McGrath, Alister, The Twilight of Atheism – the Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World

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McGrath, Alister, The Twilight of Atheism – the Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, New York, London, Toronto, Sidney, Auckland: Doubleday, 2004
ISBN 0-385-50061-0, 306 pages
Reviewed by Mike King, Centre for Postsecular Studies, London Metropolitan University
The Twilight of Atheism is readable, informative, well researched and culturally aware, meaning that McGrath knows well that ideas reach into society through the popular culture of their time. His book is divided into two halves: the first rehearsing the well-known trajectory of atheism in the West, with its breakthrough in the 18th century, and the second its apparent collapse as a meaningful worldview by the turn of the 21st century. McGrath does much more in the first half than repeat a history of atheism that could be found elsewhere, as for example in James Thrower’s excellent Western Atheism: A Short History. McGrath show the radical excitement of its early days, its maturity as a cultural force, and its vital role in the fight against religious repression. Another book that is useful for triangulating on McGrath’s account is Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which gives a detailed history of atheism in the US, a picture rarely understood well in Europe. Jacoby is effectively writing for the liberal half of America, while McGrath’s analysis will be music to the ears of its other half: the religious right. Early in Jacoby’s book she points out that George Bush did what would have been unthinkable for almost all previous Presidents of the US: he addressed the nation from Washington’s National Cathedral. This was of course a response to 9/11, but she points out that Roosevelt did no such thing as a response to Pearl Harbour. More recently Bush attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II; no president in office has ever previously attended the funeral of a Pope. All earlier Presidents observed the constitutional separation of state and religion, regardless of their private beliefs or lack of them.
In the British context however, we should not associate McGrath with the religious right, and we must understand the position from which he writes: he is a committed Christian and professor of historical theology at Oxford. But the re-election of George Bush has changed the whole equation in which we study Alternative and New Age Spiritualities. Why? Because secularism, as the ground from which to choose a personal spirituality – whether new or traditional – suddenly looks unsure of itself. Even a short time ago the breaking down of the secular prejudice against spirituality was a cause for celebration, but perhaps we now have to pay more attention to what is so important – and hard-won – in secularism: freedom from the grand narrative of a single religion. Hence we read McGrath with pleasure (not just because he writes well) when he shows that Voltaire was quite ready to denounce the crimes of the Church and to promote an Enlightenment of religious freedom, while not falling into the trap of reductionist materialism. As McGrath says Voltaire ‘regarded atheism and French Catholicism with equal loathing,’ and that he, like other Enlightenment thinkers, should be thought of as Deist, not Atheist. But in the second half of McGrath’s book we may not share his barely concealed delight that the end of atheism means a restoration of its opposite: theism. Theism, or to be precise monotheism, is certainly welcome if it takes its place at the table along with the spiritualities that it historically denied and with spiritualities it never heard of – and even with agnosticism and atheism. We can’t grudge to a Christian the sense that their world is no longer marginalised in mainstream culture, but the argument for spiritual pluralism has suddenly got harder, and more urgent.
McGrath cites Annie Besant’s 1887 book Why I Do Not Believe in God as an influential atheist text, but completely omits to mention her much more influential writings and work as a Theosophist. (He rightly describes her as socialist and women’s rights activist but forgets her as an esotericist.) But the real problem for the atheism/theism discussion as pursued by Western theologians is its highly localised history and relevance. What would this discussion mean, for example to the Buddha (as revealed in the Pali Canon)? The Buddha held that no disembodied beings were significant to the realisation of ultimate truth – Besant on the other hand followed Blavatsky in considering them of vital importance. Such a debate simply has no overlap with the theism/atheism debate, which would consign both Besant and the Buddha to the atheist camp. Only one counter-example is needed, surely, to stop the tired arguments about atheism in their tracks, and show that spirituality is a large domain indeed, in which monotheism (and its refutation) should only claim a small corner.
McGrath makes a parallel between atheism and an ‘empire’ of thought, one whose days are numbered (perhaps like those of Communism). His concluding chapter is titled ‘End of Empire: the Fading Appeal of Atheism,’ and he draws entirely reasonable conclusions as a Christian from the evidence he presents in Part Two, evidence of the decline of atheism. He is surely right to say – in an inversion of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Sea of Faith’ image – that the ‘tides of cultural shift have left atheism beached for the time being on the sands of modernity.’ He also points out repeatedly the social conscience side of atheism, its role in resisting a particular form of oppression. In fact McGrath makes it clear in chapter seven that as a young man he was an atheist, saying: ‘I write this book as a wounded yet still respectful lover of the great revolt against God.’ He had been swayed by the positivist philosopher A.J.Ayer, and convinced by the social justice of Marxism, that ‘religion was the source of all humanity’s ills.’ However, at Oxford he experienced a journey to God not unlike that of C.S.Lewis, though McGrath has retained a clear picture of the appeal that atheism used to have for him. Hence we find in the book a genuine respect for the idea of atheism, and hence a careful and balanced history of its development (going back to the ancient Greeks), and a thoughtful consideration of its principal modern architects: Marx, Darwinism and Freud.
It is in the chapter on Postmodernity that McGrath shows his instinct that religion and spirituality is much more a matter for culture than philosophy, demonstrating that modernity and postmodernity live as cultural ‘moods.’ It is the cultural mood of postmodernity in particular that reduces the stridency of atheism, and allows for the resurgence of religion. It is here that I see the key arguments developing in the coming period, all involving ‘post’ terminology: ‘postmodern,’ ‘postatheist,’ and ‘postsecular.’ Postmodernity is a recognised phenomenon, taught in our universities and even alluded to by politicians and in chat shows. For the community that McGrath represents there is the hope that ‘postatheist’ as a term means a return to the Christian God (even if for him there is a wistful sense of loss in the demise of atheism as a radical force for good). For those committed to a much broader world of spirituality the term ‘postsecular’ might be useful to hint at a relaxing of the secular aversion to the spiritual, but not a return to old religion. But the term ‘postsecular’ has already been appropriated by theologians known as the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ to mean a postatheist return to orthodox religion. This group – which includes in his intellectual leanings at least, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams – blend the languages of theology and postmodernism to move back from the muted stance that religion had negotiated with modernity. Here lies its radicalism: with the shackles of modernity removed, old religion might speak again in a clear voice of its founding principals. I would argue, against McGrath and the Radical Orthodoxy, that the term ‘postsecularism’ must include the key insight of postmodernity: that of ‘difference,’ in this case spiritual difference, the recognition of the full spectrum of human spirituality, and the recognition that monotheism exists by the denial of that spectrum.
To conclude: McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism is an important book on several counts. Firstly it is a highly readable history of Western atheism; secondly it charts with great accuracy the recent movements of thought that undermine atheism as a credible worldview; and thirdly it lays down the challenge of postatheism / postsecularism: will it be a mere return to the past? It is the very balance of McGrath’s text, his quiet confidence, his assured reading of cultural signifiers, that leads his book to give urgency to this question.

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