Between heaven and earth
THE TWILIGHT OF ATHEISM: the rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world. By Alister McGrath. Rider pound;14.99
THE NEW AGE: searching for the spiritual self. By Nevill Drury. Thames Hudson pound;14.95 (pbk)
When you first see the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, it is hard not to experience at least a moment of awe. Sublime works of art and music, ancient artefacts, or the newest baby on the maternity ward can also induce feelings of reverence, "a sense of the sacred". Such reactions are understandable, but somewhat embarrassing for the atheist or humanist who denies the existence of the divine.
Even in our largely secular society, the concept of "sacredness" is widespread. Many of us believe an original work of art has an aura that no reproduction can match. We debate the "sanctity" of life in discussions about abortion and the right to die. We uphold the individual's "sacred" right to freedom, to liberty of conscience and freedom of expression. In all these debates, we tend to rely on words from the language of religion.
This area was the subject of a conference organised by the British Humanist Association in 2001. Several professional philosophers delivered papers that, together with written responses, have been stylishly marshalled by Ben Rogers to form Is Nothing Sacred? All his contributors are agnostics or atheists. "They can get on just fine without believing in the divine godhead, yet they do not find it easy simply to jettison the concept of the sacred."
The contributors to the first eight chapters debate (in pairs) the possible sanctity of nature (as seen in the Grand Canyon), art, life and liberty while the later chapters explore the territory in more general (and equally entertaining) terms. The majority conclude that, to see everything on a merely secular (or "profane", if that is the opposite of sacred) level, would "represent a real impoverishment in moral outlook". For this reason, and for the quality of the debate, this is a collection that demands to be read by anyone with an interest in philosophy, even (perhaps especially) if they have a faith.
Would that the same could be said of Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism. Its subtitle, "the rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world", outlines its scope: it is a thematic history of atheism that the author sees as being bounded by two seminal events - the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall 200 years later.
It is an interesting proposition that, in tandem with the Parisian uprising against autocracy, leading thinkers were able to throw off the shackles of ecclesiastical tyranny. Atheism was able to flourish as many began to see science and religion as irreconcilable enemies; so much so that religion has come to be seen by many as outmoded superstition. Professor McGrath develops this argument with a strong narrative thrust and in a lucid and populist tone. But his constituency is a narrow one.
His book soon turns into a comfort blanket for (especially) evangelical Christians who feel threatened by the tide of secularism, as he assures them that religion (which he tends to equate with the Pentecostal churches) is again in the ascendancy. He does fleetingly refer to the other world faiths if only to suggest that they have caused religion to be "treated with new respect". His own testimony as a one-time atheist reads like the confession of a convert at a beach mission, and his attacks on present-day atheism as "dull, dated and grey", "wishy-washy" and "derivative" sound petulant. He concludes that "a Pentecostal worship experience is going to trump anything atheism can offer". Personally, as a Christian, I'd prefer an hour in the company of the contributors to Ben Rogers's collection than an hour's hand-waving, but then the professor acknowledges the work of only one of those distinguished academics.
He does, however, note the recent growth of interest in spirituality, quoting as evidence the popularity of Star Trek, one new-age movement not covered by Nevill Drury in his comprehensive survey of "self-realisation" credos. This is not a guide to the "new religions" appearing in RE syllabuses, but an overview of a whole spectrum of ideologies from 19th-century theosophy to the Beatles' involvement with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, t'ai chi, recreational drugs, therapy and massage. Its numerous illustrations range from portraits of some frankly nutty practitioners to stunning (if irrelevant) photographs of subatomic particles, sensory light shows and beautiful landscapes. The latter, at least, confirm that there are indeed places on earth that deserve the label "sacred".