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Is religion the root of all evil?

By Alessia Iannucci

The assertion that “religion is the root of all evil” is a stark and contentious claim. This essay aims to delve deeply into the theme, acknowledging the multifaceted nature of human morality, the impact of religious beliefs, and the broader context within which these dynamics unfold.

The assertion that “religion is the root of all evil” is a stark and contentious claim that demands an exploration of human history, psychology, and cultural dynamics. The relationship between religion and good and evil is complex, marked by both inspiring acts of compassion and disturbing episodes of violence and intolerance.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that moral instincts may have evolved as adaptive traits to enhance cooperation and social cohesion within groups. The innate human capacity for empathy, reciprocity, and altruism forms the foundation for moral behaviours that extend beyond immediate kinship. Cultural and social factors play a crucial role in shaping moral frameworks. Norms, values, and ethical codes are transmitted through cultural traditions, family structures, and societal institutions. Religion, as a cultural institution, often becomes a key influencer in this process.

Religion as a force for good

Religion has historically been a primary source of moral guidance for communities worldwide. The ethical teachings embedded in religious doctrines often provide people with a framework for distinguishing right from wrong, guiding their actions, and fostering a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Religions commonly share moral foundations that promote virtues such as compassion, justice, honesty, and kindness. These shared ethical principles contribute to the formation of cohesive and cooperative communities. Religious traditions often serve as platforms for moral education, transmitting ethical values from one generation to the next. The narratives, rituals, and teachings within religious communities shape the moral outlook of individuals and influence their behaviour. The communal aspect of religious practice fosters a sense of shared identity and collective morality. The bonds formed within religious communities often encourage mutual support, charitable acts, and the promotion of ethical living.

Religion as a force for evil

However, the historical record reveals instances where religion has been entangled with violence, intolerance, and conflict. The notion that “religion is the root of all evil” finds resonance in the dark chapters of human history marked by religiously motivated wars, crusades, inquisitions, and acts of terrorism. One of the criticisms levelled against religion is the potential for dogma and fundamentalism. When adherents interpret religious doctrines in an absolutist and rigid manner, it can lead to the exclusion of alternative perspectives and justify acts of violence against perceived threats to orthodoxy. Throughout history, interreligious conflicts have erupted over theological differences, territorial disputes, and cultural clashes. These conflicts often involve the manipulation of religious identity for political or economic gain, underscoring the complex relationship between religion and power. Religious beliefs have been invoked to justify persecution, discrimination, and marginalisation of certain groups based on their faith, ethnicity, or cultural practices. The imposition of religious orthodoxy has, at times, resulted in the suppression of dissent and the denial of basic human rights.

Secular alternatives and ethical challenges

While religion has been critiqued for its role in promoting violence, it is important to recognise that secular ideologies and political doctrines are not immune to ethical challenges. The assertion that eliminating religion would eradicate evil oversimplifies the multifaceted nature of human morality and the potential for ethical lapses within secular frameworks. Totalitarian regimes driven by secular ideologies, such as communism or chauvinistic nationalism, have been responsible for human rights abuses, mass atrocities, and suppression of dissent. The elimination of religion did not guarantee the absence of moral transgressions. In addition, ethical pluralism poses a challenge to the claim that religion is the root of all evil. The diversity of human values, whether religious or secular, requires navigating a complex landscape where moral judgements are influenced by cultural, historical, and individual factors. Ultimately, acts of good or evil are perpetrated by human agents. Religion, as an influential cultural force, shapes moral perspectives, but individual agency plays a central role in how these perspectives are interpreted and acted upon.

Psychology of belief and identity

The psychology of belief and identity offers insights into how individuals navigate moral choices within religious frameworks. The need for identity, belonging, and a sense of purpose influences the moral decisions people make, often leading to the reinforcement of in-group values and the vilification of perceived out-groups. Cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias and in-group favouritism, contribute to the reinforcement of existing beliefs and the devaluation of differing perspectives. These biases are not exclusive to religious contexts but are inherent in the broader human experience. The formation of moral tribes, where individuals identify strongly with particular moral values, can lead to a polarisation that transcends religious or secular boundaries. The tendency to see one's own moral framework as inherently good can contribute to conflicts with those holding different beliefs.


In conclusion, the assertion that “religion is the root of all evil” is a sweeping claim that oversimplifies the intricate nature of human morality and the diverse roles that religion plays in shaping ethical perspectives. While religion has undeniably been a source of moral guidance, community cohesion, and personal meaning for countless individuals, it has also been associated with historical episodes of violence, intolerance, and discrimination. The complexity of human morality extends beyond religious beliefs, encompassing a range of cultural, psychological, and historical factors. A nuanced understanding requires an acknowledgment of the positive contributions of religion, the potential for ethical challenges within secular frameworks, and the crucial role of individual agency in moral decision-making. Engaging in interfaith dialogue, fostering ethical pluralism, and addressing the psychological biases that influence moral reasoning are essential steps toward building a more inclusive and understanding global community. Rather than attributing all forms of evil exclusively to religion, it is imperative to recognise the shared human responsibility for ethical choices and work towards promoting a collective ethic that transcends religious and cultural boundaries.

Further reading

Is Religion Dangerous? (2011) Keith Ward

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) Christopher Hitchens

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004) Sam Harris

This article was written by ChatGPT and Alessia is a fictional writer. It was lightly edited by our editorial team. The further reading section was added by our editorial team.

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