McgTwil 07-08-95

The Twilight of Atheism

The Rise and fall of Disbelief in the Modern World


Alister McGrath

Doubleday, 2004, 306 pp., ISBN 0-385-50061-0



McGrath is a professor of historical theology at Oxford University and a consulting editor for Christianity Today.  Twilight of Atheism describes the rise and fall of a great empire of the mind and explains why it has faltered. (Introduction)


Atheism was an imaginative and liberative response to the power and abuses of the church and the establishment.  The movement is now seen as an alternative struggle for power that seeks to eliminate all opposition.  Atheism fit the mentality of modernism but doesn't fit with the tolerant ethos of post-modernisn. 


Atheism is framed by two pivotal events, the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  (1)  Over these two centuries atheism captivated the imagination of an era. (3) 


"Paradoxically, the historical origins of modern atheism lie primarily in an extended criticism of the power and status of the church, rather than in any asserted attractions of a godless world." (11)


The golden age of atheism was ushered in by the French Revolution of 1789.  "Generations of accumulated popular resentment and intellectual hostility against king and church could finally be contained no longer."  Humanity was to be liberated from tyranny and superstition.  A new future would dawn when God was eliminated. (21)


Voltaire suggested that the attractiveness of atheism was in proportion to the corruption of Christian institutions. (27) 


The American Revolution was not accompanied by a serious move toward atheism.  For many, Christianity motivated and guided their struggle.  It was their ally. (27-8) 


Nobody doubted the existence of God until theologians tried to prove it.  The 'proofs' were faulty and undermined the prior certainty.  (31) 


Atheism, seen as novel and exciting, was a major driving force of the French Revolution. (45)  But the movement that gave the world the Declaration of the Rights of Man also gave it the Reign of Terror.  "To those who suggest that religion is responsible for the ills of the world, the Revolution offers an awkward anomaly."  "The new religion of humanity mimicked both the virtues and vices of the Catholicism it hoped to depose.  It might well have a new god, a new savior, and new saints.  But it also had its own inquisition and began its own particular war of religion." (46)


But the real impact of the French Revolution was the impact on the minds and imaginations of alienated individuals throughout Europe.  Seeds were planted. (47)


"What was necessary for the advancement of atheism was a revolution within the collective Western mind, in which the presumption of God by Christians was displaced by an intellectual skepticism…." (49)


"Ideas originally limited to a small elite gradually percolated downward and outward into society as a whole."  Western society began to look to intellectuals rather than to clergy for guidance.  (49) 


"This dismissal of God was as slick as it was sweeping.  The longings of the human heart needed no objective foundation in any external being."  "Man is a god to himself."  "Feuerbach thus laid the foundations of the discipline of religious studies as a means of deepening our knowledge of human nature." (58)  "The idea of God was a dream, and the church the perpetuator of this delusion." (59)


Marx asserted that ideas and values are determined by the material realities of life.  Religion arises because of sorrow and injustice, but these are social realities.  God is simply a projection of human concerns.  Religion eases pain by creating a fantasy world where sorrows cease. (63-5) 


For Freud religion was a illusion that draws its strength from our instinctual desires. (68)  As an atheist he felt religion was dangerous. (70)  Freud's impact was immense, especially in the West.  He unlocked the repressed secrets of the human mind, enabling humanity to face its future without religion. Freud's criticisms were accepted partly because they were considered scientific.  Originally atheism was viewed as puzzling.  Now, many considered the opposite true. (76-77)


The early twentieth century saw the development and domination of a mindset that assumed religion is a superstitious relic that has always been in essential conflict with science and will be until it is eliminated.  (79) 


Three cultural suppositions about science contributed to this divide:

1.      The natural sciences have been liberated from bondage to superstition and oppression.

2.      Natural sciences conclusively prove their theories whereas religion is irrational and mysterious.

3.      Darwinian theory made belief in God impossible. (83)


"The interaction of science and religion is determined far more by their social circumstances than their specific ideas." (87)  "The golden age of atheism witnessed the relentless advance of the sciences and the equally relentless retreat of faith from the public to the private domain." (88) 


But there is no necessary discontinuity between religon and science.  Some scientists are religious and some are not. (89)


The outcome of the philosophy of logical positivism in the 1950s was the moral demand that human beings prove what they believe.  Religion was simply incapable of providing the evidential basis of belief.  Yet paradoxically, so was atheism.  Both atheism and Christian belief are beyond the available evidence.  "Both could be proposed; both could be defended; niether could be proved." (92-3) 


Thus Thomas Huxley coined the term, 'agnostic,' one who doesn't claim to know. (93-4) 


The natural sciences offer what they believe to be the best possible explanation of things, but they are perfectly prepared to abandon or modify this in the light of additional information.  "A theory can be plausible enough to gain our trust, even though some of its predictions and promises lie in the future.  In short: it is about faith…" (97)  There is always some element of faith or trust in the natural sciences because so much cannot be proven. (98) 


According to Dawkins, the appearance of design can arise naturally within the evolutionary process.  "Evolutionary theory leads inexorably to a godless, purposeless world." (108) 


On the other hand, Stephen Jay Gould insisted that science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny the existence of God.  "The bottom line for Gould is that Darwinism actually has no bearing on the existence or nature of God." (109-10) 


The Victorian crisis of faith was a failure of the religious imagination. (112)  The images of God as a machine or a watchmaker were dull and uninspiring.  William Godwin (1758-1836) radically proposed that humanity could be perfected through reason but this did not spark the imagination.  There was no sense of transcendence.  However, the beauty of the natural order, as suggested by Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, seemed to provide a satisfying alternative.  (114-116) "If God is to be removed, there must remain some corresponding metaphysical category to which human emotions and imagination may be linked." (118) 


"By the 1870s the cheerleaders of Victorian culture were coming to the view that Christ had nothing distinctive to say, other than to encourage people to behave themselves properly." (139)  He came across as a glorified Sunday school teacher who lacked the ability to captivate the imagination of the culture. (140)  "Suddenly it became meaningful to speak of the death of God in Western culture.  God had ceased to be a living presence…." (143)


On October 22, 1965, TIME Magazine's cover asked, "Is God dead?"  "The public atheism that had taken its first faltering steps in the eighteenth century had finally come of age." (145)


However, Dostoyevsky foresaw that to remove God is to eliminate the final restraint on human brutality.  Nietzsche's mature writings represent a cultural observation that belief in God had become unbelievable.  The pragmatic fact was that God was being eliminated from modern culture.  God has been eliminated, squeezed out.  In short: we have killed God.  (149-150) "Morality is no longer defined with reference to God, but solely with reference to human needs and aspirations.  'Morality is the herd instinct in the individual.'" (151)


According to Camus, if there is no God to give meaning to events the only way to be happy is by acknowledging the absurdity of the situation.  The world is unreasonable and meaningless.  Yet, he longs for it to have meaning.  This brings despair, the position of the absurd.  (155-57)  God's death is marked by his silence more than his absence. (158) 


In the 1960s everything was swept aside to begin again.  Those with vision were unfettered by the outdated constraints of their parents.  God was an outmoded idea of the past.  It was a crisis time for Christianity from which it has not recovered. (158-59)


In American intellectual life, God is to be respected as long as people don’t get too serious about him.  "Talking about God was seen as something that consenting adults do in private." (160-61) 


But atheism never really caught on in America.  Its appeal was linked to a particular place and culture.  In Europe it rested on its role as a liberator from the past and challenge to the state. But the social situation in North America was quite different.  There was, for example, no state-established church to oppose.  (162)


For most of its existence, atheism had to seek out an enemy to oppose.  But it had an unwitting ally in the intellectual leadership of the mainline denominations and revisionist theologians.  Its high point was the removing of Bible reading and prayer from public schools in 1963.  (162-63)


The mainline denominations have suffered massive declines while churches that adapt to their populations and communicate in ways that connect with needs have grown.  Many mainline ideas were so adapted to the ideas of modernity that they were fatally compromised by the death of modernity and the rise of postmodernity, which reacted against almost every aspect of modernity.  (164)


"Marxism-Leninism held that a true socialist state was necessarily atheistic."  Since people didn't give up faith willingly, the State tried to enforce it.  The persistence of practicing faith among two-thirds of the Russian people more than twenty years after the revolution was an embarrassment to Marxist theory. (165-66)


"By 1970 many had come to the view that religion was on its way out." (173)  But the appeal of atheism is culturally conditioned and the culture is changing.


"Everywhere there are signs that atheism is losing its appeal."  "Its day of influence is passing."  The term 'postatheist' is now widely used as worldview in Eastern Europe.  "Atheism, once seen as Western culture's hot date with the future, is now seen as an embarrassing link with a largely discredited past." (174)


"The principal cause of my atheism was Marxism, a movement that I believed held the key to the future (in the late 60s)." It offered a break from the religious past and promised to lead to peace and prosperity in my troubled homeland of Ireland."  "Its lure lay in its proposal to change the world."  It seemed to make a certain degree of sense of things and I believed it represented real integrity.  Further it offered the hope of a better future and the possibility of being involved in bringing it about. (177)


However, "like my fellow countryman C. S. Lewis, I found myself experiencing 'the steady unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.'" (178)  "The ideas that once excited and enthralled me seem, on being revisited, rather humdrum and mundane." (179) 


"The philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt.  The matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith, in the sense of judgments made in the absence of sufficient evidence." (179)  "The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God." (180) 


"There has been a growing recognition of the ultimate circularity of the great atheist philosophies of recent centuries."  "…explanations of religious belief start out from atheist premises and duly arrive at atheist conclusions.  They are, in their own way, coherent: they are not, however, compelling." (180) 


"For many, the trauma of Auschwitz can only mean the supreme triumph of atheism: who could believe in God in the face of such horrifying acts of violence and brutality?  It is only fair to point out that those who planned the Holocaust, and those who slammed shut the doors of the Auschwitz gas chambers, were human beings--precisely those whom Ludwig Feuerbach declared to be the new 'gods' of the modern era, free from any divine prohibitions or sanctions…." (183)


"If any worldview is rendered incredible by the suffering and pain of the twentieth century, it is the petty dogma of the nineteenth century, which declared that humanity was divine." (184)


In the twentieth century a growing number of Christian writers such as Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and others, gave rebirth to the Christian imagination.  Atheism seems to have lost its appeal to the imagination about the same time. (186)


It is no longer necessary to imagine a world without God.  We have seen the real thing in the Soviet Union.  The failure of imagination of secularism is giving a rebirth to a fascination with the 'spiritual.'  There is something about human nature that impels it to seek the spiritual.  (187) 


The prophecies of the disappearance of religion from western culture were clearly failing by the 1980s.  The reverse is true.  This new interest has swept through Western culture in the last decade. (189, 191)


Christianity is a living organism, still in the process of developing.  "Without in any way ceasing to be Christian, it has learned to exist in more accountable and responsible forms."  "Christianity is not a historically fixed monochrome entity, but a diverse and dynamic faith…" (192)  The rapid rise of Pentecostalism is a good example.  A massive transformation in global Christianity is taking place. (195-96)


"In part, atheism gained its appeal in the past through the failures of the churches, rather than on account of its own intrinsic merits."  "Pentecostalism changed all that, engaging directly with the cultural, social, and experiential world of the masses." (197)


"If the arguments presented in this chapter are correct…there are clear implications for the futures of both Protestant Christianity and atheism, not least that certain traditional forms of Protestantism will decline further, while those which affirm and celebrate a direct engagement with the divine will grow at the expense of the former." (213)


"Nevertheless, some sects of Western Protestantism, often deeply influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, continue to …place an emphasis upon 'theological correctness,' stressing the overarching importance of having right ideas about God."  "The mind is engaged; the emotions and imagination remain untouched."  "The contrast with Pentecostalism on this point could not be greater."  "Pentecostalism declares that it is possible to encounter God directly and personally through the power of the Holy Spirit."  "When you become a Pentecostal, you talk about how you've been healed, or how your very life has been changed."  "Pentecostalism today addresses the whole of life, including the thinking part."   "How can God's existence be doubted, when God is such a powerful reality in our lives?" (214-16)


Atheism was the ideal religion of the modern period, reflecting its ideas, values, and agendas.  (216)


"What was entirely plausible in one cultural context now becomes seen as eccentric, possibly even irrational." (218) 


"Reacting against the simplistic overstatements of the Enlightenment, postmodernity has stressed the limits to human knowledge, and encouraged a toleration of those who diverge from the 'one size fits all' philosophy of modernity.  The world in which we live is now seen as a place in which nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed, and nothing is unquestionably given." (218)  The all-knowing mind has been replaced by the searcher, questing for truth.  "Atheism, as a totalizing system, is ill at ease in such a world…." (219)


"The forcible suppression of religion is one of the most troubling aspects of atheism--especially to those of a postmodern inclination, for whom tolerance is the supreme social and personal virtue." (230)  "A demand to eliminate deficient beliefs leads to an obsession with power as the means by which that elimination can proceed." (233) 


"The appeal of atheism to generations lay in its offer of liberation."  "Yet wherever atheism became the establishment, it demonstrated a ruthlessness and lack of toleration that destroyed its credentials as a liberator."  (234)  "No longer could anyone take the suggestion that atheism was the liberator of humanity with any seriousness." (235)


"Postmodernity is intolerant of any totalizing worldview, precisely because of its propensity to oppress those who resist it." (236) 


"Individual atheist writers and thinkers are more than happy to appear on the nation's chat shows to promote their latest books.  But they have failed to communicate a compelling vision of atheism that is capable of drawing large numbers of people and holding them securely." (269) 


"The real significance of atheism has to do with its critique of power and privilege."  "When religion becomes the establishment, an abuse of power results that corrupts the worldview.  When religion starts getting ideas about power, atheism soars in its appeal."  And vice versa. (276) 


"The future looks nothing like the godless and religionless world so confidently predicted forty years ago."  "Where religion manages to anchor itself in the hearts and minds of ordinary people, is sensitive to their needs and concerns, and offers them a better future, the less credible the atheist critique will appear." (278)





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