In McGrath’s view, atheism is simply a cultural trend that became popular during the Enlightenment, experiencing its peak during the 1960’s. Atheism, McGrath argues, arose as a response to the oppressive control of the church in Europe, and was seen as a worldview that would liberate the West, both politically and sexually, from religious domination. McGrath points to the French Revolution as the event that introduced atheism into politics, and in later years this was followed by the development of the intellectual case for atheism, through proponents such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
However, McGrath argues that atheism is now on the decline, due to a number of reasons: (1) it arose as a response to form of Christianity that is no longer dominant in the West; (2) atheism, ‘the natural ideology of the Communist state’, was tainted by Communism’s brutal rule; and (3) the rise of postmodernism has weakened atheism’s hold on society, as atheism is largely based on the precepts of modernistic thought.
McGrath claims that atheism lacks imagination, currently has poor leadership, and is viewed by many as an outdated worldview. On page 174:
Atheism, once seen as Western culture’s hot date with the future, is now seen as an embarrassing link with a largely discredited past.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book. McGrath is incredibly gracious towards atheists (you won’t find hell fire preaching here), and he weaves an engaging story. There are points that I disagree with, and I am in the process of writing additional blog posts that cover some of these. So watch this space.
In this post, I will return to the question I posed at the beginning: is evil inherent in belief (or non-belief) in God, or does evil arise from human beings despite what they believe? On one hand, McGrath seems to argue that atheism naturally leads to evil. While discussing the relationship of atheism with communism, McGrath writes on page 235:
Yet, as Dostoyevsky foresaw, the elimination of God led to new heights of moral brutality and political violence in Stalinism and Nazism.
In other words, atheism is inherently bad for society because if you remove God from your worldview, there is nothing stopping you from hurting your fellow man. However, elsewhere, McGrath seems to imply that it is human nature, not necessarily belief (or lack of belief) in God, that causes evil. On page 262:
Yes this not to say anything especially negative about atheism – merely that it is just as prone as any other system of thought to the frailties and failings of human nature.
I don’t agree with McGrath that atheism naturally leads to evil, but something can be said for his second comment, that any belief system can fall prey to the frailties of human nature.
What are your thoughts?
Other posts on The Twilight of Atheism:
Atheism: a question of faith?
No to an atheistic world