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.
As science began to replace religion as the interpreter of human experience, artists joined the revolt against God, and poets such as Shelley, Keats, and Swinburne turned to nature to experience the transcendent. Christian imagery lost its attraction, and God increasingly became an absence in the popular imagination.
Atheism envisioned a glorious future for a humanity freed from outdated religious dogmas and restrictions, with unlimited potential provided by scientific advancement and the human imagination. Human beings could not only be good without God, but much better.
The reality has been very different. Along with progress, scientific advance brought environmental devastation and the potential to eliminate human life. Atheistic regimes dominating a huge proportion of the globe created new forms of tyranny (including mind control) and executed unprecedented millions.
At the same time, many arguments failed to hold up. "No major historian of science now takes seriously the idea that science and religion are in perpetual conflict," McGrath says.
While some, like Richard Dawkins, continue to insist on atheism, his fellow Darwinist, Stephen Jay Gould, countered that Darwinism has no bearing on the existence of God: "We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists." A 1996 survey showed that 40 percent of scientists hold religious beliefs.
McGrath also shows that some arguments of proponents, such as Sigmund Freud, rested not on scientific evidence so much as on a personal antipathy toward religion. Yet others were based on a criticism of the moral character of a God that would perpetrate such doctrines as eternal punishment.
He acknowledges that atheism, like Marxism, has always been more popular in Europe than in the US because of the fight against entrenched institutions. In telling the story of Madalyn Murray O'Hare, he suggests the unattractiveness of the US atheist community is another reason.
McGrath does not venture into the community of humanists, which has considerably more intellectual heft, and which might give a more comprehensive sense of the contemporary picture (including a new group calling itself the "Brights"). But this is incisive, valuable, and provocative historical analysis, which stirs a host of intriguing questions.
• Jane Lampman writes about religion for the Monitor.