Lying for Jesus: Brian Auten reviews Alister McGrath's new book

Alister McGrath, who I last recall from his squirmy evasiveness while being interviewed by Richard Dawkins for Root of All Evil, loves talking about the so-called 'new atheism'. He's the author of one of the most famous fleas, The Dawkins Delusion, and has now authored another assault on atheism with his new book, Why God Won't Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?. Over at the Apologetics 315 blog, Reasonable Faith (Belfast) director Brian Auten has reviewed the book. Not surprisingly, he thinks it really shows us how it is.


I haven't read McGrath's book, and don't plan to – especially after reading this review. What I read was such a flagrantly distorted caricature of new atheist writings and beliefs that I was at a loss as to where to even begin to clean up such a mess of dishonest tripe. But dammit, I'm going to try. Bear with me as I trudge through this review, addressing what I feel are some of the most overtly bogus and misguided statements. I've broken it up into several sections, because this is a long post.



Tone and substance
Part One introduces us to the New Atheism in two chapters. 9/11 was the catalyst for launching a belligerent attack on every variety of God belief. The opening salvo was Sam Harris’s The End of Faith which unwarrantably linked Islamic terrorism with religion in general, suggesting the world’s ills are categorically due to people of faith.
It's impossible to have actually paid attention to The End of Faith and concluded anything of the sort. Sam Harris does not lump moderate and liberal believers in the same category as fundamentalists; however, he rightly and importantly points out that the eradication of fundamentalism must be rooted in an embrace of reason and evidence-based epistemology. Moderate religion is constrained and molded by secular modernity, but its most fundamental flaw is extolling faith as a virtue, and that is a flaw it shares with fundamentalism. You aren't going to get rid of fundamentalism with arguments from consequence – suggesting that the nice religions are the correct ones.

Note, too, the predictable and haughty attack on 'tone' ("a belligerent attack"): as is often the case with critics of new atheists, Auten is unable to distinguish between an incisive and uncompromising critique of ideas and a personal attack on the character of believers. I've yet to see any popular atheist author paint all or even most believers with a brush of intellectual or moral inferiority. For my part, I've made efforts to point out the exact opposite, while pointing out the shameless hypocrisy of one popular apologist. There are loons in there, sure, and I don't think many of us hesitate to call out people like Ken Ham and Casey Luskin on their stupidity. Call a spade a spade, for crying out loud. But this idea that the popular new atheists are painting all believers with the same brush is fabricated nonsense.
If Harris is the New Atheism’s pioneer, Richard Dawkins is its high priest, Daniel Dennett is its philosophical heavyweight who fails to enter the ring, and Christopher Hitchens is its rhetorical spinster. Dawkins pronounces belief in God irrational, violent, and scientifically implausible. His priestly status permits him to posit scientific dogmas (like memes) in the absence of scientific evidence. Dennett’s ponderous approach lacks the “verbal aggressiveness and ridicule” that characterize his colleagues. Yet his critique fails to mount serious objections to arguments for God’s existence. The most surprising aspect of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is its “baffling disinclination to engage properly and rigorously” with traditional philosophical arguments. Hitchens employs his tremendous sense of humor, scathing wit, and rhetorical flare to bolster the New Atheists’ cause, but equally dispenses with the need of backing up his claims with serious argumentation.
I included this paragraph only because it's typical of the shallow chest-beating I've observed among several apologists, laced with the same dishonesty as the before (Dawkins allegedly pronouncing belief in God "violent"). There is no shortage of resources on hand substantively addressing the supposed evidence for God's existence, and that includes the most widely known new atheist polemics. Auten (and/or McGrath) is disingenuously attempting to frame atheists as evasive when challenged on rational arguments when there are mountains of resources, including this blog, in which we discuss such things.


What atheists are really like 
These atheists are neither apathetic nor agnostic toward belief in God, but militantly opposed to religion, Christianity in particular.
What, exactly, is a militant atheist? Last I checked, all the new atheists have done is write books and essays, start blogs, and make videos on Youtube. We're not threatening people with violence. We're not denigrating people. We're provoking discussion. If anything, the reactionary mischaracterization of new atheists betrays the fact that it's still taboo to criticize religion – a taboo we are trying to break.
The New Atheists have successfully carried their message from the halls of academia into the broader thought stream of popular western culture. Or have they?
Why yes, they have. Atheism is the fastest-growing religious subset in the United States. We're seeing unprecedented numbers of secular student groups in high schools and colleges, and unprecedented media exposure for atheists from Dawkins to Ricky Gervais to  Penn Jillett. Atheist videos are huge on Youtube, and there are more well-attended secular conferences than ever before. We're doing exactly what we set out to do: getting people talking, and letting people know it's okay to 'come out' as an atheist. Are some people offended in the process? Of course. As Dan Dennett once said, it's hard to find a nice way to tell someone that their most cherished beliefs are not true.
McGrath concludes chapter two with four suggestions that the army of New Atheists, despite their bluster, may be little more than a motley battalion of disgruntled, disorganized troops.
Once again, atheist are falsely portrayed as 'motley' and 'disgruntled'. This kind of slander is meant to perpetuate the falsehood that religion offers peace and tranquility, and that people reject it out of anger, bitterness and resentment. On the contrary, even a rudimentary involvement with the atheist community reveals people who feel happy, liberated, and at peace, and who rejected religion because they found the courage to critically examine their most cherished convictions. Are there sticks in the mud? Abrasive jerks? Of course. But let's not pretend religion is a haven for gentle, happy people either.


Flagrant falsehoods about atheists
Christopher Hitchens’s subtitle “religion poisons everything” is a frequent mantra in the New Atheism’s literature. But “religion” as employed by the atheists is a false universal. Hitchens and his colleagues assume that an act of violence done in the name of one religion indicts the practitioners of every religion as de facto violent. Yet they fail to impeach the atheist community on the same grounds, ignoring the brutal atrocities committed by atheist monsters of brutality at the helms of modern states. Atheists completely ignore the Christian practice of nonviolence demonstrated by countless Christian communities. [...]The “antireligious metanarrative” embedded in the atheistic ideology of the Soviet Union led to widespread violence against Christianity. The New Atheists remain willfully ignorant of such atrocities.
Nope. "My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a 'they' as opposed to a 'we' can be identified at all." - Richard Dawkins

Atheism is the rejection of theism. It is not a doctrine. It has no dogma. It is descriptive, not proscriptive. That Stalin was an atheist is incidental, just as it was incidental that Hitler was a Catholic. But again, Auten dishonestly frames atheists as dodging the issue by slandering us as "willfully ignorant", when this very issue has been discussed ad nauseum by countless new atheists, including yours truly.
By arbitrarily limiting the domain of rationality to those who deny the existence of God, the New Atheists ignore leading philosophers and writers who affirm the rationality of faith—Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and C.S. Lewis to name a few.
Two points: 1) "The rationality of faith" is a contradiction in terms – faith is by definition belief in that which cannot be substantiated by evidence. 2) Countless modern atheists have devoted considerable time to the popular apologetics arguments put forth by Swineburne, Plantinga, and of course C.S. Lewis. Even The God Delusion, though not intended to be an in-depth discussion of philosophy, addressed several of these such arguments. Physicist Victor Stenger has a whole book devoted to debunking the design argument, and Oxford press published in 2010 a dialogue between Dan Dennet and Plantinga, who by the way has also seen his arguments discussed by PZ Myers. So this charge that atheists are ignoring these supposedly sophisticated theologians and their clever arguments is utter hogwash.
Further, the atheist worldview finds itself suspended on the horns of a dilemma when it insists that God doesn’t exist, yet belief in God is the source of all evil. If God truly doesn’t exist, then the atheist can’t blame him for the Holocaust.
I'm truly baffled at this objection. Surely it's not that difficult to distinguish between beliefs and reality. Surely Auten and McGrath realize that people can be motivated, for good or for ill, by sincerely held but false beliefs. And who the heck thinks the Holocaust was the fault of God, or the belief in God? I've never seen an atheist make this charge. 


Science and faith
“Faith” says Dawkins, is belief “in the total absence of supporting evidence.” But McGrath offers a critical correction when he distinguishes between “total absence of supporting evidence” and the “absence of totally supporting evidence.” There are some domains of knowledge (mathematics and logic) where absolute proof may be possible. But most domains of human inquiry work in a state of “absence of totally supporting evidence.” Even Darwin recognized he couldn’t prove that “’natural selection’ provided the most elegant and persuasive explanation of all biological life forms.” Unambiguous evidence rarely exists in science.
Nobody's ever suggested that "absolute proof" (whatever that is) is a requirement for understanding reality. Indeed, all scientific theories are subject to being revised, refined or in some cases discarded entirely as new observations illuminate more of reality's mysteries. This is rudimentary stuff, and one would think that someone at Oxford ought to at least have the basics of scientific epistemology under his belt.

The important point, though, is that where evidence is lacking, you don't get to make shit up. We have to stick to an epistemology that is proven to be both reliable and valid. Propositions about the nature of reality rooted in faith-based epistemology like 'revealed truth' can never be demonstrated to be either. Science demonstrates its reliability/validity and over time discards bad ideas and builds consensus. With faith-based ideas, the trend is opposite – since there is no methodology by which to reliably validate its propositions, the only way to get consensus is to be more and more nebulous about what, exactly, God is, does and wants.
McGrath suggests several areas of limitation in scientific explanation. It cannot answer life’s great questions, nor can it help us define ethical norms. Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape implicitly acknowledges as much, by failing to provide a foundation for moral behavior and turning rather to a rant against religion.
Science can indeed answer some questions, like "Why do I exist?" and "Where did I come from?" It can't answer qualitative questions, like "Where should I find a sense of meaning in my life," nor can it make moral proscriptions. But there are two things to be said here: First, that just because science cannot answer such questions does not mean that faith gets a pass by default. Secondly, it can indeed help us, as Sam Harris astutely observed in the grossly mischaracterized (and obviously unread) TML, formula moral values and even meaning and purpose by quantifying those things that further such qualitative values. If we agree that morality is concerned with our sense of fairness, aversion to suffering and desire for well-being, science can help us understand which behaviors will contribute to those things. Science can also tell us which things we will most likely associate with descriptors like 'meaningful'.


More flagrant falsehoods
Instead of shoring up their foundations, the New Atheists blaze away at faith. In many instances, their anti-religious zeal manifests itself in hackneyed arguments that demonstrate an astonishing ignorance of contemporary scholarship. For instance, Christopher Hitchens continually repeats the long disproven notion that medieval man believed the earth was flat.
Huh. That's funny. In God is Not Great, Hitchens only makes one reference about people believing in a flat Earth, and it's to ancient Egypt, not Medieval Europe. (Don't believe me? Search the book yourself!) First it's alleged that Hitchens avoids the popular philosophical arguments, which anyone who has actually read the book will know is false. Now a flagrant falsehood is added to the mix. Do these apologists read the books they're criticizing?
In Part Three, McGrath asks, “Where does the New Atheism go from here”? Its increasing impotency is indicated by its failure to provide responsible rational responses to the surge of Christian publications aimed at demolishing its intellectual pretentions. Further, it increasingly substitutes ridicule for rationality when responding to its opponents. McGrath suggests it reached its nadir on September 30, 2009, the underwhelming first ever “Blasphemy Day.”
I find it ironic to refer to something as having "increasing impotency" when, as I mentioned earlier, by all quantitative measures atheism is still on a historic surge in the West. It's also worth noting that atheists are not the Borg. We're all individuals. Some people are dicks, and love to antagonize believers. But most of us are nice, respectful people who seek dialogue about a contentious and often needlessly sensitive topic. (I never heard of "Blasphemy Day", though I did hear about the "Blasphemy Challenge" which was intended to show that atheists are not ashamed of their rejection of religion.)



Closing thoughts

I think books like this – given that the review is accurate – will help atheism more than hurt it. All the believer has to do is actually read the atheistic writings in question to see that the characterizations of them are false. They can peruse bookstores, blogs and Youtube to find tons of resources in which well-educated non-believers address philosophical arguments, historical arguments, theological arguments, and scientific-sounding arguments that allegedly support God's existence. They can attend conferences and see firsthand that non-believers people are normal, well-adjusted and friendly; and they can read or view damn near anything by modern atheists and see that their "tone" has been the subject of great distortion and hyperbole.

To really drive the point home, I'm going to end with a talk by Sam Harris. Pay attention to how shrill, combative, derogatory and inflammatory he is. What a militant atheist!

Comments

Popular Posts