Posted by jlwile on March 6, 2012
Dr. Alister Edgar McGrath is a remarkable man. He holds an earned PhD in molecular biophysics and an earned Doctor of Divinity degree, both from the University of Oxford. He was once an atheist, but while studying chemistry at Oxford, he began to realize that the evidence for atheism was “circular, tentative, and uncertain.” The more he examined the evidence, the more convinced he became that Christianity was the most rational worldview. As a result, he became a Christian.
Because he was once an atheist, he continues to study atheism today. One of his best books is The Dawkins Delusion?, where he shows why atheists should be embarrassed by Dr. Richard Dawkins. However, that’s not the book I am writing about. Instead, I am writing about another one of McGrath’s masterpieces, Why God Won’t Go Away. Having publicly debated both Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, McGrath is well aware that many in the “New Atheist” camp would like God to go away. However, as McGrath demonstrates in this easy-to-read book, God stubbornly refuses to comply with the desires of the New Atheists.
Now even though this is an easy-to-read book, it is not simple or superficial. It is a deep, serious discussion of the New Atheist movement and its severe intellectual problems. However, McGrath is such an excellent teacher that you hardly notice how deep the material is until you put down the book and start thinking about what you have read.
After giving the reader an introduction to the roots of new atheism, he discusses what ‘s “new” about it. Essentially, it boils down to anger. Atheists, by and large, used to be much more measured and rational in their critiques of religion. The New Atheists, however, have gone off the deep end, and most of them don’t even realize how absurd their behavior is. As McGrath says:
I am not easily shocked, but in the past I’ve found myself disturbed by the simple sloganeering, venomous contempt, rhetorical violence, and sheer hate directed by some [atheist] bloggers against religion. Nobody does nasty as well as New Atheist websites…Yet isn’t such irrational hatred what the New Atheists want us to believe is characteristic only of religion? (pp. 49-50 – emphasis his, in italics)
With the history and characteristics of the New Atheist movement covered, McGrath attacks three of the “core themes” found in most New Atheist writings. First, he tackles the myth that religion is a major cause of violence in human history. As McGrath clearly demonstrates, while religion has been behind some violence in human history, that is the exception, rather than the rule. In addition, he highlights a few of the many cases in which atheism has resulted in severe violence against religious people. Finally, he discusses cases of violence that arose purely as a result of secular disputes. In the end, he rightly concludes that violence is not the result of belief in God or a lack thereof. Instead, it is the result of people using any number of things (gender, class, language, geography, religion, etc.) to distinguish themselves from other groups of people.
The second New Atheist core theme that McGrath discusses is reason. He shows how the New Atheists try to portray themselves as the proponents of reason, while those who have faith are forced to ignore reason. McGrath shows that this is clearly not the case. He sums the situation up quite nicely as follows:
Perhaps some religious people do refuse to think. My studies of New Atheist Web sites lead me to believe they’re not alone in that. But it’s just nonsense to represent this as typical of either religion or atheism. (p. 85, emphasis his in italics)
The final core theme of New Atheism that McGrath destroys is the idea that atheism is supported by science, while religion can only be supported by denying science. McGrath shows that this view is simply not scientifically accurate. He spends quite a bit of time discussing what science is and how it is done, showing that it is not necessarily atheism’s ally. In addition, he demonstrates quite conclusively that the old idea of science and religion being at war with one another is not historically or scientifically tenable.
He ends his book with a chapter on where New Atheism is now and another chapter on why it will not make God go away. In fact, for some people, it is drawing them to God. To illustrate this, he ends his book with a story that probably counts as one of the best nonfiction book endings I have ever read. Previously, that distinction went to Galileo’s Daughter. In the case of that book, I couldn’t bring myself to reveal the ending, because it is an amazing surprise. This time, however, I can’t help myself. Here is how McGrath ends his book:
I’d just finished giving a lecture in London in early 2010. A young man came up afterward and asked me to sign a copy of my textbook Christian Theology: An Introduction. I asked him what had led him to study theology. He told me that he’d read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion a year or so earlier and it seemed so unfair and one-sided that he felt he needed to hear the other side. So he started going to church. After a while, he found he could not sustain his faith in the parody when confronted with the real thing. He converted to Christianity – joyfully and decisively. “Without Dawkins,” he told me, “I would never have given God a second thought.”
As I signed the book, the young man told me he had a theological question for me. Since The God Delusion had been instrumental in his conversion, should he thank God for Richard Dawkins in his prayers?
I’m still thinking about that one. (p. 147)