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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Is this the twilight of atheism? - Oxford historian says yes

I’ve just read a most interesting 2004 book by Oxford historian Alister McGrath, arguing that we are currently looking at the twilight of atheism.

That’s certainly my impression, judging from the remarkably ill-advised antics of the recent anti-God campaign. One thing the campaign made quite clear is that atheistic materialism is not some neutral middle ground on which we can happily do science experiments together. On the contrary, your local atheist now wants you to know that he is militant, and that could be trouble for you if you are a theist or non-materialist of some kind.

Well, trouble for somebody, anyway. Euripides said long ago: Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

McGrath’s thesis is that atheism’s most brilliant period was the eighteenth century. It flourished in the nineteenth century, and started to collapse after the fall of communism revealed how awful it all was. One problem seems to have been that the substitution of materialist for non-materialist atheism made the grounding of values difficult - as Nietzsche realized.

Some interesting observations from Twilight of Atheism (2004).

Everywhere there are signs that atheism is losing its appeal. ... The term “postatheist” is now widely used to designate the collapse of atheism as a worldview in Eastern Europe and the resurgence of religious belief thought many of those areas that had once been considered officially atheist. Yet it is now clear postatheism is not limited to the East; it is becoming a recognizable presence within Wesern culture. Atheism, once seen as Western culture’s hot date with the future, is now seen as an embarrassing link with a largely discredited past. (p. 174)

Come to think of it, I keep running into people here in Canada who tell me that, (like McGrath himself), they were once atheists. They sure aren't now.

One symptom of decline, he points out, is the general disconnectedness of atheist messages from reality:
Works of atheist propaganda seemed to relive long-forgotten battles; they paid disturbingly little attention to the more worrying aspects of he twentieth century, not least the highly ambivalent legacy of institutionalized atheism itself. (p. 178)


Essentially, where at one time atheism felt exciting and liberating, it now feels by turns dull and threatening - like a sullen and bad-tempered neighbour. You wish he would move, but you can't decently wish him on anyone else.

For reviews of all shades, go here, here, and here.

I will be writing about Twilight for print pubs, and will post my reviews when free to do so.

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