Alister McGrath grew up amid the Belfast Troubles, when religious identity spurred some of history’s worst violence. He dealt with this reality by rejecting all religion. But as he reveals in Why God Won't Go Away, he couldn’t sustain that attitude forever. Now a professor of theology, McGrath has gained fame in Britain for publicly debating Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, leaders of an emergent anti-religious company called the New Atheists.
Along with Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have recently changed atheism’s tone into aggressive evangelism. All four proclaim the inherent triumph of atheism, which they promulgate but don’t define. McGrath does not fault their unbelief, but he stresses flaws in their reasoning. He emphasizes their harsh jingoism, not far from imperial conquerors. He shows how, even in their own words, their intensity is only steps removed from violence.
But McGrath lacks the same eye of discretion on his own side of the aisle. I remember hearing Krista Tippett, author of Speaking of Faith and host of the radio show of the same title. Back in 2007 she said: “I haven't interviewed Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens for the same reason I never interviewed Jerry Falwell, which is that he had all the answers for himself and everyone else.” This sums up the problem with the entire debate.
The stridency of current atheist rhetoric positively corresponds with unpleasant Christian militancy. People who seek rules to live by, whether the Ten Commandments or the Three Laws of Thermodynamics, often become shrill when they think they’ve discovered rules for everybody. This behavior brings the tone of debate down globally, isolating people who believe deeply but not aggressively. Humankind suffers.
McGrath observes early that Daniel Dennett’s “relative lack of verbal aggressiveness and ridicule possibly explains why Breaking the Spell failed to sell as well as” deliberately inflammatory works by Harris and Hitchens. Anyone who watches TV knows bombast and grandiloquence get attention, even when they’re stupid. Unfortunately, that’s sort of the point. The debate is defined by people who grab attention rather than advance shared understanding.
Notably, if we can take McGrath’s self-deprecating narrative seriously, atheists, who form a much larger population share in Britain than in America, are more embarrassed by New Atheist bluster than Christians. He says that “my most vociferous defenders are moderate atheists—often academics—who are sickened by such mindless hostility and alarmed at the damage it’s inflicting on the public image of atheism.” Who can blame them?
But as they change the verbal tone, Christian militants and New Atheists also openly bid for political authority. American conservatives see Christianity as a natural ally, though that’s a debate for elsewhere, and make religious orthodoxy a litmus test. Meanwhile Sam Harris openly desires to scrub God from political debate and public decision-making. Taken from a longer view, both positions seem misguided.
As Peter Hitchens (Christopher’s Christian brother) asserts in The Rage Against God, Christianity suffered in Britain after World War II substantially because the postwar generation saw the church throw its lot in with the Empire. When one declined, they both did. Sadly, we’ve seen the same course of events in America, with a President who claimed to receive messages direct from God hastened an unpopular war, which likely contributed to declining church attendance numbers.
This coarsening of religious discourse, coinciding with unacceptable political rabble-rousing, lowers acceptable standards in contemporary society. Instead of communicating with our rivals, seeing them as human beings with their own hopes and dreams, we accept mudslinging, heel-dragging, and ad hominem attacks as normal. The gaps widen, people don’t talk to one another, and before long, we don’t feel we should communicate.
God’s presence or absence cannot be determined through laboratory science. Spirit cannot be abstracted from its environment for intensive empirical research. Thus we absolutely need to speak to one another, as human beings, about this vitally important topic. Shouting, caricaturing, and trying to silence the opposition will only lead to retrenchment and exasperation.
These questions won’t go away. And we owe it to each other to seek the answers.