Why We're Living Through “The Death of God” (and What That Even Means)
article by LiveReal Agent Thomas
Maybe you’ve heard about it:
“The mother of all problems.”
That’s how one guy described it. Another was a bit more subtle: “the greatest event in recent times.”
What are they describing?
“The Death of God.”
(Or as Nietzsche said it, with his graceful sledgehammer: “God is dead.”)
But what does that mean?
Are we living through “The Death of God,” right now?
There seems to be a lot of confusion about this.
Example: “God is dead” doesn’t mean some Almighty Bearded Dude in the sky had a heart attack and is taking a dirt nap.
It also isn’t saying that “atheism is true.” (To name just two misconceptions.)
It’s not even really about theology or metaphysics.
It’s about us.
So let’s back up and start at the beginning, with stuff we can probably agree on.
The world has seemed a little...off lately.
(OK, that might be putting it mildly.)
Is it just me? Have you felt it?
The world seems a bit out of joint.
Do people seem a little crazier than usual? Does it seem like the world is, even in a small way, coming apart? That something really big is somehow…wrong, in some secret, hidden way, under the surface?
Does it seem like folks can’t play together well anymore, or even agree on the rules of the game? Like everyone is outraged and at each others’ throats for a million different reasons, without being able to agree on the reasons? Despite material improvements, nifty new gadgets and billions of Tweets… something essential has gone missing at the center, leaving only an empty hole? In some vague, unseen, mysterious way, something – something major – has veered off course, but we aren’t sure exactly what?
If any of this rings true to you…here’s one possible explanation:
“God is dead.”
And we’re just starting to realize it.
“The Death of God”: What Nietzsche actually meant
First, let’s clarify what it doesn’t mean.
- It doesn’t mean that some Celestial Santa in the sky choked on a hot dog and bought the farm.
- It doesn’t mean that “all religion is wrong.”
- It isn’t something only atheists claim. (Some theologians, clergy, and people of faith agree that “The Death of God” is real, and happening.)
So then, what does it mean?
Here’s my take.
“God is dead” means that the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of “God” no longer takes center stage in our lives the way it once did.
When folks are brutally honest, some of them will admit that The Almighty has become more of an afterthought. A hobby. Somebody to name-drop when you want to virtue-signal.
“God” is no longer the Super Bowl. Or the halftime show, or even the commercials. He’s become the out-of-touch old grandpa that you try to remember to invite over to watch the game, and say “thanks” to every so often out of politeness.
That out-of-touch grandpa used to be the life of the party, the big cheese, the Celestial Celebrity amidst us mere gawkers. But now, if he gets invited at all, he gets the creaky old metal chair in the back corner where he gets propped up like Weekend at Bernie’s.
Science, meanwhile, is the flashy young thing in the front row, making everybody laugh and downing all the nachos.
The idea of God just no longer plays the authoritative, all-encompassing, commanding role in defining our lives the way it once did. A “creeping secularism” or a transfer in authority to science: whatever you call it, there’s been a shift.
Nietzsche’s words didn’t cause a change in the origin and ground of the universe.
The shift has been in us.
Our ideas have shifted.
And we live based on ideas.
You can read this right now because we share common ideas.
For example, the idea of “words.” And “grammar.” And that “this topic is interesting.”
Usually, these are taken for granted. (We didn’t have to argue about whether or not to use grammar, for example.) There’s a prior understanding. That makes things efficient.
When these common ideas don’t exist, we spend a lot of time arguing about the rules of football, for example, instead of playing football.
And when ideas break down, it causes other things to break.
If we stop agreeing about basic rules of grammar, for example, a have communicating hard we’ll time.
(See what I did there?)
Some ideas aren’t abstract bull-session fodder, but the core basis of how we think, understand, and act.
And here’s where things get hairy.
Core idea breakdowns can cause chain reactions, like dominos.
Example: for some, The Death of God might transform the universe from a profound, meaningful, holy dimension of wonder and awe to a flat, empty, pointless, mechanical, absurd by-product of accidents and mistakes.
Stuff like this might play a tiny role in – for example – depression, anxiety, stress, angst, ennui, addiction, suicide, and more. (Radical idea, I know.)
And that’s only on the individual level.
When this kicks in on a bigger scale, entire cultures shift.
After all, ideas hold a society together.
Every functioning society operates with a certain set of ideas.
These ideas serve as the glue that holds it together. People know how to act. We know how we’re supposed to treat each other (even if we sometimes fail.) We set up rules of the game, and play by them.
Call this web of ideas a “mythos” in the Joseph Campbell sense: a common story we all agree on and try to live by.
A good mythos answers fundamental questions: Who am I? How should I live? What should I live for? Etc. It translates the raw material of life into something that makes sense, like an operating system that converts machine language into human language. It creates order from apparent chaos.
And when the myths at a center of a culture disintegrate, the culture disintegrates.
And when a culture disintegrates, we all start living in different worlds.
And the implications of that can be huge.
But wait: is this really what’s happening?
A good theory should be testable, falsifiable, confirmable with evidence.
In this sense, “God is Dead” doesn’t seem like a great theory. It’s not like we can call a doctor and check the Celestial Pulse.
But then again, things hidden deep below the surface can bubble up in ways that are surprisingly tangible.
A thousand seemingly unrelated problems sometimes trace back to one single cause.
Maybe there actually aren’t a thousand different problems. There’s just one gigantic problem that’s showing up in a thousand different ways.
To butcher Joe Campbell, a “Problem With a Thousand Faces.”
Maybe there’s been a colossal, system-wide, tectonic shift in our inner landscape. Maybe it’s been so slow-moving and subtle that it’s been invisible to the naked eye. But it’s radically changed the ground we’re all standing on. And despite the enormity of it, it’s been mostly undetected.
Is this the case?
Let’s look at some evidence.
(After all, since scientists are the new priests (a symptom of the condition I'm trying to describe), our little exploration here wouldn’t be complete without quoting some modern scripture.))
Evidence for “The Death of God” in pictures
(Disclaimer: We’re painting with a broad brush here, and we aren’t trying to draw a simplistic, 1:1 causative path. (Eg, technology, events, etc also affects big chunks of the below.) That said, we’re connecting some big dots here. Every individual point could be haggled to death, but enough lines moving in the same direction can at least start some conversations.)
(To be clear: none of this is meant to imply that everything used to be perfect, and now everything’s terrible, and only getting worse.)
(And of course, all this can be haggled about endlessly. Ultimately, it’s trying to point to something that can’t be quantified. )
(But it’s a start.)
OK, so maybe something’s happening.
Things are weird now.
And if we’re even partly on the right track, things are probably going to get weirder.
But who knows? Things might get better.
Maybe it really depends on what we do now.
“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
OK, so where do we go from here?
What can we do?
Is there a way to “fix” The Death of God?
Ummm...Sounds a tad...ambitious?
Sure. But if something feels off with the world, deep down, well...we have no choice but to try to remedy that, however we can.
Let’s look into it, at least.
Let’s assume for now that getting glue back in the tube (meaning, the glue that holds society together) would be a good thing. Let’s assume that some things are more fun than constant friction and relentless outrage. That actually playing football is more fun than arguing about the rules of football.
What’s a good way forward for all of us?
Different folks have proposed “answers”:
- Some say “good riddance.” Religion is a bygone superstition, an illusion that’s now disappearing. Now, Science is The Way.
- Some say that God is alive and well, thank you very much, and all this talk about God’s death is hogwash and puffery. The answer is to rewind the clock and get back to that old-time religion.
- Some say just retreat behind castle moats and walls, save yourself, and let everyone else descend into Lord of the Flies.
- Others propose “living ironically” (“as if” God is still center stage, even if we don’t really believe it.)
- Others propose approaches relatively new to Western culture (Buddhism, Hinduism, New-Age shamanism, etc).
Those are just a few.
So, which is right?
That’s a tough one.
Let’s see…Death. Of. God.
D. O. G.
Maybe a dog knows The Answer.
OK, now we’re just being silly.
Maybe Toto was on to something.
At a crucial moment in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, Toto and the gang discover that (spoiler alert) the big, booming voice and floating head that they thought was the Wizard…wasn’t.
Toto pulled the curtain back and revealed that…well, things weren’t what they seemed.
Maybe that’s the exact moment in history we’re living now.
Dorothy and the gang, of course, soon got to know the friendly old codger behind the curtain.
The “Wizard” wasn’t completely an illusion. He did exist. He just wasn’t what everyone thought he was.
Maybe right now, we’re stuck in those uncomfortable, awkward, chaotic moments just after pulling the curtain back. And we haven’t gotten to know the friendly old codger yet.
Maybe The Way forward isn’t going to be found in politics or snazzy new gadgets or magic pills or unlimited movies.
Maybe each of us has to find that curtain.
Can we re-enchant the world?
If the world seems out of joint, like it’s coming apart, and everyone seems crazier than usual, and something really big is somehow wrong, in some secret, hidden way, under the surface…
Well, maybe it is.
But maybe now – if any of this is even partly on track – we’re at least working on the right problem. Now we know the real problem isn’t really politics, or more money, or newer cell phones.
It’s what Nietzsche was trying to warn us about.
And maybe we even have a few very rough, very early sketches of a possible answer.
Imagine using every tool at our disposal – science, and faith, and doubt, and reason, and intuition, and experimentation, and the kitchen sink and a machete and The Force and anything else we might be able to use, like detectives in hot pursuit of cracking a case.
And imagine that case can be cracked.
Imagine there’s a friendly old codger, standing behind a curtain somewhere, waiting for you to discover him.
Pull that curtain.