The retreat of religious faith-Arnold's "long, withdrawing roar"-has not happened as predicted in the 20th century. Even in Europe, where church attendance has fallen sharply, most people still believe in God. Paul Johnson argues that one reason is the surprising truce between science and religionby Paul Johnson / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Sometimes even more remarkable than historical events are historical non-events. The 20th century is a case in point. Immense events took place during it, events to make us marvel-and shudder. But from one perspective-that of human spirituality-the most extraordinary thing about the 20th century has been the failure of God to die. The collapse of mass religious belief, especially among the educated and prosperous, had been widely and confidently predicted. It has not taken place. Somehow, God survived- flourished even. At the end of the 20th century, the idea of a personal, living God is as lively and real as ever, in the minds and hearts of countless millions of people throughout our planet.
This curious non-event is worth examining. Until quite modern times, it is impossible to point to any society anywhere, however primitive or advanced, where belief in a god or gods-of some kind-was not general and, as a rule, universal. Atheism was remarkably late in making its appearance in human societies. There was, to be sure, talk of atheists in the 16th century. Sir Walter Raleigh and his circle of scientific friends were accused of atheism in the 1580s. But their ideas turned out to be no more than a repudiation of the Christian Trinity. Raleigh certainly believed in a divine providence: his History of the World is impregnated with the notion of a benign, determining hand in history. The world view of Sir Francis Bacon, another man suspected of atheism, turns out to be similar.
It is a remarkable fact that the first well known European figure who not only proclaimed himself a genuine atheist in life, but died an atheist, was David Hume, the great Scottish historian and philosopher. Hume’s death in 1776, as an unrepentant atheist, aroused awed comment on both sides of the Atlantic. Benjamin Franklin thought it a portent-rightly so. Dr Samuel Johnson could not be convinced of the seriousness of Hume’s atheism-“He lies, Sir,” he told Boswell. Johnson found it difficult to believe the assurance of Boswell, who had visited Hume on his deathbed, that the philosopher felt no pain at the thought of complete extinction.
But in the quarter century that followed, events moved fast. Five years after Hume died, Immanuel Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason in which he seemed to deal a mortal blow to traditional metaphysics. Metaphysics, as taught in the schools for the best…