The Passionate Intellect by Alister McGrath [Review]

Book Review: The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind by Alister McGrath (InterVarsity Press)

Atheists think that Christians are intellectually dim.

Sometimes they are right.

In Passionate Intellect, Alister McGrath does an amazing job of helping Christians step up their game while simultaneously debunking the myth that Christianity is unreasonable.

I highly recommend this book! McGrath gives you six chapters on the purpose, place and relevance of Christian theology. Then, he turns to actually confronting various issues such as how we should think about science, atheism, and creation and evolution.

The following excerpt is just one of the many ways McGrath shows his superior rhetorical skills. In this section, he exposes and demolishes the arrogance of the new atheists who claim to be more “enlightened” than 90% of the world who believe in God. In fact, for awhile they even tried to get people to refer to them as “Brights”. Here is how McGrath responds:

The notion of the Bright, however arrogant and smug it may be, is an essential element of the new atheist worldview. The new atheism vigorously asserts the fundamental moral and intellectual autonomy of humanity. Human beings are intelligent and rational beings who can shake off superstitious beliefs and exult in the triumph of reason and science. But where do these beliefs come from? If there is no God, it follows that religion is the creation of human beings. Hitchens and Dawkins excoriate what they see as the delusional, irrational and immoral lies of religion. Yet, from their atheist perspective, these ideas were invented by human beings – the same human beings who they exult as models of rationality and morality. Hitchens appeals to human rationality and morality in making his case for atheism, yet that same rationality and morality gave rise to religious ideas and values, which he regards as degenerate, pathological and oppressive.

Religion is the serpent in the rationalist garden of Eden, the seducer of otherwise reasonable people. The contradictions and failures of recent “enlightened” human history – which include the awkward arrival of Nazism and Stalinism, not to mention weapons of mass destruction – are put down, somewhat implausibly, to the resurgence of religion. Not even the rhetorical skills of the greatest new atheists have been able to weave Stalinism into their narrative of the obstinate persistence of religious belief. The real problem for secular rationalists is that having made human beings the “measure of all things” (Alexander Pope), they find themselves embarassed by the wide range of beliefs human beings have chosen to hold – most notably, a widespread belief in God. If belief in God is a human invention, and if the crimes committed in the name of religion are thus of human origin, humanity appears to be rather less rational than the new atheist worldview allows. The new atheism criticizes religion as the enemy of humanity, hoping that nobody will notice that their own theory holds it to be a human creation. You don’t need to be very bright to make this connection.

And a bit later:

My concern, however, is not the intellectual smugness, cultural arrogance or political foolishness of the new atheism at this point, but its fundamentally divisive nature. This crude belief system divides the world between the “Brights” and the “dims,” creating a damaging polarity, which the new atheism asserts is the characteristic of religion. Atheism, it seems, is just as bad as its alternatives in this respect, having now added intellectual snobbery to its vices and nothing obvious to its virtues. (McGrath 165-6)

Wow!

I would love to read anything the “new atheists” have to say in response to “the Passionate Intellect”. I have a suspicion that they will simply try to ignore McGrath’s far superior argumentation and will continue bashing religion with lame, unsubstantiated, 18th century arguments that even us “dims” can pick apart!

What do you think?

Nathan is the pastor of City Life Church in Ridgewood, NY. He and his family are committed to making and multiplying disciples in the most diverse county in the US. Read more about Nathan here. Visit the City Life Church website here.

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  • I have not read McGrath’s book, and I don’t know if you would consider me to be a “new” atheist, but I would like to respond to part of the extended quote you provided. First, though, I would like to clarify a couple of points about atheists and Brights.

    The broad statement “Atheists think that Christians are intellectually dim” is unfortunately true for many atheists, but it is by no means universal. I was a Christian for over 40 years, and I know that I didn’t become any more intelligent when I stopped believing in supernatural things.

    I am a registered Bright (at http://www.the-brights.net). If you check out that website, you’ll find that “bright” is not a synonym for atheist, and that the fundamental definition is that the person holds no supernatural beliefs. Many people (atheists as well as religious folks) have interpreted the term to imply intellectual superiority, but it is not intended to make such an implication.

    Although many atheists (myself included) hope that religion will die out, the goal of the Brights movement is not to oppose religion, but to seek civic and social acceptance of people who do not believe in supernatural things.

    Turning to McGrath’s argument in the quote, he does call attention to a problem with thinking of ourselves as rational. He takes the idea that we are rational and shows that when taken as an absolute, it is obviously contradicted by the acknowledged fact that we invented many things (including religions and pseudosciences) which aren’t rational.

    McGrath states, “If belief in God is a human invention, and if the crimes committed in the name of religion are thus of human origin, humanity appears to be rather less rational than the new atheist worldview allows.” This creates a straw man by overstating the case for human rationality. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher and an “Enthusiastic Bright,” (http://www.the-brights.net/people/enthusiastic/index.html) in his thought-provoking book Freedom Evolves, clarifies this point well when he states “We are wonderfully rational, but not perfectly so.”

    Any arrogance sets itself up to be demolished, because none of us is as rational as we feel we are. We humans have many non-rational reasons for believing what we do. McGrath asserts (or perhaps suggests that Hitchens believes) that “rationality and morality gave rise to religious ideas and values,” but I have never read anything in the Bible, Christian apologetics, or social science books that would support that idea. Religion uses reason, but from what I’ve read, religious ideas and values appear to have developed from a desire for social cohesion, with claims of supernatural revelation as justification for it. For example, most of the Old Testament is a story of political and religious leaders attempting to unify a fragmented Israel by promoting a monotheistic religion. It is by no means a story of a religion being developed by rational discussion among philosophers.

    McGrath’s straw man argument merely supports the frequently-stated contention that a human invention can indeed be destructive to human life and welfare.

    As far as McGrath’s final point is concerned, I tend to agree that the worst effect of the “new” atheism is that it highlights differences. It is important to acknowledge differences, but we need to promote mutual respect in spite of those differences.

    I also tend to agree with your closing predictions that most atheists will simply ignore McGrath’s argumentation (because they don’t find anything new in it) and that some of them will continue bashing religion with lame, unsubstantiated, 18th century arguments that anyone can pick apart. I also hope that some will read the book and respond to it with thoughtful, substantiated responses that evoke civil discussion rather than argument.

    • Anonymous

      Joel, thanks so much for writing out a careful and thoughtful response. I think this excerpt has its limitations because it doesn’t describe what the author means by “new atheist”, and “brights” for example. I don’t know about the brights movement, but McGrath spends a lot of time in the book carefully responding to some of the beliefs of thinkers like Hitchens and Dawkins (not straw men) and is specifically dealing with their unique form of atheism.

      I happen to think Dawkins is a very “bright” fellow, but the books I’ve read by him seek to destroy all forms of religion as completely unnecessary and destructive to society. I’m gathering that’s not the kind of atheist you are from your remarks.

      So, I offer a limited quote and invite you to read the book. I read as widely as I can on Christianity, atheism, and other fields and I’m sure as a member of the brights you do the same. This would be one book I highly recommend.

      Thanks again for your thoughts. I hope we can continue the discussion!

  • Joel Justiss

    Thanks, Nathan, for taking the time to read my comment and respond to it.

    The reason I provided the link to the Brights web site (www.the-brights.net) is that it gives the official definition of a Bright.

    I was suggesting that McGrath’s argument was a “straw man” argument (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man) because I doubt that Hitchens or Dawkins would agree that humans are too rational to have created religions.

    Actually, I agree with Dawkins that all forms of religion are unnecessary and destructive.  I think people are much better off seeking knowledge through science rather than supernatural revelation.

    I do read widely, but I spent 40 years reading books on Christianity, so I focus on other things now.  I’ll consider reading McGrath’s book, though, because one of the few aspects of religion that still interests me is apologetics.

  • Joel Justiss

    Thanks, Nathan, for taking the time to read and respond to my comment.

    The reason I provided the link to the Brights web site (http://www.the-brights.net) is that it gives the official definition of a Bright.

    I was suggesting that McGrath’s argument was a “straw man” argument (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man), because I doubt that Hitchens or Dawkins would agree that humans are too rational to have created religions.

    Actually I agree with Dawkins that religion is unnecessary and destructive.  I think people are much better off seeking knowledge using scientific methods than by supernatural revelation.

    I do read widely, but I spent 40 years reading books about Christianity, so now I focus on other things.  I will consider reading McGrath’s book, though, because one of the few aspects of religion that still interests me is apologetics.

    • Anonymous

      I get what you are saying about the straw man argument. The reason I disagree that it is a straw man argument is because McGrath is taking Dawkins own logic and using common sense to draw some conclusions. Of course, Dawkins would disagree but that’s because he hasn’t thought through the implications of his own thought. McGrath isn’t arguing against a straw man, he is exposing Dawkins own flawed thinking. (that’s why the excerpt has its limitations)

      I’m sad to hear you put all your eggs in the scientific method basket. I’m afraid you’re going to have to update your beliefs on a regular basis if that’s the case. Don’t get me wrong, I’m relying on the scientific method, same as you, to increase our knowledge. There have been a lot of advancements over time in what we know and what we can explain.

      But, there are some things that are timeless and can’t be measured that you will be missing out on. The scientific method is the wrong “measuring tool” when talking about God. It’s like trying to measure the height of Niagara Falls with a teaspoon. Nobody is expecting science to prove or disprove God, just like I wouldn’t expect someone to measure the height of Niagara Falls with a teaspoon.

      Anyway, if you’re still interested in apologetics, I would certainly hope you’ll get into McGrath’s book(s).