Saturday, September 18, 2004

The Rise and Decline of Modern Atheism

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.

A Look at the Polls

The media have been reporting that Bush's post-convention bounce has all but disappeared and that the race for the White House is once again a draw. This doesn't seem to be borne out by the polls, however, which continue to move in the President's favor. Gallup has Bush up by fourteen, a CBS/NYT poll just out has Bush up by nine, in Pennsylvania poll averages give Bush a three point lead and one New Jersey poll shows Bush leading by four. In the battleground states of Ohio, Florida, Missouri, and Wisconsin Bush is ahead. In those states where Kerry has a lead it appears to be shrinking, even in New York, and it looks like Ralph Nader will be on the ballot in Florida. All of this is very good news for the President.

The commentary that focusses on the closeness of some polls while failing to mention those which are trending in Bush's direction, represents, apparently, an attempt to keep Kerry's marginal support from defecting and to keep his core supporters from losing heart. Another week or so of numbers showing a strong showing for Bush and Kerry will be forced to hit a grand slam in the debates, or Bush will have to show up drunk, to keep the lukewarm from deciding to stay home in November.

If the polls don't turn around for Kerry look for the Democrats to start questioning their reliability. They can't allow voters to think that a Bush victory is inevitable because too many of the people they're counting on to turn out on election day are really not that enthusiastic about their candidate in the first place. They don't need much of a reason to do something else rather than drive to the voting booth so convincing people that the race is close and that their vote is important will be crucial.

From the Front

If one only gets his news about Iraq from the MSM they are likely to suspect that "Bush's war" is a complete disaster, that our efforts there are utter failures, and that the whole country is teetering on the brink of civil war. Media pundits are genetically disposed to see only the dark side of every moon, but their negativism and pessimism are misleading the American people. The following e-mail, posted at Captain's Quarters, is an antidote to the unfortunate predilections of the media Chicken Littles. It's from a Marine who is there:

The US media is abuzz today with the news of an intelligence report that is very negative about the prospects for Iraq's future. CNN's website says, "[The] National Intelligence Estimate was sent to the White House in July with a classified warning predicting the best case for Iraq was 'tenuous stability' and the worst case was civil war." That report, along with the car bombings and kidnappings in Baghdad in the past couple days are being portrayed in the media as more proof of absolute chaos and the intransigence of the insurgency.

From where I sit, at the Operational Headquarters in Baghdad, that just isn't the case. Let's lay out some background, first about the "National Intelligence Estimate." The most glaring issue with its relevance is the fact that it was delivered to the White House in July. That means that the information that was used to derive the intelligence was gathered in the Spring - in the immediate aftermath of the April battle for Fallujah, and other events. The report doesn't cover what has happened in July or August, let alone September.

The naysayers will point to the recent battles in Najaf and draw parallels between that and what happened in Fallujah in April. They aren't even close. The bad guys did us a HUGE favor by gathering together in one place and trying to make a stand. It allowed us to focus on them and defeat them. Make no mistake, Al Sadr's troops were thoroughly smashed. The estimated enemy killed in action is huge. Before the battles, the residents of the city were afraid to walk the streets. Al Sadr's enforcers would seize people and bring them to his Islamic court where sentence was passed for religious or other violations. Long before the battles people were looking for their lost loved ones who had been taken to "court" and never seen again. Now Najafians can and do walk their streets in safety. Commerce has returned and the city is being rebuilt. Iraqi security forces and US troops are welcomed and smiled upon. That city was liberated again. It was not like Fallujah - the bad guys lost and are in hiding or dead.

You may not have even heard about the city of Samarra. Two weeks ago, that Sunni Triangle city was a "No-go" area for US troops. But guess what? The locals got sick of living in fear from the insurgents and foreign fighters that were there and let them know they weren't welcome. They stopped hosting them in their houses and the mayor of the town brokered a deal with the US commander to return Iraqi government sovereignty to the city without a fight. The people saw what was on the horizon and decided they didn't want their city looking like Fallujah in April or Najaf in August.

Boom, boom, just like that two major "hot spots" cool down in rapid succession. Does that mean that those towns are completely pacified? No. What it does mean is that we are learning how to do this the right way. The US commander in Samarra saw an opportunity and took it - probably the biggest victory of his military career and nary a shot was fired in anger. Things will still happen in those cities, and you can be sure that the bad guys really want to take them back. Those achievements, more than anything else in my opinion, account for the surge in violence in recent days - especially the violence directed at Iraqis by the insurgents. Both in Najaf and Samarra ordinary people stepped out and took sides with the Iraqi government against the insurgents, and the bad guys are hopping mad. They are trying to instill fear once again. The worst thing we could do now is pull back and let that scum back into people's homes and lives.

So, you may hear analysts and prognosticators on CNN, ABC and the like in the next few days talking about how bleak the situation is here in Iraq, but from where I sit, it's looking significantly better now than when I got here. The momentum is moving in our favor, and all Americans need to know that, so please, please, pass this on to those who care and will pass it on to others. It is very demoralizing for us here in uniform to read & hear such negativity in our press. It is fodder for our enemies to use against us and against the vast majority of Iraqis who want their new government to succeed. It causes the American public to start thinking about the acceptability of "cutting our losses" and pulling out, which would be devastating for Iraq for generations to come, and Muslim militants would claim a huge victory, causing us to have to continue to fight them elsewhere (remember, in war "Away" games are always preferable to "Home" games). Reports like that also cause Iraqis begin to fear that we will pull out before we finish the job, and thus less willing to openly support their interim government and US/Coalition activities. We are realizing significant progress here - not propaganda progress, but real strides are being made. It's terrible to see our national morale, and support for what we're doing here, jeopardized by sensationalized stories hyped by media giants whose #1 priority is advertising income followed closely by their political agenda; getting the story straight falls much further down on their priority scale, as Dan Rather and CBS News have so aptly demonstrated in the last week.

This guy makes a good point. When we listen to reports from Iraq we have to remember that the reporters and the networks through whom the reports are transmitted have two agendas. One is to report the news, the other is to get Bush out of the White House. The latter is not advanced by reporting positive news about the reconstruction of Iraq. It's probably a good rule to keep in mind that whatever we hear about Iraq, it's never as bad as the reports make it seem.

The Noam Chomsky Reader

Some of Viewpoint's readers will be familiar with the MIT linguist Noam Chomsky who, since the 1960s has been one of the foremost critics of almost anything the United States does at home or abroad. Chomsky has been very influential among college students. His calm demeanor and unquestioned intellectual abilities have caused many to find his arguments seductive.

Now comes a collection of critiques of those arguments titled The Noam Chomsky Reader and edited by former left-wing radicals Peter Collier and David Horowitz. A review of the book can be found at Front Page Mag. Anyone who has ever been exposed to Chomsky's large body of work and either been persuaded by it or had the sense that something was wrong with it but couldn't quite put their finger on what it was, will find these essays useful.