Lessons Learned from The Twilight of Atheism
I recently finished reading Allister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism. McGrath is a professor at Oxford and was himself an atheist through his college years.
The book has caused something of a stir among atheists, as evidenced by their responses to the book over on Amazon.com (for my own amazon review go here). I am not sure how many critics have actually read the book, but it is hardly the polemic some suggest. Indeed, it is a thought provoking book no matter what your background.
McGrath spends little time discussing arguments for or against the existence of God. When he does it mostly has to do with setting the historical stage. Instead, The Twilight of Atheism follows the rise and fall of a philosophical movement -- atheism. By atheism McGrath means what many call "hard atheism." The deliberate, supposedly informed, affirmative belief that there is no God.
The strength of the book is that it examines atheism as a cultural and philosophical movement, not just as a set of arguments about God. Though some atheists naively believe that atheism is simply a matter of applying logic and reason to see the obvious, this is an inadequate basis for explaining its origins and development as a philosophical movement. This does not deny the possible truth of atheism any more than examining the cultural and historical factors that facilitated the rise of Christianity necessarily negates the truth of Christianity -- something that far more people are willing to do.
Among the factors that gave rise to philosophical atheism was the revolutionary attitude of the time. In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was growing revolutionary attitudes against authority in Europe. And since Christianity was a strong part of the establishment, it too was the target of much philosophical zeal. Atheism, as the strongest possible attack on Christianity, was a weapon against the establishment. It was a liberator from the oppressor. McGrath effectively uses the French Revolution as an example. Motivated by a strong element of atheism, not only were the nobility and royals targeted, but so were the clergy and the churches. Churches were pillaged and many converted to secular uses. Priests and nuns were persecuted and some forced to marry and leave their callings. Eventually the atheists were reigned in an a soft form of deism was encouraged. But the joining of political and atheistic revolution against the perceived oppressive forces of the royalty and the church is clear.
But what is more interesting is McGrath's discussion about the failure of atheism to prevail as a philosophical movement. Through communism atheism spread itself, with the sanction of the state, through a third of the world. Even in the west, religion appeared to be on the decline. Symbolized by Time Magazine's famous cover page asking, "Is God Dead?" The answer seemed to be yes, or almost nearly so. Some scientists were claiming science had left no place for God, and advocated "steady state universe" models that sought to prove the universe was eternal and had no need for a creator. There were even mainline clergy who were discussing the form Christianity should take without a belief in God.
But just when atheism seemed on the verge of victory, it collapsed. Communism failed and was widely discredited by the realization that it was an oppressive, not liberating force. Though atheism had been brutally imposed on the people of Russia and Eastern Europe for decades, it faded fast once the state vehicle of oppression was lifted. Atheist numbers have dropped dramatically throughout former communist nations, and Christian numbers have surged.
In the West, atheism stumbled as well. Christianity adapted and revised itself into a potent and popular new movement. In the third world nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, this movement -- especially in its spirit-filled form -- supplanted Marxism in offering hope to the poor and oppressed. Even in Western Europe, atheism lots its potency and transformed into a more complacent nonreligious attitude. Even among western scientists, many have no reservations about expressing belief in a Supreme Being or God, and those that may be atheists generally give at least lip service to the idea that "religion is a separate field of study than science, and therefore science cannot say whether God exists or not."
McGrath provides a number of answers, but the one that I focus on here is his original theme of atheism as a weapon against the oppressor. This is the liberator/oppressor perspective. As a reaction to the establishment, atheism was destined to lose potency once Christianity was no longer part of the establishment. There is much to commend this argument. This explains why atheism was never as popular in the United States -- where religion was a matter of personal preference rather than state sanction. If there was no oppressor, there was no need for a liberator. Though unbelief is stronger in Western Europe, even here atheism has not carried the day. Though Christianity has in many ways been vanquished there, atheism is not the dominant philosophy. Instead there is more complacency about religion and agnosticism. In some ways, atheism is a victim of its own success in Western Europe. Having dethroned the perceived oppressor, atheism was no longer a weapon of liberation. Thus, it lost much of its potency and its appeal.
What does this tell us about atheism?
That irrespective of its merits, atheism as a belief system is often motivated by emotion and factors other than sheer intellect. The attractiveness of atheism rises when it can be used as a weapon against the establishment. Against the perceived oppressor. I notice this in many of my personal dealings with atheism. Many are very militant. They do not just disagree with religion, they loathe and fear it. To them, even though they are free of any religious coercion whatsoever, they still see Christianity as an oppressive force. Indeed, many of them appear to have felt this oppressive force in a very personal way -- having been hurt by Christians or the Church or overly religious family members. Atheism is the ultimate weapon against this oppressive force. It strikes at the very heart of Christianity and eliminates all of its legitimacy. There need be no talk of reform or shared responsibility. Christianity is a lie and nothing it does to affect a person's life need be tolerated.
Because Christianity is an oppressive force, it should not be tolerated. It should be rolled back. People who believe in Christianity are either oppressors taking advantage of others, or oppressed themselves. Thus, they should either be exposed as frauds and exploiters or be "liberated" from Christianity. Perhaps this explains the special hatred that so many atheists have against Christian apologists. The poor kid who was raised in the South and sent to Sunday School by his parents may not know better. He simply needs to be enlightened. But militant atheists cannot conceive of informed and seemingly intelligent people sincerely choosing Christianity (choosing to be oppressed), so apologists must be oppressors. They are not victims of the system, but its guardians.
Just some thoughts stirred by a provocative book.
Disclaimer: Of course, I have met some atheists who were not so motivated. But they tended towards agnosticism or a "live and let live" attitude towards religion. Some even think that religion serves a useful purpose. I have also met brilliant atheists and stupid atheists. Just like Chrsitains, come to think of it.