It’s a Fine Line Between Truth and Propaganda

By Wendy Thomas Russell | July 22, 2013 | 13 comments

Recently, on Hemant Mehta’s FriendlyAthiest blog, I came across a video done by a guy who runs a Facebook page called Religion Hurts Humanity. The video, titled What Religions Have Contributed to the World This Month, is nine minutes full of news clips and headlines detailing all the terrible things done in the name of religion during the last 30 days. The amount of material alone makes the video pretty compelling.

Here are some of the featured headlines:

Islamic militants kill 30 in Nigeria School attack 

Islamic states reject UN’s attempt to protect women: It violates Sharia Law

Boy killed for an off-hand remark about Muhammad

Female genital mutilation victim was ‘aged just seven’ 

Children report sexual abuse cases by Bhutan’s Buddhist monks

Scandal at the Vatican: Official Arrested in $26 million Corruption Plot

Serial sex offender priest told 7-year-old victim he could get dead grandfather into heaven

Exorcism Gone Wrong? Woman Goes Into Cardiac Arrest During Ritual

‘Spiritual healer’ George Goak guilty of groping patients

India villagers kill two for ‘witchcraft’

Now, truthfully, if I didn’t blog about religion, I probably wouldn’t have watched the whole video. It was a real downer seeing that many horrific headlines all strung together like that. Not that the video doesn’t have value. I think it’s important to point out the role religious beliefs are playing in the world, especially when religious organizations are given 501(c)(3) status and protected from prosecution in some cases.

However — you knew that was coming, didn’t you? — in seeking to influence our feelings about religion by presenting only one set of facts, this particular video amounts to little more than propaganda — pretty effective propaganda at that. As a viewer, I found myself  getting angry — angry at the people who have done these terrible things, angry at their religions for being a part of it, angry at religious people for having something in common with the those who had committed these terrible acts.

But then I thought critically about what I was watching. (Let’s hear it for critical thinking!) Yes, religion provides a lot of headline fodder, but the stories in this one video don’t share any of the good things that religious people do — and, perhaps even more importantly, they represent a fraction of the awful, terrible, tragic things that go in general  every month.

10030271_h23302287_custom-b36e0cb541df443cc59199e783c085119bd665c2-s6-c30Consider this: Moments after watching the video, I saw this headline from Reuters: Indian school lunch poisoning: doctors race to save children. It came with a picture of a grandmother, in anguish, over the loss of her grandson to a rice and potato curry tainted by insecticide. (That’s her on the left; tears your heart out, right?) The story was just as horrible as anything you’ll see on the video — and it has nothing to do with religion.

It’s much harder to be sad and scared than to be angry — which is why so many of us are quick to turn to the latter. And it’s much harder to be angry when there’s nowhere to direct the anger. Would genital mutilation be easier to stomach if it were simply cultural, rather than religious? Is molestation and child rape less vile when committed by people born with mental illnesses? Which breaks your heart more: to hear about children who died senselessly because of an Islamic attack, or to hear about children who died senselessly because a vat of food was accidentally poisoned? How can we qualify that?

My hope is that someday religious belief won’t need to be put under the microscope like this because more people will be willing to see religion as a human creation rather than a divine creation. No version of “God” gives people cart blanche to be morally reprehensible human beings — which, I do think, is the video’s core message.

But let’s at least shoot for honesty. For the sake of the next generation, let’s try to view religion for what it is: something (like so many other things!) that compels and enables people to do really wonderful and truly terrible things.

No denials, no excuses, no special treatment. No exaggeration.

And — please, brothers — no more propaganda.


  1. Well said Wendy! You have a nice balanced perspective as usual!

  2. Chris says:

    I’m late to the party (life gets in the way sometimes, ya know) and don’t know that I really have much to add, but I wanted to at least write *something*, mostly just so I could publicly give thanks to Wendy for creating such a wonderful forum for calm, friendly, thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion and exchange of ideas. It’s a refreshing and very welcome change. So, many thanks, Wendy! :-D

    This blog post had excellent timing for me. Only a couple hours earlier I’d seen a post on the RDF site referencing a video about Intelligent Design ( That video, and the one Wendy discusses here, feel very similar to me…little more than intellectually lazy, insensitive propaganda. And, in both cases, I’m concerned that the creators apparently ignore the fact that they’re hijacking the real, extreme suffering of others just to prove a point. A point that could easily–and more effectively–be made in a different and less divisive way. I foolishly tried expressing this opinion in the comments on the RDF post. …Not exactly welcomed with open arms.

    I’d guess that Dawkins himself would reject the “What Religions Have Contributed to the World This Month” video partially because he’s never been one to be totting up scores of theists vs atheists but mostly because the video (at least in part) commits the same mistake as those who try to use examples of atrocities committed by leaders (Stalin, Pol Pot, etc…we’ve all heard them countless times, right?) who happen to be atheist (or are at least assumed/claimed to be) as proof of the evils of atheism. The response is always along the lines of, “as horrible as the atrocities were, they weren’t motivated by or committed in the name of atheism”. So it must then be equally invalid to include examples of suffering at the hands of those who happen to be religious, but whose acts weren’t *motivated* by their religion. The inclusion of these examples in the video may just be laziness, or perhaps an attempt to skewer the idea that those affiliated with a religious institution are incapable of (or less susceptible to) committing harmful acts or should be held to a higher standard. I dunno. Not excusing it, just making a guess as to the motivations.

    Finally, there’s *perhaps* something that could be said about what motivates people–anyone, religious or no–to do good. It’s arguable that doing good just so you’ll get a reward later (e.g. heaven, tax deduction, social cred, etc.) is less noble than simply doing it for goodness’ sake. But, hey, in the end, it’s doing good, and the world needs more of it regardless of motivation.

    Alright, enough…apologies for the length and for getting sidetracked from my goal of this simply being a big thank you to Wendy.

    P.S. Can I be part of the gang now too? ;-)

  3. Rob Oas says:

    I love this discussion and I think it is a great look all around at people in general. I think that people use what ever there religion is to justify the decisions they make good or bad, in the end it is to me at least just human emotions that really control us, religion or non religion is just a piece of cheese on the cracker… I’m not really sure that makes any sense lol.

  4. Rich Wilson says:

    I think I’m echoing Craig and Derek, but how many of those headlines are people who happen to be religious doing evil things, and how many are people compelled to do evil things by some religious belief? I’d argue that the ‘witchcraft’ and FGM and blasphemy stories at the very least are compelled by religion.

    In contrast, how many of the wonderful stories involving religion are actually stories of human compassion at the core?

    • Exactly! They are not at all created equally, these stories. But it seems that when there’s any minor religious connection to a bad thing, the religion gets blamed. And when there’s any minor religious connection to a good thing, the religion gets credit. I don’t get it. Religious people and nonreligious people have compassion in equal quantities; they just might find their inspiration in different things.

    • Can I just say how happy I am to see Rich, Derek and Craig all chiming in. It’s like having the gang back together? Just missing a few key voices…

  5. Derek says:

    The question is whether religion actually “compels and enables people to do really wonderful” things or if that is just religion’s propaganda.

    Steven Weinberger claimed “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

    Whether he’s right or not is something that there isn’t a whole lot of data on. What is clear though is that less religious countries do not lack people doing really wonderful things which makes me think Steven may have a point.

    • People do wonderful things for lots of reasons, and they would no matter what, you’re right about that. I guess I think about places of worship that organize charity drives which, in turn, enable people to get involved in their community. Or people who believe God wants them to live a certain life and therefore are compelled by those beliefs to volunteer or donate money to good causes, etc. The point isn’t to deconstruct why people to do what they do, but to acknowledge that a single source of all good or all “evil” — a religious word I avoid whenever possible — doesn’t exist. The problem with the video, and with Weinberger, is that they’re oversimplifying concepts in order to make a point. Don’t you think?

  6. Craig says:

    The other thing I was going to say about this video is that a lot of the stories are of sexual abuse or financial misconduct on the part of priests, ministers, or other purported religious leaders. As reprehensible as those actions are, I don’t think that it is fair to attribute them to “religion’s contribution to the world.” Those were actions by individuals who could have just as well perpetrated the same crimes, and probably would have, whether in those positions or not. The positions that they held may have provided access and some measure of protection from prosecution or detection, but I still wouldn’t attribute their actions to religion. Their actions were the result of sick individuals who happened to be part of a religious institution.

  7. Craig says:

    The story recently that really got to me was that of the couple in Wisconsin who let their daughter die of diabetes while praying for her. They didn’t believe in medicine and claimed religious exemption in their trial for homicide. Fortunately they were convicted, but this obsession with excusing behavior that can hurt or even kill people merely because of someone’s religious beliefs, even in this country, is just not right.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

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