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In last month’s “Imaginary Crimes“, I wrote about the fictitious offenses invented by religion to fill people with guilt and shame. But there’s something even worse to write about. The flip side of having imaginary crimes is having imaginary virtues – people who believe themselves to be good and decent based solely on their ability to obey arbitrary religious edicts that offer no benefit to any human being. Not only does religion cause people to feel guilty when they shouldn’t, it causes them to feel virtuous when they shouldn’t, which is arguably worse.

If you feed the poor or shelter the needy, what merit does it add to the act to pass out a gospel tract or splash them with holy water? None – it does nothing additional to provide for any of their needs. If you harm others, what compensation is it to recite the rosary or confess to a stranger? None – the harm is still there, unmitigated. If anything, religious rituals of absolution give the offender a clean conscience without making any meaningful recompense, which gives them no incentive not to repeat their act in the future.

Belief in imaginary virtues stunts moral development. It rewards people merely for their ability to faithfully and mindlessly perform rituals, without requiring any of the difficult work of self-improvement needed to build a truly good character. If you pray five times a day, or five hundred, you may improve your time management skills, but you’re not going to improve your sense of empathy toward other people. If you diligently refrain from eating ham, or beef, or shellfish, you’ll become more accustomed to self-denial, but how have you otherwise improved yourself? There are genuine ways to build character – meditating on compassion, or choosing vegetarianism out of concern for animal welfare – but mere mindless obedience of religious edicts will not produce it.

But belief in imaginary virtues does worse than hobble normal moral education. When the imaginary virtues in question have real consequences for real people, belief in them can actively cause evil and tragedy.

The most horrendous example of imaginary virtues in our time is, of course, the Muslim fanatics who believe that blowing themselves up in suicidal terrorism is a glorious act for which God will reward them with paradise. The imaginary virtue of martyrdom in the cause of jihad has led to incalculable suffering and destruction. A close second must be the medieval inquisitors who worked in pairs so that they could absolve each other for torturing their victims. Their religious beliefs gave them an excuse to continue feeling virtuous despite the terrible evil they visited on the innocent.

Again in modern times, we see parallels in the imaginary virtue of “defending traditional marriage”. Organized religious groups have worked their hardest to write anti-gay bigotry into law, to shut gays and lesbians out from receiving the many benefits afforded to heterosexual couples. Just like the organized religious groups a generation earlier, who tried their best to enact similar measures against interracial couples, the anti-gay crusaders have convinced themselves that doing this is a virtuous act that furthers God’s will.

By soothing the conscience of terrorists, tyrants and theocrats, imaginary virtues provide one of the clearest examples of how superstitious beliefs harm real people. Morality with no connection to the real world enables and encourages people to feel good about their actions when the appropriate emotions should be guilt and remorse.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...