[I was looking something up in my research notes yesterday, and came across a long "commentary" on Alister McGrath's book, The Twilight of Atheism, written, I believe, sometime during the Summer of 2006. It was written before Dawkins published his book The God Delusion (I would surely have mentioned it otherwise, and I received my copy a few days after it was published). The commentary may not be profound, but it at least shows a marked consistency with my views today, including my opinions about Alister McGrath, who seems to be taken far more seriously than he deserves to be. I think others may find the comments interesting. (The citation "McGrath 2004, [page number]” refers to The Twilight of Atheism, published by Doubleday in 2004 — significantly, the year that Sam Harris’s The End of Faith also appeared, the harbinger of the new atheism, a phenomenon sufficiently prominent that the General Synod of the Church of England considered it a vital challenge in the new quinquennium, contributing some heavy irony to McGrath’s title.) The following is, you might say, a catena of excerpts. Often the notes summarise and then comment on McGrath’s argument. McGrath’s name is represented simply by ‘M’. While I would now modify some of the comments, I have left them as they appear in my notes, although I have broken up longer notes into paragraphs. I was reading Peter Gay’s two volume The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, at the time, and references to it are quite frequent. (This is by way of a prelude to my reading — it’s in the post — of McGrath’s book, The Dawkins Delusion.)]
McGrath’s fourth chapter is tellingly titled “Warfare: The Natural Sciences and the Advancement of Atheism.” (McGrath 2004, 78) The corporate consciousness of the West is that of warfare between science and religion, science providing evidence, religion depending on dogma, with a clear sense of which is intellectually more respectable. Science, so the story goes, is the liberator of mankind from the obscurantism and the stultifying dogmatism of religion. This, presumably, is what M means to challenge.
He begins by considering the case of Calvin vs Copernicus and Bishop Wilberforce vs TH Huxley (and, by implication, Darwin). Both stories are known, says M, to be false. So, why consider them, when he could have found lots of examples of Christians opposing scientific developments? Because it serves his purpose of showing that this is merely a stereotype. (But, of course, the stories are not, after all false. This is just revisionist history.) But Galileo, for all that, was kept under house arrest, and made to recant his findings. And Christians to this day are opposed to Darwin on precisely the grounds that Bishop Wilberforce is alleged to have based his opposition. So, while the relationships between science and religion are more complex than this, they are also sometimes just as woodenly simple as this (McGrath 2004, see 82).
Nice quote from Thomas Huxley: “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that wherever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter have been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched if not slain.” (McGrath 2004, quoted 83) Which supports M’s thesis that there was no warfare, to be sure! Which raises the question: Historians may not think of there being a warfare being science and religion, but very often scientists have (like Dawkins, many during the 18th century, Darwin, who certainly felt the chill breath of religion on his researches, and of course the bizarre spectacle of the resurgence of creationism (aka intelligent design) in the United States).
M takes three statements as reflecting ‘the cultural understanding of the importance of science’: “1. The belief that the natural sciences are Promethean figures of liberation from bondage to a superstitious and oppressive past, which are locked in a mortal combat that can only end with the final elimination of religion from the scene. ¶ 2. The belief that the natural sciences conclusively prove all their theories, in contrast to the religious retreat into irrationality and mystery in the face of the evidence. ¶ 3. The pervasive notion that the Darwinian theory of evolution has made belief in God impossible, thus necessitating atheism on scientific grounds. ¶ Each one of these is an important element in the underpinning of the atheist worldview.” (McGrath 2004, 83) Despite the inflated language, surely there is some truth to 1. 2 is clearly not a position taken by scientists. Whose belief is this? But while not true about conclusive proof of scientific theories, religions do disappear into mystery. As to 3, no one would say that scientific discoveries make belief in god impossible. People can believe in all sorts of things. But evolution has made belief in god less credible perhaps, and certainly unnecessary. How does M get away with this kind of stuff?!
It would be more accurate, I think, to think of the secularism of the Enlightenment, as an endeavour, not simply to liberate from bondage, but to seek methods and procedures for resolving disagreement and difficulty. The bondage that the philosophes had in mind was bondage to ways of thinking about the world which led nowhere, except where authority imposed its own outcomes. They could be justifiably proud that they had succeeded in providing a methodology for escaping from this sort of bondage, and it is not at all surprising that they should have looked hopefully towards a future in which there was some hope of reaching agreement without depending on authority (and, what is authority’s other side, repression). But, as Gay points out in the second volume of his study of the Enlightenment, there was a very realistic appraisal by the philosophes – and often a fair degree of pessimism too – of the possibility of reaching the kind of resolution to divisions and difficulties that they hoped for. Hume, for example, as Gay says, “had no hesitation in celebrating the summits of civilization and his own civilization as a summit, but he had no room in his philosophy for the claim that the future guarantees man even higher peaks.” (Gay 1969, 101) In fact, says Gay, “until the nineteenth century it was easier for a Christian than for a philosophe to construct a theory of progress.” (Gay 1969, 100) So the myth of Promethean science is, possibly, a bit overblown in M’s rhetoric. No doubt he could find some who believed in the inevitable progress of mankind due to the benefits of science, but it would not be, I suspect, a general view.
“The idea that science and religion are in perpetual conflict is no longer taken seriously by any major historian of science, despite its popularity in the later nineteenth century.” (McGrath 2004, 87) This caricature is the result, mainly of two books, according to M, John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1876). This myth, however, according to M, “still lives on in popular atheist writings, undisturbed by the findings of scholars.” (McGrath 2004, 87) It’s interesting that he mentions White and Draper, but names not one contemporary scholar whose views differ from theirs. Why? In this connexion it is worthwhile raising the question of the scientific understanding of homosexuality and the church’s response to it. Isn’t this characteristic of the way the church responds to scientific and social progress?
McGrath may think that there is no warfare between science and religion. Clearly, this is wishful thinking. Think about the repression during the 18th century. Think of the philosophes’ opposition to religion and their use of science in prosecuting that opposition. See Gay (Gay 1969, 168 et. seq.) on this. Consider this point. “If the scientific method was the sole reliable method for gaining knowledge in a wide variety of contexts, from the phenomena of the heavens to the phenomena of plant life, it seemed plausible and in fact likely that it could be profitably exported to other areas of intense human concern where knowledge was primitive now, and disagreement as vehement, as it had been in physics a century before – the study of man and society.” (Gay 1969, 164) And Gay quotes Newton to this effect. In the Opticks Newton had written that “if natural Philosophy, in all its parts, by pursuing this [scientific] method], shall at length be perfected, the bounds of moral philosophy will also be enlarged.” (Gay 1969, 164, my italics) And Lichtenberg makes the astonishing suggestion – astonishing in the light of McGrath’s view of the philosophes – that “we should always proceed so that some day even more enlightened ages will be able to take for their model not our beliefs but our procedure.” (Gay 1969, 165, my italics)
Precisely! This is the point that McGrath conspires to ignore time and time again. His point seems to be that atheism is a belief system like religion, when, truth to tell, it is the product of a method of thinking, and not a stable product, because thinking goes on. Belief, it seems, may come to a terminus, but thoughtfulness and new ideas are a continuous process of applying systematic procedures to ideas. McGrath does not take the context of the 18th century “atheism” seriously – and of course it was often not a matter of atheism at all. They were, and felt themselves to be, on the threshold of a new world. There was great excitement. Does M want to deny this in his relentless drive to accuse them of mindless optimism? It wasn’t mindless. It was very mindful. And though the philosophes may often have been programmatic in their approach to things, and allowed their prejudices to distort their conclusions, it is only fair to add that they were also very concerned, as Lichtenberg says, with procedure, and with the methodical grounding of beliefs. Would M want to say that his prejudices and biases are not evident in his book?!
Gay brings up something else that is relevant here. Advancement of learning presupposes, he says, ‘relativism, eclecticism and toleration,’ and one thing that has to be remembered about the eighteenth century and before is that there were deeply entrenched powers, most of them related to the church, that prevented this kind of advancement. Only when the shackles of the ecclesiastical power were loosened was it possible to go forward with the project of increasing knowledge. This was a hard-won struggle, and the suggestion that there is no ‘warfare’ (is this just semantics?) between the church and growing knowledge is silly (Gay 1969, see 400).
It is interesting that M takes de Sade as the central example of the Enlightenment view of sexuality, but Peter Gay, though he deals with the philosophes’ views of sex and sensuality in some detail (Gay 1969, see 194 ff.), never mentions de Sade in connexion with the core principles of the Enlightenment! Isn’t this a typical example of M’s special pleading? In another place Gay has this to say about de Sade: “for all his pretentious philosophizing the marquis de Sade injected into his tedious novels, he was never more than a caricature of the Enlightenment whose heir he claimed to be.” (Gay 1967, 25) In view of M’s reliance upon de Sade and others whose relationship to the Enlightenment (or science, for that matter – compare his dependence upon Feuerbach, Marx and Freud) was tangential, one has to wonder whether what he is trying to do is scholarship or propaganda.
In re M’s inflated language, consider this. In writing on questions of peace and international relations, the philosophes engaged in a “struggle, on the whole successful, in behalf of humane realism against utopian fantasies.” (Gay 1969, 401)
Most of M’s history is of the potted variety. For instance, his snapshot of the relationship between science and religion in the 19th century, pictured as a struggle between clergy, who (M suggests) formed the bulk of the earlier scientists, and the rising class of scientists, with the clergy losing in the end and being characterised as the enemies of science (McGrath 2004, 88). This doesn’t make a lot of sense. If the clergy formed a large part of the British Association, devoted to advancing science, how did they get demoted and reclassified? Just because they were amateurs, and scientists wanted to put some distance between themselves and their amateur colleagues? (loc. cit.) That does seem a stretch. Besides, says M, “academic freedom demanded a break with the church,” (loc. cit.) and in order to do this the church needed to be depicted as the opponent of learning and scientific advance. But if it wasn’t the opponent, could it have been so depicted? Think of the response of the church to advances in biblical study (what we might justly call the ‘scientific’ study of the Bible), and the serious opposition within the church to critical historical biblical study. “The golden age of atheism,” says M tendentiously, “witnessed the relentless advance of the sciences and the equally relentless retreat of faith from the public to the private domain.” (McGrath 2004, 88–9) Well, of course, since there is no such thing as real advance in theology. It does not open itself to scientific criticism and decision. It does not belong in the public domain. Significantly, he says that faith no longer was allowed to have relevance to public policy (McGrath 2004, 89). Thank goodness! Unless there is some public basis for the beliefs of the religious, then those beliefs have no place in the public domain. The other point that needs to be made here is that during the 18th century, indeed, science was beginning to be inaccessible to the amateur. It was something, according to Peter Gay, that the philosophes regretted, that the gifted amateur could no longer keep up with the progress of scientific discovery. M’s thesis is a palpable fiction.
[The following comment is also significant, in the light of M's more recent criticisms of atheism, and the continued claim that he makes to have been a teenage atheist. I wonder just how much this is a reflection of how he actually thought as a teenager, and how much much of it reflects his apologetic concerns now.]
Oh, listen to this. “But this is not atheism in the grand and dignified sense of the word – a bold and courageous word that I myself was once proud to own. Atheism is not about the suspension of judgment on the God question; it is a firm and principled commitment to the nonexistence of God, and the liberating impact of this belief.” (McGrath 2004, 175) Yes, so it is. So, who has redefined the word? Again, he needs to give chapter and verse. “To abuse the term by applying it to those who are still thinking about such things, or who believe that the matter cannot in fact be settled, represents a dilution of the concept born of demographic desperation.” (loc. cit.) No evidence. But then he says that he was once an atheist, firmly atheistical, dismissing belief in god as the source of all manner of ills and violence. He managed atheism for two or three years in high school, until in his last year he realised that things were more complicated than they are. This hardly provides the man with serious credentials (McGrath 2004, see 175–177)!
The reason he was an atheist is because it proposed to eradicate religion, he says (McGrath 2004, 177). Who proposed? How proposed? With Marxism? But that is more than just atheism. That is a political programme. “The atheist vision was totalizing – a panoramic view of a society that had been liberated from its chief enemy and oppressor.” (McGrath 2004, 177) Totalising. That’s a dangerous word. Christianity and religious world views tend to be totalising, in the way that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan or Calvin Geneva. Marxism, as he says, offered him “a secular messianic outlook.” (McGrath 2004, 178) But this is more than just atheism. And less. It was a callow, immature, and untried position, adopted without much understanding, and, it strikes me, abandoned with as little thought. Notice his language: “I do not for one moment imagine that I am typical of those who once embrace atheism and then lost their faith.” (McGrath 2004, 178) Atheism is, for M, a faith, just as Christianity is, and you can understand why: because so much more was presupposed in his atheism, because it was connected with political hopes for justice and the eradication of religion and other violence. That faith was callow, immature, and more than atheism. He speaks, in this connexion, of “the highly ambivalent legacy of institutionalised atheism itself.” (loc. cit.) But [then he also] speaks of atheism, not as an intellectual position, but as a cultural mood. This kind of atheism has no purchase at all, once the mood is gone, as he found out when he revisited old haunts (McGrath 2004, 179).
[Considering the old Christian trope that those who give up belief in God apotheosise humanity -- that is, make a god of humanity instead -- the following seems still to be an apt response.]
“Nearly two hundred years’ experience of the moral failings of this humanity-turned-divinity have been enough to convince most that it has been a failed experiment.” (McGrath 2004, 184) This is an unwarranted assumption, that the sufferings of the 20th century are directly attributable to the idea that man is divine. Not only unwarranted, but, I should say, absurd. There is no evidence, really, that most Nazis were atheists. Hitler never handed back his RC ticket and the church never excommunicated him. Besides, as Nicholas Humphrey points out, it was Hitler who said: “We stand at the end of the Age of Reason. A new era of the magical explanation of the world is rising.” (Humphrey, Soul Searching, 8) The Soviet experiment failed, but, as Camus pointed out, soviet communism was a form of horizontal religion, with the kind of totalising program that M himself thinks is necessary to the atheist project. Humphrey makes the point that Marxism was a “successful rival to religion.” (Humphrey, 13) There is simply no basis for M’s bombastic claim. It’s not a question of “belief in humanity”, as if humanity is above reproach. Human beings have created their religions and then have oppressed and killed in the name of their creations. Of course, humanity is not divine. And the supposition that atheism (in general) wants to replace one divinity with another is sheer nonsense.
[Lastly, some remarks on McGrath's idea that religion is now being looked on with new respect, and has come to play a larger role in the public square.]
“Political opportunism and cultural sensitivity have led to religious beliefs being treated with new respect. The atheist agenda, once seen as a positive force for progress, is now seen as disrespectful toward cultural diversity.” (McGrath 2004, 278) What an incredible remark. The key words here are ‘respect’ and ‘disrespect’, words which are now being used to limit freedoms around the globe, freedom to criticise, to assess or to question. Is this really the world we want, where we walk around, as writers in the Soviet Union used to do, self-censoring themselves at every point – out of what? – respect? Polly Toynbee, in a Guardian article, “What’s at Stake is the Right to Insult and Cause Offence,” speaks of “the culture of thought-crime and self-censorship” in relation to the whole question of respect for religions in Britain.
Does a world with god (or, rather, gods, because we are talking about the respect due to so many clashing belief systems) look very attractive, with suicide bombers and murderers of doctors and nasty homophobic demonstrations? Not to me. “If I am to assess the attraction of the atheist vision [is there such a thing?], I will need to be able to imagine a world with God before coming to any decision.” (McGrath 2004, 278) M is so parochial. He will have to imagine a world with gods. And that world is not hard to imagine. It’s all around us, and it’s as ugly as ever. He thinks that “ … where religion manages to anchor itself in the hearts and minds of ordinary people, is sensitive to their needs and concerns, and offers them a better future, the less credible the atheist critique will appear.” (loc. cit.)
But what about the world of Wahhabi Islam? The world of the suicide bombers? This religion roots itself in the hearts and minds of ordinary people, responds to their needs, and offers them a better future, in fact, a heavenly one. Well? But to suggest that “[t]he atheist dilemma is that Christianity is a moving target whose trajectory is capable of being redirected without losing its anchor point in the New Testament.” (McGrath 2004, 277) hardly helps. For if it is a moving target for its enemies and detractors, it is a moving target for its followers as well. And the Pentecostalism which, as M says, is rising dramatically “among the urban poor of Asia, Africa, and Latin America,” is not so clearly, as M states, “a telling indication of the new trends within the worldwide Christian movement.” (McGrath 2004, 277) In fact this is so vague a claim as to make one wonder what M is up to. What does he want to claim by saying this? And when he goes on to point out that religious divisions within western society are on the increase (McGrath 2004, 277–8), one has to wonder why he should take so much comfort in the fact that the future does not look anywhere near as godless as atheists and humanists had hoped.