Sean McDowell, Josh’s son and Christian apologist, has a popular talk he gives where he stands up in front of a church and puts on his “atheist glasses,” changing his worldview from Christian to atheist. Playing the role, Sean gives a short introduction of his life converting from a Christian to an atheist, and opens up for questions. Many Christian attendees are eager to play “Stump the Atheist” but every time, Sean is more prepared than they realize. While most attendees get anxious and frustrated, I marvel as Sean’s ability to defend a worldview that is not his own. Calmly and thoughtfully, he is able to handle anything thrown his way.
Looking back, I (Matthew) find it rather unhelpful of me that I have long defended Christianity without much interest to study an opposing viewpoint.
How could I consider myself fully equipped to defend any position without understanding the arguments from the other side?
Although I always wanted to get around to it, listening to Sean finally tipped the scale. I have purchased several books from well-known atheists of our time. One of them, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, is arguably the most popular of the bunch, and its author is arguably the most well-known atheist there is today. As the title suggests, the premise of the book is to explain how the idea of God is one grand delusion that has infected humankind, and the cure is atheism.
This article will be broken up into two parts. In Part 1, I will point out what I found surprising, humbling, redeeming, and insightful about this book. It’s not that my convictions as a Christian have changed very much from reading this, but there is valuable insight into the mind of an atheist found among these pages. In Part 2, I will offer a selected critique of the book’s primary arguments. I wish I could cover everything page by page, but such a full book review would require a full book!
If you are a Christian, please don’t be discouraged that I bundle “Christianity” with the term “religion” instead of “relationship.” When I say “religion” I refer to the innocuous dictionary definition “belief in God” and not “Man’s attempt to reach God” which is a new definition of the term we often use to help illustrate the Gospel. I’m not criticizing that. But to use such a loaded term as “relationship” is not always practical in this kind of dialogue.
The first thing I noticed is that Richard Dawkins is a master with the English language. He has an incredible vocabulary and a superb skill for being articulate. Some may say that he is trying to make himself look smart. Maybe. But I think that Dawkins has a genuine love for words, and I’m impressed. Maybe this has something to do with him being British.
The second thing I noticed is the author’s purpose for writing this book…
Page 18: “The non-believing choir is a lot bigger than many people think, especially in America. But, again especially in America, it is largely a closet choir, and it desperately needs encouragement to come out.”
Page 26: “There are many people who know, in their heart of hearts, that they are atheists, but dare not admit it to their families or even, in some cases, to themselves.”
Page 27: “The reason so many people don’t notice atheists is that many of us are reluctant to ‘come out’. My dream is that this book may help people to come out.”
What an eye-opening discovery this was for me! As a Christian I have always viewed myself as the “outcast” in a secular world. To say “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” (Rom 1:16) is still relevant for us today, but I never gave much thought that non-believing “believers” can feel the same sort of smallness. What do you suppose it would feel like if you genuinely doubted your faith as a Christian, and you’ve grown up in a religious family that scoffs toward a non-believing world? Would you be eager to confess that you are one of them? Many Christian homes do not create a culture where that is even thinkable. Sean McDowell tells about a time that he once doubted Christianity as a college student. He built up the courage and told his father, Josh, about his struggles. Josh’s reply: “That’s great, son!” In shock, Sean responded “Did you hear anything I just said?!” (I’m paraphrasing a real conversation.) “Yes, I did. It means you are thinking for yourself, and I think that’s great! Seek truth and you will find it. Don’t believe in Jesus just because your parents do; but don’t doubt it just to rebel. I think over time you will come back to Christianity because I believe Jesus is the truth. But no matter what you decide, know that your mom and I will always love you.” If every Christian home were like this, Dawkins would have little ground to criticize Christian parents of indoctrinating their children – something he considers to be child abuse.
On a similar strain of thought, a reoccurring statement within the God Delusion regards the bitter sound of “Christian child” or “Muslim child.” To Dawkins, these two words together is what “moist” is for many others. It makes him squirm a little. His reason is that there is no such thing. A child is not old enough to decide if he/she believes in the family religion. Instead we should say “A child of Christian/Muslim parents” In our defense, “Christian child” is often used shorthand for “Child of Christian parents.” Still, his point is well taken. Many churches rightfully teach that your faith does not belong to your parents. You have to decide for yourself once you are old enough to understand the Gospel message. We find ourselves constantly reminding this to our young generation, and it’s probably because of wrongly communicating something when we constantly use the term “Christian child.” As for Muslims using the term “Muslim Child,” that’s a different story, and I’ll leave that matter for them to deal with.
Consider this statement from Richard Dawkins, his opening hooker for Chapter 2:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can become desensitized to their horror.”
Yikes! I was once told by an atheist that I should skip Dawkins and read other atheist literature instead. Many atheists feel this way – he is mean, and thus not a good representation of his kind. I’m happy to make the distinction. Frankly though, I can’t blame Dawkins. If I believed the same way about “The God of the Old Testament,” added with all the atrocities committed in the name of religion, the child abuse, bigotry, etc., I would turn up the dial too. Some things he says are simply unhelpful, but neither is me getting offended! I’ll let Dawkins speak for himself:
Page 16: “If [my language] sounds intemperate, it is only because of the weird convention, almost universally accepted… that religious faith is uniquely privileged: above and beyond criticism.”
Page 320: “It is because of the evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly strong that I am passionately distressed that my opponent can’t see it – or, more usually, refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book. My passion is increased when I think about how much the poor fundamentalists, and those whom they influence, are missing.”
Page 321: As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect.
Please hear me: I will not defend or justify the questionable character of Richard Dawkins, especially when he stands in front of an atheist rally and tells everyone that they should laugh in the face of religious people.* His passion is misguided, and it has misguided his morals along the way. My point is that I understand where he and other atheists are coming from. As witnesses for the Gospel, we need to know these things.
In the second part of this review, I move into a critique of some of Dawkins’ arguments, starting with his statement about the God of the Old Testament that I quoted earlier. You can read part 2 here.
*This statement was filmed and uploaded to YouTube. The editor added a response from the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias.
Work Cited: Dawkins, R. (2008). The God delusion. Boston, NY: Mariner Books.
** Image Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5422004