McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 2

Twilight_review_05042015Alister McGrath. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: DoubleDay. (Goto part 1; goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A defining moment in my understanding of my home country occurred in February 1979 when I visited Berlin and saw the Berlin Wall[1]. Driving through East Germany on the autobahn, we stopped at a rest stop for lunch. When I attempted to engage an East German traveler in conversation, he began to shake and could hardly speak. When I later saw the crosses on the wall where people had been shot trying to escape, I understood with deadly seriousness why the man was afraid—I was a American and he could be imprisoned for nothing more than talking with me.

McGrath tells the story of the rise of atheism, in part, through biographical sketches. Let me highlight three: Karl Marx (1818-1883), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

Karl Marx. Marx famously referred to religion as the “opium of the people”. He opposed religion and advocated its abolishment because:

“Religion…dulls the pain of an unjust world, enabling the downtrodden people to cope with its sorrows and distress, and indirectly encouraging them to collude with the existing order” (66).

Today’s overwhelming preoccupation with the material world is, in part, a reflection of Marx’s belief that “ideas and values are determined by the material realities of life.” (63) Marx’s cynicism had a very personal root. His father enthusiastically converted from Judaism to Protestantism after moving to a different village in Germany because it was good for business. Marx’s father insisted that he do the same (62).

While only 11 people attended Marx’s funeral with Friedrich Engels delivering the eulogy, millions died in Russia, China, and elsewhere over the next century as communist governments attempted to implement his ideas[2].

Sigmund Freud. Freud thought of religion as wishful thinking, an illusion (74). He is best known as the father of modern psychoanalysis. McGrath reports that he was an atheist before he became a psychoanalyst and became a psychoanalyst precisely because he was an atheist—for Freud, his atheism was a presupposition[3]. McGrath writes:

“His infatigable harrying of religion reflects his fundamental belief that religion is dangerous, not least because it constitutes a threat to the advance of the Enlightenment and the natural sciences. Freud’s approach to religion rests upon the perceived need to explain why anyone would wish to take the extraordinary step of believing in God, when there is obviously no God to believe in…Freud declared that religion was basically a distorted form of an obsessional neurosis. The key elements in all religions, he argues, are the veneration of the father figure (such as God or Jesus Christ), faith in the power of spirits, and a concern for proper rituals.” (70-71)

Interestingly, Freud drew his impression of religion, not from scientific study, but from an adaption of Ludwig Feuerbach idea that: “the concept of God was fundamentally a human construction, based on the ‘projection’ of fundamental human longings and desires” (68). Feuerbach was himself, like Marx, a student of Hegel and also a student of Schleiermacher (53)—the patron saint of theological liberalism in the 19th century. Feuerbach was largely unemployable as a theologian, in part, because he “lampooned Christianity as ‘some kind of insurance company.’” (54)

Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is best known for the will to power which has become the core principle of deconstructionism. For example, Vanhoozer (1998, 57) writes that “Nietzche, a non-realist, contends that meaning, truth, and the world itself are human constructions.”  This implies that those in power determine the construction of meaning and truth. McGrath (151) writes of Nietzsche: “If there is no God, or if God has become a culturally discredited notion, then there is no absolute values or truths.”  The death of God is accordingly the death also of meaning and the beginning of nihilism (149).

McGrath has a more sympathetic view of Nietzsche than many commentators. He sees atheism losing its appeal ironically because it has discredited its opponent—the church.  If religion is no longer a credible, cultural alternative, then its protagonist—in this case, atheism—likewise loses its relevance. This insight McGrath credits to Nietzsche (219).

Nietzsche, though a darling of many postmoderns, is usually panned by commentators because Nazi Germany put his ideals to direct use.  In a nation of equals, a person of supreme ability (übermensch or superman) can arise to assume leadership. Nietzsche’s will to power accordingly provided the intellectual bona fides for the idea of a führer (leader) which was employed directly by Adolf Hitler[4].  Death and destruction quickly followed.

Although the death toll due to Nazi death camps (circa 3 million by one account[5]) looks small relative to the deaths precipitated by the communists, the point is that atheism in its official manifestations has been a plague on humanity. So why have today’s secular culture and even the postmodern church so readily embraced the ideas that led to these horrors?

If God is dead, then we cannot have been created in his image and human rights are an anachronism, not an inalienable right. Without the existence of God, the intellectual underpinning of social justice is vapor in the wind. The Berlin Wall was a tangible reminder of how different life can become when God’s presence is not acknowledged—I will never forget[6].

Alister McGrath’s book, The Twilight of Atheism, is a helpful book to spend time with.  As my review suggests, interpreting McGrath requires background in modern and postmodern history and philosophy. Here in part 2 of this review, I have focuses on the some of the personalities of the High Noon of atheism.  In part 3, I will turn to McGrath’s argument for the Twilight of atheism.

[1] I was a foreign exchange student in 1978/79 at Göttingen University (

[2] Estimates are cited in the range from 85 to 100 million people killed (

[3] Jung, a Christian and student of Freud, was more sensitive to the needs of human beings for God in maintaining the careful balance between order and chaos.  He writes: “This is why the medicine-man is also a priest; he is the savior of the body as well as of the soul, and religions are systems of healing for psychic illness.” (Jung 1955, 240).

[4] For example, Metazas (2010, 168) writes:  “Hilter worshiped power while [he viewed] truth [as] a phantasm to be ignored.”


[6] East and West Berlin were separated by only about 100 yards, but they were night and day different. West Berlin was busy and loud, a lot like visiting Manhattan, New York during the day. East Berlin was deserted and silent like visiting a graveyard at night.


Jung, Carl G. 1955. Modern Man in Search of a Soul (Orig. Pub. 1933).  Translated by W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes. New York:  Harcourt, Inc.

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile Versus The Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 2

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