Doubt, Denial and the Death of God




Copyright 2016 Chris Park

Shakespir Edition



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This ebook contains material drawn from my book God: Real or Imagined? which was first published in print format by Zaccmedia in 2013. It is part of the GOD MATTERS series, the other ebooks of which are listed in ‘Other books by this author’.






Table of Contents

p<>{color:#000;}. Introduction

p<>{color:#00F;}. Defining God

p<>{color:#00F;}. Doubting God

p<>{color:#00F;}. Denying God

p<>{color:#00F;}. Inventing God

p<>{color:#00F;}. The death of God


About the author

Other books by this author



1. Introduction


I think humans have always wrestled with the Divine Idea – an idea that unites and separates, creates and destroys, consoles and terrifies. It is virtually certain that religious belief is as old as our species. And it is equally possible that uncertainty, doubt and scepticism about God have existed since prehistoric times.” Robert Winston (2005)


The media often take a particular interest in God stories; after all, it sells copy. There was great interest, for example, when Alistair Campbell (his Press Secretary) was repeatedly asked about British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s faith and about whether he had prayed with US President George W. Bush before taking military action in the Middle East, famously said “we don’t do God.” Barack Obama told an interviewer a few years before he succeeded Bush as President “I have a deep faith. I’m rooted in the Christian tradition. …  [but] I think there is an enormous danger on the part of public figures to rationalise or justify their actions by claiming God’s mandate.”

Whilst God himself may not be as popular as he once was, there’s no denying the high level of interest amongst the general public in questions about ultimate meaning and purpose. This was clearly borne out in a 2010 survey of 1.1 billion queries made on the website Ask Jeeves (Ask in most countries) since it was launched in 2000, to find the Top 10 “unanswerable” questions. The top two, based on the number of times asked, were ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and ‘Is there a God?’. ‘Is there anybody out there?’ came in at number 5, ahead of ‘Who is the most famous person in the world?’ (number 6) and ‘What is love?’ (number 7).

For most people in most places throughout history God was taken for granted, part of the furniture of life. Belief in God was inherited from parents, participation in religious rituals and traditions was part of everyday reality, and the existence and nature of God were rarely questioned.

As British journalist John Humphreys (2008) reminds us, “it is only relatively recently that we have been able to question the existence of God and live to argue another day. Through much of European history it has not been wise to admit to doubt. At best you might find yourself cut off from polite society; at worst you might find yourself dangling from iron hooks in a dank cellar and be cut off in a more literal sense.”


Wrestling with God

Why doesn’t everyone believe in God? If God exists and is as powerful and all-encompassing as believers say, surely it’s not beyond God to make everyone believe automatically, to hard-wire every person everywhere with religious belief from the moment they are born? Why give us a choice?

The answer to that simple question is complex, but in a nutshell … as a Christian, I believe that God created humans not as thoughtless automatons or robots, fully pre-programmed in every way, but as thinking, feeling individuals with free will and minds to think with. We were made with the ability to choose whether or not to believe that God exists, and what sort of God we believe in.

Even if we are given a choice, why does everyone not appreciate the logic of believing in God, particularly given the apparent benefits of religion and the fact that many people are aware of direct experiences of God? These themes are discussed in the ebooks Religion and the idea of God and Personal experience of God in this GOD MATTERS series

Given these two phenomena – freedom to choose and appreciating the benefits – would it not make sense for everyone to believe in God? But the fact is that belief is far from universal. In 2001 there were 2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims and 1.1 billion non-religious people worldwide. Voas and Ling (2010) point out that in 2008, nearly two in five (37 per cent) people in Britain described themselves as atheists or agnostics, compared with less than one in ten (8 per cent) people in America.

It is not simply a matter of sitting down, thinking it through, and then making an informed choice between believing and not believing, of weighing up the pros and cons and choosing the one that appears to offer the most. This theme is explored further in the ebook The nature of belief in this GOD MATTERS series. Belief is a complex matter, reflecting the interplay of many different factors including family background, cultural setting, access to information, knowledge and understanding, and experience.

George Smith (1989) lists several reasons why not everyone is a believer. For example, “one may have never encountered the concept of god before, or one may consider the idea of a supernatural being to be absurd, or one may think that there is no evidence to support the belief in a god.” Other factors include socialisation (many people today live in secular cultures), trust in science and rationality (many people unquestioningly adopt the Enlightenment world-view), and views on religious traditions and institutions (many people view the church, for example, as out of touch with modern culture, and many have had bad experiences with church).

An idea of just how complex belief is emerges in the findings of a survey in Britain that John Humphreys (2008) asked the internet polling organisation YouGov to carry out in 2007. It was designed “to find out not just how many of us believe in God but what we mean when we talk about belief.” Of the 2,200 people who took part:

p<>{color:#000;}. 26 per cent agreed that “I believe in ‘something’ but I’m not sure what”;

p<>{color:#000;}. 22 per cent agreed that “I believe in a personal God who created the world and hears my prayers”;

p<>{color:#000;}. 16 per cent agreed that “I am an atheist. The whole notion of a supernatural God is nonsense”;

p<>{color:#000;}. 10 per cent agreed that “I’m not really sure what I believe and I don’t give it much thought”;

p<>{color:#000;}. 9 per cent agreed that “I am an agnostic. I don’t think it is possible to know if there is a God or not”; and

p<>{color:#000;}. 5 per cent agreed that “I would like to believe and I envy those who do but cannot believe for myself.”

Unbelief is far from unusual, even in countries that are usually though of as religious. This is partly because census information and national surveys usually categorise people by religion on the basis of how they see themselves, and for many people in many countries religion has as much to do with cultural identity and tribal affiliation as it has to do with personal religious beliefs and practices. The reality is that many people do not believe in the existence of God or gods.

Whatever the reasons for not believing in God, the consequences are clear. As increasing numbers of people no longer believe in God – or, more commonly, they reject religion but remain neutral on the question of God – secularisation spreads and deepens, and God gets pushed to the margins of society and culture. In extreme cases, people adopt atheistic perspectives and practices, which can become intolerant both of the idea of God and of people who believe in God.


God in the dock

To many people the idea of God sits uneasy alongside contemporary lifestyles and ways of thinking about ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. Credibility of belief in God is increasingly being questioned in an era in which God is seen by many people as irrelevant to their day-to-day reality.

Since the start of the twentieth century observers have commented on the decline in organised religion, and surveys have revealed declining belief and interest in God. The attack on God has, if anything, intensified over the last decade or so, as the quiet indifference that is typical of secularisation has given way to full-frontal attacks. The most vociferous debate about and criticism of God in recent years has come from two directions – from the New Atheists, and from scientists and others who put their faith in science.

C.S. Lewis coined the expression [_God in the Dock _]in an article he wrote in 1948 in defence of orthodox Christianity; he also later used it as the title of a book (1971). Lewis argued that “man is on the bench and God is in the dock,” on trial because of the difficulty Christian believers face in presenting their faith effectively to modern unbelievers.

The case against God rests on two key arguments. The first is that God simply does not exist, the idea is an illusion or, as Richard Dawkins (2006) prefers, a delusion. The second is that, if God does exist, he cannot be a loving God (as Christians claim) if he allows the inequality, cruelty and suffering we see all around us.

In a nutshell, on the first argument the defence team argues that God does exist, while the prosecution team points to the lack of reliable evidence that would stand up in a court of law, and insists that the argument that God exists must be thrown out. On the second argument, the defence team argues that the case rests on an inappropriate understanding of the nature of God, while the prosecution team argues that God should be brought to trial for crimes against humanity.

An interesting US legal test case against God was reported in 2011. It was brought by Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers, who had sought a permanent injunction to prevent the “death, destruction and terrorisation” caused by God. Judge Marlon Polk (quoted in Pessin 2009) dismissed the case, ruling that legal papers could not be served because the defendant [God] has no address.

The case for the defence of God has been presented over the years by a large group of believers and theologians. Useful witness statements along the way include David Jenkins’ short Guide to the Debate about God _](1966) that dealt with the nature of God, and Martin Prozesky’s [_New Guide to the Debate about God (1992) that explored the existence of God. Articulate and persuasive defenders of the faith today include Karen Armstrong, whose [_A History of God _](1994) and [_The Case for God _](2009) are classics, and physicist-turned-theologian Alister McGrath whose many excellent books include [_The Twilight of Atheism _](2004) and The [_Dawkins Delusion _](2007).

The prosecution case has been outlined in recent years by the New Atheists and championed by Richard Dawkins (2006) who characterises the God of the Bible as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” Expert witnesses called by the prosecution team include prominent twentieth-century atheists, including Bertrand Russell, Sir Alfred (Freddie) Ayer, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger and Anthony Flew.

Both sides in the trial are well-entrenched and see their opponents as misguided, dangerous and delusional. Philosopher Simon Blackburn (2010) describes how religious people tend to view non-believers as “materialists, egoists, relativists, nihilists, amoralists, libertines, and no doubt in the privacy of our own homes cannibals and child molesters. For only God stands between humanity and these things. In reply, the militant wing of secularism talks freely of superstition, ignorance, bigotry, self-deception, stupidity, tribalism and rank hypocrisy. It is not an edifying debate, although sometimes rather fun.”

It is not unknown for people to change sides in the debate, even high-profile expert witnesses. A prominent case in point is British philosopher Anthony Flew whose writings “helped set the agenda for atheism for half a century.” (Varghese 2007) For most of his life he was regarded as “the world’s most notorious atheist”, but then he changed his mind and in 2007 wrote a book called There is a God: how the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.

God has been “in the dock” for more than a century and remains there today. There is no sign that the trial is likely to come to an end any time soon, for the jury of popular opinion to reach its final verdict in the foreseeable future, despite the best efforts of the New Atheists to kick the idea of God into the long grass.




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2. Defining God

People tend to assume that we all mean the same thing when we use the word God. But of course that really isn’t the case; the term God means different things to different people. Karen Armstrong (1993) points out that “all talk about God staggers under impossible difficulties. … We have to decide whether the word ‘God’ has any meaning for us today.”

A good place to start is by trying to define the word itself, although that apparently simple task is not without its challenges – type “define God” into Google and you are offered over 30 million pages on the internet!


The word (of) God

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘god’ as “a superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity”, and it adds “(in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘God’ as “the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe” and ‘god’ as “a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship.”

A quick note on spellings and meanings. Some people talk about the ‘gods’ (plural) while others talk about ‘god’ in the singular; this book is mainly about the idea of a singular ‘god’. Some start the word with a lower case ‘g’ (god) while others start it with a capital (God). The lower case ‘god’ is usually used when referring to the general idea of a supernatural being, which can take many different forms. The upper case ‘God’ is almost always used when referring specifically to the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or as biblical scholars often put it, the God of Abraham. Throughout this book I follow these normal conventions when using the terms ‘god’ and ‘God.’

Muslims use the word Allah rather than God, but the two words mean the same thing. In the Jewish tradition it is not regarded as proper to even say the word God because God is so holy, so Jews use the name Yahweh (YHVH, Jehovah) or Lord, again to mean the same thing.

When I use the word ‘God’ in this ebook and others in the GOD MATTERS series, I am using the word in its inclusive sense, to mean the God of Judaism and Islam as well as of Christianity.


What do we mean by the word God?

Nobel Prize-winning physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg (1992) cautions that “some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. … Of course, like any other word, the word ‘God’ can be given any meaning we like.”

Even prominent atheist Richard Dawkins (2006) agrees that “if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’.”

Atheist Mortimer Adler (1980) emphasises that “we cannot think of God as a physical object. Consequently, we must think of God not only as inherently imperceptible, but also as inherently undetectable in the ways that elementary particles or black holes are detectable.”

Not being able to think of God as a physical object goes some way towards explaining why people who have a naturalistic outlook on everything struggle to allow for the possibility of God. It also helps to explain some of the tensions that underlie many of the controversies between science and religion, which we will explore further in the ebook Science and the challenge to God, also in this GOD MATTERS series.

Beyond being a “supernatural creator” and not a physical object, what do people have in mind when they think or talk about God? The two most common images of God are as a spirit or as a being.

Many people feel comfortable thinking of God as a spirit of some form, rather than a being. Singer Annie Lennox (quoted in Falsani 2006) admits that the word God “always troubles me. … if you say God is a word to describe the life-force that has created all, and creates and maintains the energy, the source of all living things, I’ll go with that.” Interviewer Cathleen Falsani (2006) describes Lennox’s spirituality as “Confused. Complicated, searching. Unanswered and unfinished.”

Others think of God as a disembodied being – a being without a body – of some form. Denis Baly (1976) argues that the idea of “a Supreme Being is so firmly established in Western minds that the use of the word ‘God’ almost automatically conveys the idea of ‘somebody up there’.”

This anthropomorphic (human-centred) perspective visualises God as like a person, with qualities like a human, informed by the Biblical statement in Genesis that God “created man in his own image.” It is coloured by Michelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, which portrays God as like a wise, old, white-haired, white-skinned man, wearing a long, white, flowing robe.

The ‘somebody up there’ God can take many different forms. Views vary along three particular dimensions:

p<>{color:#000;}. Absent or present: many people think of God as like a remote absentee landlord who originally made the universe but has long since stayed out of it. Others visualise a more active God who continues not only to watch over the universe but to take an active part in it.

p<>{color:#000;}. Unknowable or knowable: many people suspect that, even if God is present rather than absent, he mysteriously lurks somewhere out of sight and out of reach, while others regard that God as personally knowable.

p<>{color:#000;}. Bossy or loving: some think of God as a critical judge or benevolent dictator who must be obeyed at all cost. John Betjeman (quoted in Wilson 2006) referred to God as “The Management” and Terry Eagleton (2009) describes how some people see God as “a kind of cosmic version of the CIA, keeping us under constant surveillance.” Others have a much more positive image of God. For example, C.S. Lewis (1955) referred to God as ‘Joy’ and British journalist and agnostic John Humphreys (2008) wrote of God who “seemed to be exactly the sort of person you’d want your daughter to marry if he were human: kind, merciful, immensely loving; all-powerful and just.”


What if you actually met God?

Whether or not they actually believe in God as a being, and an active and knowable one at that, many people are intrigued by the idea of actually meeting him and having a chat with him, just like meeting a friend down at the pub. Joan Osborne’s 1995 song [_One of Us _]was a surprise hit, particularly given that it was about God.

The song invites the listener to consider how they might relate to God, asking “If God had a name, what would it be? And would you call it to his face, if you were faced with him in all his glory? What would you ask if you had just one question? If God had a face what would it look like? And would you want to see if seeing meant that you would have to believe in things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets?”

A 2006 survey on the Yahoo web site took this idea of meeting God in person a step further. It asked respondents to imagine they are standing face-to-face in front of God, then report what they think they would say to him. People gave many different answers, from the flippant to the ultra-serious. The one voted best by viewers was “Forgive me because of my sins. Am I going to go to heaven?” Other answers included “I would say, “Hey God… what’s up!”; “I would treat him just like I do all my friends!”; “Show me some of your moves, I heard you move in mysterious ways.”; “Where you been all my life, not that it matters coz I did good without you.”; “What took you so long?”; and “if you love everyone, why is that you treat some people better than others?”

This whole theme of meeting God is explored further in the ebook Personal experience of God in this GOD MATTERS series.



A quick note on gender. Whilst through the ages most people in the West have pictured God as male, in recent decades some have argued that it is equally valid to think of God as female. There are sound reasons for both views, but throughout this book and the others in the GOD MATTERS series I shall follow the Christian tradition and refer to God as male, with no sexist implications intended.

Because it is generally accepted that unlike humans God has no physical body, so in many ways the question of male/female is something of a red-herring … except that the assumption of a male God is often used to justify patriarchal attitudes and behaviour, and it is politically correct these days to write of God either as s/he or interchangeably as he and she.




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3. Doubting God

Robert Winston (2005) speaks for many when he writes that “virtually all of us have, at one time or another, irrespective of our background, education, training, profession or family, wrestled with God. Often this wrestling match starts when we are children, sometimes it is profound when we are adolescents, and for some the wrestling continues for most of their lives. For some, too, the wrestling is most violent when we are frightened, dismayed or distressed – or face death.” Doubt is a common experience even amongst those who say they believe.

People have different views on not believing in God. George Smith (1989) points out that “some men consider a godless world to be a terrifying prospect; others experience it as a refreshing, exhilarating challenge. How a person will react to atheism depends only on himself [sic] – and the extent to which he is willing to assume responsibility for his own choices and actions.” Krista Tippett (2007) underlines the fact that “spiritual questions don’t go away, nor does the sense of wonder and mystery cease, in the absence of a belief in God. Nonreligious people are some of the most fervent seekers of our age, energetically crafting lives of meaning.”

Many people who previously believed chose to give up on the idea of God. As Marcus Borg (1998) puts it, “for some, this happens consciously because the notion of God begins to seem incredible and incapable of substantiation. For others, letting go of the notion of God is more functional than consciously thought out. God becomes largely irrelevant … [and] the notion of God in fact plays no major role in their lives although they may agree in opinion polls that ‘God exists’.”


Dynamics and spectrum

In terms of religion we can categorise people in various ways. One obvious distinction is between those who believe in God and those who don’t. But this is not 100 per cent watertight because between the convinced atheists and the convinced believers sit the unconvinced agnostics, and any individual is usually free to switch from one camp to the other if they wish to, as often as they might choose to.

Blaise Pascal (quoted in Adler 1980) offered a slightly different typology, dividing people into three groups –

p<>{color:#000;}. Those who know God and love him;

p<>{color:#000;}. Those who do not know God but seek him; and

p<>{color:#000;}. Those who neither know God nor seek him.

This also fails to capture any element of choice or dynamics in where people stand on the question of God.

In simple terms, everyone sits somewhere along a spectrum of beliefs, from very negative (hostile) through neutral (indifferent) to positive (acceptance) or even very positive (enthusiastic adoption). This spectrum is usually divided into three broad groups of people – atheists (confirmed non-believers), agnostics (who are not convinced one way or the other) and believers.

The groups are generally assumed to be discrete or watertight, but in reality each group typically contains individuals with a range of different beliefs. At either end of the spectrum sit the fundamentalists (both atheists and believers), and between them and the agnostics in the middle sit the liberals (again both atheists and believers).

Richard Dawkins (2006) is champion of the ‘binary school’ of religious belief, insisting on presenting a choice between only two positions (evolution versus belief in God) even though other positions are logically possible. Michael Poole (2009) calls this the “fallacy of the excluded middle” and Krista Tippett (2007) writes of “the vast middle … [where] faith is as much about questioning as it is about certainties. It is possible to be a believer and a listener at the same time, to be both fervent and searching, to nurture a vital identity and to wonder at the identities of others.”



The middle ground is occupied by agnosticism, which holds that the existence of God can be neither proven nor disproved. It represents a denial of ultimate knowledge of the existence of God, and it means the same thing as scepticism – the belief that the truth of all religious claims is unknown and unknowable.

The word agnostic was coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869 from the Greek agnostos, from a- (not) and gnostos (to be known); it literally means “not knowing”.

Agnosticism describes uncertainty about the existence of God, and it contrasts with confident belief that God does not exist (atheism). Atheist George Smith (1989) points out that, “properly considered, agnosticism is not a third alternative to theism and atheism because it is concerned with a different aspect of religious belief. Theism and atheism refer to the presence or absence of belief in a god; agnosticism refers to the impossibility of knowledge [his emphasis] with regard to a god or supernatural being.”

In other words, agnostics hold that it is impossible to believe that anyone can be sure about whether or not God actually exists. Viewed this way, drawing conclusions about the existence of God is not a matter of intelligence, knowledge or insight, it’s simply not possible. Many people share this view.

John Humphreys (2008) received many letters from listeners in response to his BBC radio series Humphreys in Search of God, about which he writes “what surprised me is how many think of themselves as neither believers nor atheists but doubters. They, too, are sincere. Devout sceptics, if you like. And many of them feel beleaguered. I’m with them.” Humphreys declares himself to be a “failed atheist” … he gave his book [In God We Doubt _](based on the radio series and findings of the YouGov survey) the sub-title _Confessions of a failed atheist.

Richard Dawkins (2006) concedes that “there is nothing wrong with being agnostic in cases where we lack evidence one way or the other. It is a reasonable position.” He distinguishes two kinds of agnosticism, which he calls –

p<>{color:#000;}. TAP (Temporary Agnosticism in Practice): “the legitimate fence-sitting where there really is a definite answer, one way or the other, but we so far lack the evidence to reach it,”; and

p<>{color:#000;}. PAP (Permanent Agnosticism in Principle): which “is appropriate for questions that can never be answered, no matter how much evidence we gather, because the very idea of evidence is not applicable.”

Eager to dismiss agnosticism as a pale shadow of his favoured atheism, he insists that “agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability.”




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4. Denying God

While agnostics believe it is not possible to say one way or the other whether God exists, atheists are convinced that God does not exist.

The word atheism comes from the Greek atheos, from a- (“without”) and theos (“a god”), so it literally means “without a god” or godless. The term is used in two slightly different ways – to mean the belief that there is no God or gods, or the rejection of belief in the existence of God or gods.

Peter Lundstrom (2008) defines atheism as a “non-theistic belief system” while Scottish theologian John Baillie (1939) prefers to see atheism as “the intellectual denial of the reality of God.” Although George Smith (1989) agrees that “atheism … is the absence of theistic belief … [he insists that] atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief.”

Whether or not it amounts to a belief, atheism is generally a conscious decision not a default assumption; atheists have usually made a deliberate decision to hold the views they do. Alister McGrath (2004) emphasises that “atheism is not about the suspension of judgment on the God Question; it is a firm and principled commitment to the nonexistence of God, and the liberating impact of this belief. The very idea of God is declared to be outdated, enslaving, and a downright self-contradiction.” New Atheist Christopher Hitchens (2007) applauds atheism as “a finer tradition [than theism]: the resistance of the rational.”

Whilst most non-believers prefer to call themselves atheists, some prefer the term ‘freethinker’ or even ‘libertine’ … not, as Michael Onfray (2007) points out, “in the sense of one leading a dissolute life but rather in the sense of one who doubts or denies religious dogma.”

Daniel Dennett (2006) refers to fellow atheists as ‘brights’, although fellow New Atheists Christopher Hitchens (2007) and Sam Harris (2005) refuse to use the term. Richard Dawkins (2006) uses the term ‘brights’ with relish to support his claim that atheists understand better than believers that there is no other reality than material reality. Dawkins dismisses all talk of spiritual things as mumbo-jumbo, and looks down on believers as emotionally needy, lacking in intelligence, and easily deceived into believing nonsense.

Leaving the idea of God out of the picture altogether, as Dawkins points out, atheists believe that “although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the whole gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.” George Smith (1989) points out that “by severing any possible appeal to the supernatural – which, in terms of human knowledge, means the unknowable – atheism 

demands that issues be dealt with through reason and human understanding; they cannot be sloughed-off onto a mysterious god.”

Richard Dawkins (2006) explains how atheists believe “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural [his emphasis] creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles – except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand. If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural.”

Put simply, atheists insist that the material world is all there is, and all the rest is delusion or illusion. As a consequence, they insist that rationality and science are the only ways of ‘knowing’. People of faith know or have good reasons to believe otherwise. This theme is pursued further in the ebook Science and the challenge to God in this GOD MATTERS series.

Alister McGrath (2004) traces the birth of what he calls “intentional atheism” – “as opposed to mere cultural indifference to religion” – to the late 1790s and the emergence of the Romantic Movement in England, particularly through the poets William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats who saw nature as “affirming the transcendent without God.”

Richard Dawkins (2006) writes of “atheist pride. Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind.” He also writes about ‘coming out’ as an atheist, and of his dream that his book The God Delusion “may help people to come out. Exactly as in the case of the gay movement, the more people come out, the easier it will be for others to join them. There may be a critical mass for the initiation of a chain reaction.”

Many atheists are happy to get on with their lives and to co-exist peacefully with believers, but some can’t resist the urge to take a swipe at religion and dismiss it as irrational and founded on illusions and delusions. One such writer is Michel Onfray (2007), who regards all religions, but particularly the three monotheisms, as anti-intellectual, legalistic and rooted in aversions. He writes of religion’s “hatred of reason and intelligence; hatred of freedom; hatred of all books in the name of one book alone; hatred of sexuality, women, and pleasure; hatred of the feminine; hatred of the body, of desires, of drives.” He bemoans the fact that theists “live exclusively by prescriptions and constraints: things to do and things not to do, say and not to say, think and not to think, perform and not to perform. Forbidden and authorised, licit and illicit, agreed and not agreed: the religious texts abound in existential, dietary, behavioural, ritual, and other codifications.”

Just as atheism as a perspective or belief system sits at one end of the spectrum running from belief to unbelief, so within atheism people can be placed in particular positions; it is not a single homogeneous group. As in religion, within atheism there are shades of fundamentalism, extremism and intolerance. Symon Hill (2010) reminds us that “in the same way that religious fundamentalists refuse to see anything good or truthful in any religion but their own, there is a form of atheist fundamentalism that refuses to see anything good or truthful in any religion. … Just as religious fundamentalists accuse many members of their religions as having sold out, so the New Atheists attack other atheists for being insufficiently hostile to religion.”


New Atheism

The term New Atheism appears to have been first used, in public at least, in an article entitled ‘The church of the non-believers’ that appeared the November 2006 edition of an American online magazine called Wired. It emerged suddenly, out of the blue, but it was catchy and memorable, and once coined it was quickly adopted and widely used.

Empowered by the growing secularisation of Western society over the last century, emboldened by the experience of the Death of God movement (which we will look at in the last chapter of this ebook) nearly half a century earlier, and inspired by the growth of religious fundamentalism in recent decades, New Atheism is very much a product of its time.

The principal standard-bearers of this new, bold, anti-religious rhetoric are the writers Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Whether they genuinely represent the voices of a generation, or are just angry not-so-young men – for men they all are – is a matter for debate. American writer Roy Varghese (2007) has noted how “the proponents of a look-back-in-anger, take-no-prisoners type of atheism were out in force.”

The first spokesman of New Atheism to appear in print was Sam Harris (2005), a young American philosopher and neuroscience graduate student at Stanford University, whose The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason was published in 2004. That book, which challenged religious dogma and its role in American life and politics, was a polemic against religious fundamentalism and extremism, especially as expressed through terrorism post-9.11. It railed against things done ‘in the name of God’. James Welsh (2007) thought that Harris, in crediting religious faith as the source of much of the violence in the world today, “was effective in a kind of outraged, dumbfounded, vox populi way”.

American psychologist Daniel Dennett (2006) took the anti-religion theme further in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, in which he argued that “religion is like the liver fluke, a dreadful parasite that should be sought out and eradicated.” He explains his book’s enigmatic title: “the spell that I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.”

The End of Faith paved the way for a similarly influential book published in 2007 by Christopher Hitchens, a British journalist based in the USA. The book’s title, God is Not Great, and particularly its sub-title [_How Religion Poisons Everything _]convey its central message. Hitchens sees “religion as an original sin”, as he titles one of his chapters. He finds it difficult to restrain his contempt for religion, which he dismisses as “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive towards children.” John Humphreys (2008) adds, somewhat mischievously, “and it probably gives you dandruff and bad breath too.” Hitchens insists that religion “is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.”

Richard Dawkins is the best known of the New Atheist writers and has done more than the others to popularise its themes. His attack on religion and religious believers in The God Delusion (2006) is the most intolerant of the bunch. His target audience was those “who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy about it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name.” As a man on a mission, Dawkins is explicit and unashamed about his objective in writing The God Delusion: he admits “if this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” Thomas Martin (2009) makes clear that the purpose of the book is “to help closet atheists ‘come out’ and to convert borderline theists to atheism.”

Reviewing all 4 of these New Atheist books, American writer Roy Varghese (2007) was struck by how “what was significant about these books was not their level of argument – which was modest, to put it mildly – but the level of visibility that they received both as best sellers and as a ‘new’ story discovered by the media. The ‘story’ was helped even further by the fact that the authors were as voluble and colourful as their books were fiery.”

New Atheist thinking and writing was at a peak between about 2006 and 20010, since when it has largely been superseded by a more moderate and rational atheism. The ‘big guns’ have been silenced, but doubtless left a legacy of intolerance and ill-feeling which has done little to foster informed conversations between the general body of believers and atheists. Thankfully this short term form of ‘megaphone diplomacy’ has given way to better informed dialogue.


Core beliefs

Whilst the four leading New Atheist writers have different emphases within their books, they are bound together by a shared view of God and religion as the cause of and not the solution to many of the fundamental problems confronting humanity today. They see the idea of God as the problem not the answer, and religion as either irrelevant or a barrier to meaningful progress.

The central tenet of New Atheism, as of traditional atheism, is that God does not exist but is a human construct. Richard Dawkins (2006) views religion as at best a profound misunderstanding and at worst a form of madness. His central thesis is that humans invented God as a way of coping with uncertainty in the world around them, and that this idea has been passed on from generation to generation by an evolutionary process through ‘cultural genes’ that he calls memes, as we saw earlier.

The New Atheists invest a great deal of time and effort sketching out the nature of the God they don’t believe in. They write about God as if he was some form of super-man, who they judge to be cruel, nasty and spiteful for allowing suffering, inequality and injustice. They portray God as a vindictive spy-in-the-sky who watches over people, interferes with their lives, and prevents them from just following their instincts and getting on with life.

All four New Atheist writers share deep concerns over several key issues. A core theme, certainly for Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins, is religious fundamentalism and extremism, and how it can lead to hostility and violence. Indeed, this is perhaps the most strongly voiced theme in their books, all written in the shadow of the 9.11 atrocities in New York and at a time of rising public concern over religiously-motivated militancy and terrorism across the world.

All four writers point to the inglorious history of religious conflict, and the cruelty and inhumanity of many things that have been done ‘in the name of God’. This is a particularly prominent theme in The God Delusion, where despite pointing to endless examples and illustrations, Dawkins (2006) thoughtfully reminds his readers that “in this book, I have deliberately refrained from detailing the horrors of the Crusades, the conquistadores or the Spanish Inquisition.”

Sam Harris (2005) devotes a very long chapter to “the problem with Islam”, noting that “we [the USA] are at war with Islam” which, “more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death” particularly through the principle of jihad or holy war.

Christopher Hitchens (2007) insists bluntly that “religion kills” (the title of his second chapter), and he cites as examples the 9.11 Twin Towers atrocity in New York, Catholic-Protestant tensions and conflicts in Northern Ireland, conflicts between Israel and Lebanon, ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia, religious tensions and conflicts in Bethlehem, and conflicts in Iraq. Roy Varghese (2007) reminds us that the new atheists “train their guns on well-known abuses in the history of the major world religions. But the excesses and atrocities of organised religion have no bearing whatsoever on the existence of God, just as the threat of nuclear proliferation has no bearing on the question of whether e=mc2.”

Questions of ethics and morality also exercise all four writers, eager to find ways of disassociating moral standards from the divine. Richard Dawkins (2006) strongly rejects the idea that “should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing would deserve the name of goodness.” He also insists that “people who claim to derive their morals [directly] from scripture do not really do so in practice.”

All four writers also have things to say about justice, inequality and suffering. As John Haught (2008) points out, they “try to convince their readers that the monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – underlie a sizeable portion of the evils human beings have afflicted on one another throughout the last three millennia.” Christopher Hitchens (2007) picks an extreme example in pointing out that, after the 9.11 bombings in New York, “within hours, the ‘reverends’ Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell had announced that the immolation of their fellow creatures was a divine judgment on a secular society that tolerated homosexuality and abortion.”

The books by all four New Atheism writers are out-and-out attacks on organised religion and how it makes apparently otherwise sensible people behave. None says much about God per se. In fact it is worth noting that the New Atheist writers largely attack organised religion, rather than God.


The God Delusion

The God debate grew very lively during the first decade of the new millenium, partly as the result of the emergence of so-called New Atheism.

Richard Dawkins’ 2006 book The God Delusion quickly became the set text of New Atheism, and continues to serve as its best-quoted manifesto. Although the book’s title is punchy and memorable, it is not entirely original: British theologian David Jenkins (later to become Bishop of Durham) opened his 1969 book [_Living with Questions _]with the sentence “God is either a gift or a delusion.” Dawkins fails to credit Jenkins, probably unaware of the book’s existence.

Dawkins declared that his intention in writing the book was to “raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.”

It quickly became an international best-seller, and it will have done no harm to its author’s pension fund. The book also raised his global profile as the voice of New Atheism, and not by accident. It sold in vast numbers and continues to be widely talked about, but one wonders how many of those who bought the book actually read it from cover to cover. As John Humphreys (2008) put it, [_The God Delusion _]was “one of the most unlikely best-sellers of the past few years. It might not have threatened Harry Potter in the charts, but for a serious book on a serious subject it justified the overused description ‘a publishing sensation’.”

One might ask why [_The God Delusion _]sold as well as it did, given that religious books have notoriously limited appeal in the market-place. Several factors came together at the same time, to create something of a publishing perfect storm. No doubt the book’s deliberately provocative but very eye-catching title helped a great deal; his publishers clearly knew a good thing when they saw it. A second factor was Richard Dawkins’ credibility as an academic scientist, a former Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He has a well-earned reputation as a writer of good popular science books; even amongst his critics he is described by Keith Ward (2008) as “one of the most exciting and informative writers on science, especially on evolutionary biology.”

Added spice came through his well-known antipathy to religion, which had been aired in some of his earlier books. Dawkins (2003) the self-proclaimed “Devil’s Chaplain” was already known for his strong views on religion. As what British author A.N. Wilson (2000) describes as “Darwin’s most ardent representative on earth (since the death of Thomas Huxley)”, Dawkins believes religion to be a by-product of human evolution, not a product of divine inspiration or creation. Dawkins was also tapping into the popular vein of humanism and secularism which ran through late twentieth century Western society, so there was a broad and receptive audience to appeal to.

Dawkins also has apparently unlimited energy and enthusiasm in the area of self-promotion, and he was interviewed widely across the media as a spokesperson for the new zeitgeist, the spirit of the age which reflected popular disinterest in if not outright hostility to organised religion.


What’s new about New Atheism?

The central message of New Atheism is not new. In fact, New Atheism simply repeats and echoes most of the core arguments of traditional atheism, but with contemporary examples and illustrations. Many well-informed commentators conclude that most of what the New Atheists say and write has been said and written before, usually better. John Haught (2008), fo example, points out that, “as far as enhancing knowledge of religion is concerned, the new atheists do little more than provide a fresh catalogue of the evils wrought by members of the theistic faiths.”

Haught concludes that the New Atheists are a long way off what he would call “really hard-core atheists”. He argues that the latter – writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre – “generally demanded a much more radical transformation of human culture and consciousness. … To them atheism, if one is really serious about it, should make all the difference in the world, and it would take a superhuman effort to embrace it. … [but the New Atheists] want atheism to prevail at the least possible expense to the agreeable socioeconomic circumstances out of which they sermonise. … They would have the God religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – simply disappear, after which we should be able to go on enjoying the same lifestyle as before, only without the nuisance of suicide bombers and TV evangelists.”

If the content and depth of New Atheism are not particularly new, what is new is the tone, with its entrenched militancy, intolerance and missionary zeal.


Critiques of New Atheism

There is no shortage of books published in response to the writings of the new atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and his particular brand of militant atheism. The bulk of this growing body of work is very critical of New Atheism.

Michael Ruse (2007) captures the general consensus of most critics in his conclusion that “it is not that the [New] atheists are having a field day because of the brilliance and novelty of their thinking … the material being churned out is second rate. And that is a euphemism for ‘downright awful’.”

Critics often bemoan the style and tone of the New Atheists’ writing. Karen Armstrong (2009) writes simply that “it is a pity that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris express themselves so intemperately”, while Terry Eagleton (2009) is blunter in his observation that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins “is afflicted with an excess of modesty.”

Hitchens’ forceful style and dogmatic message have attracted a fair amount of criticism. For example, John Humphreys (2008) thinks that he “makes the Taliban look tame”. John Haught (2008) notes that “intolerance of tolerance seems to be a truly novel feature of the new atheists’ solution to the problem of human misery.”

As Keith Ward (2008) points out, when Dawkins “enters into the world of philosophy, his passion tends to get the better of him, and he sometimes descends into stereotyping, pastiche and mockery, no longer approaching the arguments with his usual seriousness and care.” Physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne (2009) dismisses the book as “simply an atheistic rant – a disappointing book full of assertions but devoid of real engagement with theological arguments.”

John Humphreys (2008) gets annoyed that the New Atheist writers “appear to believe they are superior to religious believers not only intellectually but even, in some bizarre way, morally.”

Irish philosopher Michael Dunne (2006) believes that [_The God Delusion _]is a book that “the author will regret writing. … [not only because] there is a terrible tendency in the book towards rhetoric and point-scoring rather than argument. … he blunders into many areas where angels would fear to tread. … the erratic nature of his arguments, the lack of fair-mindedness in the people he targets, make him a floating mine, a threat to friend and foe alike.”

Scientist and theologian Alister McGrath (2007) dismisses [_The God Delusion _]as “a work of theatre rather than scholarship – a fierce, rhetorical assault on religion, and a passionate plea for it to be banished to the lunatic fringes of society, where it can do no harm.”

Even atheist James McBain (2007) is not convinced that [_The God Delusion _]has achieved its goal, because “many … parts of the book are either cheap shots, the resting (or better yet piggy-backing) on the shoulders of others …, raging bluster, and bad arguments that the book simply does not motivate the closet-atheist off the couch … and this atheist is mad as hell that he failed.”

Critics also point to the New Atheists’ lack of theological literacy and engagement with mainstream theology, preferring instead to base their arguments on ill-informed and outmoded ideas, and often on pure ignorance and prejudice, which seriously undermines the credibility of their writing. John Haught (2008) argues that their “understanding of religious faith remains consistently at the same unscholarly level as the unreflective, superstitious, and literalist religiosity of those they criticise.” Karen Armstrong  (2009) points out that “their polemic remains shallow and lacks intellectual depth. It is also morally and intellectually conservative.”




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5. Inventing God

In his book In Gods We Trust, American anthropologist Scott Atran (2004) argues that “religions do not exist apart from the individual minds that constitute them and the environments that constrain them, any more than biological species and varieties exist independently of the individual organisms that compose them and the environments that conform them.”


God – real or invented?

New Atheist Christopher Hitchens (2007) wrote that “the mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did.” He added that “a consistent proof that religion is man-made and anthropomorphic can also be found in the fact that it is usually ‘man’ made, in the sense of masculine, as well.”

Fellow New Atheist Daniel Dennett (2006) insisted that religion is a natural phenomenon, by which he means “religion is natural as opposed to supernatural [his emphasis], that is it is a human phenomenon composed of events, organisms, objects, structures, patterns, and the like that all obey the laws of physics or biology, and hence do not involve miracles.”

The New Atheists claim support for their view of God as an invention from scientific studies of religion, particularly those done by anthropologists trained in evolutionary theory and cognitive psychology. Examples of scientists who explain religion as a by-product of normal psychological and social processes include anthropologist Pascal Boyer in the book [_Religion Explained _](2001), psychologist Justin Barrett in [_Why would Anyone Believe in God? _](2004), ethnologist Robert Hinde in [_Why Gods Persist _](2009), and David Lewis-Williams in [_Conceiving God: the Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion _](2010).

Believers naturally dismiss the claim that God does not actually exist, and they argue that there are sound reasons for rejecting the idea of God as a figment of the imagination. Alister McGrath (2004) concedes that to non-believers “the idea of God was an entirely understandable invention, which might even be useful in consoling weaker and foolish souls who were naïve enough to believe in it.” As well as consolation, he recognises that the idea of God offers humans some sense of control. He writes that “God was a human creation over which humanity had authority and control. …  God was not someone that humanity discovered or encountered, but ‘a dream of the human soul, a pure invention, the product of a mind that could reject God with equal ease.”

Many critics have pointed to the lack of evidence to support the argument that God was invented. British material scientist Edgar Andrews (2009) insists that “it is not, in fact, an explanation at all. It doesn’t explain religious concepts, religious experience or the almost universal religious instinct of mankind, ancient or modern.”


The evolution of (the idea of) God

If God is an invention, why has the idea of God persisted? Why won’t religion and God simply go away, if they are illusions or delusions, as the New Atheists insist?

Richard Dawkins (an evolutionary biologist by training, profession and instinct) claims to have the answer – Darwinian evolution. He argues that – even though God does not exist, the idea of God is a delusion, and religion is a natural not a supernatural phenomenon – the idea of God and the practice of religion have survived because they are passed down from generation to generation, just like physical traits such as hair colour and eye colour can be passed on from parents to children. Dawkins (2006) concluded that “religion is nothing more than a useless, and sometime dangerous, evolutionary accident.”

American theologian John Haught (2008) accepts that “looking for an evolutionary understanding of religion is … theologically unobjectionable. … (For Dennett and Dawkins] a naturalistic understanding of religion leaves no meaningful room at all for plausible theological accounts of why most people are religious. … [to the New Atheists] Science alone can tell us what religion is really all about, and it can provide better answers than theology to every important question people ask. According to Dawkins, science is even qualified to decide whether or not God exists.”

As John Cornwell (2007) puts it, Dawkins goes as far as to propose a “general theory of religion” which offers “an ultimate explanation for the true origins of religion.”


Memes and replicators

Richard Dawkins’ (2006) explanation of religion is firmly rooted in Darwin’s ideas about evolution by natural selection based on competitive advantage. Darwin proposed that individuals (of any species) who are better adapted to the prevailing environment are more likely to survive than those who are less well-adapted, so they are more likely to breed and pass on their genes to their successors. Ill-adapted traits tend to die out because they are not so widely inherited, since individuals with them are less likely to survive, breed and pass them on.

Dawkins’ “explanation” of religion rests on two key ideas – a particular idea of natural replicators, and the general idea of ‘accidental byproducts’ – both of which have attracted a great deal of criticism from scientists.

A replicator is a mechanism by which things are copied and passed on from one generation to the next. In biology the gene is the key replicator, but Dawkins (2006) proposes the cultural equivalent of a gene, which he calls the meme. He first proposed the term (derived from the Greek mimëma, meaning “something imitated”) in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He uses the term meme to describe “a unit of cultural inheritance.”

Dawkins visualises a meme as an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behaviour that spreads throughout a culture by passing from one person to another, rather like a contagious disease (such as measles). He suggests that things like tunes, catchphrases, ideas, clothes, fashions, ways of making posts or building arches, stitches in knitting, knots in ropes or fishing nets, origami folding patterns, and useful tricks in carpentry or pottery are examples of memes.

The general idea of memes has been further developed by Daniel Dennett in [_Consciousness Explained _](1993) and by British psychologist Susan Blackmore in [_The Meme Machine _](1999). Supporters of the Dawkins meme model argue that memes are passed on through children and their social conditioning. For example, Daniel Dennett (2006) points out that “speaking one’s ‘mother tongue’, singing, being polite, and many other ‘socializing’ skills are transmitted culturally from parents to offspring … Children grow up speaking their parents’ language and, in almost all cases, identifying with their parents’ religion.”

Dawkins compares the religion meme (which he insists exists) to a virus, in this case a ‘virus of the mind’ which, like a natural virus, can be spread from person to person by carriers and contact. Resorting to typically intemperate language he writes (2006) that, “once infected, the child will grow up and infect the next generation with the same nonsense, whatever it happens to be.”

Dawkins goes an important and equally contentious step further, arguing that religious belief and behaviour are examples of an ‘accidental byproduct’. By that he means that religion is not an evolutionary adaptation in itself; the process of natural selection did not lead to the inheritance of religion per se, but to the inheritance of some other competitive benefit that “only incidentally manifests itself as religious behaviour.” This is why Dawkins argues that religious faith is “a misfiring of something useful.”

What was that ‘something useful’? Dawkins speculates that it was the ability of our remote ancestors to detect predators. As John Haught (2008) puts it, the Dawkins’ line of reasoning is that “we have inherited the kinds of brains that can easily attract and cultivate ideas about those ridiculous hidden agents we call gods or God. … Having an excitable agency detection system makes our brains congenial hosts to the parasitic illusions of religion, even in an age of science.”

However it initially developed, Dawkins (2006) believes that “the meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.” He argues that this starts in childhood and that “natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival. … But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses. … And, very likely, when the child grows up and has children of her own, she will naturally pass the whole lot on to her own children – nonsense as well as sense …”



The notion of memes is a key pillar in Dawkins’ logic in ‘explaining’ the development and persistence of religion. If the idea falls, then his central thesis in [_The God Delusion _]loses much of its intellectual rationale and foundation, and his arguments start to look very shaky. The stakes are high!

Despite Dawkins’ confidence in promoting his ideas about memes, they remain what John Haught (2008) calls “novel and extremely controversial.” The ideas have attracted a great deal of criticism from well-informed commentators. A leading critic has been Alister McGrath (2007), who dismisses Dawkins’ idea of the meme and his view of God as a ‘virus of the mind’ as “two of the most unpersuasive, pseudoscientific ideas to have made their appearance in discussions of the roots of religion in recent years.”

The most common criticism is the lack of any direct evidence for the existence of memes. They remain just an idea, and a “highly speculative” one at that, according to McGrath, who bemoans that fact that “we find speculation and supposition taking the place of the rigorous evidence-driven and evidence-based arguments that we have a right to expect.” With a nod towards the ‘God of the Gaps’ argument (which is explained in the ebook Science and the challenge to God in this GOD MATTERS series), David Robertson (2007) accuses Dawkins of constructing “a ‘science of the gaps’ just making things up as you go along in order to fit everything into your all-encompassing evolutionary theory.”

Critics also point to the lack of scientific credibility of Dawkins’ ideas. No scientific research has been done to test the idea of memes, which challenges scientific orthodoxy. Few scientists attach any weight to the idea. Alister McGrath (2007) emphasises that “the mainstream scientific community views it as a decidedly flaky idea, best relegated to the margins.”

David Robertson (2007) quotes Simon Conway, Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology at the University of Cambridge, who points out that “memes are trivial, to be banished by simple mental exercises. In any wider context, they are hopelessly, if not hilariously, simplistic.” Even agnostic Michael Shermer (2000) points out that Dawkins offers no operational definition of a meme, or any testable model for how memes are thought to influence culture. John Cornwell (2007) argues that the idea of memes “pushes the envelope more in terms of propaganda than of science.”

Richard Dawkins’ desire to isolate brain activity as the locus of the “religion meme” is no big deal, given that all human experience and behaviour – not just religious ones – are by definition centred in and shaped by the brain. David Robertson (2007) rhetorically asks Dawkins “if it [the idea of memes] were true, then your own ideas, including Darwinian evolution, would be considered memes as well.”

Alister McGrath (2007) points out that “Dawkins draws an absolute distinction between rational, scientific and evidence-based ideas, and spurious, irrational notions – such as religious beliefs. The latter, not the former, count as mental viruses. But who decides what is ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’? … [it seems] to depend on Dawkins’ highly subjective personal judgement as to what was ‘rational’ or not.”

Dawkins’ proposition that the “religion meme” is a “virus of the mind” is equally difficult to defend, both because of the lack of evidence and the circular argument it relies on. McGrath (2007) dismisses it as “an essentially polemical construction, devised to discredit ideas that Dawkins does not like.” As McGrath points out, Dawkins starts with an analogy but seamlessly turns it into a reality, writing that “the analogy – belief in God is like a virus – then seems to assume ontological substance. Belief in God is a virus of the mind.”

Kathleen Jones (2007) takes Dawkins to task for simplistically linking memes and viruses, reminding us that “the replication of genes, natural viruses, infections and computer viruses involve very different processes, as he must know. … A scientist who professes the Public Understanding of Science really must know the difference between these four processes.”

Other challenges to Dawkins’ ideas centre on his approach of deliberately collapsing complexity into simplicity to suit his pre-existing argument. For example, John Cornwell (2007) insists that “anything so complex, social, and demanding of human imagination, relationships, and choices as religion defies reducibility to a single principle.” He elaborates further, writing “if an idea, such as the idea of God or a god, can be thought of as parallel to a gene it would mean that beliefs come in discrete packages. But this hardly makes sense because ideas, and especially religion, are generally untidy with multiple relationships and differences in complexity, emotions, depth of intellectual rigour, associations, and so forth. The word ‘god’ expresses a diversity of meanings, depending on cultural, philosophical, ethnic, and historical background. Belief itself, moreover, comes in a variety of shades of assent – from absolute conviction and commitment, to vague speculation bordering on scepticism.”

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg (2001) points out that Dawkins’ ideas make no allowance for “mystical experience … [and] a range of unitary experiences that are often interpreted as assurances that God exists.” Terry Eagleton (2009) dismisses Dawkins as “an old-fashioned, crassly reductive system builder … Such reductive systems are incompatible with the freedom which Dawkins rightly champions. In this sense, his thought is in contradiction with itself.”

Critics have also questioned Dawkins’ ideas about cultural evolution. Alister McGrath (2007) insists that “there is no reason to suppose that cultural evolution is Darwinian, or indeed that evolutionary biology has any particular value in accounting for the development of ideas.” Dawkins’ idea of religion as an “accidental byproduct” of evolution has also come under fire, as logically inconsistent with the Darwinian model of evolution that Dawkins is such a passionate advocate of. As McGrath reminds us, Darwinian evolution by natural selection includes no notion of purpose; indeed, as Dawkins has himself written, the universe has “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that accepting Dawkins’ idea of memes and cultural replicators requires a leap of faith every bit as large as the leap of logic Dawkins thinks is required to believe in God. Alister McGrath (2007) rejects the idea of memes as “conceptually redundant … [because] The observational data can be accounted for perfectly well by other models and mechanisms.”

What Dawkins does not allow for is the possibility that evolution might have operated in a much more direct way than via the unproven route of memes and replicators. Psychologist David Geaney (2007) suggests that religion might “have achieved its ubiquitous nature by conferring evolutionary advantage to the believers themselves.” Such a view is compatible with the evidence that believers tend to enjoy better health and well-being, and to live longer than their unbelieving peers.

Alister McGrath (2007) dismisses the naturalist explanation of religion offered by Dennett and Dawkins as “highly contrived and unpersuasive.” He concludes that “in the end it is a circular argument, which presupposes its conclusions. It begins from the assumption that there is no God, and then proceeds to show that an explanation of God can be offered which is entirely consistent with this.”




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6. The Death of God

As Enlightenment thinking took hold from the late seventeenth century onwards and modern science emerged as a force to be reckoned with, traditional religion and the idea of God came under attack. The path towards agnosticism and atheism, which emerged during the nineteenth century, was a long and bumpy one. But a number of influential writers pointed to the way ahead.


The challenge from philosophy

An early challenge to traditional ideas of God came in the late seventeenth century through the writing of Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Karen Armstrong (1993) describes how, in his book Ethics, Spinoza “saw revealed religion as inferior to the scientific knowledge of God acquired by the philosopher” and saw the existence of God as necessary “because it alone provided the certainty and confidence necessary to make other deductions about reality.” To Spinoza God represents the laws and general principles that govern all aspects of the world around us; he argued that “it’s impossible for God not to exist.” Because he viewed God as inherent and immanent in all things, Spinoza is often accused of being a pantheist or even an atheist, but as Karen Armstrong points out “he did have a belief in God, even though this was not the God of the Bible.”

A century later, in 1768, French Enlightenment writer Voltaire (real name François-Marie Arouet; 1694-1778) wrote about the invention of God and gave his successors an infamous sound-bite which has been widely quoted and generally taken out of context. In 2007 New Atheist Christopher Hitchens (2007) followed fashion in quoting him, writing “though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with.” Alister McGrath (2004) gives the full quotation of what Voltaire wrote in 1768 – “If the heavens, stripped of their noble imprint, could ever cease to reveal Him, if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, whom the sages proclaim, and whom kings adore.”

In the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) rejected the God of Judaism as “a tyrant who required unquestioning submission to an intolerable Law”, as Karen Armstrong (1993) puts it. In [_The Phenomenology of Mind _](1817) Hegel replaced the traditional idea of God with the idea of a Spirit or a life-force, which depended on the world and on people.

Equally controversial were the views of his contemporary, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1789-1860), whose book [_The World as Will and Idea _]was published two years later in 1819. Schopenhauer believed that there is neither God nor spirit at work in the world, only human instinct and the will-to-live. As Karen Armstrong points out, he argued that “since there was no ‘God’ to save us, only art, music and a discipline of renunciation and compassion could bring us a measure of serenity.”

German philosopher Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872), a student of Hegel, developed his master’s ideas further. In [_The Essence of Christianity _](1841) Feuerbach argued that God does not actually exist. He saw the idea of God as a projection of human longings, invented or dreamed up by humans to provide much-needed metaphysical and spiritual consolation, which Alister McGrath (2004) characterizes as “a misguided means of comforting itself during life’s dark and shadowy journey.” McGrath emphasises Feuerbach’s view that “God was not someone that humanity discovered or encountered, but ‘a dream of the human soul’, a pure invention, the product of a mind that could reject God with equal ease.” Feuerbach (1841) wrote that “to be human is divine. The idea of God is the idea of ourselves – purified, enlarged, and made ‘other’.” As Martin Prozesky (1992) puts it, Feuerbach insisted that there is no God, “only ourselves and our highest moral ideals which we transfer on to that imaginary God.”

As the nineteenth century unfolded, these challenges to religion and the idea of God started to undermine received wisdoms. By mid-century God found himself well and truly “in the dock”.

Undisputed champion of this emerging new way of thinking, which had neither need nor space for God, was German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900). In The Gay Science (1882) Nietzsche announced that “God was dead”, an expression he borrowed from Hegel. Nietzsche used the parable of a madman who, when asked where he thought God had gone, shouted out “We have killed him, – you and I! We are all his murderers!” New Atheist Christopher Hitchens (2007) dismissed the pronouncement that “God is dead” as “histrionic and self-contradictory.”

Alister McGrath (2004) points out that Nietzsche did not base his conclusions on arguments for or against the existence of God, but noted as “a simple matter of fact that God is gradually being eliminated from modern culture. Whether this is right or wrong, good or bad, it is happening. As a matter of observable fact, Nietzsche suggested, Western culture has ceased to find belief in God plausible.”

In his next book, [_Thus Spake Zarathustra _](1883), Nietzsche “looked forward to the advent of the superman, who would completely reject Christian values such as mercy and submissiveness, and incarnate in himself the pure will to power, in a life serene and pitiless, strong and free”, as Keith Ward (2003) puts it.

Nietzsche argued that people only believe in God because they are too afraid not to, because they are unable to manage without the comfort of the idea of God. God was born out of human weakness but became a religious trap which people slavishly fell into, and through this slave mentality people allowed God to become manipulative and oppressive. But as people embrace life and live it as best they can, they become strong enough to reject God, thus they have killed him.

One of the most critical twentieth-century writers on the idea of God was German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1899-1976), who believed there is no God, just what he called Nothing _]([_das Nichts). He argued that we are on our own, and must find our own way through life with all its challenges. British theologian Keith Ward (2003) summarises Heidegger’s belief in “a sort of infinite horizon which relativises all our finite anxieties and concerns, and bundles them up into one gigantic Angst, anxiety in the face of Nothing. … [which] is overcome by having the courage to commit oneself to a possibility which, though bounded by death, is uniquely and authentically ours. We find our individual vocation not in relation to a tyrannical or a paternalistic god, but in relation to that unbounded horizon … which summons each individual being to its own unique realisation.”

French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) shared many of Heidegger’s views; both were heavily influenced by Kierkegaard’s writings. As Ward (2003) points out, Sartre was one of a number of continental philosophers who were “glad to be rid of God … the hidden watcher, always observing what you were doing, so that you could never escape the censorious eye of the almighty. … [in Sartre’s view] Life is absurd, it has no meaning, objectively speaking. It is for us to give it meaning ourselves, in whatever way we choose.”


The challenge from psychiatry

While these German philosophers were highly influential in raising serious questions about the existence and relevance of God, they were not the only people to launch full-frontal attacks on the idea of God and the practice of organised religion.

Austrian doctor and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founding father of psychoanalysis, saw religion as the product of wishful thinking, an illusion based on the longing for a father-figure. In [_The Future of an Illusion _](1927), Freud dismissed belief in God as “an illusion that mature men and women should lay aside”, as Karen Armstrong (1993) puts it. In Armstrong’s words, Freud explained the idea of God as a projection constructed by the subconscious mind, arising from “infantile yearnings for a powerful, protective father, for justice and fairness and for life to go on for ever. God is simply a projection of these desires, feared and worshipped by human beings out of an abiding sense of helplessness.”

As Martin Prozesky (1992) explains, Freud looked on faith as “a neurotic illusion created and accepted unconsciously by the human mind as a comfort against the pain and dread which would cripple us if we actually faced up to the facts of our existence.” Andrew Pessin (2009) underlines Freud’s insistence that “religious belief amounts to a kind of social neurosis … Belief in God is something of which we should be cured.” Like many people subsequently, Freud believed that science could and should take God’s place.

Another psychiatrist, this time Swiss, had a much more sympathetic view of religion. Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) dismissed Freud’s explanation of religion as the result of human drives “as a direct product of nineteenth-century scientific atheism which, he believed, had been responsible for misunderstanding the whole nature of the human psyche”, as Peter Clarke (2001) puts it. Clarke points out that Jung’s clinical experience led him to write of “the notion of the ‘collective unconscious’, a store of images (archetypes) common to all people, which enable them to interpret their experiences. Religion was an important factor in the life of the psyche, because it provided images that helped the individual to find personal spiritual integrity and inner peace. Religion was thus an important source of the wisdom essential for mental well-being.”


The challenge from social science

German philosopher and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818-83) also argued that God is a product of the human mind, but created in response to social and economic alienation, not spiritual concerns.

Marx saw people as trapped and alienated in social, political and economic structures dictated by the class system, which repress and exploit them and mean that their well-being and happiness lie in the hand of others. Little wonder, then, that people look to religion for consolation as they daily confront painful realities. In Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1843-44) Marx described religion memorably as “the sigh of an oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” In Peter Clarke’s (2001) words, Marx argued that the consolation is an illusion, “an expression of social distress, a turning to another world for comfort and consolation, … [that] becomes a distraction from the real task of fighting against the causes of distress, poverty and injustice here and now.” Karen Armstrong (1993) points out that, to Marx, “since there was no meaning, value or purpose outside the historical process, the idea of God could not help humanity. Atheism, the negation of God, was also a waste of time.”

Like Feuerbach, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) also adopted an anthropological approach to religion and explained it in naturalistic terms. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) Durkheim described religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices … which unite into one moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” He saw God not as a transcendent reality but a projection; “the ‘beliefs, myths, dogmas and legends’ of religion are projections on to a supernatural being which arise from collective human experience.”] As Caroline Ogden (2000) describes it, Durkheim’s idea of God was “society’s projection of itself, with collective self-enhancing rituals acquiring sacredness and then being objectified into the worship of a supreme being.”


Radical theology and the death of God

Karen Armstrong (1993) notes that, “by the end of the [nineteenth] century, a significant number of people were beginning to feel that, if God was not yet dead, it was the duty of rational, emancipated human beings to kill him.”

Ironically, the assassination was attempted not by scientists and philosophers, but by theologians. They described their new approach as ‘radical theology’, arguably stretching the definition of ‘radical’ beyond breaking point! The enemy within struck first, it struck hard, and it struck very publicly.

US theologians Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton (1968) explain what they mean by the term ‘radical theology’ – “It is really that we do not know, do not adore, do not possess, do not believe in God. It is not just that a capacity has dried up in us; … God is dead. We are not talking about the absence of the experience of God, but about the experience of the absence of God.” They clarify that “it is, in effect, an attempt to set an atheist point of view within the spectrum of Christian possibilities. … The aim of the new theology is not simply to seek relevance or contemporaneity for its own sake but to strike for a whole new way of theological understanding.”

The cover of the 8 April 1966 edition of Time magazine was striking; the words “Is God dead?” were printed large and bold in red, against a black background. The cover story was based on more than 300 interviews with leading theologians from around the world. As Alister McGrath (2004) comments, “although the article focused primarily on a few relatively unknown theologians who had launched a theology that everyone suspected was stillborn and was going precisely nowhere, it raised broader issues. … Was America entering a new secular era, in which God would merely be a memory of an increasingly distant past?”

Agnostic Michael Shermer (2000) viewed the Time magazine article and the public debate it triggered as very much products of their day, pointing out that “by 1966 the most turbulent decade in memory was in full rage as the baby-boomer generation flexed its moral (and immoral) muscles against the conservative establishment’s vision of America as a God-fearing nation. Political assassinations, campus rebellions, inner-city riots, mass demonstrations, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and especially the Vietnam war led many disillusioned Americans down a nihilistic path into existential angst.”

To the great relief of more mainstream theologians, this brand of radical theology was short-lived and did not really catch on. Karen Armstrong (2009) dismisses it as “flawed: it was essentially a white, middle-class, affluent and – sometimes offensively – Christian theology.” Alister McGrath (2004) reports that “after discovering that the death of God did not, after all, mean that America had ceased to believe in God, the media lost interest in the movement.”

Whilst the ‘death of God’ discourse appeared to largely run out of steam within a matter of years, echoes of the theological ferment of the period survive. Students of the intellectual history of the 1960s will be particularly interested in the controversial but influential book Honest to God, published in 1963 by English theologian and Anglican Bishop of Woolwich John Robinson. Robinson suggested that Christians should abandon the traditional idea of “a God ‘out there’ coming to earth like some visitor from outer space [which] underlies every popular presentation of the Christian drama of salvation, whether from the pulpit or the presses.” He thought that, instead of thinking of God as a supernatural being somewhere ‘out there’ or ‘up there’ – the very basis of the theistic religious tradition – it makes more sense to think of God as “that which matters most” in our personal existence.

This controversial idea is based on existential theologian Paul Tillich’s (1958) notion of God as “the ground of our being.” Robinson (1963) wondered if “perhaps after all the Freudians are right, that such a God – the God of traditional popular theology – is a projection, and perhaps we are being called to live without that projection in any form.” His central message was stark: as Alister McGrath (2004) puts it bluntly, “Christianity had to update itself – or die. There was no shortage of those expecting the latter.”

Another British theologian, Don Cupitt, went much further than John Robinson in arguing that religion is so badly broken that it cannot be fixed or repaired. In his controversial book [_After God _](1998) Cupitt argued that “all our present major religious traditions are now coming to an end, just as the once very grand religions of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece came to an end in antiquity. As happened in the previous cases, we may expect that something of the great works of art will survive but virtually nothing of the doctrine.” He thought that “in the future we will see our religion not as supernatural doctrine but as an experiment in selfhood.”

In [_God’s Funeral _](the title borrowed from the title of a poem by Thomas Hardy written between 1918 and 1919), writer and biographer A.N. Wilson (2000) traces the course of this disappearing act by God in Victorian Britain in response to three sets of factors. One was the influence of popular writers like Charles Dickens, George Elliot, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold and Thomas Carlyle who were raising serious questions about whether there remained good reason to hang on to old-fashioned ideas about the existence, nature and relevance of God. Secondly, developments in science were revealing fascinating details about the world around us, and opening up intriguing new avenues of inquiry. For example, in his ground-breaking [_Principles of Geology _](1830-33) Charles Lyell stretched the age of the earth back much further than the few thousand years implied in the Biblical account of creation, and in the even more ground-breaking [_The Origin of Species _](1859) Charles Darwin put forward his evolutionary hypothesis, which directly contradicted that Biblical account of divine creation. The third factor was the new scholarly approaches to the Bible which were emerging, which opened up the possibility of reading the ‘good book’ in terms of myth, allegory, poetry, and so on, rather than just literally.

The effects were far-reaching and long-lasting. As Karen Armstrong (2009) points out, “Europeans were beginning to experience religion as tenuous, arbitrary and lifeless. … The unthinkable had happened: everything that the symbol of God had pointed to – absolute goodness, beauty, order, peace, truthfulness, justice – was being slowly but surely eliminated from European culture. Morality would no longer be measured by reference to an ultimate value that transcended human interests, but simply by the needs of the moment.”

Alister McGrath (2004) adds that, “politically and socially, Christianity remained highly significant in national life, and would remain so until after the First World War. Yet its ideas were increasingly seen as discredited, unattractive, and outdated by its novelists, poets, and artists. Christianity had been tried and tested at the imaginative and rational levels, and found wanting on both counts.”

Despite concerted efforts from a variety of directions, by the end of the twentieth century no-one had delivered the knock-out blow to God, although his opponents and critics certainly felt that they had him up against the ropes.


God fights back

As Mark Twain famously said after reading his own obituary, “rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Despite the numerous attacks on God over the last two centuries, the idea of God still affects the lives of millions of people. Michael Shermer (2000) concedes that “never in history have so many, and such a high percentage of the population, believed in God. Not only is God not dead, as Nietzsche proclaimed, but he has never been more alive.” Alister McGrath (2004) points out that “religion has grown globally since the high-water mark of secularism in the 1970s, even in the heartlands of the West.”




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Andrews, E. (2009) Who Made God? Searching for a Theory of Everything. Darlington: EP Books

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About the Author

Chris Park is a proud Yorkshireman, living in exile on the wrong side of the Pennines in Lancaster, England. After a career as an academic, specializing in the environment, he retired early to enjoy time to read, write, walk and travel, his four great passions after family. He has written numerous books, for academic and general readers, on both environmental and Christian topics. You can find details of them on his website (details below).


His website – www.chris-park.com

His Amazon author page – http://tinyurl.com/park-amazon-books


See Chris Park on the promo video for GOD: REAL OR IMAGINED?https://vimeo.com/74477523




Other books by this author

The GOD MATTERS Series – all available to download in different ebook formats, free of charge, from Shakespir.com

Religion and the idea of God

Doubt, denial and the death of God

Science and the challenge to God

Arguments for God

Personal experience of God

The nature of belief


Other free ebooks available from Shakespir.com

Enigma: St Francis of Assisi (2012)

Earthcare: Towards an environmental theology (2012)


Print books

Check his website at www.chris-park.com

His Amazon author page – http://tinyurl.com/park-amazon-books


Publisher’s page for GOD: REAL OR IMAGINED?http://zaccmedia.com/bookstore/product/god-real-or-imagined/


Promo video for GOD: REAL OR IMAGINED?https://vimeo.com/74477523


Doubt, Denial and the Death of God

Whilst God himself may not be as popular as he once was, many people find themselves seeking answers to questions about meaning and purpose. Why are we here? What are we here for? Of course, people have many different ideas about what the word 'God' means, and there are many different views of what God is like - absent or present, knowable or unknowable, bossy or loving. This book explores the most common positions adopted by people who say they do not believe in God, and why they hold those views. It explores why some people doubt the existence of God (agnosticism or skepticism), and why many deny the existence of God (atheism), and then sketches out the New Atheist ideas of God as invented by humans to satisfy human needs, before reviewing philosophical and theological debates over the past century centred on the so-called 'death of God'.

  • ISBN: 9781310395567
  • Author: Chris Park
  • Published: 2016-03-19 18:35:27
  • Words: 15577
Doubt, Denial and the Death of God Doubt, Denial and the Death of God