This essay, to me, is a survey of what it means to have or lack faith in the modern world. I myself am an atheist, but I can see the purpose of religion both to individuals and society. The landscape of belief has changed much in the past two centuries, and I have attempted here to chronicle how different thinkers and artists have viewed this seismic sea-change in our consciousness. Whatever your opinion is on this subject, I would advise entering this essay with an open mind towards the idea of the decline of belief (at least in the West) and the philosophical quandaries which arise from this.
It seems that depression and the supposed absence of a deity or higher power are our current zeitgeist, the spirit of our age. A Marxist would chalk this up to the alienation caused by the capitalist system which dehumanizes the human person and relates everything to money. Meanwhile, a traditionalist conservative would say that the liberal reforms of modern times have destroyed humanity’s relationship with God by making “Man the measure of all things”. Whatever portion of the political spectrum you fall on, humankind seems to have collectively agreed that whatever used to reign from above has abandoned us en masse in the light of modernity and postmodernity. Some have reacted to this by challenging the accepted orthodoxy of the past, while other have clung ever more tightly to their constantly dying faiths.
“‘Whither is God?....I will tell you. We have killed him.”, asserted Friedrich Nietzsche through the mouth of a madman in a parable in his 1882 work, The Gay Science. At first, this would sound as if Nietzsche, a rather nihilistic, committed atheist, is celebrating the collapse of the old system of deities and spirits and hailing the new humanist outlook of our species. However, it soon becomes clear that, despite its author’s beliefs, this is not a cause for celebration: “‘How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers….Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?’” For the great bulk of human history, cultures and peoples have had deities and spirits and legends to comfort them in their worst and darkest of times. Faith was a light to many; that, despite the darkness of life and the tragedies of existence, there was something watching over you, something to comfort you, and another life that existed after passing on. In this newly faithless world, there is no comfort if what you believed was comforting you is gone. In fact, the very deed of killing God, Nietzsche seems to say, is such a mammoth undertaking that a group of hairless apes on a tiny planet would not be worthy of doing such a thing, especially when most of them are not sufficiently independently-minded and stable to fathom exactly what they have done.
In order to slay God, Nietzsche insinuates that humankind would have to rise to godhood in order to make it seem like slaughtering their deities was a good idea. And, in the minds of many, this is exactly what we have done. We have placed ourselves at the center of our existence and elevated humanity to a position that perhaps it doesn’t deserve. It presumes that humans are far greater than they really are, that we are more than just creatures lost in space. It puts political ideology before religion as well. While politics and religion have often intertwined over the millennia, religion has always seemed, in the end, to nourish the souls of our species more than mere politics. Perhaps the worst and most shocking revelations are that there is no reason why we are placed on Earth, that life and history is essentially random, and that all of our deeds are for naught. It is immensely horrifying to us that we argue, fight, and go to war and yet there may be no reason for such things in the end. Without a deity, without myth and legend, we realize that we are not important, and that, no matter how much we try to deify our species, we are still small and still striving for something to elevate ourselves above the mundane-in short, to regain our lost gods.
“Big Sky”, a song by the Kinks from their 1968 album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, is perhaps the ultimate “Death of God” song. “One day, we’ll be free, we won’t care, just you see…” croons frontman and lyricist Ray Davies after listing how “Big Sky” (re: God) does not particularly care about those beneath Him on Earth. Despite this strong desire for the eventual extinction of God and the freedom it should entail, Davies sings about the comfort and tranquility religion can provide in a world bereft of it: “And when I see you/And the world’s too much for me/I think of the Big Sky/and nothing matters much to me”. While religion can been seen as a mind-killer-making nothing matter to someone-it also gives help and love to those most in need of them. Like it or not, humanity’s identity throughout the ages has been dominated by religion and belief. Moving forward, we will need to square our own simian egos against the vastness of the universe and the strangeness of eternity.
In the absence of a higher power, humans often turn to political movements to nourish their souls. However, these ideologies fail to become transcendent, and are instead base and materialistic. Some put all their faith in politics, seeing a movement as undying, always finding new human conduits. However, deep down, humans know that these ideologies are ultimately earthbound. They lack the rituals, the comfort, the inner, mystical dimension of religion. They are merely something which we can latch onto in an increasingly chaotic world.
One final thing we should realize is that, no matter how great and mighty we become on Earth, everything down here is transient. Fame is fleeting, nations and empires crumble into dust with regularity, nothing is eternal-not even the gods. Rudyard Kipling was aware of this when he penned his poem “Recessional” for Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee. This was at the height of the British Empire’s power, and the celebration would have recalled for a happy, slightly pompous poem. Instead, Kipling wrote a work which warned of the smallness of Earthly greatness in the light of eternity. “Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre”, he wrote, naming two once mighty ancient empires that have since gone extinct. In the final verse, Kipling uses the phrase “All valiant dust which builds on dust”. This wonderful, mystical phrase warns that, in the end, all human civilization is doomed. We simply build upon the remains of older cultures. Despite our advances in society and technology, we are not so high and mighty after all. It can be taken away at any time. We will never escape the lingering remnants of the old gods, always there to tell us that nothing lasts forever. Night will fall, and a new day will dawn upon the remnants of us all.
(Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm.) The Gay Science. N.a. n.a. Print.
(Davies, Ray Douglas.) The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. The Kinks. Reprise Records, 1968. Vinyl recording.
Kipling, Rudyard. “Recessional.” 1897. Print.