The challenge of secularism C/B grade summary notes


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Freud & Dawkins: 

  • Religion as infantile, illusory, irrational non-thinking wish fulfilment
  • Freud and Dawkins both argue that society would be better off without religion. 
  • 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. It makes people unscientific and ignorant, encouraging them to take things on faith rather than evidence. 
  • Both Freud and Dawkins say that religious belief comes from fear of death, not rational thought.


  • 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 started 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 debate over the harmfulness of religion

  • Dawkins argues that religion can play a role in prejudice and violence. He said that God is the ‘most unpleasant character in all of fiction’ and an ‘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 and can even cause war. 
  • Viewing others as different is the cause of a lot of conflict and prejudice.
  • For example, Catholics and protestants have had many horrific conflicts throughout history.
  • Dawkins recommends we replace religion with secular humanism, which is a way of having moral values without religion.


  • 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.

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, 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.


  • 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 argues Dawkins goes too far when he argues 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.