Christianity and the challenge of secularism


Religion vs secularism on the source of truth

Religion once had total power and authority over culture, life and truth itself. This led to an uneasy relationship with science, especially during the enlightenment period when science really began to emerge as a source of truth. The source of the tension was twofold. Science had its own method for discovering truths which was independent of religious authority. Secondly, science began to make discoveries which contradicted religious beliefs. This motivated religious leaders to try and impede scientific progress.

The idea that the earth was the centre of the universe was important to Christians as it fit with their belief that humans are a special part of creation made in God’s image for a unique purpose. Galileo discovered that actually the earth orbits the Sun. The Church imprisoned Galileo and forced him to state publicly that he was wrong.

“In questions of science, the authority of thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual” – Galileo.

Darwin’s theory of evolution contradicted the Christian view that were directly created by God and are not like other animals due to being made in the ‘image of God’. Evolution showed that in fact we evolved gradually over millions of years and that actually there was no clear line when human beings emerged and the ancestor species that we evolved from ended.

Scientific understanding of the universe works without the need for God. Laplace wrote a book on the workings of the universe, claiming to have ‘no need’ of the hypothesis that there is a God. More recently, Stephen Hawking made the same claim

Dawkins argues that science has shown religion to be pointless as a means of discovering truth. Not only is religion pointless, it actively stands in the way of scientific progress. It teaches people to be satisfied with God as an explanation rather than search for the true scientific explanation. It is against important areas of research like stem cell research. It convinces people to not believe in evolution.

Response to Dawkins: McGrath, Collins & Polkinghorne: only fundamentalist literalists have unreasonable unscientific faith

Karl Rahner: Evolution is simply how God designed us, so it’s still true that God designed and created us. In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared that there is no inconsistency between evolution and Christian belief.

McGrath points out that even back in medieval Christianity there was an appreciation that the Bible involved not just literal language but also allegorical and analogical language as well as parables for moral teaching.

Collins agrees, arguing that Genesis was not “intended as a science text book” but a “description of who God was, who we are and what our relationship is supposed to be with God” – Collins.

“Augustine explicitly warns against a very narrow perspective that will put our faith at risk of looking ridiculous. If you step back from that one narrow interpretation, what the Bible describes is very consistent with the Big Bang.” – Collins

Polkinghorne also rejects literalism and the type of creationism that is opposed to evolution and therefore opposed to science

“I am certainly not a creationist in that curious North American sense, which implies interpreting Genesis 1 in a flat-footed literal way and supposing that evolution is wrong.” – Polkinghorne. 

Polkinghorne argues that this approach is not only scientifically wrong but also theologically. It fails to appreciate that the Bible contains many different genres of which stating facts literally is only one.

“Reading Genesis 1 as if it were a divinely dictated scientific text, intended to save us the trouble of actually doing science, is to make a similar kind of error.” – Polkinghorne

Religion vs secularism on the source of moral values


Relegation of religion to the personal sphere

The rise of militant atheism: religion as irrational

Militant atheism, sometimes called anti-theism, goes further than standard secularism by claiming that we should completely get rid of religion, even from private life, because it is harmful even as a private belief.

“I’d like everybody to be secular. I suppose I have to say politically I would like religion to become gentler and nicer and to stop interfering with other people’s lives, stop repressing women, stop indoctrinating children, all that sort of thing. But I really, really would like to see religion go away altogether.” – Dawkins

C. Hitchens is an anti-theist who argues that religion is unable to remain just a private belief because of the belief in converting others. Religion is therefore a threat to freedom

“they won’t be happy until you believe it too … because that’s what their holy books tell them … [religion] isn’t just a private belief. It is rather, and I think always has been … a threat to the idea of a peaceable community.” – Hitchens.

Freud argues that belief in religion is caused by the psychological fear of a chaotic, unpredictable world and a fear of adult life and its responsibilities. During childhood, order is represented by the father. So, religious people find comfort by projecting an order-providing eternal father – God – onto reality. “Religion is the process of unconscious wish fulfilment” without which some would be in danger of mental harm due to being “unable to cope with the idea of a godless, purposeless life”.

Freud argued that this childish state of mind should be replaced by a scientific understanding of the world which will provide order and predictability but without illusion.

“religion may be altogether disregarded … It’s doctrines carry with it the stamp of the times in which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of the human race”. – Freud.

Dawkins argues that an irrational mind will just believe whatever it wants rather than search for the truth. Dawkins is influenced by Freud, agreeing that religion is the result of childish wishful thinking regarding death:

“Some sort of belief in all-powerful supernatural beings is common, if not universal. A tendency to obey authority, perhaps especially in children, a tendency to believe what you’re told, a tendency to fear your own death, a tendency to wish to see your loved ones who have died, to wish to see them again, a wish to understand where you came from, where the world came from, all these psychological predispositions, under the right cultural conditions, tend to lead to people believing in things for which there is no evidence.” – Dawkins.

Dawkins is also critical of what he describes as the infantile way that religion provides meaning and purpose to people, rather than enabling them to create it for themselves:

“There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.” – Dawkins.

Dawkins compared religion to fairy stories that children learn like Santa claus and the tooth fairy. It’s an unscientific and childish attempt to explain reality.

McGrath responds that many reasonable people have converted to religion long after childhood, such as himself and the philosopher Antony Flew, who changed his mind due to modern design arguments that were based on modern scientific discoveries. So, religion cannot just be an irrational belief caused by indoctrination of children. The analogy with Santa Claus or the tooth fairy is flawed since there are no adults who believe in Santa or the Tooth Fairy.

“a recurring atheist criticism of religious belief is that it is infantile – a childish delusion which ought to have disappeared as humanity reaches its maturity.” – McGrath

Dawkins and Freud could be right that there are some infantile reasons that some people believe in God, but it is an overgeneralisation to think that is true of all religious believers.

Furthermore, we could add that Freud and Dawkins ignore other obvious and important motivations for religious belief such as the need for moral and spiritual guidance/direction.

McGrath’s vs Dawkins

McGrath argues that Dawkins’ militant atheism is fundamentalist

McGrath claims that there is a ‘lunatic fringe’ on both sides of the God debate. Dawkins’ militant atheism is just the other extreme to fundamentalist religion.

Dawkins misattributed a quote to Tertullian that we should believe “because it is absurd”. McGrath argues this highlights Dawkins’ willingness to just repeat what sounds good to him rather than properly check his sources like a scientifically minded person should.

In the God Delusion, Dawkins quoted Martin Luther’s concerns about reason, trying to imply that Luther was against reason. McGrath points out the context that Luther was referring to salvation resulting from ‘faith alone’, not the power of human reason.

McGrath concludes that Dawkins’ engagement with Luther is ‘inept’ and not ‘evidence-based scholarship’ but merely selective ‘trawling’ of the internet for quotes that can be taken out of context. Dawkins “wants to write a work of propaganda”, not academic scholarship. The truth and making an accurate representation of religion is not required for his agenda, which is the destruction of religion. “It’s an unpleasant characteristic that he shares with other fundamentalists”. – McGrath.

McGrath worries that secularists will merely force their own dogmas on their children if they listen to Dawkins’ misrepresentations of religion. He suggests that Dawkins sounds ‘uncomfortably like’ the anti-religious form of secularism found in the Soviet Union in the 1950s which taught children that religion was a superstition, disproven by science.

McGrath claims that children should be taught ‘fairly and accurately, what Christianity actually teaches’ – not Dawkins’ misrepresentations, caricatures and stereotypes now being ‘aggressively peddled by atheist fundamentalism’.

McGrath implies that these misrepresentations actually indicate a flaw in secularists like Dawkins’ claim to be on the side of truth, evidence and reason. This is why McGrath calls Dawkins an atheist fundamentalist: Dawkins’ inaccurate beliefs about religion are just as dogmatic and delusional as the beliefs of religious fundamentalists.

Dawkins’ response: “Other theologies contradict the Christian creed while matching it for brash overconfidence based on zero evidence. McGrath presumably rejects the polytheism of the Hindus, Olympians and Vikings. He does not subscribe to voodoo, or to any of thousands of mutually contradictory tribal beliefs. Is McGrath an “ideological fanatic” because he doesn’t believe in Thor’s hammer? Of course not. Why, then, does he suggest I am exactly that because I see no reason to believe in the particular God whose existence he, lacking both evidence and humility, positively asserts?”

McGrath’s argument really seems to be that it is Dawkins’ mischaracterisation of religion and his apparent abandonment of academic standards in his critique of religion which makes Dawkins a fundamentalist.

McGrath is correct that Dawkins cherry-picked quotes from Luther without understanding the context. However, although Dawkins makes many mistakes in his characterisation of Religion when critiquing it for being irrational, arguably Dawkins’ main argument is just the claim that religion is irrational because it is belief in a God for which there is no evidence. Dawkins’ mistaken characterisation of religion could more fairly be attributed to his lack of education in it and the declining importance of religion in society making general knowledge on it less pervasive. It doesn’t show Dawkins is a fundamentalist, not when his main point is valid. The more critical thing that McGrath manage to show is that belief in God is reasonable.

Religion causes prejudice and violence

Religion causes prejudice in the form of homophobia, anti-semitism and sexism.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction … [a] bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser … misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal” – Dawkins.

“Religion is a label of ingroup/out-group enmity and vendetta, not necessarily worse than other labels such as skin colour, language, or preferred football team, but often available when other labels are not.” – Dawkins

“My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders, and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a “they” as opposed to a “we” can be identified at all.” – Dawkins

Dawkins is drawing on the idea that humans have an in-group verses out-group mentality. It would make sense for us to evolve this because our genes would have been closer to those in our community than those of a different community. Since resources were scarce,

McGrath responds that he does not believe in a God like that and doesn’t know anyone who does.

McGrath points to the actions and life of Jesus as the best example of true Christian morality. Jesus was someone who suffered from violence rather than perpetrated it.

“Far from endorsing ‘out-group hostility’, Jesus commanded an ethic of ‘out-group affirmation’ and Christians may certainly be accused of failing to live up to this command. But it is there, right at the heart of the Christian ethic” – McGrath.

McGrath accepts that Christians have often fallen very far from the example set by Jesus.

Dawkins seems to think progress is only possible by getting rid of religion, but actually Christianity contains within itself the means of renewal and progress and it clearly has progressed.

McGrath argues that Dawkins is unfairly focuses on extreme fundamentalist Christianity but that these criticisms do not apply to most Christians. McGrath is arguing that most Christians are more liberal than fundamentalists.


Responses to materialistic secular values: the value of wealth and possessions


New forms of expression: Fresh Expressions & the House Church movement


Christianity’s social relevance: liberation theology