Alister McGrath on the incoherence of atheists blaming God or religion for evil

McGrath, A. (2011). Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging with the New Atheism (pp. 62–64). London: SPCK.

New Atheist bloggers frequently speculate on the moral turpitude and degeneracy of this invented deity. Some even go so far as to declare that God was the hidden force that locked the doors of the Auschwitz gas chambers and poured in the cyanide. But let’s think about this for a moment. As a made-up concept, God could not possibly tell people to close the doors of the gas chambers and pour in the gas. Nor, for that matter, could God tell people to kill vast numbers of innocent people in an act of terrorism such as 9/11. Within its own intellectual framework, God is simply not an intellectual option for the New Atheism. God is a delusion. People are deluded in believing in God. If the New Atheism is right, there is no God to tell people to do anything.

Yet the doors of the gas chambers were still closed, and the gas was still poured in. And 9/11 happened. If there’s no God, these things simply cannot be God’s fault. They were acts committed by human beings. The New Atheism may protest that they were committed by deluded human beings. But there’s no escaping the dreadful and inconvenient truth: if there’s no God, then there’s no one to dump the blame on for human evil. The fault is ours alone.

The New Atheism, in scapegoating God for the rational and moral failings of human beings, is hoping that nobody will notice the blatant incoherence in its own world-view. Everything that’s wrong with the world, it assures us, can be blamed on God. But if God is an invention, a fictional character, then the blame has to be laid firmly and squarely at the door of God’s human creators. It wasn’t God who initiated or executed the Holocaust. It was human beings in the twentieth century, supposedly at the zenith of their rationality and morality. And the New Atheism needs to get used to this, and start making some adjustments.

Classical atheist critiques of religion argue that gods look just like their creators. Human beings create God in their own likeness, attributing their own moral and rational qualities to these allegedly supernatural beings. Hitchens himself endorses this view and provides a snappy little summary of it: ‘God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about.’ Or alternatively: ‘The mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made.’ Yet if the New Atheism is right about the moral delinquency of God or religion, Hitchens’ conclusion doesn’t exactly portray humanity in a very good light. Maybe it’s not that religion corrupts humanity, but that a corrupt humanity creates a lookalike religion.

So let’s rewrite Dawkins’ piece about the God of the Old Testament, retaining its style, while making the crucial point above, which raises very difficult questions for the New Atheist way of looking at things:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction, created by equally unpleasant human beings who were jealous and proud of it; who were petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freaks; who were vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleansers; who were misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bullies; and who created their gods in their own image.

The New Atheism is in an intellectually and morally uncomfortable place. The more it excoriates religion as irrational and immoral, the more it highlights the irrationality and immorality of its creators. It’s caught in a dilemma framed and created by two of its core beliefs (neither of which, of course, can be proved):

1. God is evil and nasty.
2. God is a delusion created by human beings.

As I read Hitchens and Dawkins, I sometimes find myself wondering if they would actually prefer God to exist. Their ferocious anger and their litany of complaints would then be directed against a real being, who could be hauled before his accusers and held to account. If the ferocity of some New Atheist writers and bloggers is anything to go by, God would probably get lynched. (Come to think of it, didn’t that happen once?) God can be scapegoated for everything that’s wrong with society, and that allows some people to feel better about themselves. But if there’s no God, the spotlight of blame shifts relentlessly on to us.

The real problem for secular rationalists is that having made human beings the ‘measure of all things’ (Alexander Pope), they find themselves embarrassed by the range of convictions human beings have chosen to hold—most notably, the 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 and moral than the New Atheist world-view allows.


3 thoughts on “Alister McGrath on the incoherence of atheists blaming God or religion for evil

  1. I think an atheist could respond with the distinction between the creators of the religion, and those who follow the religion out of ignorance.

    With this distinction, the atheists simply says that the truely evil people are the actual creators of the religion, while the followers, although they do evil, do so out of ignorance, ignorance which the progress and mass teaching of science is eradicating.

    Therefore, the atheist can hold a positive view of humanity while promoting that religion in itself is a major cause of evil.

    Christi pax,


  2. Gibberish from MacGrath – what a sad, tiny intellectual world christian apologists inhabit. The only “proof” that anyone needs to provide in this debate is the one that theists can never come up with, so the case is closed.

  3. Lucretius, I agree that the atheist can parcel out blame in different ways and to different degrees. But I don’t think he can coherently blame God or religion for evil. This is the main point I take McGrath to be making. All moral evil is ultimately caused by human beings. Religion is merely one of many man-made instruments that can be used for evil.

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