I recently finished Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism and highly recommend it to anyone who would enjoy a good overview of the development of atheism, the rise of modernity, and the prospects for unbelief in a post-modern world. McGrath writes as a Christian who is not completely unsympathetic to the atheist critique of religion, having formerly been an atheist himself.
He argues that the appeal of atheism is historically rooted not in hostility toward the notion of God so much as it is in hostility to what people perceived to be a corrupt and illegitimate church. He suggests that throughout its existence the church has been debauched primarily by its lust for political power, and that atheism thrives today in Europe in large part because of the Church's illicit relationship in centuries past with secular governments, particularly in France and England. Atheism has not caught on to the same extent in the United States where the Church has never been seen as particularly tainted by the vices of politics, very likely because in the U.S. it is constitutionally barred from close proximity to the levers of power.
As McGrath recounts the story of the evolution of unbelief in 18th and 19th century Europe the reader is told much that he may not have known. He points out, for instance, that, contrary to conventional opinion, Voltaire and many of his cronies were not really atheists, but were led by their disgust with the church to a rather vague deism. One also learns that the famous story of John Calvin's alleged "refutation" of Copernicus, wherein he declared that the first verse of the 93rd Psalm proves that the earth is fixed and cannot be moved, a story which makes Calvin look like an arrogant buffoon, is completely apocryphal. So, too, is the even more well-known account of Bishop Wilberforce's challenge to Thomas Huxley when, in a public debate on the merits of Darwin's theory of natural selection, the good Bishop is alleged to have inquired of Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey. This story is told and retold with great gusto by atheists to illustrate the utter doltishness of religious clergy, but there is no historical evidence that the incident ever occurred.
One of McGrath's more controversial claims, perhaps, is his assertion that reformation Protestantism essentially opened the door for the emergence of atheism. His argument is that by desacralizing the world, by removing God from the Eucharist, by removing icons from their churches, Protestants turned God into "an absence in the world". Taking pains to avoid idolatry, these believers emphasized God's transcendence and inadvertently made it easier to think of God as removed from their everyday lives, a move which McGrath claims "inevitably encourages belief in a godless world". I suppose a lot of scholarship supports this view, but it strikes me as a little bit like blaming the Wright brothers for 9/11. Protestants did not, as McGrath states, remove any grounds for expecting to encounter the divine directly through nature or in personal experience, they merely insisted that people not confuse the divine with nature, that there is an important distinction to be made between creature and creator.
In any event, McGrath presents us with a fine introduction to many of the seminal figures in 19th century atheism: Ludwig Feurbach, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, William Clifford, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, and explains how their thought advanced the idea in the popular mind that God was an obsolete concept. Marx, for example, was famous for having called religion the opiate of the people, but as atheism hurtled toward the dark night of nihilism in the twentieth century, the true opium, as Czeslaw Milosz puts it, "is a belief in nothingness after death - the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged." The true opium of modernity is not Christianity, which tells us that we are accountable for every choice we make in life, but rather, McGrath says, "the belief that there is no God, so that humans are completely free to do precisely as they please."
The second part of the book describes what the author believes is the decline of atheism and the forces which have triggered it. Atheism reached its zenith in the first sixty years of the 20th century during which it became official policy in communist and fascist nations around the globe. The fruits of state atheism were readily observable in the horrors of Auschwitz and the Soviet Gulag. Over one hundred million people were murdered in the name of a consistent naturalistic humanism. The terrible irony in this is that modernity sought to exalt man, to elevate mankind to the status of divinity, but in so doing they dehumanized him and reduced him to the status of a beast, fit to be herded, manipulated, exploited, and slaughtered.
The reason for this is clear. Atheism has nothing upon which to base human dignity, and consequently nothing upon which to base human rights (See Viewpoint here for a fuller treatment of this problem). Man has dignity by virtue of the fact that he is made in the image of God and is loved by God. He has rights only because he belongs to God. Take God away and man is nothing more than a lump of blood, muscle, and bone. There is no inherent dignity or "rights" in that. The holocaust and the Soviet slave labor camps were simply the logical conclusion of the assumption that there is no God.
Another strange irony of the 20th century is that people reflect upon the grisly barbarisms of the totalitarian states which encompassed much of the globe from 1917 to 1989 and, blaming God for the evils these states perpetrated, they despise him for them. How, they ask, could such atrocities happen if God is truly good? (See Viewpoint here and here). Yet surely this is to misplace the blame and to sink into confusion. God is held responsible for the crimes of an ideology that rejects him. Belief in God becomes impossible because the consequences of godlessness are so horrific. People reject God because of the evil they witness in the world, but they worship man who is the primary cause of the evil.
McGrath notes that John Lennon called upon us to imagine a world in which there's no heaven and no religion, but imagining such a world is unnecessary. All one need do is observe the former Soviet Union, Red China, North Korea, Cuba, or Nazi Germany to see the sort of world we'd have if Lennon's dream were fulfilled.
The 20th century, McGrath writes, "gave rise to one of the greatest paradoxes of human history: that the greatest intolerance and violence of that century were practiced by those who believed that religion caused intolerance and violence."
Now we've entered a new era, the post-modern, which McGrath believes undermines the plausibility of atheism. "God," he observes, "was never argued out of existence; a cultural mood developed which tended to see God as something of an irrelevance." Now a new cultural mood is upon us, one much more congenial to the realm of the subjective, one much more insistent on tolerating diversity of opinions and much more skeptical of all dogmatic truth claims, whether religious or materialistic. The attraction of atheism, he reminds us, "lies in what it denies, not in what it offers as an alternative....What propels people toward atheism is above all a sense of revulsion against the excesses and failures of organized religion. Atheism is ultimately a worldview of fear - a fear, often merited, of what might happen if religious maniacs were to take over the world."
This worldview has been weighed in the balance, however, and found wanting. It has failed to demonstrate through reason that God does not exist. It has also failed as a practical principle because, as we've seen, the adoption by the state of an atheistic ideology leads to degradation and death on historically unprecedented scales. It has also failed metaphysically because the implications of atheism all tend toward nihilism (See Viewpoint here for a more detailed discussion of this claim). Atheism denies any meaning to existence, any ground for moral judgment, any hope for ultimate justice, and any basis for human dignity or human rights. It withholds any rationale for believing in a self, or a hope for life after death. It is a philosophy of despair, and despair is not an attractive option for most people. To the extent that atheism is indeed slouching through its twilight it is these failures which have brought it to this pass.
Nevertheless, McGrath cautions, even though the Church today may not be plagued by the liabilities which stigmatized it in Europe, atheism will still continue to appear, at least superficially, to be a reasonable alternative for those repelled by what they see as the savage moral character of the God of the Old Testament and the merciless doctrine of eternal damnation in the New Testament. One wonders how many people have fallen short of embracing belief in God because they could find no compelling answers to their questions about the nature of God, evil, and our eternal destiny. How many others have been repulsed by the insouciance, arrogance, and insensitivity with which Christians sometimes dispatch their deceased loved ones to everlasting punishment? God must agonize over the boneheadedness of those who sometimes claim to speak with such certainty on his behalf.
McGrath again: "Christianity must provide answers - good answers - to such fair questions and never assume that it can recycle yesterday's answers to today's questions."
The Twilight of Atheism is an enjoyable and worthwhile survey of how atheism came to enjoy preeminence in the twentieth century and how its very success has laid bare its intellectual, ideological, and metaphysical impoverishment. Interested readers may order copies of the book here.