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  • 12.06.2005

    The Twilight of Atheism

    From the Flap: The Twilight of Atheism will unsettle believers and nonbelievers alike. A powerful rebuttal of the philosophy that, for better or for worse, has exerted tremendous influence on Western history, it carries major implications for the future of both religion and unbelief in our society.
    The Twilight of Atheism * is a history of atheism in Western culture. The author concedes that the book could not be an exhaustive study; however, McGrath tries to use “snapshots” in history to give a basic understanding of atheism’s rise.


    Part 1: The High Noon of Atheism

    Alister McGrath takes his readers back to the French Revolution of 1789 to start the discussion:

    “The French Revolution had shattered the tired old political framework of Europe, sweeping away its outdated, tradition-bound practices and beliefs, and opening the way to a bright new future. A new dawn seemed to be at hand, promising to usher in an era of hope and opportunity (pp. 21-22).”

    The beams of a sunrise were rising over a worn-out horizon. The new secularism promised to usher in freedom and peace. In spite of the Revolution’s Reign of Terror, atheism maintained an increasing favor.

    McGrath follows this introduction with a discussion of Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud and their influence that laid intellectual foundations for atheism in the twentieth century. “A major cultural shift began, in which culture decisively moved its trust from the dogmas of religion to the theories of science. The transition is neatly summarized in the words that Sir Richard Gregory (1864-1952), one of Britain’s leading scientists, proposed as his epitaph:

    My grandfather preached the gospel of Christ;
    My father preached the gospel of socialism;
    I preach the gospel of science
    (pp. 77-78).”

    Hence a warfare between the natural sciences and religion began. In tracing the battlefronts of this war, McGrath writes about the war’s origins. John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom drew the battle lines. “Both works reflect a strongly positivist view of history and a determination to settle old scores with organized religion (p. 85).” The author’s then focuses on the contributions to secularism by William Kingdon Clifford, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Jay Gould--among others.

    McGrath also shows how a dead, dry Protestantism--devoid of imagination--left a vacuum in Europe that fertile, atheistic minds were more than willing to fill. The literary class seized the mood and the moment in Victorian England and elsewhere to paint a picture of atheism’s hope and freedom. The stage was being set for atheistic states to rise to power in the 20th century.

    Part 2: Twilight

    “By 1970 many had come to the view that religion was on its way out (p. 174).” John Lennon’s song “Imagine” seemed to reflect the spirit of the age. But as the century started to draw to a close, a resurgence of religion once again captivated the minds of millions. McGrath argues that atheism is now experiencing a twilight. It is a force of the past--much like the old political systems before the French Revolution. It is no longer on the cutting edge.


    1. Intellectually, the “philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt. The matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith... (p. 179).” McGrath tells the reader that belief and disbelief are both positions of faith. The current rational/philosophical fight has both boxers exhausted in their respective corners. Atheists like to assume the intellectual high ground but often ignore the circular reasoning underpinning their positions.

    2. Morally, atheists like to blame religion for war and suffering while ignoring atheism’s contributions to the same: “It is only fair to point out that those who planned the Holocaust, and those who slammed shut the doors of the Auschwitz gas chambers, were human beings--precisely those...declared to be the new ‘gods’ of the modern era, free from any divine prohibitions or sanctions, or any fear of future divine judgment (p. 183).” Mankind without any fear of God “has much to answer for--more violence, bloodshed, and oppression than any naive Victorian optimist could ever have imagined (p. 184).”

    Atheism, when implemented in the centers of power, did not follow through on its promise of freedom, peace, and hope.

    3. It seems that dry, dusty Christianity discovered a sanctified imagination as atheism lost its imaginative appeal. Alister McGrath then turns his reader’s attention to the worldwide movement of Pentecostalism as one example of why atheism is waning. Pentecostalism offers a direct, experiential relationship with God--and it is a global movement. It captures the imaginations and hearts of people. “There is a rebirth of interest in the spiritual (p. 189).”

    The author argues that unimaginative Protestantism may have actually helped atheism rise to its “high noon.” However, Christianity has a way of adapting to the “times” without abandoning its core beliefs. This can be very frustrating for atheists who find Christianity to be a moving target.

    Finally, McGrath relates that atheism has primarily been a philosophy of modernity. Now that the world is breathing “postmodern” air, atheism is increasingly out of touch. It recedes with all things modern and “totalizing.” In America the movement has atrophied into a squabbling special-interest group vying with everyone else for media time. The shadows are lengthening.

    McGrath is quick to point out that atheism is not going to go away. The future is terribly difficult to predict. Conditions, such as a corrupt and powerful Church, can always make atheism attractive. But for now, it looks like atheism has been marginalized.


    This book is another excellent primer on the historical developments that have produced today’s atheism. McGrath’s bibliography for this work is thorough; however, the book is not a dry academic offering. I found the book to be a fast and interesting read.

    The book is not a philosophical banter set about to prove the existence of God. The author stays to his purpose of following atheism’s history. He treats the subject matter fairly. With an honest and authentic tone, McGrath admits his own emergence from atheism to theism. The work may be difficult for an atheist or agnostic to read, but I believe atheists and agnostics will find the author to be a person with whom they can interact.

    This book also sets the record straight on a few issues. Two examples follow.

    First, McGrath shows that Voltaire was not an avowed atheist, but one who sided with those resisting a corrupt Church:

    “Voltaire regarded atheism with about as much enthusiasm as he did the teachings of the Christian church. In the place of both he urged the reconstruction of religion on the basis of the Supreme Being disclosed in nature....[H]e offered a strong defense of the existence of a supreme being, who was inadequately and falsely represented by the great positive religions of the world, especially the French Catholic church and its leading representatives (pp. 25, 26).”

    Second, Bertrand Russell popularized a notion that John Calvin rejected Copernicus’ revolutionary breakthrough by quoting Psalm 93:1. However, McGrath shows that Russell’s account of Calvin as an “obscurantist” is simply a myth. “Take the Calvin myth. The intellectual authority of the great atheist writer Bertrand Russell was such that few bothered to check out his assertions (p. 81).” The myth’s origin is traced as far back as possible, and McGrath must finally conclude, “The remark attributed to Calvin thus had to be dismissed as pure invention (p. 81).”

    McGrath also critiques Christianity’s failings that aid the expansion of atheism. Such critiques are difficult for a Christian reader to hear, but they are worthy of consideration. Chapter 8 is devoted entirely to this.

    “To suggest a link between Protestantism and atheism might, at first sight, seem improbable, perhaps even bizarre. How could a movement so dedicated to the propagation of the Christian faith conceivably be said to have encouraged the rise of atheism? In making this suggestion, I am drawing together a number of scholarly studies of the origins and development of Protestantism, which indicate that there is a significant link between the movement and the emergence of atheism (pp. 198-199).”

    The Christian Protestant reader may disagree with the analysis of chapter 8, but the thinking Christian will want to consider it.


    The author cites one Christian doctrine that is repulsive to atheists: eternal punishment. McGrath seems sympathetic to the atheist’s view on this point without offering an apologetic for God’s judicial sentiment. He states, “Christian apologetics cannot hope simply to assert such doctrines as eternal damnation and expect Western culture to nod approvingly (p. 275).” This I already know. But he continues to show how this offends an atheist’s view of fair play. McGrath pretty much leaves the issue “there” making me wonder what he believes about a point that Christ Himself talked so much about.


    As I read McGrath’s argument for the “fading appeal of atheism,” I found myself hopeful and skeptical at the same time. Several parts of the book will encourage the Christian reader.

    However, I do not accept the premise completely. I personally believe that atheism retains a subtle, but powerful, hold on even the postmodern mind. Underneath the culture’s belief system, lies a practical atheism that continues to fuel existential pursuits. The American culture claims to be “Christian” but in a vacuous and hollow way. It is not the Christian faith that is sweeping the land, but an existentialism that includes pieces a long-since crumbled Christian movement.

    Atheism as a modern, totalizing philosophy may be in its twilight, but atheistic nihilism serving as a jumping point for personal “leaps of faith” is as strong as ever. Which is worse?

    Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book. It is a great--well written--history of atheism.
    * Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (New York; Doubleday, 2004)


    At 4:18 AM, Blogger Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

    Alister McGrath is a good writer, but he does accept Theistic Evolution, whcih is not so bright.

    God Bless

    At 6:11 AM, Blogger Joe said...

    Atheism is here. I believe it is alive and well, just lying a bit lower temporarily.

    In the end, however, the gates of Hell will not prevail agains His body, the church.

    Thanks for a good post!

    At 10:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Weaver said...

    Looks good.
    I agree with you too, I think (I haven't read the book yet), but it seems to me that the problem of atheism is one of the will. Man refuses to believe. It begins in the pratical atheism that you referenced, which is basically unthankfulness at its heart, refusing to own a Creator and then progresses 'a la' Romans 1.
    Thanks for the recommendation.


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