Tidying up after toddlers

Inventing the Universe: Why we can’t stop talking about science, faith and God, Alister McGrath, Hodder.

Confronting the New Atheists is a bit like tidying up after toddlers. It’s continuous, there is an amount of tantrum-throwing, and, ironically in the New Atheists’ case, you can’t reason with them. Alister McGrath, a former atheist and physicist, and now C S Lewis-like apologist for Christianity’s reasonableness, has been battling the New Atheists for years, in particular Richard Dawkins, the Donald Trump of atheism, who attacks made-up enemies with half-truths and the occasional outrageous remark, and who has a fervent band of minority, equally irrational followers who are incensed by the failure of most of the population to understand their point of view. We have heard much about the supposed clash of religion and science, but in his latest report from the front line, McGrath is keen to point out that it is more of a clash between religion and a particular ideology – the reductionism and materialism from populists such as Dawkins (below).

richard-dawkins-as-don-quixote

At the core of this battle, and this book, is a clash over meaning. We all subscribe to grand narratives that give our lives meaning. Atheists are entirely reasonable in not being convinced that there is any evidence for the existence of religious explanations, let alone in the personal sense that Christianity maintains. And it might be reasonable to question whether the universe has meaning or to find meaning in things purely humanistic – family, shared human experience, wonder at the sheer luck of our existence. What is less explicit in McGrath’s work is that Christianity does contain paradoxes and logical conundrums, and does require the Kierkegaardian leap of faith. Understanding Christianity entails more than the kind of logical processes that go with scientific study, largely because Christianity is about living out love, not rational explanations for the origin of the universe (something, McGrath points out, atheistic science has problems tackling also). Jesus does not say ‘they that have a grasp of the philosophical implications of quantum physics are my disciples’. Meaning is firmly attached to relationships, not mathematics.

McGrath is not targeting atheism per se, but the view that science explains everything, which is not the default position of science (as the New Atheists and many who want to cut religion out of any public discussion would have us believe), and is itself an ideology that must be defended somehow. As is often pointed out, you can’t prove that science explains everything from within science. And of course this brand of atheism has to resort to forms of propaganda, attacks on straw men, and the lumping of all believers into the ‘fanatic’ category to make its case. It is particularly telling, as McGrath says, that some scientists originally rejected the Big Bang theory because it ‘sounds religious’. In Richard Dawkins’ case, there is also the added conceit that his particular field of expertise (biology) is the fundamental one for explaining human existence, something physicists might take exception to.

It’s not all one way. McGrath is battling a type of intransigence that is seen on both sides. The New Atheists line themselves up against a version of religion that is equally dogmatic and that would read Little Red Riding Hood as a genuine police report on crimes conducted in the woods. For fundamentalist literalists, McGrath is not of much help to their cause. But for the rest of us, McGrath is, again somewhat ironically, calling for a degree of open-mindedness and thoughtfulness.

As well as McGrath makes his case, there is the feeling here of going over old ground. But McGrath may well argue that it is ground continually in need of rescuing. While there may be a certain pointlessness in trying to argue with the New Atheists, it is important to persist so that misinformation doesn’t become the last and standard word on the subject. This doesn’t just apply to New Atheists or religious propagandists. It resonates with wider issues in our society. Ironically, for a society awash with information, reasoned debate and subtlety of argument is being elbowed out by increasingly angry, ill-founded sloganeering. This is why, bringing it back to the religion/science debate, groups such as the Templeton Foundation are important.

McGrath offers philosopher Mary Midgley’s suggestion that we negotiate the world using various ‘mind maps’. Most interestingly, McGrath reports on the recent findings of neuroscientists and anthropologists that the religious ‘mind map’ is seemingly hard-wired into our brains. While some see this is as a necessary delusion engineered by evolution, McGrath, somewhat light-heartedly, says that religion’s ubiquity in human societies suggests that a rejection of religion is a cognitive deficiency. The suggestion that the New Atheists are slightly crazy may align with the suspicions of some of us, and if they bothered to take note of McGrath’s provocative comment, it may induce more tantrum-throwing.

(A much shorter version of this review appeared in Crosslight magazine.)

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