In this bold and provocative new book, the author of In the Beginning and The Reenchantment of Nature challenges the widely held assumption that the world. The Twilight of Atheism has ratings and 42 reviews. In the Twilight of Atheism, Alister McGrath gives readers a historical overview of atheism that includes. The Twilight of Atheism. Why this once exciting and ‘liberating’ philosophy failed to capture the world’s imagination. by Alister McGrath|.
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Swenson and Walter Lowrie. There can be little doubt, looking across the horizons of contemporary society and assuming any objective measure, that the notion of godlessness has reached a nadir.
Western society has come a long way sincewhen Time magazine emblazoned the words “Is God Dead? But another 40 years have passed, and the signs of religious revival are all around us, filling every cranny of our public life from the political sphere to the literary world. The forces of religion have staged a public coup if it can be said they ever really went awayand in the process have twilihgt in harrying atheism almost unto its demise. This, at least, is my admittedly biased interpretation of McGrath’s most salient points.
Although this is an admirably game recitation of atheist history and theory, it falters on a pretty basic point: McGrath isn’t an atheist. More than that, he og writing from the unique position of an ex -atheist, alsiter confirmed Christian believer who fell away from faithlessness in his twenties.
There is something inextinguishably strident in his tone. Although he attempts to parry his subject with afheism appeals to history and logic, there is little doubt that the heart of his argument — the thesis that atheism has ceased to be a powerful idea in modern society and will continue to wane for the foreseeable future — is essentially his own personal willingness to believe.
At times the argument is so strident as to overreach to comical effect.
The Twilight Of Atheism : Alister McGrath :
In all, the effect is less than convincing. For a confirmed atheist The Twilight of Atheism succeeds less as the conclusive clinical autopsy it was intended to be and more as merely another symptom of this lamentable decline.
Not that these symptoms themselves aren’t interesting. McGrath’s knowledge of religious and social history allows him to reach deeply into modern history, examining the heart of the atheist movement from its origins in the Protestant Reformation through to the Bolshevik Revolution.
His summary dismissal of classical atheism is slightly less convincing, but perhaps with an awareness of this weakness he accords the subject relatively little space.
Scholars have argued for centuries as to whether or not Socrates was an atheist in our modern sense, and the McGrath’s abbreviated treatment of the question is puzzling. But, admittedly, this is outside of the book’s main brief, so the exclusion is understandable. But throughout his history McGrath offers more puzzling elisions and leaps of logic.
The most serious is his insistence on discussing atheism as a “faith”, treating it in the context of history like just another of many competing spiritual enterprises. He is correct in assuming that the claim is “astonishing” to many atheists, because despite his philosophical maneuverings he simply fails to make the argument anything less than an oxymoron. To believe in God, as Kierkegaard make poignantly clear, requires a marked leap of faith, an abandonment of a dependency on logic in exchange for a reliance on “the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness” when all external signposts point to doubt and hesitation.
The Twilight of Atheism by Alister McGrath – PopMatters
Believing in God or any supernatural agency therefore requires that the believer make an external assumption. To say that the act of not believing in God twillight similarly an article of faith is to misread atueism question entirely, to presuppose that an awareness of divinity is in fact the default position attheism human intellect to take — quite a leap, but McGrath isn’t the only one to make it.
Daniel Dennett’s recent book Breaking the Spell offers the tentative but tantalizing hypothesis that religious belief has evolved not from human activity but through human activity and not always to positive effect.
On the face of it this is merely another twist on Richard Dawkins’ anthropological conception of memetic transmission. Dennett’s call for religion to examine its own anthropological baggage is in its own way one of the most sly attacks on religious certitude in years certainly more subtle than Dawkins’ treatises.
But considering how easily these new and controversial ideas allow for a scientific dismissal of religion on the grounds that the human animal twiliight been preconditioned by evolution to believe in external agency in the natural alisfer where none exists, it is easy to imagine that McGrath might shy away from any such an explanation.
And yet, the inference hangs over most of his arguments. He is right to point out that many of the arguments either for or against twliight on purely philosophical grounds are circular. If you posit that God is a purely supernatural agency, and that his existence is beyond the realm of science to accurately confirm or deny and not, as some believe, that dinosaur bones are actually proof of the textual accuracy of the book of Genesisthe sum total of such arguments can be more than a little specious.
But it is telling that in his tour of atheist thinkers, from Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud through to less academic but no less impassioned ideas put forward by the likes of Shelley, Swinburne and Dostoyevsky, he omits Kierkegaard. While it is certainly true that Kierkegaard was a devoted and devout Allister, his writings were also a singular influence on the concept of existentialism.
For me, no writer has made the case against faith as cleanly and with as much conviction as Kierkegaard — ironic, considering that much of Kierkegaard’s motivation was concerned with the purification of contemporaneous Christian belief and practice. In conflating the concepts of atheism and the conventional understanding of “faith”, McGrath also makes another crucial error — mistaking atheism, an idea, with atheism as a mass movement.
Atheism as a mass movement reached its apotheosis with the Soviet Union — or rather, atheism was forced on the subject peoples of mchrath Soviet Union by a group of idealistic sociopaths.
McGrath is unfortunately correct in noting that the waning fortunes of global Communism impacted the appeal of atheism:. While communism was and is an atheistic creed, the biggest atheistic movement in the history of thr world, it does not necessarily follow that communism is the be all and end all of atheism. Perhaps the abject failure of Communism twillght as a moral tonic for those tsilight believed the movement to be ethically superior, and perhaps the taint of association with the most murderous regimes in the world’s history has frightened many away from adopting or espousing atheistic ideas.
But at the end of the day atheism is still simply that, an idea. The fact that Stalin just atneism to be an atheist has no impact on the legitimacy of the idea anymore than the fact that Torquemada just twiloght to be a Christian impacts the legitimacy of Christianity.
Generations of Christian scholars and apologists have sidestepped their religion’s history of intolerance and occasional violence by taking solace in the basic truth of Christ’s life taheism words. How can it be any different for an atheist who rejects the idea of God?
Just because evil men have also shared my belief does not make my belief any less true — a sentiment that has been uttered countless times by believers of all faiths. It would be impossible to discuss atheism without also mentioning the Soviet Union and the atheist elements of Communist ideals — but McGrath overstates his point by tying the idea so firmly to the temporal politic. This is in the context of his own lapsed atheism.
Certainly, this may hold true mgrath his conception of the idea, but it sounds more to me like a portrait of the movement aljster which he was a member. To reduce atheism to the status of merely a foil for the established religions is not only condescending, but it seriously misreads the motivation of many modern atheists.
While it is true that I can only speak for myself in this manner, I can say without any equivocation that I am not an atheist in protest to anything at all except the singular idea that there exists a God or gods. McGrath continues to hammer on the protest definition of atheism throughout the volume. He even goes so far as to “[set] to one side” the “spurious and fractious forms of atheism, which woodenly reject any spiritual dimension to life on a priori ground, a serious and morally demanding atheism poses a fundamental challenge to concepts of divinity that are seen to be morally defective”.
The underlying concept here appears to be — and I may be mistaken — that most atheists, or at least legitimate atheists, really do want to believe in God, but are unable to do so on account of moral qualms. Which seems to me to be a contradiction.
Perhaps there are atheists like this in the world probably best described, from his definition, as “closest theists”? Aister do not disbelieve out of spite or on behalf of a political agenda or because of any youthful trauma relating to religious practices. To say that atheism is a “protest” is to imply strongly that it will only remain potent as a mass movement for so long as what it is protesting remains an adversarial force — an idea that McGrath makes persuasively throughout the book.
However, conflating atheism the idea with atheism the movement allows McGrath to neatly form a false analogy, propounding that the atheist dilemma with religion is with religion as a movement and not an idea — a small but crucial difference.
It wouldn’t matter if religion had been nothing but a force for absolute peace and tranquility throughout history: Perhaps if someone became an atheist — like McGrath — purely to protest temporal affairs, as he did during his youth in war-torn Ireland, than the appeal of the idea would wane the further he disassociated it from its temporal origins.
We’ve seen, in the waning fortunes of the movement, that this has been the case for many. He’s probably onto something when he indicates that the zlister of strong atheistic artistic models lessens mcgrsth ideas appeal for a great many people. But again, pointing out why or why not an idea is popular does little to combat whether or not said idea is valid.
McGrath can’t alisyer the first question — supposedly the crux of his thesis — adequately because, as an avowed theist, he can’t keep from mixing it up with his second question.
As a result, the book is a muddle. Which is the point where, honestly, a less committed reviewer might simply have given up. It’s hard not to see that atheism is at a low ebb in Western society, and the reasons for this are many and varied. But how much do the misadventures of repellent characters like Madalyn Murray O’Hair really have to do with the fall of atheism in contemporary America? Atheism isn’t a mass movement, it never has been.
McGrath spends a few pages towards the end of the book at an atheists convention populated, predictably, by the usual assortment of kooks, hippies and weirdos one would expect to see at such an event.
The Twilight of Atheism
What does that mean? It means that atheists have no business trying to organize. No wonder than a group like American Atheists would have, as National Review reporter Andrew Stuttaford described, “chips on their shoulders”. Any group of people who are unified by the ways in which they deviate from the societal norm will necessarily be resentful of that societal norm, especially if you whittle the sample down to those who are willing to congregate together on behalf of their differences.
I think — and McGrath also mentions in passing — that most atheists are probably solitary creatures, unwilling to believe but also possessed by no great desire to gather together like a troop of boy scouts. McGrath spotlights this lack of social engagement as a singular weakness of the movement:. I’d have to agree with that statement, except probably not for the same reasons McGrath intended.
The implication here is that religion — specifically Christianity — is capable of “exciting people and making them want to gather together to celebrate and proclaim”. Perhaps I am too cynical, but it seems to me that this is ultimately more condescending to religion because it posits that the ultimate goal of belief is to culminate in a social function not unlike a football game. I’m an atheist and I still have more respect for faith than that.
Later on he even says “[a] Pentecostal worship experience is going to trump anything atheism can offer by way of the secular equivalent of worship. If atheism doesn’t come across as a “good time”, well, I don’t think it’s ever tried to do so. Sure, a lot of overzealous and just plain wrong-headed atheists have come across as self-righteous scolds and nattering know-it-alls, and have done immeasurably more harm than good to the idea through their failure to communicate atheism in a positive manner.
But ultimately, if my experience is any indication, atheism does not succeed through coercion, it is the result of personal epiphany and a concerted desire to follow the tenants of one’s own conscience. Not coincidentally do I use the language of religious conversion, because while it is more correct to regard atheism more as a simple unadorned idea than as a faith or creed, it is also true that, like any religion, it is something that a person can only come to through their own efforts.
I’m not an atheist because it’s more fun to be an atheist or even more or less fulfilling to be an atheist, but because after much deliberation it is the only rational answer I have found to the mysteries of existence.
If that seems spiritually barren to some, well, so be it — that barrenness is predicated on the absence of something which I cannot believe to exist in the first place. I don’t perceive it as a loss anymore than I miss having a tail.
McGrath summarizes his arguments with a blanket condemnation of modernity, in the form of a double-pronged attack from the forces of spiritualism and post-modernism. Considering the way contemporary religious institutions attack post-modernism and its pernicious influence on Western Culture, this seems more than a little ironic.
It is downright perverse to draft Michel Foucault to the side of religion on the basis of his relentless attacks on the notion of “objective truth”. Certainly, atheism is a “totalizing worldview” in McGrath’s wordsin that it by definition excludes the ncgrath of other opposing worldviews. As McGrath correctly fo out, “this critique of of such a notion has major implications for religions such as Christianity and Islam”.
From the view of a rigorous postmodernist, then, any belief in absolute Truth is to be anathematized as atomizing zlister ultimately divisive. But using postmodernism as any kind of rhetorical defense at this late date really only succeeds in muddying the waters, obscuring McGrath’s argument in a haze of conflicting impulses.
No theist or at least, no theist outside of the Unitarian or B’Hai communities would willingly cede the preeminence of their God or sect, and no postmodernist could ever stomach the certainty of sincere religious thought. mcgratj
The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World
Postmodernism actually lends itself particularly well to atheism, in that atheism is the only unifying idea which allows all belief structures to be accepted on equal footing without the least bit of contradiction. But then, postmodernism can’t even roll over in bed without contradicting itself, so it would probably have been for best if McGrath hadn’t even brought it up.
If atheism is on the way out and, as an idea with mass appeal, it most certainly is on the wanethen McGrath takes the opportunity to toss the very notion of modernity into a shallow grave.