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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion

The Twilight of Atheism

Alister McGrath

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To purchase The Twilight of Atheism

Title: The Twilight of Atheism
Author: Alister McGrath
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 279 pages
Availability: The Twilight of Atheism - US
The Twilight of Atheism - UK
The Twilight of Atheism - Canada
  • The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World

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Our Assessment:

B- : decent overview of atheistic movements, but McGrath overextends himself

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 26/11/2004 John Gray
National Review . 13/11/2004 Charlotte Allen
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/12/2004 Samuel G. Freedman
Policy Review . 2-3/2005 Claire Berlinski
Scotland on Sunday . 7/11/2004 Jonathan Derbyshire
Salon . 2/8/2004 Laura Miller
The Spectator . 9/10/2004 Digby Anderson
TLS . 16/12/2004 John Habgood
The Tablet . 27/11/2004 Fergus Kerr

  Review Consensus:

  Find it to be of some interest, but most have some reservations.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The decline of secular thought is the subject of Alister McGrath's provocative and timely The Twilight of Atheism. (...) His aim is not so much to analyse atheism as demolish its intellectual credentials, and in this he is largely successful. (...) At the same time, his zeal as a Christian apologist gives his argument a strident and parochial tone. McGrath's difficulties begin when he tries to define atheism." - John Gray, The Independent

  • "McGrath is an engaging, anecdoteloving writer with irenic sympathy for all his subjects, even the atheists, whose classic critique of Christianity as intolerant and corruption-prone he believes has spurred the churches to reform themselves in positive ways. I found him a shade too irenic." - Charlotte Allen, National Review

  • "But he errs severely in presenting the fall of the Berlin Wall as the end of the story. (...) In a book of impressive intellectual range, the omission is nothing short of intellectually dishonest." - Samuel G. Freedman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "If his chronicle of atheism’s rise seems insufficient, so does McGrath’s account of its decline. (...) McGrath’s case is a limited one. The arguments for and against the existence of God are for him unresolvable and, the reader senses, ultimately uninteresting. The object of his historic inquiry is not atheism per se but one particular and influential strand of it (...) But McGrath defines atheism so narrowly that the most interesting questions are unaddressed and unresolved, and his ebullient conclusions are unsupported by the arguments." - Claire Berlinski, Policy Review

  • "There is a deeper problem with McGrath’s position, however, and it has to do with what he thinks atheism is, exactly. He takes it for granted that atheism is strictly anti-religious, and therefore essentially negative." - Jonathan Derbyshire, Scotland on Sunday

  • "On the offensive, then, McGrath is fine. But there is the implication and sometimes more than an implication that religion is set for a revival as atheism wanes. He gives next to no evidence for this. (...) The problem is that McGrath does not make clear whether he is talking about religion or about Christianity and where he is talking about it. The atheism he describes is mostly in western Europe and the USA." - Digby Anderson, The Spectator

  • "In The Twilight of Atheism, Alister McGrath, who was once himself an unbeliever, spells out this story, with much enjoyable anecdote, and with considerable sympathy for the pioneers – poets and novelists, as well as philosophers and scientists – who saw themselves as liberators of the human imagination. He warns, though, that their work has to be understood in context. (...) The origin of this book in a packed Oxford Union debate is an indication that, there at least, the questions are still felt to matter." - John Habgood, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Among the most maddening aspects of The Twilight of Atheism is how loosely and freely author McGrath plays with the concept of 'atheism'. To him -- for the most (but not entire) part -- it is merely another ideology, a faith as much as belief in a god (which, for McGrath, inevitably means the Christian god-concept) is a faith. By framing 'atheism' as 'non-belief', he conveniently keeps belief -- and with it, god -- in the game, and makes it essentially an either-or proposition. This is fundamentally flawed: atheism is the natural, obvious condition, and all beliefs (not just in a deity) are artificial constructs -- with the ones that can not be proven and have to be taken entirely on faith obviously just as viable as any god-belief. But McGrath does not entertain other beliefs (witchcraft, the idea that we are not real but rather only figments of our own or someone/thing else's imagination, or that what we know as reality is actually an elaborate computer programme, or that we are actually puppets being manoeuvred by twelve-dimensional aliens, or anything equally absurd). Incredibly, he barely even acknowledges other versions of god-belief (from the Roman and Greek gods to Hinduism and pretty much everything else).
       McGrath explicitly sees it differently: for him god (once again: the Christian notion of a supreme being) is the natural condition -- and he's so sure of himself that he barely even explores the question of whether this is a proposition that could potentially be called into question (of course it can). He gets away with this because his book does, for the most part, address an idea of 'atheism' that is, indeed, the other side of the belief-coin. Focussing on Christian Western European thought between the French Revolution and the present, The Twilight of Atheism examines the rise and fall of various strains of 'atheism', some of which do, indeed, fit McGrath's notion of atheism merely as a reaction to theism. But he tries too hard to have his cake and eat it too, conflating actual atheism with the various anti-theistic movements and refusing to acknowledge the very real differences between the two concepts. Just because they can all be called: 'atheism' doesn't mean they are the same thing. (Similarly: god-belief doesn't necessarily entail belief in the god that McGrath is talking about, an issue he fails to address almost entirely, making for another major failing of the book.)
       To look at atheism only as the opposite and alternative to theism is absurd: it is like pitting those who don't believe in witchcraft, or the occult, or ESP, or astrology against those who do. In each of these cases -- and, we maintain, no less in the case of religion -- the opposite of belief is not a position that needs any defending. It is the natural position, and anyone who wants to make a case for the existence of witchcraft or the validity of astrology or the existence of god (and all the Biblical baggage that that comes with at least the Christian and Jewish variations), well, the entire burden of proof is on them. This doesn't deny the possibility that ESP exists, or that witches fly on broomsticks through the night, or that there's a second coming a'coming -- but those who espouse these beliefs are not holding positions that have anywhere near the claim to authority that those who do not hold them (i.e. those who -- if one absolutely has to put it this way, as McGrath does with regards to atheists -- deny them).
       Oh, he's clever alright in framing the argument as either-or, and presenting theism and atheism as the two possible sides of the coin. And, of course, it leads nicely to his conclusions:

     The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God. If "faith" is defined as "belief lying beyond proof," both Christianity and atheism are faiths. While this suggestion might seem astonishing to some atheists, it is not only philosophically correct but also illuminating in shedding light on the changed fortunes of atheism in recent years. The strength of atheistic feeling has been directly proportional to that of its religious antithesis
       Certainly, the non-existence of a god is as impossible as proving the existence of a god -- an insight that might be philosophically correct but is also banal. There are countless other beliefs that can not be proved -- and whose falseness hence also defies proof. What McGrath fails to address is why we should consider god-belief (or the belief that we are butterflies dreaming we are book reviewers, or whatever other ridiculous idea one might want to propose) in the first place. Surely, the coin is not two sided -- atheism/theism -- but rather has one large face (the world as we see and actually know it, to put it simply), and then countless tiny, insignificant but possible other sides, among which is this god-concept-notion.
       Admittedly, religion is a special case, because it happens to be by far the most popular delusion, embraced by the masses world over. (Of course, the belief McGrath is talking about isn't anywhere near universal, but he doesn't worry his readers with that fact.) Popularity, however, is surely not proof of anything in such matters. Take any group of people, especially if you get them while they're young, and if you have the resources at your disposal chances are you'll be able to convince the vast majority of them of any nonsense. Religious institutions, with their incredible wealth, general high regard, widespread acceptance, and history behind them have been particularly successful in this brainwashing over the centuries. (To express it differently: McGrath surely wouldn't doubt the existence of his god any more than he does now if everybody around him suddenly abandoned their belief, would he ? The fact that many or few believe the unbelievable does not make it any more (or less) likely or true.)
       When McGrath describes the rise and fall of atheism he does raise interesting and valid points. The two main areas he focusses on are atheism as a movement in opposition to the organised religion of the day (specifically a corrupt Catholic Church), and the attempts of those who did not believe in a god to explain why god-belief might and did arise and remains popular.
       Even here, however, he places too much emphasis on atheism as reaction and fad:
Yet one of the most obvious lessons of history is that atheism thrives when the Church is seen to be privileged, out of touch with the people, and powerful
       This may be true, but perhaps more accurately should be seen from the converse-angle: god-belief -- or the appearance thereof -- thrives when organised religion, by coercion or actual user-friendliness, manages to force its views on large parts of the population.
       Some of the discussions -- on Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud, in particular -- are of interest, though McGrath focusses resolutely on their theories about why religion arose and remains popular -- theories that are easy to make fun of. Elsewhere, he overreaches entirely, as in discussing science v. atheism. He claims that the prevailing view is that science and religion are mutually exclusive, and that there are those who believe: "To take the idea of God seriously is to commit intellectual suicide." This is -- as he then gleefully points out -- nonsense (but only with the caveat -- which he does not go into at all -- that it's the vague sort of god-idea of the open-minded Christian sort popular in Europe that manages to get along with science; Biblical literalists still have their issues ...). In claiming Darwinism is not at all irreconcilable with god-belief (true enough, on some level -- and the position held by the Catholic Church) he conveniently choose to avert his eyes from the current situation in the United States, where Darwinism is very much seen as contradicting the word of the lord, and where popular pressure has grown so large that the teaching of evolution has clearly been hampered in public schools in many states.
       Wherever he turns, he wants to have it both ways, making his arguments evermore unconvincing. On the one hand he points to the triumph of atheism in the Soviet Union:
It was a world evacuated of God, to be sure -- but the process of extraction appeared to have sucked the world dry of many of the vital stimuli for creativity and exhilaration.
       To be sure ? How easy certainty comes, and so he can hold up the Soviet Union as the terrible example of what happens in an atheocracy. Too bad twenty pages earlier he had admitted:
     It is now clear that the various antireligious campaigns of the Stalinist era failed to eliminate personal faith.
       In fact, the Soviet Union was, at best a half-hearted atheocracy, god hardly convincingly evacuated. But he needs the Soviet Union as an example of how things go wrong if there's no god-belief: the outrages committed in the Soviet Union are proof enough for him, once and for all, that:
Atheism was just as bad as any other religion. No longer could anyone take the suggestion that atheism was the liberator of humanity with any seriousness.
       The argument is a flawed one -- indeed, ridiculous. What crimes against humanity there were committed in the USSR (and there were a lot) were not committed primarily in the name of atheism, and in this Soviet outrages differ markedly from those committed by many devoutly believing leaders, many of whom acted specifically in defence of and/or in the name of their god(s) (though many, of course, also used god-belief merely as a cover and excuse for other ambitions). Atheism was merely a convenient label for Soviet leaders to embrace, and god-belief a convenient thing to attack some of those who would not follow obediently with. One might argue that Soviet leaders' atheism left them without a moral compass and thus was the root of their evil, but god-belief hasn't been enough to stop many similarly evil rulers (and underlings) over the ages, so that hardly seems much of an argument. (Indeed, McGrath correctly notes: "After all, atheists are human beings, like everyone else, and their refusal to believe in God or any other spiritual force makes them no better and no worse than anyone else.")
       Even when McGrath does not treat atheism as simply an anti-organised-religion movement, he refuses to see it as anything different from just another faith. And he consistently undermines it by taking that starting point (atheism as faith) and misrepresenting atheism -- suggesting, for example, that part of its appeal can be found in the notion that:
Atheism is the religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity. (...) It was a powerful, self-confident, and aggressive worldview. Possessed of a boundless confidence, it proclaimed that the world could be fully understood and subsequently mastered.
       His claims could equally apply to other faiths -- as followers of Christianity, for example, are similarly certain (albeit while having a very different understanding of matters like world-mastery, which they leave in the hands of their god). But, while McGrath is correct that one of the reasons people turned to atheism was because they did believe: "reason is able to uncover the deepest truths of the universe" etc., he conveniently ignores the fact that atheism per se offers none of these certainties. Atheism itself does not proclaim that: "that the world could be fully understood and subsequently mastered". Yes, many atheists believe that, and, if religious faith did not offer them the understanding of the world they thought was correct (or most extensive) then this may be a major reason why they abandoned their gods, but it should be obvious that atheism offers only different (and far from complete) understanding and world-mastery. (Since the understanding tends to be closer to real-world experience, much of this tends to be more useful and thus might be considered superior, but even most atheists surely would agree that god-believers are more certain that they truly understand the world (since they put all their faith in that simple god-belief, which conveniently explains absolutely everything).) He can claim (and then dismiss) atheism as "a totalizing system", because others have presented it in that way -- but it doesn't have to be (and, for example, it would never have occurred to us to consider it as such).
       By claiming atheism pompously "proclaimed that the world could be fully understood and subsequently mastered" and then noting the obvious (world mastery and understanding ? not quite so simple !) he appears to show yet another fatal flaw in the atheist-theory; the flaw, however, is in the argument, which begins with the false premise. And once again: the reason he almost gets away with it is because he frames it in the historical context, finding those who actually made this argument and then applying it to atheism generally. Again and again, it is atheism-as-a-movement, i.e. as just another faith that he focusses on (which would be fine if he didn't also try to take down actual atheism with the same stroke).
       The most egregious example comes late in the book, as he discusses contemporary atheism-movements and specifically the bizarre American Atheists organisation and their one-time spiritual leader, Madalyn Muray O'Hair. While he admits that this is only one example (and while not offering any others ...), he thinks there are lessons to be learnt here:
The point being made here is simply that, under Madalyn Muray O'Hair, America's most prominent atheist organization projected an immensely unattractive image of a Goddless world, which has helped to shape American projections of atheism. A movement that began with a sense of outrage at the injustices of the world seems to have ended up either by parodying itself or by appropriating the excesses -- moral and intellectual -- of its opponents.
       The key word is, of course, 'movement', not 'atheism.' That the American Atheists -- at least as he presents their doings -- are hard to take seriously or sympathise with has little to do with atheism. Self-proclaimed prophets are a dime a dozen, and any religious movement probably contains similar embarrassing characters. McGrath likes the American Atheists because they are the perfect example of atheism-as-faith, as just another religious group; indeed, the perfect group, since they are solely a counter-group, existing to oppose god belief. Actual atheism -- simple non-god-belief, the natural state of nature and unindoctrinated humanity -- does not, of course, need to group together in this way.
       But part of what McGrath is concerned with is the popularity of movements -- he loves the user-friendly Pentecostals, and suggests how churches can be successful in keeping and increasing their flocks, as well as why the atheist movement has become less and less attractive. He doesn't think religion is declining -- as the title of his book states, he believes it is atheism that is looking at troubled times ahead (though he wisely admits that it will not be possible to rid the world of it entirely). Interestingly, he doesn't worry about the church-message all that much -- it's the user-friendliness he focusses on, how opening one's heart to the Christian god can be made more appealing, regardless of what that actually means.
       Disappointingly, The Twilight of Atheism is focussed almost solely on Christianity, and except for briefly enthusing over the Korean embrace of Christianity he doesn't even venture much beyond Europe and the United States (and only in the final paragraph adds the word that belongs appended throughout the book, acknowledging he's been talking about: "Western atheism"). Hinduism and Islam barely rate a mention, and the messy issue of a variety of god-beliefs is ignored. One battle at a time, seems to be his theory: first get rid of the non-believers, then (in the next book ?) remind everybody that there is only one god (and that's the one in his corner, of course).
       In the middle of the book, McGrath offers a "personal narrative", admitting -- oh ! what a shocking surprise ! -- that: "I used to be an atheist." It is here he emphasises the precise definition of atheism he is working with:
By "atheist", I mean precisely what the word has always been understood to mean -- a principled and informed decision to reject belief in God.
       And, indeed, most of the book is concerned with those who: "reject belief in God". But he can't avoid the fact that atheism extends much farther. The real danger to his world (and world-view) isn't those who act in opposition to his church and its ideology, but those for whom it isn't an issue. Pressed to choose sides, they too will "reject" god -- but only in the sense that, if asked, they will reject belief in witchcraft, or the idea that they are dreaming the world around them, or any other equally fantastic and unprovable belief. It is this baby he throws out with the bathwater that is his book, unfortunately.
       McGrath's atheist-phase predictably came about because, as a teen, he "came to view that religion was the source of all of humanity's ills" and that it was incompatible with science, etc.:
     Let me stress the point: the appeal of atheism for me lay in its proposal to eradicate religion. If atheism had represented itself simply as commending the merits of a godless worldview, I would not have been attracted to it -- and neither would many others.
       While there is some appeal to simply being anti-religious (or anti-organised-religion), surely the only true "appeal" of atheism is in its godless worldview. That should be the point of it. McGrath, however, focusses on atheism as it attracted him -- and as it let him down. Fair enough, if that's as far as it went -- but, of course, he tries to take the godless worldview down with him. Which is both unsporting and unconvincing.
       The Twilight of Atheism is a messy book. Insofar as it addresses anti-religious movements in Europe (and, to a lesser extent, the US) over the past two hundred and fifty years it offers a decent overview of how these have arisen and of some of the flaws in the reasoning behind them. In assuming that Christian god-belief is co-equal as a worldview with non-god-belief, that these are the only two of an either-or proposition, and in ignoring even merely the many other varieties of god-belief McGrath limits the usefulness of the book. While he makes a few stabs at what makes organised religion successful (v. what makes atheism, as a movement, as he sees it, unsuccessful), McGrath offers a book that is too much reaction than discussion; similar, equally 'convincing' books could easily be written about The Twilight of Catholicism or any other religion.
       McGrath may be correct that organised atheistic movements are on the decline (in every respect), but the much more interesting question of the actual level of god-belief in the world, and whether it is increasing or decreasing, is not addressed (a few statistics about religion in the UK are about the extent of what he offers). Given the incredible wealth, prominence, and power of organised religious movements in Western Europe their rapidly diminishing influence and declining number of active adherents suggests that atheism is, in fact, becoming ever more popular -- even if it is not generally the anti-theistic atheism that McGrath is so obsessed with.

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The Twilight of Atheism: Reviews: Alister McGrath: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       Alister McGrath teaches at Oxford. He was born in 1953.

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© 2005-2010 the complete review

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