Thursday, March 3, 2005

GURAT, France — Godlessness is in trouble, according to a growing consensus among philosophers, intellectuals and scholars.

“Atheism as a theoretical position is in decline worldwide,” Munich theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg said in an interview.

His Oxford colleague Alister McGrath agrees.

Atheism’s “future seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals rather than in the great public domain it once regarded as its habitat,” Mr. McGrath wrote in the U.S. magazine, Christianity Today.

Two developments are plaguing atheism these days. One is that it appears to be losing its scientific underpinnings.

The other is the historical experience of hundreds of millions of people worldwide that atheists are in no position to claim the moral high ground.

British philosopher Anthony Flew, once as hard-nosed a humanist as any, has turned his back on atheism, saying it is impossible for evolution to account for the fact that one single cell can carry more data than all the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Mr. Flew still does not accept the God of the Bible.

But he has embraced the concept of intelligent design — a stunning desertion of a former intellectual ambassador of secular humanism to the belief in some form of intelligence behind the design of the universe.

A few years ago, European scientists snickered when studies in the United States — for example, at Harvard and Duke universities — showed a correlation between faith, prayer and recovery from illness.

Now 1,200 studies at research centers around the world have come to similar conclusions, according to “Psychologie Heute,” a German journal, citing, for example, the marked improvement of multiple sclerosis patients in Germany’s Ruhr District because of “spiritual resources.”

Atheism’s other Achilles’ heels are the acts on inhumanity and lunacy committed in its name.

“With time, [atheism] turned out to have just as many frauds, psychopaths and careerists as religion does. … With Stalin and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, atheism seems to have ended up mimicking the vices of the Spanish Inquisition and the worst televangelists, respectively,” Mr. McGrath wrote in Christianity Today.

The Rev. Paul M. Zulehner, dean of Vienna University’s divinity school and one of the world’s most distinguished sociologists of religion, said atheists in Europe have become “an infinitesimally small group.”

“There are not enough of them to be used for sociological research,” he said.

Mr. Zulehner cautioned, however, that the decline of atheism in Europe does not mean that re-Christianization is taking place.

“What we are observing instead is a re-paganization,” he said.

The Rev. Gerald McDermott, an Episcopal priest and professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., said a similar phenomenon is taking place in the United States.

“The rise of all sorts of paganism is creating a false spirituality that proves to be a more dangerous rival to the Christian faith than atheism,” he said.

After all, a Satanist is also “spiritual.”

Mr. Pannenberg, a Lutheran, praised the Roman Catholic Church for handling this peril more wisely than many of his fellow Protestants.

“The Catholics stick to the central message of Christianity without making any concessions in the ethical realm,” he said, referring to issues such as same-sex “marriages” and abortion.

In a similar vein, Mr. Zulehner, a Catholic, sees Christianity’s greatest opportunity when its message addresses two seemingly irreconcilable quests of contemporary humanity — the quest for freedom and truth.

“Christianity alone affirms that truth and God’s dependability are inseparable properties to which freedom is linked.” As for the “peril of spirituality,” Mr. Zulehner sounded quite sanguine.

He concluded from his research that in the long run, the survival of worldviews should be expected to follow this lineup: “The great world religions are best placed,” he said.

As a distant second he sees the diffuse forms of spirituality. Atheism, he said, will come in at the tail end.

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