Book Reviewed by D. Gareth Jones, February 2024
Coming to Faith Through Dawkins: 12 Essays on the Pathway from New Atheism to Christianity
By Denis Alexander and Alister McGrath (eds.)
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2023; 272 pages.
ISBN 9780825448225, 1st edition, paperback
To describe this as a novel book is an understatement. Its title is enough to suggest that it will be provocative and stimulating. The idea that there are people who have come to faith through the writings of Richard Dawkins and those committed to debunking religion, is startling. But that is precisely what the writers of these essays are claiming. The New Atheists have caused them to move towards religious belief rather than away from it. If nothing else, these essays are deeply thought-provoking. They require some serious reading, but those willing to grapple with the ideas will find that a new world opens to them.
The stimulus for this book was the surprise of both editors when encountering people who told them that their pathway to Christian faith began with, or was influenced by, the New Atheists. This led the editors to discover that this was a far from unique phenomenon, and that people from diverse backgrounds were saying the same thing. This diversity emerges in these twelve essays as we encounter individuals from different countries, continents, and cultures, from backgrounds in science, the humanities, and the arts, in academia and business.
The titles of some of the essays give a feel for the topics and their diversity. These are: “From Dawkins to Christ via William Lane Craig,” “Hearing God through an enchantment with nature,” “An Afrikaner’s faith pilgrimage,” “The God Delusion and probability,” and “From lukewarm theism to committed faith.”
There is a commonality though, and this is that the writers’ conversion to Christianity is in all cases thoughtful and reasoned. I am inclined to say intellectual, but that may give the impression that those conversions are cognitive and lacking in emotional and personal commitment. That would be unfair. The individual writers alike see clear reasons why the criticism of religion of people like Richard Dawkins can be rejected head-on and can be shown to be groundless and seriously misleading. In that sense they are illustrations of apologetics, even though this is not a description most of them are comfortable with.
All the essays have a personal element and paint a picture of how the writers moved from atheism to faith. This gives the essays a power they would have lacked had they been no more than descriptions of the respective arguments. These personal stories demonstrate the pull of atheism and the power of books such as Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and the importance of Christian critiques capable of dissecting those books’ arguments and throwing light on their weaknesses and inconsistencies.
However, it is not just the books that emerge as important. Dawkins’ many appearances in the media and in debates were strikingly significant for some of the essayists, since it was in these that his strident and arrogant anti-religious assertions proved very annoying and exposed their flimsy base. Even more disturbing was his refusal to debate certain people especially the Christian apologist, William Lane Craig. Fascinatingly, this led some to start studying the writings of people like Craig, writings that they were to find far more satisfying than the writings of Dawkins and others such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.
The essays I found most helpful were those which articulated their examination of these writings and made clear what it was that they found helpful or distracting in the range of writings they were reading. There is a great deal of honesty in these essays, and this should help anyone seriously wrestling with the pull of atheism. Since they are so diverse the issues that emerge will prove relevant to a wide variety of readers.
Anyone reading the whole of the book from beginning to end will find that certain arguments and certain references are repeated. This is not a major criticism, although it is a point to note.
I have no hesitation in recommending this as a book for anyone prepared to grapple with serious issues at the border of atheism and Christianity. To see the transformation of some of these people’s horizons as they find that a biblically based faith is so much more satisfying than the atheism propagated by Dawkins and his atheist friends is thrilling. It demonstrates that Christians have no grounds for being ashamed of their beliefs, since these beliefs can stand up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny. In these terms the book will benefit all Christians and not simply those troubled by atheism (and evolutionary humanism) in modern guise.
Despite its title with its reference to Richard Dawkins, it needs to be stated that the works of Dawkins do not feature equally prominently in all the essays. The strongest essays though are those that do engage with him and the writings of Hitchens and Harris.
Inevitably, all the essays will not appeal equally to any one reader. For me, a highlight was that of Australian historian Sarah Irving-Stonebraker: “Wrestling with life’s biggest challenges.” From a stable and loving home life, nurtured in academic pursuits and atheism, she grew up to accept that there was no need of a god. Fascinatingly, it was only when she was exposed to Christian thinking through her own academic work that she started to question her atheism. This was on the relationship between seventeenth century natural philosophy and the origins of the British Empire where she encountered the founders of modern science, including notable Christians, such as Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle. Here were some of the most important founders of modern science who saw no conflict between Christianity and science, and who took the Bible seriously. This was at odds with her atheism and with Dawkins’ frequent assertions that the conflict signifies the death throes of religion. Another crucial figure to Irving-Stonebraker was Peter Singer with his stance that the innate preciousness and equal value of human beings is a Christian myth. This alarmed her since it suggested that there are no objective moral values, and made her question why Dawkins is adamant about moral principles. From here, via C. S. Lewis and Scripture, she made her way to the God who loves her and to Jesus as the source of abundant and eternal life.
Having read this book, I looked back at a talk I gave in 2008 when the furore around The God Delusion was at its height. I was fascinated that I had pulled out most of the issues described by the writers of this book, but there was one I had missed. And this was the lack of any convincing foundations for Dawkins’ values and the inconsistencies in his value system. These inconsistencies have become more prominent over subsequent years as his aggressive denunciations of anything religious have failed to cope with the ever increasingly murky debates at the interface of what we are as human beings and the extent to which this can be changed by social expectations and technology. The inadequacies of Dawkins’ arid pontificating have come increasingly to the fore, as clearly demonstrated by a number of the contributors to this book.