Sunday, September 13, 2009

Taking Atheism Seriously

Alister McGrath (2006). The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World.

McGrath's is not a polemic against atheism, but an account of it as a cultural phenomenon that arose and declined in a specific historical period and context. That historically concrete (as Marxists say) perspective naturally irritates atheists who want to treat atheism as the default position independent of time and place. Many atheist writers have assumed that atheism is the truth and have sought to explain Christianity or religion in general, not seeing their own disbelief as a cultural-historical phenomenon in need of explanation. (Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud, for example, do not trouble themselves with the truth claims of Christianity but assume its falsity as their starting point.)

Hence the claim that atheism does not need explaining because it is simply an absence of belief (not believing). But it is really a positive "belief that something is not the case." Since 1) this disbelief has a distinct history of rise and decline; and 2) it is, unlike Christianity or theism, a rare and until the 19th century an eccentric belief, it is a perfectly proper subject for the kind of study McGrath conducts. It is true that in the late 20th century, half the world's population lived under officially atheist regimes, but this temporary political success and its consequences in themselves are part of the explanation of atheism's subsequent decline.

One reviewer gives the impression that the dictionary definition of atheism is absence of belief in God or gods. I did not do an exhaustive search, but the Merriam-Webster online definition I found corresponds to McGrath's use and everyone else's until very recently: a)a disbelief in the existence of deity; b) the doctrine that there is no deity. McGrath well describes the attempt by some recent atheists to expand the definition to include those who have no particular opinion, those who are searching and questioning but undecided, and those (agnostics) who consider the answer unknowable. It is an indication of atheists' demoralization in face of the failure of the old secularization thesis, the loss of atheism's appeal, and the resurgence of religious (especially Christian) belief throughout the world and the confident militancy of Islam, that they go to such lengths to puff up their numbers.

The importance of the book is the way McGrath takes atheism seriously as a social, cultural, and historical phenomenon in its own right. It deserves examination in sociological, historical, and cultural terms no less than the religions to which it responds. It played an important historical role in the critique of established religion and the oppressive role it played, for example, in 18th century France. In this context or that of 19th century Russia, atheism could reasonably be seen as a liberating force and much was made of the blood shed in the name of religion through the centuries. This argument lost much of its force in the 20th century given the record of anti-Christian forces like Nazism (which adopted much of Nietzsche's critique of Christianity and Christian morality as a vapid and servile restraint on the amoral Superman) and the officially atheist and even bloodier regimes of Stalin and Mao. These regimes, unrestrained by Christian morality or the universal proscription on intentionally killing the innocent, shed massively more innocent blood than all previous religions and religious states combined. Atheism was no longer the liberator but the oppressor. As McGrath points out, atheism has at least as much to answer for as any major religion, yet it has not begun to do its own soul-searching (if that's the word!).

McGrath arguably spends too much time on "organized atheism" in the form of Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her organizations and the English National Secular Society. But the account of these relentlessly dreary and unappealing outfits serves a purpose as well as being amusing. It shows how atheists can be just as corrupt, prejudiced (O'Hair was fiercely homophobic, as Hitler and Stalin were anti-semitic), and nasty as religious organizations But one could argue that atheism is by its nature a diffuse, unorganized and unorganizable cultural current, and most atheists have always been embarrassed by such operations. Of course, to that extent the failure of atheism to meet the human need for community (a central strength of religion) is all the more a challenge for its adherents.

To me, the most interesting part of the book is the discussion of Protestantism as a precursor of atheism. Protestantism (to which McGrath himself adheres) "disenchanted" nature (the earth no longer being "charged with the grandeur of God," divorced sacred from secular/profane, the religious from everyday experience, the verbal (preaching and Scripture) from the sacraments and sacramentals that gave physical expression to the divine and united heaven and earth, most fully in the Eucharist. It denounced artistic depiction of God, stripped the altars, destroyed statues, and laid waste to the cultural treasures of Christendom. The churches became bleak and grim, and God absent, distant, and disagreeable. As McGrath says, " is a small step from declaring that God cannot be pictured to suggesting that he cannot be conceived as a living reality in the rich imaginative life of humanity" (p.212). It is no accident that it is in a very different form, Pentecostalism, that Protestant Christianity is thriving today among the poor and oppressed of the world.

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