Recently, I heard a woman describe religion as a curse upon the world, nothing more than stifling rules and judgment — an antiquated relic that inhibits freedom and happiness. I wondered, “Am I being stifled?”

I agreed there was, in fact, something being constrained and limited in my life.

But I concluded that was not such a bad thing. As the longtime Washington Post columnist George Will once put it, “I’m in favor of suppressing things. We suppress our appetites, we control our passions. You can call that with Freud suppression. I call it civilization.”

The human propensity toward immorality and behaviors that inflict pain on others has a long and sad history. And thankfully, religion and morality have always been a stifling, limiting check on a wide variety of evils, across creeds and cultures.

Far from merely constraining, however, these limitations bring to pass freedoms in other ways. The restraint cultivated in an Islamic Ramadan or Christian fast engenders new physical health and discipline. The freedom to resist and tame our appetites. The Jewish or Christian Sabbath, which limits the activities people may otherwise enjoy, fosters spiritual development which may otherwise elude us.

Yes, there are plenty of hypocritical Christians who believe one thing and do another. But it is also true that in a world with no ideals or standards, there would be no hypocrites, and also no saints. In my judgment, it is better to miss the mark than to deny the mark exists altogether. Religion tells us to be good, but we fall short. Religion tells us to be unified, but we are full of wrath and envy. But without ideals, we are left to our baser angels.

As the saying, attributed to Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton goes, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

Vice unrestrained is a devastatingly dark force. In history, the 18th-century French nobleman Marquis de Sade had a disdain for moral values. The term Sadism comes from his philosophy. He moved beyond ideas and tortured and degraded the innocent for his own pleasure. Why? Because it brought him happiness. He, like many sex traffickers and nihilistic moderns, no longer bothered with the charade of justification. The only voice they hear from their self-made dogma screams — I want!

Disturbingly, De Sade’s nihilistic sadistic philosophy, rather than being rejected as evil, was defended by many modern thinkers, including some feminist and postmodern leaders. (Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida to name a few.) When we discard God and virtue, when we refuse to be stifled in our desires, then our desires are likely to grow wilder and more degenerate.

The author Andrew Klavan credits his experience of reading the work of the Marquis de Sade with turning him away from atheism. He writes, “Sade understood that if there is no God, there can be no ultimate morality. There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Unlike others, he notes, Sade followed the ideology to its logical conclusion: “If there is no God, there is no morality. If there is no morality, the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain are all in all and we should pillage, rape, and murder as we please.”

“None of this pale, milquetoast atheism,” Klavan continued, “that says ‘Let’s all do what’s good for society.’ Why should I do what’s good for society? What is society to me? ... If there is no God, there is no good.”

Many will say, and rightly so, that you need not be religious to be good. And yet if we break religion down to its core idea — that something beyond us is the author of morality — we must realize that to throw this institution out will reap a grim harvest. Much of the goodness of our society is, in fact, laid on a foundation of religious morality. (Historian Tom Holland’s “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” provides insight into pre-Christian morality — and it’s not pretty.)

Religion plays a crucial role in attempting to stifle these darker human impulses. We may feel secure in our belief that children are safe and people are generally good, but we must face reality and see where a philosophy that ignores the darker human tendencies can and will increasingly lead.

The darkness to which human beings may fall doesn’t stay inside the boundaries of a single life. There is no immoral act that does not affect others — the most vulnerable and innocent are the most likely to be its victim. Those of us still living off the embers of religious morality are often naive to this kind of darkness. In that college classroom, I felt like I got punched in the face with it.

In the profound depiction of Satan in “Paradise Lost” we see that his fall from Heaven is a result of the same pride which leads us to reject judgmental, stifling religion — “Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven,” he says.

It is no coincidence that Milton’s Satan has become a cult hero to many musicians and artists in our modern day. He is seen as an anti-authoritarian rebel, seeking self-rule against the injustice of an arbitrary God. And yet, a complete reading of the epic poem reveals Satan as the father of lies who seeks only to ensnare victims and spread misery — as he states:

“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath and infinite despair?


Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.”

In truth, then, religion does stifle me. From a young age, I’ve been taught not to drink, smoke or go to wild parties. There are a lot of so-called pleasures I have never experienced. I am eternally grateful for my stifling religion. I do not want the darkness of vice in my life. I have seen it in the lives of others and feel no envy. The “freedom” of unrestrained self-indulgence is never free. The lives of those who live unfettered by morality are full of addictions, burdensome consequences and a string of innocent victims who suffer to pay for their happiness.

When I “imagine” a world without religion — it is a world of darkness and sin unchained.

Allyson Flake Matsoso has a degree in environmental/African studies and has published research in social work. She runs the “Philosophy of Motherhood” blog and The Philosophy of Motherhood Substack

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