Is Religion Evil?

Alister McGrath , Contributing Author

Is Religion Evil?

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from God Is Great, God Is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister (IVP). This chapter by Alister McGrath.


In October 2005, the World Congress of the International Academy of Humanism took place in upstate New York. Its theme: "Toward a New Enlightenment." To judge from the conference publicity, its organizers had no doubt of the urgency of their theme. Religion is regaining the ascendancy! We are facing a new dark ages, a new evil empire! Only a return to the Enlightenment can save us! Yet perhaps quite contrary to the intentions of its organizers, the conference offered a fascinating glimpse of the crisis of confidence which is gripping atheism.

Belief in God was meant to have died out years ago. When I was an atheist myself, back in the late 1960s, everything seemed so simple. A bright new dawn lay just around the corner. Religion would be relegated to the past, a grim and dusty relic of a bygone age. God was just a cozy illusion for losers, best left to very inadequate and sad people. It was just a matter of waiting for nature to take its course. I was in good company in believing this sort of thing. It was the smug, foolish and fashionable wisdom of the age. Like flared jeans, it was accepted enthusiastically, if just a little uncritically.

New Enlightenment—New Atheism 

Since then, the ideas of the "New Enlightenment" conference have been aggressively promoted by the group of writers now linked together as the "New Atheism." One of its central themes is the simplistic soundbite ideally attuned to a media-driven culture which prefers breezy slogans to serious analysis: Religion is evil.

It resonates deeply, perhaps at a subrational level, with the fears of many in Western culture. The 2001 suicide attacks by Islamic fanatics on the World Trade Center in New York and elsewhere are seen as surefire demonstrations of the intrinsic evil of religion. Lurking within every religious believer lies a potential terrorist; get rid of religion, and the world will be a safer place.

Generalizations like this are found throughout Richard Dawkins's God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great and Sam Harris's End of Reason. Harris offers his own readings of central religious texts such as the Bible and the Qur'an to demonstrate that they possess an innate propensity to generate violence. Yet there is no attempt to analyze how these texts are interpreted and applied within their respective religious communities. Dawkins tells us that to take the Bible seriously is to "strictly observe the sabbath and think it just and proper to execute anyone who chose not to" or to "execute disobedient children."1 Dawkins seems to assume that his readers know so little about Christianity that they are willing to believe that Christians are inclined to stone people to death. 

A reality check is clearly in order. As the cultural and literary critic Terry Eagleton pointed out in his withering review of The God Delusion, "Such is Dawkins's unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false."2 Harris assumes, without any serious argumentation or appeal to evidence, that the naturalistic world-view he proposes as a replacement for religion will generate more happiness, compassion or peace than religion can. His work bristles with the curious and highly problematic idea that scientists have a keener or deeper appreciation than religious people of how to deal with personal or moral problems. Yet such is the force of his rhetoric that such evidential deficits are airbrushed out of the picture. The New Atheism wants to take us back to the rationalism and sanity of the Enlightenment.


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