Monday, July 14, 2008

Book Review: Alister McGrath's "Twilight of Atheism"

Below is a book review I did on Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism. A revised version appears in the journal American Theological Inquiry, Vol. 1, No. 2 (July 2008): pp. 157-60. You can read that version and the entire issue of the journal here.
Book Review
Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (New York: Doubleday, 2004): 306 pp.

This book is a survey of the intellectual history of atheism in the world of Western ideas. The author’s thesis is that atheism as an "empire of the mind" has passed its zenith and is in a state of rapid decline as a satisfying intellectual understanding of reality. McGrath at one time considered himself a hard-core atheist but came to embrace Christianity. He describes himself "as a wounded yet still respectful lover of the great revolt against God" (p. 175).


The first line of the book reads, "The remarkable rise and subsequent decline of atheism is framed by two pivotal events, separated by precisely two hundred years: the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and that of the Berlin Wall in 1989" (p. 1). Indeed, McGrath puts forward a compelling argument that the "high noon" or "golden age" of atheism began with the French Revolution and set with the collapse of Soviet communism.

McGrath traces the intellectual foundations of atheism in modern Europe to the ideas of Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud. He also outlines the alleged "warfare" between science and religion "that has come to dominate the corporate consciousness of Western culture" (p. 79). Atheists would like to view science (Darwinian evolution, in particular) as the Prometheus that delivers humanity from the primitive clutches of religion. McGrath undermines the myth by arguing that science and faith are not incompatible, albeit "the stereotype of the necessarily atheist scientist lingers on in Western culture at the dawn of the third millennium" (p. 111).

McGrath places a good bit of the blame for atheism’s rise in the Western world on the shoulder of the Christian church itself for its "failure of religious imagination" (p. 113), particularly during the Victorian era. He traces the rise of "intentional atheism" in the mystical romantic poets like Percy Shelley and the novelist George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans). The alleged weakness of Christianity in this era led intellectuals to see it as unappealing and spent. From here McGrath moves on to trace "the death of God" in the West from the novels of Dostoyevsky, to the philosophy of Nietzsche, to the plays of Camus, to the "suicide" of liberal Christianity, as exemplified in Thomas J. J. Altizer’s death of God theology and best remembered by the October 22, 1965 Time magazine cover which pronounced, "God is dead." In its typical quest to be relevant, adapting itself to the spirit of the modern age, liberal Christianity embraced the godlessness of culture but found its secular "manifesto" turn into a "suicide note" (p. 164) . The apex of atheism in the West came in its institution in the atheistic communist state following the Russian revolution of 1917. The atheistic state would attempt to eliminate belief in God both intellectually and culturally. Many, like Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, believed that the world would fast become a "secular city."

The collapse of faith and the triumph of atheism, however, did not happen as some expected. Having traced the rise of atheism, McGrath turns to outline its contemporary decline. He begins with a narrative testimony of his own exodus from atheism as a university student (pp. 175-79). McGrath argues that "it is increasingly recognized that philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt" (p. 179). The best the skeptic can do with the God question is plead agnosticism. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly evident that, "The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God" (p. 180). The arguments against God’s existence are just as circular as the Thomistic ones presented in favor of God’s existence. Furthermore, in the post-World War era McGrath claims that Christian thinkers and writers like G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers and Flannery O’Connor have brought about "something of a re-birth of the ‘baptized imagination’" which makes contemporary atheism appear unimaginative and uninteresting in comparison (p. 186). He also notes that "interest in religion has grown globally since the high-water mark of secularism in the 1970s, even in the heartlands of the West" (p. 190), seen in everything from recent Star Trek episodes to the international explosion of Pentecostalism.

McGrath points out the rise of atheism during the modern era but anticipates its decline in the post-modern era. He describes postmodernism as "a cultural mood that celebrates diversity and seeks to undermine those who offer rigid, restrictive, and oppressive views of the world" (p. 227). Far from favoring atheism, this works against it, since atheism tends to be "strident" contending that "Belief in God is evil, and must be eliminated" (p. 229). Atheism is intolerant. An interesting and effective illustration of the disarray and weakness of contemporary atheism is offered by McGrath in the sad narrative of American atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the ironic anecdote that her son William became a Christian (see pp. 238-56). Atheism is no longer seen as a liberator of the human mind but as an oppressor.

He concludes that the abiding influence of atheism may be the fact that it unwittingly aided in the reformation of Christianity:

"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" (p. 277).

McGrath concludes by noting that atheism is "in something of a twilight zone" (p. 279); however, in the book’s final words, he asks: "But is this the twilight of a sun that has sunk beneath the horizon, to be followed by the darkness and coldness of the night? Or is it the twilight of a rising sun, which will bring a new day of new hope, new possibilities—and new influences? We shall have to wait and see" (p. 279). The implication is that the future of atheism, in part, depends on the nature of religion (Christianity in particular). Repressive religion will evoke the resurrection of atheism; tolerant religion will keep it in the dark.


McGrath is to be commended for this helpful survey of the intellectual history of atheism in Western culture. His analysis of the current crisis within atheism and its precipitous contemporary decline is compelling. This work places the "new atheism" currently being promoted by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Will Harris in proper perspective. This book makes their attack on faith appear to be less the battle cry of a resurgent movement and more the last gasps of a failed cause.

There are several aspects of McGrath’s analysis, however, that conservative evangelicals will find less than attractive.

First, McGrath argues that Protestantism is in part responsible for the rise of atheism. In developing this supposed link between the Reformation and atheism, he accuses the leading reformers like Zwingli and Calvin of divorcing the sacred from the secular (p. 200). He suggests that the reformation’s emphasis on the sovereignty (distance) of God and its emphasis on preaching and teaching, including its stark architecture, engendered atheism. For McGrath, Protestantism "has impoverished the Christian imagination, and by doing so, made atheism appear imaginatively attractive" (p. 206). On the other hand, McGrath is free in his praise of Pentecostalism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy, which he argues more successfully combine the sacred and secular, promote dynamic experiential faith, and, thus, resist atheism. McGrath is critical of any form of Protestantism "that is obsessed by theological correctness" or that commends "a purely ‘text-centered’ understanding of the Christian faith, seeing preaching as nothing more than teaching the contents of the Bible and spirituality as a deepened understanding and internalization of its message" (p. 213). This might make one "rigorously grounded in theological principles" yet fail in leading to "an encounter with the living God" (pp. 213-14). McGrath’s reasoning on this point is questionable. First, his argument that doctrinal precision and "text-centered" Christian faith somehow results in a less vibrant encounter with God is open to serious question. For a counter argument, just examine the rich experiential faith of the Puritans. Second, he does not examine the dangers of a lack of confessional precision, particularly in some Pentecostal circles.

Second, McGrath at points advocates a level of tolerance within Christianity—in the name of staving off atheism—that would permit compromise of a firm stand for Biblical truth. As one example, McGrath argues that Christians should not strongly contend for the Biblical doctrine of eternal damnation: "Christian apologists cannot hope simply to assert such doctrines as eternal damnation and expect Western culture to nod approvingly" (p. 275). Should we not, however, proclaim Biblical truth, whether the world approves of it or not? Will not the gospel always be offensive to the unregenerate? Along these lines, one might ask if McGrath’s analysis of the rise and fall of atheism is based more on sociology or the history of ideas than theology. Is the existence of atheism a result of human intellectual activity alone, or is it also rooted in the humanity’s sinful rejection of God’s sovereignty (see Psalms 14, 53)? Is atheism a reflection of the head or the heart?

Jeffrey T. Riddle, Pastor, Jefferson Park Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903


Samuel Skinner said...

I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to call BS- here is why:

First he declares atheism is declining without giving any data- unverified claim. He also states it is a revolt against God- a statement only made by those who have no idea what the word means.

Grath also gets it wrong for the Golden age of atheism. The first Golden age would be about 500 BC, when the Ionians formulaed way to understand the world without referancing the Gods.

As for the French Revolution... that is downright false. Robspierre, as with many other Englightenment individuals was a deist. Deism was the promonent view until 1859 and the origin of species, when how life came to its present form was explained. At that point you had more atheists, but they were rare and most prefered to call themselves agnostic.

In Europe, religion hit hard times due to WW1 and got heavily killed from WW2. It is worth noting that in the communist countries, worship wasn't always illegal.

Yep- a third of Soviet citizens were theists. So much for the Berlin Wall. The only state that went full bore was Albania.

Saying atheism has "collapsed" is a totally false statement. Why? For starters you have the antitheist movement up the wood work AND the evidence hasn't changed in the past 19 years either.

Uh... no. I didn't know who Feuerbach was until looking it up know. Marx was a political theorist and Freud was a psychochrist. All three were atheists, but you can't really call them the foundations of atheism.

For starters, atheism is an absence of belief. He seems to believe these people were the foundations of madern atheism... why? Why not Voltaire? Or Ignersol? Or Darwin (not an atheist, but founations non the less)?

But more to the point why does he call it modern atheism? There is ZERO differance between my atheism and that of Epicurous- the support for the belief is differant, but the belief itself is the same.

Science would be the major differance between my belief and Epicurous- in fact, if he lived today I have little doubt he would get a similar beliefs as the "modern" atheists, simply by cracking a couple of good textbooks.

Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is the effort to discover, understand, or to understand better, how the physical world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of existing phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate phenomena under controlled conditions. Knowledge in science is gained through research.

Faith is a belief in the trustworthiness of an idea that has not been proven. Formal usage of the word "faith" is usually reserved for concepts of religion, as in theology, where it almost universally refers to a trusting belief in a transcendent reality (therefore spirituality and spiritual immortality), or else in a Supreme Being and their role as a guide for people moving into an experience of such reality.

Lets take a look for a second. Science is based on that which can be proven with and dealt with. Faith deals with whatever you can make up. Honestly science and faith don't always conflict... but when they are appart, faith is conflicting with logic.

That might be because scientists are overwhelimgly atheists. It isn't a stereotype if it is true for the majority of a group.

You do realize that his analysis makes little sense. He is treating Christianity as if it is true... and at the same time as a good that wasn't promoted heavily enough and so is losing market shares. Call the consoltants!

Honestly, what happened to it being the "Good News". Or what about all the past playrights and writters who didn't have God in their stories... that would be... all of them? Almost no stories have God involved at all.

But apparently Christianity, the one true faith given to Moses and His literal word lost out to a insane man who wrote works so dense that even today academics give contradictory interpretations, a man whose depressing works aren't promoting atheism (God is dead so everything is allowed would be an argument against atheism). At least The Lord had the decency to survive those and be taken down by ... Victorian Romance Novels. What sort of God does Alister McGrath believe in? Cause this bears NO resemblance to the one of the Old OR the New Testament.

Moving past the sarcasm we get to his time cover and the USSR. As for the time cover... you do realize magazines make money with outrageous stories. And the religion many people practiced was dead- hardcore fundamentalism was dying. It got replaced by the wish washy stuff, so no atheism triumphant.

As for the communists... I'm reminded of the saying "There are two kinds of conquers- the Romans and the Spainards. The Romans want you to pay your taxes- they care no how many Gods your worship as long as you are loyal (although in the Roman case, religion was part of loyalty). Then you have those who insist on ideological purity and... cleanse their new territory".

Lets guess which one the commies were, shall we? The answer is B- they fought to spread communism- atheism wasn't their goal- in fact they eliminated it for a very simple reason- it was outside their control and an ally of the old regime. Notice that facists don't do this? They work with the old regime and get its support- Hitler is the closest exception because he wanted total loyalty. And, of course Mussolini signed an agreement with the Pope. I'd go on on how wrong this is- it would be like saying that the Xinhai Revolution was an atheist cleaning because it kicked out the role of emperor, who was chosen by the Gods. And, yes, I believe they cracked down on the native religious beliefs as backwards.

I'm a strong atheist. That is a far cry from agnostic. A lack of belief is not a matter of faith- I for one lack belief in gydts. As do you. Stating that God cannot exist, is a conclusion, one that must be defended like any other.

I want to hear a circular argument that atheists use. A rebuttal, not a poor argument that pops up on occasion. I can't think of any, and I'd LOVE to hear one, but he probably is making this up.

So Christianity is revived... by good writters? Even though their apologetics simply rephrase what has been previously been stated, but with differant words?

Pentocostilism has mostly exploded in the developing world and places where Christianity is new. And Star Trek... God that show had problems... horrible, horrible problems. TOS was Christian and good, TNG was atheist and okay, DS9 was Christian and worse, VOY and Ent were New Age and horrible.

Post modernism is, given his discription, a bunch of wishy washy insanity. Rejecting ideas because they are confining? I guess truth has no standing.

Belief in God is evil and must be eliminated is antitheism, not atheism. And technically it is religion is evil.

Atheism is intolerant because it insists that Christianity is not true... just like Christianity treats every other religion. And I sensing a double standard.

Atheists criticize use of bible- Christinas offer to stop using it? The major... targets of atheism is the idea that there is no reason to belief in God. You can't really fix that- reality doesn't work that way!

So the belief that religion is evil will depend on wheter or not religion is evil? You do realize you just unwittingly stated atheists are almost entirely rational, right?

Proper context? In the entire book he avoided the central point- the only one that matters- does God exist.

McGrath seems to have a problem with religions that work only from the bible... because it isn't compeling. I think my irony meter just exploded. Only religions that are packed right spread well, and if they don't appeal to people, people won't accpet them?

Next, he argues we should change are beliefs to make them more appealing... because truth apparently has little value.

I like his "rally the wagons". Does that include Jews, Hinuds and Muslims (the first for being the foundation, the second for recognizing Jesus as a prophet and the third for recognizing him as divine)?

I short, he ignores the only thing that actually matters- the truth. It tells you alot about an idea when an apologists everyone raves about does so.

Questions? Comments? I haven't read the book... but I am familiar with every argument he makes. They aren't origional

Pastor Jeff said...

Mr. Skinner,

Thanks for your lengthy reply. As you admit at the end, you have not read the book. I would encourage you to do so. You don't get to teach at Oxford by being a sloppy thinker.


Samuel Skinner said...

Except there are many books you don't have to read to reply to. You only need to know (and not strawman) the arguments they give.

For example, the God Delusion. You can talk about the book without having read it- people only get upset if you claim he has a flaw or hole when he covers it in a book.

The simple fact is that EVERY atheist and theist argument is on the web.

Now, I could be wrong- the man could come up with an argument that has never been seen in six milenia of human civilization. I seriously doubt it- more so since the book devoted to tracing atheisms rise and fall.

As a rationalist I don't care about the rise and fall of ideas- I care about if they are true or not.

Before you think that I am closeminded, I have read apologetics and their ilk- on the net and in book form. I read "The Enemy at Home".

Of course, after reading I had an attack of fridge logic.

Now, to my knoledge, the only differance between the two of them is presentation, which means one rebuttal is as effective as another.