Much opinion imagines their success will continue. Professor McGrath thinks it has already turned into decline. He here gives us a potted history of atheism over those two centuries. He helpfully dissects its various strands. Some atheists reject religion on 'logical' grounds. Some indict it as old-fashioned and out of date.
Others reject it for justifying war and oppression and class domination. Yet others see it as a man-made invention to solve psychological problems or reject it as pleasure-denying. And of course there are the triumphalist scientists who oppose their science or scientism to religion. Alister McGrath selects various figures he thinks are key. Feuerbach argues that Christianity's other-worldism trivialises the one and only life we have and distracts us from its joys, concerns and possible improvements. Ridding the world of Christianity would not only remove a corrupt church and illogical idea but it would remove illicit and oppressive political authority as well.
Comte divides intellectual history into phases in which scientific facts displace former metaphysical ideas and personal gods. Marx inverts religion's place and makes it the creation of material needs and structures, the tool of class oppression and the legitimator of exploitation. Freud has Christianity as a 'projection' of fundamental desires, a distorted form of obsessional neurosis and an obstacle to science. McGrath continues with many other figures including those Romantics who rejected religion in favour of a particular version of nature, Sade, Godwin, George Eliot, Swinburne, Lessing, D.
In each case he shows and, except with Nietzsche, counters their arguments rather effectively. Many of their arguments are circular. And when it comes to their denunciation of Christianity as oppressive and the sunny optimism about what secularism can bring, recent history has shown that atheistic regimes are willing to outdo Christian ones any day when it comes to a spot of torture and mass murder.
Freed from belief in God, there are literally no limits to the evil man can do. These atheists were, some of them, great philosophers, novelists, poets and scientists; what is interesting is how such talented people could have produced such poor arguments when it comes to their atheism.
Atheist thinkers are more than happy to appear on the nation's chat shows to promote their latest books. But they have failed to communicate a compelling vision of atheism that is capable of drawing and holding large numbers of people.
THE TWILIGHT OF ATHEISM by Alister McGrath | Kirkus Reviews
Atheists widely discuss this comprehensive failure of leadership within their circles. Howard Thompson, sometime editor of the Texas Atheist , is undoubtedly one of the most able and reflective atheists in the United States. Thompson has criticized the movement for its lack of direction: "Atheism in America is poorly defined with little organization," he wrote in an op-ed piece.
Atheism desperately needs effective public voices. And why has this failed to happen? Thompson lays much of the blame at the feet of O'Hair, whom he regards as the movement's greatest liability. He believes her organization has failed to learn from her mistakes and persists in depicting her as a hero, even a martyr, for the atheist cause. For 30 years O'Hair was the most visible atheist. What O'Hair did and said was atheism to the public, and it was nasty.
The disappearance of the O'Hairs in September gave hope that more positive atheist initiatives might develop. That's why atheists should worry about the revival of her American Atheists under the leadership of Ellen Johnson, who assumed the office of president in a questionable board of directors meeting. Johnson is also a die-hard O'Hair fan who continues to present her as an atheist heroine. What atheism doesn't need is a continuation of O'Hair's negativity; her style and limited vision stifled positive atheist growth. Her atheism was crude, anti-intellectual, and homophobic, making even the most zealous fundamentalist Christian seem a model of liberal values.
For Thompson, the answer is clear: Grow leaders.
And can this goal actually be achieved? The fatal flaw within Thompson's argument, found within many other atheist tracts and publications, is his strident insistence that humanity has been enslaved by supernaturalist superstition. It is merely necessary to educate people, he believes, and these mad ideas will fall away.
Thompson and his colleagues have not even begun to understand a fundamental fact about religion: People actually like their faith, find it helpful in structuring their lives, and inconveniently believe that it might actually be true. Thompson's alternative to the rich fare of a transcendent faith is "a materialistic culture that frees humanity from superstition. The failure of atheism to capture the public imagination in the West reflects its failure to articulate a compelling, imaginative vision of a godless future that is capable of exciting people and making them want to gather together to celebrate and proclaim it.
The same dullness pervades the National Secular Society founded in , the nearest thing Great Britain has to an atheist network.
Music to Your Ears
In , its website included a museum of modernity, untroubled by the awkward rise of postmodernity. You could buy a secular mug with the slogan "Just say no to religion! Rationalism, having quietly died out in most places, still lives on here. Yet Western culture has bypassed this aging little ghetto, having long since recognized the limitations of reason. The Enlightenment lives on for secularists.
Atheism is wedded to philosophical modernity, and both are aging gracefully in the cultural equivalent of an old folks' home. Here's an example of atheism's winsome arguments: Question: What's the difference between Jesus and a painting? Answer: It only takes one nail to hang a painting.
The joke makes my friends outside the church cringe. Yet I have the impression this is actually meant to persuade people of the intellectual and cultural superiority of a world without religion.
by McGrath, Alister
Thompson clearly has a point. Nevertheless, serious issues are occasionally debated on the website, including the question of why secular humanism, with its commitment to atheism, has so singularly failed to capture the public imagination. One obvious answer might be the National Secular Society itself, which exudes a pious tedium, trapped in a time warp of the closing decades of the 19th century, that seems almost to have been deliberately designed to alienate potential recruits.
Reginald Le Sueur put his finger unerringly on the real point at issue: "The problem with humanism as such is that, although rational, secular, and 'true,' it is, in comparison with major religions, somewhat wishy-washy and just plain unexciting.
Le Sueur recognizes atheism as derivative, its attraction residing primarily in what it denies rather than what it articulates as an alternative. So does atheism have a future? Listen to John Updike: "Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. They now seem simplistic, failing to engage with the complexities of human experience, and seriously out of tune with our postmodern culture.
The moral passion of atheism, especially when set alongside the laziness and complacency of European state churches in the 18th century, cannot be dismissed. Some Christian leaders at the time of the French Revolution saw that event as a divine judgment against a failing church. Some believed God was using the atheist critiques of the church as a means of reforming it. Paradoxically, what propels people toward atheism is above all a sense of revulsion against the excesses and failures of organized religion. As the critics of Homeric religion made clear, the attractions of a godless world rest upon a sense of revulsion against the gods.
Who wanted to worship or imitate gods such as Zeus and Athena, when they merely immortalized the worst moral failings of human beings? In the end, debates about whether God's existence can be proved remain marginal.