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by Douglas Groothuis


The Great Debate

It ain't over 'til it's over.

Since the beginning of philosophical speculation, there has been controversy over the existence of God or gods. Among the Pre-Socratics, Democritus denied all deity and affirmed a materialist philosophy of atoms in the void, and nothing more. Other early metaphysicians discerned traces of the divine in the natural world. For Heraclitus, beyond the perpetual flux lay the mysterious Logos, which provided order and a kind of moral ecosystem for the world. Anaxagorus attributed the order of nature to something immaterial, Nous (Mind). Although the Pre-Socratic philosophies were inchoate and their theologies (or a-theologies) were metaphysically minimal, we find in them the first philosophical debate over whether anything transcends the natural world.[1]

The debates have continued ever since. Atheism gained ground philosophically and culturally in the West, especially after the Enlightenment. However, atheism has been losing ground in recent decades due to the rise of academically rigorous philosophical defenses of theism and critiques of atheism from luminaries such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Alston, William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, and others. The publication in 2004 of Sam Harris' pugnacious and polemical The End of Faith catalyzed a brand of atheism that didn't so much refute theism at its philosophical best but rather condemned religion in toto.

The Twilight of Atheism was written by the prolific Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, just before the rise of the New Atheism. Instead of looking at the intellectual reasons that atheism might be in decline, McGrath focuses on cultural and historical forces. McGrath writes in a graceful and knowledgeable manner, but he is unphilosophical in his approach to the debates between atheism and Christianity. While we should not expect a historical theologian to glean every nuance from technical philosophical debates, McGrath fails to explain or assess any of the pertinent philosophical issues regarding the existence ...

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