Protestantism and the Disenchantment of the World  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In The Twilight of Atheism:  the rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world (Doubleday 2004), Alister McGrath(who very much self-identifies as a Protestant Anglican) explores the ways in which the Protestant Reformation, or at least large parts of it, inadvertently paved the way for the emergence of atheism as an intellectually coherent worldview in the 18th century.  It did this by de-emphasizing the sacraments to such a large extent and replacing them with such a narrow focus on preaching and Scripture reading that God became reduced to an intellectual concept, divorced from the world's material sensuality.  The quote is found on p 212.


Protestantism offered a God who was known through the preaching of the word of God; Catholicism, while not being inattentive to the importance of preaching, reinforced that message visually.  Slowly but surely, any sense of God as a living, engrossing reality began to slip from Protestantism.  The dull, joyless, and unattractive churches of Protestantism conveyed the subliminal message that the God who was to be found in them shared these disagreeable characteristics.  Protestantism has been chided by many cultural analysts for its failure to stimulate the arts.  The great Welsh poet RS Thomas castigated the movement for this failure, dubbing it "the adroit castrator of art" and "the bitter negation of song and dance and the heart's innocent joy".  Our concern is, however, rather more profound.  Protestantism encouraged the notion that God was absent from human culture and experience.

A substantial part of my activity as a scholar focuses on the history and thought of the Protestant Reformation.  As a result, I am a frequent visitor to some of the great centers of the movement, including Zurich.  I have often sat within the Great Minster of that city, looking around its vast interior, unadulterated by imagery or decoration, and noting the values it affirms--most notably, the absolute priority accorded to preaching, made clear by the size and location of the pulpit.  Its simplicity is admirable, and totally in conformity with the spirit of Zwingli's reform program of the 1520's.  But the building speaks subtly of a silent, absent, and distant God.  The Protestant reluctance to picture God has all too often led to an envisioning of the world that is bleak and barren, where it ought to be saturated with the radiance of the glory of God.  Once more, it is a small step from declaring that God cannot be pictured to suggesting that he cannot be conceived as a living reality in the rich imaginative life of humanity.