McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 1

Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism

Alister McGrath. 2004.  The Twilight of Atheism:  The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World.  New York:  DoubleDay. (Goto part 2; goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Religion is composed of our core beliefs.  Just like every house must begin with a foundation, these core beliefs, hence religion, are not optional—everyone has them. Atheism, which means no gods[1], is a particularly curious religion because it is defined by what it is not. In this sense, it is parasitic drawing its strength from its host [2].  Because the line of argumentation in atheism is much longer than for traditional religions, atheism requires more intellectual energy to maintain. Nevertheless, atheism is popular because it makes fewer practical demands of its followers than traditional religions [3].  For that reason new flavors of atheism keep popping up like ticks on a dog.


Alister McGrath begins his book, Twilight of Atheism, with a citation from Winston Churchill:  “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” Atheism is one of these empires which McGrath defines as: “rejection of any divinities, supernatural powers, or transcendent realities limiting the development and achievements of humanity.” (xi)[4].

McGrath states his purpose in writing as:

“To tell something of the story of the rise and fall of a great empire of the mind and what can be learned from it.  What brought it into existence?  What gave it such credibility and attractiveness for so long?  And why does it seem to have lost so much of its potency in recent years?” (vii).

Official State Atheism in Decline

McGrath has in view, not every form of atheism, but rather official state atheism that began its ascent with the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and crashed with the Berlin Wall in 1989. McGrath goes on to write:

“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 uninhabilitability of such a place.” (1)

Whis is Alister McGrath?

Dr. Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford and, most recently, the new Gresham Professor of Divinity [5].  The Twilight of Atheism is an expansion of a speech given at Oxford Union in February 2002 (xiii).  He writes in 11 chapters divided into two parts—The High Noon of Atheism (chapters 2-6 and Twilight (chapters 7-11).  The chapters are:

    1. The Dawn of the Golden Age of Atheism,
    2. The French Revolution,
    3. The Intellectual Foundations: Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud,
    4. Warfare: The Natural Sciences and the Advancement of Atheism,
    5. A Failure of the Religious Imagination: The Victorian Crisis of Faith,
    6. The Death of God: The Dream of a Godless Culture,
    7. The Unexpected Resurgence of Religion,
    8. Disconnection from the Sacred: Protestantism and Atheism,
    9. Postmodernity: Atheism and Radical Cultural Change,
    10. The Atheist’s Revolt: Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Others, and
    11. End of Empire: The Fading Appeal of Atheism (v-vii).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a list of references and an index.

The Priests of Atheism

Like another other religion, atheism has its priests. McGrath writes:

“Intellectuals became a secular priesthood, unfettered by the dogmas of the religious past, addressing a growing audience who were becoming increasingly impatient with the moral failures and cultural unsophistication of their clergy.  At some point, perhaps one that can never be determined with historical accuracy, Western society came to believe that it should look elsewhere than to its clergy for guidance.  Instead, they turned to the intellectuals, who were able to portray their clerical opponents as lazy fools who could do no more than unthinkingly repeat the slogans and nostrums of an increasingly distant past.” (49)

Ouch!  My guess is that the Scopes Trial in 1925[6] was probably a tipping point for American characterization of clergy as unsophisticated.

Atheistic Religions

The idea in my mind that atheism was a real religion was planted by McGrath’s discussion here .  McGrath writes:

“the philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt.  The matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith, in the sense of judgments made in the absence of sufficient evidence…The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God.”(179-180)

In other words, atheism is a religion.  The reason why we care about this characterization is that religions dressed up as something other than what they really are has important implications for other atheistic religions that followed and transformed postmodern culture. For example, a non-religion, religion can be taught in public schools while a formal religion cannot be taught. Unmasking the priests of an informal religion is a critical point in responding to their claims.


Alister McGrath’s book, Twilight of Atheism, is an erudite but accessible and fascinating read. It is refreshing to see such clear and logical writing. In part 2 I will focus on McGrath’s High Noon of atheism in terms of 3 key personalities—Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.  Then, in part 3, I will turn to McGrath’s view of the Twilight of Atheism.



[2] McGrath writes:  “Voltaire’s insight is of fundamental importance to our study of the emergence of atheism.  His argument is simple: the attractiveness of atheism is directly dependent upon the corruption of Christian institutions.  Reform those institutions and the plausibility of atheism is dramatically reduced.” (27)

[3] This is unlike Christianity, for example, which requires that believers model their lives after Christ.  Following a review of the sadistic and salacious work of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), McGrath notes that “Atheism made sexual experimentation legitimate and interesting.” (35)  In other words, rather than making demands of its followers, atheism offers them a kinky sort of freedom.

[4] Limiting is the key word here because a brief survey of any television guide will leave one in awe of the number of supernatural illusions referenced.  However, like other pagan gods before them, zombies, ghosts, witches, wizards, werewolves, and vampires make no particular demands on those that believe in them and model their lives after them.  Instead, they offer the illusion of eternal life and supernatural power without accountability.




McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 1


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1 Comment

  1. A thoughtful review of a thoughtful book. I’m tempted to buy it. I think of atheism as an ideology and not a religion per se, though this distinction is narrower than it appears it first blush. All the burning of bosom associated with religion certainly reappeared in the secular movements of the 20th century. Atheism resembles Islam in lacking a central institution though it has powerful spokes, and Buddhism in not having a sole revealed text despite its rich literature. I’m not sure that atheism itself is on the decline; it’s virtually taught in public universities now. It won’t likely be imposed by a new state again as the USSR did. We shouldn’t neglect China however, or the continuing unofficial popularity of this philosophy and its ally humanism.

    Not everything that atheism teaches is bad. Madalyn O’Hair’s antics aside, it does encourage one to think critically and not buy ideas at face vale. Christianity should take its challenges seriously. Few theological or doctrinal claims are actually subject to the hypothesis testing of science and pure reason as in philosophy will always be inconclusive. I think atheism has prodded the religious to improve on their understandings of deity.

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