Reports of the death of God are greatly exaggerated

02 November 2006


WHEN I was young, growing up in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s, atheism was the world-view of bright young things anxious to escape from the province's sectarian violence and tensions. It was sophisticated and bold, something I felt proud to be associated with.

Yet, as I look back on those days, it seems that something has gone wrong for atheism. Somewhere along the way, it seems to have taken a wrong turn, leading writers such as John Updike to proclaim: "Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position."

In the past, atheism was strongly represented at the philosophical level. Writers such as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and A. J. Ayer (1910-89) were leading lights, and are still cited regularly in atheist literature. Yet the past 20 years have brought a significant change in perception. Christian philosophers such as Richard Swinburne (b. 1934), Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932), and Nicholas Wolterstorff (b. 1932) have made a powerful case for the "coherence of theism". Many would challenge their conclusions, but the force of their case is undeniable. The outcome of this renewal of Christian philosophy is a growing consensus that the philosophical case against God has stalled.

One of the most significant developments is that today's leading atheist public intellectuals - such as the zoologist Richard Dawkins (b. 1941) in the United Kingdom, and the philosopher Daniel Dennett (b. 1942) in North America - base their case for atheism primarily on the natural sciences, particularly Darwinism.

It is an important transition, not without its difficulties. As the United States' leading evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), an atheist, pointed out, half the Darwinians he knew were religious believers. Michael Ruse (b. 1940), North America's leading Darwinist philosopher, argued forcefully recently that Darwinism and Christianity were perfectly compatible. An agnostic, Ruse caused something of a stir earlier this year by arguing that both Dennett and Dawkins were playing into the hands of Creationists by insisting that Darwinism was necessarily atheist. Not only was this obviously wrong, Ruse pointed out: it gave Creationism a powerful political argument for having its views taught in American schools.

'Dawkins's programme was seen as a public-relations disaster for atheism'

The faltering fortunes of atheism in this country were highlighted by the reaction to Richard Dawkins's astonishing two-part Channel 4 programme The Root of All Evil? - to be published in book form as The God Delusion later this year. The programme generated much discussion, but I doubt it was the kind of debate Professor Dawkins intended. Christians generally found the programme difficult to take seriously, on account of its sweeping overstatements about religion, its highly dogmatic language and tone, and its attempts to present minority viewpoints as typical. They were not the only ones. It was, said Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian, "a piece of intellectually lazy polemic".

Much more interesting was the reaction of atheist friends. As Dawkins presented it, atheism came across as resting on childish arguments and hopelessly outdated stereotypes of religion, with a lack of comprehension of why anyone should want to be interested in religion.

Dawkins's programme "made atheism sound like some kind of half-witted fundamentalism", said one Oxford University colleague. Another reckoned the programme would actually add fuel to the flames of the religious revival he feels is going on all around him. In their opinion, it was something of a public-relations disaster for atheism: Dawkins's programme was more notable for its underlying anxieties and visceral anger about religion than its intellectual content.

Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, published last month, failed to land anything even remotely resembling its promised knockout blow to religion, or belief in God. Though promoted as a compelling account of the origins of religion, it has been widely criticised, by atheist and theist alike, as lacking scientific substantiation, making crass generalisations, and failing to understand what religion is all about.

The New York Times published a withering review. Dennett's book, it declared, was "a sorry instance of present-day scientism", and amounted to little more than an "anthology of contemporary superstitions". The Toronto Globe and Mail suggested that the book's account of religion came dangerously close to pseudo-science, offering "evidence-free and wildly speculative" assertions in place of carefully documented scientific evidence.

Similar problems emerge in the writings of Richard Dawkins, from The Selfish Gene through to A Devil's Chaplain. It may once have seemed persuasive to argue that "science disproves God." Yet how, Dawkins' s critics ask, can this be reconciled with the well-documented evidence that so many active research scientists are religious believers? Dawkins's most recent books just recycle arguments he developed in the 1970s and 1980s. It will be interesting to see whether The God Delusion will say anything new, or prove to be another rehash of old arguments.

Atheism's failed prediction that religion would die out years ago seems tired, weary, and downright unpersuasive. American atheists, in particular, are deeply disturbed by the failure of the great 1960s predictions of a secular society.

'Intellectuals are not talking about the death of God any more'

Even in the United States - where a larger section of the population than in western Europe say that they have Christian faith - there was plenty of evidence to suggest that this was about to happen. In 1965, the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox published his book The Secular City. It became a bestseller. Its message was simple: secularism was here to stay; God was indeed dead; and Christianity had to adapt to a godless reality. Atheists warmed to this message, seeing it as marking a halfway stage on the road to a world totally without God. The following year, Time magazine ran an edition with an eye-catching front cover: "Is God Dead?" It was the expectation of the moment.

Culture has shifted radically since the 1960s. The basic arguments of The Secular City are now regarded as out of date - as its author himself freely admits. In Fire from Heaven, published almost 30 years later in 1996, Mr Cox argues that it is no longer secularism that holds the future for Christianity, but Pentecostalism: "a spiritual hurricane that has already touched half a billion people, and an alternative vision of the human future whose impact may only be at its earliest stages today".

Pentecostalism, a section of the Church which emphasises direct experience of God, now numbers something like 600 million adherents, mostly in the great urban sprawls of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It has long since displaced Marxism as the friend and comforter of the poor in these regions; and it is a growing wing of the Church here in Britain.

Historically, the rise of atheism is closely linked with the emergence of the rationalism of the Enlightenment. But what happens when this same Enlightenment is charged by post-modern critics with having fostered oppression and violence, and having colluded with totalitarianism? When a new interest in spirituality surges through Western culture? When the cultural pressures that once made atheism attractive are displaced by others that make it seem intolerant, unimaginative, and disconnected from spiritual realities?

Intellectuals are not talking about the "death of God" any more; they're debating the "death of the Enlightenment". That has great implications for atheism.

For a start, our postmodern culture's criterion of acceptability is not "Is this right?" but "Does this work?" - and it is a fact that religious belief works for many people in giving direction, purpose, and stability to their lives. Atheism has not even begun to engage with this deeper question, however, instead of mumbling weary platitudes about mythical "God-viruses" or mass "God-delusions".

Recent events ought to have played into atheism's hands. What about 9/11? What about the tsunami? The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is widely cited as contributing to the growth of unbelief in western Europe at the time. Yet, paradoxically, the tsunami appears to have led to a growth in faith in the affected regions, as faith was found to have enormous power in enabling people to cope with tragedy.

As the aftermath of 9/11 continues to unfold, the aggressive atheist stance seems to have had little discernible impact. Some argued that the event showed that religion was inherently violent. Richard Dawkins fired off a piece in The Guardian four days later, arguing that this outrage was just the sort of thing to be expected from spurious religious belief in a "Great Oasis in the Sky". Yet this was a minority opinion. If anything, 9/11 seems to have led to people to want to understand more about Islam, and to a growing awareness about the important political role of religion in a multicultural society.

Contrary to secularist expectations, the past 15 years have seen a burgeoning of interest in "the spiritual". The word "spirituality" has come to mean something like a personalised world-view, grounded in a sense of the transcendent, which gives meaning and significance to a person's life. While it is not always opposed to organised religion, there is no obvious or necessary link between them.

A deeper question arises from this renewal of interest in spirituality. Maybe human beings are meant to be religious, after all. Maybe atheism's success in the past few hundred years does not mark the coming dawn of a new godless era, but a temporary secularised interlude in humanity's long and continuing religious history - a suggestion made at the opening of the 20th century by G. K. Chesterton.

The Revd Dr Alister McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology in the University of Oxford, and President of the Oxford Centre for Evangelism and Apologetics. His recent books include The Twilight of Atheism and Dawkins' God: Genes, memes, and the meaning of life. Professor McGrath is currently giving a series of Lent lectures at Salisbury Cathedral.

Next week, he concludes by considering how Christians can explain and commend their faith in today's culture.


Seeing God off: below: the 1966 cover of Time magazine, above: Richard Dawkins, who has attempted to write the obituary



1  How many recent TV and radio programmes can you identify which illustrate an increasingly shrill atheist critique of religion? Whom are these programmes are aimed at?

2  The media regularly features stories about the increasing importance of religion in public and private life. Can you name some incidents or events that seem to have contributed to this?

3  One of the great challenges facing the Church is how to build on the growing interest in spirituality in such a way that it leads people to Christ. Developments such as Alpha and Fresh Expressions have pioneered bridge-building approaches between post-modern culture and the Church, but in what other ways do you think churches can connect with the growing interest in spirituality?

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