Think back to the time before Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Bantam Books) was published. I wasn’t a Christian at that time, but I seem to recall that the topic of God and faith was usually ignored outside of religious institutions. There were certainly very few militant atheists who wanted to convert you to their cause.
When The God Delusion first came out, I had a vague belief in God and warm feelings towards Jesus, though I thought Christianity was utterly wrong; a judgement I had made based on very little information. My first degree was in molecular biology, a subject similar to Dawkins’ own scientific field. But unlike Dawkins, I didn’t see science as a problem concerning the issue of God’s existence. In fact, at the end of my degree, I remember thinking that I was more certain there was a God than when I started! However, it didn’t seem to be an issue of great importance; at least, I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. This seemed to be the view of much of the population.
How times have changed! Faith is now a hot topic. Opinions on atheism, Christianity and Islam are regularly aired in the public square: in pubs, at bus stops and in debating societies. Because of this resurgence of interest in religion, the opportunities to discuss our faith have increased exponentially, and for this we have to thank Professor Dawkins.
The God Delusion didn’t contain many fresh arguments when it was first published in October 2006. Many of the same objections to Christianity had existed well before Dawkins’ famous tome. These included: the Bible isn’t reliable, miracles aren’t possible, the violent God depicted in the Old Testament isn’t worthy of worship, and evolution trumps creationism. So why did it quickly become a worldwide bestseller? The difference was the tone of the book; its stridency, its confidence, its absolute certainty that religion is the root of all evil. Dawkins is a talented polemicist and writer, so his rhetoric was compelling.
Dawkins was also well known by the public as a great scientist, though his true talent was in communicating scientific ideas in books such as The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press) rather than in his actual research. For a generation who grew up being told that science holds the answers to all our questions, Dawkins represented a new kind of authority figure.
The church is now in a better place after the rise of new atheism
So when he turned his attention to writing about atheism, he was initially in great demand for conferences, speeches and TV appearances. He made The Root Of All Evil?, a Channel 4 documentary that propagated his anti-religious ideas to a huge audience. Prospect Magazine even named Dawkins the “world’s best thinker” in 2013.
This influence and prestige came despite The God Delusion receiving very mixed reviews from critics. Atheist Terry Eagleton wrote a review for the London Review of Books entitled ‘Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching’ that began with the memorable quote: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”
This feeling was shared by many who pointed out flaws in Dawkins’ arguments or, at the very least, questioned the certainty the scientist holds that all religion is a load of rubbish. Somehow, the dissenters to Dawkins’ diatribe never seemed to get as much airtime as he did or sell as many books. Dawkins’ boldness birthed an array of militant atheist books, and now there is a whole tribe of followers in our culture who have been inspired by them. They are loud, angry and keen to persuade the world that religion is the root of all evil.
Thank God for the atheists
Typically, the Christian world has responded to these events with dismay. Certainly, there are many people who say that The God Delusion contributed to them losing their faith. However, there are plenty who had the opposite experience. Comedian Marcus Brigstocke joked that the book had turned him from atheism to agnosticism, and that reading it again might lead him to evangelical Christianity. I’ve heard a number of testimonies from Christians whose journey from atheism to faith actually started with questioning the dogmatism they read in The God Delusion.
I think the dawn of Dawkins has also awoken the Church from a slumber. Before, when our culture was generally apathetic towards Christianity, believers were ignored. We would get on with our toddler groups and quaint carol services, mostly unhindered by the complaints of ordinary people. Because there were fewer people telling Christians to be quiet about their faith at work or hurling insults, we weren’t ready for the objections and questions that were about to be raised by Dawkins and co.
To some extent this is still true, but I think the Church is now in a better place after the rise of New Atheism. We don’t always respond in the way that Jesus modelled for us: with grace and truth. But we seem to have become a little more motivated to engage with the outside world. The Church of England recently had a week of prayer for evangelism. There are increasing numbers of ministries dedicated to apologetics (the rational defence of Christian belief) and sermons contain more apologetics than they ever used to.
Scepticism can be good for us
I might have embraced the scepticism surrounding Dawkins because journalistic cynicism was part of my DNA. But ultimately my questioning mind led me in a different direction to that of the professor who, according to his memoirs, had once believed in God as a child. I had been steeped in secular, liberal ideas but hadn’t properly examined them. As I started to be drawn to Jesus as an adult, it was necessary to really look at what I believed and why. Why did I think God was distant? Why did I think traditional Christian morals were inferior? Why did I think all religions were the same?
All of these common beliefs are adopted without question by so many in our culture. I’m sure Dawkins would encourage us to question all our ideas if he is a true sceptic. Yet when I did so, it led me to open my mind to the Christian faith.
As our country becomes less and less Christian, there are more and more people who don’t even have a basic knowledge of Sunday school Bible stories, let alone an understanding of the gospel. They are fed secular, liberal ideas as if they are facts. So encouraging scepticism towards their own beliefs may be necessary to help people open their minds and explore Christianity properly.
A star is falling
In any case, the New Atheist movement seems to be in trouble. It now appears to be turning on its creator, for a start. Once it was common to hear atheists commending Dawkins; now they often seem embarrassed by him. The scientist’s willingness to stick his neck out and spark controversy is what made him famous, but it has also got him into a lot of hot water; not just with Christians, but with many other groups including Muslims, feminists and disability rights campaigners. From appearing to defend “mild paedophilia” to mocking a woman when she complained about being propositioned in a lift, Dawkins has lurched from one controversy to the next in recent years.
Dawkins has lurched from one controversy to the next
Dawkins’ spats have a typical format: he says something quite offensive, there is a big fuss, then he starts to clarify his position with tweets such as: “Criticising SOME feminists is not the same thing as criticising ALL feminists. Please tell me that’s obvious. Some is not all. Or even many.” This doesn’t generally go down too well.
It’s not just his outspoken remarks, either. Dawkins regularly retweeted his fans, many of whom were thanking him for changing their lives. This made him appear a bit conceited.
In fact, if you monitor Dawkins’ career, what some have referred to as his downfall can be traced back to him airing his opinions on social media from 2012 to 2015. These controversies led to a host of articles from atheists dissociating themselves with Dawkins, with titles such as “Atheism deserves better than Richard Dawkins” or “Richard Dawkins, delete your [Twitter] account”. Even this year, Dawkins was uninvited to the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism because he retweeted an offensive ‘Feminists love Islamists’ parody video. The conference statement on the topic called it: “unnecessarily divisive, counterproductive, and even hateful speech”.
Dawkins' Twitter gaffes
“All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” August, 2013
After a woman said she wouldn’t know what to do if she became pregnant with a child with Down's syndrome, Dawkins tweeted: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.” August, 2014
“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” July, 2014
“Suggest always put Islamic ‘scholar’ in quotes, to avoid insulting true scholars. True scholars have read more than one book.” July, 2014
“Of COURSE most Muslims are peaceful. But if someone’s killed for what they drew or said or wrote, you KNOW the religion of the killers.” January, 2015
“Islam needs a feminist revolution. It will be hard. What can we do to help?” July, 2015
Dawkins’ later said he had been reinvited, but said that the controversy over the conference had caused stress ahead of his minor stroke earlier this year. Nevertheless, the backlash was so strong that Dawkins recently said he had quit Twitter. He no longer tweets; instead, the job falls to his staff in his personal outfit, the Foundation for Reason and Science.
Where next for Dawkins?
It’s hard to imagine Dawkins getting commissioned for primetime TV documentaries as he once did. Some would say his influence is still significant and that his views are gaining ground because more and more people now define themselves as atheists. However, the polls that make these claims are usually based on statistics from the Church of England and the Catholic Church, which are often the extent of a secular journalist’s understanding of what constitutes the Church in the UK. The growth in new churches and free churches is usually ignored. But even the CofE is growing in London thanks to the HTB effect. It’s not all doom and gloom.
It is without question true that some people have been influenced away from Christ by the New Atheist movement. But how committed was their faith in the first place if Dawkins’ not-very-informed rantings can have this effect? Perhaps the nominal Christians who have de-converted reflect that now, thanks to militant atheism, it’s actually possible to have an identity as an atheist as this wasn’t always the case.
The Church needs to continue to learn from the legacy of this influential book. Let’s not moan that people who have very little experience of authentic Christianity have misinformed or unfair ideas about us. Of course they have! I once heard an apologist say that atheists’ objections are their desperate plea to us to show them that Christianity is true. If we looked at every objection in this positive way – as a way to declare our faith in Christ and live out the reality of the resurrection – good could come from Dawkins’ legacy.
And hopefully, for the elderly prof’s sake, as his own movement turns on him he may start to question the foundations of what he began and rediscover his profound childhood faith.