Atheist professor and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has said that Christians who do good only to avoid Hell or to receive the award of Heaven are "self-centered."
"If you're good because you want to carry favor with God, if you're good because you want to avoid going to Hell, or if you want to go to Heaven, that's a rather ignoble, self-centered reason to be good," Dawkins said during an interview with Ireland's RTÉ One on Sunday.
"I fully accept that an awful lot of good deeds are done by people who happen to be religious, but I think it's rather insulting to suggest that you need religion in order to be good."
The author of The God Delusion warned that sometimes religious faith might push otherwise good people to do terrible things. He suggested that the 9/11 hijackers who killed nearly 3,000 people in the U.S. all sincerely believed they were doing the "right and proper, moral religious thing."
"They were not in and of themselves evil, they were following their faith. And faith is pernicious, because it can do that to people," he argued.
RTÉ host Gay Byrne chimed in, adding that many of the world's most "ghastly" people — Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong — did "unspeakable awful things to people, and they were all atheists."
Dawkins disputed that Hitler was an atheist, calling him a Catholic, and insisted that all those people did "horrible things, and they were horrible people, but not in the name of atheism."
Dawkins has often condemned the belief in eternal Hell. Back in 2012 he said that teaching children about Hell might even be worse than some cases of sexual abuse at the hands priests, which he has experienced.
"Thank goodness, I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe — really and truly and deeply believe — in Hell. But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse," the atheist author said at the time.
Byrne's "The Meaning of Life" program often explores religious questions, and earlier this year sparked controversy after atheist actor Stephen Fry called God "utterly evil" and "monstrous" for designing a world in which children get bone cancer, and suffer other diseases.
Anglican Archbishop the Most Rev. Justin Welby said that Fry is entitled to his opinion and urged Christians not to attack him for it.
"It is as much the right of Stephen Fry to say what he said and not to be abused improperly by Christians who are affronted as it is the right of Christians to proclaim Jesus Christ," Welby said.