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Alister McGrath: The Passionate Intellect

McGrath explains that Dawkins and his followers among the new atheists tend to make several errors. First, they fail to understand the Christian notion of “God.” They challenge Christians to prove God exists, and then accuse them of failing. However, McGrath argues that Christians don’t believe God is “entity” within the world order that stands alongside other smaller beings. God is the source, ground, and explanation of all that exists. God is the creator of all things, not a member of this class of things that can be called out and lined up for inspection. The God that Dawkins and the atheists don’t believe in is not the God of the Bible and of the Christian faith anyway.

Second, the new atheists often smuggle metaphysics into science when they try to use science to disprove God’s existence. Real science is a neutral study of the phenomena of nature. When anyone tries to use science to go beyond that realm, that is, into metaphysics, they bring in their own preconceived ideas about the nature of reality. That’s an unscientific step! Of course, Christians say that one’s attitude toward the reality of God is a matter of faith. Nevertheless, Christians rightly argue that faith in God is an “empirical fit” with the verifiable discoveries of science. In other words, there’s nothing necessarily unscientific about faith in God.

Third, the new atheism is mistaken to take a dogmatic view of science. It argues that science is able to explain, or at least has the potential to explain, everything in the universe, and then sets it up as a rival to religion. Actually, science can only explain natural properties or phenomena. There are actually different levels of explanation for anything. Physics, chemistry, biology, and so on, can explain the composition of a cake but this wouldn’t tell whether it was baked to celebrate a birthday. Science can tell us about the composition of the natural world but not about its purpose. That’s the realm of religion.

Fourth, the new atheists often rely on shoddy science for their criticisms of Christians. A major example is Richard Dawkins. In his Selfish Gene he posited a human gene which he called a “meme” that he claims is responsible for why people believe in God. It’s all in the genes! The problem with memes is that they don’t exist. No one has ever been able to find them—not even Dawkins. However, he and other new atheists will often use the meme argument to explain why people insist on believing in God. Other scientists, even other honest atheist scientists, have called memes a delusion! This is also an example of why it is important for Christians to appreciate the value and verity of true science.

McGrath also takes on the relation of religion and violence. Hitchens’s God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything claims that religion is to blame for the bad and evil in the world. Of course, Hitchens’s work has been roundly criticized for ignoring all the evidence that contradicts his claim while emphasizing that which appears to confirm it. However, this “religion is poison” position plays on the fears of today’s Western culture. The new atheists use the 9/11 attack by fanatic Muslim jihadists to press their point. However, studies on terrorism have actually indicated that terrorism is politically motivated rather than religiously motivated. If anything, religious devotees are often among the most victimized by terrorist violence. Communism in Eastern Europe is an example of politically motivated violence against religious groups. Here the evidence of history indicates that atheists who rose to political power used their position to violently attack people of faith. McGrath thus exposes the hypocrisy of Hitchens’s main thesis.

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Category: Living the Faith, Pneuma Review, Spring 2012

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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