The Twilight of Atheism or the End of Faith?

Monday March 6, 2006


The End of Faith: Religion, terror and the future of reason. Sam Harris. The Free Press / Simon & Schuster 2005
The Twilight of Atheism. Alister McGrath. Rider 2005

Eschatology – the prediction of end-times – is, it seems, a hard habit to break. Margaret Thatcher’s favourite philosopher, Francis Fukuyama, must be wondering now what has happened to his predicted “end of history”; but meanwhile in the halls of academia, predictions of endings – the end art, the end of the novel, the end of politics, the end of man (washed away like a face drawn in the sand, in Foucault’s memorable image) – are whispered daily. As Emmanuel Levinas once wrote, the supposed end of metaphysics has almost become the metaphysics of our current age.

Both Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism suffer from this obsession with endings; but it is a curious thing to hear two such passionate prophets, well-armoured with endless facts about the sufferings of the world, speaking at such cross-purposes.

McGrath, first of all. The thesis of The Twilight of Atheism is simple: that atheism has been, in the history of the world, a short-lived and ultimately failed doctrine; and that as a result of this failure, it is on the way out, to become a mere historical curiosity. McGrath’s view of atheism, and his triumphalist prediction of its ending, rest upon a number of curious assumptions. Firstly, McGrath does not take seriously enough the many atheist voices of the ancient Greek world, for example the persistent strain of atomism that stems from Democritus, or the philosophy of the Epicureans and of Lucretius. These McGrath dismisses as mere eccentricities, so that he may be able to maintain that atheism is something that has come much more recently to the human scene, some time around the 18th Century – a fascinating interlude in a world of belief.

The second assumption is when McGrath casts atheism as essentially negative in character, a movement that has sought to strip the world of all possibility of wonder and enchantment. This view of atheism is simply false: many of the godless have been quick to point out, the addition or subtraction of a creator god does not effect the wonder or the beauty of the world a single ounce. The world is the world. It is how we find it. And our wonder does not need any metaphysical justification.

But it is the third assumption that is most troubling: the Dostoyevskian claim that in a world without God, anything is possible, and there is nothing to prevent us from the most terrible of crimes. One might counter that the history of many of the so-called world religions hardly bears this out, and that it may be that precisely the opposite is true, that it is systems of essentially untestable metaphysical beliefs that render the worst crimes of humanity possible. For evidence, McGrath points to the brutalities of Nazism and of Stalinism; and yet, he does not acknowledge that the murderous anti-Semitism of Nazism is, in part, the culmination of an equally murderous resentment systematically cultivated within the Christian tradition for almost two thousand years; nor does he admit how close the communism of the Soviet Union was to a state-sponsored religious cult, even if its metaphysics were avowedly materialist. Neither, sadly, does he inform us of precisely how it might be that untestable religious claims about the world might be the solution to the problems that afflict us. Certainly, when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, having exhausted all rational arguments for launching a disastrous war, finds his last defence in the claim that his God will judge him, one has to wonder what kind of a moral framework such beliefs provide. Nor does McGrath fully acknowledge the extent of disarray that the growth of scientific knowledge has sown in the temple of religious belief. In the West, for example, one by one, the claims to authority of Christianity have been undermined: claims to scriptural authority undermined by a growing understanding of the origins of the Biblical texts, claims to speak truly of the world undermined by the sciences, ethical claims undermined by the woeful history of brutality amongst the faithful.

A reader dissatisfied by McGrath’s book might expect to turn in relief to Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, a polemic that is almost diametrically opposed to McGrath’s. Harris’s claim is simple: the biggest threat facing the world is that of faith; and within the various world religions the moderates are as dangerous as the fundamentalists. This is not to say that Harris eschews all forms of spiritual practice. Indeed, he considers spiritual practice in the form of meditation to be both amenable to reason and also to be indespensable to any true understanding of the world, and singles out the “precise, phenomenological studies” that can be found in the Buddhist canon. Thus on the one side we have faith – for Harris founded upon irrrational belief, whilst on the other side we have practice, a worthwhile distinction. Harris’s critiques of faith, in this sense, although perhaps well-worn, are nevertheless worth listening to. It simply is the case that “unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern” – whether these beliefs are nominally Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or even, perhaps, Stalinist – have been responsible for the most appalling human sufferings. We are right to have an unease with the hold that such faith has on contemporary public life. But the question is this: how are we to respond to the fact that many hold such beliefs? Given that we are in this predicament, what is to be done?

This is where Harris’s book, which is strong in its diagnosis, is at its weakest: in his recommended response to the problem. And it is a shameful weakness. Harris is at heart a passionate evangelist for a simple-minded, morally unnuanced view that champions the West as the moral trailblazer for all mankind, and is willing to sanction many unspeakable acts in the service of this moral advancement. No matter that Saddam Hussein was armed and supported by the West, who turned a blind eye for many years to his atrocities, no matter that the American government has sought to overthrow a string of democratically elected and more or less peaceful regimes; no matter that the views of the moral superiority of the West are themselves rooted in a deeply religious and racial set of prejudices. Nevertheless, Harris stridently asserts the moral superiority of the nations who arm those they later condemn. Despite their difference in faith, it would be hard to draw much of a distinction between Harris’s politics and those of the present American regime. How much is Harris a secularist apologist for what is essentially a religiously inspired body of views and acts of violence?

The shamefulness of all of this is most evident when Harris writes of Guantanamo Bay. “There are,” he says, “no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay, just rather scrofulous young men, many of whom were caught in the very act of trying to kill our soldiers.” (p. 194). Why ‘scrofulous’? But for the scrofulous (only two out of six hundred of whom, it should be said, have been formally charged of attempting to kill – and a formal charge is not the same as a conviction), Harris not only argues for the moral necessity of torture, he also manages to give it a diabolical spin of his own.

… if our intuition about the wrongness of torture is born of an aversion to how people generally behave while being tortured, we should note that this particular infelicity could be circumvented pharmacologically, because paralytic drugs make it unnecessary for screaming ever to be heard or writhing seen. We could easily devise methods of torture that would render a torturer as blind to the plight of his victims as a bomber pilot is at thirty thousand feet. Consequently, our natural aversion to the sights and sounds of the dungeon provide no foothold for those who would argue against the use of torture… we only need to imagine an idea “torture pill” – a drug that would deliver both the instruments of torture and the instrument of their utter concealment. The action of the pill would be to produce transitory paralysis and transitory misery of a kind that no human being would willingly submit to a second time. Imagine how we torturers would feel if, after giving this pill to captive terrorists, each lay down for what appeared to be an hour’s nap only to arise and immediately confess everything he knows about the workings of his organisation. (pp 196-197)

One has to ask: what is going on in Harris’s head? Torture, it is true, is not pretty. But to find a solution to what might be called the aesthetic problem of torture, and to claim that this is an ethical solution, seems to me to be inadequate. And how should “we torturers” feel, in Harris’s world-view? Pleased that we have struck a blow for freedom and secularism? If this is the kind of world that we should desire for ourselves and for others?

Perhaps, in the end, McGrath and Harris are closer than they would like to admit. In their concern with endings, in their dreams of the possibility of peace on earth, they are both millenarian thinkers – Harris perhaps more so than McGrath. Indeed, Harris’s secularism has all of the blood and fire of the Book of Revelation. For him, ultimately, it is a fight to the death between good and evil; and he is asking us to stand up and be counted.

But I for one will remain seated, watching the coming and going of my breath – countless twlights and countless dawns, beginnings and endings – and noticing how the mind so easily, too easily, is stirred to the kind of crusading excitement that leaves misery, death and suffering in its wake.

# · George

A nice pairing, Will. The two together make an unwitting case for the Middle Way.

# · Dave

Great review! I hope you submit the link to the next Progressive Faith Carnival.

# · Joanna

Thank you for the reviews that are so eloquently and well written. Thank you for the reference to us – ‘we torturers’ – for truly when Tony Blair said that God would judge him he dismissed the fact that we elected him and that his stay in power is down to us so it is we that will be, and are being, judged. The same goes for George W. Bush. Excellent work.

# · Al

You left out Harris’ ultimate response: Dzogchen. He’s clearly a Vajrayana practitioner focusing on Dzogchen. He wants a science of the mind which is rational instead of being based on faith. I’m not sure how you can have a review of his book and completely ignore that.

# · Will

Hi, Al,

Harris does want a science of the mind, as you say, and he does refer to a Dzogchen text. You are probably right that I should mention this in my review, given that this is a nominally Buddhist kind of place! I’ll rectify this as I think it will make the review more balanced. But whether Dzogchen is his “ultimate response” is a different issue, and I’m not sure that it is. And I wonder how it is possible to hold a genuine commitment to something like Dzogchen, and to put forward the kind of oppositional approach to ethics that seems to underlie his book.


# · William Harryman

Hi Will,

Nice reviews. As you may have noticed if you see my blog at all, Sam Harris is not one of my favorite people. You do a great job of dismantling his house of cards.

I had considered reading McGrath’s book, but will back-burner it for now—thanks for helping me make that choice.


# · Will

Hi, Bill,

Thanks for pointing to your blog. On reading a few of your posts, I think that I’m probably a little bit closer to Harris on the idea of a secular or irreligious Buddhism than you are yourself. My concerns are less with the diagnosis and more with the response: I am far from convinced by the arguments about torture, and by the almost Manichean view of politics and ethics, a view that seems to have little to do with the basic argument about the harms of faith.

All the best,


# · Martian

Very nice review, and great blog. I just discovered it and I’m glad I did.

I’ve started THE END OF FAITH and like it so far; but I must say I agree with your review of the torture section.

Regarding McGrath; haven’t read that one, but it indeed sounds like a house of cards. I liked your statement that he doesn’t exactly say how untestable religious ideas might be the solution to the world’s problems.

And his view (in your words) that:

in a world without God, anything is possible, and there is nothing to prevent us from the most terrible of crimes.

Ironically, as if there were not terrible crimes happening every day, and have been for thousands of years.

# · Nacho

Thanks Will, good reviews indeed. I’ve gone through both books and I agree. In Harris’s defence I must add that sometimes he makes more sense in his column in Free Inquiry (from the Council for Secular Humanism). Although I find him somewhat arrogant in approach and relying too much on a framing strategy that lacks texture (both his and granting it to his opponents—but that last one is indeed a strategy).

I was pretty disappointed in the McGrath book for the very reasons you list. The surprising thing is that such a conclusion can be reached very early on in the book. McGrath seems to be tilting at a straw man atheism. His thesis also seems off the mark. It seems to me that folks in the West have actually moved in the direction of humanism. To be sure, such a move is tempered by tradition, connections to family faith, by desire to raise children in some kind of “community,” and of course the desire to feel “spirituality” and wonder in deeply personal ways (an experience of a personal god or connection to the spiritual or sacred). Still, the overall move I tend to believe lies from strongly organized religion to more loose affiliations and a “humaniz-ation” of religious dispositions and attitudes. The drop in church attendance, the drop in religious priestly vocation seekers, the development in the advanced industrial economies of zones in which folks are not formally affiliated with traditional religious groups, but identify with some sort of religious feeling, etc. all attest to such a move.

Traditional religiosity in third world countries, or less developed nations might still be strong, but even in such circumstances, big organized religion will continue to lose ground as long as they return to a more fundamentalist and dogmatic observance (as the Catholic Church seems to be doing). Of course, the Catholic Church leaders tried very strongly, and largely succeeded, in killing Liberation Theology, which in my estimation was their greatest hope. Still, the after effects of the enlightenment and modernity are still being felt. I believe we are right in calling that a second axial age.

Oh that was too long, but McGrath really does his argument a disservice by avoiding consideration of all of that.

Yes, McGrath truly screws up with that assumption of atheism as negative and morally sterile. Way too simplistic, and of course, not right.

Thanks again for the reviews Will!



# · Isaac Amirian

I found it to be a flawed analysis of McGrath’s book. (Can’t comment on Harris’, haven’t read it yet.) McGrath is correct that secularism/atheism as an organized movement is fairly new; that is well documented, and I don’t see how you can write off something so universally well-known by mentioning a few philosphers that McGrath also acknowledges, who serve as more of an exception proving the rule than anything else. It’s a big, old world, and almost all of its population has almost always been instinctively religious. (Epicurians, anyway, were not secular humanists at all by our current definition.)

That doesn’t mean that people throughout history have always cared about whatever religion they believed, but a wholescale rejection of the idea of God by cultures is indeed new and has a horrible track record so far. To try to compare communism to a state-sponsored religion is a lame cop-out, frankly. “…even if it’s metaphysics were devoutly materialistic” is a sentence phrase that completely contradicts itself. If the Soviet communists weren’t atheists, no one is. To dance around this is self-defeating to the secularists’ cause because it reveals a fierce subjectivity on their part, for avoiding the reality that:
1. Atheists as shapers of culture are a fairly recent phenomenon, and
2. Atheists have already presided over the most atrocious mass-killings in human history. You can explain how you don’t believe that that behaviour represents atheism, but you can’t spin-doctor recent history away as if it never happened.

If I said that the Crusaders weren’t really religious (which is actually more true than saying that the Soviets were), you wouldn’t accept it, and I wouldn’t expect you to. Trying to compare Stalin to a religionist in order to get all the “bad guys” on the other side, is downright childish. He, Mao, etc. were atheists who followed evolutionary atheism to a logical conclusion. Most atheists in England, the United States, etc. would not support such a bloody conclusion, even if they believe that humans are evolved animals and survived by outlasting, in violent fashion, throughout the centuries. But keep in mind that an atheist culture that respects human life stems from centuries of Christian/religous culture urging the same. What happens when that Christian strain of thought fades out of a culture and the idea of humans as souless animals is all that remains? “We’re all just mammals” is already frequently used by rapists as a justification, and that idea has even been supported by a few evolutionist publications.

Even your assessment of the cultural motivation for the holocaust is more opinion than knowledge of religion and history. The Nazi regime largely rejected the idea of Christianity and even morality and embraced an evolution-based worldview, using it to justify their actions. If Christianity and it’s core principles prompted the holocaust, rather than delaying a bloodbath prompted by natural human tendencies toward hatred, then why did it take a humanist regime to make the holocaust possible?

Isn’t it more feasible that the holocaust reversed centuries of slow Christian progress in retarding humanity’s natural desire to hate those who are different?

And why do you not point out that regardless of what is and is not considered “Christian culture”, Jesus and the Bible itself urge unconditional love and non-violence towards Jews and all others? Doesn’t that fact alone reveal that atrocities committed by “Christian” nations happen in spite of core Chrisitan teaching, and not because of it?

Isn’t what a faiths’ founder and scriptures teach more important than what a purported follower does in determining the culpability of a religion for some atrocity? If the Catholic Church completely contradicts the Bible and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, even rooting out and killing those who read said scriptures, as happened in the Inquisition, how do you blame Jesus and the apostles, and his actual followers, for any of it?

As for religion vs. science/knowledge of history, the proliferation of critics doesn’t make their arguments better, it just tells you something about the prevailing culture in acadamia. The best and most reliable interpretation of Jesus’ life and the reliability of the scripture is still the traditional, conservative, interpretation, and most serious text-critics and historians scoff at pop-“exposes” such as the ideas made popular by the Da Vinci Code, Lost Tomb of Jesus, etc. The criticisms of historical Judaism/Christianity are becoming more shrill and desperate, but not increasing in quality.

Modern science, the university, etc. are creations of Christian culture and many of history’s most important scientific advances have been made by theists and devoted Christians. The “de-religioning” of science hasn’t proven so far to have improved science as a discipline at all. It may prove over time to retard the scientific community’s desire to discover and learn, and increase the tendency to use science to validate preconcieved
notions while rejecting fresh ideas. It’s too early to tell. But it should be noted that while the current preferred “philosophy” in the academic world is humanism, new studies show that the majority of scientists (almost 2/3!)believe in God and most engineers, doctors, etc. in the United States are Christians.

# · Will

Thanks for the long response, Isaac. I’m afraid that I can’t promise anything like a full response. So in answer to your comments on what you have suggested is an inadequate review, I can only offer what I suspect you will view as an even more inadequate reply.

My general feeling in discussions such as these is that the attempt to pin Crimes of the Century (any century) on either belief in God or on the absence of this belief are in the end somewhat lacking in subtlety. What is needed for a more subtle analysis is a perspective that understands historical events in the context of multiple conditions, rather than in terms of one-on-one causality.

From this point of view, I’d happily agree that “Modern science, the university, etc. are creations of Christian culture and many of history’s most important scientific advances have been made by theists and devoted Christians”. Of course this is true. But if we are going to allow that Christianity was so profoundly formative of European thought, then we must also look at less benign aspects of this. And here I do not think we can sever the horrors of Nazism entirely from the long tradition of anti-Semitism in European Christianity. Christianity did not cause Nazism any more than the idea of secularism caused Nazism. Did both condition Nazi ideology? Almost certainly.

In the end, I have no interest in pinning anything on anybody – although perhaps on re-reading I tend too far at the end of my final paragraph on McGrath towards doing this. This, incidentally, is why I tend increasingly to shy away from these kind of debates, because – as I suggest at the end of the article – they can often lead to this kind of polarisation. This ascription of blame neither a fun nor a useful pastime. It is possible to live kindly and well without belief in God; and it is possible to live kindly and well with belief in God: the evidence for both of these assertions is simply overwhelming, and it is something that is worth bearing in mind.

The important question, as I see it, is this: what are the structures of belief and action that support cruelty and violence? And what are those that can effectively dismantle it? To answer these questions, perhaps all of us are going to have to do rather better than the advocates of either faith or of faithlessness allow. And this, I think, was the main thrust of my initial review, and my choice to look at the books by Harris and McGrath side by side.

All the best,


# · Robert Ellis

Hi Will,
Just returning to this blog after a long interval, and my eye was caught by this review. I do agree with a lot of your reservations about both McGrath and Harris.

My thoughts on this issue can be found at www.moralobjectivity…

Does this indicate that you do believe in the Middle Way after all? Have you written elsewhere on what you actually do think about it, more explicitly?

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