Friday, August 31, 2007

My ChristianWeek faith and science column: Are we living in the twilight of atheism?

This summer I was reading Oxford historian Alister McGrath’s lucid Twilight of Atheism (2004), which tackles modern atheism’s rise as well as its fall. Twilight was written before the current anti-God crusade but - nicely fulfilling McGrath’s thesis - the crusade exudes an unmistakable air of desperation, remarked by many observers. Indeed, atheist science historian Michael Ruse broke ranks and endorsed McGrath’s more recent book [with his wife Joanne], The Dawkins Delusion. He announced that zoologist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion - one of the crusade’s trusted weapons - "makes me embarrassed to be an atheist."

McGrath’s historical analysis sheds some light. He identifies three thinkers as founders of modern materialist atheism: Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), Karl Marx (1818-83), and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939. Why these founders? Feuerbach was the first to treat God simply as a construction of the human imagination, essentially replacing theology with religious studies. In other words, when we ask why people believe in God, we do not entertain the idea that God has revealed himself in some way. God does not actually exist, and therefore the causes of belief are sought in society or nature.

Marx took the further step of prescribing a specific cause - unjust social conditions. He reasoned that belief would naturally wither away under communism. When it didn't, communists were forced to conclude that believers were merely perverse, so persecution was inevitable. Then Freud took things a step further still. He asserted that belief in God arises from unconscious illusions. Believers are not even voluntarily wicked, they are merely mentally ill.

Formerly an atheist and now a Christian, McGrath considers atheism’s most creative period to be the 18th century. In those days, many thinkers yearned for atheism - harnessed to science - to liberate them from oppression by established religion. Indeed, he notes, the main reason atheism did not capture the heart of English-speaking North America was not that our society was in the grip of a zealous religious right but that we did not establish a government-mandated church.

I myself would put it like this: Religious freedom inoculates people against atheism as a mass movement because it privatizes grievances with religion. One might add that the United States today is - all at once - the world’s science leader, a conspicuously religious nation, and strongly secularist. Go figure.

Atheism flourished in the salons of 19th century Europe, where intellectuals morphed into a secular priesthood.. Then it ran aground in the late 20th century. Why? Not lack of confidence; until fairly recently, atheists were sure they were going to win. Not lack of resources; both atheist doctrines and attacks on spiritual traditions have poured forth from novels and newspapers for a half century. And not lack of reach, either. Muslim friends tell me that their key difficulty in getting conservative Muslims to stop listening to violent radicals is that so often third world modernization schemes are permeated with atheism. So then why didn't the atheists win?

McGrath offers some interesting ideas. First, atheism did not start out as materialist. Indeed, atheist poets such as Shelley and Keats hated materialist reductionism and affirmed transcendent ideas. Such ideas can form the basis of a moral system, as they did for Plato and Aristotle. But as atheism gradually became synonymous with materialism, grounding a moral system became increasingly difficult. Morality comes to be regarded as simply an evolved behavior that is not grounded in any greater truth. Not surprisingly, atheist regimes in the twentieth century murdered on a historically unprecedented scale. Then, as modernism gave way to post-modernism, atheism lost any right it ever had to be humanity’s Big Story - because there is no longer any Big Story. Much of Europe is now in a recovery phase dubbed “post-atheism.”

In other words, McGrath says, atheism wasn’t so much disproven as shown to be cruel and unworkable at best, irrelevant and unproductive at worst. Its rise and fall provides lessons for thoughtful churches. Convincing ourselves and others is not the goal; we need to commend ourselves and our Lord to people who do not otherwise accept any obligation to believe our message (Colossians 4:5-6). The story of atheism also provides a warning for prophets, religious or otherwise. Fifty years ago, who would have thought that post-atheism would better describe European society than post-theism? Trustworthy prophets should have a better track record.

(Note: I blogged on this before), but this is the more formal look at McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism book that I promised to post.)

Other posts: Dawkins on the need to curb religious liberty.

At the end of this post are links to other reviews of McGrath’s book.

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