The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World
By: Alister McGrath
Number of Pages: 306
Vendor: Random House, Inc
Publication Date: 2003
Alister McGrath is a prolific author and professor of historical theology at Oxford. His writing style is engaging and entertaing. I first became a fan of his after reading his surveys of general and historical theology. Like me, he was originally trained in the hard sciences. Unlike me, he made his committment to God at a later age in life.
This book provides an historical study of the rise and fall of atheism as a potent social force. He defines an “Age of Atheism” bounded by the fall of the Bastille in 1798 to mark the beginning of the age, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to mark the end of it. While McGrath is an unabashed Christian and writes from a Christian perspective, this is not a defense of theism or an attack on atheism. Instead, McGrath attempts provide a history of atheism as a social movement.
His book starts with a description of atheism in the ancient and classical worlds, not as an exhaustive survey, but simply to note that there is is a long history of atheism as a formal philosophy.
But in the classical world, atheism was more or less a novelty. The thing that forged atheism as a successful doctrine was as a reaction to the oppression of the state church. The paradigm of this was the French Revolution, where God Himself ws seen as the enemy. McGrath contrasts the American and French Revolutions thusly:
[In contrast to French experience, the Americans did not see political republicanism as entailing atheism.] Was not Calvin’s Geneva, that city of God set upon a hill for all to see and imitate, itself a republic? And might not republicanism and the cause of true religion thus be united, where in England they were divided?
Yet the French Revolution was fundamentally different in character. Instead of throwing off the yoke of a colonial power, the Revolutionaries saw themselves as deposing oppressive institutions within their own nation. For American republicans, Christianity — in various forms — motivated and guided their struggle. It was their ally. The French Revolutionaries saw it as their enemy, a power that gave legitimation and support to those who opposed the will of the people and that claimed divine support for the status quo. It was institution that had to be neutralized…
The driving point here is that atheism, or at least anti-religious activity, was seen as a liberating force against oppression. McGrath points out that most of the so-called “atheists” of the time were in fact anticlerics, not really atheists. For instance, Voltaire, who the French Revolutionaries made into a demigod of atheism, was in fact not an atheist. He was an anticleric theist. Atheists like to quote Voltaire’s statement that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” They do not tend to provide the entire quote:
If the heavens, stripped of their noble imprint,
Could ever cease to reveal Him,
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him,
Whom the sage proclaims, an whom kings adore.
In fact, Voltaire “defended the notion of a supreme being, known through intelligent reflection on the natural world, who was hijacked and distorted by the world religions in general and warring Christian sects in particular.”
The intellectual rise of atheism awaited the giants of Feuerbach, Freud, Darwin, and Marx, and the social, scientific, and political constructs they provided. McGrath goes into great length about the effects of these men on the intellectual debate, and the failure of liberal orthodoxy in response. McGrath is very critical, for instance that the orthodox Protestants of this period essentially allowed the atheists to frame the debate. For instance, as the Catholic church has officially noted, there is no necessary conflict between evolution and faith. It was the athiests who asserted that if evolution were true, then God must not exist. People of faith who accepted that assertion were put in the position of arguing the existence of God at an inappropriate level, which lead to such things as so-called “Creationist science.”
McGrath then notes that, just at the time when the atheistic ideals of modernity seemed to be at their zenith, they collapsed. Freud has been generally discredited, as has Marx. The promise of atheism — to form the basis of a new society free of arbitrary taboos and an intellectual life freed from the bounds of superstition — proved hollow.
Atheistic societies proved to be the most oppressive in history. Atheism proved itself to be more intolerant than religious society. It is possible for a theist to believe that other faiths, while wrong, have some part of the truth, but an atheist cannot believe that a theist is correct at all. Atheist societies by themselves, found it impossible to form community, or deal with the spiritual needs of its citizens without formint secular religions — primarily personality cults — that made the auto de fe pale by comparison. The promise of atheism returned dismal failure, from the Nazi holocaust to the Stalinist genocides to the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the cannibalism of North Korea. The hope that enlightened atheism would result in the natural withering of vestigial faith was replaced by pogroms and violent persecution. In fact, atheism formed a poor substitute and even today atheistic societies must keep religion down by jailing and killing people who proclaim their faith.
Thus it has come full circle. In 1789, the spark of atheism brought down a corrupt church and its symbiotic State. In 1989, it was the forces of religious faith such as Polish Catholicism and theistic societies who provided liberation from oppressive atheistic states. Nietcshe’s argument against the existence of God — one of the lack of cultural necessity — has been turned on its head.
And society at large has changed. Postmodernism, with its emphasis on individual truth, is a minor threat to orthodox Christianity but one that Christians can easily adapt to. It is inimical to atheism, which can admit not merely that there is but one truth, but that there is but one way to interpret that truth. It is no surprise, according to McGrath, that Christianity has become the fastest growing religion once again, and that its explosive growth is among those denominations most at home in a postmodern milieu — the evangelical Charismatics and Pentacostals, as described in some detail in Jenkin’s “The Next Christendom.”
As McGrath notes:
The essential difficulty here is that the classic atheist criticisms of the church do not quite ring true any longer, even in the homelands of the much-derided state churches of Western Europe. The repetition of stale cliches from the golden age of atheism sounds increasingly out of touch with postmodern reality. The rise of atheism in the West was undoubtedly a protest against a corrupted and complacent church; yet paradoxically, it has energized Christianity to reform itself, in ways that seriously erode the credibility of those earlier criticisms. Where atheism criticizes, wise Christians move to reform their ways.
The atheist dilemma is that Christianity is a moving target whose trajectory is capable of being redirected without losing its anchor point in the New Testament. And as the theologian John Henry Newman pointed out, Christianity must listen to such criticisms from outside its bounds precisely because listening may be a way of recapturing its vision of the gospel. A static atheism finds a moving Christianity highly inconvenient.
This is, I think, an important observation. I have noted in my discussions with aggressive atheists that the thing they attempt first and foremost is to define theism and Christianity in a particular way that is convenient for them. They find it profoundly difficult to accept the diversity within Christianity. Instead they must instead pretend that all Christianity is the same — a bizarre pastiche of religious caricatures that has little or nothing to do with real practicing faith.
Some atheists have argued that the phenomenon of globalization can only advance a secularist agenda, eliminating religion from the public arena. If the world is to have a shared future, it can only be by eliminating what divides its nations and peoples — such as religious beliefs. Yet many have pointed out in response that globalization has resulted in a quite different outcome. Far from being secularized, the West is experiencing a new interest in religion. Patterns of immigration mean that Islam and Hinduism are not major living presences in the cities of Western Europe and North America. Pentacostalism is a rapidly growing force, strengthened by the arrival of many Asian and African Christians in the West. The future looks nothing like the godless and religionless world so confidently predicted forty years ago…
In my opinion, the new stridency of anti-religionists and their increasing intolerance in the US towards the expression of religion, their attempts to remove religion from public discourse, and their increasing evangelism in the form of agressively taking “offense” at everything is not, as many believe, a sign of the increasing secularization of the US. Instead, I believe that these people who hate faith so much are noting that their core beliefs are being proven hollow. They cannot point to the real benefits of their atheistic faith, so they must instead rely on the other tenet of athiesm — an agressive and intrusive intolerance.
McGrath notes that athiesm may be in its twilight, but as a reactive and critical force it is here to stay. How successful atheism continues to be depends on whether or not it can overcome its historical failures and whether or not people of faith can respond in constructive ways to the valid criticisms that atheists make.