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Alister McGrath


The rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

McGrath's thesis is that atheism has had its day. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, he says, religion was seen as an oppressive force preventing the development of the human spirit, a trend that culminated in the twentieth century in the atheistic totalitarian regimes of Nazism and Soviet Marxism. (Hitler was not in fact an atheist.) But McGrath believes that this way of thinking is now coming to an end as belief in God, which he regards as the norm for human society, regains its rightful place.

Two comments seem to be worth making at the outset. The first is that McGrath is concerned almost entirely with what might be called the public face of atheism: its consequences for society. On the question of God's existence he takes the view that this cannot be decided empirically, so that he might be described as agnostic; but from the general tone of his discussion and some autobiographical passages it appears that he is a Christian. (A glance at his web page shows that he is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and also Director of the Oxford Centre for Evangelism and Apologetics.)

The second point is that his discussion focuses entirely on Christianity. He has almost nothing to say about Islam, which seems like a major omission today. Indeed, he seems to have something of a blind spot so far as Islam is concerned, for on p.84 we encounter a surprising reference to "the Arab [sic] mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyam". (He was in fact Persian and wrote in Persian.)

The book is an expanded version of a speech made by the author in an Oxford Union debate in 2002, which no doubt explains its occasional heavy irony as well as its tendency to make superficially plausible points that don't stand up to a moment's reflective scrutiny. For example, it really won't do to dismiss the existence of suffering as a counter-argument to God's existence by saying: "The results [of the debate] have been inconclusive, not least because there has been a growing realization that the debate is going precisely nowhere."

There is no real attempt to discuss the arguments in favour of atheism; the approach is mainly historical. The early chapters trace the development of atheism from the Enlightenment onwards. McGrath finds that there was a "failure of the religious imagination" in Victorian England, and he thinks that Protestantism, by down-playing the mediaeval consciousness of the sacred, also predisposed to the rise of atheism. This is an interesting idea and it may contain some truth.

Running through the book is a note of hostility to rationalism and the intellect. There are disparaging references to "old-fashioned rationalists". The values of the Enlightenment, which McGrath labels "modernity", are being replaced, we are told, by "postmodernity". "Postmodern culture seems fed up with the rather boring platitudes of scientific progress and longs for something more interesting and exciting." A change of emphasis in Star Trek, from scientific rationality to spirituality, is cited as an illustration of this change in taste; the popularity of The X Files would have made the same point though perhaps not in a way McGrath would have liked. In view of his apparent hostility to rationalism it is perhaps not surprising that he seems to have a fondness for Pentecostalism although he avoids specifically endorsing any particular version of Christianity.

The core message of this book is that believing in God is good for you and good for society and that atheism is, historically, a temporary aberration. He may be right on both scores. It may be that, for evolutionary reasons, human beings have acquired a need to believe in invisible beings who control the world and influence their lives, and to be involved in the kinds of ritual activity that we call religion. Perhaps in this respect our species is irretrievably irrational. Religion may therefore always be with us, although it does not follow that it need always take the forms that it does in Western Christianity. (Theravada Buddhism, which McGrath does not mention, gets along quite happily without bothering about God.)

Even if it is true that religion is mostly beneficial both for individuals and for society, the ultimate effects of its revival may yet prove to be less desirable than McGrath implies. Fundamentalism and millenarianism are seemingly on the ascendant both in Islam and in the Christian Right in America. One is the mirror image of the other. Faced with a conflict between these manifestations of postmodernism, I'd settle for old-fashioned rationalism any day.

In a recent television series about atheism (relegated, significantly, to the outer reaches of BBC4), Jonathan Miller seemed to come to much the same conclusions as McGrath, though from a very different (atheistic) starting point. The implications, it seems to me, are depressing.

12 August 2005

%T The Twilight of Atheism
%S The rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world
%A McGrath, Alister
%I Rider
%C London
%D 2004
%G ISBN 1844135748
%P xiii + 306 pp
%K religion

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