Religious teachings that once made sense sometimes become harmful under changing conditions.
That can put believers in the awkward position of defending practices—either historical or current—that are now widely perceived to be either immoral or questionable at best.
Some of the world’s largest religions emerged during the Iron Age and the rules in their sacred texts likely helped families and communities (or at least some subset) to thrive under Iron Age conditions.
Today we live under very different conditions.
We know things our ancestors didn’t.
We hold powers and face challenges they could not have imagined.
Here are a few of the moral mandates from the Abrahamic religions (Judaism – Christianity and Islam) that some people still practice on religious grounds but that a growing number of others consider morally dubious given our current circumstances and knowledge.
Hitting children—The Hebrew Bible instructs parents to beat their children – most explicitly in Proverbs 23: ‘Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death’.
Traditional Muslim teachings exhort parents to beat boys if they don’t pray regularly by the age of seven.
Research in psychology contradicts this advice – pointing to few if any developmental benefits and an increased risk of aggression in children who are hit.
Parenting experts suggest better means of raising children and managing misbehavior.
Even religious leaders who may feel obliged to approve spanking because it is endorsed in their sacred texts (some of whom fiercely defend the god-given right of parents to hit their kids) now tend to send mixed messages and encourage other forms of discipline first.
Teaching children to rely on faith— Religions often treat faith or even religious certitude as a virtue.
In fact in Protestant Christianity it is the ultimate virtue – the one that sends people to heaven or hell.
Believe and be saved says the Christian New Testament and one of the tenets of the Reformation was sola fide—by faith alone.
Defenders of Christianity may marshal logic or evidence to support belief but when backed into a corner many default to I just know—and they teach children to do the same.
By contrast modern cognitive science recognizes the sense of knowing as a feeling state that can be triggered under a wide variety of circumstances – not all of which have a basis in reality.
Advocates for secularism argue that faith by definition means committing to a set of beliefs that are poorly grounded—or even contradict the best available evidence.
We humans are prone to confirmation bias for example or self-serving ‘motivated’ reasoning.
In belief-based religions like Christianity and Islam doubt is seen as a sign of weakness or a moral failing – a sin.
But knowing what we now know about human cognition – faith increasingly looks like a bad epistemology – a not-very-effective way of sifting what is real from what is not.