The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World
A review by John Habgood
Atheism is in trouble. Its main hope for the future lies in the growth of fundamentalism,
whose easily disposable dogmatic certainties are one of atheism's main assets.
In its golden age, starting with the French Revolution, the targets were more
plentiful. It could capture the popular imagination as a liberation from archaic
ideas and oppressive restrictions, enforced by corrupt and powerful ecclesiastical
establishments. No doubt there is still room for criticism, but such denunciation
of mainstream Churches nowadays tends to sound unimaginative and querulous.
The intellectual scene has shifted, too. The Age of Reason capitalized on the
failure by Descartes to provide a logically compelling proof of the existence
of God. His attempt to do so showed the folly of trying to prove what hitherto
had not been doubted, and reinforced the suspicion that it was unprovable. From
a later theological perspective, the failure of reason seemed less remarkable.
It had become clear that no argument from existing things can rise above its
source to demonstrate the origin and ground of all existence. God is not an
intellectual construct, it was claimed, but a presence to be recognized, experienced
and obeyed. However, this belief too was vulnerable, not so much to logical
argument, but to the three great prophets of atheism, Feuerbach, Marx and Freud,
who in their different ways turned such experience on its head, and explained
it as the product of human feelings, social alienation, or psychological complexes.
In The Twilight of Atheism, Alister McGrath, who was once himself an
unbeliever, spells out this story, with much enjoyable anecdote, and with considerable
sympathy for the pioneers -- poets and novelists, as well as philosophers and
scientists -- who saw themselves as liberators of the human imagination. He
warns, though, that their work has to be understood in context. Darwin, for
instance, would not have made the same religious impact, had it not been for
the overriding importance given by nineteenth-century theologians to Paley's
argument for design in nature. Evolution as such is neutral as regards the existence
of God. In similar fashion George Eliot's alienation from God must be set
in the context of the new and strident Evangelical emphasis on doctrinal correctness,
which so repelled her by its contrast with the love of Christ. The point being
made again and again in this highly readable book is that atheism feeds off
bad religion. But what it finds difficult to replace is the imaginative richness
of a mature religion, faith's capacity to restrain as well as to enthuse,
and faith's assurance that life is worth living responsibly, because it
has an ultimate meaning.
There is still bad religion, and bad atheism too. A hilarious chapter describing
the rise and fall of a body called American Atheists, reinforces the point that
it is not necessary to believe in God in order to be a fundamentalist. The bright
world of modernity in which atheism once seemed to have so secure a place is
now under threat. The three great prophets of atheism have all in their different
ways been discredited, not least by the experience of those who have had to
live, and suffer, in social orders based on their principles. Today, in place
of aggressive atheism, there is a pervasive indifference towards such great
issues, a phenomenon which McGrath does not discuss, but which constitutes a
further, and perhaps even more damaging loss. At its best, atheism has permanent
significance as an example of moral seriousness and as a critic of the many
failings of organized religion. We would all be the poorer if lively conversation
between belief and unbelief were to fade away. But perhaps there are grounds
for hope. McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University,
where there are still some worthy opponents. The origin of this book in a packed
Oxford Union debate is an indication that, there at least, the questions are
still felt to matter.
Ward, until recently another Oxford theology professor, begins his critique
of fundamentalism by describing himself as a born-again Christian. The simplicity,
directness and certainty of the message offered by Conservative Evangelicals
can be enormously compelling at transitional stages of life, and can offer a
way into Christian faith for which many, including myself, are deeply grateful.
But these same qualities can spell trouble later on. Zealous believers in a
literalistic revealed religion are easily tempted to allow certainty to develop
into the kind of intransigent dogmatism which, as we have seen, keeps atheism
in business, bedevils relationships with those who believe differently, and
can be seen at its worst in current international politics. Some suffer disillusionment,
and it is noteworthy how many distinguished antagonists of religion appear to
be reacting against a fundamentalist past. Others, like Ward himself, slowly
assimilate new ways of thinking without rejecting the essential message.
the Bible Really Teaches aims to be supportive of Christian fundamentalists,
and to lead them gently towards a less exclusive faith. Ward's challenge
is not to reject the Bible on which their faith is founded, but to invite them
to read it less selectively, and to be more aware of its complexities. He illustrates
the point by setting out the biblical basis for the key tenets of Conservative
Evangelicalism, and by demonstrating how each of them fails to do justice to
the whole of the biblical message. This is not a trivial exercise in knocking
down so-called proof texts with other texts which say the opposite. It is an
attempt to get to the root of what Ward sees as the basic error, namely the
view that "revelation consists of a series of clear doctrines uttered by
God and put directly, without any human interpretation, into the pages of Scripture".
This misunderstanding of the kind of book the Bible really is, results in a
highly selective method of reading it, and is intellectually unsustainable,
given the circumstances in which the Bible is now known to have been written.
Far from being a treatise on systematic doctrine, the Bible is full of paradoxes
and conflicting viewpoints. Compare, for instance, the stark pessimism of Ecclesiastes
with the easy optimism of some of the Psalms. It is more like a great and complex
work of art, capable of opening the mind to God, than like an instruction manual
with precise directions about what to believe and do.
Ward argues all this in detail, with much biblical quotation, in order to demonstrate
that the central doctrines of Christian fundamentalism are a travesty of biblical
teaching when seen as a whole. Those who currently appeal to Leviticus, for
instance, to validate their views on sexual morality, are told that "they
impose on the Bible standards of their own which are not found there, and they
accept as binding specific rules which happen to suit them, while completely
ignoring many other biblical rules that they do not like. In other words, they
pick and choose what they like, and what they provide is not biblical morality
at all, but a combination of social convention and prejudice, which they support
by carefully selected and edited parts of the Bible".
Though such judgements may seem harsh, they spring from a deep love for the
Evangelical faith, and sorrow that in some of its forms it has become so distorted.
Ward makes a compelling case for reading the Bible in a more balanced way. But
I think he has made a tactical error in being too speculative about how some
of the major biblical paradoxes might be resolved. The acceptance of the Bible
as a unique resource in coming to know the mind of God need not depend on any
particular reconstruction of its message. Living with paradoxes is one way of
keeping the mind open to fundamental mysteries.
Can Keith Ward's exposure of the arbitrary selectiveness which lies at
the heart of Christian fundamentalism help cure it? Probably not, because fundamentalism's
worldwide roots lie deeper than bad biblical exposition, in a psychological
demand for certainty, a social bias towards sectarianism, and nowadays a political
thirst for power. But better interpretation of the Bible might help and, if
Alister McGrath's main thesis is correct, might even kill two birds with
of York, John
Habgood has described himself as a conservative liberal and has written
many books on religion and science.