Proposed Limits on Religious Beliefs and the Uses of Beliefs



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   9-06,7-16

ABSTRACT:  Limits on beliefs and the uses of beliefs by religions are proposed, with a goal of minimizing harm caused by believers to non-believers.

KEY WORDS:  religion, religious conflict, religious wars

The potential for religious belief is inherent in human beings, and many have found it to be a useful and fulfilling organizing center for their lives.  Sets of these religious beliefs have been formalized as “religions.”  Religions differ in beliefs and in religious customs (including some ways of doing things that are prescribed by the deity or by the holy writings of the religion, some that are not, and some that are basically cultural and not religious).  Due to a greater amount of interaction of peoples across the globe in recent years, the negative effects of certain religious beliefs on these interactions between believers in different religions and between believers and non-believers are starkly apparent, and these negative effects, all the way from insults to bombings and other murderous acts, have sufficient destructive impact to warrant serious examination.

“Religious beliefs” are those beliefs through which the individual relates his/her sense of awe and extended relatedness (beyond the self) to aspects of supposed or claimed reality that are very much (even infinitely) larger, grander, and/or more powerful than the individual and may include a deity or deities.  These aspects of supposed reality vary in nature.  The gods of the Greeks, the single God of Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions, the God in Protestant traditions who relates personally to the individual, the spirit figures of Native-Americans, and the all-is-one universe of Buddhism are primary examples.  “Religious practices” are actions defined by a religion that symbolize its beliefs and purposes and are either required of believers or recommended to them.  Examples of religious symbols would be the various objects used in worship and ritual, such as the cross in Christianity.  Examples of religious practices are the sign of the cross made by believers in Christianity, dietary rules, and required times or words of prayer.  We can also identify as “religious actions” behaviors that are not ritualized or required and are not outward symbols of the religion but that stem from and express the underlying religious beliefs in daily life (e.g., the concept of loving one’s neighbor in Christianity). 

It is worthwhile to note here that any time human beings identify themselves as part of a group that is different from members of another group, conflicts over who is “right” and desires to take others’ land or privileges frequently almost always occur.  This is a part of “human nature” and happens regardless of whether the differing group is within or outside of one’s own society.  Many people also use religion as a main buttress of their sense of self-worth.  These tendencies (fear of difference, challenges to one’s beliefs, taking advantage of those who are different) are the root of religious conflict.  In a sense, then, many apparently religious conflicts are focused on religious differences but may actually be simply about difference itself, about the welfare of the group as a whole in terms of wanting more land or resources, and/or about the striving of people for self-esteem.  If people could learn to disregard and be comfortable with differences and could find non-harmful ways of feeling valuable, the amount of conflict in the world, religious and otherwise, would be greatly reduced


The benefits of religious belief and of religions are many.  Religions explain why we are here and what we are supposed to do here, and they usually define our place in the universe.  They provide a context within which we can understand ourselves and therefore function more effectively and with less uncertainty and conflict.  They provide explanations for the mysteries of human existence (why we suffer, who made us, why it is so hard to do right, etc.).  Feeling that we know these things increases our sense of security and our sense of self-esteem.

Religions identify moral and immoral behavior, promote acting morally (basically, not harming others), and offer ways of reestablishing positive relationships with ourselves and with others after we have acted in harmful ways.

Religions provide a conduit with which we can contact and relate to God or the divine, whether that is directly or through other figures such as prophets and emissaries (Jesus, Mohammed), priests, and, in the case of Roman Catholics, Jesus’ mother, Mary.  Many who seek to be closer to the divine use religious practices to grow toward and deepen this connection.


Religious differences have been responsible for much bloodshed and hatred during human history (the bloodshed related to Muslim fundamentalism is only the latest), so it is worth exploring how we might understand and practice religion in ways that avoid or prevent this conflict.  The major justifications for imposing beliefs on others and for harming others in the name of religion are (1) that uniformity of beliefs in a society is necessary for social order and (2) that non-believers in one’s midst are dangerous to one’s faith and one’s welfare from on high.

Imposing particular religious beliefs on all persons in a society is not necessary in order to ensure adequate social order.  It has been amply demonstrated that secular societies (albeit with religions within them doing the things that religions do) are able to maintain order in society.  Some in theocracies or who favor theocracies may think or believe that the moral and ethical results in secular societies are unacceptable and that the results in theocratic societies are better.  There may be fewer law-breaking actions by citizens in theocratic societies, and somewhat less immoral behavior, but secular societies feel that the value of religious freedom, diversity, and greater behavioral freedom is worth more than the differential gain in greater adherence to the law and to moral rules from having only one religion in society. 

There is no question that a certain amount of uniformity and conformity in society is necessary for the smooth and cooperative functioning of the group (human beings being as difficult as they are to control), but this necessary conformity can be achieved through adequate commonality regarding customs and morals on a secular basis.  Members of secular societies tend to view religious law (in other societies, of course) as irrational and its enforcement often cruel.

The necessity for limits on the allowable consequences of religious beliefs becomes evident when a religious person wishes to harm others, within or outside his religion or society, based on his religious beliefs alone (and not on any social contract that both he and the other parties have agreed to).  This has occurred recently when some (usually relatively small) Muslim groups have declared it acceptable for their members to kill members of other societies whom they believe to have “insulted” Islam or Mohammed, when these other persons either believe that they have not insulted anyone at all or believe that it is OK to poke fun at any figure or institution, whether or not it is religious.  The Christian crusades are another example of religion directly justifying killing those in other societies.  The same problem surfaces when religious persons wish to require that others, within or outside their society, join or give allegiance to their religion.  It is well to note that many of these actions against persons of another faith are actually not religious, if judged by the basic beliefs of the religion, but are rather the result of other human needs and cultural differences.  The issue of what is an insult and what is not is not strictly a religious matter but flows from the surrounding culture.


The history of mankind seems to have demonstrated adequately that the evils of requiring unanimity of religious belief and practices outweigh the benefits.  The centuries of religiously-based wars in Europe convinced Europeans that religious freedom was a better course than religious unanimity.  There is no question that taking of Muslim territories in the Middle East in Medieval times by Christians was wrong and was not justified by Christian assertions that they must hold Jerusalem because of its connections with Christian history.  Similarly, there was no moral justification for Muslim armies to conquer Spain and the Balkans.  There is also no moral justification for Jews to have used force to secure present-day Israel as a Jewish homeland, regardless of their persecution in other places, since Palestine was inhabited by others, many of whom were pushed out.  There is no justification for some Muslim groups to preach that Islam must and will conquer the world.  Religion is an easy banner to use to whip up strong passions, both aggressive and defensive, but these passions result in death and destruction for many, and on this basis, there should be limits on the consequences of religious beliefs. 

1. If a deity wants people to conform, then the deity, if all-powerful, is capable of doing the job itself rather than relying on human assistants in the form of believers.  Similarly, any deity worth its salt could communicate with every human being directly and has no need of human intermediaries.  Those who claim that they must act for their deity are thereby revealing their deity’s weakness and that what they wish to do is for themselves and not for the deity.

2. The idea that God wants one person to cause harm to another person is rooted in viewing God as controlling and even vengeful, just as a strict parent may be, and rooted in a person’s identification with God that makes him or her God’s surrogate in enforcing God’s will.  If God is not a controlling and vengeful parent, then much of the justification for harming others in the name of God disappears.  (This claim depends, of course, on accepting the more modern view of God as benevolent rather than simply authoritative.)

3. It might be argued that the push by some religions for uniformity of belief is simply another instance of the tendency in human history by which human beings seem to move toward greater and greater sameness, through nation-building and consolidation of territories, resulting in fewer and fewer ethnic groups and languages in the world, etc.  This tendency to sameness is motivated by (1) the fact that the more organized and differentiated the roles in a society are (as a society grows larger), the more that society can produce materially and (2) the fact that making people more similar to each other reduces the amount of internal conflict in the total group.   This general movement toward more productive economies and to reducing group conflicts by eliminating some groups (or at least their identities) does not morally justify killing people in the process or forcing them to convert to any particular religion, since it can be accomplished by less violent means, albeit over a longer time span.

4. In addition, the fact that an individual may now harm so many others so easily, using bombs or viruses, makes it doubly important that human beings reach unanimity on the principle that no belief or group affiliation-religious, ethnic, racial, national, or otherwise–can be used as a justification for causing any type or degree of harm to others.  The only justification for harming others must be self-defense against direct physical attack.  The use by the United States of the principle of pre-emptive attack against Iraq set a dangerous precedent in the world, since it suggests that feeling threatened is a justification for killing people and for war, but perhaps pre-emptive strikes could be avoided if all nations and groups could affirm by treaty that self-defense against direct attack is the only justification for aggression and that all nations would come to the aid of any nation attacked offensively.


Limitation 1:  Religions should not force belief or allegiance on anyone, within or outside of their societies, and members must be free to leave the religion at any time, if they no longer agree with the tenets of the religion, if they think that the religion’s required behaviors are unnecessary, unreasonable, or irrational, or if they conclude that the religion’s punishments for violations of rules are unacceptable.  Since religious beliefs are ultimately an individual affair, common decency requires that religions not force themselves and their beliefs on anyone.

The best argument for these principles is that there is no proof of the existence of the deity or deities that the religion believes in and claims to act for, and therefore no necessity for any suffering to result for anyone from enforcement of a deity’s supposed wishes.  Some individuals may be absolutely certain of the deity’s existence, but since many others do not agree and understand the deity quite differently (especially those of other religions), those who believe cannot claim that everyone else “should” agree with them.  We may wonder why a deity would want the allegiance of people who were professing belief only to conform and not because of sincere belief.  Surely a deity would not favor, help, or save a person who did not sincerely believe.

Similarly, there is no reason to believe that human beings have correctly written down the words or messages of the deity, as is claimed by literal believers in sacred texts, who then use these texts to justify forcing others to believe as they do and to behave as they do.  It is certainly acceptable for human beings to seek wisdom and guidance from any writings whatsoever, but it is not acceptable for them to attempt to control the lives of others with uncertain findings and beliefs.  Humans are always fallible, both those who write down sacred texts and those who interpret them.  As argued above, forcing people to join and remain in a religion may have some advantages in terms of reducing internal conflict for a society, but this is only at a considerable cost in terms of losses of various freedoms.

Limitation 2:  Religion must not be a vehicle for forcing any particular behaviors on non-members.  It is true that some institution will have to use force to enforce behavioral rules for a society, whether that is a religion or a secular government, but it is much better if those forced to comply have at least agreed to be subject to the rules enforced upon them.  Persons who do not agree with a given religion and do not want to be a part of it have not agreed to be subject to that religion’s rules, whereas all persons who agree to be citizens of a secular nation have ipso facto agreed to be subject to its laws.  (The key difference is that every person is subject to the laws determined by the total group through the government, while religious rules are determined only by a smaller subset of the total group.)

Limitation 3:  Religions must not seek to harm anyone directly or offer justifications for harming anyone (unless they are physically attacked).  The purpose of religion is to facilitate the relationship between the individual and the deity and between the body of believers and the deity.  Religions that promote violence are less preferred by people in general than religions that promote peace and love, and people should be free to choose which type of religion to align with.  Deities that are benevolent and sometimes helpful are preferred by people in general to deities that are demanding and mean.

In order to have religious freedom, it is necessary for all religions to give up the aspiration to control all behaviors of all members of society.  The biggest question posed by this essay, then, is whether giving people religious freedom is more desirable than allowing religions to be the controlling agent for all behaviors of all people in a society.

Limitation 4:  Religion must not encourage members to believe that they are “better than” non-members simply because of their religious membership.  As noted above, since we do not have built-in self-esteem but must manufacture it from our experiences, people grasp at many different justifications for their basic worth (family membership, religious membership, appearance, education, fame, popularity, social position, etc.), and they then use this to justify having more worth than many others in order to get more of the available resources than those others.

Striving to get and have more than others by labeling others as inferior inevitably results in harm to those who are placed in inferior positions, since they have lower self-esteem (which leads to more painful feelings in life and to lower levels of productivity) and often come to feel that they do not deserve more than they get.  Relative worth can also be used to justify killing, as in the Nazi Holocaust and in the greater tendency by police to shoot a suspect who is viewed as “trash” or a “bad person” than to shoot a person who appears to be “normal” or like themselves.  For these reasons, religions should never allow members to justify bringing harm to others because they are “better than” others by virtue of their religious membership (or by virtue of anything else, for that matter).

LIMITATION 5:  Desire to benefit others cannot be used by religions to justify requiring membership.  We can understand a believer’s belief that others will be better off if they believe, too, and we allow this to justify proselytizing, but it cannot also justify forced conversion.  Forcing people to swear allegiance to a religion has been justified by the religion’s assertion that if their souls are not “saved,” these people will “go to Hell” after death.  This kind of justification is opposed by the arguments in Limitation 1 (there is no proof of such assertions; fallible men wrote down all of the Holy Books that are supposedly the word of the deity) and by the value of individual freedom.  In Christianity, at least, it is believed that God has given people free will and wants them to be responsible for themselves, so that it is God’s intent that people who choose unwisely may go to Hell.


The consequences of these limits are clear.  If they are adopted, there will be much less conflict and violence in the world due to the reduction in conflict and violence over religious differences.  If they are not adopted, conflict and violence justified by religion or claimed as justified by believers will continue.  

A religion’s decision regarding adoption of these limits will tell us something important about that religion.  Either a religion shows primary allegiance to notions of individual freedom, love as the primary tool for change, and an essentially non-violent deity, or it shows its belief in subservience in belief, force as the primary tool for change, and an essentially punishing deity.  (A religion adopting these limits could be part of a theocracy or a democracy.)

Each individual should seriously consider which type of religion (one that adopts versus one that rejects these limits) will give him or her the best life and the best relationship with the deity.

Adoption, of course, will be complicated, because there will undoubtedly be groups that favor adoption and groups that reject adoption within every religion (probably with less resistance within Protestant Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, and more resistance within Catholic Christianity and Islam).  Time and adjustment will be necessary.


1. If a deity is powerful, then that deity can communicate individually to all human beings and can itself force people to conform to its wishes.  In that sense, there is no need for human beings to carry out wishes of a deity for people to believe or conform.

2. It must always be kept in mind that belief is just that–belief, which means that it is not certain and cannot be proved.  In Western democracies we say that people are entitled to their beliefs, but because they are beliefs, there is no basis for using them as justification for harming others or controlling their behavior.

3. No religion has enough of the truth to impose it on other groups.  If a religion did have “the truth,” it would be obvious to everyone (not just the believers of that religion) that those beliefs were true, because believers of that religion would feel so much better than others and would function better in the world because of their beliefs.  Clearly this has not happened, and no religion can “prove” that it alone has “the truth.”  This is supported by the facts that (1) large numbers of other sincerely religious people around the world have a different understanding of the deity or deities and of religious beliefs and customs, and (2) the foundational evidence cited by religions (holy writings) have all been written or written down by fallible human beings.

The desire of any religion to impose its beliefs or customs on non-believers is motivated not by the directives of a deity but by the religion’s wish to reduce the challenges to its beliefs from opposing views, by believers’ wishes to be more comfortable because everyone else has the same views, and/or by the religion’s desires for power and control, and none of these motives justifies imposing beliefs or customs on others.  (This argument depends, of course, on the premise that behaviors do need justifications, and that a desire for something does not automatically justify behaviors used in getting it.  Otherwise, any behavior could be justified, and the use of force in order to achieve a goal would automatically be justified.)

4. Religious tolerance and religious freedom are more acceptable to those who admit that their own beliefs are in fact beliefs and may conceivably not be true or correct, no matter how convinced they themselves are of their truth and correctness.  Intolerance and religious persecution are more likely to be carried out by people who cannot admit in any way that their beliefs could be wrong.  These “true believers” have psychological needs that they attempt to meet through the firmness of their belief–the security of having everyone else believe as they do, the security of “knowing” the truth, anger toward any who rebel against authority, the self-esteem that comes from “knowing” that they are acting properly and following the dictates of authority, etc.

5. If believers allow that God may speak differently to others than to themselves, they will be less likely to carry out religiously-based violence.  Most religions believe that the deity speaks exclusively to them (or that the deity has most recently spoken to them and not to others) and therefore believe that the message they attribute to the deity is the only such message (or at least the most recent message) from the deity to human beings.  It is logically possible, however, that the message of the deity to one group may be different from the message that same deity has given to another group.  Believers will reply, “But why would God do that?”, to which the only replies are that the best way to live may be different in different climates or topographies, that there may be more than one good way to believe and live, and that, as believers frequently explain things they cannot explain, God’s actions cannot always be understood by human beings and sometimes must simply be accepted.

6. To relate to God as a parent figure or emperor restricts one’s conception of God to these images.  Perhaps our conception of the deity should go beyond these familiar images to other, broader, or more infinite images.  (What, for instance, is the sense and possible consequence of Christians still referring to Jesus as “Lord,” a term which has feudal and authoritarian connections and no meaning whatever in modern society?)  Those who most wish to impose their religious views on others are those who have submitted to the will of an authoritative and demanding father figure as God and who feel empowered by that powerful parent figure to make sure that others submit and obey, too.  They resent others having the freedom to differ or rebel when they themselves feel compelled to obey.  If God is not a parent figure or ultimate authority, then part of the motivation to enforce belief on others disappears.  (Desires for greater self-esteem, benefits, and control would still remain.)


1. Having a more global awareness of peoples and religions can help to put religious concepts and problems in a more useful perspective.  It is “natural” for human beings who know little about those who are different from them to think that there is no justification for those differences (and that therefore everyone “should” have the same beliefs as they do).  Simply knowing about all of the different areas of the world and about the different religions and belief systems will begin to allow one to wonder why huge groups of other people have those beliefs that are different from one’s own. 

As in the case of race and culture, the most powerful educative influence on most people with regard to religious understanding is experiencing, fact-based, peaceful, face-to-face interactions with others who differ in beliefs from themselves, whether that is through foreign travel, foreign exchange, or purposeful learning groups dedicated to promoting understanding among people.  Every community should have a religious alliance or cooperative, with an ongoing program to educate all members of the community about all religious groups.

2. “Think tanks” dedicated to exploration and elucidation of religious beliefs and customs could help immensely with understanding and education, but several of these already exist and seem to have had no input to public schools or to individual citizens. 

3. The best thing that individuals can do to reduce religious conflict is to recognize and become psychologically comfortable with the fact that it is both OK and possible to have one’s own beliefs, even strong beliefs, and at the same time not be bothered or threatened by the fact that others have differing beliefs.  This psychological comfort can be found through being secure in one’s own beliefs.  The wish to have everyone agree with one’s beliefs betrays one’s own doubts about one’s own beliefs. 

4. If we are to be comfortable with others having religious beliefs that are different from our own, then we must then have other means to satisfy our psychological needs that are now being met through our religious involvement, particularly our needs for security, certainty, and love.  It will help us to do this if we strive to be more tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, which are unfortunately inherent aspects of our human existence.  Our need for love can be better met in our human relationships if we improve our relationship skills, especially our empathy, our understanding for others, and our tolerance for differences.

5. Tolerance and comfort with difference can also be the product of enlarging one’s identification group to include all human beings–i.e., that instead of viewing oneself primarily as a member of one’s religious group, aligned with one’s own group against other groups, one can view oneself as a human being–a member of the family of all human beings–many of whom happen to have beliefs different from one’s own.  This shift in grouping can help the individual to accept differences within the new and larger grouping.

Religion has important benefits for human beings, most especially to help us to have the best possible relationship with the deity.  It is crucial that beliefs not be used as a justification for war or for any form of harming people, or else the religion may become overly identified with simple struggles for dominance and control (in the minds of its members and in the minds of non-members) and eventually lose its legitimate role in society, because it will prove to do more evil than good.  It can be argued that Christianity sold its prophetic birthright in order to become the state religion of Rome, and the history of the accretion of power and wealth to the Church that followed illustrates how all human beings are capable of using any means for personal benefit.  Islam shows us a somewhat different picture, having been from its early years insistent on being one with society’s governance, and this lives on in the theocracies of Iran, ISIS, and other Islamic states, most of which allow no legitimacy at all to other religions.


Religion, like religious beliefs, has many benefits as well as some costs.  Everyone has beliefs, whether they are religious beliefs or not.  Perhaps what we can learn from examining human believing in general is that beliefs have consequences, and it would behoove us all to shape or choose our beliefs in order to obtain maximum benefit from them and to minimize the harm that we might receive and the harm that our beliefs might cause to others.  To some extent, we choose our beliefs (though for most people this consists of either accepting or rejecting what others teach them, rather than constructing their own beliefs).  Sometimes religions have shaped beliefs, as well as cultural practices, to be compatible with our human needs and foibles rather than shaping them primarily by what the deity wants.  If beliefs tend to isolate or separate people, then they will result in a certain amount of conflict and even violence.  If beliefs point us in the direction of inclusion and understanding, then they can enhance our humanity and the quality of our lives.


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