The following is part two of my three-part reflection on contemporary atheism and Christianity. Part One featured an introduction and review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006). Today’s post includes 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). Part Three will consist of some concluding thoughts and personal theological reflection . 

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Is the New Atheism running on empty, or does it have a full tank?

Alister McGrath’s Why God Won’t Go Away
McGrath’s response to Dennett’s work in particular is disappointingly minimal, comprising little more than five short pages of a blistering harangue. Some of McGrath’s criticisms have merit, as we shall see, while others do not, such as the suggestion that Dennett’s book “failed to sell as well” as those of his New Atheist contemporaries like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, ostensibly due to a lack of fiery rhetoric in Breaking the Spell that characterizes much of the work of other New Atheists (p.21). This seemed to be less of a constructive criticism and more of a self-righteous jab at McGrath’s opponent—after all, I would much prefer the understanding, even-tempered tone of Dennett’s book to the intolerant approach of the other so-called Horsemen.

Unfortunately, McGrath’s rhetoric at times rivals that of the New Atheists:

Another curious feature of the book is its excessive dependency upon Dawkins’s notion of the meme, and idea already falling out of favor as Dennett was writing. Dawkins and Dennett clearly understand the meme in different ways, which is only what you’d expect given that the meme is clearly something imagined rather than observed (p.23).

Is this not a comically similar argument to that offered by Dennett and his ilk regarding theism? God is, after all, understood in a multitude of ways, and this multiplicity of theistic thought often appears to anti-theists as evidence that those who believe in God do so as “something imagined rather than observed”.

In some cases, Dennett’s book deserves defending from McGrath’s wild and occasionally errant attacks. McGrath characterizes Dennett’s argument that religion should be subjected to rigorous academic study as suggesting that such study should only be carried out by “those whose minds are unclouded by any religious commitments” (p.25). This, however, is vastly unfair to Dennett, who argues only that “People who want to study religion usually…either want to defend their favorite religion from its critics or want to demonstrate the irrationality and futility of religion, and this tends to infect their methods with bias” (Dennett, p.32, emphasis mine). Dennett clearly recognizes bias on both sides of the theistic/anti-theistic divide, and suggests that any reasonable study of religion should be carried out with as much objectivity and as little bias as is humanly possible—which is the expectation of nearly all scholarship within the natural sciences.

However, McGrath rightly notes (as mentioned above in my assessment of Breaking the Spell) that Dennett fails to clearly distinguish between religion and theism—a grave mistake when considering religion as a natural phenomenon. What evolutionary purposes are served by those religions without deities, such as Jainism and several forms of Buddhism? Additionally, McGrath also observes Dennett’s tendency to provide personal beliefs alongside an assertion that no rational explanation for them is necessary (p.22-23).

Furthermore, McGrath does make several decent arguments worth the consideration of those persuaded by the claims of the New Atheists. He successfully illustrates, contrary to Dawkins and Hitchens, that religion does not inevitably lead to violence and bigotry, and that in contrast not all purely secular societies are peaceful, equitable, and humane, as exhibited by the several attempted atheistic civilizations offered by Marxism. Nor is religious belief the result of irrationality, only to be overcome by the spell-breaking of rational anti-theists. In a few short pages, McGrath attempts to illustrate that many religious worldviews are no more inherently irrational than those of atheists. Finally, the author tackles the centuries-old notion that faith and modern science are incompatible. There are limits to science and reason, McGrath claims. This is not a reworking of “God-of-the-gaps” theology, but recognition that the physical, observable world can only tell us so much—that they are limited, just as theology is limited without knowledge of science. Astrophysicists can tell us more and more about how the universe works, but for every question answered three more are asked. According to McGrath, there will likely never be a point in human history in which we completely understand the whys of existence. It doesn’t take a post-Enlightenment mind to recognize that the nature of fire does not allow for a bush to burn without being consumed (let alone for that bush to talk), nor does it take a full understanding of the scientific method to know that donkeys cannot speak to their riders, that women don’t really get turned into pillars of salt, and that dead people most certainly never, ever, ever return from the grave.

McGrath does a fantastic job of critiquing the methods and motives of the New Atheist movement (even if, as explained above, he occasionally goes a bit overboard in his criticisms), and exposing some of the overblown anti-religion rhetoric that has been a hallmark of the movement since its genesis in response to the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. But contrary to what the title of the book suggests, McGrath unfortunately doesn’t explain why the notion of God won’t go away (aside from the claim that Christians have “always” believed in a human “homing instinct” toward God—see pp.24, 145), but instead simply offers the mea culpa that he does not have the time or the space to argue an exhaustive case for theism in such a short book (p.146). With that in mind, perhaps the Why from the title should be dropped—God Won’t Go Away is more fitting for the work that McGrath has produced.

The conclusion to be drawn from Why God Won’t Go Away is that while decent arguments against a theistic reality do exist, the majority of those who identify as New Atheists do not consider or utilize these arguments, opting instead for frenzied hyperbole and unverifiable claims. McGrath ends his book by confidently predicting the slow death of New Atheism, but also by encouraging a continued civil dialogue between theists and atheists with sincere questions and motives in search of truth.