New Atheism to New Life

August 30, 2023

New Atheism to New Life

Reviewer: Bill Peirson

 As a young engineering student, I remember being bemused by my Philosophy of Religion lecturer’s claim that many people have religious experiences. In the early 1980s we couldn’t yet see how the Christian faith flourished under Bolshevism and Maoism, atheistic dictatorships set on discrediting any form of religion.

This century the program of discrediting Christianity and other religions was vigorously taken up in the West by the New Atheists, led by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and of course Richard Dawkins.

In Coming to faith through Dawkins, Denis Alexander and Alister McGrath have gathered the voices of a highly diverse group of twelve intellectually robust men and women from across the globe. Some were raised Christian, others atheist. Their expertise spans the fields of science, engineering, history, IT, the arts, philosophy, and psychology. But they have two things in common. First, they embraced the intellectual framework provided by the New Atheists as a rigorous basis for their lives and work. Secondly, their commitment to truth eventually exposed its inadequacies and they found that there is a much more intellectually, personally, and spiritually satisfying reality in which Jesus Christ is the central figure.

What it was about Dawkins—and the New Atheists more generally—that drove these questioners towards Christianity? For some, New Atheism kept questions of Christianity and religion on the agenda, and kept the more dangerous opponent of apathy at bay. For others, the common ground of truth-seeking, shared by the New Atheists and Christians, prevented questioners from relegating religion to the realm of relativism. Instead, it encouraged a careful evaluation of the truth claims of each, and led to the discovery that Christianity is the better offering.

A recurring theme in the accounts is that the arguments against Christianity were initially appealing, but did not hold up well intellectually, emotionally, or morally. In particular, the overreach of some of the New Atheists’ more extreme claims hindered their cause. Claims about the dangerous evils of religion—Dawkins’ contention that religious education is ‘child abuse’ or Hitchens’ that ‘religion poisons everything’—appeared excessive. Dubious historical claims about Christianity and religion more generally rang false, and led people to wonder whether the other claims were equally unreliable. Narky or vicious jibes about the stupidity and malignity of religious people left a bad taste. The New Atheists, it seems, were often their own worst enemies.

The influence of the New Atheists is no longer at the forefront of opposition to Christianity, but the stories told in Coming to faith through Dawkins highlight a few things worth keeping in mind. First, more people than we might expect are deeply and personally interested in religious questions. The second is that opposition to God is not to be feared, but it does need to be addressed. The many Christian thinkers who invested time and effort in answering the claims of the New Atheists—William Lane Craig, Alister McGrath, John Lennox—play an important role in these accounts.

The contributors in Coming to faith through Dawkins bear out my Philosophy of Religion lecturer’s assertion about religious experience, and the historical pattern of faith flourishing under opposition.

I commend this book to my fellow academics and technocrats as a window beyond the present reductionism that puts us in danger of neglecting that larger reality.

 I encourage my students to read about the religious experiences of these scholars and be inspired to embrace the Christ who delivers life to the full.

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