Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Book: The Twilight of Atheism

Does belief in God (or no belief in God) cause intolerance, or do some people – irrespective of their belief system – become intolerant because they are simply human? This is the question that continuously played on my mind as I read Alister McGrath’s fascinating historical account of the origins of modern day atheism.

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McGrath claims that atheism lacks imagination, currently has poor leadership, and is viewed by many as an outdated worldview.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


Drew said...

As I have argued in many places before it is not religion that is the problem behind human behavior leading to harmful and "evil" acts, but it is ideologies of exclusion. Some religious ideas acts as catalysts to such exclusionary practices that are often so radical that we call them "evil".

This is contra Dawkins and Hitchens who argue that religion is the problem and if we let the religious fight it out they will drive religion to extinction. Now we know that this is a claim without any evidence to support it and is plain rhetoric to draw attention to the book. But it misses the issue completely.

I, with you, agree that 'lack of God leads to evil' is a claim equally without evidential merit and has evidence to the contrary clearly enough. But McGrath's second statement is more palpable.

I would argue that any ideology or sense of over-arching value, or meta-narrative presupposition about reality and human behavior can catalyze the power of the group to exclude the other - any group. While religion can cause this kind of group identity as any ideology can, it is not the source of the problem. That is to say, if we eliminate all religion, we will still have the same problem without God per se, but we will surely have another idea that will determine the identity of one group over another.

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Steve Hayes said...

Many claimed that religion was the4 cause of all evil, and that if you abolished religion the world would be a peaceful place. Communism showed that that was false. The problem is not religion, but human nature. Most religions recognise this, and propose various solutions to the problem, but none of them are very effective, to judge from the results.

Atheists managed to screw up just as badly as religious people.

Marie said...

Well, I don't think that religion or atheism naturally lead to evil. I think that organized things like religion or atheism tend to make people mindless and judgmental to outsiders. Its not human nature, I think, its just the situation and our tendencies.

Liedeke said...

Like Marie, I think that organized 'things' (like groups of people!) will get both judgemental and mindless. Group situations seem to feed into that side human nature. Add power and numbers into the mix, like in organized religions, and I'll take as big a detour as I can.

But I don't think that ateism is actually a belief system (and so I take myself out of the-large-groups-are-evil equasion (-;).

CyberKitten said...

liedeke But I don't think that ateism is actually a belief system (and so I take myself out of the-large-groups-are-evil equasion (-;).

Agreed. Atheism is a sceptical position on the God question. It is not a belief system or world view per se.

Lui said...

"This is contra Dawkins and Hitchens who argue that religion is the problem and if we let the religious fight it out they will drive religion to extinction."

To the best of my knowledge, neither author has ever said this. Hitchens, especially, is pessimistic about the prospects of rationalism triumphing over irrationalism.

There is something central to religion that acts as the harbinger of madness: the supposedly mild claim that faith is a virtue. When people have had that idea implanted into their minds - that is, the idea that it's alright, even perfectly reasonable to believe in things without any evidence (even against the evidence) - there will always be a minority who take it to the extreme. Had those people not been raised with such a pernicious idea, the demagogic recruiters would have had a much more difficult time hijacking that person's thought processes. Sure, the trigger that causes someone to go to the extreme might be for reasons having nothing to do with religion, but it was religion - and specifically, it's insistence upon faith - that gave the recruiter something effective to latch onto. There are undoubtedly non-religious ideas that are toxic, and without religion, it is not at all assured that there would be no wars. On the other hand, it could be that the reason so many turn to religion in this age of advanced science and technology is that secular institutions have largely failed to deliver and people have little else to turn to other than the comforting dogmas of religion.

Marie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Isaac Gouy said...

McGrath is incredibly gracious towards atheists ... McGrath seems to argue that atheism naturally leads to evil ...
That does not seem "incredibly gracious".

Does McGrath distinguish between unforced atheism and compulsory atheism?

Social surveys show a large (and increasing) proportion of the Swedish population do not believe in God - are Swedish social values evil?
Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns p47

Yet, as Dostoyevsky foresaw, the elimination of God led to new heights of moral brutality and political violence in Stalinism and Nazism.

The 20th century totalitarian idealogies were called political religions for good reason!

"... Nazism was not some heretical deviation from Christianity, nor merely a 'substitute for religion', but rather a 'substitute religion', an Ersatzreligion rather than a Religionersatz. The Germans were not living in an atheistic state, but in one where a religion other than Christianity had burgeoned within the public domain." p197 "Sacred Causes", Michael Burleigh, 2007.

"... in Germany the Nazi ideology had a religious (and anti-Christian) character of its own. ... a strong ritual element. ... The emotions of being saved through the Leader ... the myth of Aryan Germany ... the idea of the Thousand-Year Reich was a beguiling eschatology. The role of the Fuhrer was religious too ..." p359 "The World's Religions" 2nd edition, Ninian Smart, 1998.

"Particularly this phase of Mao's career, and of the history of China, presses us to ask whether here China had acquired a new religion. It is appropriate to think so. ... Marxist-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought ... All this added up to a kind of new religion ..." p446-8 "The World's Religions" 2nd edition, Ninian Smart, 1998.