February 28, 2005

THE GODLESSNESS THAT FAILED:

The Twilight of Atheism: Why this once exciting and 'liberating' philosophy failed to capture the world's imagination. (Alister McGrath, 02/28/2005, Christianity Today)

Atheism was once new, exciting, and liberating, and for those reasons held to be devoid of the vices of the faiths it displaced. With time, it turned out to have just as many frauds, psychopaths, and careerists as religion does. Many have now concluded that these personality types are endemic to all human groups, rather than being the peculiar preserve of religious folks. With Stalin and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheism seems to have ended up mimicking the vices of the Spanish Inquisition and the worst televangelists, respectively.

One of the most important criticisms that Sigmund Freud directed against religion was that it encourages unhealthy and dysfunctional outlooks on life. Having dismissed religion as an illusion, Freud went on to argue that it is a negative factor in personal development. At times, Freud's influence has been such that the elimination of a person's religious beliefs has been seen as a precondition for mental health.

Freud is now a fallen idol, the fall having been all the heavier for its postponement. There is now growing awareness of the importance of spirituality in health care, both as a positive factor in relation to well-being and as an issue to which patients have a right. The "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School in 1998 brought reports that 86 percent of Americans as a whole, 99 percent of family physicians, and 94 percent of hmo professionals believe that prayer, meditation, and other spiritual and religious practices exercise a major positive role within the healing process.

With the breakdown of social cohesion in recent decades, creating a sense of community has become an increasingly important political issue in many Western cultures. The question of how community can be recovered invites a comparison of religious and atheistic approaches.

One of the most obvious indicators of the ongoing importance of religion is the well-documented tendency of immigrant communities to define themselves in religious terms—Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim communities in Great Britain, and in France, Muslims from Algeria and other North African nations.

Christian churches have long been the centers of community life in the West. People want to belong, not just believe. [...]

The atheist dilemma is that Christianity is a moving target, whose trajectory is capable of being redirected without losing its anchor point in the New Testament. And as theologian John Henry Newman pointed out, Christianity must listen to such criticisms from outside its bounds, precisely because listening may be a way of recapturing its vision of the gospel.

Some atheists have argued that the phenomenon of globalization can only advance a secularist agenda, eliminating religion from the public arena. If the world is to have a shared future, it can only be by eliminating what divides its nations and peoples—such as religious beliefs. Yet many have pointed out in response that globalization seems to be resulting in a quite different outcome.

Far from being secularized, the West is experiencing a new interest in religion. Patterns of immigration mean that Islam and Hinduism are now major living presences in the cities of Western Europe and North America. Pentecostalism is a rapidly growing force, strengthened by the arrival of many Asian and African Christians in the West. The future looks nothing like the godless and religionless world so confidently predicted 40 years ago. The atheist agenda, once seen as a positive force for progress, is now seen as disrespectful toward cultural diversity.

Paradoxically, the future of atheism will be determined by its religious rivals. Those atheists looking for a surefire way to increase their appeal need only to hope for harsh, vindictive, and unthinking forms of religion to arise in the West.

In his problematic but fascinating work, The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler argued that history shows that cultures came into being for religious reasons. As they exhausted the potential of that spirituality, religion gave way to atheism, before a phase of religious renewal gave them a new sense of direction. Might atheism have run its course, and now give way to religious renewal? The tides of cultural shift have, for the time being, left atheism beached on the sands of modernity, while Westerners explore a new postmodern interest in the forbidden fruit of spirituality.


It seems not too much to say that the successes and instituttionalization of atheism/rationalism -- especially in the forms of Darwinism, Marxism, and Freudianism -- exposed it as generally more repellant and repulsive than even the most excessive facets of the Judeo-Christianity it was intended to critique. Atheism is essentially just another iteration of Protestantism and a protest that is less pure than that which it protests is doomed to failure.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 28, 2005 4:46 PM
Comments

In other words, the future isn't Bright.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at February 28, 2005 5:01 PM

Atheism is essentially just another iteration of Protestantism

Your newest hobby horse?

Posted by: Eugene S. at February 28, 2005 6:03 PM

Atheism requires just as much faith as any theism. It accepts the reality of what is essentially unprovable. And you don't even get any holidays or presents. It's remarkable it lasted this long as a serious movement.

Posted by: Bart at February 28, 2005 6:07 PM

Eugene:

Hardly mine and nothing like new. Atheists are notoriously just mad at their treatment by their father or Father:

http://www.brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/1324/

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2005 6:08 PM

Bart:

Why? There'll always be people who don't like their fathers and don't care to be bound by morality.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2005 6:12 PM

Raoul - sweet!

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at February 28, 2005 6:35 PM

One savvy longshoreman, that Hoffer chap.

Posted by: ghostcat at February 28, 2005 7:11 PM

The problem, so often, is that description becomes prescription and prescription becomes orthodoxy.

And orthodoxy has this nasty tendency to become tyrannical.

Yes, recognize the faults, point out the errors, and expose the frauds; but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Because these things tend to come back with a vengeance.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at March 1, 2005 9:17 AM

There'll always be people who don't like their fathers and don't care to be bound by morality.

Noone is bound by morality. You either choose to act morally out of free will, or you don't. With God, you are only bound by the desire to save your hide from damnation. You can act morally, of course, and be religious, but you aren't bound by it. You are only bound to obey. Obeying rules without question is not morality, it is obeisance. It is self preservation.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 1, 2005 12:51 PM

The atheist dilemma is that Christianity is a moving target, whose trajectory is capable of being redirected without losing its anchor point in the New Testament.

That Christianity is a moving target should be its downfall. Absolute objective truth doesn't move, but subjective, relative opinion does. But never underestimate people's ability to reconcile (or ignore) contradictions wihin their own philosophy. Christianity's amoeba-like ability to mould itself to the pattern of any age has been its strength.

And as theologian John Henry Newman pointed out, Christianity must listen to such criticisms from outside its bounds, precisely because listening may be a way of recapturing its vision of the gospel.

More likely because listening is a way for Christian theology to avoid devolving into a mush of superstitious gibberish. Athiests are your fact checkers, you should give us more respect.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 1, 2005 1:03 PM

Robert:

No, atheists are just fanatics with a gripe against God, but they can drive the faithful to redouble their efforts and to clarify. For instance, we'd become complacent in America until Roe v. Wade and such triggered the counter-revolution. Now atheism is tamped back down into its corner in the academy.

Posted by: oj at March 1, 2005 1:38 PM

Robert:

No, we are bound by the duty God placed on us. Some just can't fulfill their duty. The freedom you seek is from your responsibility to your fellow men and yourself.

Posted by: oj at March 1, 2005 1:39 PM

With God, you are only bound by the desire to save your hide from damnation.

So which of the classic Christian authors have you actually read? Among the vast majority of them, fear, or the instinct for self-preservation, is placed on the absolute lowest rung of the ascent toward the Beatific Vision.

Posted by: Pontius at March 1, 2005 7:31 PM

But according to popular religious opinion, that is the only reason why anyone would deny their own selfish desires in order to act in a moral way. If that isn't the case, then there is no reason that religious belief is a requirement for morality.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 2, 2005 1:28 PM

Robert:

That's profoundly wrong. We are to act morally because men are Created in God's Image and He has commanded us to treat them with dignity.

Absent that belief you are right, there is no reason to act morally, so people don't.

Posted by: oj at March 2, 2005 1:42 PM

I don't think we have to hope for harsh, vindictive and unthinking forms of religion in the West. What other kinds are there? Anybody heard from the Episcopalians lately?

Certainly only fools ever thought that atheism would triumph over mankind's yearning for spirituality and immanence. That ain't gonna happen.

Orrin's repetition that atheists hate 'their father or Father' is a new wrinkle. He used to just say 'father.' I guess the silliness of that finally came home to him, so now he has to imagine that people hate nonexistent beings in order to disbelieve in nonexistent beings.

That's just as silly but has the appeal of novelty.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 2, 2005 3:16 PM

The Father is merely a stand in for their fathers, or, as in your case, the hatred of any authority other than the self. No one can hate as much as you do without believing.

Posted by: oj at March 2, 2005 3:24 PM

If all we know about God is that we are in his image, why should that make anyone care, if they have no respect for man to begin with? If you are incapable of respecting man as he is, then you have no reason for respecting that which man is the image of. If you are capable of respecting man as he is, then you have no need of knowing of what he is the image of, if anything.

A command is only respected in proportion to the penalty exacted for its disobedience. So you confirm my earlier statement, your only motivation to act morally is the salvation of your eternal hide.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 3, 2005 12:16 AM

Man isn't worthy of respect. God is. We respect each other because He made us in His image and commanded us to do so. Morality derives from authority--nothing more.

Posted by: oj at March 3, 2005 1:05 AM
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