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Why God Won't Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty? Paperback – May 16, 2011
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About the Author
Alister E. McGrath is a historian, biochemist, and Christian theologian born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. McGrath, a longtime professor at Oxford University, now holds the Chair in theology, ministry, and education at the University of London. He is the author of several books on theology and history, including Christianity’s Dangerous Idea; In the Beginning, and The Twilight of Atheism. He lives in Oxford, England and lectures regularly in the United States.
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There are two original themes largely responsible for the length of this review. The first theme is what McGrath calls a "personality cult" for atheism, which is unpacked below. McGrath's book allows the reader to be a fly on the wall in a secret atheist convention, and concurrently provides sociological insights into the creation and destruction of the psychology of a cult in the process. The other innovational theme is the mountain of insider knowledge McGrath has gathered to make his case, information which rarely reaches American audiences unless one resides within this worldview.
Aside from theses two novelties, the reader also gets a taste of McGrath's typical wit, wisdom and McGrath does provide rebutting and undercutting defeaters to a number of NA arguments. As far as NA literature in concerned, I would consider this book both an investment and necessary requirement for Christians teaching apologetic courses on the NA's and their materials. Moreover, the reader is offered the added benefit of historical lessons on the life and death of the NA's, and insights into the psychology of disbelief and atheism.
(As a brief side note, I noticed that there are 2 versions of this book. The black copy containing more pages is the version you want to purchase. Although the book provides a 2010 publication date, it was actually published in 2011 and includes insights on recent books such as Harris' The Moral Landscape and references to 2011 books in the bibliography).
The books on and about the New Atheists ("NA") are multitudinous. After reading and imbibing the majority of these books, including collateral materials derived from the internet, it is safe to comment that McGrath's book stands out because it is not merely meant to be a philosophical refutation of NA arguments--McGrath and many others have already spilled enough ink on this issue. Rather, McGrath provides us insights into what is deemed insights into the "psychology of a personality cult." This includes the followers the leaders of the NA movement, their respective internet websites, chat rooms, blogs, the websites of the NA's, their amazon.com profiles, all of which turn out to be more important in their influence than the books that are published. It is the followers that comprise the de facto "cult"--even called a "religious movement" by McGrath--and it is the leaders of the NA that provide a face to this cult of personality, especially Richard Dawkins.
In talking of a cult of personality, Richard Dawkins is the best exemplification and the ultimate father figure for the NA personality cult. Dawkins has his own website, RichardDawkins.net, (although it is now censored--see below) made specifically for the NA's. He also has the `Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science,' which promotes Richard Dawkins and atheism "in that order (that is to say, heroic father figure followed by the vitriolic propaganda). His website boasts over 85,000 online members," and its mantra is that "religion" is poison and "faith" is logically opposed to "science" and "rationality." Even the word "Dawkinism" has been utilized to describe a worldview of sorts, or a way of thinking akin to a worldview that one borrows from another (J.P. Moreland refers to these personality dispositions that obtain on certain followers as "empty selves"). There was also a journal published called the Journal or Memetics, which is named after the "meme" introduced in Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker and rehashed in The God Delusion.
For those who do not know the history of the "meme," it is merely an ad hoc term referring to a hypothetical unit of replication where ideas (or beliefs) that are transmitted within a culture, somewhat like accidental genetic mutations spreading through a pond of duck, and said memes allegedly "infect" people's brains like a virus. There is even the "God meme" which is the focus in the Journal and the focus of followers that accept `Dawkinism' as their worldview. This is really the stale God is a "virus of the mind" argument, which equally applies to atheists as a textbook example of the genetic fallacy. The Journal of Memetics has now ceased publication after being launched in 1997. The last journal admits that the meme was `a short-lived fad whose effect has been to obscure (see pages 16 through 19) although that does not stop Dennett from using the same arguments. The NA's and many followers still cannot shake this term from their worldview despite its ad hoc and pseudoscientific lifespan. In fact, a new book, The Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme was published in 2011.
The "personality cult of NA" is explained by McGrath as the following: ". . . to a global community of individuals who find [the NAs' as] authoritative and inspirational guides and [the] scientific worldview they believe holds the key to the future of the human race. The Web communities and blogs that have come into being provide what sociologist Peter Berge calls `plausibility structures' for the New Atheism'--above all, a sense of shared identity and solidarity, especially in the face of perceived external and internal threats."
McGrath's focus here is a result in wasting one's time trying to "refute" the pop-atheist "arguments" most of which are painfully maladroit, but averred by NA's with a tenacity that begs questioning their psychology versus their rationality. That is to say, the primary focus throughout the book results from the superficiality of the NA's arguments which are hardly new, repetitiously boring, and whose arguments have been refuted and undercut multiple times. Moreover, if one engages a NA follower and tries to "reason" with them, the conversation typically reduces to vociferous and unilateral assertions about "rationality" and "science"--terms that define a large aspect of their psychology (bully their ability to cognate). In short, for McGrath to rehearse NA arguments and refutations would be nugatory at best and painful at worst. It is the originality mentioned above that provides a profound new approach to the NA's for Christians called to evangelistic and apologetic ministries.
For example, the following quote is taken from Richard Dawkin's website after a lively debate between Dawkins and John Lennox in which Dawkins was more than wounded, and on his own epistemic turf, a result to which cultured and knowledgeable atheists reluctantly agreed (The book about the debate is soon to be released): ". . . I'm beginning to believe the best we can do is to just shout at them [theists], `You're stupid, you're idiots, you're morons!!' It is probably as effective as using reason and logic. Reason and logic are anathema to these people. I'm going to yell at them"
This should sound familiar to anyone that has engaged converts of the NA movement. (I am sure there will be at least one post to this review making the same case, under the pretense that they are logicians or scientists), and this is why the primary focus of McGrath's book is so ingenious.
For theists who find themselves engaged in verbal combat, I have found it a great tactic to read their respective profiles as many NA's utilize amaxon.com as just another chat room or blogosphere. After you know their respective names and profiles, visit the internet and try and locate their resumes on websites like Craigslist. For example, I was engaged with one NA whose amazon.com profile stated he stated he was a USC undergrad, an MIT grad, and was a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona getting ready to obtain a degree in philosophy. After locating his profile on the internet, I found that he was a High School graduate and was just getting ready to finish his associate degree from ITT Technical Institute in criminal justice (and this is not meant to be a slam against ITT). What prompted my excursion into this investigation (so I do not sound like a crazed person) was a conversation about the ontology of time--specifically the B-theory of time involving a tenseless ontology lacking the ability to employ semantics involving temporal becoming (called "eternalism"), and the utter failure of eternalists forced to deny the asymmetry of time. Let's just say that his response tipped me off that I was not speaking to either a philosopher of a physicist.
To build his case, McGrath gathers many disasters that have occurred within the NA movement providing fantastic new insights into the workings of the cult of personality. As stated above, McGrath invites the reader to be a fly on the wall of NA public relation plans, their secret dialogues and in-house fights, their public agendas, private agendas and the overall social aspect of a dying movement. The voyeurism was enchanting.
Dawkin's meme and the death of the Journal of Memetics is one issue McGrath addresses, but the story about his about website betrayal--RichardDawkins.net--provides more insight into the personality cult. In this tale, Josh Timonen, the one who ran Richard Dawkins' website (Dawkins actually dedicated his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, to Timomen [read the inside cover]) was caught defrauding Dawkins out of hundreds of thousands of dollars raised through the website. Dawkins' sued Tinomen for $950,000 and Tinomen used the media to strike back by stating this lawsuit was the "ultimate betrayal" and a "baseless vendetta." As McGrath points out, this sounds just like the financial scandals in religious organizations, and evidences an equivocation to religious movements, and atheists rightly see these alleged abuses as morally repugnant, conventionally speaking. Dawkins' worldview makes no room for oughts (although this word is constantly assumed) as neo-Darwinism has no use for final causes, such as those that readers would encounter in High School when reading Aristotle's four causes.
In tandem with Dawkins' website lawsuit is the issue if internal censorship which became a huge problem in 2010 when the forum section was shut down on Dawkins' Foundation for Reason and Science. Overnight members were no longer to voice their predictable ranting by posting comments or personal blogs. The forum section moderator, Peter Harrison, was surprised by this move taken against the "world's busiest atheist forum." The real fun began when the members began to express their anger in other "freethinking" websites and blogospheres at Dawkins himself, their father that allegedly betrayed them. That is to say, Dawkins receives a dose of his own semantic nightmare typically reserved for theists of all stripes, and Dawkin's response is outrage against the bloggers for their personal vilification of a "greatly liked and respected person" (although Dawkins does not admit he is speaking of himself). Dawkin's blog in full is entitled "Outrage, ludicrously hyperbolic animosity," and Dawkins chastises his followers by expressing sadness that his own people would attack him or one of his insiders, who were "subjected to personal vilification on an unprecedented scale, from anonymous commentators." Is Dawkins kidding?
Dawkins is probably the most culpable person on the planet for inciting these verbal riots, and now he is complaining because the attacks pertain to greatly respected persons, which is simply code for `educated' people like Dawkins. If so, this is typical intellectual hubris and ivory tower snobbery. McGrath rightly points out that "many New Atheist fanatics derive their identity from identifying and vilifying their enemies. In this remarkable turnabout, Dawkins came to be seen as such an enemy. The ranks of the godless faithful closed against him" (pg. 49). Perhaps it was the blogger that referred to Dawkins as a "suppurating rat's rectum" that prompted his indignant response.
In a related incident, McGrath highlights the ousting of the infamous humanist, Paul Kurtz, who, McGrath states that many humanists portray Kurtz as "seen by many as the godfather of the New Atheism," although Kurtz would dispute this title. Kurtz visibility in the public square matches Dawkins. He was singlehandedly responsible for reshaping American humanism using multiple vehicles to accomplish his goal. Some vehicles was the 1933 publication of his famous "Humanist Manifesto," the creation of the `Counsel for Secular Humanism,' a lobbyist organization, and the founding of the `Center of Inquiry' to promote humanism.
Kurtz sin was to mention that he regarded the New Atheism as harmful for atheists and secular humanists in general. In 2009 Kurtz was removed as chairman of the `Center of Inquiry' ("COI") which "promotes itself as the intellectual powerhouse of American secularism . . ." (pg. 138). Why? Apparently, in 2009 the COI wanted to organize their very first self-named "Blasphemy Day," which was meant to test the limits of free speech by insulting all religions, Christianity being its biggest target. Blasphemy Day was to include a controversial art piece named Jesus Paints His Nails, depicting Jesus applying nail polish to the nails fixing his hands to the cross--nothing shocking in this culture of death and moral, epistemic and ontic conventions. The CEO of COI, Ronald Lindsay, was pushing hard to have this specific piece exhibited on Blasphemy Day because it represents "thoughtful, incisive and concise critiques of religion" (pg. 138). Paul Kurtz disagreed believing this to be too militant and would ultimately harm atheism, the COI and end as a public disaster. In Kurtz' own words, the NA will fail as "Angry atheism does not work!" and that "atheist fundamentalism" is mean spirited.
Apparently the public was under the mistaken assumption that Kurtz had voluntarily stepped down as the Chairman of the COI, largely because of the in-house battling over this piece and the possible harm it would cause. The real story is that Kurtz was ousted as Chairman of COI in June of 2009, and Lindsay tried to cover up the fact that he had Kurtz intentionally removed as Chairman and gained control over the COI as Lindsay wanted the COI to lean more towards the NA's version of atheism. After his ousting, Kurtz stated "Most atheists that I know are decent and compassionate folk. What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly" (pg. 141).
There are many more stories (e.g., Sam Harris is a covert religious believer) like the ones unpacked throughout this comment. I do not want to spoil all of the surprises as I believe the reader will benefit from both the arguments McGrath presents, the so-called "personality cult" and "psychology of atheism, including the news stories most of which have been ignored or unnoticed by the public. McGrath helps to build a profile of the NA's and their respective leaders. As we are called to be all things to all men, how much better to know that you may largely be wasting your time in conversing with a diehard NA, versus some unbeliever that recently read Dawkins The God Delusion.
This provides a nice segue to end this review. McGrath finishes his book by telling the story of a young man who approached him after a 2010 lecture McGrath gave, and the young man, seeking an autograph, was asked by McGrath why he was interested in Christianity. The young man replied that he had read Dawkin's The God Delusion. According to this young man, Dawkins' book seemed unfair and biased (i.e., far removed from science and philosophically shallow), and that he began attending church, reading Christian materials and converted to Christianity. "[W]ithout Dawkins," the young man stated, "I would never have given God a second thought."
The point is not simply that the militant NA personality cult sometimes backfires. Instead, like McGrath, I welcome the writings of militant NA's as the issue of God's existence is placed in back into public-square. Moreover, appeals to science and reason are being resurrected which, contrary to the NA's, benefits Christianity and the Christians that are credentialed in these areas.
The book isn't very complicated, but that in no way takes away from what you can learn from it! I think McGrath is very fair with his analysis and avoids immature jabs against its supporters. I was particularly happy with the attention paid to the online atheist community. This shows me that McGrath is with the times!
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in current religious movements. This is a powerful aid to any Christian. Even agnostics (more so those who are on the fence) will definitely find this an interesting read.
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