February 11, 2009

Is "God is Dead" Dead?

author_brad By Bradley Wright

In 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche declared that “God is Dead.” With this statement, he didn’t mean that God has suffered a physical death of some sort, like slipping on an icy planet or something, but rather that humans had lost their ability to believe in God, and as such religions, like Christianity, had lost their moral basis and would not last long. Nietzsche wasn’t the first or last person to predict the decline of organized religion. Among the other predictions:

  • In 1710, English thinker Thomas Woolston said Christianity would be gone by 1900
  • Voltaire said in religion would crumble in 50 years
  • Thomas Jefferson said in 1822 that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian” clip_image002
  • Famous dead-white-guys Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Sigmund Freud each predicted that religion soon crumble
  • Renowned sociologist Peter Berger wrote in 1968 that in “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”

Secularization is the idea that societies are transforming from the sacred to the secular, from religious beliefs to rational, scientific principles. As the quotations above suggest, secularization has been expected for hundreds of years by some very smart people, but contemporary evidence suggests that they were wrong.

Religion is perhaps as strong as ever. A simple ride down the road will usually turn up local church buildings, often full on Sundays. Worldwide, Christianity has about 2 billion adherents, Islam 1.2 billion, Hinduism 800,000 million, and Buddhism 350,000. Over two-thirds of all humans adhere to one of these four religions alone.

Here in the United States studies find strong evidence of continued religiosity. Around 85% -90% of Americans believe in a God, and over three-fourths affiliate with a religion. An interesting chart presented by Iannaccone graphs out the number of paid clergy in the United States since 1850. As you can see, it’s remained level and has slightly increased in recent decades.clip_image004

Certainly some societies have transitioned from religious to secular-based forms of government. In the early 1990s, Turkey, for example, adopted an explicitly secular form of government. In contrast, other countries have made the reverse transition. Iran in 1979 went from the more secular Shah-led government to a government based on religious fundamentalism. A number of the Iron Curtain countries have seen a resurgence of faith with the fall of Communism and its insistence of secularism.

This isn’t to say, however, that secularization has not occurred in any way. It’s reasonable to believe that the church has less formal authority in many countries than it did in past centuries. Also, the way in which religion is practiced is changing around the world. For example, here in the United States religion is often experienced as a private, spiritual endeavor rather than a participation in an authoritative social institution. In an effort to be more effective, many churches are adopting business models of organization and presentation to society, moving them toward a more secular appearance. Some religious groups, such as the Salvation Army and the YMCA have transitioned almost completely into secular groups.

However, religion hasn’t gone anywhere, and it probably won’t be gone anytime soon. In fact, the failure of past predictions of complete secularization highlight the continued significance of religion in modern day society.


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Interesting post. I would say though, that the reason religion is still drawing folks in is because there are not attractive enough alternative insitutions--and namely alternative institutions that both provide authentic community and some sense of meaning to life.

I would like to suggest that the concept of "ethical culture," or something like it, has the potential to do just that. The American Ethical Union is the umbrella entity for ethical culture (www.aeu.org), but there are numerous communities, quite similar to religious communities in design, throughout the US. The idea is simple, to gather folks together each week to hear a sermonesque talk on an ethical topic (anything from the internal, like grief, to the external, like immigration issues or nonviolence); community then forms around that ethical core.

Thus the two characeteristics of an alternative institution, as I defined them above, are present: community and a sense of meaning. The question is obvious, why doesn't anyone really know about these groups? The idea has been around for over 100 years, starting with a guy named Felix Adler in the 1870s, but it simply doesn't seem to have taken off to the extent possible--I think that could change, with innovation, marketing, outreach, etc.

Whether we should have alternative institutions such as these is of course another question altogether. I think we should--not necessarily to supplant religious institutions, but to offer alternatives. I say this as a 27-year old former fundamentalist Christian, with an intimate knowledge of that world and the problems inherent in it; it would take too long to go into the problems I see with that world, but I believe there are many. However, I would say that the Christian communities I was a part of did attempt to meet those core human needs for community and meaning, giving me a taste of the import of those concepts.

To bring this too-long comment to a close though, I would say that the main reasons I would advocate for the spread of something like ethical culture are:

1. It celebrates, explores, and builds up our commonalities, across cultures and religions, at a time when our global commonalities could not be more important to understand and commune around.

2. American culture, both the young adults (or "emerging adults" as some are rightly calling my age group) and others, are showing how focusing on the individual is insufficient (because American culture does that so much, the imbalance of the approach has had time to show through in anything from crime levels to suicide rates to broken relationships); similarly, the attempt to weigh one's decisions and take ethically-motivated steps seems all-too rare.

3. We could find much solace and balance in focusing more on community and meaning though; religious institutions simply are showing themselves to be unable to meet those needs in total. I think this is mainly the case because many are not sure if they believe in a god, and the intellectual work they need to do to decide on that and in turn a religion is too great--much more than needed to simply decide they want to live ethically and with some healthy level of community.

Apologies for the length, I didn't intend to write quite so much, but felt my points represent a valid counterbalance to those made in the post (though I definitely appreciate where the author is coming from).

But didn't Berger, recant some of the previous statements he made in "The Sacred Canopy" when he wrote the paper "Secularism in retreat" in 1996?

Interesting post, will make many believers feel optimistic. I think that people continue to believe in God because of a desire to find meaning in life. People also want to see death as something positive as well. Religion gives that, promising a pleasant after-life for those who believe and live righteously. These hopes continue to live in the 21st Century, and this post brings them to light.

I think there's one detail to correct: Turkey has adopted laicism as a constitutional principle in 1937.

I think there's one detail to correct: Turkey adopted laicism as a constitutional principle in 1937.

I believe religion will always effect the world. I think believers of God or any other high formal being need something to explain the things that we can't. God is something to believe in and find hope. I think it helps people from becoming deviant and the belief is rooted in our traditions. There will always be people fallowing God, but the numbers might fluctuate. In times of disasters people go to God to find answers. The belief of God helps people emotionally, and mentally in times of need.

I think that what Nietzsche meant can still be true, and not in the sense that there is more secularity than before. “God is Dead” because we killed him. You see so much belief in religions such as Christianity that God cannot possibly be dead with the empirical evidence; that so many people still believe in God and he is alive.

I think we are to have killed him from our natural way of learning. Since this statement was never confined just to Christianity, but more broadly to religion and other such spirituality, finding truth and learning about the universe is what really killed God. Nietzsche also said that, “God is Dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.” In a way, the believers in religion shown through your empirical evidence are following the shadow, or memory of the religion before it was killed. Science is the best example of all this I can think of at the moment. When you listen to a scientist explain the world, so many things are explainable scientifically, without the need for religion. We have found and discovered things that previously only religion could explain. But still to this date, not all is explainable by science. That which is not explainable is one reason people go to religion. But it doesn’t really give an explanation, does it? It fills the hole that science has not yet filled so people do not have void.

But religion is not only followed for answers to our unsolved questions. Religion can inspire and motivate people with faith or other virtues, but we can find these things elsewhere, as Nietzsche might say, in ourselves. He doesn’t mean religion will vanish like you are hinting at; that Christianity or religion will simply not be believed anymore and because “God is dead” and so the world will be secular. He means nothing can be taken from religion, nothing gained that we cannot already give or find ourselves. In this way religion is dead, it can only give us what we can give ourselves; we can and have found these things in ourselves, thus we have killed God/religion. Your expecting to see empirical evidence for the death of God reflected in the followers or absence of followers of His religion and other religions, but that’s not what the statement “God is dead” means at all. Religion, or if “God is dead”, the “shadow” of religion, is giving hope, faith, love, etc. to people who haven’t been able to find that in themselves without religion. They are following the shadow like they truly need it, like it truly gives them something nothing else can. But we don’t need religion to give us these things such as love, faith, hope, etc. because we as people have discovered them in ourselves without the necessity of religion/God. This is why “God is dead.”

I believe that the reason people are not switching to a rational state of mind is because most people are afraid and ignorant. Religion gives people an answer to something no one knows and they find comfort in religion because it gives them something to live for. Religious people are slaves to the doctrine of their choice and are blinded by their ignorance and fear of change.

I think people believe in God because people need something to believe in, something to give meaning for life. God and Christianity provides a answer to any question, and something to believe in, to get you through the day. Although, some people tend to lose faith after they feel as though "God let them down" or have unanswered questions/ For example, after losing a love one the grieving possess often includes sadness, anger due to unanswered questions, loss of faith and so on. People look to god for answers and to have their prayers answered, and once they feel God has taken their loved one or left them in sadness with unanswered questions, Believers tend to stop believing.I feel as though God will never be dead, there will always be believers.

God will never be dead have you looked lately at the evangelists show on tv, the fanaticism that has created wars and friendships, the growing number of mix deno,inations of religions being married , God is Alive and well

Just because 1 billion people believe in something (so-me-thing) doesn't make it true. Religion is a delusion albeit the biggest one of its kind. It has spread a load of perversion and bloodshed although some good has also come out of it. By overcontrolling natural impulses and destroying freedom of expression religion has harmed life in a way that God would never want. It is an orthodox entity that ought to be abolished for the sake of science and mankind in general. If someone wants to pray let him but if he wants to prey than he is responsible for his actions. He can count me out.

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