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