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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Sunday, September 19, 2004

atheism's demise

Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at Oxford university, and author of The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World writes in the Spectator on the discrediting of atheism:

...the sun seems to be setting on this shopworn, jaded and tired belief system, which now lacks the vitality that once gave it passion and power.

To suggest that atheism is a belief system or faith will irritate some of its
followers. For them, atheism is not a belief; it is the Truth. There is no god,
and those who believe otherwise are deluded, foolish or liars (to borrow
from the breezy rhetoric of Britain's favourite atheist, the scientific
populariser turned atheist propagandist Richard Dawkins). But it's now
clear that the atheist case against God has stalled. Surefire philosophical
arguments against God have turned out to be circular and self-referential.

The most vigorous intellectual critique of religion now comes from
Dawkins, who has established himself as atheism's leading representative in
the public arena. Yet a close reading of his works - which I try to provide in
my forthcoming book Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of
- suggests that his arguments rest more on fuzzy logic and aggressive
rhetoric than on serious evidence-based argument. As America's leading
evolutionary biologist, the late Stephen Jay Gould, insisted, the natural
sciences simply cannot adjudicate on the God question. If the sciences are
used to defend either atheism or religious beliefs, they are misused.

Yet atheism has not simply run out of intellectual steam. Its moral
credentials are now severely tarnished. Once, it was possible to argue that
religion alone was the source of the world's evils. Look at the record of
violence of the Spanish Inquisition (interestingly, recent research has
challenged this historical stereotype). Or the oppression of the French
people in the 1780s under the Roman Catholic Church and the Bourbon
monarchy. The list could be extended endlessly to make the same powerful
moral point: wherever religion exercises power, it oppresses and corrupts,
using violence to enforce its own beliefs and agendas. Atheism argued that
it abolished this tyranny by getting rid of what ultimately caused it - faith in

Yet that argument now seems tired, stale and unconvincing. It was credible
in the 19th century precisely because atheism had never enjoyed the power
and influence once exercised by religion. But all that has changed.
Atheism's innocence has now evaporated. In the 20th century, atheism
managed to grasp the power that had hitherto eluded it. And it proved just
as fallible, just as corrupt and just as oppressive as anything that had gone
before it. Stalin's death squads were just as murderous as their religious
antecedents. Those who dreamed of freedom in the new atheist paradise
often found themselves counting trees in Siberia, or confined to the gulags -
and they were the fortunate ones.

Like many back in the late 1960s, I was quite unaware of the darker side of
atheism, as practised in the Soviet Union. I had assumed that religion
would die away naturally, in the face of the compelling intellectual
arguments and moral vision offered by atheism. I failed to ask what might
happen if people did not want to have their faith eliminated. A desire to
eliminate belief in God at the intellectual or cultural level has the most
unfortunate tendency to encourage others to do this at the physical level.
Lenin, frustrated by the Russian people's obstinate refusal to espouse
atheism voluntarily and naturally after the Russian Revolution, enforced it,
arguing in a famous letter of March 1922 that the `protracted use of
brutality' was the necessary means of achieving this goal.

Some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were committed by
regimes which espoused atheism, often with a fanaticism that some naive
Western atheists seem to think is reserved only for religious people. As
Martin Amis stressed in Koba the Dread, we now know what really
happened under Stalin, even if it was unfashionable to talk about this in
progressive circles in the West until the 1990s. The firing squads that Stalin
sent to liquidate the Buddhist monks of Mongolia gained at least something
of their fanaticism and hatred of religion from those who told them that
religion generated fanaticism and hatred.

The real truth here seems to be that identified by Nietzsche at the end of the
19th century - that there is something about human nature which makes it
capable of being inspired by what it believes to be right to do both
wonderful and appalling things. Neither atheism nor religion may be at
fault - it might be some deeply troubling flaw in human nature itself. It is an
uncomfortable thought, but one that demands careful reflection...

6:08:00 pm