The incoming sea of faith
Alister McGrath says that atheism has been discredited by the
collapse of communism and the postmodern need for tolerance
When I was an atheist back in the 1960s, its future seemed assured.
I grew up in Northern Ireland, where religious tensions and violence
had alienated many from Christianity. Like so many disaffected young
people then, I rejected religion as oppressive, hypocritical, a
barbarous relic of the past.
The sociologists were predicting that
religion would soon die out; if not, suitably enlightened
governments and social agencies could ensure that it was relegated
to the margins of culture, the last refuge of the intellectually
feeble and socially devious. The sooner it was eliminated, the
better place the world would be.
Atheism then had the power to command my mind and excite my heart.
It made sense of things, and offered a powerful vision of the
future. The world would be a better place once religion ended. It
was simply a matter of time, judiciously aided by direct action here
Although I am no longer an atheist, I retain a profound
respect for its aspirations for humanity and legitimate criticisms
of dysfunctional religion. Yet the sun seems to be setting on this
shopworn, jaded and tired belief system, which now lacks the
vitality that once gave it passion and power.
To suggest that atheism is a belief system or faith will irritate
some of its followers. For them, atheism is not a belief; it is the
There is no god, and those who believe otherwise are deluded,
foolish or liars (to borrow from the breezy rhetoric of Britain's
favourite atheist, the scientific populariser turned atheist
propagandist Richard Dawkins). But it's now clear that the atheist
case against God has stalled. Surefire philosophical arguments
against God have turned out to be circular and self-referential.
The most vigorous intellectual critique of religion now comes from
Dawkins, who has established himself as atheism's leading
representative in the public arena. Yet a close reading of his works
— which I try to provide in my forthcoming book Dawkins’ God: Genes,
Memes and the Meaning of Life — suggests that his arguments rest
more on fuzzy logic and aggressive rhetoric than on serious
As America’s leading evolutionary
biologist, the late Stephen Jay Gould, insisted, the natural
sciences simply cannot adjudicate on the God question. If the
sciences are used to defend either atheism or religious beliefs,
they are misused.
Yet atheism has not simply run out of intellectual steam. Its moral
credentials are now severely tarnished. Once, it was possible to
argue that religion alone was the source of the world’s evils. Look
at the record of violence of the Spanish Inquisition (interestingly,
recent research has challenged this historical stereotype).
oppression of the French people in the 1780s under the Roman
Catholic Church and the Bourbon monarchy. The list could be extended
endlessly to make the same powerful moral point: wherever religion
exercises power, it oppresses and corrupts, using violence to
enforce its own beliefs and agendas. Atheism argued that it
abolished this tyranny by getting rid of what ultimately caused it
faith in God.
Yet that argument now seems tired, stale and unconvincing. It was
credible in the 19th century precisely because atheism had never
enjoyed the power and influence once exercised by religion. But all
that has changed. Atheism’s innocence has now evaporated. In the
20th century, atheism managed to grasp the power that had hitherto
And it proved just as fallible, just as corrupt and just
as oppressive as anything that had gone before it. Stalin’s death
squads were just as murderous as their religious antecedents. Those
who dreamed of freedom in the new atheist paradise often found
themselves counting trees in Siberia, or confined to the gulags
and they were the fortunate ones.
Like many back in the late 1960s, I was quite unaware of the darker
side of atheism, as practised in the Soviet Union. I had assumed
that religion would die away naturally, in the face of the
compelling intellectual arguments and moral vision offered by
I failed to ask what might happen if people did not want to
have their faith eliminated. A desire to eliminate belief in God at
the intellectual or cultural level has the most unfortunate tendency
to encourage others to do this at the physical level.
Lenin, frustrated by the Russian people’s obstinate refusal to espouse
atheism voluntarily and naturally after the Russian Revolution,
enforced it, arguing in a famous letter of March 1922 that the
‘protracted use of brutality’ was the necessary means of achieving
Some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were committed
by regimes which espoused atheism, often with a fanaticism that some
naive Western atheists seem to think is reserved only for religious
As Martin Amis stressed in Koba the Dread, we now know what
really happened under Stalin, even if it was unfashionable to talk
about this in progressive circles in the West until the 1990s. The
firing squads that Stalin sent to liquidate the Buddhist monks of
Mongolia gained at least something of their fanaticism and hatred of
religion from those who told them that religion generated fanaticism
The real truth here seems to be that identified by Nietzsche at the
end of the 19th century — that there is something about human nature
which makes it capable of being inspired by what it believes to be
right to do both wonderful and appalling things. Neither atheism nor
religion may be at fault — it might be some deeply troubling flaw in
human nature itself. It is an uncomfortable thought, but one that
demands careful reflection.
A further problem for atheism is that its appeal seems to be
determined by its social context, not intrinsic to its ideas. Where
religion is seen to oppress, confine, deprive and limit, atheism may
well be seen to offer humanity a larger vision of freedom.
religion anchors itself in the hearts and minds of ordinary people,
is sensitive to their needs and concerns, and offers them a better
future, the atheist critique is unpersuasive.
In the past, atheism
offered a vision which captured the imagination of Western Europe.
We all need to dream, to imagine a better existence — and atheism
empowered people to overthrow the past, and create a brave new
The appeal of atheism as a public philosophy came to an
undistinguished end in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Atheism, once seen as a liberator, was now cordially loathed as an
The beliefs were pretty much the same as before; their
appeal, however, was very different. As the Soviet empire crumbled
at a dizzying rate in the 1990s, those who had once been ‘liberated’
from God rushed to embrace him once more.
Islam is resurgent in
central Soviet Asia, and Orthodoxy in Russia itself. Harsh and
bitter memories of state-enforced atheism linger throughout Eastern
Europe, with major implications for the religious and cultural
future of the European Union as former Soviet bloc nations achieve
Where people enjoy their religion, seeing it as something
life-enhancing and identity-giving, they are going to find atheism
unattractive. The recent surge of evidence-based studies
demonstrating the positive impact of religion on human wellbeing has
yet to be assimilated by atheist writers.
It is only where religion
is seen as the enemy that atheism’s demands for its elimination will
be taken seriously. Atheism’s problem is that its own baleful legacy
in the former Soviet Union has led many to view it as the enemy, and
religion as its antidote. In Eastern Europe, atheism is widely seen
as politically discredited and imaginatively exhausted.
But what of Western Europe, which has known state Churches and a
religious establishment, but never the state atheism that casts such
a dark shadow over its future in the East? Surely atheism can hope
for greater things here?
The West, having been spared first-hand
experience of atheism as the authoritarian (anti)religion of the
establishment, still has some vague, lingering memories of a
religious past that atheism could build on. Yet there are real
For a new challenge to atheism has arisen within the
West, which atheist writers have been slow to recognise and
reluctant to engage — postmodernism.
Historians of ideas often note that atheism is the ideal religion of
modernity — the cultural period ushered in by the Enlightenment. But
that had been displaced by postmodernity, which rejects precisely
those aspects of modernity that made atheism the obvious choice as
the preferred modern religion. Postmodernity has thus spawned
post-atheism. Yet atheism seems to be turning a blind eye to this
massive cultural shift, and the implications for the future of its
In marked contrast, gallons of ink have been spilled and immense
intellectual energy expended by Christian writers in identifying and
meeting the challenges of postmodernism.
Two are of particular
relevance here. First, in general terms, postmodernism is intensely
suspicious of totalising worldviews, which claim to offer a global
view of reality. Christian apologists have realised that there is a
real challenge here.
If Christianity claims to be right where others
are wrong, it has to make this credible to a culture which is
strongly resistant to any such claims to be telling the whole truth.
Second, again in general terms, postmodernity regards purely
materialist approaches to reality as inadequate, and has a genuine
interest in recovering ‘the spiritual dimension to life’.
For Christian apologists, this is a problem, as this new interest in
spirituality has no necessary connection with organised religion of
any kind, let alone Christianity. How can the Churches connect with
Atheism has been slow, even reluctant, to engage with either of
these developments, tending to dismiss them as irrational and
superstitious (Richard Dawkins is a case in point). Yet it is easy
to see why the rise of postmodernity poses a significantly greater
threat to atheism than to Christianity.
Atheism offers precisely the
kind of ‘metanarrative’ that postmodern thinkers hold to lead to
intolerance and oppression. Its uncompromising and definitive denial
of God is now seen as arrogant and repressive, rather than as
principled and moral.
The postmodern interest in spirituality is much more troubling for
atheism than for Christianity. For the Christian, the problem is how
to relate or convert an interest in spirituality to the Church or to
But at least it points in the right direction. For the
atheist, it represents a quasi-superstitious reintroduction of
spiritual ideas, leading postmodernity backwards into religious
beliefs that atheism thought it had exorcised. Atheism seems
curiously disconnected from this shift in cultural mood.
that atheists are greying, inhabiting a dying modern world, while
around them a new interest in the forbidden fruit of the spiritual
realm is gaining the upper hand, above all among young people.
Consider the immense popularity of the Alpha course, whose
advertisements may be seen on London buses, and whose adherents are
now said to number some 60 million worldwide; or the expansion of
Pentecostalism, now attracting half a billion global followers.
9/11, a religiously motivated assault, did not prompt an atheist
backlash, but an upsurge in interest in Islam. What, I wonder, are
the implications of such developments for the future of atheism in
I see no reason why atheism cannot regain some of its lost ground —
but not as a public philosophy, commanding wide assent and demanding
privileged access to the corridors of power.
It will do so as a
private belief system, respectful of the beliefs of others. Instead
of exulting in disrespect and contempt for religious belief, atheism
will see itself as one option among many, entitled to the same
respect that it accords others.
The most significant, dynamic and
interesting critic of Western Christianity is no longer atheism, but
a religious alternative, offering a rival vision of God — Islam.
This is not what the atheist visionaries of the past wanted, but it
seems to be the way things are going.
Alister McGrath is professor of historical theology at Oxford University.
© 2004 The Spectator.co.uk 18 September 2004
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