McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 3

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 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Because human beings cannot live without hope, nihilism itself points to God. As Freud himself admits, we were created to worship God!  In effect, atheism contains the seeds of its own destruction. The paradox of Christianity is that the cross has become a symbol of hope [1].

McGrath’s argument for the twilight of atheism is found in chapter 7 where he notes an unexpected resurgence of religion. He starts with his own experience as a former atheist and 5 additional points:

  1. The intellectual argument against God has stalled,
  2. Suffering in the world is an argument for God, not against God,
  3. Atheism lacks imagination,
  4. Renewed interest in the spiritual, and
  5. The remarkable growth of Pentecostalism (6-7).

Each of these points deserves discussion.

The Intellectual Argument Against God Has Stalled. 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)

Part of the appeal of atheism was that it was logical consistent and, presumably, based on scientific reasoning while Christianity was not.  McGrath writes:

“the arguments of Feuerback, Marx, and Freud really offer little more than post hoc rationalization of atheism, showing that this position, once presupposed, can make sense of things.  None of the three approaches, despite what their proponents claim, is any longer seen as a rigorously evidence-based, empirical approach that commands support on scientific grounds” (182).

If atheistic arguments require as much faith as those supporting the existence of God, then observers need to make their decision based on something other than logic.  In fact, McGrath observes an interesting parallel between the atheist arguments against God and the classical arguments for God’s existence set forth by Thomas Aquinas (181).  Once this parallel is acknowledged, it is clear that the atheist argument is no stronger than the argument for faith.

Suffering In The World Is An Argument For God, Not Against God. The classical argument against God is a question.  How can an all-powerful, benevolent God allow pain and suffering?  Either God is not all powerful or he is not benevolent.

While this is a good question, McGrath asks: who planned the Holocaust  and who slammed the doors shut on gas chambers? (183)  If the new gods of modernity and postmodernity are so good, why is the past two hundred years so full of genocide and murder?  By contrast, the God of the Bible is a god who suffers alongside his people—“who bears our sin, pain, and anguish.” (184)  The modern experiment, while attractive in theory, has utterly failed in practice and we now know from personal experience what happens when human beings start to think of themselves as gods.

If the logical argument whether to accept the atheist or the Christian religion is a draw, then the practical experience of the modern era clearly favors Christianity, not atheism.  The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in, not to keep people out.

Atheism Lacks Imagination.  McGrath writes:  “Atheism invited humanity to imagine a world without God.” (188)  John Lennon even wrote a song, Imagine—nothing left to kill or die for, on this theme before he was murdered (173). Yet, no one needed to image a world without God anymore—they need only look at the history of the Soviet Union.  And the more people learned about it, the less they liked what they saw (187).  Those with the most imagination, artists and musicians, often found themselves sent to prison camps—the gulags of Siberia. Meanwhile, Christian writers, artists, and musicians continue to flourish (1986).

Renewed Interest In The Spiritual. The fathers of atheism predicted that the world would outgrow the infantile illusions of religion, but in fact the opposite has occurred.  In no place is this more true that in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe and Russia itself (189).

The Remarkable Growth Of Pentecostalism.  The Pentecostal movement started as a revival in Los Angeles in 1906 but now accounts for about a half billion believers (193-195).  McGrath sees 2 factors accounting for the popularity of Pentecostalism:

  1. “Pentecostalism stresses the direct, immediate experience of God and avoids the dry and cerebral forms of Christianity.” and
  1. “The Movement uses a language and form of communication that enables it to bridge cultural gaps effectively.” (195).

McGrath sees Pentecostalism as the single, most significant alternative to Roman Catholicism and as the “new Marxism” of the third world.  That honor used to go to the churches of the Protestant Reformation who seemed to have lost their sense of the sacred and have become significantly secularized (195-197).  McGrath contrasts the dry rationalism of protestants—theological correctness whether left or right— to the living faith of the Pentecostals (214-215) [1].

All good things must come to an end.

McGrath ends with a lengthy account of the life and exploits of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  Madalyn is best known for her lawsuit in 1960-63 to end prayer in U.S. public schools (248).  She went on to found the society called American Atheists from which she apparently stole an enormous sum of money (253).  What is less well known is that her son, William J. Murray, on whose behalf her lawsuit was filed, grew up to become a believer, a writer, a Baptist minister and an advocate for return of prayer to public schools (248) [2].  What could be more ironic?

Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism is a wonderful book and a great read.

 

[1] “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV).  Also see: Jesus:  Joy in Sorrow (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Xg).

[2] McGrath writes: “How can God’s existence be doubted, when God is such a powerful reality in our lives? And how can God’s relevance be doubted, when God inspires us to care for the poor, heal the sick, and work for the dispossessed?” (216)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_J._Murray

REFERENCES

William J. Murray. 1995. Let Us Pray: A Plea for Prayer in Our Schools. William Morrow & Company.

William J. Murray. 2000. My Life Without God: The Rest of the Story. Harvest House Publishers.

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