Saturday, August 07, 2010

Book Review: The Future of Atheism - Alister McGrath & Daniel Dennett in Dialogue

The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in DialogueThe Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath & Daniel Dennett in Dialogue edited by Robert B. Stewart is a book composed mainly of content delivered at the 2007 Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum in Faith and Culture on the topic of “the Future of Atheism.” The focal point is the transcript of the dialogue between McGrath and Dennett at the forum, as well as papers presented by William Lane Craig, Evan Fales, Hugh McCann, and Keith Parsons. The contributors to the book offer the competing perspectives of Christian and atheistic positions. This purpose of this review is simply to offer a very brief synopsis so the prospective reader can decide for themselves whether or not to investigate further.

Editor Robert Stewart’s preface does the best job of offering an outline of the contributors and subject matter, which will be expanded on here: “Craig offers a vigorous defense of certain types of cosmological arguments for God’s existence – based largely upon the findings of contemporary science.”1 In addition to this, Craig also offers expositions on the teleological argument from fine-tuning, the axiological argument, and the ontological argument. “Fales puts forward and existential moral critique of the Judeo-Christian God based upon problematic passages in the Old and New Testaments.”2 With a chapter entitled Despair, Optimism, and Rebellion, Evan Fales sits in judgment upon God Himself. While calling God a coward, he comes to the conclusion that, “if there is a God, and that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, then I affirm that there is one stance that is legitimate and justified. It is rebellion.”3

Keith Parsons “offers a thorough critique of McGrath’s book The Twilight of Atheism.”4 This critique is a good addition to reading McGrath, at it offers a number of balancing points and one atheist’s perspective on McGrath’s content and conclusions. Parsons argues that “McGrath has failed to substantiate his claim that the intellectual case for atheism fails.”5 Parsons also notes eighteen atheistic thinkers that should not have been overlooked in McGrath’s book. Parson concludes that McGrath’s “intellectual engagement with atheist arguments stays at a superficial level.” This may be the case; but was McGrath’s goal to engage atheist arguments?

Hugh McCann “takes up the task of critiquing the extent to which the knowledge claims made by religious believers are subject to appraisal buy standards that, in one way or another, may be considered scientific – and what follows if at least some of those claims are.”6 In this chapter entitled Getting Scientific about Religion, McCann explores the science and religion question by looking at three main areas: natural theology, miracles, and religious experience.

Three other essays are included in the book that were not part of the 2007 Greer-Heard Forum. These are by J.P. Moreland, Paul Copan, and Ted Peters. Moreland “updates a recurring theistic critique of naturalism – that naturalism undermines, or at least offers no clear support for, human reason – by addressing a contemporary atheistic response to this charge.”7 This chapter by Moreland is one of the book’s strongest, perhaps, along with Copan’s contribution, entitled God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality. Copan addresses the issue of moral values as it relates to the existence of God.

The dialogue between McGrath and Dennett is both interesting and disappointing. Interesting because two leading thinkers interact on a profound and fascinating subject; disappointing because they don’t get very far past talk about such things as memes. In a nutshell, Dennett seeks to explain religion in naturalistic terms (with memes being a prime focus), while McGrath seeks to show the inadequacy an errors in the view. A question and answer follows. What will the reader learn about the future of atheism from this dialogue? Very little.

The book’s editor, Robert B. Stewart, at least addresses the question right up front in his first chapter: “Is atheism growing? The safest answer is yes – and no. There seem to be more atheists today than at any other time in history. Yet is also appears to be the case that as a percentage of the world’s population, atheism is declining.”8 Stewart seems to agree with the conclusion that McGrath reached in his own book on the subject – namely, that the future of atheism depends on Christianity, noting that atheism is “especially attractive when the dominant expression of Christianity is out of step with the message of Jesus.”9

In sum, The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath & Daniel Dennett in Dialogue is a fair read, perhaps. But for those who value their time, it might be just as expedient to listen to the Greer-Heard Forum audio, or track down similar resources or articles, most of which can already be found online.

1 Robert B. Stewart, The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath & Daniel Dennett in Dialogue (London, England: Fortress Press, 2008), p. xii.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid., p. 112
4 Ibid., p. xii.
5 Ibid., p. 53.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., p. 2.
9 Ibid., p. 11.


Ken Pulliam said...

Thanks for this review. I like the format of the Greer-Heard Forums. Dialogue is better than debate because in debate people are too focused on who is winning (as if that really matters) and not on learning. No one has a corner on all of the truth. We can all learn from each other. I will have to pick up this book. I have read the book that came out of the Greer-Heard Forum on the Resurrection between N. T. Wright and Dom Crossan.

Anonymous said...

Odd arguement about there being a number of atheist thinkers who should have been included. If I recall, in Dawkin's book on religion religious material was dismissed irrelevant.

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