On why religion isn’t going away

Alister McGrath challenges a rationalist rewrite of history.



Alister McGrath challenges a rationalist rewrite of history.


Well, New Atheist writers and those sympathetic to the Enlightenment have this grand narrative history which is that of the gradual liberation of culture from religion. And so they argue there’s the Middle Ages, and then there’s the Renaissance, which is a kind of proto-atheism which tried to liberate people from religion. And then it all went wrong with the Reformation, which in effect put us back by centuries.

It’s not like that at all. Anyone who knows anything about the Renaissance will point out that all the leading humanists were not atheist rationalists, but rather people who saw religion as essential to human identity, giving them meaning, purpose, and value. Think of Erasmus, for example, and that wonderful book The Handbook of the Christian Soldier. This is simply a rationalist rewriting of history. And there is no reason to think that religion is going to disappear.

I’m going to emphasise that point. That’s simply an Enlightenment myth. It’s not going to go away. There’s something about human beings which means we look for value, we look for significance, and we find all of those things expressed so well in religion. And I can understand why rationalists are infuriated by this because, in effect, the growth of religion challenges them at two levels. One, it says – that resurgence of religion is simply saying – the Enlightenment narrative is wrong. You know, religion is not going away.

But much more importantly, it’s saying people do not find rationalism adequate to give them meaning and dignity, and so they go to religion instead. That’s bad news for rationalism – they tried to portray this as superstition, irrationalism. No, it’s about people being people, looking for meaning, for value – not finding them in rationalism, and so looking for them somewhere else.