The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World
Rider Books, London, 2004, 306pp.
On 24 October 1965, Time magazine ran a series of articles exploring the possibility that God was now irrelevant to the thought and culture of the West. The headline was, ‘Is God Dead?’
About 40 years later, in 2004, The Bulletin magazine ran a similar series on the place of God in contemporary life. The headline this time was, ‘He’s Back!’ The editors declared 2004 to be ‘The Year of God’ and ran a series of articles both celebrating and lamenting his return to public life. What happened?
Theologian and Christian author Alister McGrath has recently put his mind to the question of exactly what happened in his recent book, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. The book traces the history of modern atheism from the French Revolution of 1789 to its apparent demise as an intellectual and cultural force in the 1990s.
Like any book worth reading—and this is a book well worth reading—McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism taught me many things I did not know. For example, did you know that the French Revolution had not really been an atheistic movement until well into the 1790s? (In fact, the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille was celebrated with the Mass.) Did you know that the American Atheist association was subject to a series of scandals between the 1970s and 1990s that would rival the most serious of church scandals in the same period? I didn’t. (In fact, under the leadership of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the group basically self-destructed through immorality, intimidation and gross mismanagement.) There are other things I learnt that I wish I hadn’t—like, for example, the reported sexual practices of Victorian era poet and atheist A.C. Swinburne, which are best not repeated in mixed company.
However, it is not the interesting facts but the broad story of The Twilight of Atheism that makes it a book worth reading. McGrath tells a compelling narrative of how a ‘faith’ (namely, atheism) rose from small but promising beginnings to become a dominant intellectual force in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—claiming almost half the world as nominal adherents in 1960s. More than that, it is a story which attempts to account for why this once mighty movement now appears to be in terminal decline. What happened?
The answer is, the twentieth century happened. The atheists of the nineteenth century had promised that humanity, if it were freed from belief in God, would be unlimited in the good it could achieve. The twentieth century saw that same humanity, now freed from belief in God, establishing the Gulags, killing fellow countrymen, brainwashing children in atheistic doctrines, and organizing the logistics of genocide. In the nineteenth century, Marx had predicted that if you changed people’s circumstances, religion would naturally die off. In the twentieth century, this death proved to be anything but natural. For example, in Russia, by as early as 1922, Lenin was so frustrated by the people’s refusal to give up belief in God that he argued for “protracted use of brutality”. The 70 years of violence that followed—and the persistence of religious belief in spite of it—proved Marx’s prediction to be hopelessly wrong.
Intellectually too, the mood has shifted. The dogmatism of atheism is unpalatable to postmoderns. The idea that ‘science has disproved Christianity’ looks naïve; the idea that you can write off the religious convictions of millions as simply false looks arrogant; and the idea that you can arbitrate on these questions with any confidence at all looks so last-century.
Of course, as McGrath observes, many of the great figures of atheism have fallen on hard times. Marx, Freud and Darwin no longer occupy the privileged place in academia they once did, and each represents arguments for atheism that are not nearly as conclusive as once thought.
This kind of terrain—the history of modern thought—will be new for some, a refresher for others and well rehearsed for a few. Where McGrath breaks new ground is in giving attention to a factor that rarely receives any attention in the atheist-theist debates: the area of the imagination.
McGrath explores the important question of how the poets and artists of Christianity and atheism have fared, not just the scientists and philosophers. His thesis is simple: when a society’s poets and artists no longer find that Christianity captures their imagination, the gospel suffers. And McGrath says this is precisely what happened in the period under discussion. Christianity, which had fuelled the Western imagination for over a thousand years, was, for many in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a dry spring. He who was a source of inspiration for so many was now faced with Swinburne’s accusation: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath”.
However, according to McGrath, it is now atheism that is failing as a source for high culture. “Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position”, says contemporary novelist John Updike. The key word is interesting—Updike, like most people, needs a belief-structure to be not only true and coherent, but beautiful and interesting. Atheism is losing ground at precisely this point. (The question of whether Christianity can reclaim its imaginative appeal in the West deserves an article of its own.)
I do have two misgivings about this book. The first is the risk of triumphalism that any book about the demise of your opponent must necessarily court. McGrath is more likely than most authors to pull this off—he is normally generous to his opponents, and this book is no exception. However, particularly in the area of epistemology, I sometimes wonder whether our celebration of the demise of enlightenment positivism has been too boisterous and our critical reflections on its replacements too muted. McGrath himself has recently said the collapse of positivism has been almost “wholly positive” for theology. I wholly agree—and that’s what worries me. Surely there is an a priori unlikelihood that the postmodern epistemological alternatives to the enlightenment are wholly friendly to Christian theology. I can’t see what the problems are, but problems are always hard to see when you are standing this close.
Secondly, one gets the impression at a few points in The Twilight of Atheism that the traditional doctrine of hell has been responsible for some of the contempt with which Christian belief has been held for the last 200 years or so. The most moving (and impressive) example is that of Darwin who, according to McGrath, lost his faith not because of his scientific work but because of the death of his daughter, after which the traditional teachings on hell were beyond contemplation.
Now, it would be a cold person that could not sympathize with this. And it would be a cold Christian that has never squirmed over this doctrine. (Is there any doctrine we would be happier to dispense with?) However, I do wonder whether it is fair or accurate to blame so much on this doctrine. When McGrath argues that the doctrine of hell made evangelical claims unacceptable to so many, particularly in the nineteenth century, is that argument valid? I also wonder if this begs a previous question: “Is it true or not?” If, on investigation of the scriptures, it turns out that the traditional doctrine is found wanting, then so be it. But if it is true, then surely we are obliged to proclaim it faithfully, regardless of the consequences.
Furthermore, if we accept that the traditional doctrine of hell is scriptural, then can we actually demonstrate that its influence on the viability of Christian belief has been a net loss? For every Darwin that stumbled on this point, how many thousands of others have found impetus in the same doctrine to flee to Christ? For every theologian who has stumbled here, how many thousands of missionaries have been at least partly motivated by the same doctrine to preach Christ to the unconverted? McGrath points out that Christianity is growing at considerable rates today in the third world, especially in its charismatic form. Yet the traditional doctrine of hell is preached by third-world evangelical and charismatic preachers with a vigour that would make many Westerners squirm. So how are they doing it?
These two objections aside, I do think this is an important book, and well worth reading. It has pastoral value (I have lent it to Christians and non-Christians to the profit of both), it tells its story with vigour, and it makes an important contribution to our understanding of where Western culture has got to, and where it might go next.