The celebration of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in June 1897 marked the high point of British imperial history. It was a supreme moment of national self-confidence and congratulation. The British had created an empire on which the sun never set, and much of its colorful diversity was on display in the streets of London that summer.
But Earth's proud empires fade away. The same process of growth and decay can be seen in the empires of the mind. There comes a point when their attraction pales and their credibility falters. To wit: Atheism is in trouble. Its future seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals rather than in the great public domain it once regarded as its natural habitat.
Pathology No Longer
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 termsSikh, 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 growth of community churches has helped meet this need. There is a sense of belonging to a common group, of shared common values, and of knowing each other. People don't just go to community churches; they see themselves as belonging there. At a time when American society appears to be fragmenting, the community churches offer cohesion.
It is important to make this connection with the changing face of America. In his much-cited article "The Age of Social Transformation," published in the November 1994 Atlantic Monthly, management guru Peter Drucker pointed out that traditional communities of family, village, and parish have practically disappeared.
"Their place has largely been taken by the new unit of social integration, the organization," Drucker wrote. "Where community was fate, organization is voluntary membership." In the old days, community was defined by where you lived. It was part of the inherited order of things, something that you were born into. Now, it has to be createdand the agency that creates this community is increasingly the voluntary organization. Christian churches are strategically placed to create and foster community. The community churches have proved especially effective in this role, and have grown immensely in consequence.
But what of atheism? The former Soviet Union realized the importance of creating a sense of community. Having eliminated religion from the public life of the nation, Soviet planners recognized the importance of creating rituals and events, which fostered social cohesion and a sense of identity. Thus the Saturday just before Easter was celebrated as Communist Saturday. Other holidays included May Day, Victory Day (May 9), Constitution Day (October 7), and Revolution Day (November 7-8). The Soviets devised additional rituals as counterparts to the Christian rites of baptism and confirmationfor example, the "family event" to mark the birth of a new child, or the ceremony to mark admission to the Communist Party.
The nearest thing in the West to this Soviet model is found in Canada, which seems to think that a sense of community identity can only be created by eliminating any religious presence in the public arena. In the United States, atheism spawns organizations; it does not create community. The state chapters and national convention of American Atheists, coupled with this organization's atheist equivalent of creeds, certainly did something to create a sense of shared identity. Yet the community thus created seems to be based solely on distaste for religion. It doesn't even have a good organizational base and lacks charismatic leadershipa fatal weakness, to which we now turn.
Atheist thinkers are more than happy to appear on the nation's chat shows to promote their latest books. But they have failed to communicate a compelling vision of atheism that is capable of drawing and holding large numbers of people.
Atheists widely discuss this comprehensive failure of leadership within their circles. Howard Thompson, sometime editor of the Texas Atheist, is undoubtedly one of the most able and reflective atheists in the United States. Thompson has criticized the movement for its lack of direction: "Atheism in America is poorly defined with little organization," he wrote in an op-ed piece. "We have less social and cultural infrastructure than even the smallest religious groups. . . . Atheism desperately needs effective public voices."
And why has this failed to happen? Thompson lays much of the blame at the feet of O'Hair, whom he regards as the movement's greatest liability. He believes her organization has failed to learn from her mistakes and persists in depicting her as a hero, even a martyr, for the atheist cause.
For 30 years O'Hair was the most visible atheist. What O'Hair did and said was atheism to the public, and it was nasty. The disappearance of the O'Hairs in September 1995 gave hope that more positive atheist initiatives might develop. That's why atheists should worry about the revival of her American Atheists under the leadership of Ellen Johnson, who assumed the office of president in a questionable board of directors meeting. Johnson is also a die-hard O'Hair fan who continues to present her as an atheist heroine. What atheism doesn't need is a continuation of O'Hair's negativity; her style and limited vision stifled positive atheist growth.
Her atheism was crude, anti-intellectual, and homophobic, making even the most zealous fundamentalist Christian seem a model of liberal values. For Thompson, the answer is clear: Grow leaders. In another op-ed piece, "The Unlit Bonfire," Thompson argues that a new dawn awaitsif only the leadership issue can be resolved. "Total victory is the only acceptable goal in a mind-control war because humanity is diminished so long as a single mind remains trapped in superstition by programming or choice." But who will lead them? And can this goal actually be achieved?
The fatal flaw within Thompson's argument, found within many other atheist tracts and publications, is his strident insistence that humanity has been enslaved by supernaturalist superstition. It is merely necessary to educate people, he believes, and these mad ideas will fall away. Thompson and his colleagues have not even begun to understand a fundamental fact about religion: People actually like their faith, find it helpful in structuring their lives, and inconveniently believe that it might actually be true.
Thompson's alternative to the rich fare of a transcendent faith is "a materialistic culture that frees humanity from superstition." This sounds dull, dated, and gray, about as exciting as a lecture on Bulgarian Marxist dialectics. The failure of atheism to capture the public imagination in the West reflects its failure to articulate a compelling, imaginative vision of a godless future that is capable of exciting people and making them want to gather together to celebrate and proclaim it.
The same dullness pervades the National Secular Society (founded in 1866), the nearest thing Great Britain has to an atheist network. In 2002, its website included a museum of modernity, untroubled by the awkward rise of postmodernity. You could buy a secular mug with the slogan "Just say no to religion!" Or even better, you could download an official Certificate of De-Baptism (medieval font needed) that lets your friends know that you have rejected the "creeds and all other such superstition" in the name of reason.
Rationalism, having quietly died out in most places, still lives on here. Yet Western culture has bypassed this aging little ghetto, having long since recognized the limitations of reason. The Enlightenment lives on for secularists. Atheism is wedded to philosophical modernity, and both are aging gracefully in the cultural equivalent of an old folks' home.
And, for those who find their tracts wearisome, the society thoughtfully provides a religious jokes pagethough in poor taste, they carry a significantly higher intellectual content than the rest of the site. Here's an example of atheism's winsome arguments: Question: What's the difference between Jesus and a painting? Answer: It only takes one nail to hang a painting.
The joke makes my friends outside the church cringe. Yet I have the impression this is actually meant to persuade people of the intellectual and cultural superiority of a world without religion. Thompson clearly has a point.
Nevertheless, serious issues are occasionally debated on the website, including the question of why secular humanism, with its commitment to atheism, has so singularly failed to capture the public imagination. One obvious answer might be the National Secular Society itself, which exudes a pious tedium, trapped in a time warp of the closing decades of the 19th century, that seems almost to have been deliberately designed to alienate potential recruits.
Reginald Le Sueur put his finger unerringly on the real point at issue: "The problem with humanism as such is that, although rational, secular, and 'true,' it is, in comparison with major religions, somewhat wishy-washy and just plain unexciting."
Le Sueur recognizes atheism as derivative, its attraction residing primarily in what it denies rather than what it articulates as an alternative. So does atheism have a future?
No doubt it doesbut not an especially distinguished or exciting future. Listen to John Updike: "Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position." I have to confess that I now share his catatonic sense of utter tedium when I reread some of the atheist works I once found fascinating as a teenager. They now seem simplistic, failing to engage with the complexities of human experience, and seriously out of tune with our postmodern culture.
Why Atheism Matters
On the other hand, the greatest virtue of atheism is its moral seriousnessits criticisms and passionate demands for justice directed against the corruptions of, say, the French church of the 18th century.
The moral passion of atheism, especially when set alongside the laziness and complacency of European state churches in the 18th century, cannot be dismissed. Some Christian leaders at the time of the French Revolution saw that event as a divine judgment against a failing church. Some believed God was using the atheist critiques of the church as a means of reforming it.
Paradoxically, what propels people toward atheism is above all a sense of revulsion against the excesses and failures of organized religion. Atheism is ultimately a worldview of feara fear, often merited, of what might happen if religious maniacs were to take over the world.
As the critics of Homeric religion made clear, the attractions of a godless world rest upon a sense of revulsion against the gods. Who wanted to worship or imitate gods such as Zeus and Athena, when they merely immortalized the worst moral failings of human beings?
In the end, debates about whether God's existence can be proved remain marginal. The central issue is moral and imaginative. The most fundamental criticisms directed against Christianity have to do with the moral character of its God. They often focus on the issue of eternal punishment. No theological issue posed greater difficulties for Victorian England, as the writings of George Eliot make clear. It was for this reason that Charles Darwin found his faith, surprisingly unchallenged by his views on evolution, to be stretched beyond its modest capacity.
Others had similarly serious misgivings. "Eternal punishment must be eternal cruelty," said secular humanist orator Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899), "and I do not see how any man, unless he has the brain of an idiot, or the heart of a wild beast, can believe in eternal punishment." Despite its opportunistic overstatement, Ingersoll's complaint resonates deeply with many who find a contradiction between their deepest intuitions of fairness and the Christian God.
We cannot assert eternal damnation and expect Western culture to nod approvingly. This culture is not predisposed to reject Christian doctrines as a matter of principle; rather, it is surprised by what seems a massive retreat from society's fundamental notions of decency and evenhandedness. Atheism arises mainly through a profound sense that religious ideas and values are at least inferior to, and possibly irreconcilable with, the best moral standards and ideals of human culture.
In its most intense and authentic forms, atheism enters a powerful protest against what it sees to be morally or intellectually inferior visions of reality. In their place, atheism offers visions of a larger freedom, allowing humanity to throw aside its chains and enter a new and glorious phase in history. It is perhaps not surprising that many sympathize with Dostoyevsky's character Ivan Karamazov when he respectfully returns God's ticket, in the face of the suffering, pain, and injustice of the world. Christianity must provide good answers to such fair questions.
But the real significance of atheism has to do with its critique of power and privilege. Whatever their failings, atheist organizations are right in challenging the idea that any religious grouping can enjoy special privileges in a democratic society. Such groupings deserve respect. But when religion becomes the establishment, a corrupting abuse of power can result. Atheism soars in its appeal.
The converse can be true. The rise of militant Islam in Afghanistan was the direct outcome of the Soviet invasion of that nation in 1979 and its clumsy attempts to support an atheistic regime. As Karen Armstrong points out in her The Battle for God (2000), the best way to encourage the rise of religious fundamentalism is to impose a secular agenda on people who want to get on with their religious lives.
Atheism's concerns about the Christian exertion of power resonate with many within the church. The assumption of the New Testament is that Christianity is excluded from the establishment and thus insulated from the temptations and corruption that power brings. For many reflective Christians, the church began to lose its compelling moral and spiritual vision with the conversion of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. A movement that was at its most authentic while powerless and weak now became exposed to forces that compromised its integrity.
Yet it must be noted that Christianity is a dynamic entity, constantly changing in its forms as it seeks to relate its foundational heritage in the New Testament to the situations in which it finds itself. Atheist criticisms of the church are at their most compelling and persuasive when they are directed against the failings of the church.
The essential difficulty here is that, with the rise of dynamic churches especially in the Southern Hemisphere, the classic atheist criticisms of the church do not quite ring true any longereven in the homelands of the much-derided state churches of Western Europe. The repetition of stale clichés from the golden age of atheism sounds increasingly out of touch with postmodern reality.
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 peoplessuch 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.
Alister McGrath is professor of historical theology at Oxford University, and author of The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Doubleday, 2004), from which this essay was excerpted and condensed.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Twilight of Atheism is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Our March cover story described the renewal of faith in Europe's most secular country, France.
More on atheism includes
Weblog: Atheist No More, Flew Still Rejects Revelation | Antony Flew: Science pretty much proves God's existence (Dec. 10, 2004)
Forced by Logic | It took philosophy and a friend to convince this atheist. (June 13, 2003)
Perestroika of the Spirit | In Russia, the vocabulary of faith needs interpreters. (March 05, 2003)
Albania's journey from atheism to model of religious growth | Albania, which in 1967 became the world's first official atheistic state, is now fast becoming a model of religious growth and an example to the rest of Europe, according to a senior Orthodox official. (Nov. 29, 1999)
Russian Intellectuals Try to Revive Atheism | The Moscow Society of Atheists says its ideology has fallen out of fashion. (Jan. 24, 2001)
More articles on faith and secularism include:
That Other Church | Let's face it: Secularism is a religion. Let's treat it as such. (Dec. 21, 2004)
Misfires in the Tolerance Wars | Separating church and state now means separating belief and action. (Feb. 24, 2004)
One Nation Under Secularism | France's peculiar aversion to public religiosity is rooted in a sordid history of sectarian violence. (Feb. 13, 2004)
The Wages of Secularism | New laws won't prevent another Enron. (June 04, 2002)
Zarathustra Shrugged | What apologetics should look like in a skeptical age. (Sept. 5, 2001)
From Books & Culture's issue on God is not dead:
The Real Story of Secularization | Is Europe a special case? (November/December 2002)
God Is Not Dead | The April 8, 1966, issue of Time magazine (scheduled to coincide with Easter) created a hubbub with the stark cover line, "Is God Dead?" (November/December 2002)
The Renaissance of Religion in Canada | They're not dropping out. They're dropping in. (November/December 2002)
American Gnostic | Harold Bloom's post-Christian nation ten years on (November/December 2002)
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Home delivery of new issues in print with access to all past issues online.
- View the complete archive.
- Join now and get print issues access to archive PDFs.