A review of The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, by Alister McGrath
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris


Of all the silly pop songs ever written, perhaps the silliest is John Lennon's "Imagine." "A wop bop a loo ram a lop bam boom" has more philosophical depth as a lyric—and indeed contributes more to the happiness of human society—than Lennon's thudding inanities, which are rendered truly inspiring only by being reduced to a one-word poster on a teenager's wall. Lennon, you'll no doubt remember, asks us to imagine humanity without faith, countries, or possessions. With nothing to kill or die for, he promises, "the world will live as one."

Now you may call me a dreamer, but it seems to me just such a world was imagined long before, in the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There, aliens begin to transform the human race into Lennon's world: a soulless army of automatons living as one without any of those bothersome passions that give rise to religions, nations, or private property. "Love, desire, ambition, faith," one of the aliens intones, perfectly prefiguring Lennon, "without them, life is so simple."

Of course, what the horror film considers, which the utopian song ignores, is the nature of the human beast. The dark side of our humanity—the killing, the greed, the injustice—is exactly that: the dark side of our humanity—our love, our yearning, our loyalty—everything that makes us what we are. You can have a perfect world, or you can have people to live in it—you can't have both. 

Still, in any time of war or fear or trouble—that is to say, in every time—it's natural to wish we could somehow be human without being all too human. And in a time of war and fear and trouble brought on by a maniac faith that seeks to use the weapons of modernity against modernity itself, it may be likewise natural to ask whether we can continue to survive without eradicating, if no other passion, at least this persistent desire we seem to have to believe in God.

As a single year of this war has produced both a book called The Twilight of Atheism and another called The End of Faith, the answer may seem uncertain. But really, I think, these works are two parts of a single piece. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, by prolific Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, is simply an extended observation of a historical phenomenon. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris, currently working on his doctorate in neuroscience, is a high, wild, and somewhat babbling cry from a man caught on the losing side of that phenomenon. A screed against tolerance in matters of religion, The End of Faith is, in some ways, "Imagine" militant, "Imagine" writ large, with the consequent advantage that the true results of such imaginings are made painfully clear. As an argument, it's a clay pigeon, easily shot down as it travels through its predictable arc. As an artifact of a worldview currently in retreat, however, it has a certain fascination.

It's no accident that McGrath's work seems to set the stage for Harris's. Twilight of Atheism grew out of an Oxford debate on whether it's possible to "rid the mind of God" and studies the attempt to do just that in the West. The narrative traces Western atheism's star from its rise with the storming of the Bastille in 1789, to its zenith in the 1960s with Marxism on the march, to its decline with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Christianity's resurgence in Eastern Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere. Like much of what McGrath does, it's a solid survey, both readable and scholarly.

Once an atheist himself, McGrath retains an appreciation for the attractions of non-belief: "a passion for liberation, a principled demand for an end to oppression, for intellectual rigor in our thinking, and for courage in the face of the world's evils and ambiguities." What's more, he has a keen, cold eye for the imaginative failures of Christianity in fending off the assaults of first Jacobinism, then Marxism and Freudianism, and finally the assumption—wholly unsupported as he shows—that science and faith are somehow intractably at odds. Because of these insights, he seems a bit surprised himself by the "remarkable" decline of atheism's "empire of the mind." "Like a tidal wave crashing against the shoreline," writes McGrath, "atheism surged over the West, sweeping away its rivals, before itself gradually receding." This may be overstated, but demographics lend it credence enough, and the description is gratifyingly resonant with the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar," of the Sea of Faith from Arnold's "Dover Beach."

So what transformed the wave of the future into the outgoing tide? McGrath cites Christianity's ability to reinvent and repersonalize itself. Fresh emphasis on the near presence of God in established churches, and new evangelical and Pentecostal movements that circumvent old hierarchies and reverse the Protestant trend toward over-intellectualization, put atheism on the defensive. With characteristic irony, postmodernism also served the religious cause by attempting to "de-center" philosophical inquiry, thus making it impossible for atheism, or anything else, to stake out the privileged territory of truth.

But perhaps the most important flaw in the atheistic structure was what McGrath terms its "embarrassing intolerance." "Imagine," which he identifies as a product of atheism's high-water mark, depicts faith more or less melting peacefully away into "a brotherhood of man." "But what happens," McGrath wonders, "if people rather like religion, and refuse to abandon it?" The answer came loudest and clearest from the Soviet Union, the 20th century's dominant atheist state. Convinced by Marxist theory that religion would fade as revolution replaced injustice, Lenin—the other Lenin—came to believe that only brutality would make it so. The Soviet Union murdered tens of millions in attempting to set its idol on the altar of more ancient traditions. "A demand to eliminate deficient beliefs leads to an obsession with power as the means by which that elimination can proceed," writes McGrath.

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Which brings us to Sam Harris and The End of Faith. The book should be called The End of Toleration, because that's what Harris proposes. Claiming that religious violence is leading us to apocalypse, Harris says that "Words like 'God' and 'Allah' must go the way of 'Apollo' and 'Baal,' or they will unmake our world." Religious extremists are bad in this regard, he says, but moderates are perhaps even worse as they teach us to "respect the unjustified beliefs of others." "I hope to show," writes Harris, "that the very ideal of religious tolerance…is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss."

To declare my interest, I am a believer, a Christian after long thought, but I've read and continue to read many anti-religious arguments that challenge and inspire. Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (2002) and Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World (1996) come immediately to mind. Harris doesn't make this grade. He's a smart man and writes well enough to cover a multitude of logical sins, but he's so steeped in fashionable intellectual assumptions that he just about sinks under them.

First, he sets a straw man in Heaven by restricting his definition of faith to only the most literal and primitive of beliefs. Although he says this literalism is the creed "of the majority of the faithful in every religious tradition," he fails to acknowledge, as C.S. Lewis observed, that all metaphysical description involves absurd imagery and "the absurdity of the images does not imply absurdity of the doctrines." But having limited religion to the letter which killeth, Harris next leaps to the belief that, without religion, the killing would cease. To make this case, he supplies us with a sort of "greatest hits" list of the atrocities committed in the name of faith—the Inquisition, the Witch Trials, and so on. When, as with the Soviet Union and Red China, atrocities are committed in the name of atheism, he simply declares that "communism was little more than a political religion." Were the Nazis anti-clerical? Yes, but Christian anti-Semitism paved the way for them. Were there anti-Semites before Christ? Yes, but that was the fault of—wait for it—the Jews themselves, who "became the objects of suspicion…for their refusal to assimilate, for the insularity and professed superiority of their religious culture—that is, for the content of their own unreasonable sectarian belief." (It seems relevant to point out here that the Jews were never under any moral obligation to assimilate simply to make Harris feel safer in his bed at night, and if they took their uniqueness at first as an article of faith, they can damn well prove it from history now.)

Harris admits that "people are sometimes inspired to heroic acts of kindness by the teaching of Christ," but goes on to claim that this "says nothing about the wisdom or necessity of believing that he, exclusively, was the son of God." Fair enough, but that's precisely the problem with his argument. If the acts of love Christ inspires are no proof of his godhead, then the acts of hatred committed in his name are no disproof of it, either.

Because the fact is: people kill each other. For love, for money, for honor, for the pure pleasure of watching each other die, in the name of God, and yes, in the name of reason, too. And if this unpleasant habit has become apocalyptic in our nuclear age, we could just as well blame not faith but science for putting greater and more powerful weapons in the mad animal's hands. Any philosophy or endeavor forced to prove itself by the good behavior of its adherents would crumble to dust. People kill each other. That's one of the things they do.

To be fair, there are popular intellectual mistakes Harris doesn't make. He rejects materialism. He eschews moral relativism. He doesn't gloss over the fact that radical Islam is the great danger of the day. His embrace of mystic selflessness, and his understanding that love and virtue are essential to human happiness, give one hope that even scientific rationalists may one day stumble nigh to the wisdom of Jesus.

But under the illusion that truth is where he stands, Harris wants to burn the bridge that brought him there. He claims that science and modernity freed Judeo-Christian society from the primitivism that besets Islam, that "the doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside." This would be mighty hard to prove historically—and even if it were so, you would have to explain why science and modernity came to Christendom first. And what of countries once steeped in the Buddhism Harris so admires? Why are they still unfree, still so prone to atrocity? The measure of a creed, after all, is not the sins of its believers but the life to which its logic leads. Doesn't it seem more likely that the West's freedom and modernity are at least in part the products of its founding faiths?

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Finally, like all men swept up in the passion of reform, Harris holds to the belief—surely as irrational as any there ever was—that some fine system will one day rescue us from the need for individual virtue, from that unreliable movement of the single will toward good rather than evil. He spins familiar but nonetheless disturbing fantasies of the future: a science of ethics, a "rational" mysticism replacing dogmatic faith, a world government with civilized societies imposing liberalizing tyrannies on "malign dictatorships." He complains that a "primary obstacle" to this "economic, cultural and moral integration" is "the diversity of our religious beliefs." But he never answers McGrath's question: "What happens if people rather like religion, and refuse to abandon it?" He doesn't have to. We already know where intolerance of religion leads. "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them," he writes, appallingly. Only when all the world is Harris will Harris sleep in peace.

McGrath ends The Twilight of Atheism with the mild observation that twilight comes at both the rising and the setting of the sun, and "we shall have to wait and see" whether atheism will have "a new day of new hope." Yet his book was attacked as "religious triumphalism" by the New York Times Book Review, whereas the same journal hailed The End of Faith as an "important book." Harris's book seems to be selling better than McGrath's too. This speaks so very ill of our intellectual classes. The things they love best—their freedom, science, individuality and, yes, the tolerance by which their minority survives—are, in fact, the gifts of those religious vessels which carry the immemorial wisdom of our race. Will they ever allow a touch of Christian humility to curtail their grandiose programs for our betterment? One can only have faith, and imagine.