YOUR GOD IS DEAD BUT MINE STILL LIVES:
A Nietzschian Analysis on the Rise and Fall of New Religions
In the latter part of the 19th century when Nietzsche proclaimed that "God is Dead," he believed that future generations would suffer immeasurably from God's premature funeral. Why? Because without such a God (without such an Ultimate Meaning or Concern) humans would have to stare reality in the face and discover that there was no purpose ultimately to human existence. Humans are the expendable result of blind evolutionary processes and, as such, have no ontological status in the grand scheme of things. As Nietzsche argued, without God we are left with nihilism, which is another way of saying without Ultimate Meaning we are left with no meaning at all. Hence, when humans kill their belief in God they must then turn to their own inner selves and, in so doing, discover that there is no truly objective truth by which to govern their lives. We become wanderers, a lost species. Yet, though Nietszche was prophetic for his time (God has died, more or less, in the secular world), he did not realize how resilient a belief in God can be.
Nietzsche on the Death of God
(found in Philip Novak's The Vision of Nietzsche, p. 58)
We have killed him--you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how could we have done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the time?…Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition?--gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murders of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed had bled to death under our knives--who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we be purified? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed--and whoever shall be born after us, for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history that all history hitherto…
Yes, the God of the Medieval times died. We now live in a hyper scientific age and it is difficult for us to believe as our ancestors before us did. But as Mircea Eliade so rightly pointed out, religious feeling (the sense of the numinous) is not a stage in human development but an integral "element" of one's very psycho-physical make-up. Even if we kill one God, another will rise up to replace him or her. We are religious beings to the core, even in our strident atheism.
Nietzsche on the Religiosity of the Human Spirit
(found The Vision of Nietzsche, p. 56)
How strong the metaphysical need is, and how hard nature makes it to bid it a final farewell…If he becomes aware of being in this condition he feels a profound stab in the heart and signs for the man who will lead him back to his lost love, whether she be called religion or metaphysics. It is in such moments that his intellectual probity is put to the test.
Hence, Nietzsche's prophecy is not about killing our spiritual sensibilities (those are forever with us, barring some future DNA tinkering), but rather about the decay of a certain cultural icon, the uplifted totem of our Western society. And, according to Nietzsche, we as a society were not ready for it. We were pretending to be adult and mature scientists when, in point of fact, we were merely schoolchildren playing too early with our chemistry sets. We were not ready for the explosion; we were not ready for the Nietzschian existential hammer. We were not ready, in sum, to kill meaning and face the consequences.
Nietzsche on Nihilism
(found in The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufmann, p. 14)
Nihilism represents a pathological transitional stage (what is pathological is the tremendous generalization, the inference that there is no meaning at all)…that there is no truth, that there is no absolute nature of things… The most extreme form of nihilism would be the view that every belief, every considering-something-true, is necessarily false because there is simply no true world...
But, ironically, Nietzsche was wrong about God's death. Indeed, we killed a certain form of God (the mythic and naïve belief we carried over from primitive times), but we did not (perhaps cannot) kill God. God resurrects. God does not die, per se, but only certain versions of him/her/it do.
Nietzsche on Science and Metaphysics
(found in The Vision of Nietzsche, p. 56)
Rigorous science is in fact able to detach us from this ideational world [metaphysical] only to a slight extent…but it can gradually and step by step illuminate the history of this world as idea arose--and raise us above the whole think at least for moments at a time. Perhaps we then recognize that the thing-in-itself [the originator of the world] is worthy of Homeric laughter: it appeared to be so much, indeed everything, and is actually empty, that is to say empty of meaning.
Thus, the history of religion is not about God's fast retreat from the day to day affairs of the world in the wake of human's continual progress, but rather about how varying versions of God arise and decay over time. Likewise, religion does not die out when humans progress scientifically. Instead, it modifies itself to the new cultural milieu. Why? Because religion is not an outside force penetrating into the heart of humans, but instead part of parcel of the neurological history of humans and thus is intimately connected with one's own psychological projections. So, to destroy religion, we would have to destroy who we are. Therefore, God persists (in various manifestations) and religion persists (despite persecutions to the contrary), since they arise, according to Dennett, Dawkins, Blackmore, Crick and others, from our biological heritage. The real question, then, is not about why humans are religious, but how human's spiritual yearning projects differently over historical time and geographical space.
A classic example to illustrate the resilience of religion and its evolutionary nature occurred in the Catholic Church. In the 15th century, most of the Roman Catholic Church still believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Those who thought otherwise were severely reprimanded, or put in jail, or tortured, or, worst yet, executed. At this time, devout Christians felt that their sacred book, the Bible, indicated that the earth was the center of the universe. If astronomers, like Galileo and Copernicus, showed evidence to the contrary it would mean that the Bible was wrong. And, if the Bible was wrong, it would mean that God was wrong. And if God was wrong…well, he was no longer God. Such a thought was impossible in light of the Church's strident orthodoxy. Hence, to question the Bible's astronomical version of cosmology was akin to questioning God's Supreme Authority and Knowledge. It is little wonder, therefore, that the scientist Bruno burned at the stake. Better for a false believer to die than to have millions of faithful have their belief in God shattered. Five centuries later, however, Pope John-Paul II essentially apologized for the Church's blunder and its maltreatment of intellectual pioneers (this same pope acknowledged the irrefutable evidence of evolution).
Nietzsche on the Failure of Progress
(found in The Will to Power, p. 55)
Let us not be deceived! Time marches forward; we'd like to believe that everything that is in it also marches forward--that the development is one that moves forward. The most level-headed are led astray by this illusion. But the nineteenth century does not represent progress over the sixteenth; and the German spirit of 1888 represents a regress from the German spirit of 1788. "Mankind" does not advance, it does not even exist. The overall aspect is that of a tremendous experimental laboratory in which a few successes are scored, scattered throughout all ages, while there are untold failures, and all order, logic, union, and obligingness are lacking. How can we fail to recognize that the ascent of Christianity is a movement of decadence?--That the German Reformation is a recrudescence of Christian barbarism?--That the Revolution [French] destroyed the instinct for a grand organization of society? Man represents no progress over the animal…
Yet, even though Copernicus and Galileo eventually won and even though the Roman Catholic Church conceded to science that the world does indeed revolve around the sun, the belief in a Catholic God did not diminish considerably. Why not? Because the Church eventually "adapted" its version of God to harmonize with science's latest discoveries. In more precise terminology, the Catholic Church's idea of God "evolved." And it evolved precisely because it was confronted with a new environment (opened up by the telescope and new mathematical predictions) which would cause its extinction if it did not (or would not) change. The telescope (the extension of the empirical eye) was too convincing to ignore. Thus, if Catholicism dismissed the findings of astronomers (which it first tried to do), it would also have to disenfranchise a growing segment of its membership.
Despite the fact that the Catholic Church allowed its concept of God to slowly evolve, it nevertheless disconnected itself from growing schisms in its ranks, both from the liberal and conservative wings. Where did such members now turn, if not towards the Catholic Church? New religions, even if those new religions were merely genealogical extensions or offshoots from more mainstream faiths. Hence, it is not surprising to see the Protest Movement turning both liberal and conservative--liberal in the direction of science and its deists and conservative in the direction of biblical fundamentalism and its unimpeachable authority. Both responses led to new movements, new faiths, new interpretations.
Hence, God's evolution is the impetus behind the evolution of new religions which attempt to cope with any church's attempt to integrate (or denigrate) its faith with humankind's new or old discoveries of the world around them. This is what Nietzsche meant when he said that we have killed God (the Judaic-Christian version) prematurely in the latter part of the 19th century. At God's funeral, there will be a banquet where other vying gods will compete for the newly widowed followers. But Nietzsche felt that only the God of Nihilism would be the winner. How could humans muster up the strength (or the naivete) to believe in anything else? Yet, Nietzsche was only partially correct (nihilism vis-a -vis existentialism vis-a-vis postmodernism certainly does have its assemblage), since even dead Gods can resurrect in newly disguised forms, some of which are better adapted to the mode of the time.
Nietzsche on the Difficulty of Giving Up the
Notion of God and Meaning
(found in The Will to Power, pp. 16-17)
The nihilistic question "for what?" is rooted in the old habit of supposing that the goal must be put up, given, demanded from outside--by some superhuman authority. Having unlearned faith in that, one still follows the old habit and seeks another authority that can speak unconditionally and command goals and tasks. The authority of conscience now steps up front (the more emancipated one is from theology, the more imperativistic morality becomes) to compensate for the loss of a personal authority. Or the authority of reason. Or the social instinct (the herd). Or history with an immanent spirit and a goal within, so one can entrust oneself to it…One wants to rid oneself of the responsibility (one would accept fatalism)…
Thus, cultural decay leads to new cults. Look at the etymology of the word "culture." Its root is "cultus." Culture is another way of saying "established cult" or an established way of thinking, living, and being. Any time a culture is severely questioned (usually epitomized by a questioning of its most cherished "gods" or "values") by a significant portion of its population it leads to new "cults" of thought. Culture does not so much disappear as change. Religions do not decay so much as evolve.
God's decay, then, does not lead to his or her demise but to the opposite: his or her resurrection in a new version or form. Nietzsche realized that Europe's God was on its Death March and in its steps a much more terrifying god would emerge: that of nihilism, no meaning, no purpose. Such a god did arise and walk, but so did countless others which contravened existentialism. Such cults are society's responses to change. The death of one religion leads to the birth of a new one, even if that offspring arises within the midst of its parent. From Judaism we get Catholicism. From Catholicism we get Lutheranism. From Hinduism we get Buddhism. From Buddhism we get Zen. From Sant Mat we get Radhasoami. From Radhasoami we get Eckankar. And so on. Each emerging, then denying, then branching separately away from the parental offspring. The God of an earth centered cosmology dies only to reappear as a bigger god of a sun centered cosmology, only to die again and reemerge as the progenitor of the Big Bang and Multiple Universes. God's adaptations are innumerable because human's desire for ultimate meaning is, given the present state, insatiable.
But why do some religions become more popular than others? Why do some new cults fulfill the needs of a larger segment of the population, where other religions struggle and die out? To answer that question in the next chapter we need to turn from Nietzsche (who explained to us why and how gods and religions decay and arise) to the memetic theory of cultural evolution, particularly as it is presented by Susan Blackmore.