As the recent atheist diatribes get more shrill and more dogmatic, the paucity of their arguments become more apparent. Even though their missionary tracts are now pouring forth from the presses at a growing rate, mere volume of output does not determine either truthfulness or quality of argument.
The onslaught of the atheist evangelists has not gone unchecked however. Many capable intellects have challenged the sloppy reasoning and specious arguments of the neo-atheists. Several recent rebuttals are worth examining.
British writer Theodore Dalrymple had a very good piece on the neo-atheists in the Autumn 2007 City Journal. I here offer a few brief extracts from it. Consider his comments on Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. He notes that of the recent batch of atheist tomes, this is the least “bad-tempered … but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. Dennett argues that religion is explicable in evolutionary terms – for example, by our inborn human propensity, at one time valuable for our survival on the African savannahs, to attribute animate agency to threatening events.” But is this a successful approach?
“For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations – and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.”
If the Dennett volume is on the more pleasant end of the scale, the opposite end would be taken up by Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith. It is a nasty piece of work in which “sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and intolerance, reach an apogee”.
He examines other leading atheists, and concludes: “The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.”
Another rational challenge to the new atheism comes from Oxford academic Alister McGrath who was recently in Australia. While here he actually managed to get a fairly decent hearing on ABC radio. In a 24 October, 2007 interview, McGrath was given a fair amount of time to discuss atheist Richard Dawkins and his bestselling book, The God Delusion. Some of this discussion is worth repeating here.
The interviewer, Stephen Crittenden, in fact asked some good questions. Consider this one: “Interesting if 9/11 is such a catalyst, that Dawkins makes so little of Islam, even when he’s writing about religious violence. He’s really focusing much of this book on Christianity, isn’t he?” To which McGrath replied,
“Well he is, and I think that in many ways Dawkins finds that he can’t criticise Islam directly because that would be politically really quite dangerous, and therefore he prefers to concentrate on soft targets, and there’s no softer target than Christianity, so he and these other writers seem to be focusing on Christianity as being the easy target. It’s really been very well received in certain parts of the public, because there is this very deep sense of alienation from what the Christian church has been saying. So I think his ideas have fallen on fertile ground, even though I’d want to say his ideas really need to be challenged, because they are in many ways I think very inadequate.”
Another good question was this: “Indeed, is that one of the biggest weaknesses in Dawkins’ book, that he doesn’t acknowledge the role of the churches and religious believers in the history of science: the Jesuits in astronomy and seismology, and medicine, for instance…”
Answers McGrath, “Well that’s right. I mean Dawkins has this very simplistic idea that science and religion have always been at war with each other, and he says only one can win, and let’s face it, it’s going to be science. But the history just doesn’t take us into that place. The history suggests that at times there has been conflict, but at times there has been great synergy between science and religion and many would say that at this moment, there are some very exciting things happening in the dialogue between science and religion. What Dawkins is offering is a very simplistic, slick spin on a very complex phenomenon. It’s one that clearly he expects to appeal to his readers, but the reality is simply not like that at all.”
Or consider this exchange: “It’s interesting that in Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene from the mid-1970s which is the book where he coins the term ‘meme’, we get Dawkins the social Darwinist, who suggests that selfishness and violence comes from our biology, and yet here he is in this book blaming it all on religion. It seems like an interesting contradiction.” McGrath replies,
“Well it’s an intriguing transition and certainly in the book The Selfish Gene he seems to say all these things are genetically programmed. But then right at the end of the book he says, ‘Well somehow we can rise above this’. But I’d want to challenge him at this point I think and say Look, I have no doubt that some people who are religious, have done some very bad things, but I’d want to make a counterpoint very forcibly. And that is, this is not typical of religion. This is the fringes being presented as though they’re the mainstream. And we saw that in his television program, ‘The Root of All Evil’, which many of your listeners may have seen, where he presented some extremists as if they were mainliners, and I think that’s a very serious misrepresentation. I want to make it clear, I have no doubt there are some very weird religious people who might well be dangerous, but those of us who believe in God, know that, and we’re doing all we can to try and minimise their influence. The centre needs to be reaffirmed, and Dawkins does not help us do that at all.”
Both articles are well worth reading. It is a pleasant surprise indeed to find the favourable ABC interview with a Christian and critic of Dawkins. And the piece by Dalrymple is just one of many taking on the new atheist challenge. Indeed, a number of book-length rebuttals have already appeared, with more on the way. As such, the battle over theism looks to continue for quite some time. And whatever the new atheists dish out will be ably countered by capable and intelligent theists.