Disclaimer: This is my first attempt on this blog to work through some pressing theological issues in my personal life. I hope you find it helpful, and I hope you might be able to offer some encouraging words if you have struggled through some of the same thoughts. Part One will feature an introduction and review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006), Part Two will include a review of Alister McGrath’s response to the New Atheism movement, Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running On Empty? (Thomas Nelson, 2010), and Part Three will consist of some concluding thoughts and personal theological reflection . 

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My wife Alyssa and I often disagree on matters of theology. In particular, we frequently find ourselves arguing over the exact starting point of theological reflection. For Alyssa, the most important question facing the one who acknowledges the existence of God is What ought we to do? This question proceeds from a sincere concern for orthopraxy over orthodoxy, from the desire for ethical living in light of the theological claim, “God is.” God is, therefore, how are we to live? I deeply admire this question, and have tried to ponder its implications for my own personal life for years. However, as I approach theology, I have difficulty circumventing the more pressing initial question, “Does God exist?” as an underlying assumption. Some might perhaps prefer the question, “Is God?” instead. If God does not exist—that is, if God is not—then there seems to be little point in continuing any form of personal devotion to the supposed deity. It is from this concern for theological prolegomena that I have considered two works—one by an atheist and one by a Christian—and presented my deliberation of their merit in the essay below.

I should be entirely forthcoming before I embark on this period of reflection: atheism makes me anxious. I try my best to live as a faithful disciple of Christ, but I am often too easily swayed by sharp rhetoric and flashy infographics. My anxiety is compounded by the fact that as a student of the humanities, I have very little training in or knowledge of the natural sciences. It seems plausible that human neurology or psychology can tell us all we need to know about the origins of religion. It seems plausible, given our personal experience of the physical world, that miracles don’t happen and that all mysterious phenomena occurring in the natural world are capable of being explained rationally (my apologies to David Hume for drastically over-simplifying his arguments here). I simply do not have the skill set needed to investigate such questions as thoroughly as they deserve. On the other hand, I am inspired by the great work produced by the likes of Francis Collins, Ian Barbour, Sallie McFague, T.F. Torrance, and others who have sought to reconcile religion (particularly Christianity) and the scientific study of the natural world.[1] It is with this admission of uncertainty and with openness of my own personal inclinations that I proceed with my analysis of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006) and Alister McGrath’s Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty? (Thomas Nelson, 2010).

Do atheism and the natural sciences pose a threat to religious faith?

Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell
There is an old story about a man in a car who passes a barn on the highway and notices that the barn is covered in bulls-eyes with arrows sticking out of the dead center of each target. A farmer stands near the barn, drawing his bow, and the man in the car decides to pull over and observe. “That’s some incredible marksmanship!” the man calls to the farmer. “Nah, it’s easy!” The farmer replies. He releases his arrow, hits a random spot in the side of the barn, and proceeds to paint a bulls-eye target around the arrow he just shot.

Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell by and large follows the same methodology as that of the farmer’s archery skills. It’s easy to “break the spell” of religion—that is, examine it too closely and kill the illusion it offers—when one begins with certain presuppositions at the outset and proceeds to paint their argument to fit these assumptions. Throughout the book, the author attempts to show his readers that religion has a natural, evolutionary origin, and once served a biological purpose for early human development. However, he offers little more than tentative theories regarding what that purpose might have been. Is religion the result of some prehistoric “sweet tooth” area that developed in our brains? Or does it more closely resemble the traits of a bacterium or parasite that “infects” the human mind and is “spread” from host to host?

The biggest problem with Dennett’s work is in his “atheological prolegomena” of sorts. Namely, the author “paints the bulls-eye around the arrow” when it comes to defining religion itself—if it doesn’t fit Dennett’s “tentative” definition of religious faith, it is not a religion. From the beginning, the author distinguishes seemingly at his own whim what does and does not constitute a true religion. Furthermore, from the opening pages of the book he perpetuates the false dichotomy between “religion” and “spirituality,” a divide often promoted by today’s “spiritual but not religious” crowd. According to Dennett’s logic, the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam constitute religions, but those who practice a private spirituality are not religious. Neither, for whatever reason, are those sects the author identifies as “satanic cults”.  With religion so narrowly defined according to Dennett’s own specifications, he has little trouble pointing out seemingly fatal flaws in the faith of the religious. The author is clearly a skilled target painter.

Dennett frequently offers egregiously generalized straw man characterizations of religious persons while bolstering his own positive view of “brights” (that is, the term coined in 2003 by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell to refer to those who have risen above the irrational muckity-muck of religious faith). Atheists are friendly, open to criticism and dialogue, while their religious opponents are superstitious of any outsiders who might want to examine their faith with a skeptical objectivity (pp.16-17). Dennett also operates on the assumption that such skeptical objectivity is even possible in the study of religion. He offers little or no substantiation for some of his claims, which occasionally border on the level of personal hunch, while challenging his opponents to prove his intuition wrong using evidence that he himself doesn’t see fit to offer:

 I, for one, fear that if we don’t subject religion to…scrutiny now, and work out together whatever revisions and reforms are called for, we will pass on a legacy of ever more toxic forms of religion to our descendants. I can’t prove that, and those who are dead sure that this will not happen are encouraged to say what supports their conviction, aside from loyalty to their tradition, which goes without saying and doesn’t count for anything here (pp.39-40).

Despite these shortcomings, I found Dennett’s book delightfully written, and quite passive in its rhetoric compared to the work of some of his New Atheist contemporaries. At times the author can be quite humorous. Additionally, Dennett does ask some important questions worthy of consideration by theists. He is correct in his contention that the claims of religions should be scrutinized closely (perhaps what religious folk might call, “testing the spirits”), and that upon closer examination many creeds may indeed be found to contain little more than superstitious nonsense. He is also sympathetic (though incompliant) with those who argue that the spell should not be broken, that the religious should just be allowed to continue on their merry way of self-delusion. Though much of his argument relies on the now all but abandoned Dawkinsian theory of the meme, his concern for unearthing the origin of not just religious belief but also “belief in belief” is laudable. The historical genesis of early Yahwism in particular remains a mystery to many scholars to this day, and deserves continued research into its development. Just how did a belief in a sole invisible creator deity arise amid a culture that offered an infinite personal pantheon of physical idols? If modern humans do have a “God center” in the brain, why did that develop (Dennett offers few concrete answers)? There are more religious people willing to ask serious questions—even at the risk of breaking their own “spell”—than the author himself realizes.


[1] I am aware this personal view constitutes what could be considered an appeal to authority fallacy. While I admire these women and men—and I do hope that their views are in some ways “more correct” than those of the New Atheists—I am not so naïve as to suggest that they are correct simply because they are experts.

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