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  9. Secularism (Dawkins and Freud)

3.6.1ii Programmatic Secularism

Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion

  • Religious upbringing is a form of child abuse. He implies it’s worse than sexual abuse because it permanently damages their thought processes, induces guilt, promotes irrationality, and leads to judgementalism.
  • Philomena Lee had her child, born outside marriage removed, and forcibly adopted
  • In the empiricist tradition of Hume and the Logical Positivists (AJ Ayer) – existence of God does not stand up to proof and is therefore an irrational delusion
  • Religious practices are often harmful eg teaching young children to believe in hell by re-enacting it on stage (US Hell House), disparaging science by teaching creationism, teaching children to feel guilty about sex or their sexual orientation
  • Alister McGrath argues Dawkins misrepresents idea of ‘faith’ as ‘blind trust against all evidence’. Christianity means by faith ‘a personal relationship, based on experience and in conformity with the metaphysical facts of the world”.
  • Example – existence of God explains the facts of mystery, beauty, morality and the origin of the Universe. ‘What caused the big bang?’ is as big a mystery as ‘God brought the Universe into existence” or ‘who created God?’
  • Behaviour – Dawkins assembles a vast evidence of evil or ridiculous religious practices. This is a straw man argument as he sets religion up to be knocked down. It isbad religion not good religion that he is considering.
  • Keith Ward argues this is a form of reductionism – reducing humans to less than we are.
  • There is such an idea as mature Christian belief where evidence is weighed and probabilities considered.
  • Religion is also a protest movement – link with liberation theology – and not just a means of social control.
  • Freud’s theory of human consciousness, involving id, ego and superego is another metaphysical hypothesis – it cannot be proved scientifically. Indeed the sample of Freud’s own patients (largely hysterical, middle class, female) is not representative.


A Straw Man Argument against Evolution: “Look at how Darwin’s theory led to mass sterilisation of disabled and mentally deficient people startingin Michigan in 1897 in the USA, gaining momentum in 33 states in the 1920s. This is in line with eugenics, but against fundamental human rights such as Article 39. Between 1897 and 1981 65,000 women were sterilised. Hitler, inspired by eugenics, forced the same policy on Nazi Germany and then extended it to include murder in the gas chambers. Therefore Darwinism is highly abusive and we should do all we can to eliminate it.”

Exercise: what is wrong with the above argument against Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?

Sigmund Freud – Future of an Illusion

Freud examines the psychological and social causes for the persistence of religious belief.

  • Social
  • Psychological

Religious belief confirms the status quo in society and reduces unrest. Less privileged citizens believe they are compensated by God in an afterlife. They are encouraged to feel guilty about civil unrest. They are encouraged to believe in a natural divine order for society (as in natural law theory) and in the design of the world (natural philosophy).

Religion panders to a psychological need for a father-figure to sort out complexity and right apparent problems with my life. There is an infantile need for order, commands to follow, and purpose. Life is complex and at times baffling.

Religion creates neurosis by encouraging negative feelings and guilt about sex, sexual orientation and masturbation. It encourages conflict between ego, id and superego and preserves the superego in an infantile state – which stems from our childhood upbringing and parental praise and blame, aged 3-5 years.


Christianity Should Play no Part in Public Life

Exercise: What is the difference between procedural and programmatic secularism? Which do you find more appealing and why?

The main aims of humanism were set out in the Amsterdam Declaration of 1952. These aims included ethical and rational approaches, a support of democracy and human rights, the importance of personal liberty and the maximisation of possible fulfilment.

Keeping Church and state separate has been seen as one way of minimising conflict. Programmatic secularists believe the government should go further in separating the church and state, but Christopher Dawson has highlighted the challenge that a secular education would deprive people of the chance to make sense of their culture which, to a large extent, has been immersed in religion.

Terry Eagleton proposed an approach to the secularisation model that was both Marxist and Christian. He thought it important to still pay attention to the role played by religious imagination in its contribution to human existence and the harm it causes should be weighed up against its positive contributions. Secularism cannot capture the spiritual aspect of being human, but religion can.

Exercise: Create a list of arguments for and against the accusation that Christianity is a major cause of personal and social problems. Overall, which side is stronger?

Essay-writing sample

Work on the opening paragraph. Try an opening paragraph on this subject:

“Secularism has destroyed the credibility of religious belief”. Discuss

Make sure you have a thesis statement summing up your view and mention the names of Dawkins, Freud and McGrath. The word ‘credibility’ also needs to be explored and ‘secularism’ defined.

Example:“Christianity is a delusion’. Discuss

Answer: Christianity is a delusion according to both Dawkins, who uses the word, and Freud who refers to the future of an ‘illusion’. Perhaps ‘delusion’ is more pejorative than ‘illusion’ as it suggests a kind of irrational madness, whereas Freud’s suggestion is more in line with a mirage in the desert. My argument here is that both arguments are a form of reductionism, as they reduce Christianity to something less than it is, and also employ a fallacy known as ‘the straw man argument ‘ to make their case, in which only negative examples are considered. I will also consider the views of Alister McGrath and Keith Ward against Dawkins and Freud.