The Sad Case of Alister McGrath
In the latter half of 2004, The Spectator published an article by Oxford theology professor Alister McGrath. This article, entitled "The Incoming Sea of Faith," turned out to be a near-perfect outline for a later book, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. The article and book are a brazen attack on scholarship and realism via bigoted invective, devious equivocation and dishonest historical reconstruction. McGrath targets atheism and launches salvo after dogmatic salvo at all intellectual truth from the last few centuries.
When the article was first published, I wrote a rebuttal to Mr. McGrath's fraudulent tirade that was apparently a bit much for The Spectator. My letter has been sitting in data purgatory for the last six months, during which time I have read with increasing concern the many book reviews praising The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. Most of these reviews make use of the catchlines in the following piece and follow the same themes almost word for word. After one publication listed Mr. McGrath's book on its top five religion books for 2004, I decided to resurrect my original response to Mr. McGrath as it is just as relevant to his book as it was to his article.
Submitted to The Spectator 09.22.04 (Not Published)
It is with great sadness that I write this response to Professor Alister McGrath's article, The Incoming Sea of Faith. Being a full-time student majoring in History and Philosophy with a focus on religion, it is I who would hope to learn from him. Unfortunately, it must be the other way around. I have always thought highly of Oxford University, but to see such shameful scholarship in so important a department has greatly lessened my opinion.
The greatest myth in regards to atheism is the definition most often used by theists in general, and Mr. McGrath in particular. This definition, which is the keystone of Mr. McGrath's writing, is that atheism is the claim that "there is no god." Someone of Mr. McGrath's standing should know the narrow falseness of this description. Ironically, he need go no farther than the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines atheism as, "Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God," besides giving the briefest glance to the majority of atheist writers from the last century.
While some atheists do go the extra step of claiming there is no god or gods, the preponderance of atheists merely disbelieve. Disbelief and the contention of nonexistence are two different statements. Some atheists may assert a particular god cannot exist as defined, but Mr. McGrath leaves no room for such pragmatism. Instead, he has latched onto the definition that best suits his myopic vision in an attempt to recast atheism in the furnace of his disdain. Regardless of such attempts by Mr. McGrath, atheism alone remains a negative position that cannot by itself assert.
Mr. McGrath also makes the egregious error of grouping atheists into some shadowy cult of shared idealism that is patently untrue. Each person's principles beyond their disbelief are his or her own. While atheism may play a role in someone's view, it is not a driving force of liturgical scripture to be obeyed. This profound misunderstanding makes his entire presented work one of subterfuge, misleading concepts and a complete waste of time to anyone with a modicum of understanding in theological vocabulary.
In addition, Mr. McGrath's misrepresentation of history is especially tasteless given his credentials. He says, "The sociologists were predicting that religion would soon die out," when in fact sociologists like Herbert Spencer and Edward Tylor had predicted the eventual end of religion in the 1800's. This was no new concept in the 1960's. McGrath further injects his own views in a subtle suggestion of his invented "atheist doctrine" when he says of religion, "The sooner it was eliminated, the better place the world would be." This view, of course, was Professor McGrath's. Atheism has no view except disbelief in gods. He alters the past to the point of saying, "atheism empowered people to overthrow the past, and create a brave new world." I ask, what evidence is there of this fabricated atheist vision grabbing hold of the masses? Atheists were not, have never been, and are not currently embraced. Where is the proof that this is a coherent logical conclusion?
Not only does Professor McGrath create this atheist beginning for his world, he creates an end; "... atheism as a public philosophy came to an undistinguished end in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Atheism, once seen as a liberator, was now cordially loathed as an oppressor ... the Soviet empire crumbled at a dizzying rate in the 1990s." With such sweeping generalities and misuse of terms, the professor could argue that facial hair is the tyrant. Hitler had it, Lenin had it, Castro has it--thus it is to be loathed. What it is necessary to point out to Mr. McGrath is that communism collapsed. Atheism was never a structure to crumble. Atheism itself is not the suppression of religion. It can be a result of suppression in theory, though rarely in practice as shown by McGrath's own indication of religion's stubborn hold under communism. Perhaps what McGrath does best is describe what atheism is not.
Mr. McGrath's further assertions that atheism is something other than disbelief does not change the fact that he is incorrect. "I retain a profound respect for [atheism's] aspirations for humanity and legitimate criticisms of dysfunctional religion," he says, yet atheism has no aspirations for society. Criticisms come from the individual, a person who need not be an atheist to establish them. Such trickery shows through in his contradictions when the preceding comment is followed by the sentence, "the sun seems to be setting on this shopworn, jaded and tired belief system"--the same "belief system" for which he holds such a profound respect. Nevertheless, atheism is not a belief system and Mr. McGrath is correct to assume that many would take issue with his classification as such. Is Mr. McGrath's definition of a "belief system" so broad as to classify disbelief in any (undefined) god-concept as a "belief system"? Is disbelief in Zeus a belief system? Is disbelief in Bigfoot a belief system? Such reasoning is absurd.
This duplicity does not preclude Mr. McGrath from making more wild and unsubstantiated declarations, "But it's now clear that the atheist case against God has stalled. Surefire philosophical arguments against God have turned out to be circular and self-referential." This is a shockingly bold statement. Sophisticated arguments for and against gods have existed and evolved for thousands of years, and yet with one broad stroke, Mr. McGrath has dismissed them all as baffled. Where is the corroboration that the cases have stalled? Is he aware of any actual arguments against any particular gods? One must assume he is not, for if he were he would know that theists and agnostics, not only atheists, have posed and do pose many of them. If he is indeed aware of this fact, it appears he is either intellectually dishonest, holds his audience in enough contempt to assume they do not know better, is hawking his book based on this crookery, or he doesn't actually know the truth and as such has no business writing about the subject.
Mr. McGrath follows up with a wrongheaded pedantic rant that reads like transcripts of fundamentalist delirium:
"Yet atheism has not simply run out of intellectual steam."
--Disbelief in gods cannot run out of steam. It has no steam, intellectual or otherwise.
"Its moral credentials are now severely tarnished."
--Disbelief has no moral credentials, nor does it claim any.
"Atheism's innocence has now evaporated."
--Disbelief has no guilt or innocence.
"In the 20th century, atheism managed to grasp the power that had hitherto eluded it."
--Atheism has no arm with which to grasp anything.
"The atheist critique is unpersuasive."
--There is no atheist critique. Critiques exist independent of atheism.
"Atheism is the ideal religion of modernity."
--Disbelief is not religion.
"Once, it was possible [for atheism] to argue that religion alone was the source of the world's evils."
--Atheism makes no such argument. Disbelief cannot argue.
"Atheism argued that it abolished ... tyranny by getting rid of what ultimately caused it--faith in God."
--Again, atheism is no body politic to argue a position. An individual may argue a point: disbelief is not argument alone. Atheism can exercise no power or influence like religion as it has no group ideology or canon, no rules to follow, no creed with which to tyrannize and Alister McGrath cannot make it so through repetition.
Regardless of this fact, does Mr. McGrath's argument have a scholarly source or is it a straw man, made up to be easily defeated? An appropriate argument would be that where one individual's domineering ideology rules, "it oppresses and corrupts, using violence to enforce its own beliefs and agendas." This argument--that mercilessly enforced personal agendas cause suffering through despotism--is fleshed out by McGrath himself: The statement, "Stalin's death squads were just as murderous as their religious antecedent" is further support that the oppressor here is totalitarianism. "Those who dreamed of freedom in the new atheist paradise often found themselves counting trees in Siberia, or confined to the gulags," shows the repercussions of an autocratic state, not an "atheist paradise." Mr. McGrath expresses as much upon his agreement with Nietzsche's statement "there is something about human nature which makes it capable of being inspired by what it believes to be right to do both wonderful and appalling things. Neither atheism nor religion may be at fault"--for it is the exact argument made against dictatorships.
I find it truly amazing that an Oxford Professor can portray ignorance of the difference between atheism and communism. Countless tracts have been written on the unique nature of both, as well as the distinct form of fascism practiced by Lenin. The Soviet Union did not practice atheism. One cannot practice the disbelief in gods. The USSR violently suppressed religion as a threat to the state's power. Mr. McGrath was not unaware of "the darker side of atheism, as practised in the Soviet Union." He was unaware of the state of world events in the 1960's. Lenin did not espouse atheism; he suppressed and forbade religious practice.
It is abundantly clear that Mr. McGrath does not know what atheism is. He "assumed that religion would die away naturally, in the face of the compelling intellectual arguments and moral vision offered by atheists," yet his assumptions were not, and are not, a reflection on atheism. Rather they display an astounding level of naiveté and ignorance. If he "failed to ask what might happen if people did not want to have their faith eliminated" then that was a personal failure on the part of the professor. He goes on to make a statement of pure lunacy in another caricature of atheism, "Its uncompromising and definitive denial of God is now seen as arrogant and repressive, rather than as principled and moral." This shows an amazing disregard for the overwhelming exception that most atheists say no such thing. Even if they did however, there is nothing in such a statement that is "arrogant" or "repressive." Such pitiable thinking is reprehensible.
The distortions do not end in the past, however. A misguided view of the present is noticeable in Mr. McGrath's writing, evidenced by the statement, "Atheism's problem is that its own baleful legacy in the former Soviet Union has led many to view it as the enemy, and religion as its antidote ... In Eastern Europe, atheism is widely seen as politically discredited and imaginatively exhausted." Yet it is communism that has left a baleful legacy. Religion was also not an antidote. In fact, the post-communist Russian Orthodox Church has begun to impose its own brand of enforced ideology. Communism is seen as imaginatively exhausted in much of Eastern Europe, not atheism. One of the most successful countries after the fall of communism has been the Czech Republic, whose 2001 census shows upwards of 39% of its citizenry describing itself as atheist.
Perhaps Alister McGrath fancies himself as a new type of historian, an "Historian of Ideas" as he says. It may be that in this field of history such revisionist accounts are accepted or embraced. Maybe it becomes possible for Lyotard's postmodernism to be distorted into new terms like "post-atheism," and expressions like "metanarrative" can be misapplied and still make sense. It could be possible that in this field it is natural to anthropomorphize things like disbelief so they acquire arms, eyes, powers and wills. In this field, repeated historical truisms like sociological predictions and post-schism apologetics can be forgotten and rediscovered anew as if innovative--with the imitator taking credit.
If Alister McGrath had established himself as a reputable religious scholar, one would be more inclined to lend credence to his measures of Christianity and atheism. Sadly, his lackluster scholarship only continues when he assesses what is "the right direction" for Christian evangelism, "For the Christian, the problem is how to relate or convert an interest in spirituality to the Church or to Jesus Christ. But at least it points in the right direction." It is unclear how, or on what grounds, Mr. McGrath can justify his dismissal of pluralistic spirituality in favor of his idea of The Church and Jesus Christ. Much deception, also sans evidence, is given for the "dangers" of atheism based on Mr. McGrath's incorrect description, but no support is offered for his evangelical conclusion.
When there is no defense for such inane views, he distorts reality to fit his own perverse image. When it is clear Mr. McGrath is seeing an absence of a unified atheist body, he explains it away as, "Atheism seems curiously disconnected from this shift in cultural mood. It seems that atheists are greying ..." It would appear Mr. McGrath has failed to consider that such an organized coalition is nothing but a hallucination.
Finally, by far McGrath's coup de grace is the rivetingly deranged summation that "The most significant, dynamic and interesting critic of Western Christianity is no longer atheism, but a religious alternative, offering a rival vision of God--Islam." While Islam may be one of the fastest growing faiths on earth, it does not therefore follow that it is "dynamic" or an "interesting critic of Western Christianity." Professor McGrath never explains how this is so; he possibly expects his credentials as a historical theologian at Oxford University to make up for this absence of veracity. Wretchedly, Alister McGrath has disassembled piece by piece whatever academic confidence his title would normally have allowed.
The mental vacuum that must exist within the hallowed halls of Oxford University is lamentable beyond description. This black hole of falsehood is a stain upon the sacred history of so fine an institution. I truly hope some guidance will reach the classes of Mr. McGrath in spite of such monumental inaccuracies, lest more generations of students leave his lectures bereft of honesty, integrity and knowledge.
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