Saturday, 15 May 2010

Is God really dead?

On 8 April 1966, Time magazine produced an arresting front cover with just the words "Is God dead?" This was a time when the concept of God was not only being challenged by atheists and the leaders of the new socio-sexual revolution, but, also, by a maverick band of theologians (largely Protestant, but whose influence would later seep into some areas of Catholic thinking). The secular promises of the 1960's did not only mesmerise the Woodstock generation, but it also became a source of inspiration for some theologians. The Methodist theologian, Thomas J.J. Altizer, associate professor of religion at Atlanta's Emory University, would write "We must recognize that the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence." Theologians such as Altizer saw the radical secularization of the world as part of the process by which the sacred would be restored and in his view, cleaned of the distorting patina of transcendence and the idolatry of institutional Christianity. Juxtaposing such theological paradoxes gave birth to a "movement" with formative texts such as Altizer's The Gospel of Christian Atheism.

Time has sapped the scintillating paradoxes of theothanatology of their intellectual power. Such ideas have little serious currency in contemporary theological thinking, where they look as quaint as batik kaftans. It is the creation of a new, systematic apologetics that mines the big ideas of God, the supernatural and transcendence that have become the focus of attention in mainstream theological circles today. God has made a comeback in theology. The 2010 April/May issue of Philosophy Now mimics the Time cover while adding the word "really". This addition suggests a significant shift in attitudes to the God question. Far from there being a consensus that the concept of God has become redundant, current thinking proves more fluid and unpredictable. God has not gone away. In fact, God is everywhere. The interest in God (pro or contra), far from diminishing, increases. Every bookshop, newspaper, website is rife with God talk, although, the popular level of debate has developed a polemical character that short circuits hard thinking. This is a pity. But there are serious thinkers and one of them, from the Christian Tradition, is Pope Benedict XVI whose intellectual life work has been to consider the relationship between faith and reason, religion and modernity.

The encyclical Spe Salvi is a scholarly analysis of Marxism and the atheism it spawned in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pope Benedict admits that the thinking of Marx and others was a "type of moralism" responding to the injustices of the time. Atheists argued that "a world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God." Thus, according to Pope Benedict, "the critique of heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics - from a scientifically conceived politics that recognises the structure of history and society and thus points the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change." Yet, it is here that Pope Benedict sees an opportunity for dialogue between Christianity and Modernity. He writes:
What does "progress" really mean: what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. in the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil - possibilities that formerly did not exist...If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.

Atheism, on the other hand, is currently enjoying a renaissance. No longer the preserve of Bertrand Russell enthusiasts or angst-ridden intellectuals politely wrestling with theism, atheism has reinvented itself. The New Atheism is pumped, aggressive and happy to rage against the iniquities of religion and the docile acceptance of any kind of transcendent reality that might call itself god. Take, for example, this fulminating gobbet from the Richard Dawkins book, The Devils' Chaplain:

My last vestige of "hands off religion" respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th 2001, followed by the "National Day of Prayer", when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonations and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place.

According to the editor of Philosophy Now, "Atheism has truly fought its way out of the brown paper bag" and who could disagree, when books on atheism regularly make the bestseller lists. But what is behind this? David Ramsay Steele, author of Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy, considers the American scene and sees a polarisation of views around hot spot issues(abortion, homosexuality, science vs. religion, etc) and God proves to be the hottest hot spot of all issues. Steele writes:

Most Americans today are secular-minded nominal theists. They say they believe in God, but they have no time for church. They are not alarmed by atheism, and they often hold the same blue-state social and political attitudes as the tiny minority of atheists. They think of atheists as intelligent people with interesting ideas, whereas they think of Evangelicals as a bunch of kooks who might become dangerous. And so they readily take to books like The God Delusion.

The second stage of my explanation for the New Atheist explosion in America centers on 9/11. American intellectuals needed a story which would put 9/11 in context and confirm their assumptions. What they came up with was the view that the Muslims who perpetrate terrorist attacks and the New Christian right are the same enemy (fringe elements of Evangelicalism have perpetrated terrorist attacks on abortion clinics). This is the dominant theme in The End of Faith by Sam Harris, and it looms large in The God Delusion, and in God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The New Atheist story, marketable to the American intelligentsia as a whole, is that extreme religion commits atrocities, and even moderate religion may be dangerous because it provides cover for extreme religion.

I'm not sure how accurate or defensible this reading is, but what seems clear is that real philosophical mood swings have taken place in the last forty years. The predictions that the idea of God would simply evaporate under the heat of a secular sun have proved false. In the same period, interest in atheism increased and now attracts increasing numbers of followers. Is this the end of religion and the beginning of modernity or has modernity underestimated the significance of God in human lives and culture. "Even atheists, Nietzsche among them, knew this: order and meaning come from God, and if God really is dead, then we delude ourselves in thinking meaning can be saved," writes Leszek Kolakowski in Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life, "If God is dead nothing remains but an indifferent void which engulfs and annihilates us. No trace remains of our lives and our labours; there is only the meaningless dance of protons and electrons. The universe wants nothing and cares for nothing; it strives towards no goal; it neither rewards nor punishes. Whoever says that there is no God and all is well deceives himself."

Is God dead?
Is God really dead?

I wonder what kind of God question we might find on the cover of a magazine in 2050? Whatever the formulation, I predict that the question will still be as important to the people of the future as it is for us today.


  1. I have an old 2006 copy of Granta entitled “God’s own countries, are you living in one” The back page of the copy reads-

    “God still has friends on earth and sometimes (in Texas, Istanbul, Tehran) they and He seem more powerful than ever. It wasn’t suppose to be like this: in the later years of the twentieth century, the secular world imagined that religious belief was everywhere in retreat. God was dying, reason and science had won. Now were not so sure.”

    This volume of Granta then goes on to explore a variety of religious beliefs and their personal, social and political effects in fiction and non fiction. One chapter is "A conversation with Orhan Pamuk" Turkeys most celebrated and controversail novelist. The article touches on the fears and anxieties about modernization which Pamuk explores in his novels "New Life" and "Snow".

    Another chapter is entitled “Acts of God” by David Graham. His son had an accident diving off a pier and landing on a sandbank. It is a chapter mostly of photography of tetraplegics, paraplegics and quadriplegics, all caused by simple and innocent accidents, like slipping whilst dressing a Christmas tree, tripping up a step, a balcony collapsing whilst on a honeymoon. People that were healthy and mobile until their accident.

    But this volume of Granta sings to me of God and Love from every page, because to me where there are humans there will always be conflict, and where there is conflict there will always be Love, and where there is Love, there will forever be God.

    Get yourself a back copy!

  2. "Evangelicals are kooks who might be dangerous"

    too true when you read stuff like this

  3. You could get all smart alec here and say something about the council of Ephesus (is that the right one?) and God dying etc.

    Nothing like smart alecry to get on everyone's nerves

  4. What I really want to scream is "Yes, It feel's like it some days" and then on other day's it feels like His fully alive!

  5. James's post and Guardian article is an important reminder that with (maybe because) of the rise of a more ideological version of atheism there has also been a rise in religious fundamentalism that, in its own way, wants to break the link between faith and reason, religion and modernity. To my mind, this should be of concern to believers and non-believers alike.

  6. "If God is dead nothing remains but an indifferent void which engulfs and annihilates us etc etc ... Whoever says that there is no God and all is well deceives himself."

    Many years ago I watched a TV programme on a man in Scotland who had created a beautiful garden. He was elderly, lived alone and had nobody to look after the garden when he died. Asked if this worried him he responded - "No - it doesen't matter - the garden will have been."

    That is a self-contained, clearly satisfying, non-deistic attitude far removed from the intended-to-scare "nothing but a dance of protons etc" approach. I find it attractive.

    (I have only just found your blog - interesting).

  7. Weary pensioner thank you for your comments. The attitude that things or people "have been" is an important one and recognises the significance of things or people in our lives, for example, the beautiful garden. But, at the same time, many people remain uneasy or unconvinced with the idea that this is THE answer to questions of being and existence. They suspect that there is something more to say.

    Even those who reject forms of theism, such as Nietzsche, are left with an existential uneasiness about what remains of meaning. A fascinating account of this "uneasiness" is given in A.N.Wilson's "God's Funeral." I don't read Kolakwski's quotation (and book) as a sort of scare tactic, but rather as a salient reminder that we cannot casually or aggressively "write-off" the idea of God without consequences for our understanding of ourselves and creation. I think he is simply suggesting that believers and non-believers need to think deeply about "God".