Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Review: Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty? by Alister McGrath

Is another book on the New Atheism necessary? I’ve overcome my initial skepticism of the latest response to the New Atheism, and recommend McGrath’s treatment as a succinct, insightful analysis. McGrath has an imitable ability to demolish an opponent while employing irenic arguments calculated to convince rather than enflame. Why God Won’t God Away is the book you need to hand to the sincere atheist who questions today’s cadre of celebrity atheists.

Part One introduces us to the New Atheism in two chapters. 9/11 was the catalyst for launching a belligerent attack on every variety of God belief. The opening salvo was Sam Harris’s The End of Faith which unwarrantably linked Islamic terrorism with religion in general, suggesting the world’s ills are categorically due to people of faith. McGrath positions Harris’s style of atheism with its “dogged, even violent, intolerance” outside the more mild-mannered contemporary atheist establishment. He also identifies in Harris a characteristic unwillingness of the New Atheists to distinguish between destructive and constructive religious behaviors.

If Harris is the New Atheism’s pioneer, Richard Dawkins is its high priest, Daniel Dennett is its philosophical heavyweight who fails to enter the ring, and Christopher Hitchens is its rhetorical spinster. Dawkins pronounces belief in God irrational, violent, and scientifically implausible. His priestly status permits him to posit scientific dogmas (like memes) in the absence of scientific evidence. Dennett’s ponderous approach lacks the “verbal aggressiveness and ridicule” that characterize his colleagues. Yet his critique fails to mount serious objections to arguments for God’s existence. The most surprising aspect of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is its “baffling disinclination to engage properly and rigorously” with traditional philosophical arguments. Hitchens employs his tremendous sense of humor, scathing wit, and rhetorical flare to bolster the New Atheists’ cause, but equally dispenses with the need of backing up his claims with serious argumentation.

McGrath’s second chapter introduces us to what’s new about the New Atheism. First, it is aggressively anti-theistic. These atheists are neither apathetic nor agnostic toward belief in God, but militantly opposed to religion, Christianity in particular. In fact, the New Atheism is “dependent on its enemies for its core identity.” Second, the New Atheism has carved out a global community of adherents through its exploitation of online resources. The writings of the “Four Horseman” represent the “canonical writings” of the movement buttressed by thousands of epigonic bloggers. The New Atheists have successfully carried their message from the halls of academia into the broader thought stream of popular western culture. Or have they?

McGrath concludes chapter two with four suggestions that the army of New Atheists, despite their bluster, may be little more than a motley battalion of disgruntled, disorganized troops. First, although Dawkins’s God Delusion was trumpeted as a global best-seller, it managed only 3 percent of the sales Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life enjoyed. Second, the New Atheism evinces a tendency to devour its own when a fellow atheist identifies chinks in the atheist armor. Julian Baggini, an atheist and contemporary author who suggested the New Atheism was characterized by anger toward religion and a hubristic self-proclaimed monopoly on reason, found himself the victim of intense friendly fire. Third, the online Dawkins Forum was similarly victimized when it clamped down on members who employed scatological and deliberately offensive language. Finally, the stillborn attempt by the New Atheists to adopt the sobriquet “bright” in place of “atheist” served only to illustrate that they delighted in the ad hominen suggestion that their opponents were dim.

Part Two identifies three core themes in the New Atheists’ rhetorical playbook, violence, reason, and science. Christopher Hitchens’s subtitle “religion poisons everything” is a frequent mantra in the New Atheism’s literature. But “religion” as employed by the atheists is a false universal. Hitchens and his colleagues assume that an act of violence done in the name of one religion indicts the practitioners of every religion as de facto violent. Yet they fail to impeach the atheist community on the same grounds, ignoring the brutal atrocities committed by atheist monsters of brutality at the helms of modern states. Atheists completely ignore the Christian practice of nonviolence demonstrated by countless Christian communities. McGrath offers the critical suggestion that violence comes not from religion per se, but derives from one’s worldview metanarrative. The “antireligious metanarrative” embedded in the atheistic ideology of the Soviet Union led to widespread violence against Christianity. The New Atheists remain willfully ignorant of such atrocities.

A second theme is the consistently applied assumption that atheism is rational; any alternative is consequently irrational. By arbitrarily limiting the domain of rationality to those who deny the existence of God, the New Atheists ignore leading philosophers and writers who affirm the rationality of faith—Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and C.S. Lewis to name a few. Ironically, the New Atheists have painted themselves into a corner with a narrow human logic that is existentially untenable. Life can’t be lived within the tight parameters delimited by an insistence upon the exclusivity of empirically testable beliefs.

Further, the atheist worldview finds itself suspended on the horns of a dilemma when it insists that God doesn’t exist, yet belief in God is the source of all evil. If God truly doesn’t exist, then the atheist can’t blame him for the Holocaust. It turns out guilt attaches to “human beings in the twentieth century, supposedly at the zenith of their rationality and morality.” The atheist is in an awkward place because he insists 1) “God is evil and nasty” and 2) “God is a delusion created by human beings.” The atheist cannot point to God as the source of evil, but must point rather to his own worldview. (The Christian, by exonerating God of moral culpability can legitimately point the finger at man as the source of evil, and still maintain the principle of good. The atheist is left only with evil.)

McGrath rightly notes that a benefit of postmodernism is its “protest against the existential inadequacy of rationalism and . . . authoritarianism.” The New Atheism is a holdover of Enlightenment thought that promised more than it delivered. It represents the dying embers of a naturalistic narrative which never adequately supported its dogmatisms. In a brilliant maneuver, McGrath turns the darlings of modernistic thought, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin against the New Atheists. True, Marx insisted that God was a social construct, a point the New Atheists flaunt. But they fail to recognize that Marx insisted that all ideas are socially constructed; consequently atheism too doesn’t escape criticism on the same grounds. Likewise, Freud insisted that we lack access to our true motivations which are lodged deep within our subconsciousness. So how can a philosopher like Dennett be certain of his naturalistic philosophical assumptions? Finally, if Darwinism suggests that we are hardwired for survival rather than truth seeking, “what are its implications for the ‘pure reason’ in which the New Atheism places so much trust”?

The third theme McGrath investigates is the New Atheists’ pretended monopoly on truth by claiming jurisdiction over science while minimizing all other vehicles of human knowledge. Further, they suppose their brand of science is entirely evidenced based. “Faith” says Dawkins, is belief “in the total absence of supporting evidence.” But McGrath offers a critical correction when he distinguishes between “total absence of supporting evidence” and the “absence of totally supporting evidence.” There are some domains of knowledge (mathematics and logic) where absolute proof may be possible. But most domains of human inquiry work in a state of “absence of totally supporting evidence.” Even Darwin recognized he couldn’t prove that “’natural selection’ provided the most elegant and persuasive explanation of all biological life forms.” Unambiguous evidence rarely exists in science.

McGrath suggests several areas of limitation in scientific explanation. It cannot answer life’s great questions, nor can it help us define ethical norms. Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape implicitly acknowledges as much, by failing to provide a foundation for moral behavior and turning rather to a rant against religion. Instead of shoring up their foundations, the New Atheists blaze away at faith. In many instances, their anti-religious zeal manifests itself in hackneyed arguments that demonstrate an astonishing ignorance of contemporary scholarship. For instance, Christopher Hitchens continually repeats the long disproven notion that medieval man believed the earth was flat. The New Atheists are illegitimately fanning the flames of the supposed war between science and religion that characterized the historiographically misguided polemics of John Draper and Andrew White in the nineteenth century. Several times McGrath reiterates the truth that “the New Atheism disregards the huge body of scholarly literature concerning the nature and impact of religion.”

In Part Three, McGrath asks, “Where does the New Atheism go from here”? Its increasing impotency is indicated by its failure to provide responsible rational responses to the surge of Christian publications aimed at demolishing its intellectual pretentions. Further, it increasingly substitutes ridicule for rationality when responding to its opponents. McGrath suggests it reached its nadir on September 30, 2009, the underwhelming first ever “Blasphemy Day.” The New Atheists appeared to be little more than aggressively antagonistic Christ-haters rather than champions of philosophical naturalism or science.

McGrath suggests that the widespread resurgence of faith at the turn of the century argues that God will not go away. He is optimistic that an evanescent secularism has revealed again the long hidden light of Christianity. In a concluding anecdote, McGrath relates the experience of a young man who came to faith in Christ by reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. He concluded Dawkins’s arguments were so sloppy and one-sided, he should investigate the other side. “Without Dawkins I would never have given God a second thought.”

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Brenton Cook holds a PhD in Church History and teaches undergraduate courses in Philosophy, Apologetics, and Worldview at Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC. He also teaches graduate courses in Church History in BJU’s Seminary and Graduate School of Religion.


  1. Johnson C. Philip October 16, 2011

    "Further, the atheist worldview finds itself suspended on the horns of a dilemma when it insists that God doesn’t exist, yet belief in God is the source of all evil."

    The more we study the philosophy of atheism, the more we discover such contradictions.

    Johnson C. Philip

  2. xntubes October 23, 2011

    Sam Harris does make a clear distinction between "destructive and constructive religious behaviors" in this video:

    Sam Harris: The Problem with Islamic Fundamentalism are the Fundamentals of Islam