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A funny thing happened on way to disbelief

A theologian at Oxford University explains why atheism's appeal has faded.

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Time magazine spurred public debate 40 years ago with a startling question on its cover: "Is God Dead?" Some estimate that half the world's population was then nominally atheist. And many in the West were predicting that scientific progress would eliminate religious belief altogether by the next century.

The tide has dramatically turned, however, and Alistar McGrath - a theologian at Oxford University who was once in that camp - charts the shift in currents of thought in "The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World."

In this accessible intellectual history, McGrath explores how atheism came to capture a wide swath of the public imagination as the road to human liberation and progress, and why, in a postmodern world, its appeal has faded. Yet he also makes clear that, despite the resurgence in faith, Western Christianity has not fully recovered from the crisis of the '60s.

Depicting atheism's heyday between the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, McGrath highlights the specific contributions of the major philosophers, scientists, and artists who shaped the secular world, from the famous, such as Nietsche, Marx, Freud, and Darwin, to the less familiar, such as D'Holbach, Fuerbach, and Monod.

McGrath contends that the origins of atheism lay primarily in a protest against the power, privilege, and corruption of church institutions - beginning with the French Revolution and later in Germany. Early proponents believed, he says, that "human happiness depends upon the triumph of atheism, which alone can liberate humanity from tyranny, war, and oppression - all of which have religious roots."

McGrath, who is Protestant, also contends that Protestantism itself played a role in divorcing the sacred from many aspects of life, thereby helping create a sense of God's absence. And, he argues, a cerebral Christianity - the emphasis on theological correctness, on doctrines, and having the right idea of God - engages the mind but leaves emotions and imagination untouched.

Atheism gained strength from a symbiosis with the scientific revolution and the developing perception of an inevitable conflict between science and religion. Mathematician William Kingdon Clifford argued, for instance, that it's wrong to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.


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