Secularization Part 1: The New Atheism

Possible examination question: Explore the arguments of modern atheists, including Richard Dawkins and evaluate the impact of these views and the responses to them.

These notes can be used for section 4.2 of your Christianity syllabus (on secularization) and 5.1(b) of your Philosophy syllabus (alternative explanations for religious beliefs).


The term ‘secularization’ refers to the process whereby religion/religious  belief in a society gradually declines and eventually dies out. Secularization theories are usually concerned with describing and explaining this process, which is typically held to be taking place regionally and/or globally.

Secularism is something different. It is the view that religion should be opposed or restricted.

Previously, we have looked at claims made by Dawkins that religion is harmful and irrational because the truth claims of faith are unscientifically irrational and unsupported by evidence. These are claims that you could discuss in connection with the above question, which has been taken from an Edexcel scheme of work for the Christianity paper.

Dawkins and other ‘New Atheists’ who you will be introduced to in these course notesdefinitely support secularism and would like to help along a process of secularization by promoting their ideas in popular books and television documentaries.

Later in the course, we will look at the theory that a process of secularization is happening in many parts of the world. For the moment, you just need to know that this theory is contested.

What these course notes will provide is a brief overview of some New Atheist thinking together with an additional alternative explanation for the arising of religious belief. This is not in any textbook so it could help to make your answer to a 5.1(b) Philosophy based examination question more distinctive. There is no reason why you can’t use it for a Christianity question too.

The New Atheism

When 19 Muslims hijacked four planes and used them to destroy the World Trade Center and a section of the Pentagon, they forced into the open a belief that many people in the Western had been harbouring since the 1980’s, namely, that there is a special connection between Islam and terrorism.

As a consequence, some public intellectuals and scientists began to attack not just Islam but all religions, which were said to be based on delusional and harmful beliefs that prevent people from embracing science (e.g. evolution), secularism and the modern world.

Between 2004 and 2007, so many books were published that a movement was born: the New Atheism.

The titles were provocative. The first one out was Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, followed by Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

These authors are known collectively as the ‘four horsemen’ of the New Atheism. At the time of publication, Harris was a graduate student in neuroscience, while Dawkins is a biologist, Dennett a philosopher who has written widely on evolution, and Hitchens (who has since died) was a well-known journalist.  

Hitchens aside, the first three authors claim to speak for science, particularly its insistence that claims be grounded in reason and empirical evidence, not faith and emotion. For Harris, beliefs are the key to understanding the psychology of religion because in his view, believing a falsehood (e.g. Islamic martyrs will be rewarded with 72 virgins in heaven) makes religious people do harmful things (e.g. committing acts of terrorism).

Dawkins takes a similar approach. He argues that religion is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims in its wake. Religious beliefs are said to be the cause of a wide range of harmful actions. Dennett and Hitchens also follow a similar line of argument.

Evolutionary psychology and religious faith

NOTE: this section is also especially relevant to your Philosophy syllabus. What Dawkins in particular basically argues is that religious belief is a superfluous and often harmful by-product of biological and cultural evolution. Below, this argument is described and critiqued.

All known human groups have religion in some form. So from an evolutionary view, how do we explain the existence of religion?

There seem to be only two ways to answer this question. Either you have to  grant that religious belief is somehow beneficial when it comes to survival, or you have to construct a complex multistep explanation of how humans in all known cultures came to swim against the tide of adaptation and do so much self-destructive religious damage. The New Atheists choose this latter course.

The first step is to posit the existence of a hypersensitive agency detector device. This is based on the idea that even now we see faces in the clouds but never clouds in faces. The explanation is that our brains are hard-wired to spot what might possibly be a potential threat to our survival: the face of a possible predator. This device is on a hair trigger and is not always accurate. But the mistakes are all in one direction: the detection of an agent when none is actually present. This is because an evolutionary advantage is conferred through this bias. Even if the device is triggered in error, we still get to survive.

As humans evolved shared communication became possible, and as a result, humans began attributing agency to the weather (e.g. a drought means that the rain god is angry), and cases of good and bad fortune (e.g. my bad luck is the result of a god being displeased with me). This belief in supernatural agents is therefore a by-product of a device which is otherwise highly adaptive.

To this we might add other cognitive modules (automatic responses) e.g. Dawkins attributes survival value to a tendency on the part of children to believe whatever adults tell them, which can also reinforce false religious beliefs.

In such cases, the logic is the same; a bit of mental machinery evolved because it conferred a real benefit, but the machinery sometimes misfires, producing accidental effects which make people prone to believing in gods. At no point was religion itself beneficial to individuals or groups. At no point were genes selected because individuals with religious beliefs outcompeted those who lacked them.

The second step in the New Atheist story is to do with memes. As you have already learned from your previous study of Dawkins, memes are the mental equivalents of genes: they’re ideas, habits, concepts, which compete like genes for survival, to be copied from mind to mind. For Dennett and Dawkins, religions are memes that have undergone Darwinian selection as a result of a process of cultural evolution. Selection happens, not on the basis of the benefits religions confer on individuals and groups but on the basis of their ability to survive and reproduce. Some religions are better than others at hijacking the human mind, burrowing in deeply, and then getting themselves transmitted to the next generation of host minds.

Dennett opens Breaking the Spell with the true story of a tiny parasite that takes over the brains of ants, causing them to climb to the tops of blades of grass, where they can more easily be eaten by grazing animals. The behaviour is suicide for the ant, but adaptive for the parasite, which requires the digestive system of a ruminant to reproduce itself.

Dennett proposes that religions survive because, like those parasites, they make their hosts do things that are bad for themselves (e.g. suicide bombing) but good for the parasite (e.g. radical Islam). Dawkins similarly describes religions as viruses. Just as a cold virus makes its host sneeze to spread itself, successful religions make their hosts use up precious resources to spread the ‘infection’.

The implications are clear: if religion is a virus or a parasite that exploits a set of mental by-products for its benefit, not ours, then we ought to rid ourselves of it. Scientists and others who have escaped infection and are still able to reason must work together to break the spell, lift the delusion, and bring about the end of faith.


Whilst accepting the existence of mental modules like the hypersensitive agency detector device as an explanation for the origins of religious belief, the anthropologists Scott Atran and Joe Henrich argue that at the level of later cultural evolution, religions with a by-product God or gods do confer survival advantages because they help to create sturdy moral communities. For example, laws like the 10 commandments helped to bind the early Jewish tribes together by condemning selfish and divisive behaviour e.g. murder, adultery, false witness. Belief in a god or gods therefore helped to ensure greater communal trust and co-operation. It is well-known that people behave less ethically when they think that nobody is watching them. So creating gods who can see everything deters cheating and oath breaking and makes shame and guilt more effective as a means of social control. Those religions that do a better job of binding people together and that suppress selfishness survive at the expense of those that do not.

Furthermore, it is possible to dispute the New Atheist claim that religious belief makes people bad and is a primary cause of war, genocide, terrorism and the oppression of women. NOTE: I have highlighted this sentence as it usefully summarises what Dawkins and the other three New Atheists that I have previously mentioned argue.

According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, various studies have shown that religious faith causes believers not to be universally altruistic (e.g. loving everyone in the spirit of agape) but does make people exceedingly generous towards members of their own moral communities, which confirms the suggestion of Atran and Heinrich that religions are a group level adaptation.

As evidence, Haidt states that studies of charitable giving in the USA show that people who are in the most religious fifth of the population (based on church attendance) give far more to charity than those in the least religious fifth. And this greater level of charitable giving on the part of those with faith even extends to secular charities, such as the American Cancer Society. According to Haidt, religious people also do more volunteer work than secular folk and tend to be more active in their local communities. However, he points out that although faith binds people together in a moral matrix that often brings out the best in them, that there are dangers if this is accompanied by the demonization of other groups, which can then lead to moralistic killing.

In summary, religious belief may have initially been a by-product of evolution, but it has evolved at a cultural level in a manner which does confer benefits on those with a faith that help them to stick together, and one of these benefits is that of parochial altruism, which is greater on the part of those with faith.

Assessing the impact of the teachings of popular atheists

First of all, the books mentioned above by the ‘four horsemen’ of New Atheism have all been bestsellers. Presumably, this indicates that there must be a sympathetic and receptive readership for the views advocated by these authors.

However, as a result of their hostility to religion, Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett have arguably tended to selectively focus on unrepresentative examples e.g. religious activists who have promoted extremism and violence (one example is Michael Bray from the Army of God who Dawkins interviewed for one of his documentaries – see your notes on abortion), and the most controversial and often contestable passages in religious texts (e.g. those that have been used to justify violence and misogyny, or to promote creationist beliefs), in order to portray religion as little other than an irrational, dangerous and harmful entity that is out of step with the modern world.

One very serious consequence of this is that these New Atheists have arguably helped to fan the flames of Islamaphobia. For example, in The God Delusion, Dawkins portrays Islam as being ‘analogous to a carnivorous gene complex’. Statements like this caricature Islam as a hateful, destructive faith, and fuel a stereotypical, misleading impression of Muslims as being predisposed to violence and inherently opposed to democracy, liberalism, secularism and equality, preferring instead to be governed by a strict version of Sharia law.

The problem with this kind of controversial narrative (which is contestable – see below*) is that when it becomes influential, societies run the risk of becoming increasingly polarized. Far Right parties and militant groups may gain in strength, and ultimately it will become more difficult for people of different faiths and origins to live together. The physical safety of Muslims may also be endangered. The New Atheists might therefore reasonably be accused of contributing to the creation of this kind of climate.

*In his book Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence, M. Steven Fish has shown that Muslims are no more favourable to mixing religious leadership and political authority than the rest of the world and are only slightly less supportive of democracy as a system of government. They are also not especially prone to mass political violence. Yet there are differences: Gender inequality is more severe among Muslims and Muslims are unusually averse to homosexuality. Other areas of divergence bear the marks of a Muslim advantage: Homicide rates and class-based inequality is less severe among Muslims than non-Muslims. 

Additionally, Alister McGrath has pointed out that New Atheists like Dawkins have alienated atheists who are more favourably inclined towards religion.

Finally, the philosopher Jules Evans has questioned whether the brand of rationality supported by the New Atheists has become over-emphasised in Western culture in recent times and fails to satisfy a basic human need for self-transcendence. In support of his argument, Evans quotes Christopher Hitchens, who shortly before he died admitted, ‘I’m a materialist…yet there is something beyond the material or not entirely consistent with it, what you would call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at best the Ecstatic…It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work; without this we really would merely be primates.’