The Twilight of Atheism
AFTER visiting Chartres cathedral, Edward Gibbon said: "I paused only to dart a look at the stately pile of superstition and passed on." Alister McGrath, by contrast, thinks atheism is an "impoverished and emotionally deficient" creed and endorses the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that secularism and atheism leave us "linguistically bereaved" by setting limits to what can be said.
According to McGrath, a professor of historical theology at Oxford, two things are implied in this charge: first, that atheism "disenchants" the world and seeks to eliminate the capacity for reverence and awe that sustains the "imaginative lives" of human beings; second, that the bleakness of this outlook has serious moral implications too. McGrath adds a further historical argument here, borrowed from Max Weber and Charles Taylor, to the effect that the roots of secularisation in the modern world lie in Protestant iconoclasm, though this isn’t central to his claim that atheism is intellectually barren.
It is not clear that either of his two main lines of argument establishes McGrath’s contention that the "intellectual case" for atheism has "stalled". There is no fundamental reason, for instance, why atheists and secularists should not find certain things - art works or landscapes, say - to be sources of awe and wonder. Such things can be valued for themselves, and not just because they are blessed or holy. Similarly, it is a fallacy to suppose, as Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov does, that if God is dead, then everything is permitted. Denying that God exists does not entail denying that moral goodness exists. For one thing, it must be possible to say what goodness is, independently of God, if the notion that God is good is to be at all compelling. Otherwise, goodness would just be whatever God happened to be.
There is a deeper problem with McGrath’s position, however, and it has to do with what he thinks atheism is, exactly. He takes it for granted that atheism is strictly anti-religious, and therefore essentially negative. If McGrath is right, it would be impossible to make a positive case for atheism - one that doesn’t harp on the baleful effects of religious belief. Atheism does come in militantly anti-religious strains, of course, and McGrath is correct to say that these are often rebarbative and grimly dogmatic - just look at Gibbon. But that is not the whole story: it is entirely possible to regard religion as false without disdaining all its works. And the belief that religion is false flows from a set of further, positive beliefs about the world and what it contains - specifically, that there is only physical stuff and that it is from this kind of stuff that things like imagination, art and moral value spring.
McGrath would reply that science, which tells us that there is only physical stuff out there, itself takes the existence of a number of things on trust - quarks or protons for example. Admittedly, no one’s ever seen a quark; but believing they exist coheres with other beliefs about the physical world in a way that believing in God does not. Calling such beliefs matters of ‘faith’ serves only to render the latter term meaningless.