Friday, December 9, 2011

The Twilight of Atheism?

I recently read The Twilight of Atheism, by Alister McGrath, a historian and theologian who has been engaged in the various public debates/discussions over "the New Atheism" in recent years. McGrath grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 70s, where the continuing bloody, religiously motivated fighting between Protestants and Catholics helped to convince him that religion was a plague on humanity and that belief in God a delusion that could only continue to fuel bloodshed and hatred. Through his teens and early adult years, McGrath was a committed atheist, embracing the view that humanity could only come of age and overcome past barbarism by shedding its religious beliefs and embracing a new age organized under the principles of rationalism and science.

In his later adult years, however, McGrath experienced a religious conversion. He became disillusioned with institutional atheism, which he saw as reactive and emotionally unsatisfying. Furthermore, in the few instances where atheism was officially promoted through state policy -- in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, and in the Soviet Union, Communist China, and later in various eastern bloc countries -- he did not see atheism bringing on a new dawn of humanity and freedom. Quite the opposite... In these states, when atheists in power were unable to rationally persuade believers to give up religion (or cooperate with their economic, social and political agendas), they resorted to coercion and persecution -- just like the religions they had supposedly risen above.

In The Twilight of Atheism, McGrath sees the high point of atheism as the roughly two centuries between the French Revolution -- which brought atheism out into the open as a viable philosophy -- and the fall of the Soviet Union -- which constituted the collapse of the first modern atheist establishment, and coincided with a trend of increasing religiosity, not just in traditionally religious countries (like the United States), but in the traditional heartland of atheism, in northern and western Europe.

McGrath argues that the stridency of polemicists like Richard Dawkins and Samuel Harris is proof that atheism is losing traction in the post-modern world. Classic atheism, McGrath says, was a philosophical commitment that insisted on the absence of God as a precursor for the liberation of humanity. It would involve a philosophical commitment the reverse of Voltaire's (in)famous dictum: If God existed, we should have to uninvent him. The hardline denial of even the possibility of God's existence was a moral necessity, even if we couldn't prove it. The extension of the label of "atheist" even to those who merely doubt God's existence, who aren't sure, those once referred to as merely "agnostic," McGrath argues, is a sign that atheism is in retreat. The hardline atheist position has lost its power to inspire and to convince.

McGrath argues that historically, atheism has appealed most strongly when religious institutions were most corrupt and oppressive. The birth of modern philosophical atheism took place in eighteenth-century France, where the Catholic Church was completely in bed with the stale and wicked Ancien Régime. In fact, corrupt Church-State establishments throughout Europe were vulnerable to criticism, and provided rich fertilizer for the rise of philosophical atheism all over the continent. By contrast, in the United States, where religion was disestablished and governments democratic, atheism never really took hold. Modern-day statistics tell the story. In France and Germany, the atheist population is close to fifty percent; in Scandinavia, a solid majority, around eighty percent; in Catholic Italy and Anglican Britain, around thirty to forty percent. In the U.S., one percent... Or about nine percent if you count people who label themselves as "agnostic."

McGrath argues that Classical Protestantism may actually have helped sow the seeds for atheism as well. Catholicism invited believers to experience God in the world around them, through ritual and sacrament, in the sensual visual, audible and tangible expressions of faith found in stained glass windows, in statues, in holy water and incense, and in music. Protestantism took all of that away, emphasizing the Bible alone and the rational, preached word as the only means to know about a God who was distant, and who no longer manifested himself miraculously in this world. From this distant, rational clock-maker God, McGrath suggests, it was a short step to no God at all, or to rationalism as God.

Old-line Protestantism, however, gave birth to Pietism. In Britain the predominant form of Pietism was Methodism. Methodism spread like wildfire in the Americas, becoming the predominant form of U.S. Christianity by 1850. When American Methodism started to go mainline and decline, it spawned other, more fervent movements: the Holiness movement which eventually, around the turn of the century, gave birth to Pentecostalism. A century later, Pentecostal and "Charismatic" Christians (Christians in mainline denominations who practice Pentecostal-style worship) number about half a billion worldwide. If growth in the Pentecostal movement continues at its current rate, it will eventually come to outnumber Catholics and become the predominant expression of Christianity in the world.

Pietism, McGrath argues, is the ultimate antidote to atheism, because it encourages the believer to experience, to feel and to see God alive and at work in their daily lives. Someone who has had personal experiences with God, experiences which have developed into an active and personal relationship with God, is very unlikely to find any atheist argument convincing, no matter how intellectually cohesive it may be. How can you refuse to believe in someone that you know personally? The fact that Pietism has been the predominant form of Christian expression in the U.S. is probably a second contributing factor -- along with the early disestablishment of religion -- to the low appeal of atheism on our shores.

McGrath does not take a hardline position against atheism. Atheism, he argues, has actually played an important role in critiquing religious corruption. The Churches, he argues, have responded to atheist criticism. They have taken a hard look at doctrines such as the belief that the unbaptized automatically go to Hell, and have revised or dropped them. Christian churches that once believed a state-church establishment was necessary to uphold faith have now accepted and embraced disestablishment and religious freedom. The Churches have also taken a good, hard look at their role in collaborating with various forms of political, social and economic injustice. What nineteenth-century atheists didn't expect has happened. Churches have evolved and changed and embraced positive social change. The Christianity that atheists critique, McGrath argues, is a "moving target." It's no longer the Christianity of the pre-French-revolutionary ancien régime, though, he suggests, many atheists continue to critique that Church. For that reason, atheists, McGrath ironically suggests, have become the main modern bastion of religious conservatism. Atheism will continue to play a valuable role in society, however, to the extent it remains ever vigilant against new forms of religious corruption.

In a recent post, in explaining why he has embraced atheism, Keith stated that atheism helps him to be "more intrinsically motivated to do good, rather than being extrinsically motivated by my church." This, to me, is a classic example of the way that atheism can actually bring a breath of fresh air to religion. Any careful reading of the New Testament will show that -- from a purely religious perspective! -- "intrinsic" motivation (desire to be loving, kind and compassionate because it's the right thing to do) must trump "extrinsic" motivations (fear of Hell or damnation, desire to be praised or viewed as a good person by others, etc.). This is a basic faith principle. Motivation matters in faith, and extrinsic motivations cannot save us. Yet, religious institutions get too easily wrapped up in the extrinsic motivational structure; they buy into legalism and hierarchy and pride. They easily become rigid and inflexible and intolerant.

When they do, if McGrath's argument is right, atheism will start to hold greater appeal to rank and file members of these institutions; and religious institutions will start to die.

I've continued to be struck by the truth of a line from Ockham's Razor, by Alan Michael Williams:

Every gay person in the LDS Church is fated to float in doubt and skepticism...

Why is this? Because there's no place for us in the institutional Church as we are, as we experience ourselves in the goodness of our created selves. There's no room for us to love, to connect, to find and build family and experience all the growth that comes from that in the way that works for us, that honors who we are and how we experience ourselves. As long as this is true, being gay and Mormon will be problematic.

Like Alister McGrath, I embraced atheism for a time. Perhaps a much shorter time than he did. As a youth and young adult, I had a vibrant prayer and spiritual life, and experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit. As an adult, it was my anger about the lack of place or respect for gay folks in organized Christianity that alienated me from the Church and even from belief in God for a time.

Like McGrath, I demanded a philosophically robust atheism. The kind that insists humanity must mature, must take responsibility for both the good and the evil we have done, and must open its heart in compassion to those who have been marginalized and oppressed, and whose marginalization and oppression has been callously justified as God's will.

I still believe that! But from within a perspective of faith. I've come to believe that faith -- trust in God -- is our best hope at achieving truly loving, just society. Like McGrath, I ultimately abandoned my atheism, and turned instead to a renewed, personal, immediate relationship with God, a God who has spoken to my mind and my heart, who has appeared to me, healed me, comforted me and taught me. Grounded in that relationship, I find a seemingly endless reservoir of love and patience for the very, very long journey ahead of me, and ahead of all of us. That road led me, for good or for ill, straight back to the Church.

I wish others could or would join me in that path. It's lonely sometimes. I have been so heartened by and so grateful for the emotionally and spiritually intimate friendship I've found with other gay Mormons who experience the Holy Spirit in their lives and who affirm both their gayness and their faith. There are a handful of us. It breaks my heart when I see the fervency of faith and love fade among gay Mormon friends. We are the leaven in the dough. What happens if we cease to quicken? We are the salt. What happens if we lose our savor?

There's joy in this path we can't find in any other, if only we can hang in there! There's a reservoir of strength and love in God that can renew and uphold us, and that fills us with sweet, sweet delight... If only we can trust that extra measure.

And yet... I can't blame gay Mormons for losing faith. That's a witness too. A negative witness, but a witness nonetheless. When institutions fail their own, the lesson of history is that people lose faith. This is a religious principle, not an atheist principle. Our lives touch other lives, for good... or for ill.

4 comments:

Neal said...

Loved this post.

Yes, those of us who remain true are few indeed.

Duck said...

I enjoyed your post and the review of his book. You are a very gifted writer, John. Thank you for sharing your talents and your amazing spirit with us.

I do not know if you have read the book "God's Smuggler"? You might enjoy it. It is about those who have smuggled Bibles into countries who have banned it and who have tried stopping the progress of Christianity. I found the book hard to put down once I started it.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Love and respect, always. slp

J G-W said...

I found it on Amazon... I'll have to check it out!

Merry Christmas to you and yours too!

Brian said...

Hi John,

I wept when I read this from your post. A good cry tho :)...it's been an adventure getting to know and feel closer to you and other gay Mormons who are striving to live true to their best. You truly are an amazing man !!

"I wish others could or would join me in that path. It's lonely sometimes. I have been so heartened by and so grateful for the emotionally and spiritually intimate friendship I've found with other gay Mormons who experience the Holy Spirit in their lives and who affirm both their gayness and their faith. There are a handful of us. It breaks my heart when I see the fervency of faith and love fade among gay Mormon friends. We are the leaven in the dough. What happens if we cease to quicken? We are the salt. What happens if we lose our savor?

There's joy in this path we can't find in any other, if only we can hang in there! There's a reservoir of strength and love in God that can renew and uphold us, and that fills us with sweet, sweet delight... If only we can trust that extra measure."

I printed out and gave copies of two of your blog posts today to my bishop at church, along with a letter putting them in context and explaining how they resonated with me at this point in my journey. They were "Why Church membership matters - and so does family" and "the Domino theory of Gospel Truth". He promised me that he would read them today. I am so fortunate to have him as a bishop. I feel closer to Jesus and the doctrines of the church. Although I have also been exploring GLBT friendly denominations like the United Church, church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalism (you'll have to say more about your dream about that....I'm fascinated :) lol). I've been blessed to make friends with several gay men in Edmonton who attend these and other churches where they find they are accepted and who are growing spiritually.
Thank you for continuing to post these incredible messages :)