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 and there.
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
Truth. 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 evidence-based argument. 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). Or the 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 eluded it. 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
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 atheism. 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 this goal.
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
people. 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. But where 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 world.
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 oppressor. 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 membership.
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 problems here. 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 faith.
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 such aspirations?
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 Jesus Christ. 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. It seems 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. Even 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 the West?
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
Alister McGrath is professor of historical theology at Oxford university.
© 2004 The Spectator.co.uk