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The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World Hardcover – June 15, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Oxford University's McGrath has distinguished himself not just as an historical theologian, but as a generous and witty writer who brings life to topics that would turn to dust in others' hands. Here he explores the history of atheism in Western culture, observing that atheism seems to be succumbing to the very fateirrelevance and dissolutionthat atheists once predicted would overtake traditional religion. How did atheism ("a principled and informed decision to reject belief in God") become so rare by the turn of the 21st century? McGrath leaves no stone unturned, nor any important source unconsulted, in tracing atheism's rise and fall. Beyond the usual suspects of Marx, Freud and Darwin, McGrath surveys literature (George Eliot, Algernon Swinburne), science (Jacques Monod, Richard Dawkins) and philosophy (Ludwig Feuerbach, Michel Foucault), managing to make such intellectual heavy lifting look effortless. As a lapsed atheist himself, McGrath is a sympathetic interpreter, but he also relentlessly documents what he contends are the philosophical inconsistency and moral failures of atheism, especially when it has acquired political power. Yet believers will find no warrant here for complacency, as McGrath shows how religion's "failures of imagination" and complicity with oppression often fostered the very environment in which atheism could thrive. Indeed, he warns, "Believers need to realize that, strange as it may seem, it is they who will have the greatest impact on atheism's future." Readable and memorable, this is intellectual history at its best.
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Secular intellectuals have been announcing God's funeral since the eighteenth century. But as McGrath surveys today's world, he finds faith in the deity alive and vigorous. Why did the apostles of atheism fail so spectacularly? With insights gleaned during his own years of religious unbelief, McGrath takes the measure of the titans of modern godlessness--including Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx--showing how these powerful thinkers convinced their followers that social and personal progress would accelerate once humanity surrendered its repressive beliefs in an illusory God. In acknowledging the remarkable success of political, psychotherapeutic, and scientific atheism, McGrath surprisingly traces part of that success to Protestant creeds that divorced sacred from secular, so rendering faith more vulnerable. But in the very triumph of atheism, McGrath discerns the causes of its collapse. For once in power, atheism delivered not enlightenment in utopia but rather barbarism in the gulag. Politically discredited and imaginatively exhausted, atheism has been forced into an astonishing retreat before advancing Pentecostal preachers and Christian fabulists. For readers trying to understand this unexpected reversal in cultural fortunes. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
He reminds atheists, who seem to forget, that "The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief there is a God. If `faith' is defined as `belief lying beyond proof,' both Christianity and atheism are faiths. While this suggestion may seem astonishing to some atheists, it is not only philosophically correct but also illuminating in shedding light on the changed fortunes of atheism in recent years."
For those who think one cannot be a legitimate scientist and still have a belief in God, McGrath cites a major survey of the religious beliefs of scientists carried out at the beginning and end of the 20th Century. The original survey taken in 1916 showed that 40 percent of scientists had some form of personal religious beliefs while 40 percent had none and 20 percent were agnostic. In 1996 the survey was repeated and the amazing results were exactly the same. One noted scientist, Albert Einstein, denied being an atheist.
Walter Isaacson in his biography of Albert Einstein writes this about the great scientist beliefs, "Throughout his life, he (Einstein) was consistent in deflecting the charge that he was an atheist. `There are people who say there is no God,' he told a friend. `But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.'" Isaacson also writes of an interview Einstein gave to George Sylvester Viereck shortly after his fiftieth birthday. Viereck asked Einstein if he believed in God and Einstein said, "I'm not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written these books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws."
The reality is that there are no definitive answers on either side of the debate, so it comes down to a person making a choice as to what they believe. My problem is with the name calling that has recently been evident in the atheist camp. This new tactic takes the position that if you can't prove something empirically then you need to verbally bludgeon the opposition by name calling such as: simple-minded, stupid, imbecilic, and other deprecatory rhetoric. This has become one of Richard Dawkins weapons against theistic belief.
George Orwell in his novel Down and Out in Paris and London describes the character of Bozo in this way, `He was an embittered atheist (the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him). This seems to describe Dawkins's recent diatribes against religion
McGrath, at the end of the book, takes a more reasonable stand. He says this about the attitude believers need to have, "Atheism stands in permanent judgment over arrogant, complacent , and superficial Christian churches and leaders. It needs to be heard. In the closing pages of this work, its concerns will be taken seriously and to heart."
The debate, I'm sure, will continue with no definitive answers ever achieved, so perhaps it is more civil to have each side simply respect the others beliefs and let the condescending name calling finally end.
The writing is very readable and the narrative is compelling. His thesis would be an open an shut case if he had documented his assertions properly. Instead of footnotes and a bibliography McGrath offers the discerning reader a huge list of "Works Consulted" that is impressive, but not very helpful for tracking down facts or guidance for further reading on the people and ideas he critiques. That huge omission is why this book gets a 3 1/2 stars rather than four. Although the argument rings true it is immensely difficult to check and see if it actually IS true b/c of the lack of citations.
So read this for something thought provoking, but not for proof of any kind. Not that proof wins the argument over the existence of God anyway
Twilight of Atheism traces the timeline and geography of atheism that has encompassed different parts of the world. His style of writing makes what could be a boring subject into a riveting one. My mind soaked up his arguments and explanations like a sponge. The history contained within this book is rich-I learned new things about things that I (wrongly) thought I already knew much about. I come away from reading it humbled by how little I know about the history of Christianity and other world religions.
I also found several sections of the book to be "autobiographical" to me. In other words, I could see myself in several paragraphs. Alliston Mcgraff, the author, shared his story of how he came to be believer, echoing much of my own story. I saw myself on many pages of this book.
Easy to read, but challenging enough to cause one to review history lessons they may have long forgotten, and put together pieces of history that may not have seemed to have a connection, only to find out that they are connected in much deeper fashion. I would agree with the author that this is the twilight of atheism.
I would highly recommend this book. You can purchase by clicking on the picture of the book in the sidebar.