Review of “Why God Won’t Go Away”
McGrath, Alister. Why God Won’t Go Away: Is The New Atheism Running on Empty? Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
Allister McGrath attempts to tackle what has been one of the most prominent trends of the first decade of the 21st century: Neo-atheism. The entire first section of the book is dedicated to explaining what neo-atheism is, and a number of neo-atheist authors are discussed, including Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins.
The book is divided into three major parts: (a) What Is the New Atheism, (b) Engaging the New Atheism: Three Core Themes, and (c) Where Does the New Atheism Go from Here? McGrath also writes an excellent introduction, includes numerous footnotes, and a great “further reading” list.
The first major part of the book, “What Is the New Atheism,” is simply an introduction to the topic. The two chapters included in this section discuss how this movement started and what makes it “new” compared to “old” atheism. Basically, this school of thought moves away from simply not believing in God, to being anti-God; neo-atheists fervently attempt to “convert” Christians (and people belonging to other religious groups, be it Islam, Buddhism, or Judaism) to atheism. McGrath describes categories of atheism: (1) “apathetic” atheism, or agnosticism, (2) “committed atheists,” or those who actively believe that there is no God, and (3) anti-theists, which is the category that the neo-atheists fall under. These people are often referred to as “militant” atheists, who are angry about the idea that people believe in God.
The second part of the book, “Engaging the New Atheism: Three Core Themes,” approaches neo-atheism on three fronts: violence, reason, and science. The first, violence, stems from the idea that neo-atheists lump all religions into the non-existent universal category of “Religion,” and then views “Religion” as the source of all violence and evil. McGrath takes the time to explore this view, and then challenge it with the idea that Christianity is founded on ideals of non-violence, while atheist states, such as the Soviet Union under Stalin, tended to be very violent, especially towards religious groups.
The next chapter, on the theme of reason, is probably my favorite chapter in the book. McGrath points out that many Christian philosophers, including Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and C.S. Lewis, have argued that faith should “justify itself by argument.” Richard Dawkins, a leading neo-atheist, obviously disagrees with statements like “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence…faith is not allowed to justify itself by argument.” The way McGrath plays the arguments of Dawkins and his ilk against Christian thinkers that point out obvious discrepancies in the neo-atheist thought process is very well done.
Science, the third chapter in this section, McGrath discusses the purposes of science, the limits of science, and how neo-atheists use science outside of its limits. Sam Harris, another leading neo-atheist, argues that science “can determine moral values…tell us what is right.” Harris fails to realize what McGrath points out: “Religion engages with questions that lie beyond the scope of the scientific method – such as the existence of God, the meaning to life, and the nature of values.” The hijacking of science by fundamentalist atheists is equally as bad as when fundamentalist Christians do the same thing; McGrath quotes Thomas H. Huxley, in that science “commits suicide when it adopts a creed.”
The final section of the book is “Where Does the New Atheism Go from Here?” In this section, McGrath details how neo-atheism is now viewed with skepticism, even from other atheists. When reason and science fail neo-atheists, they resort to ridicule and attempting to belittle and berate their intellectual opponents. Neo-atheists are starting to embarrass more conservative atheists, who now try to separate themselves from the fringe group that Dawkins and Hitchens have created. McGrath views this as a difficult future for the neo-atheists, and ends the book on the positive note that religion is “ineradicable.”
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