The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

light and way
I found this dual review of theologian-authored books on belief in God to be intriguing. The books were "In the Beginning... Creativity", by Harvard Divinity School's Gordon D. Kaufman, and "The Twilight of Atheism", by Oxford University's Alister McGrath, and the basis for comparison is the opposite ends each man reaches in this analysis. Providing the added twist is the divergence each one takes from his personal background: Kaufman was raised as a devout Christian, and McGrath has a Marxist-atheist pedigree from his younger days.

Rather than go through the entire debate, I'm more interested in looking at the condensed argument for McGrath's turnaround from Godless to Godly:
His basic theme is that in past centuries, Western faith squandered its moral stature when Christians ran around killing each other and oppressing dissenters. Back then, atheism seemed to promise human liberation.

Today, of course, churches abhor any hint of coerced faith and have long since embraced full freedom of conscience.

Meanwhile, when atheistic Communists or neo-pagan Nazis gained political power in the 20th century, McGrath comments, they proved to be even more bloodthirsty than their misguided Christian predecessors and produced "just as many frauds, psychopaths and careerists."

The conclusion: "It is not of the essence of atheism to be a liberator, nor of religion to be an oppressor."...

He realized that the great atheists (Marx, Freud) presupposed atheism rather than proving it.

Thus, "the belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God." Impasse. "The grand idea that atheism is the only option for a thinking person has long since passed away."

Moreover, McGrath argues, atheism failed in matters of "imagination" and created mere "organizations" instead of the sort of "community" that humans crave and religion fosters. Apart from Western Europe, faith is booming.

Still, McGrath maintains a certain respect for his youthful credo. Atheism's past successes showed that "when religion is seen as a threat to the people, it will fail; when it is seen as their friend, it will flourish."
To me, it doesn't sound like McGrath is advocating faith as much as he's advocating religion. More to the point, he treats religion and atheism as competing devotions, and in the process regards the structure of religion as being more vital, socially, than any actual belief behind it. It seems hollow.

I suppose I might get a more complete sense of McGrath's (and Kaufman's) arguments by consulting the book. But I'm not all that interested.