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The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern Worldby Alister E. Mcgrath
Synopses & Reviews
The Dawn of the Golden Age of Atheism
The remarkable rise and subsequent decline of atheism is framed by two pivotal events, separated by precisely two hundred years: the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and that of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Two brutal physical structures, each of which served as a symbol of a worldview, were destroyed, to popular acclaim. These dramatic events crystallized massive changes in perceptions in Western culture. They frame a fascinating period in Western history, in which atheism ceased to be the slightly weird outlook of those on the fringes of polite society in the West and became instead its dominant cultural voice. The fall of the Bastille became a symbol of the viability and creativity of a godless world, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall later symbolized a growing recognition of the uninhabitability of such a place. They mark neither the beginning nor the end of atheism, simply providing the historian with convenient boundary posts for a discussion of its growth, flowering, and gradual decay.
The Bastille was a grim medieval fortress in the east of Paris, which served as a state prison for the kings of France. In the popular mind it was associated with the violence, oppression, and torture employed by the French monarchy in the final years of the ancien regime. Its thick walls and high towers projected the power, permanence, and security of the old system. The Bastille was a tangible assertion of the futility of any attempt to alter things. Like the laws of the Medes and Persians, the social structure of France was set in stone and could not be changed. The events of July 1789 destroyed that myth of unchangeability. More than an ancient fortress was overthrown on that day; the harsh despotism that it had come to represent was exposed as weak and vulnerable, equally capable of rout and destruction.
On July 14, 1789, an armed mob of about one thousand men and women marched against its heavy gates. The Marquis de Launy, governor of the fortress, was confident that he could defend it with his garrison of more than one hundred heavily armed men. After all, the walls were ten feet thick and one hundred feet high. He was proved wrong; within hours, the fortress had fallen and de Launy had been lynched by the angry mob. Pieces of masonry were taken home as souvenirs of an event that had demonstrated beyond doubt the power of the people to overthrow the old order. Two days later, the National Assembly ordered the Bastille to be razed to the ground.
What the French Revolution began, the Russian Revolution continued. Soviet political and military expansion after the Second World War led to the imposition of a new order upon much of Eastern Europe and became the inspiration of Communist parties throughout Western Europe. The divided city of Berlin was a key site of the ideological conflict between East and West. Just after midnight on August 13, 1961, the East German government deployed twenty-five thousand militiamen and Vopos ("people's police") to seal the border between East and West Berlin. Barbed-wire fences were hastily erected, to be replaced by a more permanent brick wall, heavily fortified with electrified wire and machine guns. Although presented as a measure designed to defend the East from fascist invasion, the real purpose of the wall was to prevent the destabilization of the East German regime by massive emigration to the West. Within a few years, the wall had permanently divided Berlin into two cities. Its minefields, electrified fences, and automatic machine gun emplacements had become physical symbols of a deeper intellectual malaise--the bunker mentality into which the Marxist states of Eastern Europe had fallen, and their total lack of credibility to their own people. A self-styled liberator was now seen as an oppressor.
By 1989, it was evident that Marxism was locked into a state of decline throughout Eastern Europe. Enthusiasm and credibility had long since been eroded; what remained were purely physical constraints, now themselves at the point of tottering to the ground. A graffito boldly inscribed on the western side of the Berlin Wall declared that "every wall must fall sometime." On September 11, Hungary began to permit visiting East Germans to exit to the West through neighboring Austria. Pressure for reform in East Germany became irresistible. On November 9, the East Berlin authorities resigned themselves to the inevitable and threw open the crossing points to the West. Pieces of the wall were soon on sale for twenty deutsche marks, souvenirs of a hated past which could not be allowed to be forgotten.
Parts of that wall still remain intact. The machine guns and minefields are gone. Their crumbling structures are now overgrown with weeds, a potent symbol of the transience of the appeal of human ideas. Yet it is impossible to view the remains of the wall without being reminded of a not-so-distant past, and the glories of a revolution that seems to have spent its power.
This book sets out to tell the remarkable story of the rise and fall of modern atheism. Like a tidal wave crashing against the shoreline, atheism surged over the West, sweeping away its rivals, before itself gradually receding. Over a period of two centuries, atheism emerged from the shadows to conquer and captivate the imagination of an era. The reversal of the fortunes of this movement is a remarkable development in European history. While a rumor of godlessness hovered uneasily over the world of late antiquity, modern atheism possesses an intellectual pedigree and cultural sophistication that set it far apart from the modest and tentative experiments of the classical period. In its golden age, atheism emerged as an increasingly sophisticated, powerful, and influential "empire of the mind." In its modern forms, it is unquestionably one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect, capable of capturing the imagination of generations. Like all such movements, it has its saints and charlatans, its visionaries and nutcases, some of whom will feature prominently in these pages. To tell the full story of this intellectual revolution lies beyond the scope of this work, which can only hint at the massive upheavals in Western society and patterns of thought, and sketch the outlines of some of those who shook the foundations of traditional Western culture.
It is impossible to tell the full story of this highly creative and turbulent phase in Western history in a few hundred pages. What can, however, reasonably be attempted is a series of "snapshots"--explorations of specific themes and moments that cast light on the broader patterns of ideas in its history. Like an archaeologist cutting a trench across a major historical site, this work offers a series of thematic cross sections of the high noon of atheism.
Although modern atheism rose to prominence in the eighteenth century, its origins can be traced back to the dawn of Western civilization itself. Our story therefore begins in the mists of early Greek history, when a blind poet is believed to have told the epic tale of the Trojan War and its aftermath--and in doing so, began to undermine belief in the great gods of Olympus.
The Critics of the Gods: Classical Greek Atheism
The discovery of the site of ancient Troy by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870 has passed into folklore as one of the greatest archaeological achievements of the nineteenth century. In his memoirs, Schliemann recalled how, as a young child, he was taken on his father's knee and told the tales of the Greek heroes. Above all, he found himself fascinated by the story, swathed in the distant mists of history, of the forbidden love between Helen, wife of the king of Sparta, and Paris, son of Priam of Troy, and how Helen's abduction resulted in a war that destroyed a civilization. Homer's great story of the Trojan War, according to Schliemann, awoke him from his slumbers, and aroused a passion to search for archaeological confirmation of the existence of Troy and the other great civilizations of this distant age of heroes. He went into business to make his fortune so he could fund his passion to find out the truth about Troy, and confirm his original insights into its location. Armed with his knowledge of the ancient world, gained through painstaking reading of the classics, he found the original site of Troy in northwestern Turkey, and uncovered its fabulous treasures.
A close reading of Schliemann's journals makes it clear that this is largely romantic nonsense. Schliemann's discoveries were achieved largely by hijacking the work of the English archaeologist Frank Calvert. Yet however tainted its scholarship, Schliemann's work points to the deep popular fascination with the ancient world that has been such an integral aspect of Western culture. Homer's great epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, traditionally assigned to the ninth century b.c., tell the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath in such a compelling way that they have become part of the inherited tradition of the Western imagination. They are also of fundamental importance to our theme. For Homer's gods are corrupt, vain, and self-serving--exactly the kind of human invention that a later age would find childish and embarrassing.
Homer's unflattering account of the petty squabbles on Mount Olympus and their malignant impact on human history is best seen in the Iliad. This epic--whose name literally means "a poem about Ilion" (an ancient name for Troy)--celebrates the achievements of the Greek and Trojan heroes of this golden age, such as Agamemnon, Achilles, Hector, and Paris. The poem gives a highly dramatic account of some episodes in the war, involving the complex interplay of human heroes and the gods of Olympus. Although both the Iliad and the Odyssey make an appeal to the intervention of the gods to explain the events of human history, this tendency is especially marked in the Iliad. These heroes are often depicted as glory-seeking individualists, merciless and brutal by modern standards, whose moral code is dominated by the need for public demonstration of their bravery and honor.
The activities of these heroes are set against the backdrop of the constant intervention of the Olympian deities. This perpetual interference in the affairs of humanity reflects intense rivalry and bickering on the heights of Olympus itself, as the gods seek to advance the fortunes of their favorites on earth. The situation is made much more interesting through Homer's assumption that the gods are as lascivious as their mortal counterparts, and have turbocharged sexual appetites that lead them to prowl the face of the earth, copulating with desirable mortals who cross their paths. As a result, many mortal heroes have divine parents who assist and protect them. Homer regularly depicts the gods as manipulating situations to the advantage of their favorites.
The classic tale of Zeus and Europa neatly illustrates the voracious sexual appetite of the immortals and its impact on their dealings with humanity. Europa was the beautiful daughter of Agenor, king of Phoenicia. Noticing her beauty, Zeus responded as only one with Olympian levels of testosterone in his veins might: he transformed himself into a sleek and handsome bull and approached Europa and her companions as they played by the seashore. Europa was unwise enough to mount the bull, who then swam to the island of Crete. Here, Zeus revealed his true identity, and added yet another notch to his bedpost. In due course, Europa gave birth to three sons--Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon. Each of these now had a claim to Zeus's special favors and protection, further complicating the dynamics of divine intervention in earthly affairs.
Homer is particularly scathing concerning the ethics of female deities. This can be seen in the famous incident known as the Judgment of Paris. Athene, Hera, and Aphrodite are here depicted as taking part in a beauty contest on Mount Ida, judged by the Trojan prince Paris. After what appears to be an embarrassingly thorough examination of their charms, Paris awards the victor's crown to Aphrodite. From that moment onward, Aphrodite is fiercely loyal to the Trojans. Having been so publicly humiliated by a prince of Troy, it is not surprising that Athene and Hera should set out to take revenge against the Trojans by intervening on behalf of the Greeks throughout the war.
For Homer, the gods are immortal humans, demonstrating and engaging in the same emotions, vices, and power games as their human counterparts. It soon turns out that immortalization just means the infinite extension of existence, not the infinite projection of moral qualities. There are no limits to what the gods can do, nor to how long they can do it for. Homer often refers to divine activities humorously, suggesting that they are not to be taken too seriously. Yet there is a deeper, perhaps more sinister, aspect to the Iliad, which is perhaps best seen from the famous scene in Book 1, in which Achilles considers whether or not to murder his rival Agamemnon. Achilles' decision not to kill Agamemnon is portrayed as the outcome of a rather whimsical personal intervention by the goddess Athene. No human ethical norm or value appears to be implicated in his decision. Obedience to the gods seems to be the foundation of human morality. And for Homer, those gods are egocentric, jealous, and petty tyrants. Who could seriously base ethics on the personal vanity of such creatures?
Homer's gods are human beings writ large, complete with vices and virtues. Far more than being morally superior to humanity, they are the immortal counterparts to human weakness. The only limits placed upon them are their specific spheres of activity--for example, Poseidon as the god of the sea, Ares as god of war, Hermes as divine messenger, and Aphrodite as the goddess of sexual desire. Each divinity is sovereign within an arc, a portion of the total circle of all things, beyond which it is powerless. Yet within that arc, the gods can act with complete impunity, subject to no external constraint or ultimate accountability. To be accountable is human; and the gods had long since liberated themselves from that tiresome limitation.
Homer's sly insinuations concerning the pillow talk of Olympus shaped growing Greek concerns over the morality of their gods. Increasingly, the Olympian gods came to be seen as something of an embarrassment, an awkward reminder of a bygone age ruled by force. When Protagoras set out the laws that would govern the city-state of Thurioi in 444 b.c., he insisted on the public accountability of its citizens on the basis of mutually agreed values. They would not be like the gods of Olympus. Who could admire such corrupt divinities, or seriously want to imitate the lifestyles they modeled? Although ancient Greece would continue to honor its classic divinities for centuries to come, their moral and intellectual credibility had been fatally eroded.
The term "atheist" now came into use. Far from meaning "one who denies the existence of supernatural beings," the Greek term atheistos meant something like "one who denies the traditional religion of the Athenian establishment." To deny the existence of the gods was seen as a punishable offense in Greek society, as the indictment and enforced suicide of Socrates (469-399 b.c.) makes clear. Classic Athens was far from being the center of free thinking that later writers like to make it. It was protective of its deities, believing that these enshrined its ideals. For Melitus, one of Socrates' accusers, the "atheist" philosopher had corrupted the city's youth by encouraging them not to believe in the city's gods. Yet Socrates was no atheist in the modern sense of the term.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
ALISTER McGRATH is a professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He is author of numerous books, including In the Beginning, The Reenchantment of Nature, and The Journey; a consulting editor of Christianity Today; and the general editor of The NIV Thematic Study Bible. He lives in Oxford, England.
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