Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Atheism in Decline: New World (Dis)Order

That most entertaining of English magazines, The Spectator, in its September 18, 2004 issue, carried an article by Oxford theologian Alister McGrath entitled “The Incoming Sea of Faith.” Essentially a teaser for two books that the prolific McGrath has produced entitled The Twilight of Atheism, and Dawkin’s God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, the article goes over the familiar ground that atheism’s zealous convictions about wars being caused by religion and the eventual demise of religions at the hands of enlightenment have been proven wrong and that the appeal of atheism as a public philosophy “came to an undistinguished end in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall”. State atheism came to be loathed and failed.

He points out the lamentable track record of 20th Century atheistic regimes and notes that atheism has both run out of intellectual steam and severely tarnished its moral credentials. Moreover, atheist philosophers, and in his article McGrath makes special mention of Richard Dawkins, who has tried to establish himself as atheism’s leading propagandist, have been slow to recognise and reluctant to engage postmodernism.

Citing an observation 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, McGrath notes that “…it might be some deeply troubling flaw in human nature itself” that is responsible for human wrongdoing rather than merely the externalities of race, gender, sex or class as the typically utopian alternatives usually suggest. McGrath says that this uncomfortable thought “demands careful reflection”. He is right to make this point as failure to have any concept of evil and/or the root causes of coercion is a fatal weakness in all the alternatives to a properly Christian conception of things.

What postmodernism is suspicious of, according to McGrath, is “totalising worldviews” or, those theories that claim to “offer a global view of reality”. Secondly, post-modernity “regards purely materialist approaches to reality as inadequate”. So far so good.

McGrath notes that Christian apologists have a problem on their hands because this new interest in spirituality “has no necessary connection with organized religion of any kind, let alone Christianity. How can the “Churches” [note the plural] connect with such aspirations?” he asks. How indeed? McGrath suggests that the post-modern interest in “spirituality” is more troubling for atheism than for Christianity because “for the Christian, the problem is how to relate or convert an interest in spirituality to the Church [note the singular] or to Jesus Christ”.

According to McGrath “at least this is in the right direction”. For the atheist, on the other hand, “…. [this resurgent spirituality] represents a quasi-superstitious reintroduction of spiritual ideas, leading post-modernity backwards into religious beliefs that atheism thought it had exorcised”.

Then McGrath’s analysis takes a curious turn – a turn of great significance. Citing the resurgence of Pentecostalism “now attracting half a billion global followers” and the Alpha course “whose adherents are now said to number some 60 million worldwide” McGrath asks: “What, I wonder, are the implications of such developments for the future of atheism in the West?” Here McGrath fails to note a critical problem within Christianity itself; one that will play havoc with both the engagements with atheism and the new, often vapid, spiritualities.

Like the late English writer Lesslie Newbigin, McGrath notes the need to connect with this new cultural phenomenon of post-modernity. Unlike Newbigin, McGrath seems all too satisfied with the divisions within Christianity that, as Newbigin brilliantly noted, “represent the very thing in their division that they seek to overcome in their witness”.

How, asked Newbigin, in his brilliant book Foolishness to the Greeks, can denominational Christianity speak with authority to postmodernism when in itself it is so divided and constantly dividing? Newbigin, citing the American sociologist of religion, Thomas Luckman, said that “denominationalism is the secularized aspect that religion takes in a culture dominated by the Enlightenment”. I am unaware that McGrath sees this problem within Protestantism.

With both writers, however, McGrath and Newbigin, there was a complete and striking failure to comprehend that there is a body within Christianity that does, in fact, claim precisely to speak for the whole! As Protestants, neither McGrath nor Newbigin wish to engage the really big thing that stares them both in the face and might well be the thing that provides the biggest antagonist to both secularistic atheism and vague spiritualism not to mention that other big factor in the world - - Islam.

McGrath calls Islam “the most significant, dynamic and interesting critic of Western Christianity”. He is wrong on several counts. First, “Western Christianity” is not one thing. It is a variety of things only one of which claims to be a visible Church. The Alpha Course and Pentecostalism, for all their popularity, could never engage what we might call “post-modern Christianity” with its massive fragmentations and individualism because they have no deep conception of history, authority or dogma.

C.S. Lewis’ well known apologetic of half a century ago, Mere Christianity, ought really to have been called “Many Christianities” given what we now see arrayed around the world under the banner of Christianity. These fragmented and ever fragmenting communities do in fact represent, as Newbigin so powerfully pointed out, the very division and individualism that post-modernity has set up as its definition of human being and the human condition - - a vision that the Christian faith ought to stand in stark opposition to.

The most significant challenger to Islam, atheism and protestant denominationalism is, and will likely remain, the Roman Catholic Church for it alone claims to have an understanding of the root causes of each and claims to speak with an authority that encompasses the world. Whether one agrees with this authority or not is an open question but that there is such a distinctive claim alone within Roman Catholicism should not be ignored by those, such as McGrath and Newbigin, who have written so wisely on other matters.

This does not mean that there are not grounds for co-operation between the four major players of the new world disorder, far from it, just that any attempt to discuss the four as if they are only three (Christianity, Islam and Atheism) is going to fail. McGrath and others need to see the fourth player (or fifth if we include post-modernism as a “player” which I am not sure is really valid) for what it is and for what it claims to be. There is a twilight of atheism visible after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it was not denominational Christianity that led to the collapse of that wall.

Iain T. Benson ©