The never-ending question of faith

Susan Jacoby is the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" and director of the New York office of the Center for Inquiry.

The Twilight of Atheism

The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World

Alister McGrath

Doubleday: 306 pp., $23.95


The End of Faith

Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason

Sam Harris

W.W. Norton: 324 pp., $24.95


In 1969, the centennial anniversary of Lenin’s birth, I was among the Moscow-based foreign correspondents herded by Soviet officials on endless visits to historical sites associated with the canonized founder of the Bolshevik state. As we toured the house where Lenin grew up, our guide pointed with awe to stained-glass windows installed in the room where little Vladimir Ilyich supposedly pored over his schoolbooks. A reporter for L’Humanite, the French Communist newspaper, bowed his head and said, sotto voce, “I respect all faiths.”

This type of secular irony is conspicuously absent from both Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” and Alister McGrath’s “The Twilight of Atheism,” although their books examine religion from diametrically opposed perspectives. Harris, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at UCLA, has written an unabashed antireligious polemic -- so unabashed and so antireligious that one wonders how he found a mainstream publisher when, as he astutely observes, “criticizing a person’s faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture.”

McGrath, by contrast, is a former atheist with heavyweight credentials: professor of historical theology at Oxford University, author of several previous books on Christianity and a consulting editor for the journal Christianity Today. He has produced a dismissive critique of atheism as an outdated and “largely derivative” philosophy that merely reflects “the failings of the churches and specific ways of conceiving the Christian faith.”


McGrath’s argument rests on the erroneous premise that only a few decades ago atheism at high noon was on the verge of overtaking the globe. “It has been estimated,” the author writes, “that in 1960 half the population of the world was nominally atheist.” Estimated by whom? Such a conclusion could be based only on the equally misguided premise that the official atheist stances of the Soviet and Chinese Communist governments represented the private views of their citizens.

In fact, atheism -- along with its predecessors, 18th century Enlightenment deism and 19th century agnosticism -- has always been a minority position, though more markedly so in the United States than in the rest of the developed world. The International Survey Program, which compares religious beliefs in 31 nations, has found that self-described atheists range from a low of about 4% in the United States to a high of about 20% in France, Russia and the Czech Republic. One may safely assume that four out of five Russians did not suddenly discover God when the Soviet regime collapsed and that traditional Russian Orthodox belief, along with superstitions like astrology, flourished despite the state’s atheism.

McGrath’s treatise has an unmistakable whiff of “The God That Failed,” the classic 1950 mea culpa of repentant Communists -- probably because the author himself embraced both atheism and Marxism as a youth in Belfast. Indeed, he repeatedly cites Stalin’s Soviet Union as an example of what happens in a world without God. “A desire to eliminate belief in God at the intellectual or cultural level,” he declares, “has the unfortunate tendency to encourage others to do this at a physical level.”

What McGrath overlooks is that Stalinism and Maoism were religions -- more precisely, they acted as ruthlessly on behalf of their own spiritual and temporal interests as religious institutions did before separation of church and state took root in the West. It is bizarre for someone who grew up in Northern Ireland to gloss over the historical and modern role of religious fanaticism in the impulse to eliminate others “at a physical level.”

In his paean to the return of spirituality, McGrath simply ignores the malignant implications of violent fundamentalist Islam, fundamentalist Judaism that invokes biblical claims to land, fundamentalist Hindu nationalism and, yes, a fundamentalist Christianity that scarcely exists in Europe but now poses a formidable threat to America’s separation of church and state. Instead, the author concentrates on more benign religious manifestations such as Pentecostalism, a charismatic form of Protestantism that features “speaking in tongues.” Pentecostalism has made its most significant inroads in the poorest regions of Latin America. What’s new about that? Religion has always offered the poor promises of eternal bliss to justify a miserable earthly existence. If impoverished South American workers and peasants are fed up with the Roman Catholic Church and are turning to a religion that encourages ecstatic trances, they are simply buying another brand of the same product.

In “The End of Faith,” Harris objects to all brands of the religious product. “Criticizing a person’s ideas about God and the afterlife is thought to be impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas about physics or history is not,” the author notes. “And so it is that when a Muslim suicide bomber obliterates himself along with a score of innocents on a Jerusalem street, the role that faith played in his actions is invariably discounted.”

The truth of this observation was borne out by President Bush’s comments after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Terrorism, the president said, had nothing to do with “real” (that is, nonviolent) Muslim faith but was the product of an extremist fringe’s pathological hatred of the West. If religion is seen, as it generally is by Americans, as an inevitable force for good, evil acts committed in the name of religion must inevitably be dismissed as the work of the demented or the criminal.

Harris is as semantically precise as McGrath is sloppy. He makes a telling point about the absurdity of the ubiquitous phrase “war on terrorism.” To declare war on terrorism, Harris points out, “is rather like declaring war on murder.... Terrorism is not a source of human violence but merely one of its inflections. If Osama bin Ladin were the leader of a nation ... the atrocities of September 11 would have been acts of war. It should go without saying that we would have resisted the temptation to declare a war on ‘war’ in response.”

Harris is no fan of “moderate” Islam -- or of moderate religion in general. Religious moderation, he argues, is merely the product of secular knowledge -- of church adaptation to Enlightenment rationalism and the ideals of secular government enshrined, for the first time in world history, in the U.S. Constitution. Although the author is undeniably correct in his assertion that secular knowledge has been the main moderating force in religious history, modern Christian and Jewish theology have also evolved by substituting a god of love for a more ancient god of fear -- a religious, not a secular modification.

Harris is especially fearful of Islamic theocracies because, in his view, they represent a form of religion resistant to the secularizing influences that have worked to liberalize Western churches over the last 600 years. Because retrograde theocracies do have access to modern secular weapons, Harris asserts, the West will be obliged to defend its interests by force if Islam does not somehow moderate itself from within. The problem with this argument, of course, is that each attempt to defend American interests by force works to ratchet up religious fanaticism in the Islamic world. Moreover, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin’s widely publicized statement that he was able to defeat a Muslim warlord because “my god was a real God and his God was an idol” suggests that there is no shortage of 14th century religious thinking in the Pentagon.

Men like Boykin, Harris argues persuasively, “belong at the margins of our societies, not in the halls of power.” Regardless of personal religious belief or disbelief, anyone who cherishes secular government can support this statement. But only a minority, in the United States or any other country, are likely to share the author’s conviction that “ ‘God’ or ‘Allah’ must go the way of ‘Apollo’ and ‘Baal’ or they will unmake our world.”

Religion may fade away, Harris suggests, just as chemistry replaced alchemy -- because chemistry substituted truth for untruth. But humans can live quite easily without alchemy, while religion supplies an antidote to existential fear.

Death is the elephant in the closet and the subject is oddly absent from both books. McGrath’s explanation for the persistent strength of religious belief is entirely circular: Because men long for God, such longing must imply the existence of a deity. One might as well say that because men long for immortality, immortality must be possible. As long as individual human beings cannot bear to contemplate the possibility of their own extinction, there will always be another Baal and atheism will always be a minority stance. *