February 6, 2005


God makes a comeback (George Pell, 29jan05, The Australian)

Last July, [Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at Oxford University] published The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, and this year has followed up with Dawkins' God. Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life , answering Richard Dawkins, also an Oxford professor, and known affectionately as "Darwin's Rottweiler", the most outspoken atheist in the English-speaking world.

McGrath, a Protestant Christian and a prolific author, is well qualified for his task. Equally important perhaps are the facts that he was a Marxist atheist as a young man and has a PhD in biochemistry from Oxford. Even today he describes himself as "a wounded yet respectful lover of the great revolt against God".

As a young man McGrath believed that Marxism held the key to the future. He chose atheism because it proposed to eradicate religion, making a decisive break with the religious strife and violence of his own Northern Ireland. Atheism made sense of things, enabled people to make of their lives what they chose and it offered hope for a better future, especially through the secular messianism of the Marxists.

However, during his scientific studies at university and especially through his work on the history and philosophy of the natural sciences he came to realise he did not understand the religion he had rejected and that what he had accepted was "an imaginatively impoverished and emotionally deficient substitute". No longer for him was religion an "oppressive, hypocritical and barbarous relic of the past".

Today McGrath believes that the atheist case against God has stalled, run out of intellectual steam, with arguments resting more on fuzzy logic and aggressive rhetoric than on serious evidence-based argument.

He believes that especially with the level of today's scientific knowledge of biology (and physics), the natural sciences do not constitute an intellectual super-highway for logic to arrive at atheism. Today's world is post-atheist.

An example supporting McGrath's claims was the announcement last month by the 81-year-old British philosopher Anthony Flew, for 50 years a public champion of atheism, that he now believes in a minimal sort of god.

He is a deist, believing in a supreme intelligence, which is not actively involved in peoples' lives.

For Flew too the biologists' investigation of DNA, their discovery of the extraordinary complexity of arrangements which lead to life, have brought him to his god.

While still a Darwinian, his views parallel those of some American "intelligent design" theorists. As some consolation to his former allies, Flew insists that he does not believe in the afterlife and, to show that the old fires are not completely dead, he insists that his god is very different from the Christian and Islamic versions, where both are depicted as "omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins"!

Traditionally Catholics, especially through the rationalism of the Scholastics (with Thomas Aquinas's five ways of proving God's existence as the best-known example) have been confident of the powers of the human mind to move towards the recognition of a super intelligence, God as the first cause, the creator, sustainer and designer of the universe, while requiring the revelation of the Scriptures for evidence of a Trinitarian god, the incarnation and redemption.

Some Protestants have been much more sceptical of the power of the unaided human mind to recognise God and McGrath is closer to this tradition.

He quite rightly follows Stephen Jay Gould in explaining that the sciences cannot adjudicate on the God question. If the debate is to be decided solely on scientific grounds, the outcome can only be agnosticism. But he goes further than this by claiming that human reasoning from the scientific evidence cannot contribute much to deciding on non-scientific, that is, meta-physical grounds for atheism or theism.

For him the belief that there is no god is as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a god, because the arguments of theists and atheists are circular rationalisations which lead back to the two different starting points.

With this avenue closed, McGrath has concluded from his personal experience that the appeal of atheism is not intrinsic to its ideas, but determined more by its social context. Atheism thrives where the church has been oppressive and out of touch, unwilling or unable to inspire altruism, to stir the imagination or the emotions. At best this is an oversimplification.

Therefore, there are two other more important reasons why atheism is in trouble. First its innocence has been extinguished by Stalin's death squads and Nazism, even if some still want to argue whether Nazism was explicitly atheist in its demonic hatred of the Jewish people who gave us monotheism.

The moral credentials of atheism are exploded and the history of the 20th century showed that Dostoyevsky was right in claiming that without God the way is open to unrestricted tyranny and violence. Atheism made Lenin and Stalin possible, although atheists too opposed them.

This line of argumentation is well known to theists and indeed many victims of the communists.

However, McGrath's second argument is more surprising, because he believes the rise of postmodernity poses a greater threat to atheism than to Christianity. For him atheism was the ideal religion of modernity, that period ushered in by the Enlightenment, although atheists were a tiny minority everywhere, especially in Australia. But postmodernism is intrinsically post-atheist. [...]

In both of his books, but especially in The Twilight of Atheism, McGrath has made an important contribution, not just by giving heart to Christians, but by pointing out what is changing in our world which is not as secular as we imagine, even though it might be often superstitious and neo-pagan. We are often slow to realise what is happening under our eyes.

Atheism is in trouble. Religion is on the up. The 21st century will be post-atheist.

Which, given the American experience as opposed to the European, will be to the good.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 6, 2005 8:16 AM

Wait a minute. How can scientific knowledge of biology help the deists if there is no science of biology?

Typical of religionists, though. Hard to pin 'em down to anything.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 6, 2005 7:05 PM


Biology can be scientific--Darwinism isn't.

Posted by: oj at February 6, 2005 10:14 PM