Works of scholars: Atheism, Dawkins & Westphal


Types of atheism and agnosticism

A/theism describes your belief state.

An atheist does not believe in God.
A theist believes in God.

A/gnosticism describes your knowledge state.

An agnostic would not claim to know what they believe for sure.
A gnostic would claim to know what they believe for sure.

A Gnostic atheist is called: Strong atheism: atheists (do not believe in God) who do claim to know for sure (Gnosticism) that there is no God. This is a rare position, it’s difficult to be absolutely sure of anything – let alone a negative. Being sure that something does not exist seems to require that you know everything – that you know that at no time or place in reality did a thing ever exist. Especially since God is beyond the physical world – it’s difficult to rule it out since our knowledge does not reach that far.

An agnostic atheist is called: Weak atheism: atheists (do not believe in God) who would not claim to know for sure (agnosticism) that there is no God. Dawkins says, if 7 is being absolutely sure there is no God, he’s at a 6. Most atheists are weak atheists. They claim simply that we lack sufficient justification for belief in God and therefore should not believe in God.

Russell’s teapot illustrates weak atheism: Russell asked you to imagine the idea that there is a teapot flying around Saturn. We have no evidence for this, but also none against it. We can’t prove nor disprove this claim. So what should we believe? Russell says we should not believe in this teapot even though there is no evidence on either side – because the only justifiable reason to believe in something is if there is a reason to believe in it.

It’s not like there being no evidence/proof on either side means it’s just up to us what we want to believe – in such cases, not believing is the logical reaction.

Religious belief: critiques & alternative explanations


Freud called religion an ‘obsessional neurosis’ and said it ultimately derived from two main psychological forces. The first is the fear of death. We have an instinctual animalistic fear of death which we can’t control but we can control our human thoughts and cognitions. While animals only have their fear of death triggered when in a dangerous situation, humans are the only animal that constantly are aware that they are going to die. We have the animalistic part of ourselves, but have since developed cognitive processes, which then unfortunately constantly trigger the fear of death on our animalistic side. So the solution is to manipulate those to believe that death is not the end. Also, Freud argued that the reason Christians call God ‘father’ is because they have a desire to be a child forever. It’s a desire for eternal innocence in the face of the painful reality of the world. Freud thought these psychological forces were so strong that they resulted in delusions which could explain religious experience.

Freud’s account of religion is unscientific, overgeneralised and overly-reductive. There seem to be plenty of non-neurotic religious people. The problem with psychological arguments is that while they could be true for many maybe even the majority, it’s hard to argue they are true for all and even if they don’t work for one person, that’s one person they can’t explain.

Freud is currently regarded by psychologists as being too unempirical in his methods for his theories to count as real science. He studied a small sample size which was not representative of society and had no method of experiment. Popper argued that Freud’s method was unfalsifiable.


Westphal describes Marx:

“Self-interest and self-deception are basic themes in the hermeneutics of suspicion in Karl Marx and Nietzsche. With Marx the question shifts from motive to function, and thus from psychology to sociology. He asks what function religion plays in society and answers that it serves to legitimize structures of social domination.” By telling peasants to accept their life of oppression because they will get to heaven if they do.

“His theory of religion thus belongs to his theory of ideology. Every historical society involves economic and political exploitation, whether the victims are slaves, serfs, or wage laborers. Ideas that represent such an order as natural or rational are needed both to salve the consciences of the beneficiaries and to encourage cooperation by the victims, since violent repression by itself is never sufficient. Nothing does the job quite as well as religious ideas, for what higher justification could a social order receive than to be divinely ordained. For Marx, then, religion is primarily a matter of social privilege seeking legitimation and of the oppressed seeking consolation.” – Westphal.

The problem with Marx’s approach is that it ignores the spiritual side of religion, including spiritual experience and connection to God. Christians could respond that Marx’s critique is really of the Church and its political influence, not of the Christian religion itself.

Furthermore: Marx’s critique is also outdated. Especially these days, the Church no longer props up monarchs, is generally accepting of democracy and there are even movements like liberation theology which are heavily influenced by Marx’s ideas. So, it looks like Marx’s critique of the Church is at least somewhat outdated.


Westphal wrote an essay called ‘The emergence of modern philosophy of religion’.

Westphal’s approach is to identify the history of thought regarding religion and show how the philosophy of religion has shifted from critical analysis of the truth of religious belief to now preferring to prefer to provide alternative explanations of religious belief that are psychological or sociological.

Scholasticism was a movement in theology, most notably the middle ages which insisted that reason had an important role to play in theology – not just faith.

However, during the enlightenment period, philosophers like Kant and Hume destroyed the credibility of basing belief in God on reason through their critiques of the arguments for the existence of God (teleological, cosmological & ontological). Kant argued that God existed in the ‘noumanal realm’ but all we experience is the ‘phenomenal’ realm – therefore, experience alone could never provide knowledge of God. Kant also rejected the ontological argument as mistakenly thinking existence was a predicate.

This left religion with only faith to go on as a basis for belief.

Kierkegaard came after Hume & Kant and insisted that religion could not be based on any rational argument but instead required a ‘leap of faith’. Religion can’t be based on reason. He argues that human life is about facing a choice between faith and reason – and there is no guidance that can assist us in this choice. We can’t use reason to justify using reason without simply assuming the validity of reason. Similarly, we can’t use faith to justify having faith without assuming the validity of faith. So, we simply have to choose faith or reason. We have to take a leap of faith.

This also coincided with the protestant theology which was sceptical of reason in theology and just emphasised faith in the Bible.

In addition to faith, religion branched towards religious experience. Westphal points to Schleiermacher’s argument that the kernel of religion can be found in an experience of unity with God.

Schleiermacher is sometimes called the father of liberal Christianity. His goal was to make Christianity compatible with enlightenment progress in science. He suggested belief in God was best based on religious experience.

The Shift from scepticism to suspicion

Westphal argues that Hume represented a serious transition in the critique of religion. Until Hume, critics relied on the hermeneutics (interpretive approach) of scepticism – which is the approach of being sceptical of the logical reasons for a person’s belief. This would include critiques of the arguments for God – attempting to show that they were not logically valid.

However Hume also represented a shift to the hermeneutics of suspicion – which involves critiquing the psychology behind a person’s belief. Not the logical reasons for it, but the psychological processes which led them to belief as they do. Instead of asking whether there is a God, philosophy of religion shifted into asking why people believe in God.

This is what the later critics – Marx, Durkheim, Nietzsche – all then developed theories on. The psychology of religion.

“Hume develops a notion of instrumental religion according to which piety is primarily a flattering of the gods grounded in selfish hopes and fears. The piety of self-interest immediately gives rise to self-deception, since the pious soul cannot acknowledge that it has reduced the sacred to nothing but a means to its own ends.” – Westphal.

This is a critique of the psychology behind religious belief, rather than a critique of its logical validity.

The main issue Westphal is implying is that sociological or psychological critiques do not actually say anything about the truth of religious belief. They are therefore irrelevant to the question of whether God exists and whether religious belief is true. Even if the psychological critiques were true – that religion is about selfishness as Hume says, or delusion and fear like Freud says – that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a God. This shows that the psychological critiques can’t be used to dismiss God and religion completely. Religious people would often be the first to admit that they are psychologically flawed – as all humans are. However, this can’t discredit God’s existence as the explanation of religious belief.

Response to Westphal: the validity of psychological explanations of religious belief is good evidence that humans created God, not the other way around. Technically it’s possible that santa claus and the tooth fairy exist, despite having been completely invented by humans. The point is, if we have good reason to think that religious belief is constructed by humans then that is the what is more rational to believe. If we discover that humans have invented a belief in God due to psychological or sociological factors then that at least gives us good reason to not believe that God actually exists, even if technically it’s logically possible for it to happen to exist. If we discover people have made something up then we have no reason to believe that this thing exists and so we shouldn’t.

This is ultimately the position of weak atheism, that although we cannot prove there is no God, we should not believe in God because there is no reason to believe in God. Alternative explanations of religious belief therefore do count as valid critiques of religious belief.

Dawkins vs McGrath

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.

Postmodern interpretations of religion

Pre-modernism is the time before the enlightenment period when religion was dominant and defined the meaning of life and nature of reality for all humans.

Modernism was the period in human history where grand unified narratives about the meaning of life and nature of reality from religion were replaced with more scientific and logical narratives. In the modern period there was a strong sense that science would completely replace religion in all respects and that humans would become fully-rational (e.g. Kant’s ethics)

Post-modernism is argued by postmodern theorists to define our current age. It is represented by a decline in the credibility of the ability of grand unified narratives like science to explain everything, including the meaning of life or provide us with guidance in ethics and politics.

We are now in a post-modern state – where there is no grand narrative unifying our society or culture. Everything – religion, culture, art, science – are all fragmented fragments and none manage to claim the status of a grand unifying narrative. Instead, these cultural entities sort of float around in vague form.

The consequence is that religion can no longer claim to be a grand narrative – it has become a commodity or social club or a badge that one might wear to indicate status.

Multiculturalism has been important in enabling postmodernity. Now that the world is more connected and we live amongst many religions, that makes it harder to entertain the possibility that one religion could be the true one grand narrative.

Religion has been watered down, just like everything else – into a sea of ‘equal’ small narratives with no grand narrative existing anymore.

However, since modernism has defeated religion, and postmodernism is just as against religion as a grand narrative, we are left in the ambiguous nebulous situation of not having any ultimate guiding backdrop against which to interpret and understand our life. This is why people turn to simple hedonism. If there is no spiritual backdrop to life then people are just going to try and experience as much pleasure as possible.

Science tried to replace religion but failed and now we are left with nothing.