The Arrogance of Ignorance (Some Thoughts on the “New Atheists”)

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” As far as opening lines of a book review go, this zinger by Terry Eagleton has to be among the best ever committed to paper. Sadly for Dawkins, it also appears to be true.

A project I’m currently working on has led me to do some reading in the work of the so-called “New Atheists,” beginning with Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. Near the beginning of the book Dawkins pauses to say, “This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, one that would otherwise –as sure as night follows day – turn up in a review: ‘The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either” (36). While Dawkins anticipates this retort, he does nothing in his argument to defend himself against the charge. While Dawkins’ work in the field of evolutionary biology lies beyond my ability to competently assess (I’ll leave that to the evolutionary biologists), his audacity in advancing arguments which display a complete ignorance of the Christian theological tradition is astounding. Time and again I found myself shaking my head in disbelief as Dawkins made assertions that even an introductory theology student would recognize as problematic. For example, Dawkins seems to possess absolutely no understanding of what Christian theology refers to as the Creator-creation distinction. The God Dawkins disproves is not the transcendent God witnessed to in Scripture, but rather is part of the furniture of the universe. Rather than being the source of all being, Dawkins’ God is simply another being among others – perhaps the biggest or most powerful – but not One who is qualitatively other than all that has been created. Dawkins may have succeeded in disproving Zeus, but his arguments simply do not reach the God of Israel and the Christian church.

There are numerous other theological, philosophical, historical and logical missteps that Dawkins makes over the course of the book. While I found these false assumptions and errors exasperating, my own engagement with his work was not for the sake of providing a detailed refutation of his argument. I can rest easy with this decision as this work has already been done with verve and scholarly aplomb. The intellectual dismantling of the “New Atheists” by the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton in his 2008 Terry Lectures at Yale University is a must-see for any who have grown tired of the “New Atheists’s” intellectually vapid bluster and rhetorical posturing. A somewhat different, but no less compelling approach is taken by the Oxford theologian Alister McGrath. As someone who earned a doctorate in molecular biology and was once an atheist himself, McGrath is well-positioned to respond to Dawkins’ argument. It is worth quoting at some length some of McGrath’s summary comments in a co-authored work which engages with The God Delusion:

The God Delusion seems more designed to reassure atheists whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with religious believers and others seeking truth. (One wonders if this is because the writer is himself an atheist whose faith is faltering.) Religious believers will be dismayed by its ritual stereotyping of religion and will find its manifest lack of fairness a significant disincentive to take its arguments and concerns seriously. Seekers after truth who would not consider themselves religious may also find themselves shocked by Dawkin’s aggressive rhetoric, his substitution of personal creedal statements for objective engagement with evidence, his hectoring and bullying tone toward ‘dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads’ and his utter determination to find nothing but fault with religion of any kind.” (Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2007), 96.)

Lest Christians entertain any triumphalistic notions, it is important to recognize that discrediting the work of the “New Atheists” is not equivalent to proving the existence of God. Until the eschaton Christians must walk by faith and not by sight.  Until that day Christians must freely and charitably engage with those of no faith and those of other faiths.  Not only for the sake of the conversion of the other, but also with the prayer that they too will be increasingly converted to the Truth that is Jesus, for there is no truth, wherever it is to be found, that is foreign to him.  While there is much that Christians may learn through the encounter with intellectually-serious atheists of good will, perhaps there is even something to be learned from those atheists who motives and intellectual seriousness can be questioned.  After all, at the very least, the “New Atheists” help Christians to see a god that we too do not believe in!

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