Now, as you may well know, I’m a bit of a fan of Alister McGrath’s writings, though this was the first new book of his that I’d read since Mere Theology. So I was quite keen to get hold of this relatively new book from him, in which he seeks again to lock horns with the so called “four horsemen:” Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens.
It has to be noted the book is quite short, so I was not expecting an holistic argument proposing why God won’t go away, and I upon reading it, my expectations were fulfilled. Instead, what we have is a book that pulls at some of the loose threads in modern atheistic writing and thinking, going someway (but not all the way) to unravelling the most popular arguments against God and religion. The book is one-sided, but then again so are the books which McGrath critiques. So I think that there probably is a balance to be found, though I have yet to find a writer who has done so skilfully (and here, I not offering my services – I know my own limitations). He doesn’t really get onto the reasons “why God won’t go away” until the last 5 pages of the book. So while the main title may be misleading, the sub-title of engaging with the New Atheism better denotes what the book does. McGrath takes on some of the challenges that are levelled at religious belief and practice. His key tactic is to undermine the basis on which the argument is made, often by holding up a mirror to atheism itself and hoping, like a lumberjack, that once its base has been hacked away somewhat, that the argument will fall under its own weight.
Personally, I found the critiques insightful, powerful and effective. However, I can easily imagine that not all readers would concur with me on this front. To that end, I think this book deserves a serious and considered response, though I fear one may not be forthcoming. If anyone does know of a reasoned response to McGrath’s apologetic work, please let me know, as I would love to read it.
In rough outline, McGrath states what he understands to be the characteristics of New Atheism and how it arose, before going on to look at 3 key assertions made by the movement, giving counter-arguments along the way before finally giving an appraisal of the state of New Atheism and where its potential future may lie.
In his overview of each of the 4 main figureheads of New Atheism, McGrath does give credit where it is due and is not at all dismissive of the critiques of religion given. His analysis is both concise and insightful, showing up areas of lax thinking on the part of those concerned.
On the downside, McGrath does, at times, fall into the same trap that some of those he disagrees with have also done, by not being precise. In particular, the definition of New Atheism seems to be lacking. He references its beginnings as a term, and makes reference to its ideology and aims, but not once does he actually define what it is. Yet at the same time he is critical of these “New Atheists” for not being precise about the terms “religion” and “God.”
The other downside for me, and this is true of some of McGrath’s other apologetic writings, is that he states the case against one side, but does not do very well on positing the case FOR Christianity. To be fair to McGrath though, he does acknowledge this and points the reader to 3 books, including Simply Christian by Tom Wright and The Reason for God by Tim Keller – both of which I have read and would highly recommend to you.
One interesting revelation in the book is that in order to research New Atheism, McGrath seems to prowl around some atheist blog sites. Most notably, Richard Dawkins own website (though I concur with McGrath that its name as a site for Science and Reason is a gross misnomer) and heathen hub – the latter of which I have some familiarity with, as I have at times conversed with the gentlemen (with an awesome hat, it has to be said!) who runs the site.
The book concludes with a nice little story about the balance of arguments. I asked the publishers if I could copy it here, though my request has been met with silence.