Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, criticized popular atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins on Saturday, saying they misunderstand religious beliefs and unfairly portray faith in God as "an eccentric survival strategy."
"There are specific areas of mismatch between what Richard Dawkins may write about and what religious people think they are doing," Williams said in a speech at the Taliesin Arts Center in Swansea, a port city in southwestern England. "There are few things more annoying than people saying 'I know what you mean."'
Williams described Dawkins, a British expert in evolutionary biology and author of the best-selling book "The God Delusion," as a "wonderfully lively and attractive writer," but criticized the way he has attacked belief in God as irrational.
"Don't distract us from the real arguments by assuming that religion is an eccentric survival strategy or irrational form of explanation," Williams said in a lecture to about 1,000 people in the fully packed auditorium or listening via speakers in nearby rooms.
Recently, militant, atheist writers such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," have been making an all-out assault on religious faith and the influence of religion in the world among nonbelievers.
Williams said many Christians would not recognize their religion as it is described by such critics.
"When believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, we may feel as we turn the pages: 'This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it's not actually what I believe in,"' the archbishop said.
He said Darwinism is hailed as a "better explanation" of the world than religion, and that such writers often say: "Why doesn't religion retire graciously from the fold and say so?"
But Williams said religion cannot be accurately viewed in terms of science, as hypotheses, because belief in God comes with no conditions attached. For believers, he said, God is real and existed before the universe did.
"The believer who worships assumes absolutely that God is there and worth attending to," Williams said, adding: "If God was there before the Big Bang, he must be complex."
He urged atheist writers to better understand religion.
"The religious believer says that moral integrity, self-introspection, honesty and trust are styles of living that connect with the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency most religions call God. Agree or disagree, but I would say to critics, at least grasp that that is being talked about. Often the atheist seems to be talking about something else."