Richard Dawkins has had a minor stroke, and though he says he is recovering well he sounded frail on a recorded message he posted. There's been an outpouring of love for him from Christians I know, and the hashtag #prayfordawkins has sprung up on social media.
When the Church of England tweeted a prayer for him, it was wrongly thought by some to be sarcastic, and there was a fuss. However I see plenty of private expressions of concern and genuine warmth from my friends of faith too.
Some atheists are saying that we shouldn't pray for him, and perhaps he wouldn't want us to. But I think they underestimate how fond we are of the old fella. Of course we're supposed to 'love our enemies', and you could argue Dawkins is such - his acerbic critiques of religion have got many backs up, including mine at times. But from what I know about the guy, I really like him, and I don't think I'm the only Christian who feels this. I also think that overall, he's been good for the Church. Here are some reasons why Christians should be thanking Richard Dawkins:
1. Dawkins has encouraged committed Christians to think
Once upon a time, a common Christian response to questions like 'how can an all powerful and all loving God allow suffering?' and 'what about the slaughter passages?' was 'well you've just got to have faith'. That kind of theological flippancy is no more, by and large. Partly we can credit this to Dawkins, because the amount of media coverage his ideas have received and the rise of militant atheism has meant that Christians have been inspired to think more about what they believe and why.
2. He's got everyone talking about religion again
It may be hard to remember, but before Dawkins' book The God Delusion, 'religion' was a dirty word and hardly anyone discussed it in the public square. Now it's back on the agenda. Some people have become atheists as a result, but many have become Christians, such as Peter Byrom.
3. His intentions are good
Dawkins genuinely believes he's doing the right thing in battling religion. If you look at his reasoning, he cites atrocities such as 9/11 and extrapolates that religion is the cause of human misery. We don't agree with his reasoning regarding Christianity, but at least he cares about the human condition. We've just yet to persuade him that Jesus is the answer.
4. His work helps unite the Church
Strong attacks from atheists like Dawkins help to wake up the Church from infighting and inertia, to unite round a common cause. Instead of pointless denominational squabbles, we're thinking through how to respond to ordinary objections to Christian faith from anyone who doesn't know God. We realise the things that unite us are greater than the things that divide us.
5. His thinking has allowed Christian apologetics to move into the mainstream
Dawkins' work has transformed Christian apologetics from a discipline quietly practiced by a few academics to something that most Christians are now at least aware of. To respond to Dawkins, many excellent Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig and Professor John Lennox have flourished and their rational arguments for faith have become better known. Meanwhile radio shows and podcasts such as Unbelievable? take the rational response to both Christians and atheists alike.
6. He has inadvertently strengthened people's faith
As a result of the work of such apologists - many people's faith has been strengthened. And actually, Dawkins' ideas themselves have often strengthened people's faith through one means or another. Some Christians are afraid to read his books, but then when they do, they realise that there are strong counter arguments to his ideas. Or, in their search for answers they've found their faith has been renewed and revitalised.
7. He is a gifted science writer
Dawkins is an excellent science writer. I don't find his books about religion persuasive at all, but he's a really excellent communicator of science. This is rare, and we should celebrate his gift.
8. He's a nice guy!
He might appear grumpy, but he somehow still manages to seem cuddly. I've heard that he's friendly and warm in person.
9. He's approachable
He chats with ordinary people online, a lot. OK, so he often retweets bizarre opinions from internet atheists. But he also chats to other random folk of all kinds of belief. He's sometimes sarcastic, sometimes fair, sometimes bristly and sometimes informative. When I tweeted this in response to one of his fans, Dawkins replied, in a more friendly manner than my tweet deserved. (Interesting that he's wishing for more converts to Christianity!)
10. He says what he thinks and isn't afraid of what people say about him
He doesn't seem to care about flouting political correctness or being liked - he sticks to what he believes. I think this kind of courage would be needed if he was ever to re-examine his beliefs about God. He's one of the patriarchs of the New Atheist movement, and for Dawkins to reject atheism would be a huge deal for any man's ego. But I suspect that Dawkins, if he did find God, would have the guts to tell us about it. And, of course, that's what we pray for - as well as for his quick and speedy recovery. God bless you, Richard Dawkins.