Revealer associate editor Kathryn Joyce writes:
Atheist-turned-Christian-scholar Alister McGrath has written a new book, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, which will be released this June. According to an early review , McGrath’s argument—that atheism is as obsolete as Communism—is based partially on modernism’s failure to extinguish religion as expected, and the global rise of religious fundamentalism that has occurred instead. McGrath’s dim predictions for “organized atheism”–its ideological failures naturally turning skeptics back towards God–are extrapolated from one group, the American Atheists, and their controversial founder (“the most hated woman in America”) Madalyn Murray O’Hair. The Kirkus Review summarizes McGrath’s thesis like this: “Tremble, ye doubters…belief in the nonexistence of God is passé.” However, that’s not necessarily what you’d get from the news.
In the past several months alone, atheism has issued these notes from the hospital bed:
* Elk Grove Unified School District v. Michael A. Newdow—the much-publicized California “Pledge of Allegiance” case—was heard before the Supreme Court; the government’s defense of the Pledge was notable, as The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier points out, for attempting to deny the religiosity of the words in contest, “under God.”
* An atheist lobbyist group was formed, Godless American Political Action Committee (GAMPAC).
* Four recent books have been published on atheism or secularism, including two biographiesof O’Hair, and two histories: Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History, and Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. (Last week, Jacoby alsospoke at length about secularism in America with NPR’s Leonard Lopate.)
The New Republic has devoted its current issue, “God Bless Atheism,” to the portent of such news. For Wieseltier (“What America Can Learn from its Atheists“), the government’s disclamatory arguments in the Newdow case exposed the “spiritual poverty” of an America wherein “speaking about God is prized over thinking about God.” Seeing that, of everyone involved in the trial, only Newdow and one Justice seemed comfortable discussing the philosophical, metaphysical and religious questions raised by the suit, Wieseltier was reminded of the Kierkegaardian aphorism: “the doubter often [has] the best sense of the religious.” Believers, he hopes, will learn from the example.
Speaking from among the non-believers, Alan Wolfe has his own complaint: the best recent books on atheism have been written by believers. If he were a theocrat, he writes, he would “hunger for antagonists such as [Susan] Jacoby,” whose book concerns itself with long-settled arguments and does nothing to challenge the current status quo. As it is, Wolfe is not a theocrat, but a non-believer, and he’s disturbed by what he sees as atheism’s almost willful self-obsolescence. Unlike McGrath, he believes atheism is far from disappearing, but rather long-overdue for a revival. The timing is right, he writes, but none of the recent secularist texts is equal to the opportunity—this is the real problem atheism must solve.
Wolfe’s lament is personal, and the tone of his disappointment is probably familiar to anyone whose church has failed to lived up to the ideals of its faith. Atheists have failed to produce a modern intellectual champion, or adequate, serious treatments of the philosophy, instead relegating themselves to “those obscure corners of cyberspace where no respectable thinker ventures.” Atheistic writing is too often shrill, self-congratulatory, contemptuous and possessed of an almost “religious” certitude of its own righteousness. (It should be noted that Wolfe makes an exception for Hecht’s Doubt: A History, for showing rare “respect for faith that doubters so often lack.”) Moreover, as Richard Evans Lee, the atheist blogger of Gullibility isn’t in the dictionary writes, much of the atheist media is deadly-dull choir preaching, “like a group of middling protestant pastors patting each other on the back.”
If this is the case, why? Is it as Lee and his readers suggest, that after debunking Ogopogo for the “umpteenth” time, there’s little else to say? Or as Wolfe seems to hint, is it a natural pitfall of atheism’s self-conception—being defined in terms of its opposition to belief? Or as the Kirkusreviewer wrote, “atheists might not be joiners of groups at all,” so for many nonbelievers, “the whole question of God’s existence is simply no longer of interest”? In any case, The Revealer—luckily unencumbered by respectability—has managed to find a good selection of intelligent, often funny atheist sites in those obscure corners. And now we’ve gathered them together for believers and nonbelievers alike: our brand new Guide for (and to) the Godless.