Many people use religion. It provides them benefits we can’t ignore. However, it also causes health, social and economic harm.

Harm reduction began as a response to drug addiction but it has wider application. Drug use isn’t the only intractable habit people are unwilling or unable to change.

The harm reduction approach accepts that some level of unhealthy behaviour may be inevitable and focuses on minimising the damage it causes. It offers a model for policies to deal with other unhealthy activities such as the use of religion. The principles developed for drug policy need little amendment.

A harm reduction approach would, for example:

  • Understand religion as a multi-faceted phenomenon, and acknowledge that some ways of using religion are safer than others.
  • See a person’s religion use as of secondary importance to the risk of harms consequent to use.
  • Put first priority on decreasing the negative consequences of religion use to the user and to others, as opposed to focusing on the religion use itself.
  • Accept that religion is part of our world and work to minimise its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them.

Most critics of religion simply condemn its use and most governments simply ignore the problems it causes. The Australian Government still includes advancement of religion as a charitable purpose qualifying for tax concessions.

However, the risk of harm from the use of religion is being increasingly understood. A Guardian/ICM poll reports, “More people in Britain think religion causes harm than believe it does good”.

Children are especially at risk. Users of religion don’t simply make lifestyle choices as consenting adults. They feed the Kool-Aid to children too young to understand the harm it might do. There is widespread community concern for protecting children, but hundreds of thousands remain at constant risk of initiation into the use of religion and its inherited dogmas and disputes.

We need immediately to remove tax anomalies encouraging the spread of religion and urgently to develop a new response. The work done for drug policy provides an easily adaptable model:

  • Do not trivialise or ignore the real and tragic danger associated with licit and illicit use of religion.
  • Recognise that containment and reduction of religion-related harms is more feasible than eliminating religion use entirely.
  • Recognise that some religions are less harmful than others. Intervene based on the relative harmfulness of the religion.
  • Lessen the harms of religions through education, prevention, and treatment.
  • Protect youth from the dangers of religions by offering factual, science-based religion education and eliminating black market exposure to religions.

Peter Fray

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