Francis Gardom discovers that the intellectual influence of atheism from the late seventeenth century to our own day has had its effect on the divisions that afflict even the faithful
Some books provide an eye-opening experience of Truth. For me, C.S. Lewis’s Right and Wrong with a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe [included in Mere Christianity] was one such. In his book, Lewis convinced me that belief in God is tenable on rational grounds, and not, as many suppose, just experiential ones. Hence, the truth (or falsehood) of the Faith depends, not primarily on our feelings with all their vagaries, but on the more reliable ground of Reason.
Just recently another book affected my outlook similarly; namely, Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism [Random House, 2004], subtitled The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. The author is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford.
History of atheism
Individual atheists there have always been. But McGrath attributes to philosophers like Locke, Hume and Spinoza the Atheism which emerged during the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Enlightenment as a serious, though tentative, system of belief. Thence he traces its more robust blossoming in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries under Feuerbach and Nietzche in Germany, and Voltaire in France, to its Golden Age under Freud, Marx and others in the early twentieth century. Finally he charts, via modernism and post-modernism, Atheisms degeneration into a belief – whose default credo begins ‘I feel’, rather than ‘I believe’.
McGrath was formerly a committed Atheist (with a capital A’ – one whose atheism informs his entire outlook). His book provides both a devastating critique of Atheism itself, and a stage-by-stage history of its growth and decline. This is the Inside Story of someone who has turned from a reasoned, crusading hostility towards the Christian Faith to its equally wholehearted acceptance.
The seventeenth century produced thinkers for whom everything could be understood and made useful to humankind by using pure Reason. Some such Rationalists found a place for a deity in their beliefs, but a deity who, once having created the Universe, withdrew from any further participation in its affairs. This belief was called ‘Deism’ and, by many accounts, was the faith of the majority of contemporary Church of England bishops and clergy. It was seen as the ‘Sensible Man’s Creed’. Scholars like Paley recast the Christian narrative in a deist form to make it acceptable to the intelligentsia of the day. Such a god might command man’s admiration or obedience because his Law was, naturally, the epitome of pure reason! But he was emphatically not a god who gets involved with the everyday affairs of mankind. He leaves such matters to be dealt with by mankind exercising his ever-increasing understanding and knowledge of Natural Science.
But this dogma (and no other term adequately describes it) which says that ‘Reason/Science trumps all’ equally conspired to persuade other thinkers of the day that Religion, so far from being a harmless recreation which its aficionados might be allowed to practise if they wish, was in fact the supreme impediment to that seamless progress-to-perfection which the Enlightenment offered. So Religion, for such thinkers, needed to be not merely discredited, but eliminated.
The French and Russian Revolutions, of 1789 and 1917 respectively, put this into practice in a wholesale manner proportionate with the strength of their conviction. Ironically, some of the most ardent supporters of the movement to curb the powers of the Church were Christians who themselves subsequently became its victims.
McGrath carefully distinguishes his use of the word Atheism’, referring to the full-blooded, carefully thought-out philosophy, which he formerly espoused, from today’s popular reference to those who choose totally to ignore the question of God’s existence.
In the early twentieth century, modernism came into its own. It became a powerful, self-confident and aggressive world-view It insisted that the world could be fully understood, and its evils eventually conquered, scientifically. This belief necessitated another dogma, namely a Uniformity of belief to which everyone should (and ultimately would) willingly subscribe.
From our contemporary viewpoint, such optimism seems breathtaking. Remember, however, that the devastations of two World Wars acted as a powerful incentive to believers as well as doubters, to welcome anything that suggested a viable way forward. Hitler and National Socialism were welcomed on such a let’s-try-anything basis.
Since modernists were sufficiently wise to know that destroying religious belief would be impossible, counterproductive or contrary to their own principles, they had to devise a different strategy. This was to show that Christians and modernist beliefs had been, give or take a few details, what everyone had really believed in all along. In difficult cases where beliefs conflicted, it would only be a matter of persuading Christians to modify their beliefs, or find a compromise which satisfied both sides. Anglicans, with their years of experience in this latter skill, proved agreeably willing collaborators.
Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the certitudes of Christianity were questioned and modified. When General Synod assumed that it was competent to modify not only the practice but the beliefs of the undivided Church, the process became easier still.
The outcome did not please Christians because, contrary to what they had been led to expect, it failed to fill their churches with eager converts; nor did it satisfy the modernists because not only did churchgoers tire of the ceaseless innovations to which they were subjected, but the innovations themselves often proved worse than the things they had been supposed to cure. Exasperated, the modernists warned them that they were only postponing the triumph of modernism. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are not only desirable; in the modernist view they are inevitable.
However, seen from the opposite side of the fence, modernist weeds have proved no easier to uproot. Like dandelions, when you uproot one it leaves enough root to grow again. Thus modernism has been replaced by postmodernism. And what actually is postmodernism? You may well ask! In many instances post-modernism isn’t ‘actually’ anything: it is no more than an attitude of mind which says I don’t know what I think’ implying, sotto voce, I don’t want to find out.’ In order to conceal its nakedness, it hides behind the proposition that ‘there are no absolutes: the truth is only what is true for me (or you).’ A moment’s thought will reveal this proposition to be self-contradictory because ‘there are no absolutes’ is, both in form and content, an absolute proposition!
C.S. Lewis called this attitude ‘the poison of subjectivism’. His article of that name (which appears in a number of his anthologies) and his book The Abolition of Man are both worth reading in them-
selves. But McGrath’s book is equally deft in pointing out the defects.
Catholic and Protestant
There is another valuable nugget of wisdom in this remarkable book. On p. 212, McGrath suggests, most lucidly, a causal link between Protestantism and Atheism, stemming back to the Reformation: ‘Protestantism offered a God who was known through the preaching of the word of God; Roman Catholicism, while not being inattentive to the importance of preaching reinforced that message visually. Slowly but surely any sense of God as a living, engrossing reality began to wane from Protestantism. The dull, joyless and unattractive churches of Protestantism conveyed the subliminal message that the god who was to be found in them shared these disagreeable characteristics.’
Whilst in no sense uncritical of the shortcomings of the medieval Church, Professor McGrath is here highlighting one of the serious mistakes of some of the Reformers, namely their belief that imagery in general, and images in particular, are either unnecessary or positively inimical to the presentation of the
Faith, and that Bible study, and exegetcal sermons to augment it, are the only proper way of bringing people to Christ, or teaching them the Faith once they are committed.
My longstanding, profitable acquaintance with Reform convinces me that some of its members are so in thrall to the view he is criticizing above that prejudice seriously limits their scope for becoming co-belligerents with Catholics – even over doctrinal matters on which we substantially agree. Well, McGrath is someone, held in high regard by Evangelicals, taking a view about imagery which would not seem out of place in a Forward in Faith church! Of course Catholics also entertain, harbour, and sometimes nurse corresponding prejudices about Evangelicals; but there is everything to be gained by discussing our respective prejudices together.
Prejudice is another such dandelionlike weed. Hebrews 12.15 specifically warns us against nurturing a ‘root of bitterness’. We should all seek to weed out more of those misunderstandings which still persist in causing divisions between our respective traditions.