In this bold and provocative new book, the author of In the Beginning and The Reenchantment of Nature challenges the widely held assumption that the world is becoming more secular and demonstrates why atheism cannot provide the moral and intellectual guidance essential for coping with the complexities of modern life.
Atheism is one of the most important movements in modern Western culture. For the last two hundred years, it seemed to be on the verge of eliminating religion as an outmoded and dangerous superstition. Recent years, however, have witnessed the decline of disbelief and a rise in religious devotion throughout the world. In THE TWILIGHT OF ATHEISM, the distinguished historian and theologian Alister McGrath examines what went wrong with the atheist dream and explains why religion and faith are destined to play a central role in the twenty-first century.
A former atheist who is now one of Christianity's foremost scholars, McGrath traces the history of atheism from its emergence in eighteenth-century Europe as a revolutionary worldview that offered liberation from the rigidity of traditional religion and the oppression of tyrannical monarchs, to its golden age in the first half of the twentieth century. Blending thoughtful, authoritative historical analysis with incisive portraits of such leading and influential atheists as Sigmund Freud and Richard Dawkins, McGrath exposes the flaws at the heart of atheism, and argues that the renewal of faith is a natural, inevitable, and necessary response to its failures.
THE TWILIGHT OF ATHEISM will unsettle believers and nonbelievers alike. A powerful rebuttal of the philosophy that, for better and for worse, has exerted tremendous influence on Western history, it carries major implications for the future of both religion and unbelief in our society.
Oxford University's McGrath has distinguished himself not just as an historical theologian, but as a generous and witty writer who brings life to topics that would turn to dust in others' hands. Here he explores the history of atheism in Western culture, observing that atheism seems to be succumbing to the very fate--irrelevance and dissolution--that atheists once predicted would overtake traditional religion. How did atheism ("a principled and informed decision to reject belief in God") become so rare by the turn of the 21st century? McGrath leaves no stone unturned, nor any important source unconsulted, in tracing atheism's rise and fall. Beyond the usual suspects of Marx, Freud and Darwin, McGrath surveys literature (George Eliot, Algernon Swinburne), science (Jacques Monod, Richard Dawkins) and philosophy (Ludwig Feuerbach, Michel Foucault), managing to make such intellectual heavy lifting look effortless. As a lapsed atheist himself, McGrath is a sympathetic interpreter, but he also relentlessly documents what he contends are the philosophical inconsistency and moral failures of atheism, especially when it has acquired political power. Yet believers will find no warrant here for complacency, as McGrath shows how religion's "failures of imagination" and complicity with oppression often fostered the very environment in which atheism could thrive. Indeed, he warns, "Believers need to realize that, strange as it may seem, it is they who will have the greatest impact on atheism's future." Readable and memorable, this is intellectual history at its best.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 20, 2006
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Excerpt from The Twilight of Atheism by Alister McGrath
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.