Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Twilight of Atheism

Just finished reading The Twilight of Atheism by Alister McGrath.

It's aimed to be an introductory history of atheism, considering its philosophical, literary, polemical, political, psychological, etc implications, origins and effects. It's also aimed to be popularly accessible. It does a pretty good job of both.

What I found especially interesting is the suggestion that atheism is largely a reaction against corruption in religious establishments - that when the Church is doing its job and not bothering to try and prove the existence of God, people in general accept God's existence.

In particular, McGrath highlights the role of the Protestant Reformation in being a causative factor in the rise of atheism, especially because it largely removed the sense of the divine in the world and at times reduced Christianity to a form of dry intellectualism which was both unfaithful and unappealing. In a sense, it emphasised the transcendence of God (the fact that we can't reach him by our own abilities) above his immanence (the fact that he is present with us). McGrath then links the modern rise of Pentecostalism to its emphasis on that immanence, even if this is sometimes at the expense of transcendence.

I think that's a very interesting idea, and that there's probably something in it. On the other hand, I don't see how it explains the fact that atheism became strongest in Russian and China, countries largely unaffected by the Protestant Reformation. I know that was partly becasue the atheists became identified as liberators, but more exploration of the issue would have been helpful.

As the title suggests, McGrath also spends a good deal of time on the way that atheism is very much on the wane in the modern world and why that is.

All in all, a good and interesting read.


Anonymous said...

Alistair McGrath's book "Dawkins' God" is also very good. It's basically a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins' line of thinking (i.e., evolution happened ergo, there is no God).

Anonymous said...

and... I've just realised you wrote a review of it in Februrary! In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, D'OH!!!

Incidentally, I found your blog through a comment on the Dilbert blog, I've sort of been reading it ever since :-)

Anonymous said...


Here's the link to my review of Dawkins' God.

Simon said...

Atheism is a reaction against the total and utter childsih fairytale nonsense adults believe in called religion. Harry Potter is more believable.

John said...

I think you're right, whether you meant to be or not.

When "religion" is made to look like "total and utter childsih fairytale nonsense" by adults who are "religious", then atheism does well.

But you're right, at the end of the day Harry Potter is more believable than atheism. After all, whoever claims to have come across proof for the non-existence of any gods at all?

That's one of the striking things about atheism - it rejects one, usually childish fairytale-like, notion of God and then concludes that all notions of God are false. I'm sure there's a word for that kind of reasoning - begins with a "c" and ends with "ish"...

Simon said...

No, it's called grown up, dude.

Mind you, I see grown men reading Harry Potter, so I'm not surprised Christianity does well.

DFH said...

Alister McGrath's books are the work of a highly qualified scientist (he holds doctorates in both Molecular Biology and Divinity). His arguments against Dawkins's atheism are sound and pertinent. It's Richard Dawkins who hasn't done his homework.

To custard, I would ask if he's read McGrath's earlier work, The Re-Enchantment of Nature: Science, Religion and the Human Sense of Wonder (2002) ?

Anonymous said...


I see you have been to the Dawkins school of 'ad hominem' and 'begging the question'. Your blog is the typical ranting and raving, without good argumentation, that one expects of atheists. Saying evolution is a fact doesn't make it one. And God won't accept the excuse, "I trusted the experts," on the Judgment Day.

Q. Who is more rabidly fanatical than an Islamic fundamentalist and a greater danger to society?

A. An atheist (cf. Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Mussolini et al. - Dawkins conveniently ignores these bedfellows).

(Please don't come off with some ignorant statement about the Spanish Inquisition. Roman cults don't count as Christianity.)

Humble yourself a moment and seriously examine the proofs for the Biblical God before it's too late. I fear that it is clear that you have been misled as to what true Christianity is.

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools..." (Romans 1:18-22)

I pray that God might open your blind eyes. No argument we will give you will convince you unless the Holy Spirit gives you a new heart. All we can do is exhort you out of love for your never-dying soul.

"And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." (John 3:19)

Augustine argued against Christians too, but then he realised the following: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Sadly, the oft-quoted statement is true: "There is no peace," says my God, "for the wicked." (Isaiah 57:21)

Graciously, Christ appeals to you: "Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

The burden of rejecting Christ is more than you can bear.

The wrath of God revealed now is but a warning. The wrath to come is far, far worse. Don't be foolish! Flee from the wrath to come!

Steven Carr said...

Do you think Christainity is widespread in the world, or do most people only pay lip-service to Christianity, without really believing it?

John said...

Depends where you go.

I think in countries where it is comfortable to be called a Christian, there are a lot who just call themselves Christians.

In countries such as China, Vietnam, etc where being a Christian can cost a huge amount, the Christians are genuinely Christians.

In the UK, I'd probably guess between 2 and 10% of the population are Christian. 70% say they are Christian. Of those who go to churches, a high proportion but by no means all are Christian. I'm not really qualified to speak on the US scene, but think it's similar except that more of the non-Christians go to church, which influences the culture there.