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Atheism: Twilight or Dawn?


[This essay was originally presented as a talk for the Greer-Heard Forum at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in February 2006. The version provided here has been revised by the author.]

According to Alister McGrath, atheism is an ideology with a great past. At one time it blazed across the intellectual firmament like a comet, a harbinger of doom for established churches and orthodoxies. Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Strauss, Feuerbach, Darwin, Huxley, Marx, Freud–all the great names struck mighty blows against the intellectual and social foundations of religion. The theistic “proofs” were left in tatters; scripture was assailed as a repository of myth and legend; the Creator was replaced by natural selection; the comforts of religion were debunked as childish illusions or opiates for the masses. To capture the mid-19th century perception of the retreat of religion in the face of atheist attack, in The Twilight of Atheism McGrath quotes Matthew Arnold’s famous lament that the Sea of Faith once was full:

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

These days, says McGrath, we hear not faith’s but atheism’s withdrawing roar. Now, early in the 21st century, we are told that atheism is in decline and religion is resurgent.

How odd, in that case, to find atheist books recently heading up the bestseller lists and atheists showing up on the TV talk shows to make the case for unbelief. Is atheism becoming chic? The public response to Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, as well as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, appears to indicate a swelling interest in arguments for unbelief. A bestselling atheist book is really quite a novelty. Speaking from my own personal experience, an atheist book typically sells in the dozens, and its author will die of old age long before seeing a royalty check. But perhaps the current rash of atheist bestsellers is an anomaly, an exception to an overall downward trend. Perhaps interest in these books is a transient response to current events. Maybe people are presently outraged at terrorism perpetrated by sectarian fanatics, or disgusted when politicians of even worse than usual mendacity and hypocrisy pose as the Lord’s anointed. At any rate, McGrath cannot be refuted by displaying a copy of the New York Times bestseller list.

McGrath states his case with clarity, erudition, and style. His book is a pleasure to read, with a wealth of deftly delivered historical detail. It is hard to be harsh with so congenial a book. However, as I regard many of McGrath’s major conclusions as poorly supported, I would do a disservice to the author and everyone else if I offered a less than candid evaluation. As a percentage of the population, those who believe in no God or gods always have been–and almost certainly always will be–in the minority. (Though I hasten to add that, if a 2006 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is accurate and 11% of Americans list themselves as atheists, agnostics, or without religion, then the number of unbelievers now exceeds that of all Christian denominations except Roman Catholicism.) McGrath’s claim is not about numbers or percentages, however, but the intellectual status of atheism. So we need to ask two questions: (1) Has the intellectual clout, stature, or influence of atheism declined in recent years? and (2) Should it have? The first question asks whether, as a matter of fact, the Zeitgeist has turned against atheism; the second asks whether, despite the association with great names, the intellectual credentials of atheism have been overstated.

McGrath answers both of these questions in the affirmative, asserting, first, that in the marketplace of ideas, atheism’s stock has plummeted, and, second, that atheists have failed to make their case for unbelief. I partially agree with his first answer. Prior to the publication of the recent bestsellers, it had been quite some time since atheism had been a hot topic of intellectual debate. But if philosophical atheism has declined in salience among the topics most urgently discussed in intellectual forums, this is chiefly because it is, paradoxically, a victim of the success of secularization. “Atheism” may be defined “positively” as the doctrine that denies the existence of God or asserts the incoherence or inconsistency of the God concept, or “negatively” defined as the claim that there is no good reason for belief in God (Martin, 1990). Either way, atheism as a doctrine is largely oppositional in nature. When religion is culturally important but has lost its coercive power to physically suppress dissent, atheism thrives. Where religion has become largely culturally irrelevant, as in modern day Sweden or the Netherlands (except in their immigrant Muslim communities), atheist advocacy is also seen as irrelevant, and atheist polemic elicits yawns. Practically speaking, in most of the developed world, business, education, the arts and sciences, and (outside the United States) even politics and the law are pursued with no deference to or even recognition of religious tenets. When in the most important fields of human endeavor a practical atheism reigns, theoretical atheism is regarded as otiose.

I shall argue that McGrath has failed to substantiate his claim that the intellectual case for atheism fails. Chiefly he relies on an argument of guilt by association. Atheism, he claims, hitched its wagon to the once-rising stars of Marxism and Freudianism, but the wreckage of those ideologies has also dragged down atheism. He fails to answer–and indeed hardly even addresses–the real intellectual case for atheism. McGrath briefly notes Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, and J. J. C. Smart gets a single mention, as does Adolf Grünbaum, but the other major defenders of philosophical atheism of the last half-century do not even merit a nod. His index contains no listings for Antony Flew, Wallace Matson, Kai Nielsen, Richard Gale, William L. Rowe, Michael Martin, J. L. Mackie, Daniel Dennett, Evan Fales, Michael Tooley, Quentin Smith, Jordan Howard Sobel, Robin Le Poidevin, Theodore Drange, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Nicholas Everitt, J. L. Schellenberg, or Graham Oppy. On the other hand, late atheist crackpot Madelyn Murray O’Hair gets fourteen pages. What would thoughtful theists make of a book attacking theism that ignored the arguments of, for instance, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, or William P. Alston while devoting fourteen pages to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple cult?

So, since McGrath does not undertake to rebut or even to address the major recent defenders of atheism and their arguments, it is hard even to ascertain the basis of his polemic. Chiefly, I think he is trying to do to atheism what the social constructivist sociologists and historians like Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar, David Bloor, and Steven Shapin tried to do to science (see, e.g., Latour and Woolgar, 1986). That is, he tries to show that atheism is a social construct, a historically contingent byproduct of larger social and political forces, and that atheism lost its impetus when these forces eventually played out. Like the would-be constructivist debunkers of science, McGrath offers a historical account intended to spell out the particular local circumstances that account for the one-time popularity and subsequent decline of a set of ideas. According to social constructivist analysis, ideas grow and spread because they serve larger political and cultural agendas, and so the fate of those ideas depends upon the success or failure of those agendas.

Let us turn, then, to McGrath’s account of the connection between atheism and Marxism. It is a familiar story but he tells it well (McGrath, 2004b, pp. 60-67): Marx was a metaphysical materialist who regarded doctrinal systems as epiphenomena, wholly determined in their nature and content by underlying economic and material conditions. Why, then, did Marx think that religion existed? For Marx, religion was caused by unjust economic conditions and the consequent alienation of the victims of injustice. In turn, religion serves to support the system of exploitation that creates it. A proletariat narcotized with assurances of ethereal bliss will be less resentful of mundane oppression. Small wonder that the established churches enjoyed the enthusiastic support of kings and capitalists; and small wonder that atheism became a corollary of Marxist theory.

According to McGrath’s analysis, though, atheism’s partnership with Marxism became a deal with the Devil when communism, and hence atheism, became the established–and exclusive–ideology of repressive regimes:

The appeal of atheism to generations lay in its offer of liberation. It promised to liberate the enslaved and exploited masses from their cruel oppression by the state and church. Yet wherever atheism became the establishment, it demonstrated a ruthlessness and lack of toleration that destroyed its credentials as a liberator. The Promethean liberator had turned nasty (McGrath, 2004b, p. 234).

Indeed, McGrath says, the collapse of Soviet communism forced the world to confront the genuine nastiness of atheism:

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 did more than allow inhabitants of the Soviet bloc access to the West; it also paved the way for Western scholars to inspect the archives of the Soviet Union and its allies. The opening of the Soviet archives led to revelations that ended any notion that atheism was a gracious, gentle, and generous world view…. Communism was a “tragedy of planetary dimensions” with a grand total of victims variously estimated … at 85 and 100 million–far in excess of those murdered under Nazism (McGrath, 2004b, pp. 232-233).

But, of course, precisely the same sort of argument could cite the actions of the 9/11 hijackers to discredit theism. The 9/11 hijackers were, to a man, devout theists, but the obvious reply would be that the impetus behind their atrocious acts was not theism per se, but their adherence to a particularly fanatical brand of Islamic fundamentalism. Precisely the same kind of retort could be given to McGrath’s argument. Unless he shows that it was the communists’ atheism that inspired their murderous rancor, the argument fails. In fact, of course, Marxism/Leninism and Maoism were irrational ideologies that became objects of fanatical, indeed, “religious” devotion for many of their adherents. If theism can take on poisonous and destructive forms without thereby discrediting theistic belief in general, precisely the same should be said of atheism.

McGrath errs in identifying atheism as a “world view.” From the mere fact that one is an atheist very little else can be inferred. Atheists can be political fascists, conservatives, libertarians, liberals, communitarians, anarchists, or radicals. Their philosophical views can be pragmatist, empiricist, rationalist, idealist, existentialist, postmodernist, feminist, or almost anything else. As cases in point, Antony Flew and Kai Nielsen have been two of the most outspoken atheists among recent analytical philosophers. Their critiques of theism are often nearly identical in content. Yet Flew was once a staunch Thatcherite Tory and Nielsen is a dedicated Marxist. Atheism–whether it is taken as the claim that belief in God is false, incoherent, or unjustified–just does not have sufficient content to constitute a worldview.

Naturalistic humanism is a worldview, and most present-day atheists are probably naturalistic humanists. Humanists claim no more affinity with Joseph Stalin than do Southern Baptists. Indeed, some of the most damning indictments of Stalinism were written by humanists such as George Orwell and atheists like Arthur Koestler. Bertrand Russell is just as emphatic in Why I am not a Communist as in Why I am not a Christian. Humanist intellectuals and activists have a long and honorable record of opposing dictatorships of the left and the right, standing against oppression whether conducted by ayatollahs or commissars. Christian churches, let us recall, have far too often winked at right-wing autocrats, just as long as they were friendly to the interests of the Church hierarchy. To mention just one of many possible examples, during his long dictatorship over Spain, Franco enjoyed the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the Roman Catholic Church.

But would McGrath say that–though atheists are not necessarily intolerant–disbelief does tend towards intolerance? If anything, the shoe seems to be on the other foot. It is plausible that theism, with its insistence upon the existence of single, all-important deity who demands the exclusive devotion of his followers, has a natural and spontaneous tendency to develop into intolerant and exclusionist forms. This was eloquently argued by David Hume in The Natural History of Religion:

While one sole object of devotion is acknowledged, the worship of other deities is regarded as absurd and impious. Nay, this unity of object seems naturally to require the unity of faith and ceremonies, and furnishes designing men with a pretence for representing their adversaries as profane, and the objects of divine as well as human vengeance. For as each sect is positive that its own faith and worship are entirely acceptable to the deity, and as no one can conceive that the same being should be pleased with different and opposite rites and principles, the several sects fall naturally into animosity, and mutually discharge on each other that sacred zeal and rancour, the most furious and implacable of human passions…. The intolerance of all religions, which have maintained the unity of God is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists (Hume, pp. 146-147).

Hume’s argument has at least prima facie plausibility. Any ideology, theist or atheist, can become repressive and intolerant when it is allied with coercive power and with the determination to exclude competing views. But if, as Hume charges, theism has an inherent tendency to develop into intolerant and repressive forms–and if atheism does not, or not nearly so much–then McGrath’s claim that atheists are hypocritical in attacking religious intolerance (McGrath, 2004b, p. 235) is unfounded.

Could McGrath respond with a tu quoque and argue that atheism does have a natural propensity to grow into intolerant and repressive forms? Roger Scruton, in a 1986 essay published in the Times Literary Supplement, makes precisely this argument:

It seems to me that the morally defective feature of the death camp–and of the totalitarian system which engenders it–is the impersonal, cynical and scientific approach to the victims. Systematic torture and murder become a bureaucratic task, for which no one is liable and for which no one is particularly to blame…. I do not offer to prove, what nevertheless has been vividly impressed on me by my own study and experience, that this impersonal (and therefore ungovernable) evil is the true legacy of the naturalistic view of man. Those very philosophies which enjoin us to place man upon the throne from which God was taken away for burial, have been most influential in creating a new image of man as an accident of nature, to whom nothing is either forbidden or permitted by any power beyond himself. God is an illusion; so too is the divine spark in man (Scruton, 1986, p. 565).

But respect for other persons does not arise from detection of some “divine spark,” whatever that might be, but from the experience of shared humanity. Recognition that another has thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes, and fears like one’s own naturally promotes empathy towards that person, while campaigns of dehumanization, like that conducted against Jews in Nazi Germany or against the “Kulaks” in Stalinist Russia, almost always precede genocidal campaigns. In fact, the impersonal, reductive view of persons that characterizes totalitarianism is more reasonably seen as a pathological outgrowth of a religious rather than humanistic worldview. Characteristic of totalitarianism is the exaltation of ideological purity and the enforcement of strict conformity in action and belief. But belief systems that insisted upon doctrinal purity, and enjoined obedience in thought, word, and deed, did not enter the world with the rise of naturalism and humanism. Such systems are the legacy of belief in One God, One Creed, One Church, and One Law. Paganism had no concept of heresy or apostasy for the simple reason that it had no creed. A classical Greek could join any number of mystery cults without raising questions about his or her devotion to the recognized Olympian deities. Pagan Rome tolerated associations devoted to the worship of Isis, Mithras, Cybele, Jehovah, and–except for highly sporadic and often half-hearted persecutions–Christ.

Perhaps all that McGrath aims to accomplish by recounting the atrocities of communism is to rebut an attitude of messianic atheism, the utopian hope that atheism, if universally adopted, will usher mankind into a new world of tolerance and progress. Will atheism save mankind? No, but neither will anything else. Religion has been trying for thousands of years now, and so far has achieved a record of less than complete success. Besides, just who are these messianic atheists? Among the major defenders of atheism, which ones have said that atheism is the gate to utopia? Some may have seen the spread of atheism as necessary for progress, or as a reform that, in conjunction with other changes, will contribute to intellectual enlightenment and social amelioration, but I know of no major atheist thinker that has said that the general adoption of atheism, even if feasible, would per se be sufficient to deliver mankind from oppression and ignorance. Unless McGrath can supply us with some substantiating names and claims here, it is hard not to suspect that he is attacking a straw man.

McGrath does not rest his entire case against atheism on the claim that it backed the wrong ideological horses. He also, very succinctly, directly attacks the intellectual credentials of atheism in arguing that the intellectual case for atheism has “stalled” (McGrath, 2004b, pp. 179-183). The section of his seventh chapter titled “The Stalled Intellectual Case against God” begins with a considerable overstatement:

It is increasingly recognized that philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt (McGrath, 2004b, p. 179).

Really? Dozens of academic books and hundreds of peer-reviewed articles published in the last twenty years would seem to belie that claim, but, for the sake of argument, let us grant that debates over natural theology and natural atheology do not feature as prominently in today’s intellectual milieu as in some past times. What follows? Certainly not McGrath’s next claim:

The matter [the existence of God] lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith, in the sense of judgments made in the absence of sufficient evidence (McGrath, 2004b, p. 179).

What “lies beyond rational proof” is not thereby “a matter of faith.” Much, indeed most, of what we rationally believe is insusceptible of “proof” on any reasonably strict construal of that term, but nevertheless is open to evaluation in the light of various rational and evidential considerations. McGrath is certainly right to assert that neither the theist nor the atheist has conclusive arguments:

Knockdown and foolproof arguments are simply not available to us. It is for this reason that polemicists on both sides of the argument are so often reduced to rhetorical devices, bludgeoning their audiences into submission by crude verbal bullying than by careful evidence-based reasoning (McGrath, 2004b, pp. 182-183).

But the lack of proof or knockdown arguments does not imply, as McGrath claims, that, “The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God” (McGrath, 2004b, p. 180). Justifying such a claim would require a careful examination of the best arguments for atheism, and, as we have seen, McGrath’s treatment is seriously deficient in that respect.

In various writings, McGrath does respond in detail to one prominent defender of atheism, Richard Dawkins, so let us turn to his response to Dawkins’ case. In a lecture sponsored by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, McGrath identifies four charges made by Dawkins against religion:

1. A Darwinian worldview makes belief in God unnecessary or impossible….

2. Religion makes assertions which are grounded in faith, which represents a retreat from a rigorous, evidence-based concern for the truth. For Dawkins, truth is grounded in explicit proof; any form of obscurantism or mysticism grounded in faith is to be opposed vigorously.

3. Religion offers an impoverished and attenuated vision of the world…. In contrast, science offers a bold and brilliant vision of the universe as grand, beautiful, and awe-inspiring….

4. Religion leads to evil…. (McGrath 2004a, p. 2).

At one time, particularly in the heyday of natural theology in the 18th and early 19th centuries, there was a broad consensus that divine design was apparent in the natural world. In the words of Hume’s Cleanthes:

The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man; though possessed of much larger faculties (Hume, pp. 203-204).

In books like The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins argues that the appearance of design, the “curious adapting of means to ends” in organic nature, has now received a naturalistic explanation, namely, natural selection. Natural selection, the “blind watchmaker,” operates when natural variability endows some organic variants with traits that enhance their odds of survival and reproduction vis-à-vis competitors, and then, since such advantageous traits are heritable, leads to the accumulation and improvement of adaptations in successive populations. This process operating across geological time, says Dawkins, accounts for the appearance of design in living things, and so the blind watchmaker displaces the divine watchmaker (see Dawkins, 1986).

McGrath concedes that this argument has force, but he thinks that Dawkins takes it much too far:

If Dawkins is right, it follows that there is no need to believe in God to offer a scientific explanation of the world. Some might draw the conclusion that Darwinism encouraged agnosticism, while leaving the door wide open for a Christian or atheist reading of things–in other words, permitting them, but not necessitating them. But Dawkins is not going to leave things there; for Dawkins, Darwin impels us to atheism. (McGrath, 2004a, p. 4).

McGrath challenges the assumption, which he attributes to Dawkins, that the scientific method is capable of adjudicating the God hypothesis. He argues:

The scientific method is incapable of delivering a decisive adjudication of the God question. Those who believe that it proves or disproves the existence of God press that method beyond its legitimate limits, and run the risk of abusing or discrediting it. Some distinguished biologists … argue that the natural sciences create a positive presumption of faith; others … that they have a negative implications for theistic belief. But they prove nothing, either way. If the God-question is to be settled, it must be settled on other grounds (McGrath, 2004a, p. 4).

Again we see the idea of proof doing the heavy lifting in McGrath’s argument, and we need to note that “proof,” if too strictly construed, is too great an onus for the methods of the natural sciences to bear. However, if “proof” means a decisive empirical test then, if scripture is any guide, a scientific test, or something very much like one, could indeed adjudicate the “God question.” I Kings, Chapter 18 provides as good an example of a crucial experiment as one could wish: Elijah challenged the priests of Ba’al to a contest. They would erect an altar to Ba’al and he one to Jehovah. The priests of Ba’al would implore their god to send fire to consume their sacrifice, and Elijah would call upon Jehovah to do likewise. According to the story, the fire fell from heaven consuming Elijah’s sacrifice, Jehovah was vindicated as the true god, and Elijah led the people in a celebratory massacre of the priests of Ba’al. Whatever one’s opinion of the historicity of this narrative, it certainly shows that, in principle at any rate, there could be a decisive empirical test of religious claims. Had fire instead consumed the sacrifice to Ba’al this would have been strong confirmation of the Ba’al hypothesis and strong disconfirmation of the Jehovah hypothesis.

Even if we set aside such histrionic scenarios as the story in I Kings, it still certainly seems that the findings of science could offer strong evidence confirming or disconfirming hypotheses postulating creators or designers. For instance, if, contrary to fact, the fossil record revealed no unambiguous examples of transitional fossils between higher taxa–birds and reptiles, say–this would indeed support a hypothesis postulating piecemeal creation, i.e., that over geological time there had been a series of creation events. On the other hand, since there are indisputable instances of transitional fossils between higher taxa (see Isaak, pp. 113-128), this fact counts heavily against any hypotheses of intermittent special creation events. That is, any hypothesis that rejects macroevolutionary explanations and invokes the occasional direct creative activity of a Creator or Designer to account for the appearance of new higher taxa will be seriously undermined by the presence of undeniable instances of transitional fossils.

Clearly, then, the results of science can have considerable bearing on hypotheses postulating deities, designers, and creators. What about Dawkins’ specific claim, as stated by McGrath, that Darwinism “impels us to atheism?” If “impels us to atheism” is taken to mean “proves that there is no God,” or “makes atheism the only rational option,” then Darwinism does not impel us to atheism. However, Dawkins is entirely correct that the burgeoning explanatory success of Darwinian and other naturalistic explanations does threaten at least some theistic hypotheses.

The real danger that science poses for theism is not that it can “disprove” God’s existence, but that as science progresses, God seemingly becomes increasingly irrelevant and his role in the universe is diminished. Scientific explanations inevitably end with an explanans that, for the time being at least, must be treated as a brute fact. Therefore, there is always the option of inviting God to take over the explanatory labor left unfinished by science. One problem with this “God of the gaps” option, however, is that it tends to relegate God to an ever more marginal or distant role, one more appropriate for a deistic rather than theistic Creator.

To be of any religious interest a deity has to have something important to do; there has to be a domain for divine activity in the world that advancing science cannot seal off, marginalize, or supplant with naturalistic explanations. “Intelligent design” (ID) theorists such as Michael Behe and William Dembski owe their fame to their claim, backed by clever but controversial arguments, to have identified such distinct domains for direct, intelligent, creative input into the natural world (Behe, 1996; Dembski, 1998). Whatever one thinks of the efforts of the ID theorists (I regard them as total failures; see Miller, 1999; Pennock, 1999; Eldredge, 2000; Pennock, ed., 2001; Shanks, 2004; Young and Edis, 2004; Perakh, 2004; Kitcher, 2007; Isaak, 2007; and, of course, many entries in the talk.origins archive), such theories are clearly a response to precisely the kind of threat that Dawkins articulates.

The upshot is that McGrath’s criticism of Dawkins’ first charge has force only if Dawkins is making an unreasonably strong claim of disproof. But if Dawkins’ is making a weaker claim–perhaps something akin to Dennett’s argument that Darwinism is “universal acid,” i.e., that Darwinian explanations tend over time to drive all rival explanations from the field (Dennett, 1995)–then, McGrath’s criticism fails. Further, Dawkins correctly points out that as the realm of naturalistic explanation broadens, gaps for God narrow.

What about Dawkins’ second charge, that, though they are held with great tenacity and often asserted vehemently, religious beliefs are based merely upon faith and not upon evidence? McGrath correctly points out that a dichotomy between faith and evidence is grossly simplistic (McGrath, 2004a, p. 6). Faith need not be blind and science is not always quite as evidence-driven as simple stereotypes imply.

Here again, though, Dawkins’ argument is refuted only in an extremely simplistic form. Perhaps the gravamen of Dawkins’ contention can be restated as the charge that there is a great disparity between the assurance with which major religious claims are generally asserted and the actual epistemic credentials of those claims. Creedal claims are often presented as so manifestly true that those who willfully reject them are regarded as deserving of temporal or eternal punishment, or perhaps as invincibly ignorant. In this case we might expect that those creedal propositions are as well established, as irrefragable and apodictically certain as claims can be. Yet this seems not to be the case. Every such set of tenets is doubted by very many ostensibly rational, intelligent, and well-informed people. This alone is reason to think that the strength of the claims of religion is often overblown. Further, if creedal claims are manifestly true, it must be the case that each of the propositions constituting those claims is (a) clear, coherent, internally consistent, and compatible with other creedal claims, (b) either obviously true or established beyond a reasonable doubt, and (c) such that if established by reasons, those reasons should be readily apparent to any serious inquirer, since if the reasons for believing a proposition are too obscure, abstruse, or arcane, this could be a legitimate reason for not accepting it. However, it is highly doubtful that conditions a, b, and c are met with respect to the creedal claims of any religion.

So, however rhetorically overblown and simplistic Dawkins’ statements might be, at their core they make a legitimate complaint, namely, that their adherents often represent the creedal claims of religion as possessing a far greater degree of certainty or obviousness than is warranted. When this happens, the consequences are bad. Claiming more for your beliefs than is their due not only debases rationality, but is conducive to intolerance, fanaticism, and obscurantism.

Dawkins’ third charge is that religion diminishes our appreciation for the richness, mystery, majesty, and beauty of the universe, and instead gives us a diminished and impoverished view of reality. McGrath responds: “A Christian reading of the world denies nothing of what the natural sciences tell us” (2004a, p. 12). Therefore, whatever majesties the atheist finds in the natural world may be equally if not more deeply appreciated by the theist. Well, this may be an apt answer for those who adhere to a Christian “reading” of the world like McGrath’s. However, I fear that the Christian “reading” of an Oxford don might bear little relationship to that which prevails in, say, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. What about those, and they number in the many millions, who adhere to a strict, literal, inerrantist view of scripture? “God says it, I believe it, and that settles it,” as one bumper sticker puts it. The fundamentalist’s universe is indeed quite small. For one thing, it is less than 10,000 years old. Needless to say, this crowds the events of prehistory, resulting, for instance, in the dinosaurs being pushed onto the ark with Noah (See Whitcomb and Morris, 1961; Gish, 1992). Further, it is a world that is ending quite soon. No exact date is given for the events of the “end time,” such as the “rapture,” but clearly they are at most just a few years away.

Now, McGrath may think that I mention such views to ridicule them or to embarrass sophisticated believers such as himself, but that is not my intent at all. We Americans must face the fact that multiple millions of our fellow citizens are Christian fundamentalists. This is simply a demographic fact. Further, over the last few decades fundamentalist cadres have been quite aggressive in seeking political power and cultural clout. Again, this is simply a fact. We are therefore fully justified in being interested in what fundamentalists believe, i.e., in the contents of their little universe. As a critique of the constricted fundamentalist worldview, if not of religion in general, Dawkins’ charge has relevance and significance.

Finally, McGrath considers Dawkins’ accusation that religion is a bad thing that has led to much evil and suffering. McGrath replies (2004a, pp. 14-16) that Dawkins again indulges in overblown rhetoric, that he carefully selects certain notorious episodes and treats them as typical rather than aberrant, that he ignores the facts mentioned earlier about the suffering inflicted by atheists, and that he overlooks the evidence of benefits of religion.

Is it fair for a critic such as Dawkins to adduce the evils committed in the name of religion? Yes, because of the claims that religion makes for itself. The Christian Church, according to its own account, was charged by its Founder to be the Light of the World and the holder of the keys to the Kingdom of God. The Church, again as it presents itself, is the Bride of Christ, and as such its behavior is to be holy and chaste. When so much is expected of an institution, or an individual, moral lapses are going to stand out with particular vividness. This is inevitable. Consider the case of the former high public official, the author of several books promoting personal virtue, and the self-appointed spokesman for public morality, who was discovered to be a compulsive gambler who had lost several million dollars. When such things happen it is not at all unfair to hold the guilty individuals or institutions up to their own standards. Defenders of those individuals or institutions who respond by directing a tu quoque at critics are missing the point. It cannot be enough to be no worse than others when you are supposed to be setting the standard. If that is what you settle for, then you have relinquished any claim to moral authority.

In all fairness, of course, no human institution could exist for nearly 2000 years without numerous lapses, abuses, and excesses having been committed in its name. But there are evils that are woven into the very fabric of Christian belief and practice, so that it is hard to imagine Christianity ever changing so much as to be entirely free of them. For instance, James Carroll, a Roman Catholic layman, in his book Constantine’s Sword, recounts the Church’s two thousand year war against Judaism. Of all of the Church’s sins, this one is the most bizarre. After all, Jesus was a Jew–born of a Jewish woman, he worshipped in the Temple and observed Jewish holidays. Two of the four Gospels provide lengthy genealogies to establish Jesus’ descent from King David. In fact, Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism. Yet by the late first century the Church was largely gentile, and these gentile Christians saw the Jews as perversely stiff-necked in their rejection of Christ. The Gospels themselves begin the demonization of the Jews. John 8:44 literally calls Jews the children of the Devil because they will not believe in Jesus. Matthew 27:25 depicts the Jews as saying that the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion should fall on them and their children. Thus did the inflammatory charge of deicide–the murder of God–become Christians’ excuse for the persecution of the Jews.

Carroll carefully shows how the Church “Fathers,” the most important theologians of the early Church, vilified the Jews, sometimes in the crudest terms. For instance, St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Antioch in the early fifth century, said “a place where a whore stands on display is a whorehouse. What is more, the synagogue is not only a whorehouse and a theater; it is also a den of thieves and a haunt of wild animals” (quoted in Carroll, p. 213). Small wonder that after such calumny riots broke out against the Jews and the great synagogue at Antioch was demolished. St. Augustine, the most influential of the Church “Fathers,” argued that Jews should not be killed because, he said, their own scriptures testify to the truth of Christianity. Yet, they should be scattered throughout the Earth, to live as exiles everywhere, and to have a home nowhere. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the preeminent philosopher of the Christian Church, wrote the Summa Contra Gentiles, a compendium of Christian apologetic. His aim was to make the case for Christianity rationally compelling, and therefore to deny Jews any excuse for their unbelief. Henceforth, Aquinas held, their rejection of Christianity must be seen not as “invincible ignorance,” but as willful defiance of the truth. At the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther expressed sympathy for the Jews, but he erupted into rabid denunciation when they proved no more receptive to Lutheranism than to Catholicism. Here is one of his gems: “Know, my dear Christian, and do not doubt that next to the devil you have no enemy more cruel, more venomous and virulent, than a true Jew” (quoted in Carroll, p. 368). Carroll leaves no doubt that the hatred sown by such diatribes was abundantly harvested at Auschwitz.

The upshot is that critics such as Dawkins do not have the burden of proving that religion is always bad, or even that it is, on balance, more often bad than good. It is sufficient to show that religion is human, all too human. You ought not to be regarded as the Light of the World when even your most eloquent defenders can say only that your record is not quite as bad as that of the greatest monsters or most pernicious ideologies of history.

So, how effective is McGrath’s critique of Dawkins? Well, he correctly notes the instances where Dawkins indulges in overstatement and oversimplification. Professional philosophers and other scholars whose vocation requires them to put a premium on precisely stated and rigorously argued claims often cringe when less careful controversialists enter the fray, firing off rhetorical broadsides, and reducing complex issues to slogans and sound bites. Because the issue evokes so much passion, popular apologists on both sides of the “God question” all too often offer overheated polemic and propaganda instead of logical argument. For instance, in his book C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (2007), philosopher John Beversluis carefully documents how the author of such classics of popular Christian apologetics as Mere Christianity often employs straw men to characterize opponents and makes claims far too large for his evidence. Unsurprisingly, authors of popular atheist apologetics often do likewise. However, once the overstatement is trimmed back, we have seen some serious problems lurking in the neighborhood of Dawkins’ charges. I have argued that McGrath’s critique of Dawkins is inadequate to address these deep problems that may be articulated by qualifying, refining, or restricting Dawkins’ accusations.

Has The Twilight of Atheism said anything to show that the intellectual case for atheism is deficient, or that atheism is not, in fact, capable of raising very serious problems for religion? I do not see that it has. The strategy of associating atheism with defunct and pernicious ideologies does not work, and McGrath’s intellectual engagement with atheist arguments stays at a superficial level. Well, then, should we at least agree with the claim that the intellectual prominence of atheist advocacy has declined since its heyday in the mid-19th century? Yes, I think, but paradoxically, the reason for this decline is the fact that the developed world is a far more secularized place than it was in the mid-19th century. Who needs atheist agitators when the day-to-day impact of the Church on people’s lives is so small? For instance, Italy, one of the most Catholic of countries, has the lowest birth rate in Europe. Either the Church’s strictures against artificial birth control are being widely ignored or Italians have lost interest in sex.

On the other hand, if McGrath is right that we are now in the midst of a spiritual and religious revival (McGrath, 2004b, pp. 189-192), then we may soon be hearing more about atheism too. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that the recent crop of atheist bestsellers is the first wave of the atheist revival. The two go hand in hand: If we are experiencing a widespread renewal of interest in traditional religions, and we can expect more and more public recognition of this fact, then we shall soon be hearing more from atheists. The problem is that religion has a Janus-face. It represents the best and the worst in humanity; for every St. Francis there is a Torquemada. Religion will therefore always be controversial and divisive. There will always be those who encounter its ugly, hateful face instead of its benevolent one. Therefore, there will always be an audience for atheism, and the bigger religion gets, the bigger that audience will get. So is atheism facing a twilight? To answer that question we need to ask: Is religion enjoying a dawning? If so, I think that McGrath will find that the rising sun shining on religion will shine on atheism as well.


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Copyright ©2007 Keith Parsons. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Keith Parsons. All rights reserved.

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