Just finished The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Doubleday, 2004) by Alister McGrath, a professor of historical theology at Oxford. McGrath gives a refreshingly objective account of the declining fortunes of atheism as an ideology. Full-blown atheism really did not exist before the 18th century. It gathered momentum in the 19th century as it became intellectually defensible, acting as an ideology of liberation from oppressive religious institutions allied with state power. It was legitimized by arguments supplied by Feurbach, Marx, and Freud. In the post-Darwinian era of the late 19th and early 20th century, belief in God fell out of fashion and religious institutions themselves adopted a good measure of secularity under the banner of Liberal Christianity.
WHAT HAPPENED TO ATHEISM IN THE 20TH CENTURY? It turned out that the secular state proved even more oppresive and immoral than the religious state. Atheism as a state religion did not deliver the utopia pictured by 19th-century secularist reformers--Stalin in the Soviet Union and the other totalitarian regimes of the 20th century undercut the moral pose and reformist claims of atheism. Furthermore, postmodernism has re-legitimized "the spiritual dimension" of the human experience (although the postmodern spiritual net reaches far beyond traditional religion). Strict atheism is increasingly out of tune with society, although its vocal defenders are not likely to recognize that their position is rooted in the historical circumstances of the 19th century as opposed to being a manifestation of Ultimate Truth. Here is the author's introduction to the last chapter, entitled "The Fading Appeal of Atheism":
The same process of rise and fall, growth and decay, can be seen in the great empires of the human mind. There comes a point when their growth stalls, their attraction pales, and their credibility falters. . . . Atheism is in trouble. Its glory days lay far behind it. Its future seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals rather than in the great public domain it once regarded as its natural habitat. The attraction of atheism proved not to be universal, but was limited to certain situations--situations that were rapidly disappearing into the past, losing their impact on the popular imagination. Distant memories of atheism as a liberator competed with more recent memories of atheism as an oppressor. So how did this reveral of roles come about?
McGrath readily grants the moral appeal of atheism as a 19th century ideology and its valuable critique of religious excesses. He writes not as an anti-atheist but as a historian of ideas, examining the decline of an ideology that had such broad appeal and promise a hundred years ago. Now if only the biologists would read this book . . .