The challenge of secularism


This page: full notes      A* summary notes      C/B summary notes


This topic is about whether religion is good for society or whether secularism is better. Secularism challenges the truth, morality, political power and social benefit of religion. Religious leaders and theologians argue back, however, that religion is not that bad, or that secularism can be just as bad or worse, or that religion is necessary for some vital purpose such as moral values.

Terminology on Religion’s role in society

Secularisation is the name for the process by which religion plays a smaller role in society.

Theocracy/fundamentalism: the traditional and now ultra-conservative view that a particular religion should have total political power.

Secularism is the view that religion and government should be separate. Religion should be a matter of private belief.

Militant atheism or anti-theism: the view that religion is harmful even as a private belief and thus society would be better off without it. People should be legally free to believe it in their private lives, but there should be social and cultural pressure against holding religious beliefs.

Freud & Dawkins: religion as infantile, illusory, irrational wish fulfilment

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.

Freud & Dawkins: faith as infantile, irrational and non-thinking

Freud suggested that if there were an 11th commandment, it would be “thou shalt not question”.

“When a man has once brought himself to accept uncritically all the absurdities that religious doctrines put before him and even to overlook the contradictions between them, we need not be greatly surprised at the weakness of his intellect.” – Freud.

Dawkins argues that religion bad for society because encourages irrational thinking. It encourages people to take things on faith instead of reason and evidence.

Dawkins points to the story of the doubting Thomas, Jesus’ disciple who didn’t believe he had risen until being shown the evidence of his wounds from the crucifixion. Jesus implied that his other disciples was better than Thomas because their faith was so strong that they didn’t need evidence. This encourages an unscientific mindset.

“Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” – Dawkins.

McGrath’s response: religious belief is rational. To defend the rationality of religious belief, McGrath points to Aquinas’ 5 ways, explaining that they were meant to show the “inner consistency of belief in God”.

McGrath points out that Aquinas never speaks of his ways as being ‘proofs’ of God’s existence. Dawkins doesn’t understand that a posteriori arguments are only meant to show that there are logical reasons to believe in God. They are not meant to be absolute a priori proofs of faith.

McGrath’s point is that Aquinas’ 5 ways may not prove the truth of God, but they do show that a logical rational argument for God’s existence can be made and believed in. Belief in God can therefore be rational. You might think that Aquinas’ argument is incorrect, but you can’t think they aren’t arguments. So, belief in God can involve rational argument and thus can be rational.

Response to McGrath: just because something is internally consistent and reasonable, that doesn’t justify belief in it. To justify belief, especially to the degree religious people do such that they base the meaning and purpose of their lives on it, arguably requires evidence that supports the belief.

Furthermore, consider Dawkins’ point about the multiple religions that exist – by McGrath’s standard it is ‘reasonable’ to believe in any of them – but they can’t all be true and there’s no ‘reasonable’ way to choose any particular one of them. So, religious belief is not reasonable or rational.

God of the gaps 

This is an argument which claims that religion is irrational and unscientific.

Many atheists, including Dawkins, make this argument. It claims that religion is irrational because it is the result of scientific ignorance. Science is replacing religion and one day will completely replace it. People used to explain all sorts of natural phenomena by attributing them to God. Diseases, thunder and lightning, rainbows, volcanic eruptions, the success of harvests and so on, were all explained by divine providence or punishment in ancient times. As scientific knowledge develops, these natural processes became explained, thereby progressively filling in the gaps where the God explanation had existed. Dawkins criticises “the worship of gaps”.

McGrath responds that Dawkins is attacking a method of arguing for God that is no longer popular amongst sophisticated theologians. Arguing for God on the basis of filling in gaps in scientific knowledge was a method that rose to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries. McGrath accepts that Dawkins is correct to criticise the “gaps” approach and Mcgrath himself rejects it as “a foolish move”. However, McGrath claims it was “increasingly abandoned” in the 20th century, though he admits there are unfortunately some varieties of it still around such as the intelligent design movement.

McGrath claims that contemporary Christian philosophers have much better approaches, such as that of Richard Swinburne. McGrath is echoing a point he makes elsewhere, that modern Christian philosophers (e.g. Swinburne & Polkinghorne) have argued that science is limited and cannot answer all questions. It can tell us the what but not the why. Science can tell us what the universe is like, but it cannot tell us why it is this way, nor why it exists. It cannot answer questions about purpose.

Swinburne’s argument is a variety of the teleological (design) argument.

Dawkins responds that the ‘why’ question is valid regarding scientific explanation, but when we ask ‘why’ about purpose it becomes ‘a silly question’. Just because a question can be phrased using the English language, that doesn’t make it valid. Dawkins makes an analogy: ‘what is the color of jealousy?’ That question is assuming that jealousy has a color. Dawkins seems to be claiming that questions of purpose also assume that existence or human life has a purpose over and above scientific explanation, but there’s no evidence for that.

Dawkins accepts there may be limits to science and that where the laws of physics came from may be one of them. However he points out that scientists may one day actually solve that problem, but if they don’t, that doesn’t justify a non-scientific explanation of purpose. It just means we cannot know and should suspend judgement. It is still irrational

Max Tegmark agrees with Dawkins, pointing out that physicists are trying to figure out why the laws of physics are the way they are. It could be that there is some deeper reasons why the laws are the way they are and that this could be discovered by a more advanced understanding of the laws themselves. Swinburne seems to be unjustifiably claiming that is impossible.

The debate over the harmfulness of religion and whether secularism or militant atheism is justified

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.

“[Religious people are] totally miserable until they can get everyone else to believe it too. This is why it’s sinister. This is why it’s always dangerous … if they managed to contain themselves … but by definition religion cannot do that. Its beliefs are too arrogant and too total and too certain. It is the origin of totalitarianism and it threatens those who don’t take its offer with eternal torture for them and their children” – Hitchens.

“the problem in the first place is the belief on the part of this church that it does possess a truth that we don’t have, a god given right, a warrant, a mandate of heaven, to tell people what to do, not just in their public but in their private lives … Until that is changed, until that fantastic and sinister and non-founded claim is changed, [the crimes of the catholic Church] will go on repeating themselves, being partially denied, partially admitted when it’s too late to do anything else and covered up.” – Hitchens.

McGrath responds that anti-theists like Dawkins unfairly criticises religion for its fundamentalists, as if they were representative of all religious people. This works for Dawkins’ audience who are not properly educated in religion.

However, Sam Harris and Dawkins respond. Harris argues that the number of fundamentalists is worryingly high, for example a quarter of Americans think Jesus will come back in their lifetime.

Harris further responds that even moderate religious belief deserves criticism. They dignify the idea of having faith, which makes it harder to criticise with those who have faith in a fundamentalist view of religion.

Dawkins agrees with Harris’ argument:

“Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.” – Dawkins.

So Dawkins and Harris do not judge all of religion by its extremists, however they argue that moderate religion is to some degree responsible for fundamentalist religion.

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.

Christianity vs secularism on the source of morality and values

Freud’s critique of religion’s role in society and religious ethics

Maintaining social order depends on people repressing their anti-social instincts (e.g. for sex and violence). Religion encourages repression and for that Freud thought it had done “great services for human civilization” in the “taming of the asocial instincts”. Nonetheless, Freud thought that the Christian belief system had long passed its usefulness because a secular society would be far superior at enabling self-control. So, society would be better off outgrowing religion.

Freud evaluates religion and its doctrines not as claims about reality but as strategies for controlling instincts. For example, for Freud, belief in and propagation of the idea that human nature is corrupted by original sin is really just a method of dealing with our natural instincts, but a primitive and childish method that actually causes as much immorality and unhappiness as it prevents. Viewing humanity as inherently sinful and only God as good, who easily forgives sins, does not provide the proper motivation for following religious social rules, causing frequent “backslidings into sin” and seeking of penance.

After millennia of religious rule, too many people are still unhappy being controlled by social rules. Freud claims this is because the religious approach to conscience is external imposition by authority, similar to how children are treated, the result being comparable to a ‘childhood neurosis’. Although rules are in place to reduce suffering, they also cause suffering through repression and thus inspire unconscious resentment against civilisation.

Freud argues that the better approach for society would be autonomy. People can rationally understand that repressing their instincts is for the good of social order, making them capable of choosing autonomously to follow social rules. This makes them more likely to happily accept and follow them. Furthermore, this would also introduce flexibility into the rules. If it were accepted that the social rules of human origin with the intention of improving society, then they could be continually improved, further encouraging adherence to them.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of religious rules as tools for social order depends on the notion that a God has decreed them, which inexorably burdens religious social order with the psychology of external imposition and the inflexibility of eternal unchanging ‘laws of God’. Freud concludes that society would be much better off if it could admit that the purpose of its social rules is the maintenance of social order, rather than their “pretended sanctity”.

Arguably Christianity can overcome Freud’s critique by adopting Liberal theologies like Fletcher’s and Hick’s, or neo-orthodox theologies like Bonhoeffer’s. This is because such theologies attempt to adapt Christian theology to the modern world while also encouraging and making use of the autonomy that humanity has developed in its now more civilised state, ‘come of age’, to use Bonhoeffer’s description. Hick encouraged soul-making which requires autonomy, as does Fletcher’s situation ethics. If valid, this liberal adaptation of Christian theology would arguably not be susceptible to Freud’s critique.

Freud’s critique seems to be focused on Christianity that has an Augustinian view of original sin.

Even Aquinas’ natural law ethics arguably gets around Freud’s critique, because Aquinas thought that following of the natural law did involve the engagement of a person’s rationality with God’s eternal law in a way that enabled their virtue and flourishing. It’s not simply externally imposed and there is a degree of flexibility in the application of the primary precepts and use of the double effect.

Perhaps Freud’s critique only really works against Christian theories like Augustine’s and traditional protestant ethics.

Secular societies can be equally prejudiced and violent

A popular attack on secularism and defence of religion is the argument that secular societies can be equally if not more harmful. As the 20th century shows (Hitler, Stalin, Mao etc), the emergence of secularism has not ended or arguably even lessened prejudice, violence and war.

McGrath accepts that religion can cause violence but insists that atheism can too.

“The reality of the situation is that human beings are capable of both violence and moral excellence—and that both of these may be provoked by worldviews, whether religious or otherwise.” – McGrath.

Dawkins claims that there is “not the smallest evidence” that atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. McGrath rejects that as ignoring the historical reality of the 20th century. He points to the Soviet Union as having “particular significance” because the elimination of religion through force and violence was central to its project.

“In their efforts to enforce their atheist ideology, the Soviet authorities systematically destroyed and eliminated the vast majority of churches and priests during the period 1918-1941. This violence and repression was undertaken in pursuit of an atheist agenda—the elimination of religion.”

Pope Benedict XVI (Ratzinger) also makes this argument, claiming that the Nazis were ‘atheist extremists’. Ratzinger, referencing the Nazis, said we need to “reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century”.

Sam Harris responds that such arguments are confused about what atheism is. Harris argues that atheism has no content, no doctrine. There is no holy book of atheism with atheistic commands in it. Atheism is simply a failure to be rationally convinced of God’s existence. Since atheism is empty of ideological content, it is impossible for it to have any relation to the ideology of Hitler or Stalin. There is no connection between a lack of belief in God and the political view that atheism should be forced on people. In the case of the Soviet Union, that was a communist idea that comes from Marx’s hostile views towards religion.

McGrath says Dawkins is ‘naïve’ in thinking that atheists would never carry out crimes “in the name of atheism”.

The problem for McGrath is, it’s not possible to do anything in the name of atheism since atheism has no content. There is nothing in atheism that one could do anything in the name of.

The situation is the opposite with religion where there are ancient books filled with barbaric commands. Fundamentalism will therefore always be a danger because of the fundamentals of religion. Atheism has no doctrines or beliefs to be fundamentalist about, however. It is simply a lack of belief in a God. There are no extreme or moderate versions of lacking a belief in God.

Contra Ratzinger, it is impossible to be an ‘atheist extremist’ since atheism isn’t a doctrine that one could have extreme or moderate interpretations of.

Furthermore, Hitchens claims that Nazism was not atheistic because on every Nazi soldier’s belt buckle were inscribed the words ‘God on our side’. Also in Mein Kampf Hitler said it was God’s work to persecute the Jewish people. Regarding Stalin, Hitchens claimed that Stalin used the religious reverence Russians had previously felt towards their Tsars to consolidate his own cult of personality and dictatorship.

Harris agrees with Hitchens, adding that Hitler and Stalin created political religions. Atheism is just the exercise of rationality and not believing things which have no evidence. Nazism and soviet communism were not cases where there was too much rationality, quite the opposite.

The decline of religion and the western void

Ratzinger has a more effective argument. Ratzinger and McGrath arguably do make the same mistake of claiming there is such a thing as atheist extremism or fundamentalism.

However, Ratzinger’s argument has another more successful element to it which involves what is a classic critique of atheism. It wasn’t atheism per se that inspired Hitler or Stalin, it was the void of moral guidance left in our culture by getting rid of God that led to Hitler and Stalin who represented an outpouring of unrestrained humanity’s worst impulses. Therefore, we need religious values for moral guidance and to constrain our sinful nature. Atheism drags society and culture down towards moral nihilism.

“[excluding] God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’”. – Pope Benedict XIV.

Here, Benedict XVI references an encyclical called “Caritas in Veritate”, where he argued that while there is indeed religious fanaticism which runs against religious freedom, the promotion of atheism can deprive people of “spiritual and human resources”. The atheist worldview is that we are a “lost atom in a random universe”, in which case we can grow and evolve, but not really develop morally. 

“ideological rejection of God and an atheism of indifference, oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today. A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism. Only a humanism open to the Absolute can guide us in the promotion and building of forms of social and civic life — structures, institutions, culture and ethos — without exposing us to the risk of becoming ensnared by the fashions of the moment.” – Pope Benedict XIV.

So yes Christianity causes some conflict, but look at how much more occurred in states which tried to get rid of religion. It’s easy to point to the conflict that religion causes, but arguably there is at least as much and perhaps even more conflict that it prevents due to the good morals it promulgates.

William Lane Craig makes a similar argument, that without God there is no basis or grounding for objective moral values. All humans have without such values are different opinions which leads to a might-makes-right system where those with power simply enforce their opinions over others. On an atheistic worldview, the moral views people happen to have merely reflect their sociocultural conditioning and biological evolution. Hitler merely had a different set of sociocultural conditions informing his opinion. There’s no way to say who is really right or wrong on the atheistic world view, according to Craig. Atheism leads to moral anti-realism.

Harris responds: “If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers … The most atheistic societies—countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom—are actually the healthiest, as indicated by measures of life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest by the UN in terms of human development are unwaveringly religious … Leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, these facts prove that atheism is perfectly compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; they also prove, conclusively, that religious faith does nothing to ensure a society’s health.” – Sam Harris.

Bonhoeffer vs secularism

Secularists would argue against Bonhoeffer for a complete separation between Church and state. They would reject the idea that the church should have the power to act as a check on the state. They might argue that the church is even more corruptible than the state because at least the state is voted for in elections in a democracy. Another argument refers to ‘the long peace’, the significant level of peace after the second world war to the present day. Secularists argue that this is due to the rise of secular liberal democracy and further demonstrates how unnecessary religion is for maintaining social order. This suggests Bonhoeffer’s view that the Church should act as a check on state power is unnecessary today and thus no longer relevant.

However, Stanley Hauerwas defends Bonhoeffer. He argues that the Church does protect against authoritarian dictatorship. He was influenced by Bonhoeffer and argued that western democracies only practice tolerance of religion for pragmatic reasons without any concern for the truth of religion. Pragmatism without truth leads to indifference which leads to cynicism. Liberal secular western societies have undermined theological and religious truth which creates a void vulnerable to being filled by totalitarian powers.

Hauerwas is making a classic argument that many theologians have made, that without God we lack meaning, purpose and moral guidance. The loss of God results in a void of purpose which can be exploited by authoritarians to gain power by tempting people with grand visions of utopia. In their purpose-starved state, people will be more gullible and less likely to notice their freedoms being taken away, until it is too late. Arguably Bonhoeffer has a point that the Church can act as a useful moral compass for society to protect against this possibility.

Bonhoeffer vs Nietzsche: the void & the death of God

Nietzsche was a secular critic of Christianity, claiming that it had a toxic influence on humanity so we should try to get past it. Bonhoeffer was influenced by Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, but obviously disagreed with Nietzsche that we should try to get past religion. In many ways Bonhoeffer agreed with Nietzsche that Christianity had become a negative force, but Bonhoeffer hoped to reform Christianity to make it relevant to modern secular society and be a force for good.

Nietzsche famously said that “God is dead”, by which he meant to show us that God had once been ‘alive’ in our culture in the sense of being the source of our purpose and guidance. The rise of secularism therefore would essentially kill our ultimate source of purpose, resulting in a nihilistic void in our culture. Nietzsche’s said this ‘tremendous event’ was like the earth becoming unchained from the sun and plunging into cold darkness. He hoped that humanity would one day find confidence to assert our own purpose and values without Christianity. Although Christianity had been our source of meaning, Nietzsche thought its influence was to infect us with the idea of ‘sin’ and ‘otherworldliness’; that we could only have purpose through something supernatural which we could never live up to, thereby undermining our confidence in asserting our own purpose. This makes us dependent on religion as the cure for the ‘sin’ it infected us with in the first place, Nietzsche likening Christianity to a bloodsucking parasite. The nihilistic void will linger until we became fully free of Christianity’s influence on us, telling us that we need a cosmic purpose in order to have purpose or moral guidance.

Bonhoeffer on the western void & ‘Religionless Christianity’. Bonhoeffer thought he could reform Christianity to get around Nietzsche’s critique, in part creating the ideas of ‘this-worldliness’ and ‘religionless Christianity’ to address Nietzsche. Bonhoeffer wanted to reform Christianity and make it relevant to the modern secularised world.

This-worldliness is a concept Bonhoeffer uses to describe the way in which he thinks Christianity should be less about the personal pursuit of salvation and more about ‘sharing God’s sufferings in the world’. Bonhoeffer thought initially, as traditional Christianity holds, that living a holy life would help him acquire faith but came to think instead that ‘only by living completely in this world’ enables one to have faith. This-worldliness focuses Christians on the concrete actions and sacrifices they would have to make in this world to stand their ground against evil in the service of God’s will.

Religionless Christianity. Bonhoeffer also wanted to rise to the challenge of making religion work in the new secular age. Born 62 years after Nietzsche, He lived in the situation Nietzsche predicted, where secularism had replaced a Christian understanding of reality with science and was also continuing to replace Christianity in all areas of life, including ethics. Bonhoeffer remarked: “As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.” Bonhoeffer regarded this as the consequence of the “world come of age”, meaning that humanity has reached a level of maturity such that it no longer depended on the traditional legalistic form of religion of the past. Bonhoeffer thought this could be a good opportunity for a new kind of Christianity to assert itself, because it makes irrelevant the theological baggage, rusty swords and cheap grace of traditional religion and enables us to focus on what it means to live like a disciple of Jesus and trying to follow God’s will. This is a concept Bonhoeffer called ‘religionless Christianity’. The success of this defence of a version of Christianity which works in the secular age is vital to the validity and relevance of Bonhoeffer’s theology.

Some Christians would argue that to make Christianity relevant to modern secular times, Bonhoeffer has gone too far in stripping Christianity of its doctrinal content in appeasement of secularism.

Education and schools

The issue of education and faith schools is an offshoot of the debate about whether religion is irrational and intolerant. If so, faith schools would be more of a problem.

Dawkins visited an Islamic faith school and was told that evolution was taught as education law requires, but that most students rejected it. One student challenged Dawkins, asking “If people came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” Before giving the answer that humans didn’t come from monkeys, both humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor, Dawkins decided to ask the biology teacher at the faith school what her answer to the challenge was. She was unable to answer, proving Dawkins’ point that faith schools are unable to give children a proper unbiased education in science.

Dawkins argued that in schools religion should be taught in a “comparative way according to a national curriculum, not indoctrination”. In the UK, Faith schools are allowed to teach religious education however they want, they don’t have to follow the national curriculum. Dawkins thought this resulted in a ‘wicked’ practice of schools forcing religious belief on their pupils.

Dawkins argued that bringing a child up in a certain religion was child abuse because of the way it prevented their development of critical thinking. Dawkins argued it’s absurd to call a child a communist child, or a right-wing child. He thinks it should be seen as similarly absurd to say ‘Christian child’ or ‘muslim child’

McGrath responds by first agreeing with Dawkins about the problem of parents indoctrinating their children – this fits with his other agreement that religious belief, like all belief, should be subject to evidence-based reasoning and that blind faith is not truly Christian.

McGrath claims Dawkins makes a reasonable point, but that it gets lost in the ‘noise of the hyped-up rhetoric’ such as that raising a child religious is ‘child abuse’ and that we need to break the cycle of raising children religious in order to end religion itself, as if religion is only kept going due to indoctrination, not evidence or argument.

Possible exam questions for the challenge of secularism

Does Christianity cause personal and social problems?
Should Christianity be a significant contributor to society’s culture and values?
‘Christianity is infantile, repressive and causes conflict’ – How far do you agree?

Are spiritual values just human values?
If we get rid of religion will there be no basis for morality?
‘Christianity significantly defines today’s culture and values’ – How far do you agree?
Would society be happier without Christianity?
Is Christianity the result of wish fulfilment?

Can Christianity learn and develop from secularism?
Assess the views and goals of secular humanism
Is Christian belief a personal or public matter?
‘Christianity has no place in education or schools’ – Discuss.
‘Society has improved because religion was divorced from political power’ – How far do you agree?

Quick links

Year 12 Christianity topics:
Augustine. Death & afterlife.
Knowledge of God’s existence. Person of Jesus.
Christian moral principles. Christian moral action.

Year 13 Christianity topics:
Pluralism & theology. Pluralism & society.

Gender & society. Gender & theology.
Secularism. Liberation theology. 

OCR Ethics
OCR Philosophy
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions