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The Twilight of Atheism

Alister McGrath

The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World

(Doubleday)

Review [14.Dec.2006]

Failing to Prove Failure

Throughout The Twilight of Atheism, Alister McGrath is blind to the nature of social systems. Paying lip service to the vices in both religious and atheistic groups, he ignores the greater insight into what we can learn from the failures of both religious and secular society: that perhaps any ideology which tries to assert itself universally will resort to methods that undercut its core beliefs.


In the first section, McGrath illustrates the rise of atheism quite ably. He provides a crash course in the principle thinkers and a synopsis of their thoughts, placing them within a semi-chronological Western context. He sets up an excellent framework in which to discuss the rise and fall of the popularity of atheism. But the discussion crumbles in the second half of the book.


Notice is paid to the corruption in theist organizations but the slightest public indiscretion committed by anyone claiming to be an atheist is used to illustrate the innate failure of atheism. Certainly the universal acceptance of atheism did not dominate the world. But Twilight‘s logic should also proclaim that the Catholic (or rendered as a synonym, Universal) church and therefore all religious thought is corrupt and false because of the priest sex scandal and cover-up.


McGrath offers no real insight into whether or not there is a divinity. This lack of investigation would be fine, admirable if only the development of cultural positions was allowed to speak for itself. Instead he draws his own naïve acceptance and later renunciation of atheism into his discussion, leaving the blank assumption that all modern atheists foolishly are taken in like he was. Likewise, he allows the incendiary comments of Madalyn Murray O’Hair to stand since she claimed to be spokesperson of atheism.


His subjective experience cannot be attacked, but it undermines the historical tone of this book. We cannot deny his subjective experience but in so doing he seemingly gives his experience the same footing as the philosophies of Feuerbach, Marx, or Freud. His findings that postmodern thoughts have damaged the façade of atheism, providing new footing for the return of religion in society is engaging, but he takes no time to look at the minutia of the policy and attitudes of these churches. At the same time, he rails against the ignorant and offensive opinions of certain atheists groups (such as bumper stickers and racy jokes) and points to these as the proof of the failure of atheism.


The rise of any fundamentalism, theist or atheist, is destructive, however McGrath does not consider that belief does not matter. Belief changes only the most superficial aspects of our behavior. To this effect, he delights in pointing out that the Soviets rehabbed Christian celebrations, ignoring the fact that these celebrations were overlaid on pagan feasts to prevent new Christians from returning to old spiritual pursuits.


Atheism may have failed in the universal program some of its adherents sought, but McGrath should not celebrate. Religion (Christianity in particular) has offered no systemic changes to human behavior in its contemporary forms. Religious actions still cause bloodshed in the Sudan, Middle East and even the industrial West. The religious faithful have learned nothing from the destruction caused by the atheistic Nazis and Stalinists.


Ultimately what was begun as an intellectual history, competent and compelling, is rotted throughout by McGrath’s system of belief. He at times tries to overcome this, but his attempts to rise above his feelings are made moot by the desire to prove the defeat of his spiritual adversary. Cheap shots abound. He compares his relationship to atheism by describing himself as “a wounded yet still respectful lover of the great revolt against god.” Even if he perceives this to be the case, his bitterness and hard feelings are observable to anyone else. This embittered response is possibly unintentional, since the second section becomes so sloppy and lax that all he is left with but a superficial exploration of his subject.

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