Exemplar answer for Edexcel Paper 1 (Philosophy of Religion)

From the Paper 1 syllabus:

5.1 Context to critiques of religious belief and points for discussion   a) Respective strengths and weaknesses of religious beliefs. b) Alternative explanations, issues of probability and postmodern interpretations of religion.

NOTE 1: the following answer does NOT include discussions of probability or postmodern interpretations of religion.

NOTE 2 : Some of the content may also be of use when it comes to paper 4B Christianity, specifically in relation to the syllabus content that is highlighted below.

NOTE 3: This is NOT a genuine past paper or specimen Paper 1 question but the wording is based on the Edexcel format.

NOTE 4 : ‘Assess’ questions test your knowledge and understanding  and your analytical and evaluative skills. You will need to give reasons for views and give appropriate examples to support the points you make. Candidates are expected to spend about 18 minutes on them. The questions might be worded as follows:

Assess the work of a significant contributor to ethical debates about equality.
Assess the strengths of situation ethics.
Assess the weaknesses of Utilitarianism.

4.2 Secularisation (2)
a)    Religion in today’s society, declining numbers, the role of the Church in formal worship and in modern life and the strengths, weaknesses and impact of the teachings of popular atheists.
b)    The rise of New Religious Movements and definitions of ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’.
c)    Disillusionment with some aspects of traditional religion compared to hard line atheism.

Assess the strengths and weaknesses of religious belief and alternative explanations of religion.
Religious belief or faith has been criticised for many reasons. For example, Marx famously referred to religion as ‘the opium of the people’. By this he meant that religious faith acts rather in the manner of a tranquilising drug. For those at the bottom end of the class system, the proletariat, it renders them passive and causes them to not question the basis of the inherently capitalist system that is exploiting them. They are seduced into inaction by the promise of a better afterlife.
Feuerbach and Freud both regarded religious faith as a form of projection onto reality of aspects of the collective human psyche. For example, in The Future of an Illusion, Freud argued that ‘God’ represented the expression of a deep seated need to feel that that there was a divine father-figure watching over us, imbuing an otherwise hostile universe with cosmic significance. Meanwhile Feuerbach argued that our appreciation of all the best qualities of humanity has deceived us into imagining that there is a being who possesses these qualities in the highest degree. 
A weakness of these perspectives on religious belief is their atheistic assumption that there is no actual basis for religious belief. Their reductionistic accounts of religion take no account of the fact that religious experiences of the divine may, in fact, be genuine. They simply explain the phenomenon of religion in terms of something else. However, perhaps Marx is correct up to a point in the sense that religious belief can be used as a tool to manipulate and exploit the credulous, as this has arguably been exhibited in the behaviour of many unscrupulous spiritual teachers, gurus and prophets e.g. Elijah Muhammad (the philandering former leader of the Nation of Islam) and Fred Phelps (of the Westboro Baptist Church, notorious for its homophobic ‘Gods Hates Fags’ slogan).
More recently, New Atheist critiques of religious belief have been gaining traction. For example, Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion argued that religious faith is harmful, irrational and a superfluous by-product of evolution. Dawkins has enthusiastically embraced a famous quotation made by the Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who stated that if it were not for religion, good people would stick to doing good things while bad people would do bad things. Instead, religion causes good people to do bad things.
All of these claims are, however, questionable. For example, Dawkins’ assertion that religious faith is harmful may be true in the case of children who are brought up as Creationists and taught not to believe in evolution, or as homophobic members of the Westboro Baptist Church. However, Dawkins always requires that an appeal to evidence should be made when it comes to matters of belief. Unfortunately, his view that any and all religious beliefs are harmful is difficult to support evidentially, as the amount of empirical research required to substantiate it would be impossible to undertake. This is because religion takes many forms (oppositional*, institutional, civil, etc.) and even overtly harmful behaviour, such as that engaged in by terrorist groups like ISIS may be more explicable in terms of politics or economics.

Dawkins also overlooks the considerable good that has arguably been done in the name of religion. Think of the impact of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, for example, or the good work carried out by many religious charitable organisations like Christian or Muslim Aid.

Moving on, although Alister McGrath has argued that rationality has always played a central part in Christian theology, this overlooks a possible strength of Dawkins’ position, namely, that in a foundational sense religion is fideistic in character and therefore might aptly described as irrational. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity would be difficult to defend on rational grounds, as would belief in the power of prayer.

Having said this, religious belief may not, as Dawkins claims, be a by-product of evolution. For example, Scott Atran and Joe Henrich argue that at the level of later cultural evolution, religious belief may confer advantages to those who have them e.g. if you believe that God is watching you, you may not hold back in battle or covet you neighbour’s wife.

In conclusion, it would seem that the larger claims that are made about the damage that religious faith can cause remain unsubstantiated, while the alternative explanations for religious belief ventured above fail to engage properly with religious experience itself.

*Liberation Theology is an example.