Is Religion Dangerous? How Belief Warps Morals

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is religion dangerous? How does religion inevitably lead to religious violence and hatred?

Religious hatred and religious violence have long been a part of human history. So Richard Dawkins poses the question in The God Delusion: is religion dangerous?

Keep reading to answer the question “is religion dangerous?”

Is Religion Dangerous?

We’ve talked about how most of modern society has moved away from the moral values extolled in holy texts like the Bible and the Quran. Whether they acknowledge it or not, most people have accepted modern, secular liberal values. But is religion dangerous?

But there are still many people all around the world who explicitly do ground their morals in religion—and often a narrow, literalist interpretation of their religion at that—with brutal consequences. In this chapter, we’ll explore how faith poisons rational minds and endangers society, looking at:

  • How faith (belief without evidence) forecloses the possibility of critical thinking and can be used to justify even the most horrific acts
  • The atrocities perpetrated in the name of faith
  • Why raising children to accept faith and assigning them a religious label constitutes a form of abuse
  • Why society should stop granting automatic respect or deference to religion

Evidence vs. Belief

The essence of faith is belief without evidence. Even if incontrovertible evidence that the Bible was a fraud or that God did not exist was presented to them, a person of faith would be unmoved. This blind faith is tragic, as it forestalls any possibility of truly engaging with the world and exercising your powers of critical thinking.

And even though the overwhelming majority of people of faith are nonviolent and would never think of forcefully imposing their beliefs on others, their faith itself is a source of great malevolence. Once you’ve accepted the idea that you don’t need proof to back up your beliefs and that faith can act as your guide, you can justify nearly anything in the name of that faith. By encouraging faith, all forms of religion provide fertile breeding grounds for dangerous extremism. Which begs the question: is religion dangerous?

What About Violence Perpetrated by Atheists?

The question “is religion dangerous” forces us to ask about violence in the name of atheism. Religious people might counter with the argument that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were atheists and they committed the greatest humanitarian crimes in history. While Stalin most likely was an atheist, Hitler almost certainly wasn’t. Hitler openly declared himself to be a Catholic in multiple speeches, invoked the supposed killing of Christ by the Jews as a rationale for his murderous antisemitism. He also expressed a belief in divine Providence throughout his life. Indeed, Hitler’s more modern, racialized antisemitism drew upon a long history in Christian Europe of reviling the Jews for being “Christ-killers.” 

But even if both men could be proven decisively to have been atheists, it wouldn’t matter. Their crimes were not motivated by atheism. Stalin’s murderous career was driven by his interpretation of Marxist-Leninist ideology; Hitler’s by racist eugenics, combined with extreme nationalism and militarism. If anything, both dictators built quasi-religious cults of personality that elevated each of them to the status of near-gods in their respective countries.

The lesson is clear—while individual atheists may indeed commit horrific crimes, it is not their atheism itself that compels them. What is needed for otherwise normal people to commit evil is religion.

So is religion dangerous? According to Dawkins, there is strong evidence to suggest it is.

Is Religion Dangerous? How Belief Warps Morals

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The God Delusion summary :

  • Why Dawkins thinks religion has exerted a harmful influence on human society
  • How Dawkins concludes that the existence of God is unlikely
  • The 3 arguments that challenge the existence of God

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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