Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Twilight of the No-Gods

The Washington Times declares that "Science, 'frauds' trigger a decline in atheism":

GURAT, France -- Godlessness is in trouble, according to a growing consensus among philosophers, intellectuals and scholars.

"Atheism as a theoretical position is in decline worldwide," Munich theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg said in an interview.

His Oxford colleague Alister McGrath agrees. Atheism's "future seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals rather than in the great public domain it once regarded as its habitat," Mr. McGrath wrote in the U.S. magazine, Christianity Today.

Two developments are plaguing atheism these days. One is that it appears to be losing its scientific underpinnings. The other is the historical experience of hundreds of millions of people worldwide that atheists are in no position to claim the moral high ground.

British philosopher Anthony Flew, once as hard-nosed a humanist as any, has turned his back on atheism, saying it is impossible for evolution to account for the fact that one single cell can carry more data than all the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Mr. Flew still does not accept the God of the Bible. But he has embraced the concept of intelligent design -- a stunning desertion of a former intellectual ambassador of secular humanism to the belief in some form of intelligence behind the design of the universe.

That atheism is losing it's "great public domain", whatever that means, can be argued, but the simplistic reasons given by this article are certainly laughable. Flew's "defection", while certainly a high-profile event, is rather meaningless to the field of Darwinian evolution. Flew is basically affirming the Argument from Complexity, which is just putting a respectable philosophical face on an act of personal incomprehension. Rather than stating "I give up, this is too complex for me to understand", the Argument from Complexity allows the philosopher to state "since I cannot follow the chain of causality that lead to the formation of DNA, therefore it is too complex to have occured naturally". By the same reasoning we would have to conclude that weather systems require intelligent direction, since the trail of causal interactions is too complex to calculate.

The second causal factor according to the article, which is atheism's dismal record on morality, is equally problematic:

Atheism's other Achilles' heels are the acts on inhumanity and lunacy committed in its name.

"With time, [atheism] turned out to have just as many frauds, psychopaths and careerists as religion does. ... With Stalin and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheism seems to have ended up mimicking the vices of the Spanish Inquisition and the worst televangelists, respectively," Mr. McGrath wrote in Christianity Today.

This is a strange set of precedents to argue against the inhumanity of atheism: Stalin and O'Hair. One a mass murderer, the other an activist, who while being offensive to many religious people, leaves a legacy that is reviled by the religious for the singular act of challenging a law in court that discriminated against non-believers, a law that the vast majority of religious Americans would disavow today.

But, to its credit, McGrath at least points out that atheists have been guilty of acting as badly as theists when they have acheived positions of unchecked power. Which is as it should be. Atheism should never have been promoted as a philosophy that could liberate mankind from evil. Such a position, paradoxically, promotes one of the most toxic aspects of theist religions, messianic idealism.

Be careful what you wish for

However, the decline of atheism is not an occasion for celebration by the theologians:

The Rev. Paul M. Zulehner, dean of Vienna University's divinity school and one of the world's most distinguished sociologists of religion, said atheists in Europe have become "an infinitesimally small group."

"There are not enough of them to be used for sociological research," he said. Mr. Zulehner cautioned, however, that the decline of atheism in Europe does not mean that re-Christianization is taking place.

"What we are observing instead is a re-paganization," he said.

The Rev. Gerald McDermott, an Episcopal priest and professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., said a similar phenomenon is taking place in the United States.

"The rise of all sorts of paganism is creating a false spirituality that proves to be a more dangerous rival to the Christian faith than atheism," he said.

After all, a Satanist is also "spiritual."

It is hard to see how Christian theologians could expect, once the Reformation made each man a priest and an interpreter of God's word, that popular religion would not devolve into a solipsistic vanity mirror. The privatization of religion was the logical oucome of the Reformation, and Christianity will have to continually compete with atheism, paganism, and every other form of what-I-feelism. What the authors don't realise is that it is not just atheism's future that seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals, but all religions. They seem to think that with atheism vacating its "great public domain", that Christianity can reclaim its lost public domain. Optimism reigns supreme:

Mr. Pannenberg, a Lutheran, praised the Roman Catholic Church for handling this peril more wisely than many of his fellow Protestants.

"The Catholics stick to the central message of Christianity without making any concessions in the ethical realm," he said, referring to issues such as same-sex "marriages" and abortion.

In a similar vein, Mr. Zulehner, a Catholic, sees Christianity's greatest opportunity when its message addresses two seemingly irreconcilable quests of contemporary humanity -- the quest for freedom and truth. "Christianity alone affirms that truth and God's dependability are inseparable properties to which freedom is linked."

It is odd that Mr Zulehner would see freedom and truth as irreconcilable. But he is reciting the traditional Catholic reaction to liberty, and the goal of restricting the dissemination of knowledge to the teachings of the Church, lest free individuals are led astray by false prophets or their own sinfulness. The days of an all-controlling shepherd church and a sheeplike flock are past.

As for the "peril of spirituality," Mr. Zulehner sounded quite sanguine. He concluded from his research that in the long run, the survival of worldviews should be expected to follow this lineup: "The great world religions are best placed," he said. As a distant second he sees the diffuse forms of spirituality. Atheism, he said, will come in at the tail end.

He is, of course, ignoring one major trend, that of "spiritualized Christianity". Christians are increasingly spiritualizing their faith, customizing it to fit their own personal what-I-feelism. In the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ronald J. Sider sounds the alarm:

Scandalous behavior is rapidly destroying American Christianity. By their daily activity, most "Christians" regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.

The findings in numerous national polls conducted by highly respected pollsters like The Gallup Organization and The Barna Group are simply shocking. "Gallup and Barna," laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, "hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general." Divorce is more common among "born-again" Christians than in the general American population. Only 6 percent of evangelicals tithe. White evangelicals are the most likely people to object to neighbors of another race. Josh McDowell has pointed out that the sexual promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less outrageous than that of their nonevangelical peers.

Alan Wolfe, famous contemporary scholar and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, has just published a penetrating study of American religious life. Evangelicals figure prominently in his book. His evaluation? Today's evangelicalism, Wolfe says, exhibits "so strong a desire to copy the culture of hotel chains and popular music that it loses what religious distinctiveness it once had." Wolfe argues, "The truth is there is increasingly little difference between an essentially secular activity like the popular entertainment industry and the bring-'em-in-at-any-cost efforts of evangelical megachurches."

Christianity will, of course, survive as a major world religion well into the future. It is doubtful that atheism, from a numerical standpoint, will ever threaten to overwhelm the basically religious nature and habits of humankind. However, I don't believe that religious or denominational affiliations will be the dominant, decisive philosophical fault lines that affect the future direction of history as they have in the past. The ideological and political divides of left and right, capitalist and socialist, nationalist and trans-nationalist will play a more decisive role, and you will see Christians, Muslims, Athiests and Pagans on either side of those divides.


Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I think both sides should be a little careful about jumping on statistical bandwagons on who lives healthier or more morally admirable lives. Religion is simply too amorphous a concept to pin down this way. How do you distinguish between the fervent and the nominal, the liberal and the conservative, etc. Plus, statistics are a mugs game. What exactly does it mean when divorce rates are higher in a younger population that marries more frequently?

Your point about what you call "spiritualized Christianity" is well taken, though. There is a big difference between the "personal God" crowd and those who submit to an external and eternal truth. C.S. Lewis parodied the former wonderfully during the "Life Force" craze of the 40's and 50's. To paraphrase clumsily, he said that when the sun was shinning and the world was beautiful, nobody wants to think they are just a random collection of atoms and it is much more fun to see oneself riding the crest of this magnificent, glorious wave of life and energy. On the other hand, if you want to do something shabby, there is no nagging, meddlesome deity to stop you.

March 06, 2005 4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The flavor of atheism said to be in decline leaves a distinctly religious aftertaste -- it's an organized flavor with a social and political agenda, where people identify themselves as atheists, have what amounts to a creed, attend meetings, etc. And without question this flavor of atheism *has* been in decline, and was never much to be concerned with at any time.

Because atheism as actually practiced is simply a way of setting priorities in life, little informed by any organized religion. And organized religions do indeed have creeds, meet regularly, and push social agendas. Atheists by and large simply ignore these agendas. They give lip service to God and Jesus, they attend the networking social clubs called churches where they go to be seen and keep their hand in, but the teachings preached from the altar don't penetrate into the congregation.

The religious mindset sees atheism as a competing faith, but they have understandably misunderstood their real enemy. Their real enemy is a broad and growing indifference to Christian doctrine, which is viewed as being either banal ("be good to each other") or irrelevant. The real enemy is a preference for setting individual priorities as individuals, judging cases on their merits, recognizing that life is an endless series of compromises and tradeoffs, within which decisions depend on anticipated results.

The "atheists" in twilight are those who saw the Christian Church as a powerful and intimidating monolith to be resisted through organization and planning. The atheism in ascendance doesn't concern itself with the church at all -- why bother? Even the evangelicals behave just like everyone else. If we ignore what they say, we're entirely comfortable with what they do, since it's just what we do.

March 06, 2005 4:55 PM  
Anonymous Jeff Guinn said...


Great, thoughtful, post.


I had previously read that Christianity Today article, and was, frankly, astonished. I had taken it as a matter of, well, faith, that Evangelists would, as a population, be morally superior.

Not. I have been tempted to cite that article as an argument against assertions that belief in God is required for morality. But I didn't for fear of falling into a statistics trap I hadn't noticed.

Anon at least peripherally raised the point I had in mind. The article seems to sloppily treat religious belief and religion as the same thing.

They are not.

A religion is any (Peter, please don't trash your monitor over this) baroque, monarchic belief system. (That is, the system has a large number of complex, arbitrary underpinnings, and relies exclusively on argument from authority).

Therefore, Communism and Nazism constitute religions every bit as much as Christianity, or Islam. Focussing on some supernatural deity as the qualifier is simply beside the point.

Atheism is no more a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby. It is a religious belief that has none of the trappings of religion.

Duck, you really hit the point in noting the knock-on effects of The Enlightenment--although once Gutenberg invented his press, the game was pretty much up.

March 08, 2005 3:26 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I used the Christianity Today article to make two points. One, to make the point that religious belief is a poor predictor of behavior. Second, to butress the idea that I proposed that the personalization & privatization of belief, or the "spiritualization" as we are calling it, is a trend of the times, cutting across all religious and sectarian boundaries. It is the real story here. The decline of muscular atheism is just a sideshow to this main event.

I think anon hit the nail on the head between the form of political atheism in twilight, and the form of personal atheism in the ascendant (or at least not in twilight). It follows the larger trend.

Peter, I fully accept that regular church attendance is a positive factor in people's lives. Church attendance, though, is a behavior and not a belief, though it depends on belief. I didn't quit Catholicism because I hated Mass, I rather enjoyed Mass. Religion will continue to succeed if only for the benefits of churchgoing.

March 09, 2005 8:18 AM  
Blogger Gadfly said...

Great post; I've known all about the Barna findings, and used them once or twice in editorial columns.

Of course, Christian apologists will claim that "those people":
Aren't real Christians;
Aren't born again
Aren't committed, etc.

March 14, 2005 11:52 PM  
Blogger Gadfly said...

Great points, Duck...

And let me say that atheism has become personalized too.

I have on occasion attended a philophers' forum here in Dallas, which meets monthly.

A retired college philosophy professor literally identified himself as an atheist in one breath then talked about prayer in the next.

My minimal high regard immediately kicked in.

And, as for religion, I love listening to Requiems; and the sensual overload of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. (Makes the Mass look like something for Baptists.)

March 14, 2005 11:55 PM  
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October 11, 2005 5:39 PM  

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