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Twilight of the godless
by Alister McGrath

Oxford professor says atheism is fading and faith is making a dramatic return around the globe Alister McGrath charts rise and fall of unbelief from French revolution onward, writes Wayne Holst

Atheism has fallen on hard times.

Most people today no longer explicitly deny the divine or think the existence of spiritual powers to be illusionary. Supernatural beings and a transcendent realm beyond our own are now commonly accepted, says Alister McGrath, himself a one-time atheist.

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In just a few decades, a major religious reversal has occurred.

McGrath, an articulate and prolific writer, is a professor of historical theology at Oxford University and a leading evangelical Christian scholar. His book, The Twilight Of Atheism, charts the rise and fall of a once powerful "empire of the mind" and the recovery of another. Atheism is out, he says. Faith is returning with a vengeance.

After reaching its high-water mark during the early 1970s, says the author, classic secularization began to fade as a cultural influence. (Secularization has traditionally meant the evolution of a rational empire of the here and now created by humans; a belief in this world as the only real one.)

Changes in thinking have been occurring in Europe, McGrath suggests, and especially in nations traditionally influenced by European thought, like Canada. In spite of dire declarations that God had died, there has been a phenomenal post-modern, global religious resurgence.

Evidence of a change is reflected in popular New Age "spirituality," for example; or the global rise of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. There has been a revival of Orthodox Judaism, and significant growth in militant Islam.

All of these spiritual expressions, in their own unique ways, indicate a dramatic contemporary rebirth of belief and a corresponding decline in unbelief. The truth is, says McGrath, that in spite of the continuing strength of secularization in the West, religion remains important to a lot of people. For many moderns, secularization includes God, and acknowledges the divine and the supernatural.

In major parts of the world, formerly atheistic countries contain sizeable populations that acknowledge the importance of transcendent meaning.

Alister McGrath
The Twilight Of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World by Alister McGrath Random House Canada, 306 pages, $35.95

In post-atheistic Russia, for example, there has been a remarkable rebirth of religious interest. It has taken the form of a return to traditional religions like Russian Orthodoxy or a flirtation with various new religions.

McGrath divides his book into two parts. The first he entitles "The High Noon of Atheism" and shows how and why atheism once flourished. The second he labels "Twilight," a description of atheistic demise. His survey originates with the French revolution of 1789, continues through the fall of the Berlin Wall 200 years later, and concludes with an assessment of the situation at the beginning of the 21st century.

Anticipating the revolution in France, Voltaire (1694-1778) claimed that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Renι Descartes (1596-1650) abandoned any appeal to religious experience. Both claimed God might still exist, but traditional ideas about God prompted superstition, human dependency and joylessness.

In the heyday of atheism, the human and the material were considered the ultimate measure of things. God was removed from the equation of reality, or at least deemed unnecessary. Religion was portrayed as a prop used by immature people who needed a parent to look after them. Or as a drug, taken to dull the pain of an unjust world. Or even as an illusion, to help persons claim their desires.

The intellectual foundations for modern atheism were established by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), Karl Marx (1818-83) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Feuerbach believed that while God might yet exist, God as defined by the church was a human creation; a projection of the mind. Marx proposed that the material world was what counted; not an imaginary spiritual one. He said that humans, not God, construct religion.

Freud's major contribution was to offer a psychological explanation for religion. He developed his theory of psychoanalysis by focusing on the human unconscious, not on a supernatural realm. He believed humans would naturally evolve from theism to atheism.

The sciences viewed themselves as liberators; invalidating the need for God. The biologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), while not rejecting the possibility of God's existence, believed that evolution was the means by which God guided creation to its present state.

Those who take a rather grim view of Darwin's famous theory need to know that during his own lifetime he worked to reconcile science and faith. It was not evolution that made him question the existence of God. He simply could not accept the popular evangelical Christian doctrine that souls of unbelievers were eternally condemned to hell.

Poets and philosophers joined forces with scientists to grapple with troubling questions that had been ignored previously when religion had dominated common thought. Some clung to a concept of a God whose stock seemed to be declining in value. Others rejected God outright and offered substitutes.

The romantic poets Wordsworth, Shelly and Keats (writing at the turn of the 19th century) believed that since humanity needed to believe in some form of transcendent reality, nature could be a worthy replacement for God. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) struggled with how God could allow so much evil and negativity in the world. He wrote several famous religious classics like The Brothers Karamazov in an attempt to find comfort in the midst of troublesome realities.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) devised an approach called nihilism. He not so much killed the idea of God as he announced the death of God in the soul of his contemporaries.

McGrath says that early in his career he too had been an atheist who rejected God's existence and believed that life was what humans themselves make of it. In time, though, he "moved on" from what he called dead-ended thinking. The existence of God cannot be proven or denied, he concluded. God can be experienced, not rationally understood. Divinity exists in a baptized human imagination and the re-enchantment of nature.

Disillusionment with the human condition's lack of a spiritual dimension has led other insightful social observers to revise their thinking. Atheistic arguments, once so seemingly authoritative and convincing, have lost their substance. John Updike, the modern novelist, considers atheism "drastically uninteresting as an intellectual position."

Several years ago, Robert Fulford, the respected Canadian columnist, admitted this in the National Post: "Of all the smug and foolish delusions that were part of conventional wisdom when I was young in the middle of the 20th century, two stand out in memory.

One was the idea that nationalism was a 19th-century concept on its last legs. The other was that religion, as a force in worldly affairs, was slowly but inevitably fading away. At times, I was stupid enough to believe both of these preposterous fallacies, but then, so was nearly everyone else."

The classic atheistic and theistic beliefs no longer ring true. Atheism foundered on the shoals of rigidity and orthodoxy; two of the very elements it had rejected in religion.

Churches mired in rational, moralistic, belief-based thinking will themselves crash like atheism. Christianity needs to recover its imaginative qualities, including a direct engagement with the divine. The pivotal question we face today is not the existence or non-existence of God. Our contemporary religious challenges are moral and imaginative. Is it possible to be good, creatively alive people without God?

The church must always listen to its critics — atheistic and otherwise — who raise honest questions. To its credit, the greatest virtue of classic atheism is its moral seriousness and ability to challenge superstitious religious beliefs as well as corrupt practices. Whenever the church operates as a threat to people, it fails. Whenever it serves as a friend, it flourishes. Will the current spiritual resurgence continue?

We live today, McGrath concludes, not at a time of the twilight of the gods but in the twilight of atheism. Just as political empires rise and fall, so too do empires of the mind. Just as the coming of twilight does not portend the inevitability of night, rather a time of ambiguity, the current twilight could turn into something quite unexpected.

The modern battle between faith and unfaith is for believers to lose, not for atheists to win.

Wayne Holst is a parish educator at St. David's United Church, Calgary.

Source: The Toronto Star