Alister McGrath’s Why God Won’t Go Away (2010) is a brief and very readable introduction to what is commonly referred to as the “New Atheism.” As a former atheist himself, and one who has debated the leading proponents of the New Atheism, McGrath is certainly qualified to discuss the subject.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first, McGrath defines the New Atheism and introduces the reader to its leading proponents—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. The second part discusses the three main themes of the New Atheism. One chapter is devoted to each theme–violence, reason, and science. In the third and final part, McGrath concludes that the New Atheism has reached its “sell by date” and is losing its appeal. The public is showing signs of boredom, and traditional atheists are increasingly embarrassed by the antics of the “Four Horsemen” introduced in Part One.
The attention given the New Atheism is a product of the news media’s thirst for sensationalism. Its proponents simply attack religious belief—all religious belief, not just Christianity—with very emotionally charged vocabulary and unfounded arguments. With the help of journalists eager for copy, their books have sold well. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) has sold nearly a million copies. The statistics are impressive, but not too impressive when placed in perspective. Sales of Christian author Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life (2002) are closing in on the 30 million figure.
The New Atheists argue that religious faith is irrational, an unintended wrong turn in the evolutionary history of human beings. Dawkins refers to religious belief as a “virus of the mind.” The terminology is important, because such terminology was used by Social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century to justify the destruction of “inferior” people groups. Houston Stewart Chamberlain referred to Jews as germs. Whether labeled a virus or a germ, those infected must be cured of their malady. In his critic of religious belief in The End of Faith (2004), Sam Harris argues that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (quoted on p. 10).
The New Atheists claim that their charges against religious belief are grounded in reason and science. Alister McGrath demonstrates that they are wrong on both counts. Finite human reason has its limitations. The belief that ultimate truth can be found through reason alone is a legacy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. McGrath puts it well, when he writes: “Human logic may be rationally adequate, but it’s also existentially deficient. Faith declares that there’s more to life than this. It doesn’t contradict reason but transcends it. It elicits and invites rational consent but does not compel it” (p. 89).
Rationalism is elitist in that it divides people into those who know the truth and those who are yet ignorant of the truth. Whether we are talking about religious or secular ideologies, unquestioned faith in the reliability of human reason leads to fundamentalism, a dogmatic certainty that refuses to recognize the limitations of human reason. There is a growing realization, says McGrath, “that reason cannot [emphasis in original] be used to establish its own authority and competence” (p. 100). Reason is useful for articulating and defending the criteria by which we justify our beliefs, but we must “also realize that those beliefs may lie beyond proof” (p. 101).
Here I think McGrath is making a point important for Christians to grasp. Christians have traditionally held that humans are totally fallen, including their capacity to reason. At some point the truth must be revealed, or affirmed, supernaturally. Authoritative answers to those questions of ultimate meaning and purpose are beyond the limits of finite reason. There is a chasm between what can be acknowledged as reasonable, or logical, and therefore true, and knowing that what we believe to be true is in fact true.
Alister McGrath exposes the fallacy in the New Atheists’ claim that science proves that religious belief is irrational and can be explained as an “unintended outcome of human evolution” (16). Science is often “hijacked” by fundamentalists of every variety, those who Eric Hoffer described in his classic, The True Believer (1951).
Legitimate science seeks to understand things. It can give us reasons for believing certain things to be true—e. g., how the universe works. It is about finding the best understanding of things, but recognizes that new discoveries will necessitate new explanations. Questions of value and meaning are beyond science. When science ventures into the realm of metaphysics, it ceases to be science. As McGrath points out, science cannot generate values.
In the end, the New Atheism is a fad, whose attraction grows increasingly dimmer, day by day. Reason and science cannot explain why human beings appear to be “programmed” for religious faith. Is not atheism, itself, a faith? McGrath concludes, “There’s something about human nature that makes us want to reach out beyond rational and empirical limits, questing for meaning and significance” (146). I seem to remember hearing something similar in numerous sermons. Didn’t it have to do with something about an empty spot in everyone’s heart that only Jesus Christ can fill?