Tuesday, July 31, 2007

More on the twilight of atheism ...

Following up on my earlier Twilight of Atheism post: Before I take Alister McGrath’s book on the twilight of atheism back to the library, I should draw attention to a couple of points he makes. For example, he asks,
What if the great revolt against God of the nineteenth and early twentieth century is not a matter of reason, but of taste? What if the appeal of atheism is culturally conditioned and historically located- in other words, its attractiveness is the outcome of a specific set of historical circumstances that have now ended, giving way to a quite different situation? (p. 174)

Indeed, I think something like that has indeed happened. Three broad causes can be identified: One is the growth of religious freedom in the Western world. Religious freedom inoculates people against atheism as a mass movement because it privatizes grievances with one’s religion.

The United States, for example, is - all at once - the world’s science leader, a conspicuously religious nation with few atheists, and strongly secularist in its laws. I don’t think the confluence of these characteristics is accidental. Quite the reverse.

Second, today’s Western societies impose few constraints on people’s behavior, least of all on account of religious pressure. So again, atheism is deprived of a key source of recruits.

Third, in the twentieth century, atheism was genuinely tried out. It formed part of the basic structure of the Communist system of government, for example. As McGrath puts it,
As the history of the twentieth century makes clear, atheists can be just as nasty, prejudiced, stupid, and backward as their religious counterparts. In retrospect, this was only to be expected. After all, atheists are human beings, like everyone else, and their refusal to believe in God or any other spiritual force makes them no better and no worse than anyone else. Yet many expected that atheism would morally elevate its followers. It was much easier to believe this in the nineteenth century, when atheism held the moral high ground, never having been exposed to the corrupting influences of power and government. When atheists kept a discreetly low profile, nobody could be bothered to look into their beliefs and lifestyles. But when they launched high-profile social and political campaigns advocating an atheist agenda, people started asking awkward questions. And they began getting disturbing answers. (p. 236-37)

Um, yes. I’m going to buy this book for sure.

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