Why God Won't Go Away is Alister McGrath's latest engagement with what has been referred to as the New Atheism. His primary area of concern centers on the work of its four leading proponents: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. The book is organized into three parts, each building on the other to form a coherent picture of the current debates.
In part one, McGrath provides an historical overview of the beginning stages of the New Atheism, while highlighting the differences between the old and new strands. The primary difference has less to do with the essential belief inherent to atheism (God's nonexistence), and more to do with the New's emphasis on their hatred of religion in all of its forms (anti-theism).
Part two highlights three core themes that underlie the New Atheist's hostility:
1. its critique of religious violence
2. its appeals to reason
3. its appeals to science
McGrath points out in chapter three that religion can go wrong and promote violence. And, when it does, it should be challenged and changed. However, where most people see religion as something that can go wrong, New Atheism sees it only as something that is wrong. As a result, all religion should be eliminated.
In response, McGrath argues that the problem is not religion, but fanaticism, which can be found in many areas of life. Furthermore, upon closer examination, Christianity's leader (Jesus Christ) in particular offers a "transcendent rationale for the resistance of violence" (p. 69). In Jesus, the cycle of violence was broken. So, when any of its adherents fail to follow Christ's example, they prove to be not very good Christians. In the end, New Atheist's appeals to violence as an argument against religions proves nonsensical. It is an unfair emphasis on the pathological forms within religions; forms that can also find a place in politics and science.
One of the hallmarks of the New Atheism is that it seems to think it has a monopoly on truth (a critique that even comes from other, more moderate, atheists). In fact, "the New Atheism makes rationality one of its core defining characteristics and emphatically and aggressively denies that any alternative view can be regarded as rational" (p. 83), a belief that does not find resonance in other forms of atheism.
However, New Atheism refuses to confront the truth that every worldview, whether religious or secular in orientation, goes beyond what reason and science can prove. Questions that pertain to value and meaning often cannot be proven through empirical methods, yet are nevertheless maintained as trustworthy. As McGrath points out,
religious faith is not a rebellion against reason but a revolt against the imprisonment of humanity within the cold walls of a rationalist dogmatism. 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 involves rational consent but does not compel it (p. 89).
McGrath confronts the final core idea of New Atheism in chapter five - its appeal to science. He makes the statement that they do "more than simply reflect the cultural stereotype of the 'warfare' of science and religion," they actually "depend on it for its plausibility" (p. 121).
They appeal to what has commonly been referred to as scientism, which claims that all that is known or can be known is capable of verification or falsification using the scientific method. However, as McGrath concludes, "to limit oneself to what reason and science can prove is merely to skim the surface of reality and fail to discover the hidden depths beneath" (p. 129).
In the end, McGrath draws the conclusion that the angry, loud, and aggressive debate tactics utilized by the New Atheism, especially when faced with a high degree of clear evidence from the religious other, will not be able to sustain the movement for the long term. While the older, and better argued atheism, may have a degree of traction, the newer forms do not. While they believe their anti-religious rhetoric will be heard and make a positive impact, their weak and often illogical forms of argumentation will ultimately be the cause of their downfall.
The ironic fact is that New Atheist anger at the persistence of faith has inadvertently stirred a huge interest in the whole God question. It's made people want to reflect on the other side of the story.
I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the New Atheism, its leaders, their writing, arguments and the general Christian response. It will help you to move pass the rhetoric and embrace a more balanced approach that stems from well-researched and more persuasive forms of argumentation.
Jeffrey K. Clarke