Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Twilight of Atheism

And now for something completely different - a book about atheism by someone who is not an atheist.  Alister McGrath is currently a Professor of Theology at Kings College, London and at the time of writing this book was Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford.  Prior to that he had a scientific carreer with a doctorate in molecular biophysics.  He is clearly no fool and just as clearly no atheist.

I have to admit that The Twilight of Atheism was not the book I was expecting to read.  I picked it up expecting to read an educated refutation of atheism.  Instead, I got something equally fascinating - a historical analysis of the rise of atheism and of what McGrath sees as its subsequent decline. 

In his reading, modern atheism gained strength and influence in the latter half of the 18th century, in the events leading up to and surrounding the French Revolution.  In this context, atheism was seen as a force for liberation, with the church clearly aligned with the oppressive regimes of France and other European countries.  Revolutionaries believed that to break the power of the monarchy and aristocracy they would also have to break the power of the church, and atheism provided a powerful, liberating alternative.

A number of other factors added to its success and growth.  The rise of rationalism and the modernist worldview were tailor-made for atheism, emphasising the mastery of humans over the natural world and our ability to understand it through the processes of reason.  The scientific discoveries that resulted from this world-view also called into question, if not Chrisitianity itself, then many of the aspects of what had come to be seen as the "christian" world-view, such as the centrality of the earth in universe, the "argument from design" and the literal seven-day creation and flood.   In addition, European poets and artists of the 19th century found Christianity imaginatively impoverished and turned to atheism and paganism for their inspiration, weakening the imaginative hold of Christianity.  More of this in a subsequent post.

McGrath highlights the work of several key thinkers along the way - Feuerbach's notion of religion as a creation of the human imagination, Marx's analysis of it as "the opium of the people" which would whither away once liberation was acheived, Freud's identification of it as pathological.  What these thinkers have in common is a triumphalist view of atheism.  Religion was holding back progress - philosophical, socio-economic, psychological - and atheism would pave the way for spectacular change and improvement.

However, later generations saw things in less rosy terms.  Neitzsche, the supposed originator of the idea that "God is dead", did not necessarily see this as a triumph.  Nor did Albert Camus.  For them, the world without God was a bleak, absurd place and in God's absence people would reach for all sorts of less desirable alternatives.

For McGrath, the causes of the decline of atheism mirror the causes for its rise.  The communist regimes of Eastern Europe, far from demonstrating the liberating power of atheism, showed it up as an oppressor at least as bad as the religions it replaced.  As soon as people were free of compulsory atheism, they returned to religion in force.  The credentials of atheism as liberator were irreperably damaged.

This damage was aided and abetted by the rise of post-modernism.  Atheism is the natural "religion" of modernism, an expression of certainty in a monolithic view of truth informed by science and reason.  For post-modernists, this certainly is itself oppressive, leading to a suppression and diversity and a silencing of dissent and difference.  The old certainties of the 19th century have become increasingly untenable in the 20th and 21st. 

Religion, too, adapted to meet the challenge of atheism.  The rise of the pentecostal movement is a key development turning religion from a dry philosophical activity to a lived experence which fuels the imagination of its followers.

What I found most remarkable about reading this book, after reading the likes of Dennett, Harris and Dawkins, is how different its picture of atheism is from theirs.  For all these writers, the primary driver of atheism is science.  They both believe science has disproved religion, and seek scientific explanations for its continuing hold on humanity.  Yet despite his own scientific background, McGrath pays little attention to "scientific" atheism, barring a couple of passing references to Dawkins.  Even Darwin, according to McGrath's reading, did not become an atheist in response to his scientific discoveries, but in response to his grief over the death of his daughter and his inability to think of her in hell.

The atheism of McGrath's account has much more in common with that of Michel Onfray.  Indeed, it shows Onfray up as a bit of a throwback, mouthing enlightenment thinking long after the enlightenment has passed.  For McGrath atheism is much more a political and philosophical viewpoint than a scientific one, rooted in its time and place, responding to the issues of a time which has now passed and ill-suited to the challenges of the 21st century.

I wonder, though, if he is a little premature in pronouncing its "twilight" phase.  His book was first published in 2004, well after the World Trade Centre bombing, but he doesn't seem to have noticed or predicted the fillip this event and its aftermath would give to the atheist cause.  Dawkins' documentary The Root of all Evil and subsequent book The God Delusion, as well as the popular works of Harris and Dennett, were all written after The Twilight of Atheism.  They are infused with a genuine urgency to combat what these writers see as the religious root of this atrocity, and their writers have shown an increasingly energetic willingness to publicise and proselytise.  Nor are these writers the cranks and oddballs who people McGrath's descriptions of contemporary atheism.  Perhaps atheism has more life left in it than McGrath thought.

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