"...I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..." [Deuteronomy 5:8-10]

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Thoughts on "The Twilight of Atheism"

On my recent travels I came across a book called The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World by Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at Oxford University. I should really pick up a copy. Christianity Today has an excerpted and condensed summary. He argues that atheism has "failed", and posits:

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.
What's interesting to me is that this argument depends on the failures of very deterministic and "modernist" offshoots of "atheistic" thought, such as Freudian thought Communism... But of course the beliefs of those who do not believe in God as in reality every bit as diverse as the beliefs of those who do believe in Gods. Even amongst Christianity, we find that most Christians subscribe to non-Christian beliefs - for example that salvation is open to non-Christians, and an acceptance of such things as astrology, etc. I'll come back to this issue of divergent beliefs in more detail in later posts...

For now, I'm most interested in this part of McGrath's conclusion:
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.
Here, the rise of the religious right, particularly in the USA, seems like an ominous contradiction of McGrath's optimism. Andrew Sullivan quotes a recent study which reported that:
Fully 44% of Americans believe that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people while a substantial minority (36%) thinks that "the state of Israel is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy about the second coming of Jesus"
As you may have read, the leading Evangelist Pat Robertson recently embarrassed the hell out of himself by implying that Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine retribution for his withdrawal from Gaza. Sullivan notes:
When a poll of all adults finds over a third holding the view that the state of Israel is fulfilling the prophecy of the imminent Second Coming, you can see that pre-millenarianism is not some fringe idea, touted by Robertson. It's fundamentalist orthodoxy. Robertson is cruel and tactless, and many evangelicals would agree. Their compassion forbids them from making personal attacks as Robertson does. But he didn't make up his theology. And it's mainstream.
Many on the web are arguing that Pat Robertson is not representative of mainstream evangelical thought. While the poll figures seem to suggest otherwise, I think this is the case. Most evangelical Christians, even in the US, aren't as cold and heartless (or as stupid) as Robertson.

So what does that mean for religion & spirituality in the 21st century? is McGrath right? Is atheism dying? More on this to come ;>

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