17 May 2006 Radio Netherlands

Philosophy Night

Promise to speak the truth and nothing but the truth. And now answer one question: what does God look like? A true philosopher must always ask only one, most important question, Heidegger used to say. How many true philosophers are there in this country, I asked myself while trying to make my way through the crowd on Amsterdam's Philosophy Night. The giant Felix Meritis conference center - a classic 18th century mansion alluding to Greek architecture - was full to the brim; the event was sold out, despite the expensive ticket prices. Philosophy Night forms part of the annual Dutch Month of Philosophy and features a marathon of interviews and debates by prominent local and foreign thinkers continuing deep into the night simultaneously in five different halls. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of what the Month of Philosophy has in store, says one of the organizers Hans Kennepohl:

Hans Kennepohl: Over the whole of The Netherlands, there are about 130 activities around. The reason is of course to promote philosophy in the broad sense, and if you concentrate a lot of activities in a short period of time, you can draw attention and you can make it a little bigger as well. I've been doing philosophy for twenty years. The first ten years, if you did philosophy, you were a bit of a lunatic and a "dusty person", when you came to a party or something. And then suddenly there was a shift. People who had nothing to do with philosophy, suddenly went into philosophy. And my suggestion is that people got tired of New Age and still wanted to do some reflection, but wanted to have some more common ground. And in these days if you are at a party and say you study philosophy, people say: Oh, that's interesting!

The Month of Philosophy is produced in cooperation with the Dutch Filosofie Magazine - with a circulation of 18 thousand copies, the world's largest periodical on philosophy. Is not there a danger that philosophy in The Netherlands today is entering the realm of entertainment?

Hans Kennepohl: For philosophy to become something like a quiz, a television quiz, is nearly impossible, I think. And of course some people regard the philosophers performing tonight not as real philosophers, but I don't see such a strict distinction. In order to reach a larger audience you should popularize it a bit.

"Nothing but the Truth" was the theme of this year's Philosophy Night, thus largely devoted to metaphysics. Central in the program was the passionate debate between the author of the Atheist Manifest, Professor of Modern Philosophy at the University of Utrecht Herman Philipse and Christian theologian Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford. Alister McGrath came to Amsterdam to celebrate the release in Dutch of his popular book The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World and gave me a sneak preview of his main arguments shortly before his battle of titans that night.

Alister McGrath: My main interest is as a historian, and what I noticed is that the rise of atheism is linked to a period in culture called modernity or the enlightenment. In other words, it begins to rise in the 18th century and really begins to hit difficulties about the year 1980. And one of the points I make in this book is that atheism's appeal is very close to that of the enlightenment. So what happens when the enlightenment ends? When the movement that finds its credibility from modernism finds that modernism is being displaced by postmodernism? And, of course, postmodernism inverts or throws away so many ideas and values of modernity. And in many ways, my argument is simply this: Atheism is a religion of modernity. But we are in postmodernity now, or even further, and we're seeing a burgeoning interest in spirituality amongst young people, and atheists these days tend to be older men, who just can't understand what is happening to younger people who are getting very, very interested in the spiritual world instead.

According to Professor McGrath, once any system of believes - and atheism is no exception - becomes powerful and dogmatic, it eventually provokes the younger generation to rebel against it.

Alister McGrath: As a historian, one of the things I noticed is that the reason why people were drawn to atheism in the 18th century was that it promised liberation, it promised to break the power of the church. Look at, for example, France on the eve of the French Revolution. Atheism was seen as liberating. Why? Because it was going to break the power of church, break the power of the state, which derived its influence from the church, and open the doorway to a bright new future. But paradoxically, when we look at, for example, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, the thing there was precisely the same world view was seen as oppressor. The world view has not changed, it's that its social context has. One of the points I make in this book is that the appeal of atheism is not really intrinsic to its ideas, it's about its social context. One set of ideas in one context can be very, very exciting and liberating. In other, they can be dull, unexciting and even oppressive.

During their debate, McGrath's opponent Herman Philipse questioned the idea that enlightenment was a phenomenon pertaining exclusively to Christian culture, as it can be traced to much earlier works written outside of Europe, in India, for example. And yet in his Atheist Manifest, Philipse insists that no constructive dialogue at all is possible with any believer, of any faith, for a believer is defensive of what he thinks is the absolute truth. The latest edition of Atheist Manifest was published with a foreword by The Netherlands provocative secularized Muslim parliamentary Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Alister McGrath suggests any constraints in having a constructive dialogue arise due to conflicting political interests, and not the individual believes. Hence the tension between science and religion also comes in waves:

Alister McGrath: For example, take the Galileo affair - that's not science versus religion. That's an internal Vatican policy, it is a very interesting period about the change of popes.

Darwin's evolution, too, may be seen as merely the course of creation:

Alister McGrath: Well, that's what, right, if you look at the initial Christian reaction in the 1860s and '70s, above all in England, they said, actually, it simply helps us to spell out or to explicate how creation happens. And there wasn't any tension. The tension begins, really, in the 1930s in the United States of America, where a very different approach to these things begins to become influential. And of course, it becomes very influential now, because America is such a big player on the world's stage. I would make a sharp distinction between Christianity and the church. And one of the things I've noticed as a historian is that there are very few world views which have institutions that are capable of maintaining its ideas and values. Hence, for example, in England at the moment socialism is going through a very difficult time. And part of this is because it has lousy institutions.

And then McGrath suddenly suggested a marketing strategy for his Christian camp:

Alister McGrath: And what I write in the book is that the fact that atheism is in decline - and it clearly is - does not mean that Christian churches in the West are going to bounce back in a very big way. But it does mean that there is a changed intellectual and cultural climate, which they could build upon. So I am trying to make a point that if the Christian churches thought about things a lot, they could find ways of directing this interesting spirituality into an interesting Christianity.

I escaped from the heated debate room out into the cool quietness of the night wondering what is the religion of postmodernity. And when will it come out of its Judeo-Christian Eurocentric cocoon and become a matter of deeply personal spiritual search and not a political tag on sale by the media?