Why God won’t go away – by Alister McGrath
by Alister McGrath
Paperback, Thomas Nelson, 2011
Following the events of 9/11 a phenomena has arisen in western culture which has been called New Atheism, and it’s leading exponents, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens sometimes called the `four horsemen’ of New Atheism. In this new book, Alister McGrath, a former atheist who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology and was the chair of historical theology at the University of Oxford explores what the New Atheism is, and what makes it distinctive from `old’ Atheism. He examines some the central claims, themes and critiques found in the writings of these four main protagonists as well as other sections of the movement, and looks at where the movement may be heading.
While atheism itself is not new, he concludes that its anti-theistic antagonism is novel, but seems to be alienating itself from having any real impact on wider society. One of the most interesting phenomena is that while the physical impact of New Atheism is minimal, its online presence and the kind of communities that exist on New Atheist Web sites is, says McGrath, where its ‘heartbeat’ lies.
McGrath explores the three central themes in the New Atheist movement: violence, reason and science. He shows how the main proponents of New Atheism are often woefully out of touch and out of date with the literature in areas such as philosophy of science and history, often cherry picking or ignoring anything that doesn’t fit into their ‘religion is bad’ meta-narrative. He also shows how the New Atheists have tended to redefine terms in order to suit their own agenda and propaganda, and all too often simply assume the intellectual high ground and refuse to admit the rationality of any view but their own. His overall impression is that New Atheism largely relies on rhetoric and ridicule rather than rational discourse.
McGrath’s observations of what he calls New Atheist ‘foot soldiers’ – the commenters on the major New Atheist Web sites – resonates with my own observations, and his quotes of specific comments are all too familiar. In recounting personal encounters which show a huge rational blind-spot on the part of his antagonist, he recognises that there is often a gap between academic theory and practice of adherents but that they should never-the-less be taken into account by critics and supporters. McGrath also points out that he is not referring to all atheists, and defends those who are rational, considerate and allow disagreement.
McGrath writes with wit and incision and despite dealing with serious questions of philosophy and science, this book is very accessible, enjoyable and easy to read. I read the whole thing in one sitting. The book is very well referenced and, and he often points out where his criticisms are shared by other atheist and agnostic writers.
The book is certainly not a defence of Christian belief, nor does it attempt to rebut the charges of New Atheism, rather, it explores what drives the movement, and often critiques the assumptions that lie behind their arguments.
This book deserves to be read by anyone interested in the debate, though I suspect that those who fall under McGrath’s criticism will, as he rightly criticises, either ignore or simply dismiss and ridicule those criticisms. I do hope I’m wrong on that point. A healthy world-view is one which can look critically at itself, but if McGrath’s appraisal of New Atheism is accurate, there seems to be little openness to such self-assessment from most in that camp.
Is the New Atheism running on empty? McGrath seems to think the tank is full of anger and polemic rather than anything rationally substantial. I think he might just be right.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.