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Review of Book on the History of Atheism

Atheism stands in permanent judgment over arrogant, complacent, and superficial Christian churches and leaders. It needs to be heard.

This interesting quote does not come from an atheist press, but from a book by Alister McGrath, a professor of historical theology at Oxford University and principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. A former atheist, he is now a Christian and has written a remarkably insightful and respectful book about the historical impact of atheism. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise And Fall of Disbelief In The Modern World (2006) is neither a knee-jerk screed or a book that dares not tread on toes. It treads the toes of both theist and skeptic alike.

McGrath goers into detail into the historical and philosophical underpinnings of atheism and the role it played in the philosophical underpinnings of the French and Russian revolutions as it served as a refreshing alternative to an oppressive, ingrown Church. McGrath talks at length on many of the movements biggest lights: Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche and how atheism reached its twilight and is on its way out as a legitimate paradigm.

The analysis is stunning. McGrath's viewpoint, as a former atheist, is that atheism is a creation of the Christian church when the church becomes arrogant and seeks power as an end in itself. Atheism, McGrath would say, is not created in a vacuum. The Church allows atheism to present itself as a legitimate worldview when the Church fails in its primary mission from Christ and merely becomes a self-serving institution.

However, atheism is now an institution in itself, and like any institution, it has itself bogged down in tradition and a failure to engage the human imagination. Today's atheist organizations too closely mirror their church counterparts and with strident, arrogant leaders such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, it is unlikely, in McGrath's view, that atheism will ever reach the apex it once enjoyed.

So how does the Church of today keep its advantage over the skeptic? By creating community and engaging the human imagination, two important needs of the human heart that today's atheists can no longer meet.

One fascinating note of trivia: Voltaire was not an atheist. A deist, he had nothing but scathing words for those who held to godlessness (when he wasn't tearing apart an arrogant, complacent, power-hungry Church).

I shall have to rewrite my essay on atheism.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 2nd, 2007 03:20 am (UTC)
Now THAT sounds like an awesome book. I'll have to add that to my reading list.
Jul. 2nd, 2007 02:18 pm (UTC)
::nods:: makes sense, but I never saw Atheism as going out of style. What twilight? Seems like more people than ever are rejecting God.
Jul. 2nd, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
Rejecting God, yes, but for what? Atheism doesn't have the pull it once did because we've had several centuries of pure reason, bootstrap ethics, social Darwinism and earthly utopias. The mass graves and shattered souls bear witness to an unbroken record of failure.

Most people want to believe in something transcendent, but prefer a vague & woolly something, or a set of rules, to an untamed God.
Jul. 2nd, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)
McGrath seems to have adapted Walter Martin's saying that the cults are the unpaid debts of the Church. Atheism (in the form most familiar to us) imho is a child of the Enlightenment: the Church lost her nerve when confronted with scientific discoveries that challenged her teaching and authority.

When the Church wanders off into Bypath Meadow or the Slough of Despond, God pulls her back to the narrow way. All institutions and systems that set themselves up against the Church are strictly human-powered, so eventually they wind up in weeds too deep for mortals to conquer.
Jul. 2nd, 2007 11:36 pm (UTC)
I'll put this on my list of to-read books, probably after I finish Mannix's history of the Hell-Fire Club. ("You, sir, will perish either of the pox or on the gallows!" "That depends. Shall I embrace your mistress or your ideals?")
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )