The best of Fred Hutchison
The rise and fall of atheism
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
September 27, 2012

Originally published February 4, 2005

Last September, I wrote an essay about the rise of the new atheism which began with the birth of modernism, around 1750. A friend has called my attention to a book by Alister McGrath titled The Twilight of Atheism (July 2004). McGrath's thesis is that as modernism fades and postmodernism takes its place during this generation, atheism as we have known it is gradually becoming extinct. If we combine my insight about the rise of atheism with McGrath's insight about the decline of atheism, we can make the proposition that the new atheism rose with modernism and is falling with modernism. McGrath calls atheism the religion of modernism. Not quite. It is not the one and only religion of modernism. modernism was accompanied by several substitute religions such as the cult of progress, utopianism, the worship of man, Idealism and Romanticism. However, there does indeed seem to be a peculiar link between atheism and modernism.

The rise of atheism

Five factors led to the rise of the new atheism: 1) antitclericalism, 2) a reaction against Christianity, 3) the rise of scientific materialism, 4) the cult of progress, and 5) the decline of metaphysics.
  1. Anticlericalism. The French king Louis the XIV violently suppressed Protestants, heretics, schismatics, and quietists. Cardinal Richelieu ran the French government for Louis XIII. This blending of church and state led to oppression of dissenters and the loss of freedom of conscience. French intellectuals expressed their indignation against the church in an influential anti-clerical movement and a flurry of anti-clerical tracts. Voltaire's angry motto was "ecrasez l'infame'!" (meaning something like "crush the infamous vermin"). Some of the clever anticlerical myths invented by the atheists of the French Enlightenment are still in popular circulation. Extreme anticlericalism sometimes leads to atheism. Militant atheists seldom fail to use the old threadbare anticlerical myths in their attacks on theism and their defense of atheism.

  2. Reaction against Christianity. Louis XIV severely persecuted the Protestants in France, and many fled for their lives to Switzerland, Holland, and Northern Ireland. Louis XIV silenced the quietists and mystics like Anne Guyon (jhee-oh). The only religious alternatives left were Roman Catholicism, Deism, and atheism. Deism is often a halfway house to agnosticism and atheism. Some of those who rejected Catholicism also rejected Christianity and God in toto. Those who became atheists in reaction to Christianity love to propagate the myth that if Christianity gets the upper hand again, it will return to the old practice of persecuting dissenters.

    Sometimes unbelievers who inhabit a Christian world erect defenses against it because of what it is, not because of what it does. Light is threatening to the darkness of the human heart. The flesh erects barriers to the light lest it painfully illuminate the hidden darkness of evil within. "But our gospel is hidden to them that are lost, in whom the god of this age (Satan) has blinded the minds of those who believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them" (2 Corinthians 4:6). "...Light is come into the world, and men loved darkness more than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone that does evil hates the light, neither comes to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that does truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought of God" (John 3:19-21). Some atheists have no rationale for atheism except for hostility to God. They are defensively hostile to God, because they do not want His light to shine upon them.

  3. Scientific materialism. Intellectuals of the French Enlightenment developed a myth that science supports materialism, the philosophy that nothing exists except scientifically measurable matter and energy. Beginning with Francis Bacon (1521-1626), some scientists began to claim that the only valid source of knowledge is scientific empiricism. If this is true, we cannot have knowledge of God or the soul. By the time of the French Enlightenment, some intellectuals were claiming that anything we can't know doesn't exist, hence God and the human soul do not exist. This was a key concept in moving the influential writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784) towards atheism. The philosophy of scientific materialism is based on two fallacies. First is the fallacy of what we can know and what we cannot know. It is nonsense to claim that we can only know what can be verified through the narrow methods of empirical science. It is also nonsense to claim that what we don't know must not be there. But such assumptions often pass without question in our modern institutions of science and among atheists. In reality, science cannot prove or disprove either materialism or the existence of God.

  4. The cult of progress is the keystone of the arch of modernism. Some progressives do not see religion as an enemy. But some see religion as an antique of the past that is holding us back in old superstitions from the progress of reason and science. These arguments were made by the atheists Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and John Dewey. This camp rejects the existence of universal, unchanging truth, and hence is hostile to Christian orthodoxy. Christian liberalism is essentially the influx of modernism into the Christian churches, resulting in the rejection of Christian fundamentals and an insistence that the Christian "truths" are changing with the times. It can be argued that Christian liberalism is not really a form of Christianity, but is a subset of modernism with a Christian veneer. Closet atheists can comfortably hide out in liberal Christian churches.

  5. The decline of metaphysics in philosophy and theology. Metaphysics comprises what we can know (epistemology) what really exists (ontology), first causes (teleology) and the nature of the cosmos and worldviews (cosmology). St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) drew upon some of these branches of metaphysics when he offered his five proofs of the existence of God. This stuff is too complicated to explore in this short essay. Suffice it to say that without metaphysics, Christian apologetics languishes and an opening is provided for atheists to monopolize the conversation.
The fall of atheism

As modernism fails, some of the supports of atheism described above are lost. For example, atheists dominated many of the schools of philosophy during much of the modern era. The two specialties of the Christian philosopher — metaphysics and ethics — were virtually banished from campus, except for undergraduate introductory courses in the history of philosophy. During the last ten to fifteen years, doctoral programs and tenure track courses have opened to metaphysics, ethics, and Christian doctoral candidates.

The cult of progress is gone, so old opinions are no longer automatically sneered at. However, historicism — a belief that human nature changes with the tides of history — has remained as a fossil of modernism. Historicism is a barrier to the belief in universal changeless truths, and hence is hostile to orthodox Christianity. However, historicism is less persuasive than it once was, and there are more opportunities to argue the case for changeless truths. This toleration is sometimes cancelled out by postmodern literary deconstructionism, which demonizes Europe's cultural/political past, and multiculturalism, which marginalizes the European cultural heritage.

It is not clear to me that anticlericalism and the reaction against Christianity have eased with the decline of modernism. Hollywood never misses a chance to demonize evangelical pastors and Catholic priests, and tried to freeze out Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of Christ. The gratuitous persecution of evangelicals in America seems to be increasing, along with a political backlash by evangelicals. However, there is a significant new opening in scientific material. Anthony Flew, a famous 81-year-old British atheist, has converted from atheism to a vague Deism based upon the arguments of American Intelligent Design scientists. The complex design of the genetic code is especially persuasive to Flew. Flew has appeared countless times on television in debates about the existence of God in which he took the atheist position. He specialized in the arguments of scientific materialism. Flew now gravitates towards theistic evolution and rejects Christianity and an afterlife. However, the conversion of a public atheist to theism late in life is rare, and is a testimony to the persuasive power of Intelligent Design. The atheist evolution establishment still prohibits Intelligent Design scientists from publishing in the elite scientific journals, regardless of the scientific merit of their papers, and then hypocritically claims that Intelligent Design is not science because it is not published in the elite journals. But these dogmatic atheists cannot silence the Intelligent Design scientists, or prevent men like Anthony Flew from reading their papers.

McGrath's observations in a nutshell

McGrath believes that "...the atheist case against God has stalled, run out of intellectual steam, with arguments resting more on fuzzy logic and aggressive rhetoric than on serious evidence-based argument." (The source of this quote and other summations of McGrath's views are drawn from the essay God Makes a Comeback, published in the Australian, 1/09/05). McGrath cites the conversion by Anthony Flew to Deism as evidence that modern science is no longer a highway to atheism. We now live in a post atheist world. McGrath cites the late Stephen Jay Gould, renowned defender of evolution, in his statement that the God question cannot be solved by science. A purely scientific debate must end in agnosticism, says Gould. I conclude that as atheism declines, agnosticism might correspondingly increase. Gould separated science from metaphysics and recognized that the question of atheism vs. theism must be settled on metaphysical grounds. Gould helped to open the doors to metaphysics that had been slammed shut by Immanuel Kant in the late eighteenth century. Metaphysics is precisely where the Christian philosophers have confidence, knowledge, and technical skills of analysis and argument, as well as a faith in a reality beyond matter.

Gould believed that atheism is as much a matter of faith as is Christianity. He thought that both theists and atheists used circular rationalizations: the theists to support their faith in theism, and the atheists to support their faith in atheism. If atheism can be exposed as a belief arrived at by faith, it may prove to be one of the most fruitful arguments in the tool kit of Christian apologetics who debate atheists. See the Appendix at the end of this essay for an explanation of how this principle can be used in debate with an atheist.

McGrath concluded that the appeal of atheism is not intrinsic to ideas, but is determined by the social context. Atheism occurs when the church has been oppressive, unjust, uninspiring, or lacking in meaning for human life. This verifies part of my thesis that the rise of atheism was a reaction to Christianity. Some atheists were personally wounded in the church, as was a Scottish atheist with whom I briefly corresponded.

McGrath is interested in the fact that the four genocides in the twentieth century which involved millions of deaths were by atheistic regimes. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were atheists, and their regimes were officially atheistic. These mass atrocities ruin the moral credentials of atheism. Dostoyevski wisely warned that without God every evil thing can be permitted.

The postmodern threat to atheism

McGrath makes the surprising claim that postmodernism is a greater threat to atheism than is Christianity. Postmodernism is opposed to totalizing worldviews. Christianity is a totalizing worldview. Atheism arose as a substitute totalizing world view. The postmodern says, "a curse on both your houses." The postmodern lives in a world split in two, with his private self occupying a purely subjective existence, which is hermetically sealed off from reason and public life. He does not want that soft, oozy inner world to be startled by dogmatic statements like "God exists, or God does not exist," or "evil exists," or "there is a right and a wrong." A dogmatic denial of God often seems to postmoderns as "arrogant and repressive, rather than principled and moral." Postmoderns often find the hard dogma of materialism unappetizing. They find the soft, vague spirituality of the New Age Movement more pleasant and more the tool of their whims. They can pander to their squishy narcissism with New Age self talk and wishful thinking. McGrath feels that the muddled New Ager is more likely to grope his way to Christianity than an atheist. I am not so sure. Let us compare the two.

In the words of Polish Poet Czeslaw Milosz, the atheist has been seduced by the "discrete charm of nihilism." The belief in nothing after death frees one from the fear of divine judgment for one's sins. Anthony Flew still does not believe in a life after death in spite of his new Deism. The atheist enters into this welcome oblivion by an assertion of his will that God does not exist. Denying it makes it not so. "I deny, therefore I am." The New Ager would say, "I feel, therefore I am." However, the New Ager makes selective denials of his own. He insists that there is no link between a divine moral law and spirituality. He makes the same escape from moral accountability as the atheist. The New Ager wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to be as nasty as he chooses and still go home to a comforting feel-good spirituality. "I want what I want when I want it. No obligations. No limits. No consequences." To achieve these feats of self-delusion, the New Ager must radically deny reason in ways that atheists do not as a rule. The atheist at least tries to maintain a facade of reason and science. One can reason and debate with an atheist. One can use reason as a scalpel to expose the fact that it is not the confused mind but the errant will that is the atheist's main problem. The atheist uses his mind to disguise his problem. However, reason and logic are admissible to him. The New Ager is threatened and offended by the attempt to seriously reason with him. There is nothing in the pudding-like inner world of the New Ager for reason to take hold of. If you describe a spiritual experience to a New Ager, he will say, "That is good for you. I have spiritual experiences which are good for me." The conversation is trapped in the self and we have not moved an inch closer to the transcendent God.

Conclusion: Atheism is a waning force in the world. However, we are on the threshold of a new world just as dark, but difficult and tricky in ways we are not used to. The darkness now has fewer forest fears, empty spaces, vanishing perspectives, and sharp edges. It is not as chilly and lonely in our present darkness, but it is foggy, muggy, muddy, and filled with pestilence, slimy creatures, and foul smelling bogs. Aesthetically, I prefer dealing with the passing darkness, rather than the new darkness.

(Scroll down to the Appendix for techniques for debating with atheists.)

Appendix: The burden of proof

I have noticed that one of the favorite tricks of atheists is to challenge the theist to prove the existence of God. If such proof cannot be offered, the atheist will insist that since God cannot be proven He does not exist. This is a trick: 1) to force the theist to accept the burden of truth, and 2) to force him to omit that he believes in God by faith and not from logic or evidence.

However, the burden of proof lies upon the one who asserts that God does not exist. Virtually all atheists begin as theists and subsequently throw God overboard as a raw assertion of will. The one who overturns the tables of the cosmos is obliged to offer his reason why. The last time an atheist told me he gave up the belief in God, I asked, "What knocked it out of you?" He was a little shaken by this question. His ego would not allow him to think that outside forces shook him. He was both eager and reluctant to explain that this was something that he did. He incoherently said, "Well I felt...well I decided." As his voice faded, he made a dismissive gesture with his hands. He had arbitrarily dismissed God while in a subjective vein, and reason played no part whatever. If an atheist can be obliged to take up the burden of proof and fails in his proof, two things have been achieved. His failure to bear the burden of proof technically sends the debate win to the opponent. One ought to assume the existence of God, in light of the defeat of the atheist. Secondly, the atheist will be exposed for disbelieving in God as a result of his negative faith.

If the atheist can trick the theist into bearing the burden of proof, he will escape bearing that burden and escape having it exposed that his atheism is non-rational. He wants the theist to say, "I cannot prove it, but I believe in the existence of faith." Then the atheist will crow, "See, Theism is irrational." Then he will pose for the audience as a rational man and conceal that he came to atheism by irrational means.

Eventually the theist should agree that both theism and atheism come by faith, but not until he has forced the atheist to bear the burden of truth and be exposed that he did not come to atheism by reason. The theist is not afraid of talking openly about faith, but the atheist fears the exposure of the fact that he came to atheism by non-rational means. For him, this is a guilty secret.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31