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Review: The Unknown God

The Unknown God: Responses to the New Atheists, edited by John Hughes (London: SCM, 2013)


Once you’ve read a few Christian responses to the New Atheism, it’s not long before the yawning sets in.  It is difficult to find a writer on either side of this tired debate who does more than repackage old arguments, trying to convince us they are somehow new.   From the atheist side, little ‘new’ has been offered since the Baron d’Holbach’s 1770 classic, The System of Nature; little exciting has been served up since Friedrich Nietzche’s 1888 page-turner, The Anti Christ, and little philosophical erudition has appeared since Bertrand Russell’s 1957 essay, Why I am not a Christian.


However, in the wake of what we now call 9-11, the modern myth that religion and politics can be separated has been blown out of the water.  Whilst we might have expected some serious reflection on the nature of the relationship between religion and politics, the societal reaction we witnessed instead was a simplistic attack upon religion as a whole.  This was the cultural context from which the New Atheism was born, its entire credibility resting – as ever – upon the ludicrous, comforting, traditional belief that religion and politics can be separated.


The tide of Christian indignation the New Atheists evoked was largely directed at the contents of their arguments, without addressing the wider political and cultural context.   There have been glorious exceptions, most notably by such figures as Terry Eagleton (focusing on politics and culture), Alister McGrath (majoring on science and philosophy) and David Bentley Hart (emphasizing history and theology).   John Hughes has succeeded in editing a small volume into which each of these insightful figures has poured the best of their insights.  Combined with a host of other deeply reflective writers and thinkers, the book carries the reader through questions concerning politics and ethics, Darwin and Dawkins, History, Suffering and Hope.


The Unknown God is comprised of sermons given to Cambridge undergraduates in a chapel setting (many of whom will – surprisingly – be deeply atheist), a context in itself which makes them readable, concise, and thought-provoking.  The end result is a book genuinely distinct from anything else in the huge range of literature on this topic, managing to hit the intellectual zenith of this debate whilst maintaining an exciting, compelling tone.


Simon Perry, Robinson College, Cambridge