Friday, May 13, 2016

The Twilight of Atheism, by Alistair McGrath: Review

A colleague who teaches philosophy and logic, and who has been a Presbyterian pastor for many years, recommended this book to me.  I had read McGrath’s biography of Calvin and enjoyed it.  So after reading my colleague’s copy for a weekend, I bought a copy. 
It is a good resource but . . .
The history of religion and of course atheism (which as he points out pretty much positions itself in response or counterpoint to Christianity) is a far too complicated subject to deal with in one book, so I consider this a perspective on the topic, a taking of massive amounts of data and literature and culling it down to a “less than academic” work that is in service to an argument that atheism did not take over the world but is in the decline.
Of course the book was written over ten years ago, so some of it is dated.  That’s why I can’t take his conclusions all that seriously, however interesting the journey.  Not that I disagree totally, only that there are huge gaps along with the “good stuff.”
When I write that it is less than academic, I mean it is for the educated laymen, not for the true historian of philosophy.  It is well documented, just incomplete.  Here are my more specific critiques.
Christianity is clearly on the rise in the developing world, even in the Muslim world.  Africa, China and Korea, and South America are becoming more evangelized and Christian. According to a report on the Colson Center yesterday, even in Nepal there is an explosion in Christian believers.  Christianity appeals to the lower classes and castes, and as McGrath points out, the existence or nonexistence of atheism or Christian belief has a great deal to do with historical and sociological circumstances as well as the “brand” of Christianity.  For example, the most Christian Asian country is Korea, largely in response to its oppression from Japan. 
The type of Christianity that is most growing now is Pentecostalism, which “emphasizes a direct connection with God” and does not place doctrine as the only arbiter of practice.  Pentecostalism can also be somewhat ecumenical although it started as an outgrowth of Wesleyanism. 
In the book, Islam is barely mentioned.  That is a huge gap.  Atheism is only defined in terms of European or Western Christianity.  While some would argue that the growth of Islam is a negative thing, from an academic standpoint it is still a force against atheism.  And that brings me to a personal point.  Yes, as a Christian reading this I can appreciate the arguments and analysis but the academic and former debate coach in me recognizes the incompleteness.  McGrath shows his hand and admits to his own former atheism and the shallowness of it in retrospect, and owns his current more evangelical (although it would probably not look like my experience of it) position.
In the U.S. more people claim to be atheists than ever.  I have my doubts as to whether these people really are atheists.  It may be a fad to say that, and given the anti-thought bent of most people.  I believe a more honest position is agnosticism, a state of just not knowing.   I can understand that, although it is a pretty crummy way to live.  Claiming to have conclusive evidence that there is no God is pretty arrogant, and of course they would argue that claiming there is evidence for God is pretty arrogant. Many of these so-called atheists are probably reactionaries against what they see as bigotry, especially against sexual minorities, by the “church” or established religion.
The Christopher Hitchens/Sam Harris/Richard Dawkins types don’t get much space in this book, although Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her shenanigans do, along with so-called atheists organizations.  There seems to be plenty of room to make fun of them.  They come across rather adolescent.  Atheism, in McGrath’s portrait, looks like a bunch of twelve-year-old boys who want to rebel against some authority figure by making fun of something they claim doesn’t exist.  Atlantic Monthly had an article about this phenomenon a few years ago:  People who are mad at the God who isn’t there.   You can’t have it both ways, it seems to me.  At least Sartre and Camus were honest:  you’re on your own; stop blaming the Higher Power for how crappy life, especially your own, is.  If you don’t like it, get off, but don’t be mad at nobody.
The most problematic of his arguments, though, is that Protestantism led to atheism.  This is an odd argument when historically the two least atheistic European countries are the UK and the US (he even points out how many in the UK still claim to be Christians). And, the first or leading atheistic country was a Catholic one—France.  I can see how some of the presuppositions of Protestantism, largely individual conscience, could lead some to atheism, it is not inexorable or inevitable historically.  The revival in Christianity is a Protestant version of it (Pentecostalism).  He also claims that Protestantism lacks imagination, because we emphasize the word and really, really didn’t like images in the first two centuries of the Reformation.  True, but imagination shows up in other ways.  There is C.S. Lewis, who got his vision from George McDonald, a minister.  And Bach and Handl.  And Blake.  And many others.  Maybe our painting wasn’t so great but our music and literature were.  So it’s not all that strong  an argument.  
I do recommend the book to anyone who would like a panoramic view of atheism, but with caveats.  No book, outside the Word, should be taken without critique. 

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