01: The Twilight of Atheism (Doubleday, $23.95), by historian Alister McGrath, makes no secret of being an evangelical polemic, but the book does provide an interesting account of the rise and decline of organized atheism.
McGrath’s thesis is that the heyday for atheism was from the period of the French Revolution to the collapse of communism and the atheist state in the late 1980s. He finds this state of decline in the failure of secularization to expand around the world as well as in intellectual circles–such as in the predominance of postmodern thought over Enlightenment-based rationalism–and in atheist organizational life.
On the latter issue, he argues that the move to include agnostics in freethought-atheist groups signals a “loss of confidence” from its historic “firm and principled commitment to the nonexistence of God, and the liberating impact of this belief.” McGrath adds that such inclusiveness means that atheism has lost its cutting edge and is now trying to extend “its numerical embrace at a time of decline and demoralization.” McGrath tends to focus on the declining fortunes of organized atheism after the murder of Madelyn Murray O’Hare, but he fails to pay attention to the fairly more vigorous secular humanist movement and the emergence of the largely Internet-based “brights” (a new name for atheists) phenomenon.
02: Compared to what it used to be only 20 years ago, the bibliography on new religious movements has exploded and would be quite difficult for anybody to read everything published on this subject.
In recent years several encyclopedic works have come off the presses. Such is the case with the more than 400- page long New Religions: A Guide (Oxford University Press, $40), edited by Christopher Partridge. What makes the book attractive is its top quality design, with many well-chosen illustrations. Entries are written by well-qualified academics.
The book is not organized alphabetically, but according to each religious tradition/origin. Entries on individual groups alternate with essays of a more general nature, ranging from “Global Network of Divergent Marian Devotion” to “Postmodern Spirituality”. It makes for well-informed and reading, and succeeds in never becoming just a dry directory; one could even read it from cover to cover without getting bored.
Another interesting new volume — although its price will probably prevent most potential readers to buy it — is the Encyclopedic Sourcebook of New Age Religions (Prometheus Books, $99), edited by James R. Lewis. Bringing together the terms “New Age” and “religion” might be viewed as contradictory by many. But Lewis, who had co-edited with Gordon Melton the 1992 volume “Perspectives on the New Age,” has witnessed since that time the emergence of specific groups and movements that have arisen out of the New Age movement and which can be understood as a subculture with older roots than what used to be strictly called “New Age.”
Beside historical chapters and general analyses of New Age and its practices, the book offers monographs on a dozen groups (Kashi, Lazaris, Damanhur, Course in Miracles, but also the older “I AM” Religious Activity).
The book combines original chapters written specifically for that volume and reprints of articles previously published in various periodicals. The last 250 pages of the 680 page long volume is an anthology of texts. Since more than 20 authors have contributed to the book, assessments and prospects are bound to diverge.
“The New Age has permeated the capitalist mainstream, offering packages of transformational techniques,” ventured Michael Hill in a reprinted article originally published in 1993. But writing ten years later, Olav Hammer comes to a more sobering conclusion: “Unlike powerful and institutionalized religions, the New Age is likely to have a relatively limited effect on society as a whole,” due to its inner weaknesses and inconsistencies.
— Reviewed by Jean-Francois Mayer