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Very interesting, but slightly misleading at times
on 14 April 2011
Mcgrath is an excellent writer, and this short book (99 pages plus notes) is another good example of this. The book's title is a little misleading - Mcgrath doesn't actually say why belief in God hasn't disappeared, except to say in the closing passages that human beings may be 'hard-wired' to believe in God in some way. Instead, the sub-title, 'engaging with the New Atheism' is the actual theme of the book.
The book begins by contextualising the New Atheism, explaining its relation to 9/11 before outlining the themes present in each of the core New Atheist texts, which Mcgrath identifies as Harris' 'End of Faith' (2004), Dawkins' 'The God Delusion' (2006), Dennett's 'Breaking the Spell' (2006) and Hitchens' 'God is not Great' (2007).
The book then addresses three core ideas underlying much New Atheist thought; religion has a close link with violence, religion is opposed to science, and science is the only means of obtaining knowledge.
Now, for the first of these three arguments, Mcgrath seems to present a valid case regarding the selective readings of the New Atheist authors mentioned earlier. Religion can do violence, but then so can almost any ideology with a huge following. He challenges the portrayal of religion as only being a force for evil and never good, and makes light work of Hitchens' perculiar claim that Martin Luther King didn't believe in God, amongst other odd claims.
I also agree with Mcgrath's perspective on reason. 'Pure Reason' is a fabrication, there are modes of reasoning and thinking things through sensibly, but there's little to suggest that one, absolute principle of Reason, independent of contextual constraints exists and is possessed by the New Atheists but ignored by everyone else. But I wasn't convinced that the New Athiest authors all believe this themselves; Mcgrath seems to cite New Athiest forum users more for this section, and for the following section on scientism (although Harris is addressed here too). From this point on, the case studies used by Mcgrath seem a little cherry-picked. The case of Baggini's and Kurtz's abuse and dismissal at the hands of more aggressive atheists are very interesting, but no mention is given to a debate between Dawkins/Grayling and Harries/Moore, on the topic 'is atheism the new fundamentalism?' of which the audience and online voters of the general public voted 'no' resoundingly at the end of the debate. It was disappointing to see Mcgrath presenting only the most incriminating evidence against the New Athiest movement and not balancing it with evidence that the public respect aspects of it more than he suggests.
Overall, I would say this book is a great place to go if you're looking to see a good account of the worst of the New Atheism. But if you're looking for an even-handed analysis of Dawkins, Hitchens and co, this isn't it. For example, It is just asserted that Hitchens and Dawkins have offered extremely weak arguments in debate against Haldane and Lennox respectively, based on a handful of various opinions Mcgrath draws upon.
So in conclusion, I found this to be an unbalanced work - fascinating in content, but cherry picked with its case against the New Atheists - something he has (often rightly) accused the New Athiests of doing all the time with their engagement with religion. Those with Dawkinsian leanings will find this book really irritating, but those with Christian leanings are likely to find it encouraging. For a non-religious (but not anti-religious) person like myself, it's a great read but should be balanced by an awareness of the debate and issues surrounding both sides of the debate.