By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
The term “anti-religious” is usually reserved for authors who argue against religion—such as the so-called New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and philosopher Daniel Dennett—whose goal is to get people to stop being religious. To accomplish this goal, they are trying to convince people that religion has natural rather than supernatural origins.
The Warning of New Atheists
New Atheists argue that religious doctrines like “God exists” are false and try to convince you that religion is dangerous. This approach is embraced most directly by Harris and Hitchens in The End of Faith and God Is Not Great, where they detail the many atrocities committed in religion’s name.
But the counter-argument goes, religion’s not dangerous—it’s just its misuse that’s dangerous. Indeed, those who misuse it aren’t religious. They’re simply hungry for power. But it’s not clear that this argument works, especially in the real world.
It seems unlikely that those who do evil in the name of religion don’t believe the religious doctrines they espouse. The Puritans in Salem probably wouldn’t have burned women as witches unless they believed in witches.
Most suicide bombers probably wouldn’t volunteer for suicide unless they thought it guaranteed them an afterlife with 72 virgins. Evangelical Christians wouldn’t undermine science education by demanding equal time for young-earth creationism unless they believed the Earth was only 6000 years old. It’s not just a grab for power.
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Would We Be Better Off Without Religion?
Even if religious leaders aren’t true believers—and are merely manipulating people to gain power—that wouldn’t mean religion isn’t dangerous. After all, the populace couldn’t be so easily manipulated if it weren’t for its religious beliefs.
The question is whether society would be better off without religion and if a lack of religion would make it less susceptible to such manipulation; the answer would seem to be yes. To counter this, one might point to historical examples where people were manipulated to commit atrocities without the use of religion—like in Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or the Kim family’s North Korea. But there are two things to say in response to this.
The argument isn’t that a lack of religion would make it impossible to manipulate people—just that it would make it much harder. To think that the inability to eliminate something is a reason to do nothing about it commits what is called the all or nothing fallacy, a variety of false dichotomies. Yes, some leaders might still find ways to manipulate people, but if religion makes society more susceptible to manipulation, it’s dangerous.
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Also, it’s not clear at all that Stalin, Pol Pot, and the Kim family did not use religion to manipulate people. Yes, their communist ideologies were based on a Marxist materialistic naturalism. But to solidify their power, these tyrants essentially invented their religion that made them and their government the objects of worship.
Take North Korea, where the Kim family created a religion, known as Juche, that worships them as gods. Their people believe them to be perfect and flawless, even capable of incredible feats like walking at three weeks old, talking at 8 weeks, driving at age 3, winning yacht races at age 9, writing 1500 books in three years, writing the 6 best operas in 2, and, never going to the bathroom. Kim Jung-il even supposedly shot a 38 under par the first time he played a round of golf, which included 11 holes in one.
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Ignorance Is Not Bliss
The New Atheists criticize all forms of blind devotion and willful ignorance. It’s not just supernatural beliefs that are dangerous, but the thought processes that generate and protect them. Even if they don’t consider Stalin and Pol Pot’s cult-of-personalities to be “religions” per se, the New Atheists do at least consider the religious thinking that makes such cults possible just as objectionable.
What arguably is most dangerous about both religion and secular personality cults is their authoritarianism—their unquestioned devotion to authority. And such devotion not only hinders personal freedom, but authority usually asserts itself by demonizing outsiders: racial minorities, other religions or nationalities, and genders.
Common Questions about New Atheists and Their Arguments
To believe that those who commit evil acts in the name of religion are only doing so because of their greed may be naive. New Atheists argue that although some may commit such an act, most people do these acts because they believe in an afterlife or a reward; otherwise, it would make no sense to commit such acts.
To solidify their power, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the Kim family invented their religion that made them and their government the objects of worship in their respective countries.
The New Atheists argue that the thought processes involved in religious thinking lead to blind devotion, which in turn leads to authoritarianism. This is arguably the most dangerous part of these systems because it takes away people’s personal freedom and also alienates the group toward outsiders.