A couple of months ago, I downloaded a lecture by NT Wright from "Open Forum", which is hosted by City Church of San Francisco. Also on the page is a lecture by Alister McGrath. I recognized the name and decided to download his as well. I listened to them both several times during my workouts and was struck by McGrath's discussion about Richard Dawkins, who is apparently a rather militant atheist. I remember picking up his book, A Devil's Chaplain while at Borders a couple of years ago and found it rather unimpressive from a cursory examination. McGrath is presently a theologian, but once pursued a career, and graduate degrees, in the sciences and came to faith as a result of his studies. He is well spoken, irenic and not a little funny in the audio file, so I decided to see which of his many books were available at our brand new downtown library.
I checked out The Twilight of Atheism and have been working through it for the past couple of weeks. It begins with an abridged review of the history of atheism, starting, surprisingly enough, with the early Christians who were accused of atheism for not supporting the imperial cult of the emperor or the Roman pantheon. He moves onto the French Revolution, the rise of modernism, communism and the ways in which the natural sciences became battle grounds in the alleged war between faith and reason. He highlights the works of 3 iconic atheist figures: Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, and examines their main arguments. He touches on some other figures, such as Nietzsche, Carl Jung and others that contributed to the rise and power of atheism in the last 2 centuries.
The book itself is rather short, only a few hundred pages, and the first half is devoted mainly to this historic review. The second half of the book, which I'm just about finished with, focuses on the present day situation of atheism, the waning of modernism and the rise of postmodernism, and the ways in which the church is generally responding. It must be said that McGrath, while a devoted Christian, is not above seeing the shortcomings and failures of Christians and the church. He offers a fairly lengthy discussion on the ways in which the Reformation actually laid much of the foundation for the rise of atheism and identifies the key weaknesses that still plague the mainline Protestant churches. He criticizes some of the early Protestant churches for creating a theology that effectively cut God out of the world in their zeal to eliminate Catholic ways of thinking and possible abuses. For instance, Calvin and Zwingli focused so heavily on the role of scripture in the life of the Christian that they eliminated the potential to encounter God in the natural world. Encountering God outside of the Bible could lead to a Christianized nature-religion, as did develop in parts of Europe and elsewhere. This desacralized nature in the minds of many Christians and McGrath argues it was but a short step to move from a distant God to no God at all.
I'd recommend the book, though there are some portions which are a bit sloppily edited; there are some redundant sections and the flow isn't all that great. The main thing I think I've taken away from this book involves the ways in which Christians have hitched themselves to the dominant cultural themes in their respective times. Simply put, we have to avoid doing that because as believers, we have a strong tendency to dogmatize. Modernistic Christians have built an immense edifice based on reason, rationalism and the pursuit of an absolute, objective knowledge. They have tended to treat God more as an object of study than a person to be worshipped and experienced. As the culture shifts away from modernism's ideals, the ties between theology & reason have become so tightly woven that the fall of modernism starts to pull on faith as well. The same is true of the current political and scientific strategies that many Christians have undertaken. If those scientific underpinnings change, as happened when Darwin initially came upon the scene, what happens to the church and the faith she holds? If we dogmatically link our theology to a specific scientific principle, then disproving the latter inevitably damages the former. I think we should still engage in apologetics, particularly in the natural sciences, but we have to do so with a fair degree of caution lest we inadvertently lay the groundwork for a future assault on the faith.