Why God Won’t Go Away

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)

21 thoughts on “Why God Won’t Go Away”

  1. I already had this book on hold when you posted, and now I’m really looking forward to it. My poor mother will have to start complaining about my incredibly strange (and mostly one-sided I admit) conversations again. I tend to tell her everything that I found even slightly interesting in my reading, so my current interests tend to relay themselves to her. Currently she is learning more about Lew Wallace, Lawrence of Arabia, and the Waldenses than she ever wanted to know.
    And I didn’t read the ending. Ha.

  2. How’s this: we pray for poor Dawkin’s soul, just to spite his wishes. Hohohoho.

    This puts me in mind of what Lewis said about how the rantings of the New Atheists hurt not the Christian in him, but the old atheist part of him.

    1. Montague, I don’t understand your comment about Lewis. He died long before the New Atheism movement. Was he talking about belligerent atheists? They have always been around, of course. They were just fairly rare before New Atheism arose.

  3. Ah, sorry… but I suppose that those atheists are not the “new atheists”. But it just was so similar to what ones sees today.

    Let’s see… I believe that it was in Surprised by Joy, but I don’t have it on had right now so I don’t have the exact quote. :C Probably in the Chapter “The Great Knock”

  4. Did you see where R. Dawkins said at a recent debate he is a 6.9 out of 7 as to the question of whether or not God exists? (7 – God does not exist; 1– He does) Evidently, at this point, he cannot rule it out with absolute certainty. I think this makes him agnostic on some level!

  5. Dr. Wile,
    Also had a comment about the very interesting thought you ended with in the post. I have had these same types of thoughts regarding how God has used Mr. Shooter to deepen my understanding of the topics you present and how he could be using Mr. Dickel to do the same, although I disagree with most of the positions they take and I certainly understand why they sometimes must be banned when it becomes unedifying or too distracting.

    1. Elizabeth, God does, indeed, use many people (even atheists) to help guide us closer to him. This is one reason I let people like L.W. rant on and on. They often make my point better than I do. Shooter is the only person I have banned.

  6. I remember watching that Ben Stein movie and being completely flabbergasted that R. Dawkins would suggest there may be some validilty to ID theory…that could be explained by alien life forms from other planets!!! I was astounded. He seemed somewhat willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Intelligent Design as long extraterrestrials were responsible (and not God). I don’t remember the 51% comment though. I actually own it so I may get it out and watch again.

    1. Elizabeth, there is a part in the documentary where Stein asks Dawkins to assign a number to the probability that God doesn’t exist. Dawkins says he is not comfortable doing it, but Stein presses him. He starts off high (in the 90s), but Stein eventually “talks him down” to 51%.

  7. That interview made me laugh so hard… Poor Dawkins. He pretty much said at one point that maybe a god did create the universe but it couldn’t be the God of Abraham because Dawkins doesn’t like him. At least from what I remember.

  8. It’s the only one I remember in any detail. I was probably fourteen when my pastor showed it at an all-nighter. I should probably watch it again.

  9. We ought to thank God for the impact Dawkins has made. For one, In The Delluaion, he really only attacks poor scriptural theology, and second, God uses false teachers to spur the minds of those being taught into hunger for scripture and for learning in general.

  10. Okay, that was great. Definately one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. My favorite was how he showed that eventually New Atheists have only one place to lay the blame–man. Because God doesn’t exist. So much for humanism!

    1. I am glad that you enjoyed it, Grace. The other excellent thing I thought he did in that part of the book was to point out that if God is just an invention of man (as they claim), then when they complain about how nasty God is, they are really just complaining about how nasty man is!

  11. I assume the movie you are referring to is Expelled. Can you provide a review for it? No one seems to give evidence for whether or not it makes valid points but rather condemns it without justification.

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