.

    You continually set up false dichotomies. you portray religious people as thinking that the importance of saving souls to prolonging life as a 1000:1 importance, when in reality, most people probably view it as a 101:100. Of course it’s more important to make sure your soul is eternally saved, but that doesn’t mean human life isn’t important.

    There is a sociological argument against suicide as well. Abandoning family and friends because life is too hard? Does that mean that people that accept this sociological argument don’t value life as much?

    If you had studied anything about the Crusades, you would know that this was again a campaign about political and monetary gain. Europe was running out of room, felt the need to expand (reduce population) and they found an easy opportunity, “the infidels are in the Holy Land!” Again, the kool-aid keeps you from the perspective so that you can tip the scales in your mantra.

    I haven’t studied as much about the inqiuistion and Islamic Jihad, but it frosts me to see libs taking things out of context to suit their crazy viewpoints.

    A focus on the afterlife and eternal reward can ALSO equate to MORE focus on the here and now. It’s more of a reflection on the individual what it does rather than “religion.” I guess the same could be said for the person judging that, they see what they want to see. I see it as a cigar if that’s the only experience I have with it. I’m less of a perv if I only see it as a cigar.

    The same can be true of social responsibility. Many take the principles of religion and say social responsibility becomes more important.

  16. Post

    NOYDMB – false dichotomies are the food of the bloggernacle, my friend, as well as the media. This is obviously not an original false dichotomy, but plagiarized in the grand tradition of the internet, like most of what gets blogged. But it is a worthwhile question, IMO. Just to clarify, I’m one of the least liberal bloggers on this site (politically). I have also been to Salem, Mass, several times (which is kind of tourist-trappy, so not as instructive as the books I’ve read on it). I agree to some extent that religion was really just the tool, but there is also a component to the Salem witch trials that is specifically religious: the girls were whipped into a fervor by the contrast between the voodoo stories told to them by Tituba and the hellfire and brimstone sermons they were subject to, making their impressionable minds ripe for mischief. I agree with your statements about the sociological values promoted by religion, which certainly can create good neighbors. I suppose that what I find most dangerous, in agreement with your point, are causes that impassion people and cause them to treat others dismissively. Those causes could be liberalism, conservativism, religion, anti-religion, nationality or clannishness–any variety of causes can yield the same result. Namaste.

  17. Hawkgrrl, liberal nutjob of the internet. That’s not one I hear much on the liberal sites I frequent – nor on the moderate sites.

    “I suppose that what I find most dangerous, in agreement with your point, are causes that impassion people and cause them to treat others dismissively. Those causes could be liberalism, conservativism, religion, anti-religion, nationality or clannishness–any variety of causes can yield the same result.”

    Well said, for a liberal. 🙂

  18. “it frosts me to see libs taking things out of context to suit their crazy viewpoints”

    Which raises the question– Why is it, NOYDMB, that ONLY the liberals do that? Crazy, isn’t it? And I know about crazy…..

  19. Hawkgrrl: I’m glad to hear you’re one of the least liberal bloggers. While you “may” be right that false dichotomies are the lifeblood of the bloggernacle, I ask you, if it’s really the best way to talk about these issues. Coming from our post-modern 21st century viewpoint, we should all recognize the need for nuance. And yet, instead of trying our best to fully nuance and round out arguments we create (false) distinctions and let people fight about them. Maybe we should do a post about the most constructive ways of discussing that?

    Back to your topic though.
    While I recognize there was a religious component, it certainly wasn’t the main motivation. I don’t specifically know how a contrast creates minds ripe for mischief. If so, is my mind ripe for mischief because I understand the contradictory contrast between the wave/particle duality of light? I don’t think contrasts must weaken the mind, rather it was the entire scientific worldview that led to this huge breakdown of logic. It wasn’t pure religion that led was the means of the witch trials either, it was the false marriage of science and religion (e.i., Spectral Evidence) in the hands of the religious officials (who were incidentally also government officials).

    From Wikipedia. (Notice the blatant copy and paste, just like you suggested!)
    Economic context
    Increasing family size fueled disputes over land between neighbors and within families, especially on the frontier where the economy was based on farming. Changes in the weather or blights could easily wipe out a year’s crop. A farm that could support an average-sized family could not support the many families of the next generation, prompting farmers to push farther into the wilderness to find land, encroaching upon the indigenous people. As the Puritans had vowed to create a theocracy in this new land, religious fervor added tension to the mix. Loss of crops, livestock, and children, as well as earthquakes and bad weather, were typically attributed to the wrath of God.

    Wiki also describes the religious context: A puritan theocracy.

    Social context
    The patriarchal beliefs that Puritans held in the community added further stresses. Women, they believed, should be totally subservient to men. By nature, a woman was more likely to enlist in the Devil’s service than was a man, and women were considered lustful by nature. In addition, the small-town atmosphere made secrets difficult to keep and people’s opinions about their neighbors were generally accepted as fact. In an age where the philosophy “children should be seen and not heard” was taken at face value, children were at the bottom of the social ladder. Toys and games were seen as idle and playing was discouraged. Girls had additional restrictions heaped upon them. Boys were able to go hunting, fishing, exploring in the forest, and often became apprentices to carpenters and smiths, while girls were trained from a tender age to spin yarn, cook, sew, weave, and be servants to their husbands, mothers, and children.

    This was also a fun quote:
    Contrary to the folklore, there is no evidence to support the assertion that Tituba told any of the girls any stories about using magic.

    Medical theories about the reported afflictions
    Although it is not widely believed that the girls who made the original accusations were actually possessed by the devil, the cause of the symptoms of those who claimed affliction continues to be a subject of interest. Various medical and psychological explanations for the observed symptoms have nevertheless been explored by researchers, including psychological hysteria in response to Indian attacks, convulsive ergotism caused by eating rye bread made from grain infected by the fungus Claviceps purpurea (which is the natural substance from which LSD is derived),[68] and an epidemic of bird-borne encephalitis lethargica. Other modern academic historians are less inclined to believe that the cause for the behavior was biological, exploring instead motivations of jealousy, spite, and a need for attention to explain behavior they contend was simply acting.

    All of which leads me to a conclusion. While religion certainly plays a part, anything that professes some sort of morality will play that same role. In fact, even things that decry morality (e.i., atheism) represent their own form of morality (specifically that none exists). The problems with amorality have most recently been personified in “the dark knight” by two-face. All things can be twisted to fit for good and bad (evidenced by radical islamic extremists versus the peace-loving Muslim, evidenced by the fanatical MMM-er versus TBM, as evidenced by evil Nazi’s versus the loving Germans I’ve met before). Humanism, religion, amorality, atheism all can be twisted, and instead of arguing the generaly principle, we’ve witnessed an over-simplified non-contextualized argument that really doesn’t help us understand the problem any better. At least, it didn’t help me. A bad example ruins the argument for me.

    But I think we certainly agree on this point: When we treat others as objects, rather than as people, we sin. Sinners are people. Liberals are people too! (Note I’m not equating the two).

  20. Holden : My comment shouldn’t imply that liberals are the only ones to do that. You are the one reading that into the comment. I just don’t care when conservatives do it, I just dismiss them. There are others who get frosted at them for me. 🙂

  21. hwkgrrrl

    “In a secular environment, human life has the highest value. Its preservation is the unquestioned bastion of our humanity”

    I’ve encountered in my secular environment that it is the ‘quality of life’ which has the highest value, above even the preservation of life itself.

    But I can’t see how one can save souls without having the highest degree of respect and admiration for human life, for me at least.

  22. Mac,

    “Only if your neighbor isn’t Peter Singer”

    Hold on, I had Peter Singer as a lecturer in philosophy for a semester at Monash University and I can assure you that he isn’t the monster some in the media make him out to be, plus he was generally respectful of us Mormons, our ideology and especially achievements in building Utah etc (he actually claimed to be an atheist jew!!?). Plus his beliefs are actually very reasonable when one gets down to the details even though I don’t agree with most of his cut off points in some theories.

  23. NYOMB: “While religion certainly plays a part, anything that professes some sort of morality will play that same role. In fact, even things that decry morality (e.i., atheism) represent their own form of morality (specifically that none exists).” I agree; in fact, I think you and I are pretty closely aligned here. My own perspective is that religion probably has more ready-made symbols and myths to create that good/evil dichotomy that can be dangerous when distorted and acted upon. Secular humanism doesn’t have a ready made mythology (the marriage of inaccurate science and religious myth as you point out), and myths appear to be stronger at driving fanatics to take action against people they consider “evil-doers.” For an atheist to achieve that, s/he would have to create a personal, believable good/evil myth around it (e.g. persecution of science by ignorant God-believers). Otherwise, the fanaticism is quelled by lack of certainty. For fanaticism to thrive, it needs myth, certainty, and blinders to keep out reality and doubt of the myth (so if the myth can include doubt as an evil, all the better to perpetuate the myth).

    Back to Tituba, while it’s true that there’s no evidence she told the girls stories, it was theorized even at the time that she did. However, that could be another perpetuation of the real cause of the incident (IMO): fear of the outsiders, those on the fringe of the community.

  24. This question you are asking is actually “does religion devalue mortal life”? Not “human life”? Since religious people and non-religious people understand the word “human life” differently, its a confusing questions without understanding the difference in how they define those.

    The answer is that all religious people that believe in an afterlife in theory should devalue this life (what religious people would call mortal life) compared to someone that believes it’s of the greatest value.

    However, not all non-religious people would fall into the above category. It is very common for self professed atheist to believe in a higher power or cause that is above human life. (I.e. atheists are usually theists, but in a different way.) I do believe there are many non-theists that would more or less agree with religious people. It’s not hard to find people that would agree that laying your life down for a good cause, for example, is better than not laying your life down. So this muddies the waters on the question quite a bit because, from this sense, we are all religious people.

    In fact, we’d generally consider someone that values their life above everything else a very very bad person.

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