Godly awareness that something is missing
DEBATE about the existence of God is no longer frightening or violent in the West. Comparatively little is at stake, beyond waving team colours. Even in that avowedly religious place, the US, religion no longer saturates life or dictates behaviour in the way that, say, shopping does. Most people get on nicely enough without giving it a thought.
In previous centuries it had visceral significance: for the grounding of one’s sense of self, of existence and identity, and for the future of one’s immortal soul, the core of that self. When the possibility that God did not exist was murmured again, after Scholasticism had buried the atheist strands in Classical Greece, an abyss seemed to open up beneath the feet of the faithful. Scepticism was deeply shocking.
That possibility was confined at first to the few who dared to examine the ramifications of scientific breakthrough. Remember that as late as 1633 Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to recant his theory that the Earth revolved around the sun. In the late 18th century in Germany and Britain, accusations of atheism were enough to wreck an academic career.
Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith took centuries. Philosophical wrangling over the meaning of faith was conducted way over the heads of ordinary people, and it is only recently that they have begun to understand that what you see is probably all you get.
Most Westerners today would think of electricity and sound waves during a severe thunderstorm, thrilling though they find it, rather than a bearded being, like a man only bigger, hurling thunderbolts in a rage. The creaking of a dark house suggests the contraction of building materials after the heat of the day, not ghostly footsteps.
Mind you, many still feel unease: the idea of the supernatural lingers, so too the fear of intruders, stoked by endless crime reporting and horror films. As Terry Eagleton puts it in Culture and the Death of God: “Pieties and principles embedded in age-old forms of life are not to be uprooted by a few eloquent polemics.”
Eagleton writes with his usual lucidity and wit, tracing the history of atheism and the concomitant rise in religious fundamentalism. Peter Watson follows half that trajectory, ignoring the fundamentalism, in The Age of Nothing: How We Have Sought to Live since the Death of God.
While Watson advocates for an atheist worldview, in a far more gentlemanly style than most writers on the subject, Eagleton’s stance is more ambiguous and all the more fascinating for it. Both strive to define the religious longing that German philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls “the awareness of something missing”. Both start, as their titles suggest, with Nietzsche’s bold assertion.
Watson has written an attractive intellectual The Age of Nothing: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God By Peter Watson Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 612 pp, $59.99 (HB) Culture and the Death of God By Terry Eagleton Yale University Press, 248pp, $34.95 (HB) history, which even a religious believer, though perhaps not a rabid one, will find interesting. A journalist as well as an academic, he has a happy knack for translating difficult concepts into everyday English without dumbing them down.
He begins with Nietzsche’s excoriation of religious belief, and particularly Judeo-Christian belief, which he believed reduces the inherent nobility of human beings to servile obedience. Watson offers art as a consolation prize for the loss of God, working his way through modernism, via Mallarme and Rilke, Picasso and Woolf, as well as the work of key post-Nietzschean philosophers. His thesis is that a civilisation that has explored and named and grappled to understand every aspect the world, even at the price of reducing it to atoms and mechanical causes and the blandness of banality, is a far richer civilisation than those with a poorer cultural vocabulary constrained by religious prohibition.
He concludes optimistically. One could have quoted Arnold further, arriving at his gloomy conclusion, after surveying the state of the world: “And we are here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Watson’s conclusion, however, is a brief meditation on Wordsworth’s words: “We will grieve not, rather find/Strength is what remains behind”. After dwelling on what we have lost and exploring what great minds have made of that, Watson ends with a fascinating eye to the future, wondering with an edge of expectancy how the great tradition of Western thought will
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche; the face of God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, right