Policy Review, February 2005
ATHEISM, AS THEOLOGIAN Alister McGrath understands the term, is not merely the asseveration that no God exists. It is a distinct movement in intellectual, cultural, and political history and may be mapped to particular historic events — the arc of its rise and decline demarcated at either end by two tumbling edifices, the Bastille and the Berlin Wall. This movement, curiously, has behaved much like a religion: It has produced gurus and proselytizers; it has been appropriated to serve political ends; and, ultimately, it has been embraced not for its compelling internal logic but on faith — or at gunpoint.
The political and cultural institutions associated with it having come now to be objects of general revulsion, so too may atheism itself be observed in its twilight; thus the title of McGrath’s book, an allusion and rebuke to Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche’s “grand declaration of war” on religious faith.
McGrath locates the sources of the movement in the challenge posed by Revolutionary France to the Catholic Church and the rotten Bourbon monarchy, institutions viewed by many of that era as inseparable. Before the late eighteenth century there were almost no atheists in Europe. While the Revolution itself was swiftly followed by the restoration of Catholicism, the minds of alienated European intellectuals continued to roil: “Seeds were planted, mental horizons were expanded, and hopes for change ignited.” Thereafter, the giants of atheism emerged — Feuerbach, Marx and Freud. This was not because the existence of God was specifically disproved in the late eighteenth century; nor did any scientific or philosophic innovation of the era suggest anything like a comprehensive answer to the questions posed by religious inquiry. The rise of atheism, McGrath concludes, was above all a response to political events.
When atheism failed to deliver on its stellar promises of political liberation — indeed, helping to produce a blood-drenched century to rival any period of Church atrocity — it was natural, McGrath says, for those who had embraced it as a deliverance from barbarism to revise their views. Moreover, its association with such profoundly unattractive personalities as Madalyn Murray O’Hair did as much to undermine its message as theism’s association with its assorted cast of hypocrites, inquisitors, and profiteers. McGrath sees in O’Hair’s career particular symbolism: “A movement that began with a sense of outrage at the injustices of the world seems to have ended up either by parodying itself or by appropriating the excesses — moral and intellectual — of its opponents.”
Beyond observing that religious people tend to be happy, McGrath is not particularly interested in making a case for theism. He is satisfied that no one has yet made an impressive empirical or philosophical case against it. In his portraits of atheism’s luminaries, McGrath notes that all assumed atheism as a premise and constructed their systems of belief as explanations for the enduring and puzzling persistence of faith. Even Darwinism, he finds, is philosophically compatible with theism, for a naturalistic account of evolution is no disproof of supernaturalism.
MCGRATH, NOW A professor of historical theology at Oxford University, is himself a lapsed atheist. As an adolescent in Northern Ireland, he saw in atheism the obvious answer to the region’s sectarian conflict. “If atheism,” he writes,
had represented itself simply as commending the merits of a godless worldview, I would not have been attracted to it — and neither would many others. Its lure lay in its proposal to change the world rather than to create a little club of the godless in the midst of the religious world.
As a young man attracted to the easy fix, he believed science would explain every aspect of human experience. Cracks appeared in this juvenile faith during his final year of high school when, studying for the first time the history and philosophy of science, he found the subjects “rather more complicated and rather less straightforward than I realized.” No doubt. Increasingly disturbed by the “empty and uncomprehending” slogans of the anti-religious and their irrelevant preoccupation with a long-extinguished social order, he at the same time found himself, like C.S. Lewis, sensing “the steady unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
McGrath nonetheless retains some affection for atheism, or at least for its original moral aspirations. In an echo of Voltaire, who argued that atheism is determined not by the intrinsic power of its ideas but by its social context — particularly by the corruption of Christian institutions — McGrath holds that it is above all a reaction to the burning of witches, the torturing of heretics, the venality of clerics and the wars of religion. “Reform those institutions,” he concludes, “and the plausibility of atheism is dramatically reduced.” It is no surprise to him, then, that atheism never achieved the popularity in the United States that it did in Europe: In America, the historic separation of church and state obviated the possibility of embracing it as a form of political rebellion.
It is a thesis that is plausible as far as it goes, but incomplete: Before the French Revolution the inevitable popular response to the institutional corruption of the Church — observed with dismay for nearly a millennium — was heresy, not atheism. What changed? It was the Renaissance, born of faith and Greco-Roman values, that gave rise to humanism, the Scientific Revolution, and the idea of the limitless perfectibility of man. These put an end to the piety that had engendered them — the great irony of the Enlightenment. It is important to note, as McGrath does, that nothing about the Scientific Revolution inherently entailed the demise of religious belief. Atheism did not emerge logically from any particular scientific discovery. But clearly the rise of modern science facilitated the demise of Christianity by replacing religion as a framework for interpreting human experience; and clearly atheism gained strength through its loose association with the triumphs of science. How precisely did this happen? A more complete account of the emergence of materialism as a doctrine would not have gone amiss here.
If his chronicle of atheism’s rise seems insufficient, so does McGrath’s account of its decline. The movement, he claims, reached its zenith at the middle of the twentieth century, when nearly a third of the world was under the control of tyrannies that held the eradication of religious faith as key to their utopian political programs. In the West, atheism’s ascendancy was symbolized for McGrath in the famous 1966 cover of Time magazine that asked, “Is God Dead?” But the failure of communist regimes worldwide gave rise to a widespread recognition that atheism had liberated no one. McGrath observes with satisfaction the subsequent reflorescence of Christianity throughout the former communist nations and the effacement of Marxism in favor of liberation theology throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia. He is struck as well by the emergence of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, which he compares admiringly to the “dull, joyless and unattractive” asceticism of early Protestantism, particularly the Calvinist rejection of ornamentation and imagery. He sees in these events a decisive trend: He predicts the coming century will be characterized by surging religious devotion.
Here one wishes McGrath had made his case with greater precision and care. He offers scant sociological data and few statistics about rates of religious belief over this period. He rarely specifies the indicators he uses for his assertions: How many Westerners, for example, declared themselves to be atheists in 1966, when that issue of Time magazine was published? Is there any reason to believe that the reemergence of religious belief in Eastern Europe has a correlate in Western Europe? McGrath does not note — but should — that church attendance in Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden is now below 10 percent, a dramatic decline from the 1960s. Rates of baptism have similarly plummeted. Christian belief in Western Europe has in fact dropped sharply since the fall of the Berlin Wall, according to opinion surveys. The first draft of the new European Union Constitution did not include a single mention of Christianity. When asked by pollsters to name an inspirational figure, British respondents placed Christ well below Britney Spears. The only religion on the ascendant in Western Europe is Islam, and this for historic and demographic reasons only tangentially related to the collapse of communism.
There is not much evidence of widespread religious revivalism in the United States either. Columnists for the New York Times may insist that America has become a nation of pulpit-bashing religious primitives — for Maureen Dowd, this is a self-evident proposition on the order of “snow is cold” — but the proportion of the American population identifying itself as Christian has actually shrunk by more than 10 percent since the fall of the Berlin Wall. According to one recent comprehensive study of religious identification in America,
American religion has been widely perceived as leaning toward the more literal, fundamental, and spiritual. . . . In sharp contrast to that widely held perception, the present survey has detected a wide and possibly growing swath of secularism among Americans . . . the pattern emerging from the present study is completely consistent with similar secularizing trends in other Western, democratic societies.1
It might be argued that in the global context of religious revivalism the beliefs of Westerners are of limited import. Yet McGrath’s analysis derives almost entirely from his observations about European political and cultural history, so the persistence of atheism in the West — or, at least, the West’s persistent indifference to religion — is problematic for his thesis. He conjectures that post-modernism will provide a nurturing climate for theists, inasmuch as atheism is rigidly intolerant of opposing ideas whereas post-modernism stresses tolerance of all ideas. This suggests that McGrath has not encountered many post-modernists in the flesh. If he is still prepared to make this case after a weekend spent sharing the Good News at the annual Modern Language Association Convention, I am prepared to listen.
McGrath’s case is a limited one. The arguments for and against the existence of God are for him unresolvable and, the reader senses, ultimately uninteresting. The object of his historic inquiry is not atheism per se but one particular and influential strand of it: a conjunction of so-called hard atheism — the explicit denial of the existence of God, as opposed to mere lack of belief — with a series of beliefs that exceed any ontological claims about God to encompass moral and political arguments for the eradication of theism. Only this species of atheism, thus defined, is by his reckoning cast in twilight.
As a limited case it is somewhat successful — who can dispute that atheist regimes failed to cover themselves in glory, or that strident atheists are a particularly unattractive bunch? Richard Dawkins, for example, who is atheism’s most visible contemporary champion, is hardly a figure to inspire affection: The Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University has denounced his critics as ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked, adding recently that this “sounds arrogant, but undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance.”
But McGrath defines atheism so narrowly that the most interesting questions are unaddressed and unresolved, and his ebullient conclusions are unsupported by the arguments. It is not clear, for example, that the discrediting of one strain of atheism necessarily entails a similar grim fate for secularism, humanism, or agnosticism; nor that it will produce a revival of Christian faith, which McGrath strongly implies. If it is true that a wide renewal of faith is at hand, as he believes, it is nevertheless not clear precisely how this devolves from general revulsion at the excesses of atheist regimes. One might equally expect the reaction to be a condemnation of zeal and faith in all its forms, theist or atheist, in preference for the weak solutions of moral relativism — or the spread of general outright despair.
THESE, IN FACT, are precisely what we are seeing, according to Chantal Delsol, a professor of philosophy at the University of Marne-la-Vallée in Paris. (This institutional affiliation is noteworthy: It is striking that public figures in France with innovative and unorthodox ideas are no longer apt to be associated with the Grandes Ecoles or the traditional French educational elite; Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, recently elected chief of France’s ruling party, is not a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the traditional feeder school for the French administrative and political elite.) In her subtle, highly intelligent meditation on the moral state of modern European man, Delsol considers his profound disillusionment: European man has in recent memory suffered two great losses, first his Christian faith and then its replacement — a vision of human perfectibility absent supernatural guidance. Failed experiments in utopianism, particularly in its communist and fascist expressions, have left him, like Icarus, singed at the wing-tips and fallen, paralyzed by self-doubt.
Utopian ideologies were, as she says, “systems of reference structured like cathedrals,” and her use of this rich simile is no accident. Europe has spent the past several centuries, not just this one, in a series of struggles to find a replacement for its lost Christian faith. Until recently, for example, nationalism was a substitute for religious belief; in France, the idea of France itself and its civilizing mission lent meaning to the lives of Frenchmen, just as the mystical Aryan ideal stood in for religious belief in Germany. The nation-state, the arts, music, science, fascism, communism, even rationality itself — all of these were substitutes for Christianity, and all failed. “We have watched all the cathedrals fall into ruin,” Delsol laments, “one after another.” But where McGrath sees in this the inevitability of religious revival, Delsol discerns no such thing. She finds her contemporaries’ fear of ideological certainty fully reasonable: Rigid orthodoxy, after all, did give rise to both the Inquisition and the Holocaust. So a return to the past is impossible, and no one has the faintest idea what the future might hold.
Man continues, nonetheless, to long for utopia and for the absolute — this is a design feature, to paraphrase Delsol, not a bug — and for a means to interpret his existence. But he no longer possesses a coherent ideological vehicle by which to express this longing. Here she sees the source of the profound risk-aversion of the modern European: “In general,” she writes, “our contemporary cannot imagine for what cause he would sacrifice his life because he does not know what his life means.” Though Delsol does not explicitly say as much, this is as good an explanation as we are apt to find for Europe’s recent approach to international affairs: How better, for example, to explain the willingness of the Spanish people instantly and obediently to capitulate to the demands of the terrorists who last year slaughtered some 200 of their countrymen?
Lacking any sense of purpose, Delsol asserts, modern man enshrouds himself in technological and physical comfort, leading a life that is at once free of risk and mediocre, mouthing vapid, unexamined clichés. These she calls “the clandestine ideology of our time” — clandestine because no overt adherence to ideology is now socially permissible. Yet the banishment of the economy of ideology, she astutely remarks, has encouraged a black market to flourish in its place: “This underground moral code is saturated with sentimentality yet arbitrarily intolerant.” The code is a close cousin to the political correctness of the Americans, and it is the unspoken foundation of the modern European welfare state — a society predicated on an ever-expanding sense of entitlement:
Anything contemporary man needs or envies, anything that seems desirable to him without reflection, becomes the object of a demanded right. Human rights are invoked as a reason for refusing to show identification, for becoming indignant against the deportation of delinquent foreigners, for forcing the state to take illegal aliens under its wing, for justifying squatting by homeless people, for questioning the active hunt for terrorists. It is not only desire or whim that leads to rights claims, but instinctive sentimentality and superficial indignation as well.
Another principle of this code is the estimation of tolerance above all other virtues. Once defined by the absence of state prohibitions against certain ideas and behaviors, tolerance has come to be conflated with legitimization — as the state itself now actively encourages those ideas and behaviors through legal and material aid. Delsol finds this pernicious, and rightly so. One need only look at the Netherlands to see exactly where this orthodoxy leads: When an artist created a street mural with the words “Thou shalt not kill” in response to the murder — by a Muslim radical — of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, Dutch police immediately destroyed it in the name of tolerance. Deputy Prime minister Gerrit Zalm was widely criticized for declaring the Netherlands to be at war with Islamic extremism. “We fall,” said Green-left leader Femke Halsema, “too easily into an ‘us and them’ antithesis with the word war.” No more perfect example of Delsol’s thesis can be imagined. “Dominated by emotion,” she observes,
our era overflows with treacly sentiment. It is almost as if the feelings that were once associated with a certain type of piety have contaminated the whole population. . . . Seeking the good while remaining indifferent to the truth gives rise to a morality of sentimentality.
My only quibble: This is not just a morality of sentimentality; it is a morality of eager, collective suicide.
Delsol’s is certainly not the first baleful assessment of our ambient culture of moral relativism — perhaps quasi-relativism is more apt because, as she rightly notes, its practitioners unquestionably accept moral absolutes (“one must be tolerant”) while insisting that they indignantly reject them. But her criticism is particularly lucid, and her analysis of the reasons for the rise of this ideology — and the kind of culture to which it in turn gives rise — unusually canny.
ALISTER MCGRATH CONTENDS that a new “cultural sensitivity” has “led to religious beliefs being treated with new respect.” Yet on the pages of our major news organs we find the faithful described in the most disrespectful terms. Here is novelist Jane Smiley, in Slate, depicting them as “unteachably ignorant,” advising us to “[l]isten to what the red state citizens say about themselves, the songs they write, and the sermons they flock to. They know who they are — they are full of original sin and they have a taste for violence.” Brian Reade of the Mirror calls the faithful “self-righteous, gun-totin’, military-lovin’, sister-marryin’, abortion-hatin’, gay-loathin’, foreigner-despisin’, non-passport ownin’ red-necks.” Maureen Dowd, predictable as sunrise, sees “a vengeful mob — revved up by rectitude — running around with torches and hatchets after heathens and pagans and infidels.” And Nicolas Kristof echoes his New York Timescolleague with his nod to “wheat-hugging, gun-shooting, Spanish-speaking, beer-guzzling, Bible-toting” Americans. If Delsol’s thesis needs further confirmation, consider this: These critics are exercised about theintolerance of the religious.
No, not much newfound respect for religion on display here — just a good deal of what Delsol calls the “ideology of the apostate.” Mainstream moral thinking remains, above all, structured around the rejection of religious morality. “The drama of the present age,” she observes, “does not lie so much in the return of certain figures of existence as it does in the fact that these figures were — and in many cases still are — despised.” Evidence for Delsol’s somber assessment of Western man, with his limited, repulsive view of truth and transcendence, is everywhere, belying McGrath’s sunny appraisal of man’s renewed spiritual sensitivity.
1: Egon Mayer, Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, American Religious Identification Survey (Graduate Center, City University of New York, 2001).