Why We're Living Through “The Death of God” (and What That Even Means)
article by LiveReal Agent Thomas
It’s been called “The mother of all problems.”
Folks describe it in different ways. “The Great Forgetting.” “The Great Scattering.” “The greatest event in recent times” (“greatest” as in most significant, not as in “really good.”)
Some call it a “catastrophe” (although, strangely, it’s been an invisible one.)
Walter Truett Anderson said this: “We do not comprehend what a stunning – and yet still incomplete – upheaval of thought has occurred in the recent historical past.”
What the heck are they all talking about?
Let’s call it “The Death of God.”
This all traces back to Nietzsche, who said, with his graceful sledgehammer: “God is dead.”
But what does that mean?
Are we living through “The Death of God,” right now?
“…if it is true,
we are all already in a state so disastrous
that there are no large remedies for it.”
- Alasdair MacIntyre
There seems to be a lot of confusion about this.
For example: “God is dead” doesn’t mean some Almighty Bearded Guy in the sky had a heart attack and is taking a dirt nap.
It also isn’t saying that “atheism is true.”
It’s not even really about theology or metaphysics or what might seem like other lofty abstractions. It’s about us.
And it's actually incredibly tangible, in many different ways.
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?
Let’s assume for now that getting glue back in the tube (meaning, the glue that holds society together), would be a good thing.
This means assuming that some things are more fun than constant friction and relentless outrage. That playing football is more fun than arguing about the rules of football.
So, how can we approach this?
Different folks have proposed “answers.”
For now, let’s paint with a broad brush and divide them into two major camps.
One group says “keep moving forward.” When it comes to “God,” they say, to some degree, “good riddance.” They see religion largely as a bygone, premodern superstition, an illusion that’s now disappearing, and we’re all better off for it. We’re evolving. It’s all about Progress, so we just need to keep Progressing.
Another group says “we need to go back.” They say we’ve wandered off course, and the more we wander, the more lost we’ll get. Maybe things weren’t perfect “back then,” but they were better, in some very significant ways, than they are now. God is alive and well, thank you very much, and if we need to retreat behind castle moats and walls while everyone else descends into Lord of the Flies, so be it.
These are generalizations, of course. But this isn’t a time for nuance.
The two sides actually seem to agree on a great deal, although they’re often arguing too much to realize it. Both agree, for example, that the history of religion isn’t flawless. Both agree that seeking truth is a good thing, and people are often flawed. There’s plenty to agree on, although this doesn’t make for conflict, therefore drama, therefore revenue, therefore airtime.
So, what’s our “answer” to all this?
Well, easy answers to complicated problems aren’t really what we do here.
But we do try to move the ball down the field.
There are big questions at play in all this. Is humanity moving forward, or backward? Are we evolving toward some greater happiness, or devolving toward some lower state of misery?
Although we aren’t going to offer any pat answers at this point, one thing we can say is that there’s a great deal of misunderstanding in all this. Sloppy communication seems to be the norm. If we’d have all the straw men leave the room – all the dumb things everyone imagines the other guy believes – which the other guy actually doesn’t believe – then it seems that a huge chunk of the room would clear out.
If we clear out the sloppy communication, ideally we’re left with a few genuine, often legitimate disagreements.
The tension between these two sides is based on those disagreements.
But one way to resolve that tension, it seems, is to take a commonsense approach that will graduate up to a more complex state of affairs.
Which means, neither blindly rewinding the clock nor blindly blundering forward. It would mean sifting out the good and valid from both sides – the good in the past and what’s happened since then – and keeping those parts. And sifting out the bad from both sides – in the past and what’s happened since then – and lose those parts. It would mean keeping the best of both, losing the worst of both, and finding the solution that resolves the tension between the two.
Because there is a resolution to that tension.
Of course, this probably all sounds incredibly naïve, abstract, and hopelessly impractical.
Granted, it was never supposed to be easy.
Let’s get a little more concrete here. For example:
Everyone is a philosopher. We would all do well to become better philosophers.
And part of becoming a good philosopher means figuring out your worldview.
And whether we’re aiming for happiness or antifragile happiness or wanting to avoid bad ("doomed")approaches to happiness or just have a “life without regrets” or really live instead of merely existing just some way to relieve some suffering, well, investigating this can raise a lot of messy questions.
Yes, The Big Questions are messy. But dodging that mess leads to either the kind of Soft Nihilism that’s so popular nowadays, or the stronger medicine of outright meaninglessness that’s giving the soft kind a run for its money. It’s the stuff existential crisis are made of.
But central to all this is a fresh look at some basic questions. The Big Questions, in fact. After all, what is "God," anyway? And “love”? Who am I? Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What is the meaning of life? What the heck is going on, anyway?
Some of this leads us to the need for an approach for a “No-Nonsense Spirituality” that includes science, that satisfies both our heads and hearts, and avoids both extremes of both hard atheism on the one side and hard fundamentalism on the other. It’s something that speaks to something deep in us, and calls out the best in us.
This could include an approach of Spirituality for Skeptics for folks who are tough-minded scientific-like thinkers, but who aren’t necessarily comfortable with fundamentalist atheism. And in fact, there’s a Scientific Approach to Spirituality that approaches the matter via this exact approach. (It offers practical experiments, for example, so you can gather data and examine results.) All of which is practical, direct, and first-hand – or in other words, it involves at least some degree of experiential spirituality.
And as a common theme throughout all of this: we have to know ourselves. Because if we fool ourselves, it doesn’t matter what any of the rest of it is; we’ll make a mess of it.
Maybe there’s a chance that there was some “Wizard of Oz” going on.
Maybe some of our ideas about the “Great and Powerful Oz” turned out to be at least partially off or incomplete in some cases, if even on a personal level.
Which is to say, maybe some of our ideas about God, at least in some cases, were mistaken.
Which can be understandable. After all, we’re supposed to be talking about something infinitely beyond anything we can even imagine. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we might not have nailed the whole matter perfectly just yet.
But then – if the big floating head of “Oz the Great and Powerful” turns out to be the workings of some funny old codger behind the curtain – maybe that codger behind the curtain knows a few things. And maybe we can still have a chat with him, and get our courage, and smarts, and heart, and find our way home.
Those are just some rough sketches for now.
It’s not an easy answer that you can bottle up and sell in a pill for thirty bucks.
But it’s a start.
So, fasten your seat belt, Dorothy. Because Kansas is going even more bye-bye.
But on the other hand: we at least know what we’re up against now. And we have some options for what fresh new open roads that might be ahead of us.
So, is this new Oz we’re headed to going to be happier, and kinder, and more loving, and more fun, and peaceful, and full of life?
Or, is it heading somewhere rougher? With more confusion, friction, and overall unpleasantness?
Well, maybe it’s up to us.
Maybe we get to choose.
Let’s choose wisely.
After all: what if there actually is some funny old codger behind a curtain?
Well, maybe we could go see for ourselves.
Let’s pull that curtain.