Aftermath of "The Death of God": 15 Surprisingly Tangible Consequences
“God is dead!” – said Nietzsche over a century ago.
But that’s not just a catchy phrase for some folks to rail against and others to rally around.
It’s a perspective that can bring a lot of the modern world into focus.
“We do not comprehend what a stunning
– and yet still incomplete
– upheaval of thought has occurred in the recent historical past.”
- Walter Truett Anderson
This might seem like something for a good college dorm bull-session, full of half-baked arguments and bong-resin.
But it isn’t.
This idea saturates many aspects of our everyday life. Whether we realize it or not, we’re swimming in it, in many ways that are very real. Loneliness, dating and relationships, for example. The way we raise children. Today’s movies, novels, journalism and art. Our own minds and hearts – meaning, our mental and emotional health. Even crime. Even the “obesity epidemic.” And more.
Understanding the phrase itself, of course, in a way, isn’t hard.
But understanding it properly – including all the implications of it, the consequences, the reality and weight of it – is a different ball game.
Nietzsche himself said in so many words, “folks aren’t ready to hear this yet.”
Although others said it earlier, he said it in 1882 A.D. (or do you prefer “1882 C.E.”? (Which should we use? Says who? Exactly.))
OK, so let’s just say it was nearly a century and a half ago.
Are we ready now?
And ready, not just to clear up some common misunderstandings, but to arrive at a point where we understand the gravity and many of the implications of it all, properly?
Let’s take a breath and dive in.
If we understand this right, suddenly the world might start making a little more sense.
Or maybe even a lot.
But it’s strange: despite this being such a colossal, world-altering change, it’s also been nearly invisible. The ground has been shifting under our feet. Which can be hard to notice.
Part of the reason for this is that, after all, the sheer paradox of it – “God is dead” – and merely the idea that somehow, the eternal and infinite could die – and not just that, has died…
Let’s just say, “it touches nerves.”
Your reaction often depends on your worldview.
Of course, folks differ greatly on reactions to the idea of the Celestial Demise: whether it’s a sign of decline or progress, a cause for weeping or celebrating, a reason for hope or a prognosis of doom. Does the event make you feel like a cosmic orphan or a kid fresh out of school for summer? Does it make the world seem more rational, clear, grounded, illusion-free, or does it make the world seem meaningless, hollow, pointless, and futile?
But no matter what camp you fall into, a crucial first step is to get extremely clear on what, exactly, we’re talking about.
The raw, explosive qualities make the phrase gripping. Yet those qualities also make it vulnerable to cheap shots (however accurate). (Eg: “’Nietzsche is dead.’ – God.”)
Being easy to caricature and misunderstand also creates fertile ground for oversimplified solutions from the extremes (“abolish all religion!” from one side, “more hymns and pancake breakfasts!” from the other) – solutions that never seemed to really fully grasp the full scope of the problem.
After all, this might actually be “the mother of all problems.”
Call it “The Great Forgetting.” “The Great Disruption.” Some folks might even call it “the most significant event of modern times.”
Whatever you call it, a lot of folks sense – and agree – that there’s something wrong with the world today.
What is that “something”?
That one’s tougher for everyone to agree on.
We disagree violently, in fact. Which itself should indicate that there’s something else going on.
But wait a minute: aren’t things pretty good now?
Externally, in a lot of ways, things seem great. Better than they’ve even been before, even. Science and technology have produced luxuries that have improved life in ways earlier generations hadn’t even dreamed of. Medicine, life expectancy, world hunger and so on.
Progress. All wonderful. No argument there.
But we aren’t focusing on the externals here.
When it comes to society-at-large, at least, despite all our external successes and luxuries, many folks feel like something has veered off course, somewhere along the line. Something just doesn’t feel right. We aren’t sure where things went off the rails, exactly. Maybe we don’t really care where or why it happened – we just want to find our way back.
That’s why we need some good societal etiology – a study of the causes and origin of our current “disease,” or dysfunction, or whatever it is that seems so off these days.
“When the Way was lost, there was virtue;
when virtue was lost there was benevolence;
when benevolence was lost there was rectitude;
when rectitude was lost there were the rites;
the rites are the wearing thin of loyalty and good faith
and the beginning of disorder.”
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, XXXVIII
So let’s get sparkly-diamond-clear about the basic idea.
As we’ve explored here: saying “God is dead” isn’t the same things as saying that “atheism is true.”
Nietzsche wasn’t talking about an old Santa figure in the sky that ate one too many pork rinds or accidentally dropped a toaster in his celestial hot tub.
The idea is about us.
The idea isn’t merely that we don’t believe in the classical Judeo-Christian God – or even the idea of “objective truth” – the way we used to.
And it’s not that we don’t just “believe.” In some ways, we don’t even really remember, or understand, or know what we ever did believe.
Lots of folks these days reject (or ignore, or have forgotten) what they imagine “God” is or was.
But it’s one thing to rebel against the system. It’s another thing to not even know that there is a system. Or to be unaware that there ever was one.
When it comes to conversations about the topic these days, the cosmic straw man is the norm. Much of the conflict isn’t actually about the classical “God,” but about a cartoon caricature straw man. (Such as the Santa figure mentioned above.)
Clear communication – simply clarifying the words we’re using – could relieve a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding.
But the focus here isn’t a matter of theology. It’s sociology and psychology. It’s not about what’s happening (or not) in the heavens. It’s about what’s happening down here.
The basic movement is three-pronged:
1) An abandonment of tradition (“we used to do it X way; now we’re trying it Y way”)
2) A change in authority (“we used to trust X; now we trust Y.”)
3) A fragmentation of a whole (“X used to be one unified thing; now it’s splintered.”)
These dynamics have combined to really shake things up.
But it also goes deeper: these are pillars that used to support a common mythos.
“Q: ‘What happens when a society
no longer embraces a powerful mythology?’
A: ‘What we’ve got on our hands.
If you want to find out what it means
to have a society without any rituals,
read the New York Times.’”
- Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers,
The Power of Myth
The core idea: “we’ve lost a common mythos.”
A “mythos” (as we’re use the term here) is a core framework of ideas that holds a society together.
Each of us is faced with making sense of life.
Life comes at us, chaotic and confusing. Our job is to make sense of it. And we make sense of it by creating a framework of beliefs, stories, predictions, values, judgments, etc. It’s the matrix of stories we carry around in our heads. Our map of the world.
“A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world.
Myths are narrative patterns
that give significance to our existence.”
- Rollo May, The Cry For Myth
(This same thing – the “map of the world” in our heads – is called by lots of different names: our “worldview.” Belief system. Paradigm. Life philosophy. Vision. Core personal narrative. Etc.)
When a lot of folks do it as a group, it serves as the glue of a society.
Mythos can be a surprisingly subtle idea to wrap your head around.
What’s the difference between a bunch of strangers that live near each other…and a “community”?
Or the difference between “a group of guys playing basketball” and a team?
To an observer paying attention to “just the external facts” or observable appearances, they might look the same. At least at first.
But as someone playing basketball knows, the difference between just “a group of guys playing ball” and a real team is an order of magnitude.
A team has a mythos. A random group of guys playing ball doesn’t.
Computers need a mythos to function.
If you or I were software programs, the “mythos” would the operating system we all run on. It allows us to communicate with each other, and we’re based on it. Literally.
The operating system/mythos underlies the individual software programs. And when that mythos is functioning well, in some ways it’s usually invisible, unnoticed, and unappreciated, except by specialists.
But without a compatible operating system, various software programs won’t – can’t – interact. (Remember the old “Mac vs PC” compatibility problems?)
And if the OS isn’t working, it’s likely that the individual programs (eg browsers, apps, docs) are going to have problems that can’t be solved on the program level.
Same with us.
The mythos is the operating system of a society.
When a mythos is functioning, each of us are like apps or software programs. I’m a word processor, you’re a game, he’s a video-editing app, she’s a music-making program. But when a mythos isn’t functioning, each of us is tasked with on rebuilding an entire operating system for ourselves. From scratch.
Existentialism makes it sound romantic. “Forge your own destiny! Author your own significance! Sculpt your own life from the raw marble of existence!”
All well and good. Not many of us are going to admit to being against forging a destiny
But the ugly truth is that when you actually put that into practice, you realize: this means I’m not just writing my own life/app; I’m writing an entire operating system.
But there’s a dirty secret not many folks talk about.
It’s quite challenging.
After all, what just happened there?
Each of us just got tasked with answering all the fundamental problems of existence. Yes – the problems that the greatest minds and hearts in humanity have been wrestling with for thousands of years.
And now you’re tasked with solving them.
It’s all on you.
“Every individual who needs to bring order and coherence
into the streams of her or his sensations, emotions,
and ideas entering consciousness from within and without
is forced to do deliberately for himself
what in previous ages had been done for him
by family, custom, church, and state.”
- Rollo May
Say you want to climb Everest, or build a skyscraper, or go to the moon.
And you’re tasked with doing it all by yourself, more or less.
And starting from scratch, more or less.
To put it mildly: it’s going to be a lot of work.
A huge amount of work. And not just any kind of work: hard work. Overwhelming at times. And, by the way, there’s a whole lot of room for error. And all kinds of bugs and weird errors can creep in. And even if there are folks that are working on the same things, incompatibilities aren’t the exception, but the norm.
- all of which makes it easy to just abandon the effort entirely.
Much easier to slap a nice cliché or platitude on the whole matter and settle down on the couch for a Netflix marathon instead. Great and noble ambition, abandoned.
Compared with solving the fundamental riddles of existence, climbing Everest is small potatoes. Much easier to just climb the couch instead and settle for becoming that kind of potato.
If God dies, and God is at the center of our mythos, then mythos dies too. And if that happens, then things might really start getting weird.
And things have been getting weird, have they not?
“But is there something
where God used to be?”
- Iris Murdoch
So again, the key question: is this true?
Let’s not argue about it.
Yelling back and forth (“Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!” “Yes it is!”) won’t accomplish much.
Let’s treat this – “God is dead!” – like it’s a scientific hypothesis.
Let’s look for evidence, and see if we can find anything that confirms or disproves it.
We’ve gathered some evidence here.
Here are some brief glimpses of possible fallout of “The Death of God.”
To be fair: this is going to be the equivalent of a drive-by-shooting on the topic. We’re going to paint with broad brushes, make huge generalizations, and cut corners on endless qualifiers that would trim some sloppy blundering, yet bore many of us to death. So, fair warning. We aren’t writing a scholarly paper here for the ivory tower crowd. It’s meant for the rest of us who are navigating through the harsh pixels and concrete of modern life.
We’ve gathered several seemingly disparate lines of evidence that all could fit together into one cohesive narrative. That narrative being the Great Cosmic Bereavement.
Tangible Consequences of The Death of God:
#1: Loneliness & lack of community (“Bowling Alone”)
#2: Dating, Marriage, Relationships
#3: Raising Children
#5: Mental Health
#8: Weight Gain & Obesity
#9: “Do-It-Yourself Morality”
#12: Criminal Behavior
#14: Modern Religion and Spirituality
#15: Meaninglessness and the Demythologization of the World
“The decline of the West,
which at first sight may appear
…a phenomenon limited in time and space,
We now perceive to be a philosophical problem that,
When comprehended in all its gravity,
includes within itself every great question of Being.”
- Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West, Vols 1-2
1) Loneliness & lack of community (“Bowling Alone”)
As we touched on above: The Death of God has led to a breakdown in mythos, which has led to a breakdown in community.
Which has made many of us, well…lonely.
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam documents how people in the last few decades have become more separated, isolated, and removed from one another as compared to decades ago. Communities have vanished. Social structures have disintegrated.
Reviewers say Putnam “has identified a central crisis at the heart of our society.”
Although Bowling Alone generally describes the "what" of the problem without digging to deeply into the "why" of it.
And at any rate - how is loneliness a problem now? Isn't the internet and social media “bringing everyone in the world closer together”? Aren’t there more opportunities for relationships than ever before?
Sure, in a way. But the question is, what are real relationships? Is the internet and social media genuine human interaction, or some kind of strange, at-a-distance simulation of them?
Of course, once upon a time, long long ago, computers didn’t exist, and televisions were small, black and white, and carried three channels. An evening’s entertainment, once upon a time, might have been a book, or a card or board game, or conversation. Or bowling.
Sounds boring, probably. But then again, in those days we had these things Gramps used to call “attention spans.”
At any rate…these days, it’s becoming much easier to spend increasing amounts of time alone, in front of a screen, with pixel-relationships and avatar-friends.
The basic idea is loneliness, but the bigger issue is lack of community. And everything that follows in addition to loneliness: depression, anxiety, angst, meaninglessness, and so on, which we go into here.
Of course, the plight of modern loneliness and community breaking are merely a few elements among many that combine together to form a much larger movement.
That overall movement is what we’re calling “The Death of God.”
2) Dating, Marriage, Relationships
Another consequence is very strange in that it’s both in-your face and easy to miss.
Most of us have had experiences with “dating” in some form or another. (What’s it called these days? Courtship? Hanging out? Hooking up? Netflixing and chilling? Is not even knowing what to call it actually proving my point?)
Our own experiences seem obvious to us. It’s in-our-face. We’re immersed in them.
What isn’t obvious – and what makes it easy to miss – is how our experiences are different from the experiences of, say, our parents, or our grandparents, or our kids.
A sense of perspective depends on distance – and in this case, communication between generations.
Communication between generations requires conversation. And if conversation is becoming a lost art form (see #1, above), well, it’s easy to miss how your experience of dating might just be radically different from the experience of every other generation.
Let’s take a brief tour of the realm.
Once upon a time, for better or worse, there were fairly strong cultural norms about dating. Everybody knew them, more or less, whether they played by them or not, liked them or not, agreed with them or not, etc.
A classic scene in “The Godfather” illustrates this well.
Michael Corleone, hiding in Italy, speaks to Vitelli, Apollonia’s father:
“I want to meet your daughter.
With your permission,
and under the supervision of your family.
With all respect.”
Contrast that with today:
Today, it’s hookup culture. There are no rules, aside from the ones you make up yourself.
Sleep together on the first date? Maybe. Who pays for dinner? Depends. Do we even go to dinner? Maybe not. Where is this heading, anyway? Whoa, there: who says it has to “head somewhere”?
Ambiguity. Guesswork. Signal-reading, signal-misreading. Making up rules on the fly. Etc. Everything’s up for grabs. (Umm, no pun intended.)
To revisit our pillars: older generations had traditions of courtship. And those traditions were forged and maintained by the authority of the community around them.
And today, much of that might as well be in a pine box.
Of course, there are advantages to lax rules. A central, agreed-upon set of customs can be oppressive, constrictive, stifling. It can inhibit the good stuff.
The idea seemed to be that if we just remove stifling cultural norms, and do what we want, then Romeo can be with Juliet, Jack can be with Rose, and everyone wins. What’s the problem? …right?
But of course, freedom from rules can become anarchy.
And anarchy has its disadvantages.
Every individual inventing (and defining, and communicating, and enforcing) their own rules and objectives can be exhausting, and confusing, and inhibiting in its own way. (Sexual harassment, date rape, consent forms, and so on aren’t really what we’re getting at here, but by-products of it.)
And in the worst cases, it can even be dangerous. If the modern dating scene is a jungle, that’s usually a setup of predator and prey.
Not exactly the environment that’s perfectly conducive to, say, finding “love” or lifelong companionship, if you’re into that kind of thing.
A structure – like the one Michael Corleone submitted himself to, above – can be inhibiting, but it can also serve as protection. When it’s working well, it either keeps predators away or reforms them. A Michael Corleone becomes a husband while a Harvey Weinstein becomes an outcast (or is never allowed through the city gates to start with.)
Some folks navigating the jungle today probably don’t even know that it hasn’t been the free-for-all, make-it-up-as-you-go-along scene that it is today.
They don’t even know that they’re navigating through aftermath of The Death of God.
3) Raising Children
Apparently, raising kids wasn’t always as hard as it seems today.
To state the obvious: many adults find parenting overwhelming, exhausting, and even demoralizing. (The ones that haven’t outsourced the job to nannies, that is.)
And of course, it’s always been this way.
But then again…it hasn’t.
Here’s author and psychologist John Rosemond:
“In the 1960s, American parents stopped listening to their elders when it came to child rearing and began listening instead to professional experts. Since then, raising children has become fraught with anxiety, stress, and frustration.”
He describes above the transfer of authority from “elders” to “experts” that’s happened more and more over the past several decades.
Where the “know-how” in raising children used to come from elders (aka tradition), now it comes from “experts” (aka psychologists who operate under the guise of science.)
Of course, the initial idea seemed great in theory. After all, not all parents or traditions are perfect (spanking with paddles, anyone?) But science? Well, science is, by definition, solid, trustworthy, true.
That’s the idea, anyway. Sounds great, right?
But the reality?
But arguably, the “science of parenting” isn’t quite as advanced as, say, physics or chemistry.
Not by a long shot.
We have nothing to say against real science. The more genuine, legitimate science we have on all this, the better. At this point, we’re just stating the near-obvious: “the science of parenting” is very, very young. Practically in diapers. And it probably will be for a very long time.
The results, given the above, are what you might expect.
We’re now a few generations beyond the 60’s. To mention just a few high points: helicopter parenting (parents hovering over everything the child is doing), lawnmower parenting (parents mowing down every obstacle for the child, instead of the child overcoming obstacles themselves), the self-esteem movement, entitlement generations, parents attacking Little League refs , parents asking babies’ permission to change diapers (loss of authority, anyone?)…and we could go on.
What’s going on?
If we all want to spend our lives on a worthy cause – something that’s good, and pure, and worth doing – then in a way, kids can seem custom-designed to be exactly that.
Yet children-as-religion can be problematic. If a child is almost literally an externalization of a parent’s soul, it’s a small step from there to the point where helicopter parenting, lawnmower parenting and so on starts to actually make sense. After all, who doesn’t want to fuss over, protect, overcome obstacles for, move heaven and earth for their own selves?
Next thing you know, it’s a fistfight with a Little League ref.
Of course, none of this is a straight line. The path from Nietzsche to fistfights with Little League refs is crooked, and takes a lot of twists and turns. But that’s the point with all this: things get weird.
Rosemond explores much of this. But he isn’t alone.
Other “experts” also agree. Meaning, scientists.
As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue in NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children: “…many of modern society's strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring--because key twists in the science have been overlooked.”
Do you remember when you were a kid? When you see kids growing up today, are you seeing vast differences?
Organizing our own neighborhood games, for example, instead of plugging in to the Little League Industrial Complex. Mom yelling “Go out and play! Just be home in time for dinner!” instead of hovering over highly cushioned playground flooring. Fishing in the creek, Tom Sawyer-style, instead of having a cell phone glued to the tip of your nose.
So, how has all this been working out for us? Science is all about progress. We’re making progress, right?
It seems paradoxical. In so many ways, we’re so much better off than almost all generations throughout history. And yet…higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, ADD, a pill-for-every-feeling…
Raising kids is hard.
Being a kid is hard.
Especially, it seems, these days.
“Every generation in Western Civilization is invaded by barbarians
- we call them ‘children.’”
– Hannah Arendt
The visual arts serve as a vivid illustration of the aftermath of The Death of God. (No pun, again, intended.)
Developments in art echo parallel movements across other realms.
In a nutshell:
Nearly everything about art has changed radically over the last few centuries.
For better and worse, starting in the 18th century and later picking up steam, art veered away from objective standards and more toward personal expression, away from tradition and more toward innovation, away from external authority and more toward self-authority.
Up to that point, for better or worse, there wasn’t much heart-wrenching confusion about certain questions – eg, “what is art, anyway?” and “what is the nature and purpose of art?” – and so on. Art – and its nature and purpose – was pretty clear. (This echoes our modern angst about “the meaning of life,” which wasn’t always such a baffling riddle.)
As our story starts, art was traditional.
Spirituality used to be at the core of it.
Art was meant to convey truths, ideas, and inspiration about the insights and narratives of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on. (With, of course, a dash of politics – portraits of kings and etc – mixed in.)
There were classical techniques that had been developed over centuries . They took study, hard work and dedication to master. Some aspects of it were, at least to some degree, objective.
This meant that an old master could look at the work of a young apprentice and say, with a certain degree of confidence, “That sucks. You can do better. Here’s how.”
Then things started changing.
Art historian William Fleming calls it “The Revolutionary Period.”
Essentially, the “revolution” he’s referring to was a rebellion against all of that. Fueled in part by external conditions (the rise of photography, political upheaval such as the American and French revolutions, an increasing questioning of religious doctrine and so on), artists embarked on explorations of newer, unexplored trails. Art began to break from classical techniques and traditional standards in favor of new experimentation.
In short: there are no rules. Do what you want.
There are no objective standards. There is no authority other than yourself.
And if there is no authority other than yourself, then you can do no wrong. “Wrong,” according to whom? If your goal is to express yourself, and no one has greater access to your “self” than you do, then therefore, you are the sole authority. (So the thinking goes.)
And combine this with the self-esteem movement: “Do what you want. And whatever you do is awesome.”
So with authority gone, if something says your art sucks, well, who are they to say? By what standard? By what authority do they say your art sucks? (Answer: none! – says the young art student (who is double-majoring in self-esteem.))
(Nietzsche: who’s to say what’s up or down?)
The new movement wasn’t necessarily about conveying any great (or even coherent) ideas. It was about self-expression, propaganda, or “art for art’s sake.”
“Beethoven believed in God,
Brahms believed in Beethoven
and Wagner believed in Wagner.”
- Christopher Booker
And so rolls on, through the 19th and 20th centuries, what Fleming calls “The Age of Isms and Schisms”: Expressionism, Cubism, Abstractionism, Neoprimitivism, Surrealism, etc.
…including a brief flirtation with whole-hog nihilism, otherwise known as “Dadaism.”
As Fleming describes Dadaism:
“…a nihilistic movement particularly distrustful of order and reason, a challenge to polite society and the establishment, a protest against all prevailing styles in art. It was, in fact, antiart…an ism to end all isms…nonsense for the sake of nonsense…and their political expression was anarchy…Anguished artists felt that the civilization that had brought about such horrors should be swept away and a new beginning made.”
There have been ebbs and flows in the movements, but the overall direction has been clear.
And this direction has eventually led to the “modern art” (“contemporary”) that we celebrate today.
That is a brief sketch of how The Death of God was expressed in the visual arts.
5) Mental Health
How’s our mental health these days?
Depression, for example. And let’s not forget anxiety. Addictions. Suicide rates. Anger. Angst. Stress. Meaninglessness. And so on.
For all our external success, how are we doing on the inside?
This gets personal, of course. But let’s be honest here: by a lot of measures, hope and faith in inevitable progress in these realms isn’t entirely justified. Things in these realms don’t necessarily seem to be getting rosier and rosier.
We’ve gathered a few numbers here. It’s a big topic, but we’ve gathered at least enough to show a bit of a trend-line.
But if those trend-lines seem to be heading in the wrong direction (despite hoards of new psychologists, therapists, life-coaches and so on that have been anointed over the last century)…
Maybe it has something to do with the way we’re approach psychology these days.
“Psychology” as we know it today isn’t what it used to be.
Psychology these days presents itself as a branch of “science.” (Some folks, of course, might disagree with that assessment.) It might seem strange for us modern folks to think about it otherwise.
The first laboratory of experimental psychology was established in 1879.
But of course, it’s not as if 1879 rolled around, and we suddenly decided to ask ourselves, “what makes us tick?”
That’s been going on for thousands of years.
It just hasn’t called itself “psychology.”
Inquiries into human nature, behavior, consciousness and so on are nothing new. It’s been going on for thousands of years. It was just considered to be part of philosophy and, in some cases, theology.
What’s new is the more formalized and organized scientific study of it.
And of course, we’ve made progress in many ways. Some treatments of the mentally ill, for example, are much more humane than they used to be. And many heroic psychologists and researchers are doing truly important work.
But that said, as any real scientist can attest, real science isn’t easy. It’s a difficult, continual struggle. And it takes time.
Science focuses on what can be measured, empirically demonstrated, replicated, falsified, proven and so on. The can sometimes lead to a fixation on the superficial. It might lead to learning more and more about less and less.
It might lead to ignoring things that aren’t measurable, replicatable, falsifiable and so on. Because some things are beyond the reach of a microscope or telescope, but are still really important.
In other words, approaching science in a certain way can mean ignoring a whole lot of life.
Researchers might work for years – decades, even – to conduct a well-designed study that yields a reliable, verifiable, replicatable, falsifiable result.
But then what happens?
This is where the fragmentation comes in.
If there’s no larger framework of human nature, it’s just a free-floating, isolated fact.
If there’s no comprehensive grand theory of human nature to plug it into…it becomes simply one more fact in a jumbled pile of other facts.
When there’s no larger framework for it to be integrated into, it merely floats out in space with other free-floating, scattered, isolated facts.
Meanwhile, vast, elaborate and extensive models of consciousness, human behavior, intricate cognitive functions, depth psychology and so on, painstakingly discovered and articulated by Buddhist, yogic, Sufi and Judeo-Christian scholars and explorers over centuries, get completely ignored.
For all their flaws, traditional perspectives offered grand theories of human nature where all of life was integrated. There wasn’t a theory here and a study there. Everything in life was – at least in ideal circumstances – unified and connected.
Whereas today, we try to navigate with a disconnected theory here, a study we heard about there, a fragment of a piece of a hypothesis we heard a little about over that way.
P. D. Ouspensky offers the following heresy:
“…practically never in history has psychology stood at so low a level as at the present time. It has lost all touch with its origin and its meaning so that now it is even difficult to define the term ‘psychology’…in spite of the fact that never in history have there been so many psychological theories and so many psychological writings.
Psychology is sometimes called a new science. This is quite wrong. Psychology is, perhaps, the oldest science, and, unfortunately, in its most essential features a forgotten science.”
This “forgetting” that he’s claiming took place could be, as we’re describing here, a symptom of The Death of God.
“Religion is being replaced by therapy.”
- former Archbishop of Canterbury,
is confession without absolution.”
- G. K. Chesteron
If we track the death of God as an actual event in history, America in the late 1960’s might have been the date of a major celestial heart attack.
Let's start with a huge generalization.
(Tedious requisite disclaimer: yes, there are exceptions to all this, of course, but exceptions don't disprove the general.)
Sexuality, at the very least, was traditionally seen as a serious topic. At a minimum, it was largely seen as a power to be respected.
In other words: it was really never "casual" on a wide scale for the average person.
Of course, this doesn't mean everyone was a buttoned-up Puritan. But for the average person, “respect” was at least the official public party line of sustainable cultures - the minimum official perspective. It was much more than that, usually, but it was at least something to take seriously.
After all, sex – and everything surrounding it – typically dominates major portions of our lives. And its direct descendants – marriage and children – often dominate the rest. A single momentary decision can lead to decades of responsibilities. A few minutes of pleasure in the wrong context can disrupt and destroy relationships, marriages, careers, empires.
All to say: throughout history, sex had earned a reputation of deserving respect, and even caution.
Given this, it’s no surprise that traditional wisdom cultures – Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and so on – viewed sex as a powerful force that could create or destroy. For better and worse, they created guard rails (rules, norms, guidelines) to try – successfully or not – to minimize its destructive effects (rape) and amplify the positive ones. Not unlike a nuclear core that required a strong containing structure.
And then things changed.
Freud set the stage with blaming a lot of problems – correctly or not – on sexual repression.
Then Kinsey in the 1950’s got the idea: let’s study sex scientifically.
That was truly breaking new ground: science investigating the most raw and primal force within us. Employing reason to study passion. Time magazine described Kinsey as doing for sex what Columbus did for geography.
So the scientific study of sexuality began. Mirroring the other lines, science became the new authority instead of tradition.
This got things rolling. And then technology (birth control, porn, etc) moved things along even further.
For hundreds of thousands of years, sex had been linked – very directly – to the prospect of having children. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that we finally figured out a fairly reliable way to have sex without having children.
That cat got out of the bag.
Time for some radical change.
Elaborate mating rituals that were built to contain and harness the nuclear core of sexuality suddenly – in some ways – became obsolete. (Remember “going steady”? Anyone?)
Suddenly, all those old norms and rules and traditions and restrictions were being questioned. “Why?”
And that easily led to “why not?”
That’s when the late 1960’s hit.
At least in some circles, folks decided to throw all the rules overboard. And suddenly it’s game-on.
Woodstock. Question Authority. Hugh Hefner. The Beatles. “Don’t trust anybody over 30.” “Free love.” And etc.
Sex went from being “serious” to “casual.” It went from being governed by religious traditions and society to being more self-governed. It went from one being largely public process that was externally and sometimes even directly managed by family, culture, society-at-large to being a more private, personal, individual choice.
The authority of family, society and spiritual traditions decreased while the influence of scientists (“sexologists”), the media (eg MTV), and marketing departments (whose job is solely to sell you stuff) increased.
All of this conspired to hand over control of one of the most powerful forces of human nature to horny teenagers.
- and not just any teenagers. Teenager raised more by media and marketing departments than by, say, parents, family, a culture, or thousands of years of tradition.
That’s a bit of sex in The Death of God.
“You can throw out Nature with a pitchfork,
But it always comes running back
And will burst through your foolish contempt in triumph.”
- Horace, Epistles I. x. 24-25
8) Weight Gain & Obesity
OK, now this is starting to get ridiculous. Right?
How could the weight gain and obesity possibly be linked to The Death of God?
The idea seems absurd, right?
But here’s our case in brief.
First of all, there’s been a rise in obesity.
Source: The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, "Obesity Update 2012)
OK. We’ve been getting fatter. No news there.
There are plenty of theories. As for where we’ve landed at this point, we’ll quote from author Michael Pollen in What To Eat. (Which, by the way, mentions The Death of God approximately zero times.)
After many years searching for answers to a basic question (what should we eat?) in science, Pollen lands right around here:
“Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet.” (p173.)
Pollan explores how we’ve essentially given up traditional diets and adopted instead our new source of authority. You guessed it: science.
(To be fair: we’ve adopted out new source of authority, what we’ve been told is science. Which, sometimes, is actually savvy marketers and politicians pretending to be scientists.)
After an exhaustive review of nutritionists, doctors and overall the best experts around, he reaching this point:
“So here we find ourselves once again, lost at sea amid the crosscurrents of conflicting science.
Or do we?
Because it turns out we don’t need to declare our allegiance to any one of these schools of thought in order to figure out how best to eat. In the end, they are only theories, scientific explanations for an empirical phenomenon that is not itself in doubt: People eating a Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets.” (140-141)
He quotes Joan Gussow:
“I have watched real food disappear from large areas of the supermarket and from much of the rest of the eating world.” Taking food’s place on the shelves has been an unending stream of foodlike substitutes, some seventeen thousand new ones every year – “products constructed largely around commerce and hope, supported by frighteningly little actual knowledge.” (p147)
Of course, it’s a stretch to say that the death of “real food” mirrors the death of God in any kind of literal sense.
But to say that we’ve abandoned tradition in the way that we eat – well, the only thing that might be stretching there is our pants.
9) “Do-It-Yourself” Morality
If a mythos dissolves, morality doesn’t just go away.
It just becomes unhinged.
It doesn’t mean everyone immediately resorts to murder, rape, horse-stealing and cannibalism.
It just means that, suddenly “right” and “wrong” are up for grabs.
This can explain a lot about the mood these days. The phenomenon of us not even talking about stuff like this anymore. (*) And of course, ongoing, relentless offense and outrage.
“Thinking out how to live
is a more basic and urgent use of the human intellect
than the discovery of any fact whatsoever.”
- Mary Midgley
One job of society is to provide, for lack of better words, a morality.
To say, in effect: “This is good. That’s bad. Do this. Don’t do that.”
This isn’t about the origin of morality, but the communication of it. Whether throw explicit laws or more flexible social norms, the basic task is to articulate, codify, and enforce a system of how we all should act. And to some degree, why.
“Laughing is OK. Murder isn’t OK. Dancing is OK. (Unless you’re in the movie Footloose, of course.) Rape isn’t.” And so on.
Every group – from small groups of friends and family to large organizations to giant societies – enacts a morality, to some degree. It’s messy, thankless, and impossible to do perfectly. But there’s no way not to.
(It’s not unlike making a movie. No one can do it perfectly. There are always parts some folks won’t like. Almost everyone thinks they could do a better job at it, or improve on it. Yet some seem to know a lot about doing it well, and some clearly don’t know much at all.)
And a functioning society depends on it.
At the most primal level, it’s crowd-control. At the more sophisticated level, it’s elaborate instructions on how to achieve maximum human flourishing in The Big Picture of life. And communicating that vision effectively and in a compelling way.
In other words, it’s a mythos.
So a functioning moral system depends on a common mythos. When there’s no common mythos, there’s no common morality.
And when there’s no common morality, everybody is at each others’ throats.
We used to at least know what morality we were going to be hit over the head with.
Traditionally, morality has been grounded in some sort of religious framework of one form or another. Laws, rules and norms, in the best circumstances, were communicated to and understood by everyone. This provided, for better or worse, a framework.
The Death of God means abandoning that framework.
This can happen for reasons both good (hypocrisy and corruption within the framework, for example) and bad (narcissism and hubris, for example.) But whatever the reason, when societal frameworks get dismantled or destroyed, well, morality is let off the chain.
And again: when morality gets unchained, it doesn’t disappear. It simply becomes free-floating.
Disconnected from a common mythos, morality doesn’t evaporate, but becomes a random, shapeshifting, chaotic force that lumbers along and wreaking havoc in unpredictable ways. Unanchored from solid ground that’s commonly accepted as truth, matters of taste, opinion, subjective feelings, and emotion can become infused with a moral charge. There’s nothing to even to rebel against.
This translates into "do-it-yourself" morality.
If you’ve suddenly been attacked by an outraged and indignant accuser, wagging a finger at you for, say, not caring about the impending extinction of the rare pot-bellied Mongolian polka-dotted caterpillar, you know what we’re talking about.
But here’s the thing: typically, once we’re in do-it-yourself morality mode, we don’t think of our moral stances as merely subjective opinions that are matters of taste.
We think we’re still anchored to The Truth.
If I like ketchup and you like mustard, that’s a matter of personal taste. Some prefer one; some prefer the other. No problem. Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live.
But when the ketchup folks decide that the mustard folks are morally wrong, then we’ve got problems.
There’s a place for taste, and a place for right and wrong, “this is true, that is false.” And when those areas get fuzzy, personal opinions get confused for absolute moral stances that are grounded in absolute truth. And so if one person offends another – even innocently and accidentally – suddenly it’s not just one person offending another, but one person wronging another. (As if honestly trying not to offend folks wasn’t already hard enough.)
“Do-it-yourself” morality means we decide what’s right and wrong.
And when we take morality into our own hands, human nature being what it is, well, it’s temptingly easy for me to decide that I’m right and you’re wrong (according to the standard I just made up a few minutes ago, before I stubbed my toe.) When I determine right and wrong, everything that offends me is wrong, and everything that pleases me is right. And if you offend me, you aren’t just wrong; you’re evil. And since I'm fighting you, that means I’m good. Which means I’m fighting evil. Which, at the very least, becomes a somewhat flattering narrative I’m telling myself.
So when this kind of thing happens, things can get weird. And quickly. Suddenly, everything is up for grabs. Everything is permitted.
Which means there can be a lot to argue about.
Imagine playing a certain game of football.
It’s a normal game, with two changes:
1) there is no referee, and
2) each team gets to make up the rules as it goes along.
How do you think that’ll work out?
Things will probably go fine…for a little while.
But then suddenly, one guy decides another tackled him a little too hard. One guy says another stepped out of bounds, or the ball touched the ground. Eventually, one guy says touchdowns should count for ten points instead of six. Or the game should last for just two more minutes. Or instead of tackling, we should tickle.
Things can spiral out of control, quickly.
When young children play a game (say, soccer), eventually, they’ll typically get into an argument. “That was a foul!” “No it wasn’t!” “Yes it was!”
When they reach a stalemate (“Did not!” “Did too!” “Did not!”) they look to an authority figure. A referee. The referee is an agreed-upon authority figure that can settle the argument.
But what if there is no referee?
What if The Referee has done the mortal-coil shuffle?
Then everyone can make up their own rules.
At that point, it becomes the law of the jungle. Lord of the Flies. The biggest, meanest, most ruthless kid often decides.
And everyone tries to rewrite the rules to the own advantage, and impose it on everyone else. As philosopher Alaisdair MacIntyre delves into deeply in Beyond Virtue.
When there’s opposition and no higher authority, it’s time to watch out.
When there’s no higher reconciling force that unites two sides in a higher framework, that becomes the loss of the higher framework.
That’s when the center doesn’t hold.
“If God does not exist,
then everything is permitted.”
- Fyodor Dostoevsky
"It's all a question of story.
We are in trouble just now
because we do not have a good story.
We are in between stories.
The old story, the account of how the world came to be
and how we fit into it, is no longer effective.
Yet we have not learned the new story..."
- Thomas Berry
A man named Christopher Booker has fully cracked the case wide open on how The Death of God has affected storytelling: modern novels, plays, movies, and television.
Booker states in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories that there has been a “profound psychological shift which had been taking place in storytelling since the dawn of Romanticism.”
He describes how (emphasis ours) “which the works of so many twentieth-century playwrights, novelists and film-makers seemed to express the sense of having arrived at a kind of cosmic and spiritual dead end.”
“…what has happened to storytelling over the past two centuries, is how, in countless modern stories, a fundamental shift has taken place in the psychological ‘centre of gravity’ from which they have been told. They have become detached from their underlying archetypal purpose. Instead of being fully integrated with the objective values embodied in the archetypal structure, such stories have taken on a fragmented, subjective character, becoming more like personal dreams or fantasies.”
If this is starting to echo what was said above on the visual arts…yes. We see it too.
Booker’s perspective is largely influence by the perspective of Carl Jung. In this perspective, instead of using the word “God,” the perspective uses “Self,” which Booker describes as “the greatest archetype of all, the hidden totality of the Self, the ultimate form which embraces all the others.” This is in contrast to the “ego,” which is the “I” or the normal sense of small “s” self.
He continues in describing a fundamental shift that has taken place:
“…In the decades around 1800, a remarkable change began to come over Western storytelling. Up to that time the vast majority of stories imagined by mankind had reflected an instinctive harmony with the values of the Self. But now something unprecedented happened. In many instances, the archetypal patterns underlying stories began to be refracted through the story-teller’s ego, and this had two consequences. Firstly, it produced a ‘dark inversion’ of the types of story which archetypally show selfless heroes or heroines coming to a happy ending. We now see a new type of hero appearing in such stories, who is himself egocentric; but in thus defying the values of the Self, he cannot ultimately reach the goal. Secondly, as stories lost touch with the deeper values of the Self, they became sentimentalized. Even where they try to act out the outward form of an archetypal pattern, because they are no longer concerned with the inner transformation of their central figures they become mere ‘entertainments’.
By “mere entertainments,” the idea of remakes of remakes of remakes in movies and television might come to mind, as well as movies geared primarily toward either moneymaking or political messaging.
Booker then backs his arguments up with an exhaustive review of examples and case studies, from Chekhov , Proust, Camus, Beckett, and Joyce to Spielberg and Superman. (The Christopher Reeve version.)
And he argues his point well. And through it all, he illustrates many of the same themes we’ve been hitting on here.
“…what is unfortunate for us
is that a lot of the people who write these stories
do not have the sense of their responsibility.
These stories are making and breaking lives.
But the movies are made simply to make money.
The kind of responsibility that goes into a priesthood
with a ritual is not there.”
That is one of our problems today.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Of course, this isn’t to say that all storytelling has gone sour. There is obviously plenty of great work being done. But there are also ways that – as is happening across many disciplines – this is due more to individual heroic efforts than a functioning culture, and is happening despite the current age rather than because of it.
Ronald Sukenick also states in The Death of the Novel and Other Stories:
“The contemporary writer…is forced to start from scratch: Reality doesn’t exist, time doesn’t exist, personality doesn’t exist. God was the omniscient author, but he died; now on one knows the plot, and since our reality lacks the sanction of a creator, there’s no guarantee as to the authenticity of the received version. Time is reduced to presence, the content of a series of discontinuous moments. Time is no longer purposive, and so there is no density, only chance. Reality is, simply, our experience, and objectivity is, of course, an illusion. Personality, after passing through a stage of awkward self-consciousness, has become…a mere locus for our experience. In view of these annihiliations, it should be no surprise that literature, also, does not exist – how could it? There is only reading and writing…ways of maintaining a considered boredom in face of the abyss.”
We could call it “The Death of Story.”
As Robert McKee, iconic storytelling instructor and author of Story describes much of modern storytelling is based on spectacle rather than, well, actual story. Special effects make movies easier to sell. And often, selling is the point. He describes story as something we used to know, but somewhere along the line, forgot.
But of course, some of us are trying to remember.
Traditionally, philosophy was seen as a pursuit of truth.
Science was also a quest for the truth.
Journalism was – in theory, at least – supposed to be about finding and communicating the truth.
Those are the classical ideals. They’re the high-minded, lofty concepts that define the noble quests of philosophers, scientists, and journalists. Or at least, how they want to see themselves.
Or at least, how they used to want to see themselves.
But something strange has happened lately.
All those are based around a common idea: “truth.”
But if you drill down into it, it seems like a decent number of those folks no longer believe it exists.
Nietzsche put it succinctly: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” There is no truth, only opinion.
“Truth” exists, in a way, of course, but it’s your truth and my truth. It’s subjective. It’s a matter of opinion. It’s culturally created. In the end, in the words of William Goldman, “nobody knows anything.”
Or in other words, there’s no such thing as truth. Not that matters, anyway.
In other words…it’s The Death of “Truth.”
Without truth, many lofty ideals come crashing down to splatter on the pavement. Journalism becomes mere propaganda. Science becomes a game of “let’s run some experiments and tout the results we like.” Philosophy becomes ineffectual and insignificant verbal hair-splitting.
Welcome to postmodernism. There is no such thing as “truth,” only perspectives. There are no grand narratives, only culturally-created stories we all make up. There is no yardstick to measure with. So, in the absence of yardsticks, we can just say it’s, well, whatever we want.
Let’s dig a little deeper into just one of these: modern journalism.
Jack Schafer describes Matthew Pressman’s On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, which again echoes a big movement in The Death of God that really picked up steam in the late 1960’s. (Emphasis ours.)
Journalism has changed measurably since the 1960s, he writes, and those changes have altered how we regard the news and why opinion surveys show that fewer and fewer people seem to trust it.
Back in 1960—not quite a lifetime ago—page one of the New York Times was dominated by government news. Pressman picks out a date at random, April 21, 1960, and reports that all 14 stories on page one were about governmental bodies or officials. Inside, he continues, the paper’s opening pages contained transcripts of official statements and speeches, often by government officials, and almost every article in the main news category began with an account of what various leaders had said or done. Although analysis could be found as you plowed deeper into the Times, most articles “confined themselves to verifiable facts and a modicum of background information,” he writes. Official statements were automatically considered newsworthy. The press generally limited themselves to reporting allegations of wrongdoing against public officials only when charges were filed.
Then, even more than today, the Times set the national news agenda, and its stylistic choice to bow and defer to power was widely imitated. “Reporters did not challenge the people they covered or judge their motivations, beliefs, and competence,” Pressman writes. But two decades later—April 17, 1980, to be exact—the Times had changed. Coverage of government was still the main entrée, but reporters routinely challenged public officials in the absence of some allegation of wrongdoing against them. Transcripts had vanished, too, as reporting the news stopped being so much about the communication of events to readers and more about their interpretation.
This new set of news values, made necessary perhaps by the rise of TV, which assumed the newspapers’ duty to handle breaking news, and by a change in readership, which was now more highly educated, encouraged journalists to not just report the news but also to analyze it and challenge the elites in power.
Not every newspaper made this shift from being descriptors of the news to its interpreters precisely between 1960 and 1980, but nearly all have now.”
More challenge to authority. Fewer facts (truth), more interpretation. Less “just the facts, ma’am,” more “this is my interpretation.” Less “this is the truth, more “this is my truth.”
In other words, more fallout.
12) Criminal Behavior
Is it possible that The Death of God affected criminals?
OK, this is obviously getting crazy.
…Or is it?
Consider these excerpts from MindHunter, the television series created by Joe Penhall, based on the book by FBI special agent and unit chief John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker.
These conversations take place between Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) and Jordan Peter Rathman (played by Jordan Gelber). They’re discussing the strange things they find themselves confronted with, where crime itself has taken a turn away from the rational and understandable and toward the bizarre.
40 years ago, your F.B.I. was founded hunting down John Dillinge. Baby-Face Nelson. Machine Gun Kelly. Who thumbed their noses at society, but were basically in it for personal gain.
Now? We have extreme violence between strangers.
Where do we go when motive becomes elusive?
…It’s as if we don’t know any more what moves people to kill one another.
Used to be, you find a victim with 50 stab wounds, you look for the jilted lover. The ex-business partner. Now? Could be a random run-in with a disgruntled mailman.
It’s a different era.
No more ‘just the facts, ma’am.’ Crime has changed.
The conversation (in the series) took place in 1977 (which is shortly after the major “Death of God” movement in the late 1960’s-early 70’s mentioned above.) Here, they hit on an early hypothesis of what might be underlying it all.
Look at the list of unprecedented events that have occurred in the last decade and a half. President assassinated. A war we lost. The National Guard shooting college students. Watergate.
The government use to be symbolically a parental institution. Now, it’s a free-for-all.
The world doesn’t make any sense, so it follows that crime doesn’t either.”
There it is: a loss of authority on a cultural and governmental scale.
Historian Peter Vronsky offers a parallel theory that echoes the one above, but brings it down to a more personal level in his book Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present.
According to Vronsky, a “‘hidden surge of war-traumatized fathers’ returned home from battlefields in Europe and the Pacific and spawned a generation of murderous emotional cripples.” This led to what he referred to as the “Golden Age of serial killers,” between 1950 and 2000. (Source: The New York Post)
While a failure of major authority figures – either in the home or in society-at-large – isn’t a single, simplistic explanation for the appearance of a new breed of crime that simply “didn’t make sense,” we know there’s still a great deal we don’t know about all this.
And as most serious investigators know, certain crimes clearly go beyond the realm of economics: stealing a few dollars to buy a few things.
The enter the realm of depth psychology. And philosophy. And even, eventually, spirituality.
Traditionally, from Plato and Aristotle onward, philosophers explored Big Questions.
What do we know for sure? What is this place? How should we live? What’s it all about? Etc.
This gave rise to centuries of work in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc.
Enter, a few centuries ago, the Enlightenment and the rise of science. This ushered in a shift in epistemology: instead of Revelation, empirical science is the way to truth. New debates between atheists and non-atheists break out, which are often (and arguably, inaccurately) depicted as “folks who trust revelation” verses “folks who trust evidence.” - Debates which continue today.
But let’s just break off one slice here to bite into.
Let’s make it logical positivism in the 1920’s-30’s.
Logical positivism said, briefly: what is truth? You don’t know truth by revelation (eg, the Bible, Upanishads, etc.) You know truth through verifiable, meaningful, empirical observation.
In other words, truth is known through something like science. And only known through something like science.
Everything else is mere opinion. (Ugh!)
Positivism rose to prominence for a few decades, but eventually went on to implode (thanks to Quine, Popper, Kuhn and others).
But of course, imploding and being demonstrated as false never stops a set of ideas from taking on lives of their own. Logical positivism became tremendously influential in other fields of thought.
To name one, for example: psychology. (See #6 above.)
An illustration can shed line on this. How many times have you heard something along these lines:
“Depression, anxiety, unhappiness etc are all a matter of brain chemistry.”
Or “The mind is merely a by-product of your brain.”
These are echoes of positivism. The idea is that the material world that you can see with your senses is “real”; everything else that you can’t see with your senses (things like “thoughts,” “minds,” “souls,” “God” and etc) – isn’t real.
In other words, what some folks call “scientism.” Or, science-as-religion.
In other words, God is dead, science is real, and everything outside of science is premodern speculation.
"Until the second half of the twentieth century, at least in the United States, philosophy was studied in a more-or-less traditional way...Then modernity caught up with the curriculum. Today philosophy has become so specialized that members of the same faculty sometimes find it difficult to communicate with each other. Specialization, it must be acknowledged, reflects a deeper fragmentation of a once integrated discipline in which the parts were clearly understood in relation to the whole. That fragmentation has resulted in...a kind of trivialization that permits whole careers to be spent on isolated problems in the word of a single philosopher of little consequence, or worse still, on the youthful efforts of a philosopher whose mature works repudiated his early efforts. "
- The Nature of Scientific Explanation, Jude P. Dougherty, xvi
That is a quick sketch of The Death of God playing out in philosophy.
14) Modern religion and spirituality. (New Age, Do-It-Yourself Religion.)
Of course, there’s no discussing The Death of God without considering modern religion and spirituality.
All roads lead to Rome, the say goes. And ask might be expected with The Death of God, regarding the root and origin of all this, all roads ultimately trace back to religion and spirituality.
At this point, we know the drill: modern spirituality isn’t what it used to be.
(We explore some of "what" that looks like here, and part of the “why” of it here.)
Like we covered above, science began to flourish several centuries ago as a study of the natural world. The successes of science were tangible, demonstrable, and gave folks a new sense of discovery, hope and progress in this life.
Based on the truth of science, we shifted epistemology. We decided that the way to know the truth isn’t through revelation; it’s through scientific experimentation.
We decided that instead of revelation, we should trust experimentation. Instead of external authorities, we should trust ourselves.
So, here’s a quick recap:
1) First we drop our common mythos so we all believe different things.
2) Then we invent social media so we’re all brought closer together. So that mean...
3) Now that nobody agrees on anything and we’re all making it up for ourselves, we put ourselves constantly in each others’ faces.
And then we wonder why there’s so much friction these days.
It’s worldview melee.
Solution-symptoms abound: Do-it-yourself religion. Spiritual shopping. The “spiritual-but-not-religious.” Apatheism. Christian atheism. And so on.
A. W. Tozer wrote a revealing passage as a Christian criticizing the church:
“Modern Christianity is simply not producing the kind of Christian who can appreciate or experience the life in the Spirit. The words, “Be still, and know that I am God,” mean next to nothing to the self-confident, bustling worshipper in this middle period of the twentieth century.”
- from Knowledge of the Holy, iv.
Note the above: “the self-confident, bustling worshipper in this middle period of the twentieth century.”
The above was first published in 1920.
The internet, smart phones, the self-esteem movement weren’t even on the map yet.
Of course, the business of religion and spirituality is still booming, despite itself, and even if the shape of the boom is different from what it once was.
“Not believing in God
is a far more arduous affair than is generally imagined.
Whenever the Almighty seems safely dispatched,
he is always liable to stage a reappearance
in one disguise or another.”
- Terry Eagleton
After all, human nature hasn’t changed. Yet in some cases, in some churches, for example, we might sometimes still carry on out of mere habit, or taking it too seriously, or even without really knowing whether we really believe all this stuff or not.
And of course, we’re still faced with the same existential riddles we ever were. And we look for help with those wherever we can.
But things have changed. Revelation – at least in some circles – has been relegated to the back row, and grouped with superstitions, subjective opinions and matters of taste. The issues are often framed as battle of worldviews between the “premodern and unevolved” verses “modern and enlightened.” (Whether that framing is accurate is another topic.)
All of which can manifest a loss of confidence, in theological terms. Even from the nominal authorities, the message gets watered down to the safest ground possible: “be nice to each other.” “Treat people well.” “Do good stuff, not bad stuff.” Platitudes and truisms that aren’t always helpful in coping with the brutal realities of everyday life.
This loss of certainty is a companion of a loss of authority.
And when there’s no other authority, you have no one to rely on but yourself.
15) Meaninglessness and the Demythologization of the World
“Man cannot stand
a meaningless life.”
- Carl Jung
A surprising number of folks today seem to have decided that life is meaningless.
It seems to be a bit of a secret, of course. Some folks say it out loud. But most others keep it private, hidden, tucked away in shadowy mental corners. But it’s there nonetheless.
The thinking is basically along these lines:
We’re born, we live, and we die for no apparent reason or purpose, at least according to what we can see. Life is brief, sprinkled with joys and sorrows and everything in between, and then it’s gone.
What’s it all about? When it’s over, or about to end, we might think…”what the heck was that?”
A popular answer today: nothing.
With The Death of God, science has become the authority. Science examines the natural world using measurable empirical observation and experimentation. And based on this approach, at least for some prominent scientists, no meaning, no purpose, no reason, no “why” behind it all has been discovered.
Of course, there’s a good conversation to be had about whether this is the correct approach to this sort of thing.
But the point is, without that conversation taking place, a surprising number of folks look at the empirical, observable world through a scientific lens, and from what they’re able to see…it doesn’t really appear to have a point, or to be going anywhere.
Call it the “demythologization of the world.”
When the world gets stripped of meaning, you’re left with brute, naked, mere facts. Raw experience with no apparent purpose or destination. Everything seen this way can seem absurd, bizarre, arbitrary, nonsensical.
This means that rainbows are no longer notes from an infinitely loving Father of the Universe.
They’re just light bouncing off water.
That’s it. Nothing more. That’s it.
Of course, you can still think it’s pretty to look at, if you want. But that’s all you get. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t mean anything.
The basic facts: you’re born. Lots of stuff happens. Then you die. Lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The soul who imagines something more (in the eyes of materialistic science) becomes Don Quixote, a man with the heart of a knight in an age where knights are no longer needed. There are no dragons to fight or chivalrous deeds to perform. Or so it seems. So all he can do is imagine dragons where there are none, and fight battles with windmills. He winds up a fool.
That seems to be the choice: brute, meaningless reality or some form of foolish denial.
Again: this appears to be the choice. We aren’t saying it’s an accurate assessment of the situation.
But it’s the understandable dilemma that a surprising number of us find ourselves facing these days.
But of course, this kind of thinking hasn’t always been the case.
Traditionally, the meaning of life wasn’t such a baffling, unsolvable problem.
It was very clear. There were plenty of problems in life, but meaning wasn’t one of them.
So, how was this problem solved before?
The thinking when something roughly along these lines.
You were created with infinite care and attention by the creator of the entire universe out of love. Your life means something. Not just something, but EVERYTHING. What you do here in this life truly matters, to an infinite degree. Your current life will echo throughout eternity. You are destined for something glorious and wonderful beyond anything you can currently imagine, and what you are doing here and now is directly connected to that, is meaningful, and matters, and infinitely so.
The thinking went something like that.
Contrast that with the view from a prominent modern scientist:
“We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.”
- Peter Atkins, The Second Law
Two slightly different worldviews there.
But with the gradual movement from the first to the second above – all part of the movement of the tide with The Death of God – is it any wonder that a switch from the first perspective to the second can directly impact our fundamental view of life?
Could this possibly be a factor in the rise of depression, anxiety and so on?
Of course, to be fair, not all prominent scientists are hard materialists.
And even the ones that are don’t necessarily see angst, depression and despair as inevitable.
Yet their answers – often, in essence, “Enjoy yourself! Get a hobby!” – aren’t entirely convincing, and even reveal a certain shallowness and existential dullness that Nietzsche warned us against.
Maybe the cushy, pampered life of a highly-esteemed professor makes that body of thinking easy to swallow. For the rest of us, though, a pointless ride on a boat going nowhere doesn’t quite seem as delightful when you aren’t sleeping in the luxury cabin.
But the key question, of course, is…what is true?
Is the dilemma really between a comfortable illusion or a bitter truth, as many hard materialists claim?
A crucial question, and an important trail to follow (and one we plan on following). But for now, let’s assess where we’re arrived, and state it in a way that (hopefully) everyone can agree on:
If God was the source of meaning, and we’ve stopped believing in God the way we used to, then we’re tasked with solving the problem of meaning ourselves. Which is a problem earlier generations weren’t burdened with.
And that means each of us is struggling to solve a problem that has likely never been articulated for us. We just find ourselves struggling with a problem we were never trained to solve or usually even warned about. It’s all simply assumed, unspoken, ignored. “Figure it out on your own, and good luck with that.”
And of course, with any task as weighty and important as that, it’s no wonder that sometimes, it will fail.
After all, what it means is that each of us is confronted with solving the entire riddle of the universe. And sometimes, we’re tasked to do it entirely by ourselves, and with no credible help.
When this effort fails (and how can it not, really?) the results can range from a vague feeling of boredom, to emptiness, to full-blown depression, to utter nihilism, to suicide…or just to simple loneliness.
Which can return us back to where we started above, at #1, and bowling alone.
“When the dominant myths of a culture
are being fragmented by contradictions
that can no longer be hidden,
and when no new myths have fully taken their place,
an increasing number of persons
become terrifyingly aware
of the unstructuredness
and naked freedom
of human consciousness.”
- Michael Novak
The Perfect Storm System: How it all works together
OK. So now we’ve briefly sketched out 15 consequences of The Death of God.
But there's one more thing:
None of these elements operate in a vacuum.
Each of these elements is interconnected.
Each magnifies, merges with, and feeds the others. Many of them mutually reinforce one another.
Just to follow one thread:
Lack of community (almost by definition) can affect dating (the Godfather vs Weinstein example above.) And dating can affect marriage, and marriage can affect raising children. How we raise children affects their mental health, and ours. And our perspective on mental health, of course, is usually based on what’s happening in the world of psychology these days. And our views on psychology, whether deliberate or not, are based on certain philosophical principles, which are also directly connected to our spiritual and religious worldview.
And so on. The above is just one small thread. There are plenty of others we could explore if we wanted to really go cartographing.
When we view this as a complex system, with its own dynamics and feedback loops, we can start to imagine how this can become an entire movement. And how, if we play our cards wrong, a lot of things can truly go south.
But much of that depends on our reaction to it.
3 Basic Reactions To It All
Of course different folks have different reactions to the Infinite’s journey beyond the veil.
A lot of the reactions are based on which parts of the elephant they typically focus on.
One reaction to The Death of God is “good riddance.”
If you’re in this camp, you probably focus on what you see as the failures, shortcomings, and hypocrisies of religion, and the benefits, pleasures and freedoms of life after the cosmogonic funeral.
A second reaction is, “No, God isn’t dead at all, thank you very much.”
If you’re in this camp, you probably focus on what you see as the benefits, virtues and ideals of religion and spirituality, and the emptiness, depravity and unnecessary suffering of life without it.
A third reaction is basically everyone else in between.
If you’re in this camp, you might not necessarily have a stake in either side. But can see benefits and drawbacks in both. In the meantime, while it’s all being sorted out, you’re trying to figure out how to live, be happy, lead a good life, etc.
A big question we’re up again, then, lies in figuring out who is right in all this.
Is one side right? Or the other? Is everyone right? No one?
Will all the folks in these groups be able to get along in society without killing each other?
Is there a way all the folks in these various camps can enjoy life as much as possible and make each other miserable as little as possible?
Sounds like the fodder for a great conversation.
But of course, to figure this out, we’ll need to figure out an answer.
“I am convinced that the two points of view,
the materialist and the idealist,
will unite in a generalized physics
in which the internal as well as the external
aspects of the world will be taken into account.”
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Some Basic Death of God Survival Tips
Our initial goal here was to understand The Death of God as a way to make sense of the world today.
Hopefully we’ve done that, at least to a degree. That said, these are deep waters, and in many ways that are probably obvious, we’ve only dipped our toes in.
But of course, this only stirs up more questions: What’s next? Is all this part of an evolution that moving us toward something better, or a devolution that’s moving us toward something worse? Is there a way to correct course? What should we do about it?
These are all essential questions.
And we’re exploring them.
For now, though, we’ll just say: if any of what we’ve covered here is at all near the mark, then things are weird now…and they’re probably going to get even weirder.
It’s a time of both great danger and great opportunity.
Imagine you’re standing on a road, looking left and right. In one direction lies more confusion, friction, discomfort and conflict. In the other, clarity, health, kindness and compassion, etc.
In one direction lies, in a word, nihilism. In the other, enlightenment.
It’s simple to pick a direction, turn and walk. But of course, the reality of it is more complex.
We all presumably want enlightenment, clarity, health and so on over than the others. (Not everyone, of course. Confusion in the realms can be pretty profound.) But as one example of complexity, a person can think they’re heading toward enlightenment, but then suddenly realizing they’ve actually been heading the wrong way.
That’s OK, and in some ways par for the course. The important part is to, at the very least, choose the direction you want. Actually getting there is the next challenge.
So, what should you and I do if we to move away from the “nihilism” direction and more toward the “enlightenment” direction?
Here are two brief tips we think are solid.
The first tip, in brief: work on yourself.
The more sane, grounded, healthy, in touch with reality, clear, compassionate and so on that you and I can become, the better off you and I and everyone else will be.
But this takes work. The world is constantly stirring up confusion, conflict, misunderstandings. Countering this takes deliberate effort. It doesn’t happen by itself. Each of us has to counter it.
The more sane, grounded, clear and so on that you become, the more you’ll be able to be useful everyone else.
But if this gets reversed - if someone rushes out to save the world without first working on themselves– it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll become part of the problem. Good intentions aren’t enough. “Know Thyself” is crucial advice here.
That said, retreating to a mountain cave for endless naval gazing isn’t the answer, either. (And it isn’t feasible for most folks, even if it was.)
The second tip, in brief: let's all take a few breaths.
The basic idea here is to basically chill out a little before declaring some other person or group “evil” and deciding to go to war with them.
The Do-It-Yourself-Morality mentioned above might seem fun at first glance. But in practice, this often translates into folks creating flattering narratives where they are heroes and anyone who disagrees with them is evil.
With enough of that going on, it doesn’t take a genius to see where those dominoes will fall.
There seems to be a great deal of confusion, misunderstanding, and heightened emotion in the air these days. A great deal of this could be sorted out, under the right circumstances, in a win-win for everyone. But this would mean sorting things out with clarity, compassion and dialogue. Going to war (both figuratively and literally), when it’s based on stupidity and misunderstanding, is not just
The Death of God creates fertile ground for hucksters to manipulate the gullible and then profit from the conflict they create. The idea here, is to avoid that as much as possible.
The key antidote to that is fairly simple: good conversation.
Healthy dialogue, in a spirit of inquiry toward the truth.
A great deal of conflict between folks is unnecessary and simply based on misunderstanding or sloppy thinking. This is countered by clear thinking. Compassion, empathy, and a genuine spirit of truth-seeking can dispel a lot of confusion, and bypass a lot of unnecessary suffering.
But this won’t happen on its own.
If it’s going to happen, it’s up to each of us.
So this is what we’re doing about it.
We’re working on it.
("We" meaning your trusty, highly-caffeinated team of LiveReal Agents.)
There are huge challenges ahead, no doubt. This will be a bumpy ride. So keep all hands inside the vehicle at all times, strap in, and hold on to your butts.
But that said, we also think there’s real reason for optimism.
Our little website here – LiveReal.com – is part of our own small way of “working on it.”
It’s where we’re working on ourselves. And other folks are working on themselves.
(After all, we eat our own cooking. We keep saying that “know thyself” and basically figuring yourself out is a good thing to do, right? Well, we aren’t just mouthing off.)
A place that encourages open dialogue toward the goal of clarity, compassion, mutual understanding, and so on is a good chunk of what we’re working on here.
For example, some of the way forward involves really getting clear on what we even really mean when we even talk about “God.” (Who, or what, is “God,” anyway?) Dispelling some of the confusion surrounding just that little word can yield a surprising amount of insight. And relief from the tension of misunderstanding.
Some of this also involves understanding different worldviews. Much of our current conversation is either useless or downright harmful because we aren’t talking about the real issues. Our level of conversation is ten levels above the area that could actually make a difference.
And once we start talking about the real issues, figuring out the source of major misunderstandings – which part of the elephant we’re touching – can alleviate a huge amount of antagonism.
So, taming this existential bronco might make for a bit of a rough ride.
But if we really learn how to navigate this new landscape, well, our hunch is that our everyday experience could become richer, deeper, and more enjoyable than anything we might now imagine.
Maybe. Let’s find out.
We’ll keep working on it.