There is no virtue in faith: Dawkins on why religion is bad

Here’s a recent (and short) discussion by Richard Dawkins on why religion is bad; it comes from an interview with Alister McGrath:

Now tell me:  is this a “militant and strident” set of views?


  1. gbjames
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink


  2. Ray Moscow
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    If one glances at the definitions of ‘strident’ and ‘militant’, they seem rather poor descriptions of Prof. Dawkins’ approach.

  3. fullyladenswallow
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    A nicely-done video. It may or may not be shrill, but it was certainly effective- the shot of the children at the end was most distressing.

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 11, 2012 at 1:25 am | Permalink

      I didn’t understand that bit – the child was a victim of abuse testifying in court, or something?

      • dcdinucci
        Posted December 11, 2012 at 1:34 am | Permalink

        I think that clip at the end was from the Jesus Camp documentary.

      • Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:53 am | Permalink

        They’re testifying, yes, but in that peculiar religious sense, not of saying what they believe they’ve seen, but what they believe that nobody has ever seen.

    • Nate
      Posted December 11, 2012 at 1:56 am | Permalink

      It’s from a film called “Jesus Camp.”

  4. Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    A free society has to allow parents to indoctrinate their children with irrational beliefs, as state intervention or regulation of parenting would be a violation of human rights. In early childhood the rights of the child are bound up with and not easily distinguishable from the rights of the parents, so it may be unfortunate to label children with the beliefs of their parents, but for the most part it isn’t inaccurate.

    In reality, the only recourse we have is later damage recovery & limitation based on an education system involving rational consideration of evidence and critical thinking, rather than the rote memorisation of facts. I know that my own education, which was probably more enlightened than most in my generation, didn’t stress the ability to think for oneself and I don’t think that’s very much different today.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      Other obvious violations of parents’ rights include prohibitions on… [fill in your own damn blanks, I’m not going to do all your thinking for you].

    • Posted December 10, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      So how would you go about it then Mr Scanlon: Stop parents from talking to their children, send round the thought police or arrest the parents of children found praying in school?

      Thought crimes are a much more tricky area than physical abuse and that’s hard enough for social services to deal with. Not to mention that the chances of getting western society to agree on prescriptions amount to nill.

      So yes the only practical recourse, that is in any way achievable, is to improve education, particularly at early stages. And try to stay polite, what kind of response was that!?

      • Notagod
        Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        Parents are required by law to provide for their children. One of those requirements is education. I’m not sure of the particulars, I suspect there are laws regarding activities that could psychologically damage the children. Religion is a haven for those that desire to inflict psychological damage on children. That shouldn’t be acceptable to a society that seeks justice for all.

      • bernardhurley
        Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        Personally I take a broadly contractarian view of ethics, along Rawlsian lines, in which such things as rights, utilitarian calculations, and virtues can be considered but are strictly secondary; they must be independently justified on contractarian grounds. Thus a society can settle ethical matters by assigning rights (e.g. the right to life;) can use a utilitarian calculus when appropriate (e.g. The way the UK National Health Service decides which treatments to fund;) and finally can promote virtues (e.g. It can promote the notion of a good citizenship.)

        It seems to me that the right of parents to indoctrinate their children is not one that could be so justified. What society does about it is another matter and in some circumstances there may not be much it can do about it. But that is no reason to concede the principle.

        There’s the further point that making something illegal creates a get out clause if there is peer pressure to do it. This is what happened when the Race Relations Act was passed in the UK. If someone asked a pub landlord “Why do you let those damn n*****s in here?”, he could answer “Because the law says I have to.” It would be helpful if a parent under pressure to send their child to a particularly pernicious summer camp or religious class could say “I’m sorry but I think it would be illegal.” This could lead to a situation where less people did such things because ‘everybody else does it’

      • raven
        Posted December 10, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        state intervention or regulation of parenting would be a violation of human rights.

        No. Not necessarily.

        Children have rights too. Oddly enough, under US laws, they are considered fully human and citizens.

        Although they don’t have many.

        Parents are supposed to provide food, medical care, and education until they are age 18. They aren’t allowed to abuse, torture, or use them as sex toys.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      I think you’re right regarding the law. But one of the most powerful engines of social change is that of culture. What does the ‘mainstream’ — your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and community — think of you? In too many places indoctrinating children in one’s “faith” is not just seen as acceptable, but exemplary. It’s what a “good parent” does.

      We can try to change this, a little at a time, by bitching about it in public. We can make a very good case – as Dawkins does.

      A lot of things are immoral without being illegal, and that goes for a lot of parental psychological abuse. If someone tells their child they’re ugly, stupid, and never will do as well as their favored sibling, Social Services won’t step in and remove them. But our culture no longer thinks this is fine, because parents have the right.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      state intervention or regulation of parenting would be a violation of human rights.

      Preposterous! Children aren’t properties of parents and have rights too.

      One of those rights, that cut into privileges of former parenting, is the right to not be subjected “to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” [ Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 37. Under these rights you can’t strike children for any reason (“cruel [treatment]”, “degrading treatment”).

      And indeed: “States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.” [ Article 19.1.]

      So we already regulate parenting under law.

      Even better, psychological abuse like indoctrination are “cruel” and “degrading” treatments too. And it is explicitly forbidden: “States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” [ Article 14.1. ]

      It is the child, not its parents, that has personal freedom under the law.

      Yes, “the rights of the child are bound up with … the parents”, but it is _easily distinguishable by law_.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      I should add that I don’t think there is _any_ excuse for the way religious treat their children, outside of ignorance. It is a direct consequence of the way religion is practiced, and it is as outrageous as other social consequences of it.

      Always remember that the first rule of religion is that religion poisons everything.

    • Posted December 10, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Straw man.

      Dawkins isn’t proposing legislation.

      As several others above have noted, especially Sastra, we’re simply trying to elicit a cultural change – to create a social pressure that says it’s not ok to indoctrinate your children, just the way there’s social pressure not to insult your children.

      • bernardhurley
        Posted December 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        Speak for yourself. Maybe you and Dawkins would not want to propose legislation but I certainly would.

        • Posted December 10, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

          Point taken.

          But noticing in my comment is actually inaccurate. In that clip Dawkins doesn’t propose legislation, and no one had as yet proposed any in the comments.

          I actually don’t think it would take much to convince me that legislation would in fact be appropriate.

        • Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          Legislation about education, perhaps?

          You cannot trust parents to teach their kids about religion in an even-handed way: they are likely going to be interested in raising their kids in the same belief system that they hold. Nor can you simply leave it to churches and other religious organizations: they too are partisan. Therefore, it seems to me, public schools (if we are to have them at all – that’s a debate for another time) are the best place to teach kids about religion. With appropriate oversight, public schools could, in principle, develop a religious studies curriculum which presents the major world religions to students in a historical and sociological way, explaining how they developed, what role they have played historically, and their position in the world today.


  5. pktom64
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    I truly think that as long as you’re on the atheist side and that you state your beliefs —or lack thereof, you’ll basically be labeled as militant or strident. Only accommodationists could escape such labels.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      Yes, you’re usually allowed to disagree as long as you don’t try to change anyone’s mind — and make a point about how it’s horrible to do so.

      That’s because they don’t want to think about God and religion as factual beliefs: they want to think about them as moral commitments and indicators of virtue. Feeding into this and “respecting” their identity and reassuring them you don’t want to “take away” their faith is self-defeating for atheists. Within their system, the moral identity which comes along with ‘rejecting God’ is never a good one.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      The insipid or somnolent accommodationists, you mean.

    • raven
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      I truly think that as long as you’re on the atheist side and that you state your beliefs —or lack thereof, you’ll basically be labeled as militant or strident.

      What is wrong with being a Militant Atheist anyway?

      I’m not really a Militant Atheist but do play one on the internet a lot.

      Or more specifically, a former xian turned anti-fundie xian for the sake of my own survival and that of my nation state.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted December 11, 2012 at 4:20 am | Permalink

        I don’t like “militant” because we don’t blow ourselves and other people up, or fly planes into buildings, or attack (churches)clinics, or shoot (preachers)doctors. I dislike the physically aggressive connotation.

  6. Posted December 10, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    This video was originally posted at “Dogmatic Cure.” The link:

    There are several other videos there that are similarly done. All are very good. It’s a must check out channel.

  7. Notagod
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Richard is making a vague argument when stating that the reason religion is bad is because it can be used in a bad way (not that it always is). Many thoughts and activities can be used in a bad way, science can be used in a bad way.

    There are many reasons that religion is bad but, on that level of reasoning I think the bad that religion does is to promote deception and uncritical thought. Religion on that level builds a sanctuary for people to manipulate others. Religion on that level teaches that questioning and the search for understanding are activities that are not to be undertaken with honesty.

    • Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Well said “notagod”. The choice for adults is not the same as the choices for children. They are indoctrinated by family and society to believe that which they are told is true.

      • Notagod
        Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        Thank you, misstexaskitty. I don’t have anything as evidence but a nagging thought that children that would otherwise become the best of humans might be harmed the most by religious indoctrination. It creates an irreconcilable conflict when their foundational thoughts are built upon “god” equals good. They are forced to falsely reconcile the conflict posed by their brain under threat of death and forever in hell, in favor of a nonexistent entity. If those children fall for “god” because they are indoctrinated to the false idea that good and “god” are synonymous, they will have a most difficult time rearranging their psychology to be good for true and honest reasons without deception and misinformation. Could that conflict within their brains cause them to act inappropriately as a way to relieve the stress of the internal conflict?

    • abrotherhoodofman
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Richard is making a vague argument when stating that the reason religion is bad is because it can be used in a bad way (not that it always is). Many thoughts and activities can be used in a bad way, science can be used in a bad way.

      Unfortunately I must agree. It’s an argument I’ve tried many times on Christians, and it simply doesn’t work. The usual reply is “Well I’m not that kind of Christian!

      As one-dimensional as monotheism seems to be, there isn’t much real unity among Christians regarding the details of their own behavior. I believe Christians do unite and vociferously stand together on the issue of whether or not they should be allowed the freedom to worship their silly God, but in most other respects these people resemble a “herd of cats” almost as much as atheists do, and therefore don’t assume any responsibility or guilt for the actions of their fellow Christians.

      • Notagod
        Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        I agree. Christians seem to all have their own little god that they can control while claiming that the little god is doing the controlling. I’ve asked christians online if they have ever disagreed with their god, in an attempt to get them to understand that the god they are presenting is in fact themselves. However, I haven’t been able to get any of them to respond yet.

  8. Ken Pidcock
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    …and, at the very least, to stop the inculcation into children of the idea that there is something virtuous in faith.

    It was the realization that said inculcation is harmful that alienated me from accommodation, to which I had been quite devoted. Because people we know to be good people believe that there is something virtuous in faith, it seems reasonable to accommodate their belief. But we cannot ignore how harmful it is to treat faith as a virtue.

  9. Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Very well said!


  10. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    The “rights of parents” argument was also at issue (written up around 1902) regarding the employment of boys ages 7-14 as gleaners for Pennsylvania coal companies. Because they had small hands and were very nimble, young boys were employed by coal companies in very unsavory, unhealthful conditions, because it was profitable: coal cleaned of all non-coal rocks and stones got a higher price. Typically, recent immigrants were the source of labor: the father and mother would be engaged in physical construction of a house, while the children provided cash through their job. And, the kids liked it, because unlike their peers, they had cash ( a percent retained from the parental share) for candy and cigarettes! Everyone agreed it was “great!”: the kids, the parents, the coal sellers, the coal buyers. Who should complain??! So, the boys ended up illiterate at age 14…so??, just like their father, and he was a good guy!

    For the long term benefit of society, it was better that these boys be in school, rather than working in a coal chute, despite the “rights of the parents”.

  11. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    What makes the video quite good, and not at all “shrill or militant” is Dawkins overtly noting that not all religion is like this but it retains a high potential for it, mainly because it shuts off inquiry and has no internal checks and balances (“peer review”??).

    As one poster noted above, religion can easily provide a sanctuary for the manipulative (or just plain stupid and crazy). Even if not all religious people are that way, it is all too easy for religion to reinforce such execrable behavior.

  12. gijswijs
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Apart form the discussion on if a society should let parents indoctrinate their children, what do the religious themselves think about indoctrination?
    If you are a true believer, surely you would find your religion strong enough to convince an adult.
    If you are a “religious person of virtue” (whatever that means) wouldn’t you consider indoctrination of children a sign of bad faith from the parent?
    To me raising your kids in the way “jesus camp” depicts just shouts: “I don’t think my kids will believe any of this crap, but maybe if we brainwash them at an early enough age we might just get away with it!”

    • gbjames
      Posted December 11, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Such questions are the source for schisms in religious communities.

  13. Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    In my view, the real reason why Dawkins is angry: because the “religious” ID scientists have disproved his theory.

    “After the ID scientists had published peer reviewed papers and a significant amount of quality material on the topic all over the net, they made it harder and harder for the Darwinist lobby, lead by Richard Dawkins et al, to sustain the invincibility of their obsolete “scientific” myths. Unable to even attempt to present a serious refutation of the ID claims, the neo-Darwinists keep their anti-religious offensive and popular atheism at maximum heat, thus distracting the public from the inconvenient fact that their theory has been disproved.”

    Parts from:

    “Old myths die hard: Darwin’s (in)descents”

    • gijswijs
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:34 am | Permalink

      Please provide us with a list of references to published, peer reviewed papers, before making bold statements that the “Darwinist lobby” has a hard time sustaining “their obsolete ‘scientific’ myths”. Especially the peer reviewed article disproving “their theory” holds my interest.
      Please provide us also with a list of what those “myths” exactly are, because the field of evolutionary science is a broad one with tons of theories.
      Please also explain at which point the evolutionary scientists proclaimed invincibility of their theories, for ex. with links to articles, interviews, etc.

      I’m asking you this because at this moment your comment holds no content whatsoever.

    • Posted December 13, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      One answer to any scientific problem is that something that could have done it did it. And, it’s not clear what adding the tag “intelligent” does to improve that explanation as in: “Something intelligent that could have done it did it”.

      If a slate falls of your roof and a friend says to you: “That could have been done by a transcendent intelligent entity (TIE) with the necessary powers”, wouldn’t you say “Well yes, I suppose so, but wouldn’t the wind be a more likely explanation? The wind is something we’ve seen, and we know how it works, whilst we have never encountered a TIE”.

      The problem with ID *isn’t* that it fails to explain the data, it’s that it can explain *any* data: Rabbits in the pre cambrian? No problem, the designer wanted them there: “Why?” one may ask, “because he moves in mysterious ways”. On the other hand TOE predicts that there were no rabbits at that time and would be falsified if there were. That’s one of the very many reasons to have confidence in TOE as a good explanation of the data.

  14. Posted December 14, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Hi Alex.

    The point about the explanatory power of theory of evolution (TOE) compared to ID is that TOE specifically explains a lot of things we now know to be true. That’s well documented in Jerry Coyne’s book (Why Evolution is true). OTOH, intelligent design has made no new predictions and would be compatible with any evidence. At first sight it might appear good to be compatible with all data, but in actuality it’s disastrous, because it means that ID is not specific to any actual data, in particular the data we actually have from the real world.

    When Darwin proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection (The Origin Of Species 1859) he didn’t know a great many things that have since been discovered. But, those things (genetics, fossil intermediates etc.) all fit into his theory like a glove and indeed many of them were *predicted* by TOE. That’s very powerful support for any scientific theory.
    Rabbits in the pre cambrian is a reference to a famous quote from the biologist J.B.S. Haldane. When asked what he thought would demonstrate that evolution might be untrue, he muttered “Rabbits in the pre cambrian”. The point is that evolution predicts certain things and if those things were not the case, evolution would be falsified and so would no longer be a good explanation.

    Finally, I think you are confusing TOE with other theories. TOE is only concerned with the evolution of life forms once they have arisen and not with the origin of life (abiogenesis) or the origin of the universe (cosmology). Those are separate subjects.

    • Posted December 14, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      I was going to say that was a fine response to Alex, but a higher power seems to have deleted his comment…


      • Posted December 14, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        Yes, perhaps Alex’s post was a little long. I think we have to conceed that internet blogs do indeed show signs of intelligent design and sometimes a benevolent creator, even if he moves in mysterious ways.

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