The challenge of secularism A* grade summary notes


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

  • Freud says religion comes from the ‘ignorant childhood days of the human race’. Religion is thus the product of an ignorant and childish mind.
  • Freud said if there was an 11th commandment it would be ‘thou shalt not question’. Religion encourages people to not think for themselves and not question it, giving people a ‘weak intellect’.
  • Dawkins compared religion to belief in the tooth fairy and Santa claus.
  • Dawkins said religion makes people unscientific – encouraging them to take things on faith rather than evidence. 
  • He points to the doubting Thomas story as an example of christianity encouraging mindless blind-faith (“blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”).
  • Both Freud and Dawkins say that religious belief comes from fear of death, not rational thought.
  • Freud also says it’s about fear of the responsibilities of adult life – by believing in an eternal ‘father’.


  • McGrath response: religious belief can be rational. He points to Aquinas’ 5 ways as examples of arguments which show that belief in God is reasonable and rational. 
  • You can’t really say Aquinas is non-thinking or irrational.
  • McGrath points out that because of arguments like this, many reasonable people convert to religion later in life – including himself and the philosopher Antony Flew (the Falsificationism guy). 
  • Flew starting believing in a higher power because of modern versions of the design argument (developments of Aquinas’ 5th way).
  • So, Freud and Dawkins are wrong to dismiss all of religion as irrational and childish. 
  • Furthermore, many people turn to religion for purpose and meaning and moral guidance. These are not infantile or irrational reasons for belief in God.
  • Freud and Dawkins are certainly right about some religious people – but they are overgeneralizing when applying it to all.

The secularist argument that religion encourages violence and prejudice

  • Dawkins argues that religion can play a role in prejudice and violence. 
  • “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.
  • God is a terrible person who encourages prejudice and violence.
  • Dawkins says religion causes an in-group vs out-group mentality, where people see those not in their ‘group’ as different, dangerous and inferior. Religion is divisive. 
  • It encourages you to view those who aren’t in your religion as different. Dawkins says this makes religion dangerous. 
  • Viewing others as different is the cause of a lot of conflict and prejudice.


  • McGrath: look at the life of Jesus – that’s the role model for christians and he was loving to everyone no matter who they were or what their background was (e.g. good samaritan).
  • McGrath says Dawkins unfairly focuses on extremists and fundamentalists – but most Christians are not prejudiced or violent.
  • We could add: look at all the good charity work that religion inspires. It is a statistical fact that religious people give more to charity than non-religious people.

Optional further evaluation:

  • McGrath is cherry picking – he and Flew are exceptions. Most religious people have never heard of Aquinas’ 5 ways.
  • The number of religious people who turn to God for emotional reasons may not be 100%, but it is enough of them for Freud and Dawkins’ point to remain valid. 
  • Faith for many Christians still comes at the expense of being a rational scientifically minded person, which is not good for society.

Optional counter-evaluation:

  • Hitchens responds that the problem is that the Bible does contain many barbaric and prejudiced statements.
  • Pointing to the example of Jesus does not detract from that fact.
  • Religious extremism and violence is not a problem caused by people ‘misinterpreting’ the text “It’s because people believe in them, that’s the problem”.
  • McGrath is cherry-picking.
  • Also, the Bible provides a selfish motivation for morality. Hitchens argues (as Mill argued before) that religion provides a selfish motivation for morality – getting into heaven and avoiding hell. Mill remarks this makes Christianity actually a worse form of ethics than other ancient ethical theories which did focus on development of personal virtue.

Secular societies can be just as bad or worse than religious societies

  • This is a counter-attack that religious thinkers often made against secularism.
  • They point out 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.
  • Stalin was explicitly anti-religious and tried to drive religion out of Russia completely.
  • 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.
  • 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”.
  • Ratzinger is pointing out that the rise of secularism – as was seen in germany – actually did not make the society better, in fact it became worse.


  • Sam Harris responds: the term ‘atheist extremism’ makes no sense. 
  • Atheism is not a belief system – there are no beliefs to be fundamentalist or extremist about.
  • An atheist is simply someone who lacks a belief in God – there are no extreme or liberal ways to be an atheist.
  • Harris argues that Nazism and communism were actually ‘political religions’ based on faith in things like racial purity (in the Nazi case) which are totally unscientific, just like belief in God. Harris says secularism is just about believing what the evidence suggests. Nazism and communism certainly did not value evidence.
  • Dawkins would subscribe to Secular Humanism, which is totally against Nazism and Stalinism, etc. It maintains the intrinsic value and dignity of all human beings.


  • However, Ratzinger has a stronger version of this argument
  • If you get rid of religion a spiritual and moral void/hole is left in society.
  • Without God as the source of right and wrong, all we have left is human opinion.
  • Secular humanists might genuinely be against violations of human rights etc, but their problem is that they lack a philosophical grounding/foundation for their belief in the intrinsic value and dignity of human life.
  • It’s just their opinion that human life has intrinsic value and dignity. 
  • Bonhoeffer & Hauerwas also make this argument – Bonhoeffer says we need a Church to have power to act as moral guidance for the state – because the state can go against God’s will, as we saw in Nazi germany.
  • So, when secularism (and secular humanism) tried to get rid of religion – the fascist dictators of the 20th century resulted from the void left in our culture by the decline of religion. Bonhoeffer called that the ‘western void’.

Optional further evaluation:

  • Dawkins points out that ‘religious morality’ involves all sorts of barbarit terrible things – stoning people to death, death penalty for leaving the religion, killing homosexuals, etc. Dawkins concludes: “I don’t think I want an absolute morality”.

Dawkins on education and schools

  • The issue of education and faith schools is part of the debate about whether religion is harmful/irrational/intolerant. If so, faith schools would be a problem (because we wouldn’t want to raise kids to be irrational and prejudiced).
  • One of the criticisms of faith schools Dawkins makes is that they do not teach science properly – when the science goes against religion – e.g. evolution.
  • 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 also thought it was child abuse to terrify children with the threat of hell if they misbehave or don’t believe.
  • 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.

Further evaluation:

  • However, threatening children with hell arguably is child-abuse. Dawkins seems correct there. It’s essentially threatening a child with extreme physical punishment if they misbehave.
  • Raising a child religious may not be child abuse, but it’s still not good if done in an uncritical way, as it often is. So Dawkins is still right that there is a problem.