God is not dead yet

October 22, 2004

Atheism is in trouble and Richard Dawkins, its champion, is not helping, writes Alister McGrath

Is atheism losing its appeal? At first sight, this might seem an absurd question. After all, leading atheist Richard Dawkins recently topped Prospect magazine's poll of public intellectuals, while Jonathan Miller's heavily promoted BBC4 series A Brief History of Disbelief started its run last week, proclaiming that atheism is the wisdom of our age. Only fools and charlatans, it seems, would dare to disagree.

We have heard all this before, of course. For more than a century, leading sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists have declared that their children - or surely their grandchildren - would live to see the dawn of a new era in which the illusions of religion would be outgrown. Yet there are ominous straws in the wind suggesting that now it is atheism that is in trouble.

Atheism, once seen as Western culture's hot date with the future, is losing its appeal. Its confident predictions of the demise of religion seem hopelessly out of place.

Celebrity preoccupation with the kabbalah or New Age beliefs is easily dismissed as superficial - yet it is a telling sign of our times. It reflects a deep-seated conviction that there is more to life than what we see around us.

Surging interest in spirituality and growing impatience with the intellectual arrogance and intolerance of media atheists is leaving atheism stranded on a modernist sandbank.

Furthermore, its intellectual credentials are under fire. Dawkins, atheism's most articulate and influential proponent, argues that we will - or ought to - abandon religious ideas as children abandon their innocent and naive belief in Santa Claus.

It is time for us to grow up, he tells us, "leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age".

Yet Dawkins' arguments simply do not lead to that conclusion. Nor do they stand up to critical examination. Dawkins' rhetoric implies that the natural sciences constitute an intellectual superhighway to atheism; but his logic fails to deliver on this promise.

He seems to have made the gradual transition from a scientific populariser to a dogmatic anti-religious propagandist more suited to the 19th than the 21st century.

In part, my reason for writing Dawkins' God - the first book-length study of how he moves from his scientific presuppositions to atheist conclusions - was concern about the quality of his engagement with religious issues.

For example, he ignores the awkward fact that the history and philosophy of science raise the most serious doubts about whether any worldview - atheist or religious - can be constructed on scientific grounds.

Dawkins' approach simply airbrushes away problems, such as the philosophical difficulties raised by moving from observation to theory or deciding on the "best explanation" of what is observed.

If the great debate about God is to be determined solely on scientific grounds, the outcome can only be agnosticism - a principled, scrupulous insistence that the evidence is insufficient to allow a safe verdict to be reached. Either a decision cannot be reached at all or it must be reached on other, non-scientific grounds.

As the late Stephen Jay Gould, America's leading evolutionary biologist, insisted, the natural sciences simply cannot adjudicate on the God question. If the sciences are used as the basis of either atheism or religious beliefs, they are misused. So need atheism worry about its future? Miller and Dawkins clearly think not. But I wonder.

Maybe it was once brave and intellectually sophisticated to dismiss those who believe in God as deluded, unthinking fools. Now it just seems outdated, arrogant and intolerant.

I hope we can move beyond shopworn rhetoric and have a serious discussion about the evidential basis for atheism and its future.

As a former atheist myself, though, I wonder how much longer it can rely on recycling the weary and increasingly unconvincing cliches of yesteryear while overlooking the shocking legacy of institutional atheism in the 20th century.

Alister McGrath is professor of historical theology at Oxford University and the author of Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life (Blackwell, £9.99).

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