The Twilight of Atheism

Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and a leading Anglican evangelical, has written another superb book. This title traces the history of the denial of God from the ancient world up to the present day, and exposes the present bankruptcy of this position.

McGrath focuses principally on the Modern period, which he defines as roughly covering the 200 years between the French Revolution (1789) and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). The French Revolution not only constituted a massive revolt against the corruption of both church and state, but also sparked-off a movement for the abandonment of belief in God himself. The intellectual foundations were then strengthened in different ways by Feuerbach, Marx and Freud. He traces the story of atheism, through the 19th century conflict between religion and science, and the vision of a godless culture found in the writings of Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Camus, to the more recent views of Richard Dawkins and the American atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

For all its influence in the modern world, however, McGrath sees atheism as being on the wane. Politically, the downfall of atheistic communism dealt a heavy blow to the whole movement. Philosophically, atheism is increasingly being recognised as a belief system just as much as theism, the non-existence of God being no more capable of ‘proof’ than his existence. Culturally, the advent of post-modernism declared all previous certainties relative, and has for many re-opened the door to the spiritual dimension of life. Organisationally, the atheistic movement has largely failed to mobilise its adherents. And historically, the 20th century, far from witnessing the expected demise of Christianity, has in fact in many parts of the world witnessed its vigorous growth, not least through Pentecostalism, which now has a following of about half a billion people.

British readers may regret that there is comparatively little in this book on the British scene. Protestants may feel that McGrath’s critique of the Reformation as actually contributing to the birth of modern atheism, through its iconoclasm and tendency to separate the secular from the sacred, is a little unfair. And scholars may wonder why there is no reference to Hans Küng’s monumental book Does God Exist?, even in the bibliography.

But most readers, I suspect, will find in this book a mine of information concerning atheism, a lucid account of its history in the modern period, and a compelling case for its precariousness as a credible position to adopt in the world we now inhabit. This is an encouraging book for believers, which I heartily recommend.

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