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22 of 31 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Narrow view of history, 2 Dec. 2006
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This review is from: The Twilight Of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Paperback)
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Nevertheless, McGrath stubbornly tries to uphold this outdated definition because it useful to him.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.
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