Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: The Twilight of Atheism by Alister McGrath

The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern WorldThe Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World is Alister McGrath’s 2004 book tracing the history of atheism from eighteenth-century Europe to present. In Part One: The High Noon of Atheism, McGrath outlines significant historical points in the history of atheism, the primary historical figures and personalities, and key cultural movements. Part Two: Twilight, McGrath offers his own personal narrative, reflections on atheism and social change, and what he sees as the fading appeal (at least, at the time of his writing) of atheism in general. McGrath’s style is engaging and readable, which makes this book an easy, interesting read. This review will highlight some notable points by McGrath.

McGrath first seeks to define what he means when talking about atheism: “Atheism, in its modern sense, has come to mean the explicit denial of all spiritual powers and supernatural beings, or the demand for the elimination of the transcendent as an illusion.”(xii) This is a point that he returns to later when dealing with the most recent uses of the term. Another idea McGrath introduces, which weaves its way throughout the book, is that of the cultural phenomena that tend to drive atheism as a movement. In particular, he notes the notable role of religion in causing atheism. “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 author explores the main thinkers and representatives of atheistic thought, with interesting insights which, again, tie into the main themes of the book: 

Yet Voltaire, for all his many savage criticisms of the French religious establishment of his day, did not himself espouse atheism. Atheism, for Voltaire, remains an excessive reaction against a corrupt church, not a positive philosophy in its own right. Voltaire’s insight is of fundamental importance to our study of the emergence of atheism. His argument is simple: the attractiveness of atheism is directly dependent upon the corruption of Christian institutions. Reform those institutions and the plausibility of atheism is dramatically reduced. (27)

McGrath also explores the science and religion debate: “One of the most remarkable developments of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been the relentless advance of the perception that there exists a permanent, essential conflict between the natural sciences and religion.”(79) The author tends to see this as being more smoke than fire, noting that historians of science point out, “the interaction of science and religion is determined primarily by historical circumstances and only secondarily by their respective subject matters.” (84) McGrath contends that scientific “proof” is not as common as might be supposed: “It is simply not true that scientists believe theories because they have been ‘proved.’ They believe them because they represent the best explanation of what may be observed.”(97) McGrath sees no essential conflict between theism and science. The author also covers a good amount of ground exploring the rise of atheism in Britain, the idea that “God is dead,” and the ideas of Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Camus. 
In Part Two McGrath precludes his own personal narrative by revisiting how atheism is defined. He finds that the meaning has become watered down to be more inclusive:

Faced with numerical decline and a growing revolt against their dogmatism, some within the movement are suggesting that ‘atheism’ should not designate those who positively reject belief in God; instead, they argue, it should refer to those who do not, at this moment, actually believe in any supernatural beings. So ‘the new atheism’ now embraces those who are still thinking about God and those who regard the question of God as being beyond adjudication this side of heaven – in other words, those who prefer to call themselves agnostics. (174)

With perhaps a hint of disappointment, McGrath compares it with the atheism he remembers: 

But this is not the atheism in the grand and dignified sense of the word – a bold and courageous word that I myself was once proud to own. Atheism is not about the suspension of judgment on the God question; it is a firm and principled commitment to the nonexistence of God, and the liberating impact of this belief. (175)

McGrath sees the contemporary use of the term “atheism” as an abuse and a dilution:

The history of atheism is a mirror image of faith. For at its best and most authentic, atheism is a protest – a protest against the social and personal injustices often linked with religion and certain of its ideas in the past, which are held to be reactionary, oppressive, or even demonic. It is impossible not to respect atheism at these points. To abuse the term by applying it to those who are still thinking about things, or who believe that the matter cannot in fact be settled, represents a dilution of the concept born of demographic desperation. (175)

As he begins his own narrative, McGrath spells out what he used to believe: “By ‘atheist,’ I mean precisely what the word has always been understood to mean – a principled and informed decision to reject belief in God.” So why did McGrath reject belief in God? For one thing, it “offered a break from the religious past.” (177) To him, atheism at the time “seemed to make a certain degree of sense of things.” (177) And finally, “atheism offered hope – the hope of a better future and the possibility of being involved in bringing this future about.” (177) But why did McGrath later reject atheism? In his own words: “To cut a long story short, I discovered that I had rejected what I did not really understand, and accepted what I increasingly came to realize was an imaginatively impoverished and emotionally deficient substitute.” (178)
McGrath’s embrace of atheism and subsequent rejection of atheism did not spring from a purely intellectual pursuit. Though the author acknowledges that both atheism and theism are defensible intellectually, he feels that the question cannot be settled on intellectual grounds alone: “At a purely intellectual level, the arguments for both atheism and theism – whether based on reason or science – lead to a stalemate.” (182) He notes the book Atheism and Theism by Smart and Haldane as an example of this sort of philosophical stalemate.
A few factors play a role in McGrath’s assessment that atheism was/is in its twilight. For one thing, he sees a rebirth in the interest in the spiritual. McGrath points to spirituality throughout the world, noting also the rise of Pentecostalism and the interest in the experiential aspects of religious practice. He also sees a “stalled intellectual case against God.” (179) He cites a lack of further development of atheist thought compared with the former days of atheism. 
Whatever one’s judgment may be on McGrath’s reasons to believe that atheism was/is waning, one may find insight in his observations on the reasons for the rise in atheism in history. “Paradoxically, history suggests that those who are attracted to atheism are first repelled by theism. What propels people toward atheism is above all a sense of revulsion against the excesses and failures of organized religion.” (274) Again, the shortcomings of religion come to the fore: “Atheism arises mainly through a profound sense that religious ideas and values are at least inferior to, and possibly irreconcilable with, the best moral standards and ideals of human culture.” (275)
McGrath’s historical coverage of atheist personalities covers the main thinkers and influences of generations past. However, his treatment of contemporary leading atheists seems limited to an extended biographical sketch of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. While certainly interesting, this limited scope of current atheist thinkers seems to be a glaring omission. But McGrath does well to cite Texas atheist Howard Thompson’s advice on how atheism can make a comeback: grow leaders and make spokespeople. (270) This, it seems, has come to pass to with the rise of the new atheists.
McGrath’s concluding remarks are notable, admonishing that “Christianity must provide answers – good answers – to such fair questions and never assume that it can recycle yesterday’s answers to today’s concerns.” (275) The author rightly points out one of the key factors influencing the tide of unbelief:

Where religion is seen to oppress, confine, deprive, and limit, atheism may well be seen as offering humanity a larger vision of freedom. But 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. Believers need to realize that, strange though it may seem, it is they who will have the greatest impact on atheism’s future. (278)

McGrath puts it more succinctly: “the future of atheism is determined by its religious rivals.” (278) 
So is atheism in its twilight? McGrath closes his book with a tentative tone, noting that things can always change: “Might the tide change once more, and the ship of atheism return to the high seas? Its fate lies with others – with the uncontrollable and unpredictable shifts in Western culture and the equally erratic behavior of religious activists.” (279) McGrath’s closing sentence: “Or is it the twilight of a rising sun, which will bring a new day of hope, new possibilities – and new influence? We shall have to wait and see.” (279)

Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (London, England: Rider Books, 2004).