10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 26 January 2010
This book is a clear and structured work, and will keep the reader interested throughout. but there is a fair bit to be critical of in the latter stages of the book, where Mcgrath brings us to mid-late 20th century atheism. Mcgrath only addresses 'hard' or 'affirming' atheism, not the sort of atheism that is just an absence of belief in God, but a firm rejection of God's existence. Also, his understanding of 'postmodern' and post-structuralist challenges to theism is poor, and, in trying to defend theism from its challenges, he claims that atheism is more unsettled by it. But that only applies to 'hard' atheism! Mcgrath also devotes a lot of time to activists such as Madalyn Murray O'Hair, yet influential thinkers such as Russell, Satre and Mackie get no significant attention at all.
So, in conclusion, its interesting, well worth a read, but the last few chapters should have been better.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 23 January 2015
The more I read this book, the less I liked it. I'm an open-minded Christian and I think belief and unbelief should be respected and taken seriously. The first part of this book largely succeeds in doing that; but I agree with another Amazon review that it descends into a biased, sensational and"atheophobic" rant. I'm sure McGrath could have come up with some better examples of atheist thinkers than the loathsome-sounding Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who would probably have been unpleasant whatever she believed in (after all, not all religionists are nice). I don't think, in the end, this book is fair to the atheist viewpoint, and typifies some of the narrowness of vision and meanness of spirit than can give religion a bad name. Shame, an opportunity missed.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
It is ironic that McGrath's book came out in 2004 shortly before the books by the New Atheists: Sam Harris (2004); Richard Dawkins (2006); Daniel Dennett (2006) and Christopher Hitchins (2007). Since then McGrath has published two books that deal with the New Atheism, 'The Dawkins Delusion' (2007) and 'Why God won't go Away' (2011). In the main 'Twilight of Atheism' covers the history of atheism in the two hundred years between the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As a work on history he does a competent job, understanding the past helps us understand the present, and gives us a hint about the future. It is one of the ironies of history that the early Christians were called atheists (atheistos) because they challenged the validity of the pagan religious system. He should have spent a bit more time discussing the Soviet Union as the world's first atheist state; it would have made a good case study of what happens when atheists have power. It would be interesting to see what comrade Dawkins would do if he had real power, e.g. how would he go about eradicating the 'religion' virus?
The Soviet Union tried power to eradicate religion, but it did not work. This is a lesson from history, but it failed, which is evident to us all. Some have argued that he deals with hard atheism, but why should McGrath soft peddle on this issue? I was particularly intrigued by the biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair (1919-1995) who was responsible for removing prayer and the bible from state schools in the USA, she was a hard line atheist, but her arguments were not very good, much the same as the New Atheists. If people object that McGrath is dealing with hard atheism, then I suggest that this is nothing when compared with the vitriol of the New Atheism. In some ways this book would have been much better if it was published three years later to take into account the New Atheism, but then I guess that the title would need to be changed.
So, you guys who want an atheist Utopia. It has been tried and tested, and found wanting.
on 4 June 2014
Covers a wide historical period and well researched and huge reference list. Makes assumptions about understanding ofdefinitions and terms. Makes some very broad statements which are irritating. Whilst many of the issues are fairly presented the authors underlying assumption is that atheism has had its day Whilst the book appears .academic; it lacks some real rigor when it comes to conclusions. It concentrates of the intellectual manifestations of atheism and in particular the Christian religion. I feel it lacks a world view - what about Athiesm in Islam or Hinduism.
It is worth a read but beware of the assumptions and bias
51 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on 8 March 2006
This book was very different from what I expected. While the author clearly states he is a christian who was previously an atheist, this does not read as an attempt to convert or as a religious book.
The book is really a study of atheism as a social phenomenon, considering those factors that have tended to favour atheistic outlooks and those that have not. The message I came away with was that the rise of atheism had much more to do with the prevailing social environment than with evidence for or against the existance of God.
The author seemed very sympathetic to atheists as a whole, with the exception of irrational extremists, like 'Dawkinsian' fundamentalists. It is interesting that the language of extremists, whether religious or atheistic, tends to be similarly intolerant and aggressive.
I did not agree with all that the author wrote, but it was always informative, and proved an enjoyable read.
22 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 2 December 2006
In this book McGrath sets out an analysis of the development of atheism over the last few hundred years. According to McGrath, atheism is an `empire of the mind' motivated by a rebellion against the Church which has been seen as an authority.
McGrath starts his book with an analysis of the meaning of the word `atheism'. Contrary to our modern usage, the ancient Greeks used the word to identify people who did not believe in the gods of Athens. This meaning of the word was carried forward into the early Christian age, which is why the pagans accused the early Christians of being atheistic.
Nevertheless, McGrath stubbornly tries to uphold this outdated definition because it useful to him. Most people now think that atheism identifies people who don't believe in a God. It would seem, therefore, that everyone is born an atheist because we are born without a belief in God.
It is not possible to attribute the state of agnosticism to a child because that child would have to acknowledge the limitations of our experience in order to be defined as agnostic. Think about it. If an Eskimo is approached by a Christian and told that there is a God, we cannot retrospectively say that the Eskimo had been an agnostic before introduced to the concept of God, but rather, he lacked a belief altogether. The Eskimo would have to give a reason why he did not uphold a belief in God in order to be called an agnostic, and normally that involves a reluctance to uphold any unempirical beliefs.
Accordingly, McGrath with his nasty conception of atheists as rebels thinks that in order to be an atheist you have to state it clearly that you are against any theistic religion. But this poses a problem when we go to analyse people's position in history. To be an atheist, has been, and continues to be seen as an unreasonable position held by amoral people. Who would admit to holding such views, especially in Hume's time when there wasn't such a diverse and open society?
McGrath's historical analysis of atheism does not fair very well either. McGrath takes very dynamic socio-political events - The French Revolution and The Communist revolution - and makes very simplistic assumptions about the motivations of the people involved. For example, when talking about the failure of Communism in the US McGrath does not say anything about the events of the cold war, such as the Cuban missile crises.
The scope of the book lies very much in the western world (with the exception of Korea), and totally ignores the possibility of atheism in other parts of the world. McGrath fails to acknowledge the existence of essentially atheistic religions such as Daoism, Buddhism or Confucianism, which have been very good at sustaining eastern societies, especially in China and India.
No doubt McGrath's distorted picture of history, which places an evaluation of Dawkins' views alongside those of Darwin's giving the impression that Dawkins' doubts are in the past, will be welcomed by some naive Christians who think that atheists are anti-social people who live in the past. The reality, however, is that atheism is a very real possibility in present world where our values are continuously being questioned.
31 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on 15 February 2006
As McGrath duly notes in the introduction to 'The Twilight of Atheism': "This book will not settle anything; but at least it can further discussion of one of the greatest issues of our time." Having studied Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Molecular Biophysics, before gaining first class honours in Theology at Oxford University, Alister McGrath is well positioned to provide a broad insight into any debate concerning religious belief. A one time Atheist turned Christian, McGrath has first hand experience of life on both sides of the fence.
Rest assured this book is not aimed at converting 'non-believers' but at dispelling the controversial notion that "religion is the world's greatest evil." McGrath achieves this by tracing the history of atheism and highlighting the flaws, not of atheism as a whole, but of the secularist movements that have tried to impose atheism. Contrary to the beliefs of some, by no means does McGrath imply that the fall of the Berlin wall was a result of atheism, although he does draw attention to the failures of oppressive systems that have enforced their doctrine upon the unwilling. McGrath explains that, like religious movements, secular-atheist movements have been marred by a history of atrocities. As such atheism can be considered no less evil than monotheism.
Clearly 'The Twilight of Atheism' is written from a Christian perspective, but McGrath does not attempt to con the reader into thinking otherwise. McGrath is sympathetic to atheists who "just ask to be left alone, getting on with their lives peacefully and Godlessly". He does however take exception to the "militant, awkward, and angrier" forms of atheism. Just as religion has oppressive factions, so does atheism. Both are unacceptable.
"The Twilight of Atheism" is undoubtedly more accessible to the Christian reader. However, given Alister McGrath's impressive, diverse, credentials, this book is a must for any peron interested in religious debate.
P.S. It is a supposition to believe that humans are born atheist. There is absolutely no proof to validate such a claim. Surely, if anything, a person is born agnostic.
18 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 14 February 2007
In the first half of this book Alister McGrath examines an eclectic selection of individuals and historical periods in various countries - all tied together by their significance in the rise of atheism.
Underpinning much of this book, I suspect, is an assumption that beliefs can only be exchanged and not dropped. Atheism and science seem, to me, to be portrayed very much as belief systems. How many times in the past have I seen Buddhism described dismissively as `just a philosophy' because it lacks a personal, creative deity? Nowadays it would seem that even atheism is classified as a religion! Where will it end? Is there anything which isn't a religion?
This is an enjoyable and accessible account of the rise of atheism. However, there are deficiencies in the text - particularly when it links atheism with the natural sciences. It would be very easy for someone to be led astray by the author's poor communication of what scientific proof means. The author would have been well advised to include a little more background on the philosophy of science - particularly Karl Popper's idea of falsifiability as the demarcation of science. If this is too technical then just a warning about the ambiguity of the word `prove' would have helped enormously. Though, personally, I am far from convinced that McGrath actually understands this distinction himself.
Nor is it acceptable to say that a scientist has `faith' in a theory in the same way that a religious person has faith. The same word is being used in a confused manner which blurs the issue and gives the impression that all of us rely on faith and, as such, there is nothing abnormal in religious faith. All that we can really conclude from this discussion is that words like `faith' and `belief' have various meanings.
Maybe the whole issue of faith is a bit of a red herring and it would be more appropriate to look at how willing individuals are to let go of ideas when they are shown to be wrong. This is something which can be applied equally to both science and religion.
The second half of the book charts the fall of atheism. We are presented with a brave new, postmodern world. Pentecostalism is portrayed as rushing in to fill the void left by the demise of atheism. What about other religions which are thriving? Is there going to be a return to paganism? What about Islam? What about Eastern mysticism? And where do the various fringe beliefs fit into this post-modern world? Channelling, angels, alien abductions and elaborate conspiracy theories all seem to be thriving! Reading this book one gets the impression that there are only two religions available to humanity - Christianity or atheism. No doubt if we could speak `in tongues' like the Pentecostalists then our deepest spiritual aspirations would be fulfilled and all of this other nonsense would simply drop out of the picture.
McGrath also states that it is not possible to prove the existence or non-existence of God. He must be aware that atheists do not need to prove anything. Indeed he quotes Annie Besant's explanation that it is the theists who are making the affirmative statement and the whole burden of proof rests on them. His argument that the burden of proof is equally shared failed to convince me. He must also be aware that his same argument can be extended to the existence or non-existence of Zeus and a thousand and one other gods. There is so much woolly thinking here that it does, in my opinion, verge on the deceptive.
Taken as an overview of the rise and fall of atheism, it is an interesting read. Taken as a book based on a solid philosophical basis it is very limited indeed.
26 of 37 people found the following review helpful
I haven't read it, I just want to correct N Beale's misleading statement below. S/He says that only 11,000 people declared themselves 'Atheist' on the 2001 UK census. However, 'atheist' was not a pre-printed option, and most atheists would have simply (and accurately) ticked 'No Religion' rather than writing in the word 'Atheist'. The number who ticked 'No Religion' was 8.5 million.
13 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 24 December 2006
This is a well written and accessible discussion on a subject that interests many and is relevant to everyone but beware: the Author limits this book to the social and political implications of an unconventionally defined Atheism on the organised Christian Church. He touches on the work of many influential thinkers which has given me a long list of further reading. However, the Author tends to 'sum up' the gist of most of these without any real discussion in a way that I suspect is sometimes for the convenience of his arguments (based on the cited Authors I am familiar with). As long as the socio-political context is borne in mind some of the arguments are reasonable whilst others I found to be flawed.
He draws a dichotomy between the Christian Church and a broad selection of people he defines Athiests (many of those he cites under this definition would be better termed agnostic by their own admission) making up a coherent 'Atheism Movement' akin to an organised Church. Putting Richard Dawkins, Lenin and the Marquis de Sade in the same camp seems somewhat simplistic. A more relevant division may be between Athiests and Theists (Mono- and Poly-) acknowledging the diversity within both Theism and Atheism.
He also does not make an adequate distinction between 'belief' and 'faith' which I believe (!) is essential to any discussion on this subject. Belief is asserting something based on reasonable evidence. Faith is asserting something on little or no evidence. The former is rational, the latter is irrational. If I believe I am sitting in front of a computer monitor because I can see it I would not require Faith. If I believe in an omnipotent God based solely on the distribution of a historical document in some parts of the world (the Bible) I would require Faith. Although I can be very sure about sitting in front of the monitor, I cannot prove it beyond all uncertainty but it is rational to keep it as a 'working hypothesis' until I (literally) see otherwise. Nothing beyond the realm of Mathematics can be proved beyond uncertainty and Science (that some think of as rigid and factual and many associate with Atheism) is based on degrees of uncertainty. Given that you cannot observe something that (hypothetically) isn't there, a rational belief in God would require some evidence of God's existence which is conspicuously lacking whilst a 'working hypothesis' that existence is 'Godless' until there is evidence to the contrary is a rational belief that does not require Faith.
Under the section 'The Stalled Intellectual Case against God' the Author states 'Christianity and atheism are faiths' with minimal justification or exploration which given the title of the book I found somewhat inadequate. There are Athiests who have Faith in a Godless existence (which seems to be the former position of the Author) and there are Atheists who would happily believe that a God exists (be it Hindu, Christian or otherwise) given some supportive evidence. Despite the Authors simplistic definitions of Atheism, Faith and belief and the narrow context of Christianity (there are many other theistic Faiths in the Modern World) the book is accessibly written and has a fairly broad coverage of influential thinkers.