Religion is Dangerous: The Portrayal of Dangerous Religion by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens
In this post, I examine the critique of religion exemplified by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who I take as representative of a particular strand in contemporary atheism, loosely referred to as the “New Atheism”. I contend that this criticism can be largely encompassed by a depiction of religion as dangerous: by inspiring violence, promoting ‘unacceptable’ morals, and standing in the way of knowledge and progress, through fostering a ‘totalitarian’ atmosphere of submission to unquestionable authority. This critique occurs within a Christianised, Anglophone context, and although Harris and Hitchens devote space to other religious systems, all representative authors significantly acknowledge that their “focus is on Christianity first” (Dennett, 2007:xi): their “atheism is a Protestant atheism” (Hitchens, 2008:11 cf. Dawkins 2007b:58, Harris, 2007a:title). Their books are by no means extended tirades against religion. Each author engages with more ‘traditional’ philosophical approaches within the atheist-theist debate (cf. Dawkins, 2007b:100-136, Dennett, 2007:200-248, Harris, 2006:50-79, Hitchens, 2008:63-96). However, an examination of the positive delineation of atheism requires a very close reading of more implicit themes and thus this discussion focuses on their critique of religion, which yields valuable insights, and provides a frame for my more expansive posts, The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism and The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief.
Contemporary atheistic books teem with damning statements on violence in religion: religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry” (Hitchens, 2008:56), and focussed upon a malevolent God (Dawkins, 2007b:51), who leads some to “lie and even to kill” (Dennett. 2007:338) for a vision which threatens to destroy civilisation itself (Harris, 2006:227). Two distinct sources support this hyperbolism: the various conflicts and atrocities in which religion has played a part; and the creeds and tenets of Christianity (and Islam) which may be utilised as motivation or support for violence.
These critiques are replete with detailed examples of religious conflicts. Significantly, these writers attempt to change commonly held views (positive and negative) on certain regimes and individuals (Hitchens, 2008:25ff; Harris, 2006:78), with a major theme for Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (though not Dennett) being Hitler’s Nazism. All discuss the possibility that Hitler remained a nominal Christian (Dawkins, 2007b:310, Harris 2006:106 cf. Hitchens, 2008:236-243), but also recognise that one man’s faith cannot implicate an entire religion. This is ensured by invoking an historical Christian anti-Semitism “that built the crematoria brick by brick” (Harris, 2006:179 cf. Dawkins, 2007b:311), by the support of Catholics and ‘German Christians’ for Hitler’s regime, and by the church’s complicity in relocating “guilty” members of clergy (ibid:314 cf. Hitchens, 2008:236-243; Ericksen/Heschel, 1999). Hitchens claims that, at a minimum, the Christian church is guilty of “passivity” and “inaction” which demonstrates that the church sought accommodation with Nazism (2008:238). These considerations appear to be a response to religious criticism of the violence committed by the “atheistic” regimes of the twentieth-century (Beattie, 2007:79; McGrath, 2005:165-169 cf. Baggini, 2003:81; Stenger, 2009:113-116).
This discussion is augmented by a focus on the motivation toward, or support of, violence implicit in religious texts – particularly the absolutising effect of a belief in the afterlife (Dennett, 2007:285), and the divisive nature of religious group loyalty (Dawkins, 2007b:297 cf. Hitchens, 2008:18). Harris holds that the “proposition – you will not die – once believed, determines a[n otherwise unthinkable] response to life” (2006:38 cf. Dennett, 2007:256, Hitchens, 2008:56). For Harris, religion has “become a continual source” of conflict (2006:79 cf. 2007a:12) casting human differences “in terms of eternal rewards and punishments” (2006:80). The combination of these characteristics is demonstrated by Dawkins’ inclusion of the work of George Tamarin, who presented Israeli schoolchildren with different accounts of a battle – one with the central figure “Joshua”, another with “General Lin” – and found that “it was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it” (Dawkins, 2007b:289-292).
However, there are many examples throughout these works where the authors engage positively with the idea that religion may not be the underlying factor behind their catalogue of violence. Religious believers can be “rational and tolerant of others” (Harris, 2006:28 cf. Hitchens, 2008:187-188) and “are not psychotic, […but] by their own lights, are rational” (Dawkins, 2007b:344). However, the fact that “religion may well not be the root cause of […violent] yearning[s]” (Dennett, 2007:285) is, apparently, no excuse (ibid:299), because religion is “the most prolific source of the “moral certainties” and “absolutes” that such zealotry depends on” (ibid:285 cf. Harris, 2007a:11). The authors do not deny that some religious leaders “have put humanity ahead of their own sect or creed” (Hitchens, 2008:27), but contend that such actions are “a compliment to humanism, not to religion” (ibid). Whilst loopholes and backdoors may temporarily redeem religion, contemporary atheism believes itself firmly on the moral high ground: “Religious wars really are fought in the name of religion […] I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism” (Dawkins, 2007b:316).
A second way in which religion is portrayed as dangerous concerns morality. To ask questions of religious morals apparently “involves no disrespect and no prejudging of the possibility” that they have a divine origin (Dennett, 2007:296), and contemporary atheists grant theists the right to try to convince “others, to whom God has not (yet) spoken” (ibid). Also, although some appeal is made to prison figures and moral judgement studies (ibid:279; Dawkins, 2007b:258; Harris, 2007a:43-46) it is significant that these atheists are content to show that atheists are no more likely to commit crimes than religious believers, despite more damning evidence that could be utilised (Dennett, 2007:279; Dawkins, 2007a:258 cf. Beit-Hallahmi, 2007). These observations indicate that, in this instance, contemporary atheism makes a concerted effort to maintain the moral high ground, and to avoid relying on violent polemic.
A common theme throughout this critique is religious amorality. There are three levels to this criticism. Firstly, religious teachings do not contain any guidance on many contemporary moral issues (Hitchens, 2008:100). Secondly, religious norms and conventions can lead to the conflation of attending to “one’s own spiritual needs” and “living a morally good life” (Dennett, 2007:306) allowing personal issues to assume greater importance than ‘genuine’ human suffering (Harris, 2007:28). In such cases, “the best that can be said of [believers] is that they manage to stay out of trouble” (Dennett, 2007:306). Finally, Dawkins cites Einstein, denouncing those who are “good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward” (2007b:259 cf. Hitchens, 2008:186). Although few contemporary believers would willingly cede individual moral responsibility, the historical emphasis on morality deriving from religion effectively exempts believers from moral conversation (Dennett, 2007:295), behaviour which itself is seen, at minimum, as amoral.
However, Harris and Hitchens go further, contending that religion is “positively immoral”: religions present “a false picture of the world to the innocent”; they promote “eternal reward and/or punishment”; they impose “impossible tasks and rules”; and they can encourage extreme self-centredness and conceit (Hitchens, 2008:74, 205). By “driv[ing] a wedge between ethics and suffering” religion can promote actions causing suffering, whilst condemning those which may relieve it (Harris, 2006:168-9). As before, it would be counter-productive to list all of the specific instances these authors refer to, but it is significant that they make reference to scripture and to religious leaders, and are not afraid to use religion to attack religion.
A final theme in the atheistic critique of religious morality is that most believers allow personal morals to decide their religious stance. As “all enlightened moderns” reject the rules of Deuteronomy and Leviticus (Dawkins, 2007b:81), so they “are using [their] own moral intuitions to authenticate the wisdom of the Bible” (2007a:49). The authors do not argue that faith has never had a part to play in defining morals (Harris, 2006:78; Dennett, 2007:310), but that morality is natural: “even monkeys will undergo extraordinary privations to avoid causing harm to another member of their species”, and they do this without religion (Harris, 2006:172). The key to the atheist critique of religion is that whilst urges to “altruism, to generosity, to empathy [and] to pity” are “Darwinian mistakes”, they are “blessed, precious mistakes” (Dawkins, 2007b:253) that can be celebrated without believing that Jesus “was born of a virgin or will be returning to earth as a superhero” (Harris, 2007b:25 cf. Dennett, 2007:307, Hitchens, 2008:52).
At this point I should acknowledge parallels between the contemporary atheistic critique and more secularised forms of Christianity. Alister McGrath sums up the ideas of Bishops Robinson and Spong (prominent “Christian atheists”, see the bibliography) as a call to the church to “bring its ideas into line with […]modern culture” and to “ditch its outmoded ideas if it is to survive” (2005:159,163). Thus far, it is clear that contemporary atheism criticises precisely these outmoded ideas, and exhibits a certain antagonism to religious leaders, rather than to religion itself. The representative contemporary atheists each have their own personal relationships with religion. Dawkins speaks of the “affection” he retains for the Church of England (2007b:32fn.), and Hitchens has in the course of his life “been an Anglican, educated at a Methodist school [and] converted by marriage to Greek Orthodoxy” (2008:11,195). Both speak with despair at the present state of the Church of England (ibid:12,16; Dawkins, 2007b:62). Conversely, Harris states that he was “raised in a totally secular home” and God was “really not a subject of conversation”, whilst Dennett makes no mention of any religious upbringing in his autobiographical essay (2008a,b,c). Therefore it is not possible on the basis of these biographical details alone to speak of an overarching, anti-clerical, secular Christianity at work. However, they shall prove significant when returning to this issue below (see p.30).
The final two aspects of the contemporary atheistic critique of religion – that it stands in the way of knowledge and progress, and that it fosters a ‘totalitarian’ atmosphere of submission to unquestionable authority – can be considered together. Criticism of the religious impediment of knowledge is twofold. Firstly, religion is perceived as an outdated worldview (Hitchens, 2008:256; Harris, 2006:14, 25) which vehemently opposes progress (Harris, 2006:22; Dawkins, 2007b:319) and is still in the thrall of Martin Luther’s assertion that “reason is the Devil’s harlot” (Hitchens, 2008:63 cf. Dennett, 2007:241; Dawkins, 2007b:323; Harris, 2006:107). Significantly, religious anti-rationality is perceived as selective – science and reason are used when they assist religion in some way (Dawkins, 2007b:83). This selectively anti-science attitude is deplored most strongly when it exerts its influence on health-related issues, where “religious beliefs [can] become genuinely lethal” (Harris, 2007a:28 cf. Ibid:33; 2006:149-150,167; Dawkins, 2007b:327-328; Hitchens, 2008:45,221).
Secondly, “the mists of incomprehension and failure of communication” form an integral part of religion, meaning that religion is perceived as implicitly impeding knowledge (Dennett, 2007:217). By making a virtue of faith, religion encourages satisfaction with not understanding (Dawkins, 2007b:152 cf. Harris, 2006:56; Dennett, 2007:228) and gives certainty “about things no human being could possibly be certain about” (Harris, 2007:67 cf. Hitchens, 2008:122). By deeming a text “gospel truth”, religious leaders foreclose rational inquiry (Dennet, 2007:241), whilst being “incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they’d like to be true” (Dawkins, 2007b:135 cf. Dennett, 2007:228).
These impediments to knowledge and rational inquiry are “enforced” through religion’s authoritarian influence. This influence can be manifested implicitly, through religious ‘guilt’ (Dennett, 2007:292) and the atmosphere of fear surrounding potential causes of offence (cf. Harris, 2007:39); and explicitly, through deliberate interference in people’s lives and aggressive marketing (Hitchens, 2008:17; Harris, 2006:25). This exertion of authority is forcefully demonstrated in the relationship between religion and children: religion practices upon the “unformed and undefended minds of the young” (Hitchens, 2008:217 cf. Dawkins, 2007b:206 cf. 323,348,358), hoodwinking and blindfolding them to ensure conformity (Dennett, 2007:328). Clearly contemporary atheism perceives both an implicit and a consciously explicit authoritarian agenda on the part of religion to limit access to, and acceptance of, scientific knowledge which contradicts aspects of religious faith, or limits the scope and power of its authority.
I hope that I have demonstrated that the contemporary atheistic critique of religion revolves around three key issues. “Religion” is castigated for motivating, supporting, and initiating violence, for encouraging amoral (if not positively immoral) behaviour, and fostering an atmosphere where knowledge and progress are discouraged, and an attitude of passive submission to ignorance and religious authority is the norm. This criticism is integral to the “consciousness raising” enterprise of these atheists, and has great significance when considering their intentions and target audience (see The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism and The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief). Although non-Christian religions are occasionally criticised, it is implied that Christianity is the main target of this particularly anti-clerical attack. Evidence from individual biographies and a willingness to give Christianity credit where credit is due suggest a latent, sentimental respect, which proves significant in the aforementioned posts.
A full bibliography can be found in my earlier post: The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief.
 Harris, 2006:80-107; Dawkins, 2007b:23-4; Hitchens, 2008:173-194; Dennett, 2007:13
About ChrisScholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.
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