Time magazine spurred public debate 40 years ago with a startling
question on its cover: "Is God Dead?" Some estimate that half the
world's population was then nominally atheist. And many in the West
were predicting that scientific progress would eliminate religious
belief altogether by the next century.
The tide has dramatically turned, however, and Alistar McGrath -
a theologian at Oxford University who was once in that camp - charts
the shift in currents of thought in "The Twilight of Atheism: The
Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World."
In this accessible intellectual history, McGrath explores how
atheism came to capture a wide swath of the public imagination as
the road to human liberation and progress, and why, in a postmodern
world, its appeal has faded. Yet he also makes clear that, despite
the resurgence in faith, Western Christianity has not fully
recovered from the crisis of the '60s.
Depicting atheism's heyday between the fall of the Bastille in
1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, McGrath highlights the
specific contributions of the major philosophers, scientists, and
artists who shaped the secular world, from the famous, such as
Nietsche, Marx, Freud, and Darwin, to the less familiar, such as
D'Holbach, Fuerbach, and Monod.
McGrath contends that the origins of atheism lay primarily in a
protest against the power, privilege, and corruption of church
institutions - beginning with the French Revolution and later in
Germany. Early proponents believed, he says, that "human happiness
depends upon the triumph of atheism, which alone can liberate
humanity from tyranny, war, and oppression - all of which have
McGrath, who is Protestant, also contends that Protestantism
itself played a role in divorcing the sacred from many aspects of
life, thereby helping create a sense of God's absence. And, he
argues, a cerebral Christianity - the emphasis on theological
correctness, on doctrines, and having the right idea of God -
engages the mind but leaves emotions and imagination untouched.
Atheism gained strength from a symbiosis with the scientific
revolution and the developing perception of an inevitable conflict
between science and religion. Mathematician William Kingdon Clifford
argued, for instance, that it's wrong to believe anything upon
As science began to replace religion as the interpreter of human
experience, artists joined the revolt against God, and poets such as
Shelley, Keats, and Swinburne turned to nature to experience the