At the sight of Stephen Colbert the studio audience begins cheering with anticipation: It's time for "This Week in God." Colbert calls up the "God machine" and gives it a tap, and a window begins spinning to the most unholy sound as a panoply of religious symbols and images—the pope, believers in the shroud of turin, assorted rabbis, imams, ministers,
priests, creationists, spiritualists, even those those professing secular humanism and atheism ("The religion devoted to the worship of one's own smug sense of superiority")—flash on the screen. Finally the machine comes to rest on a particular target. We see a Jerusalem rabbi, imam, and priest set aside their mutual hatred long enough to denounce that city's gay-pride parade. Or we watch Colbert conduct a blind taste test to see whether he can tell the difference between holy water and Pepsi. Through it all he pokes fun at faith itself, sparing no religion and no holy man (in Blasphe "Me!!!" he takes on deities themselves, challenging, say, Quetzalcóatl to strike him dead by the count of five). Watching "This Week in God" on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, we are, it might seem, witnessing the culmination of a historical progression, from Robert Ingersoll, the great nineteenth-century public unbeliever, to Clarence Darrow, who in the 1920s and '30s would debate a rabbi, priest, and minister during a single evening.
No wonder, then, that it is a bit jarring, after Colbert's polished irreverence and his audience's unforced delight, to return to the real world and be reminded that it is irreligion, and not religion, that is on the defensive today.
It is this weakening that Alister McGrath sets out to explain. In his telling formulation, we are living in the "twilight" of the great modern era of disbelief. In 1960, he points out, "half the population of the world was nominally atheist," but by now the "sun has begun to set" on this "great empire of the mind." Telling the story of the rise and fall of disbelief in God, McGrath claims to be giving us a postmortem on the worldview reflected by Colbert. Looking ahead, can we perhaps foresee a time not far distant when atheism itself gives up the ghost?
By proclaiming that atheism is on its last legs, McGrath turns one of the most burning questions in American culture on its head. When everyone is asking about the growing strength of religion and its political ramifications, we might instead ask, Why is disbelief on the wane? Today's commonsense answer is that atheists, agnostics, and secularists are less and less relevant to the needs of Americans (and, McGrath adds, the rest of the world). Whether true or not, this is an amazing commentary on the self-confidence that once made atheism the modern creed, which McGrath summarizes as "the religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising of the sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity." Why, after predictions that religion had fallen into irreversible decline (in 1966, Time magazine famously asked, "Is God dead?"), does a recent Newsweek poll indicate that 64 percent of Americans call themselves religious and an equal number pray daily?
The Twilight of Atheism's story of the rise of disbelief contains a key argument about its eventual decline. McGrath accounts for the fact that England "did not see a major erosion of faith" in the eighteenth century owing to the Toleration Act (1689), marking as it did a truce after a half-century of social, political, and religious conflict, and he explains the intensity of the contemporary French anticlericalism by "the corruption of Christian institutions" in prerevolutionary France. In other words, "Atheism thrives when the church is seen to be privileged, out of touch with the people, and powerful."
Twilight thus points to the modern history of the idea that God does not exist, beginning from the most radical phase of the French Revolution and the writings of the Marquis de Sade. McGrath focuses on Ludwig Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity as well as the writings of Freud and Marx in order to set out atheism's intellectual foundations. In a detailed chapter on the so-called warfare between the natural sciences and religion, McGrath shows how the notion arose in Victorian England that the two were inevitably hostile to each other, despite much evidence to the contrary (including the more recent fact that a significant percentage of scientists continue to espouse belief in God). Then, in a subtle and original discussion, he explores why religious belief waned and atheism grew among a key group of poets and novelists in nineteenth-century England. Compared to the dour, dismal, and pallid religion on offer, atheism focused on the transcendent, took pleasure in the beautiful, and nourished the imagination. In contrast, Christians were much taken by the translations of the works of David Friedrich Strauss and Ernest Renan that presented Jesus's life as an actual historical narrative, which could not but diminish his religious appeal.
And so the stage was set for atheism's high tide in the twentieth century, hailed by Nietzsche's declaration that God was dead. By the 1960s American liberal Christianity seemed bent on committing suicide. "Ideas such as eternal life, Resurrection, a ‘God out there,' and any sense of the mysterious," McGrath writes, "were unceremoniously junked as decrepit embarrassments." The combined surrender of sophisticated theologians like Harvey Cox or former Episcopal bishop John Spong, the campaigns against religion by the Soviets and Chinese, and the tendency to pit science against faith proved that "by 1970 many had come to the view that religion was on its way out."
But today it is atheism that seems in irreparable decline. What happened? Here, to introduce its ebb, McGrath interposes his personal story. A teenage atheist and Marxist, he headed from Northern Ireland to Oxford in 1971 armed with an existentialist's sense of life's bleakness, and Marxism's secular messianic "hope of a better future and the possibility of being involved in bringing this future about." Yet this was, he soon discovered, an "imaginatively impoverished and emotionally deficient substitute" for "a dimension of life that I had hitherto suppressed." And Alister McGrath reconverted and became part of history's next wave. The works of atheism's golden age lost their aura of historical inevitability and now came to seem distant, redolent of "a social order that had long since vanished."
If he has not already been doing so, McGrath now speaks both in his own voice and for history's judgment of his teenage atheism. Its arguments have increasingly been recognized as circular, its intellectual battle with religion has been stalemated, the age of "humanity-turned-divinity" (by this he means that the worst features of Communism were encouraged by humans determined to act free from the limits generated by a belief in God) has been a disaster, and our spiritual longings and interest in religious faith have reemerged as significant features of our cultural landscape. One example of the latter is the striking spread of Pentecostal religions around the world, stressing as they do the "immediacy of God's presence through the Holy Spirit."
Sloughing off the spare and abstract intellectualism of the Protestant Reformation within which McGrath himself was raised, the new currents demonstrate that "Christianity is perfectly capable of reinventing itself" to satisfy the spirit, feed the imagination, and satisfy the longing for transcendence. On the other hand, atheism's "embarrassing intolerance" is demonstrated by the millions of people sacrificed to Russian Communism, which confirmed the fact that modernity was as much an oppressive as a liberating force. McGrath here links Marx's liberating vision to violent "social engineering" and Freud's to "manipulating mental processes." And so he endorses the verdict of postmodernism on this ultimately uninhabitable universe: "Far from providing eternal and universal truths of reason, by which humanity might live in peace and stability, modernity found itself implicated as the perhaps unwitting accomplice of Nazism and Stalinism." Thus occurred "the decline, then the death, of modernity" and with it its partner, atheism. Atheism is now adrift in a newly respiritualized world, "uncertain of its own values," its record of violence and bigotry exposed. Thus "the established religion of modernity suddenly found itself relegated to the sidelines, increasingly to be viewed more as a curiosity than as a serious cultural option."
How are we to evaluate McGrath's take on the fate of the secular worldview? First, one ought to be wary of end-of-an-era books written by former zealots! I say this myself having written After Marxism as a former Marxist—I know the temptation to coax the Owl of Minerva off her perch prematurely, of claiming to depict a movement in its true colors when its existence is still being contested. Reasonable observations about atheism's weaknesses get mingled with frequent "end-of-an-era" pronouncements that form the book's real substance and float on their own steam rather than issue from a disciplined and careful historical study.
Just like the postmodernist claim that modernity is over, the retrospective stance implied by terms like twilight is the book's main idea and does double duty as a weapon in the battle against atheism. The "rise and fall" metaphors are tools of a brilliantly clever religious writer against the movement he seeks to undermine. Two decisive structural problems give away the game. First, McGrath's chapters are historically arranged and at times admirably detailed but at points sophomorically sweeping. There is little effort to trace atheism's evolution, logic, vicissitudes, and connections with other movements (such as socialism). The first two-thirds of the book are a more or less chronologically organized critique in the guise of telling a story—which, when the author chooses, leaps back and forth in time or argues with support drawn from whatever historical period best makes the case. So Stephen Jay Gould appears in the nineteenth century, and then under the "Death of God" we find Aldous Huxley in response to Nietzsche, followed by Milosz, Wallace Stevens, and Camus, the "Death of God" theology, and the Soviet Union. The "account" disappears behind the argument.
And then in the last hundred pages McGrath abandons any pretense of telling atheism's story. In the one convincing chapter of the last five, grouped under the heading "Twilight," he presents an interesting analysis of the Protestant Reformation's "disconnection from the sacred." But for the most part he argues broadly that the rational argument between religion and atheism can never be resolved, comments on the rise of interest in spirituality and the growth of Pentecostalism, and brings out as uncontested fact the postmodern verdict on modernity, grafting it onto his case against atheism, including a page or two on the persecution of religion in the Soviet Union. Having used virtually every conceivable argument on every level—atheism's intellectual incoherence, historical obsolescence, moral obtuseness, arrogance, violence, and lack of imagination—McGrath now tosses in the kitchen sink, and the book's structure collapses.
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A less ideologically driven book would have inquired into other reasons for the rise of secular attitudes and habits than the corruption of religion. It would have explored Jürgen Habermas's thesis concerning the disenchantment of the world not as a fault of the Reformation but as a concomitant of aspects of modernity potentially in conflict with religion, such as life becoming de-traditionalized, the growth of science and technology, and the rise of capitalism. McGrath says much about religion in general but never probes the problems of comparison between places where faith is flourishing (such as the United States) and those where it is not (such as Great Britain). A more self-conscious theology professor might have explored the paradox of a proclaimed "reinvented" Christianity in league with postmodernism, at least to consider the potential conflicts between the two worldviews on issues of authority and truth. And in laying blame for the world's ills on irreligion, McGrath might have at least considered the persistence of religious themes under Stalin and asked about the central role of Christianity during the previous two millennia of religious wars, slaughter, and enslavement.
There is no denying that religion has revitalized itself or that the secular outlook is in retreat. But the actual historical process is far more complex and interesting than McGrath suggests. It focuses less on the respective strengths and weaknesses of religion and atheism than on the development of the modern world. Classical atheists tended to be optimistic about the world's future, and their imaginations were indeed stirred by science and technology and the potential for human progress. Rejecting religion often coincided with placing hope in reason, education, democracy, and/or socialism, and those who did so were stirred by visions of a more humane, happier world organized according to human needs. Looking expectantly to the secular and social future meant rejecting the religious counsel of pessimism about our lot on earth.
It's safe to say that the future didn't turn out as anyone expected. Scientific and technological progress has been relentless, but its promises of liberation have gone flat. Few still believe that their children's world will be better than theirs. We live after Marxism, after progress, after the Holocaust—and few imaginations are stirred, few hopes raised by our world's long-range tendencies. Indeed, the opposite is happening as terrorism becomes the West's main preoccupation. In countries like the United States, Britain, and France, there has been a turning away from improving societies and toward improving the self.
On this terrain, it is no surprise that belief in God has been revived, although it is most curious that among industrialized societies the renewed religious energy centers on the United States and is far less widespread in equally developed Europe. I suspect that even Marx or Freud would see little reason to conclude that religion's consoling force might be dispensed with anytime soon. At stake, then, is far more than a conflict between belief and disbelief, but the kind of world in which a religious or a secular worldview flourishes. Where secular hope is in the ascendancy, as during most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it seems as if the belief in human capacity and the here and now will be strong; where fear and pessimism increase, as they have so far in the twenty-first century, humans may increasingly look to God, to their souls, and to a future beyond this life.
The pendulum may well swing back toward secular and social concerns, and people may well regain confidence in their powers and their collective future. For this to be accompanied and supported by a renewal of the belief that life can best be lived without God, then atheists, agnostics, and secularists have major tasks ahead. As McGrath suggests and Alan Wolfe has shown in detail in The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, over the past generation religion has become closer to people's needs, more positive and personal, and more tolerant and less authoritarian. In 2004 Wolfe pointed out that atheists seemed not to understand how religion had changed. There is a paucity of "serious treatments of why Americans might be better off intellectually, and perhaps even emotionally, if they relied more on themselves and less on powers greater than themselves, and our cultural and political life is poorer as a result." What would it look like if this were to change?
A number of writers—the "new atheists"—are responding. The oldest among them is Michel Onfray, 46; the others are considerably younger. Not part of a movement, they also lack the sense that history is going their way. At the same time, these writers are refreshingly free from the hidden theology of history-as-progress that inspired past atheist writers. Unlike McGrath, they cannot appeal to self-evident trends, and this gives each of their works a refreshing quality of standing on its own. Accordingly, in these books the argument is everything. And they are contemporary, having had to respond to September 11, to Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity, and to modern science. They have had to rethink atheism in terms of its historical possibility, its reputation for negativity, and the ways in which it might become more appealing.
Of the works under review, only Michel Onfray's Traité d'athéologie presents atheism in old-fashioned terms, as part of a world-historical process of social emancipation. Onfray's philosophical goal is to renew the modern radical project by integrating the insights of atheism with utilitarianism, hedonism, psychoanalysis, and anarchism, for the first time allowing humanity to "look reality in the face." To prepare the ground for this he seeks to lay bare the many ways in which pathological and death-oriented religious attitudes permeate our world (thus the need for an "a-theology"—to demonstrate the structure, commitments, and suppressed past of religion in its full destructiveness). In the spirit of Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, Onfray is determined to reveal how the creation of a world beyond this world leads to "forgetting the real" with disastrous consequences.
His book has a sweep, an energy and intensity, that seems all but forgotten on either side of the Atlantic; for this reason alone it deserves to be translated. Onfray is arguing, contra McGrath, that religion has always been, and remains, at the core of our civilization. "We speak, think, live, act, we dream, we imagine, we eat, suffer, sleep, and conceive in Judeo-Christian terms, constructed during two thousand years of development from biblical monotheism. Later, secularism struggles to permit everyone to think what he or she wants, to believe in his or her own god, provided that they don't take note of this publicly. But publicly, the secularized religion of Christ leads the way." It is absurd, then, to suggest that there has ever been a genuinely irreligious moment.
Worse, Onfray argues, planetary colonialism, slavery, twentieth-century fascisms and genocides have all been carried out only with the silent or tacit approval of religion. With a penchant for list making, he details the Bible's calls to slaughter and oppression as well as the Christian history of giving them its blessing. Even today, he argues, France's official secularism remains underpinned by the same Christian values and ethics that have made hell of the world. The alternative would be a truly democratic and post-Christian morality that would fully free people from religion by beginning from the fact that this is our only world. A secular ethics, pragmatic and utilitarian, would truly pursue what he calls the "hedonist contract"—the greatest good of the greatest number.
"Nihilism," Onfray writes, "stems from the turbulence registered in the transitional zone" between a decaying Judeo-Christian world and a post-Christian universe still waiting in the wings. What will bring it about? Certainly not any developments in religion itself. Onfray writes as if the essence of religion is unchanging, and he often focuses on the Bible as giving us the essence of Christianity. Accordingly, we have little to hope for from the kinds of evolutions so prized by McGrath. Onfray would no doubt see the changes described in The Transformation of American Religion as surface alterations that disguise religion's fundamental hatred of life. Yet, unlike McGrath, Onfray does not identify a social process leading to strengthening secular attitudes. Perhaps this is why he takes refuge in a sweeping dialectic: "A Christian era having followed a pagan era, a post-Christian era will follow, inevitably." But how? He demurs discussing the agents who might bring this about, speaking only of the philosopher's tasks: the labor of reason and reflection, a "return to the spirit of the Enlightenment."
Onfray's "inevitably" is the sole touch of such historical optimism among any of the new atheists. In sharp contrast, Sam Harris is motivated by an urgent effort to avoid the worst: in a post–September 11 world where "our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons" and are motivated by "mad," unverifiable, and exclusivist core beliefs, Harris writes to avert catastrophe. His book is an all-out attack on faith-based beliefs as well as on those moderates for whom "criticizing a person's faith is currently taboo." Harris has raised eyebrows more than any atheist since Richard Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design—for his fervent belief in progress, hostility to Islam, approval of nuclear war and torture, dismissal of pacifism as "flagrantly immoral," and his slap at the "leftist unreason" of Noam Chomsky. Harris's key political sources and positions clearly lean to the Right. For our purposes, however, what matters most is what the book tells us about some of atheism's continuing problems today. If Onfray has remained true to atheism as an emancipatory project at war with religion, Harris has kept alive its image as dogmatic, fanatically rationalistic, and at war to religion.
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The best way to view Harris's intolerance is through the lenses provided by Julian Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Baggini's excellent little book is intended not as an attack on religion but to give a positive explanation of a word, atheism, that conjures "dark images of something sinister, evil, and threatening." His point is that atheism need be neither "happy-clappy" nor "pessimistic or depressive." It is rather a kind of growing up, a turning away from "the innocence of supernatural world views" and an acceptance "that we have to make our way in the world." In a highly accessible style, Baggini (who writes for The Guardian and is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine) covers what have become familiar themes: the argument for an understanding of the world based on natural laws and according to evidence; the centrality in human life of moral choice about what is right and wrong; the "view that life's ultimate purpose must be something which is good in itself and not just something that serves as a link in a never-ending series of purposes"; and the cautionary lessons about zealotry to be learned from the history of both religion and atheism.
Baggini asks whether atheism is necessarily against religion. The concluding picture he gives is of a secure and positive outlook, without hostility, combating harmful consequences of religion to be sure but no less critical of militant atheism. His final chapter is a masterpiece in trying to understand the impulse behind religion, the inevitable gulf between believers and nonbelievers, and the fact that since both will continue to share the world for a long time to come, the wisest path to coexistence is through genuine openness and the willingness to be proven wrong.
Which returns us to The End of Faith. What is most striking after reading Baggini is Harris's own zealotry. Harris makes no effort to understand believers, be they moderate or fundamentalist; most serious in a book claiming a practical political mission of uniting "us" against "them" is his total lack of interest in any historical understanding. Why is it that Islamist movements have emerged with such ferocity? Why is it that suicide bombers have become widespread? And what explains the revival of religion in the United States? For Harris what matters is what people believe and whether it is verifiable—not when, how, and under what conditions they came to believe it. In his dogmatic view, beliefs motivate people—not circumstances, events, or history.
Like Baggini, Erik J. Wielenberg in Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe and Daniel Harbour in An Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism respond to the current malaise in atheism by engaging in respectful and serious debate with their opponents. Wielenberg presents an analytical philosopher's argument, beautifully restrained and precise. He is responding to a major theme in contemporary thinking about religion, namely, that in a naturalistic universe—one in which there are "no supernatural beings of any sort"—life would have no meaning and there would be no reason to behave ethically. Indeed, the strong selling point of religion recently has been its utility—in providing individual and collective moral grounding, national purpose, and personal hope. In response, Wielenberg, uninterested in the question of God's actual existence, seeks to show that living without God can be both meaningful and moral. Like McGrath and Onfray, Wielenberg focuses on the idea articulated in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov: If God does not exist, everything is permissible.
Wielenberg's carefully developed main argument is that a moral framework totally dependent on God's will "is not a moral framework at all." Plato's Euthyphro provides the key question: Does God endorse acts that are already moral or do these become moral because God commands them? Even among Christians, he points out, morality turns out to be objective and independent—it is "part of the furniture of the universe" and does not require God to make it right.
Wielenberg's major problem appears when he takes up the question that preoccupies most discussions of God's existence: How do we explain and minimize evil in the world? Constrained by the limits of analytic philosophy, Wielenberg's discussion of "factors beyond our control" and obligations toward others has an unconvincingly individualist cast. He needs to take on board the deep social belonging that makes us who we are but is absent from his argument—only then can helping others become something other than Christian charity.
Harbour's recently reissued Guide to Atheism aspires to show the intellectual and practical superiority of a secular, scientific worldview to a religious one. At stake is not simply the question "Does God exist?" but rather "the whole worldview to which we subscribe." He chooses cumbersome terms for describing the opposing outlooks (the "Spartan meritocracy" and the "Baroque monarchy"), but his focus on worldviews has the potential for shifting the usual debate over God's existence in an important direction—to the varying ways people live their lives. In practice, however, Harbour limits himself to a rather narrow worldview. Above all, he is concerned with what and how we know questions of truth and understanding. He leaves out a vast array of attitudes, feelings, perceptions, and beliefs that fall outside of knowledge—what we live by concerning love, relationships, our connections with the wider universe, death, what is right and wrong. Much of life is not ruled by knowledge, of course, and insofar as our worldview includes all this, Harbour misses it.
The first worldview he considers, based on the scientific paradigm of rational inquiry, operates by constant "reexamination, reevaluation and rejection" of its assumptions and results, which continually must prove themselves, while the second introduces starting points that are elaborate and are not subject to question or testing. Religion falls under the second category because "all attempts to explain observations about the nature of the world must be consistent with, or subservient to, the unrevisable starting assumptions."
Harbour presents a close argument for the greater plausibility of the Spartan meritocracy, concluding that "anyone who cares about truth . . . must be an atheist." And then he tackles the pragmatic question of religion's function: Has it really made life happier, more moral, and more meaningful? In a sustained sketch of the terrain covered each in his own way by the other writers, Harbour shrewdly cashes in on his initial definitions. The rational and constantly self-questioning and self-correcting worldview is essential to democracy and its ongoing public discussion about everything under the sun. Those disasters of history not explicitly tied to religion in fact still reflect starting points of authority and unquestionable dogma. Democracy, after all, is congruent with freedom, which is in turn congruent with the worldview that presupposes little and questions everything. "Democracy proceeds by one set of principles. Religion by the opposite." Atheism is "one of the natural allies" of democratic societies.
Taken collectively, the writing of the new atheists offers a set of promising ideas. Harris, for all his negative energy, provides a potentially rich idea about mysticism, as cultivated in Eastern religions, as a "rational enterprise." In Buddhism, he argues, reaching beyond the self has been carefully and closely described and need not be left to faith but may be empirically studied. Baggini's rejection of dogma and militancy on all sides is not only refreshing but intellectually important; Wielenberg talks about the possible contribution of neuroscience to a future secular ethics. But by far the most important idea contained in these books is Harbour's effort to cast the discussion as a matter of worldviews.
As Alan Wolfe points out, the newly revitalized religions have made next to no changes on the doctrinal level. But they have modified their practices, appeals, and attitudes in a more accepting and nurturing direction, creating a new sense of community. This is more than a matter of marketing; it involves living one's faith and meeting people's needs. Atheists have much to learn from this. If the appeal of atheism relies on arguments or it casts itself as a messenger bearing cold hard truths, it will continue to fare poorly in today's world. For secularists, the most urgent need is for a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one's life. As McGrath points out, classical atheists were able to provide this, but no more. A new atheism must absorb the experience of the twentieth century and the issues of the twenty-first. It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death, and explore what hope might mean today. The new atheists have made a beginning, but much remains to be done.
Ronald Aronson is Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Wayne State University. A contributor to The Nation and the Times Literary Supplement, he is the author, most recently, of Camus and Sarte: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It (University of Chicago Press, 2004).