The Twilight of Atheism by Alister McGrath

by Tim O'Neil

14 December 2006


Without risk there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty.
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Translated by David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie

The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God. If “faith” is defined as “belief lying beyond proof”, both Christianity and atheism are faiths.
Alister McGrath

cover art

The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World

Alister McGrath

(Galilee Trade)

Review [28.Jul.2004]

There can be little doubt, looking across the horizons of contemporary society and assuming any objective measure, that the notion of godlessness has reached a nadir. Western society has come a long way since 1965, when Time magazine emblazoned the words “Is God Dead?” across their cover, and a large percentage of the country could look to their own shrinking faith for the answer. But another 40 years have passed, and the signs of religious revival are all around us, filling every cranny of our public life from the political sphere to the literary world. The forces of religion have staged a public coup (if it can be said they ever really went away), and in the process have succeeded in harrying atheism almost unto its demise.

This, at least, is my admittedly biased interpretation of McGrath’s most salient points. Although this is an admirably game recitation of atheist history and theory, it falters on a pretty basic point: McGrath isn’t an atheist. More than that, he is writing from the unique position of an ex-atheist, a confirmed Christian believer who fell away from faithlessness in his twenties. There is something inextinguishably strident in his tone. Although he attempts to parry his subject with endless appeals to history and logic, there is little doubt that the heart of his argument—the thesis that atheism has ceased to be a powerful idea in modern society and will continue to wane for the foreseeable future—is essentially his own personal willingness to believe. At times the argument is so strident as to overreach to comical effect. In all, the effect is less than convincing. For a confirmed atheist The Twilight of Atheism succeeds less as the conclusive clinical autopsy it was intended to be and more as merely another symptom of this lamentable decline.

Not that these symptoms themselves aren’t interesting. McGrath’s knowledge of religious and social history allows him to reach deeply into modern history, examining the heart of the atheist movement from its origins in the Protestant Reformation through to the Bolshevik Revolution. His summary dismissal of classical atheism is slightly less convincing, but perhaps with an awareness of this weakness he accords the subject relatively little space. Scholars have argued for centuries as to whether or not Socrates was an atheist in our modern sense, and the McGrath’s abbreviated treatment of the question is puzzling. But, admittedly, this is outside of the book’s main brief, so the exclusion is understandable.

But throughout his history McGrath offers more puzzling elisions and leaps of logic. The most serious is his insistence on discussing atheism as a “faith”, treating it in the context of history like just another of many competing spiritual enterprises. He is correct in assuming that the claim is “astonishing” to many atheists, because despite his philosophical maneuverings he simply fails to make the argument anything less than an oxymoron. To believe in God, as Kierkegaard make poignantly clear, requires a marked leap of faith, an abandonment of a dependency on logic in exchange for a reliance on “the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness” when all external signposts point to doubt and hesitation. Believing in God or any supernatural agency therefore requires that the believer make an external assumption. To say that the act of not believing in God is similarly an article of faith is to misread the question entirely, to presuppose that an awareness of divinity is in fact the default position for human intellect to take—quite a leap, but McGrath isn’t the only one to make it. Daniel Dennett’s recent book Breaking the Spell offers the tentative but tantalizing hypothesis that religious belief has evolved not from human activity but through human activity and not always to positive effect. On the face of it this is merely another twist on Richard Dawkins’ anthropological conception of memetic transmission. Dennett’s call for religion to examine its own anthropological baggage is in its own way one of the most sly attacks on religious certitude in years (certainly more subtle than Dawkins’ treatises). But considering how easily these new and controversial ideas allow for a scientific dismissal of religion on the grounds that the human animal has been preconditioned by evolution to believe in external agency in the natural world where none exists, it is easy to imagine that McGrath might shy away from any such an explanation.

And yet, the inference hangs over most of his arguments. He is right to point out that many of the arguments either for or against religion on purely philosophical grounds are circular. If you posit that God is a purely supernatural agency, and that his existence is beyond the realm of science to accurately confirm or deny (and not, as some believe, that dinosaur bones are actually proof of the textual accuracy of the book of Genesis), the sum total of such arguments can be more than a little specious. But it is telling that in his tour of atheist thinkers, from Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud through to less academic but no less impassioned ideas put forward by the likes of Shelley, Swinburne and Dostoyevsky, he omits Kierkegaard. While it is certainly true that Kierkegaard was a devoted and devout Christian, his writings were also a singular influence on the concept of existentialism. For me, no writer has made the case against faith as cleanly and with as much conviction as Kierkegaard—ironic, considering that much of Kierkegaard’s motivation was concerned with the purification of contemporaneous Christian belief and practice.

In conflating the concepts of atheism and the conventional understanding of “faith”, McGrath also makes another crucial error—mistaking atheism, an idea, with atheism as a mass movement. Atheism as a mass movement reached its apotheosis with the Soviet Union—or rather, atheism was forced on the subject peoples of the Soviet Union by a group of idealistic sociopaths. McGrath is unfortunately correct in noting that the waning fortunes of global Communism impacted the appeal of atheism:

The appeal of atheism to generations lay in its offer of liberation. It promised to liberate the enslaved and exploited masses from their cruel oppression by the state and church. Yet wherever atheism became the establishment, it demonstrated a ruthlessness and lack of toleration that destroyed its credentials as a liberator. The Promethean liberator had turned nasty.

While communism was and is an atheistic creed, the biggest atheistic movement in the history of thr world, it does not necessarily follow that communism is the be all and end all of atheism. Perhaps the abject failure of Communism served as a moral tonic for those who believed the movement to be ethically superior, and perhaps the taint of association with the most murderous regimes in the world’s history has frightened many away from adopting or espousing atheistic ideas. But at the end of the day atheism is still simply that, an idea. The fact that Stalin just happened to be an atheist has no impact on the legitimacy of the idea anymore than the fact that Torquemada just happened to be a Christian impacts the legitimacy of Christianity. Generations of Christian scholars and apologists have sidestepped their religion’s history of intolerance and occasional violence by taking solace in the basic truth of Christ’s life and words. How can it be any different for an atheist who rejects the idea of God? Just because evil men have also shared my belief does not make my belief any less true—a sentiment that has been uttered countless times by believers of all faiths.

It would be impossible to discuss atheism without also mentioning the Soviet Union and the atheist elements of Communist ideals—but McGrath overstates his point by tying the idea so firmly to the temporal politic. He states that:

... 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.

This is in the context of his own lapsed atheism. Certainly, this may hold true for his conception of the idea, but it sounds more to me like a portrait of the movement of which he was a member. To reduce atheism to the status of merely a foil for the established religions is not only condescending, but it seriously misreads the motivation of many modern atheists. While it is true that I can only speak for myself in this manner, I can say without any equivocation that I am not an atheist in protest to anything at all except the singular idea that there exists a God or gods.

McGrath continues to hammer on the protest definition of atheism throughout the volume. He even goes so far as to “[set] to one side” the “spurious and fractious forms of atheism, which woodenly reject any spiritual dimension to life on a priori ground, a serious and morally demanding atheism poses a fundamental challenge to concepts of divinity that are seen to be morally defective”. The underlying concept here appears to be—and I may be mistaken—that most atheists, or at least legitimate atheists, really do want to believe in God, but are unable to do so on account of moral qualms. Which seems to me to be a contradiction. Perhaps there are atheists like this in the world (probably best described, from his definition, as “closest theists”?); I cannot say, but it seems unlikely.

I do not disbelieve out of spite or on behalf of a political agenda or because of any youthful trauma relating to religious practices. To say that atheism is a “protest” is to imply strongly that it will only remain potent as a mass movement for so long as what it is protesting remains an adversarial force—an idea that McGrath makes persuasively throughout the book. However, conflating atheism the idea with atheism the movement allows McGrath to neatly form a false analogy, propounding that the atheist dilemma with religion is with religion as a movement and not an idea—a small but crucial difference. It wouldn’t matter if religion had been nothing but a force for absolute peace and tranquility throughout history: if the idea itself is wrong than it must be anathematized. Perhaps if someone became an atheist—like McGrath—purely to protest temporal affairs, as he did during his youth in war-torn Ireland, than the appeal of the idea would wane the further he disassociated it from its temporal origins. We’ve seen, in the waning fortunes of the movement, that this has been the case for many.

“If atheism had represented itself simply as commending the merits of a godless worldview”, he later says, “I would not have been attracted to it, and neither would many others.” He goes on to quote the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, as saying “Secularism [and by this we can easily understand atheism] fails to sustain the imaginative life, and so can be said to fail; its failure may (does) produce a fascination with the ‘spiritual.’” Perhaps it is to be expected that a committed theist would look to an atheist and see only absence—to an atheist, belief in God is as useful as an appendix. He’s probably onto something when he indicates that the lack of strong atheistic artistic models lessens the ideas appeal for a great many people. But again, pointing out why or why not an idea is popular does little to combat whether or not said idea is valid. McGrath can’t answer the first question—supposedly the crux of his thesis—adequately because, as an avowed theist, he can’t keep from mixing it up with his second question. As a result, the book is a muddle.

Which is the point where, honestly, a less committed reviewer might simply have given up. It’s hard not to see that atheism is at a low ebb in Western society, and the reasons for this are many and varied. But how much do the misadventures of repellent characters like Madalyn Murray O’Hair really have to do with the fall of atheism in contemporary America? Atheism isn’t a mass movement, it never has been. McGrath spends a few pages towards the end of the book at an atheists convention populated, predictably, by the usual assortment of kooks, hippies and weirdos one would expect to see at such an event. What does that mean? It means that atheists have no business trying to organize. No wonder than a group like American Atheists would have, as National Review reporter Andrew Stuttaford described, “chips on their shoulders”. Any group of people who are unified by the ways in which they deviate from the societal norm will necessarily be resentful of that societal norm, especially if you whittle the sample down to those who are willing to congregate together on behalf of their differences. I think—and McGrath also mentions in passing—that most atheists are probably solitary creatures, unwilling to believe but also possessed by no great desire to gather together like a troop of boy scouts. McGrath spotlights this lack of social engagement as a singular weakness of the movement:

The failure of atheism to capture the public imagination in the West is a reflection of its failure to articulate a compelling imaginative vision of a godless future, capable of exciting people and making them want to gather together to celebrate and proclaim it”.

I’d have to agree with that statement, except probably not for the same reasons McGrath intended. The implication here is that religion—specifically Christianity—is capable of “exciting people and making them want to gather together to celebrate and proclaim”. Perhaps I am too cynical, but it seems to me that this is ultimately more condescending to religion because it posits that the ultimate goal of belief is to culminate in a social function not unlike a football game. I’m an atheist and I still have more respect for faith than that. Later on he even says “[a] Pentecostal worship experience is going to trump anything atheism can offer by way of the secular equivalent of worship.” There is no secular equivalent of worship. If atheism doesn’t come across as a “good time”, well, I don’t think it’s ever tried to do so.

Sure, a lot of overzealous and just plain wrong-headed atheists have come across as self-righteous scolds and nattering know-it-alls, and have done immeasurably more harm than good to the idea through their failure to communicate atheism in a positive manner. But ultimately, if my experience is any indication, atheism does not succeed through coercion, it is the result of personal epiphany and a concerted desire to follow the tenants of one’s own conscience. Not coincidentally do I use the language of religious conversion, because while it is more correct to regard atheism more as a simple unadorned idea than as a faith or creed, it is also true that, like any religion, it is something that a person can only come to through their own efforts. I’m not an atheist because it’s more fun to be an atheist or even more or less fulfilling to be an atheist, but because after much deliberation it is the only rational answer I have found to the mysteries of existence. If that seems spiritually barren to some, well, so be it—that barrenness is predicated on the absence of something which I cannot believe to exist in the first place. I don’t perceive it as a loss anymore than I miss having a tail.

McGrath summarizes his arguments with a blanket condemnation of modernity, in the form of a double-pronged attack from the forces of spiritualism and post-modernism. Considering the way contemporary religious institutions attack post-modernism and its pernicious influence on Western Culture, this seems more than a little ironic. It is downright perverse to draft Michel Foucault to the side of religion on the basis of his relentless attacks on the notion of “objective truth”. Certainly, atheism is a “totalizing worldview” (in McGrath’s words), in that it by definition excludes the truth of other opposing worldviews. As McGrath correctly points out, “this critique of of such a notion has major implications for religions such as Christianity and Islam”. From the view of a rigorous postmodernist, then, any belief in absolute Truth is to be anathematized as atomizing and ultimately divisive. But using postmodernism as any kind of rhetorical defense at this late date really only succeeds in muddying the waters, obscuring McGrath’s argument in a haze of conflicting impulses. No theist (or at least, no theist outside of the Unitarian or B’Hai communities) would willingly cede the preeminence of their God or sect, and no postmodernist could ever stomach the certainty of sincere religious thought. Postmodernism actually lends itself particularly well to atheism, in that atheism is the only unifying idea which allows all belief structures to be accepted on equal footing without the least bit of contradiction. But then, postmodernism can’t even roll over in bed without contradicting itself, so it would probably have been for best if McGrath hadn’t even brought it up.

If atheism is on the way out (and, as an idea with mass appeal, it most certainly is on the wane), then McGrath takes the opportunity to toss the very notion of modernity into a shallow grave. “Rationalism, having quietly died out in most places, still lives on here”, he says of the UK’s National Secular Society,

Yet Western culture has bypassed this aging little ghetto, having long since recognized the limits of reason. The Enlightenment lives on for secularists. Atheism is wedded to philosophical modernity, and both are aging gracefully in the cultural equivalent of the old folks’ home.

At the end of the book, McGrath loses his last vestiges of historical objectivity, and it is hard not to detect the creeping triumphalism in his authorial voice. Philosophical modernity, atheism, the Enlightenment, rationalism itself—all headed for the dust-bin. In their place? A renewal of traditional faith, a reinvigorated conception of the church in modern society . . . and an imperceptible return to medievalism. Perhaps a return to feudal factionalism and the fear of skeptical inquiry may seem inevitable, even desirable to some, but to openly pine for the return of a premodern value system seems like the worst kind of societal suicide imaginable.

It isn’t enough to merely attack a disbelief in God, it is necessary to tear away at the foundations of the entire modern world. Because, as we are so often reminded, rationalism as a credo is on the defensive, the values of the Enlightenment are being derided every day in the press and the corridors of power, the very notion of an ethical philosophy as laid down by generations of Dead White Men has been mooted on behalf of a misguided belief in multiplicity in the guise of tolerance and a return to the superstitions of our ancestors. “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”; ironically, Yeats himself wrote these words in antipathy towards what he perceived as a looming epoch of spiritual dislocation. You would have to strain to reinterpret his words in the favor of modernity, but how else to describe our current dilemma? “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

By sheer coincidence, the November 2006 issue of Harper’s arrived in my mailbox while I was researching this review. At the end of the issue there is a review of Richard Dawkins’ new volume, The God Delusion by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson. Now, certainly, although I do hold Dawkins in high esteem, he is perhaps one of the worst ambassadors for atheism in recent memory; like Michael Moore, I agree with his politics but find that his customary mode of high dudgeon (as well as his occasionally slippery relationship to historical fact) obscures his message to polarizing extremes. Just because I agree with him on the basic facts of atheism does not mean he should get a free ride, but giving The God Delusion to an avowed theist for purposes of review seems like a low blow, hardly worthy of an institution such as Harper’s. Robinson hammers Dawkins on his facts, his logical inconsistencies and his selective readings of the Bible, but more than that she uses the review as an opportunity to join rhetorical hands with McGrath and inveigh against, what else, but the evils of modernity:

It is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and diversity that stabilizes culture against the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves reason and science.

Here we see, once again, the appeal to diversity to ward off the close-mindedness of atheism and rationalism. Robinson accuses Dawkins, in so aggressively fighting off theist advances, of propounding cultural eugenicism, adopting Dawkins’ own memetic metaphor to extend to the forced extermination of religious memes. If Dawkins sounds so shrill, it is because the cause of modernity, and especially the aetheist ideal, is under such ruinous siege. It is sincerely hard to imagine that those who so vociferously lead the frontal attack against reason and science truly believe their own words—surely Ms. Robinson does not foreswear the use of a computer and electric light in her writing? If rationalism is such a terrible force in human development, what is the alternative? I am quite fond of antibiotics and pasteurized milk, thanks.

In any event, the defenders of the faith have an unsettling habit of responding to criticism by razing the ground and salting the earth behind them. Considering just how large a super-majority theists currently enjoy in modern society, it is rather interesting to see just how sharply they respond to what should be, in all reasonable scale, a procession of insects. It’s hard to imagine any scientist, even Dawkins, possessing the ability to suppress religion sheerly by force of will, or even convincing so much as a single believer to abandon his faith. The Soviet Union tried it for seventy years, and even monstrous violence and unendurable inhumanity could not kill the idea of God in the devout. Religion is a very, very strong and enduring meme.

Atheism doesn’t have a lot to offer, really. There’s not a lot of consolation in believing that there is no God, there is no great plan, no divine architecture which gives our lives meaning and purpose. If you look at it that way, from the perspective of a conscientious theist who longs to believe in the strength and goodness of their personal God, the absence of God would be an absurdly powerful blow. There’s not a lot an atheist, even the strongest, most persuasive and rhetorically brilliant atheist, can do to dissuade those who fervently wish to believe. But even if atheists make for inapt proselytizers, the idea itself is not without appeal. Those who want it will always find it. We may never again see the rise of atheism as a societal force to be reckoned with, or at least not within our lifetimes, but we can hope the idea of a rational humanity, unwilling to bow before the imagined authority of distant gods, does not fade from this earth.


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