In this stimulating book, Alister McGrath, a professor of historical theology at Oxford, examines atheism from the fall of the Bastille in 1789 at the start of the French Revolution, to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – the prelude to the collapse of atheistic communism. This encompasses a period of 200 years: the period when disbelief as an intellectual and social force gradually grew in strength from the end of the 18th Century, gained pace in the 19th Century, reached a zenith in the early decades of the 20th Century, only to lapse into a long decline by the start of the new millennium. Undoubtedly, the perceived weakness and corruption of the Catholic Church in 18th Century France made it possible for the seeds of atheism to thrive; the goddess of Reason replaced the God of faith and an energetic godlessness was seen as the herald of liberty from intellectual and social oppression.
This overthrow of the old order gathered momentum in the 19th Century where the author sees the three “pillars of the golden age of atheism” as Feuerbach in Germany, Marx, toiling away in exile in the British Museum and Freud, father of psychoanalysis, promoting his ideas from Vienna. The enormous influence of these three in the rejection of conventional religious belief cannot be disputed. Feuerbach provided the philosophical basis for demonstrating that God is a subtle and beguiling invention of the mind; Marx appeared to prove that God is an opiate, arising out of the misery of material living conditions; finally Freud shows that God is an illusion, arising from the psychological need for fatherhood that, in its turn, has to be overthrown as a son arrives at maturity. It is interesting to observe that Freud subsequently had enormous influence in America, while Europeans preferred to adopt Marxist ideas. “Belief in God was widely seen as a construct of the consolation-seeking mind which would evaporate with further scientific advance.”
With the 20th Century the enormous advances of science seemed to cause the final death throes of religious belief. The author quotes the epitaph of a scientist in 1952: “My grandfather preached the gospel of Christ; my father preached the gospel of socialism; I preach the gospel of science.” As the author points out, such a statement is paradoxical, given that science as a legitimate intellectual pursuit, developed in the west – but not the east – because of Christianity’s emphasis that God created the world “and saw that it was very good.”
Within this history of modern atheism is the Professor McGrath’s personal story: his rejection of Christianity as a grammar-schoolboy in Northern Ireland and his eager acceptance of those writers who claimed that “God is dead.” “Atheist” was a “bold and courageous word I was proud to own.” Subsequently, he made an honest journey back to his faith roots and is now a mainline Christian, having recognised the hollowness – but shallow glamour for an adolescent mind – of atheistic arguments.
A Protestant today, the author is not afraid to accept that “the rise of Protestantism may have laid the foundations for the later emergence of atheism.” He examines in detail why this might be the case: medieval Catholicism, though often superstitious, fed the hearts and imaginations of believers, as well as their minds: Gothic cathedrals gave solid form to the God of truth and beauty. In contrast, the Protestant reformers “stripped the altars” of colour, mystery and awe; faith became a matter of listening to the word of God in scripture alone. God became an absent God in stark, bare surroundings. From this perspective, it is not a big leap from a detached God to a non-existent God; where Protestantism had separated the sacred from the secular, the sacred slowly dwindled, leaving the way open to rationalism and finally atheism.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part, “High Noon”, charts the gradual ascendancy of atheistic ideas; part 2, “Twilight”, offers a convincing demonstration why such ideas have dwindled on modern times. The most obvious reason, the author argues, is that atheism is not inherently creative; it arises when religion is seen as powerful, corrupt and intellectually oppressive; it recedes when religious belief is strong and populist. The strength of Christianity lies in its capacity to metamorphose itself; to learn from its mistakes; to develop news ways of presenting itself to successive generations. The narrow, static stance of atheism cannot attack the moving target of religious faith, forever arising anew. As Carl Jung observed, “God’s death is always followed by his resurrection.”
When discussing the theories and ideas that led to atheism as an intellectual and social force, the author is at his strongest. Where he is weak is his lack of historical understanding of the strength of the Catholic Church. Although he recognises the Church’s role in the Renaissance, the arts and baroque architecture compared with the artistic paucity of Protestantism, he does not draw the obvious conclusion: that belief in an incarnate God, present in the tabernacle, in preaching, in sacraments, in ministry, in teaching and in mission will always find new ways of satisfying the “baptised imagination” of man who, made in the image of God, will always hunger for the transcendent and the numinous.
For McGrath, the new emotional centre of religious faith lies in the rise of worldwide Pentecostalism, which gives the individual a sense of a personal God which Calvinistic Christianity failed to do. Rightly rejecting a creed (atheism) that makes a narrow appeal to the mind alone (and then only of a few), he fails to see that religious fervour which only appeals to the emotions and what can be personally experienced is not sufficient for man, composed of head as well as heart.
Further, the author is not immune to unthinking intellectual prejudices: the 18th Century Catholic Church is seen as holding back social, intellectual and political progress; on sexual matters she is thought of as repressive; the spectre of the Inquisition is raised, without proper examination of its context and deliberate Protestant misrepresentation. Atheism is regarded as one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect, despite its obvious parasitism on the religion it professes to despise and its incapacity to regenerate itself.
Finally, he has an uncritical enthusiasm for modern “spirituality” as a sign of a renewal of religious faith while atheism wanes. Modern “spirituality” is not spiritual in the orthodox Christian sense at all; it is superstitious, cranky, reflecting New Age neo-paganism, sometimes a fashion statement, more often a sign of the moral and intellectual darkness in which modern man has fallen. The twilight of atheism does not, as the book’s title might unwittingly suggest, mean the resurgence of Christianity – at least in the West. Falling birth rates, unrestrained hedonism, aggressive feminism, worship of biotechnology, empty churches and packed shopping malls are only some of the signs of the deeply troubled times in which we live, to which Professor McGrath seems happily oblivious.
Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications. Email: famphillips(at)onetel.com