The strenuous efforts of Richard Dawkins, renowned scientist, author of The God Delusion, and crusader for atheism, may be backfiring — sending inquiring minds to Christ instead. So write two fellow British scientists, both retired professors and authors, both Christians. They have collected essays from 12 believers from around the world describing how Dawkins, the most famous of New Atheists, actually prompted them to explore and ultimately accept religion's claims to truth, love and the promise of salvation.
Denis Alexander is a molecular immunologist and a cofounder of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge. Oxford biophysicist Alister McGrath, who retired as professor of science and religion, is a former atheist who became a theologian. Both have written books skewering Dawkins's arguments against God. PW talked with them about the book they've have edited together, Coming to Faith Through Dawkins: 12 Essays on the Pathway from New Atheism to Christianity (Kregel, Aug.),
The book reads like crowd-sourced apologetics with all the contributors being highly educated, thoughtful professionals—-scientists, psychologists, historians, and even pastors. How did it come about?
Alexander: Giving lectures around the world on science and religion, often during Courses and Conferences, one encounters a very broad range of people. In casual conversations over meals and coffee-breaks, some like to tell you about their faith journey. In many cultures it is more common to talk about religion than in the secular UK, where generally religious beliefs are deemed to be personal and private. It was a surprise to start hearing from people that it was really the New Atheism that had turned them away from their atheism as part of their journey to faith.
McGrath: It happened because it was ready to happen. It takes time to find 12 wonderful people who are willing to share their stories publicly. We wanted to have a diverse group of people from many backgrounds who would speak to many different people. We wanted a reader to say, "This person's experience speaks to me and my life." The piece by Sarah really struck me in particular because she took us through how she changed her mind.
Why do you specifically thank Dawkins in the editor's chapter at the start of the book?
McGrath: Our writers asked us to. They felt he catalyzed their thinking and they would not have begun the journey of discovery that led them to Christianity and landed where they are now without him. We have sent him a copy and we hope he enjoys reading it.
In your essayists' views, the New Atheists fail to account for morality, for love, and for finding meaning in suffering and purpose in living. Do you see common threads in their rejection of Dawkins and their to turn to Christianity?
Alexander: Two common threads are particularly striking: the first is the lack of beauty, in fact sheer ugliness, that they felt was dominant in some of the writings of the New Atheists. The second thread was the rhetorical style of writing that they found in Dawkins’ 2006 book The God Delusion. Gone was the engaging appeal to evidence and vivid metaphors that together made his earlier writings on evolutionary biology so appealing, and in their place was passionate rhetoric with coherent evidence left on the sidelines.
Their choice “to turn to the Christian God” in several cases was influenced by the coherence and grounds for an intelligible universe that the Christian God of creation provides, both in terms of the historical evidence for the emergence of modern science, as well as in the present justification for the rationality of science. In other cases, they found that it was the Christian God who provided rational grounds not merely for a certain moral code, but for believing that moral values can be rationally justified in the first place.
One of your essayists, Johan Erasmus, writes that the biggest threat to the church today isn't atheism, it's apathy. Are you seeing this as well?
McGrath: We are seeing a rise in apathy in Pew Research and Gallup surveys (in the U.S.) but not seeing any rise now in the atheist component. The British numbers of atheists are still growing but slightly. We are finding, in talking with young people now, we have to explain who Richard Dawkins actually is.
What is your goal for the book?
Alexander: We want the book to stimulate people to think and, in particular, to think about the bigger questions of life: What is the best ultimate explanation for the intelligibility of the universe? How come we live in a universe that is so finely tuned for the emergence of life? How can you rationalize moral values in a purely materialistic universe? Does life have any ultimate meaning? And on we could go. Once people start thinking, then that’s dangerous for atheism, as this book well illustrates.
McGrath: We want people to find it interesting, to get people to talk about how their faith becomes real to them, to say, "Here is how it made a difference in my life."