Where Has God Gone?

By Armstrong, Karen | Newsweek International, July 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

Where Has God Gone?


Armstrong, Karen, Newsweek International


The search for the transcendent endures; Europeans now try to find God in drugs, football and videogames.

In 1882, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, prophet of the post-Christian world, proclaimed that God was dead. Nietzsche imagined a madman running into the marketplace, looking frantically for God. When the amused bystanders asked where he thought God had gone--had he taken a vacation, perhaps, or emigrated?--the madman glowered at them. "Where has God gone?" he demanded. "We have killed him, you and I. We are his murderers!" As a result, humanity had lost its basic orientation. "Do we not stray," the madman asked in despair, "as though through an infinite nothingness?"

In one sense, the 20th century has proved Nietzsche wrong. Since the 1970s, religion has once again become a factor in public life in a way that would have once seemed inconceivable. The Iranian revolution was succeeded by an eruption of Islamic revivalist movements in the Middle East. At about the same time, the Moral Majority and the new Christian right tried to bring God back into political life in the United States, while ultra-Orthodox Jews and radical religious Zionists have done the same in Israel. Now no government can safely ignore religion. The assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt and of Yitzhak Rabin in Israel are sober reminders of the lethal danger of some forms of modern faith.

But it is also true that fundamentalism has endorsed Nietzsche's prophecy. Fundamentalism can be seen as a desperate attempt to resuscitate God. Fundamentalists certainly believe that modern society has tried to kill God. Every single radical religious movement that I have studied has been inspired by a profound fear of annihilation. Rightly or wrongly, fundamentalists in all three of the Abrahamic faiths are convinced that the secularist establishment wants to wipe them out; and they have decided to fight back.

In Europe, however, fundamentalism has been insignificant. True, the more evangelical churches are doing better than others, but the overall trend seems to be against conventional religion. Churches are being converted into restaurants, theaters and art galleries. Europeans appear to have taken the news of God's death with aplomb. If they give the subject a thought, many Swedes, Britons, French, Germans or Danes would say that they are glad to be rid of a deity who had threatened his adherents with hellfire, had loomed over their lives like a cosmic Big Brother and who appeared to have made a terrible job of governing the world.

Nietzsche was right to say that human beings had killed God. Even fundamentalists (whose faith is essentially modern and innovative) bear witness to the fact that men and women can no longer be religious in the same way as their ancestors. In the premodern world, it was generally understood that while reason was indispensable for mathematics, science or politics, it could not, by itself, give human beings access to the divine. But the extraordinary success of scientific rationalism in the modern world has made reason the only path to truth. We assume that God is an objective fact, like the atom, whose existence can be proved empirically. When we find the demonstration unconvincing, we lose faith. Our neglect of the esthetic of prayer, liturgy and mythology has indeed "killed" our sense of the divine.

If Europeans do not overly mourn the God they have lost, they have certainly experienced the void predicted by Nietzsche's madman. Human beings are so constructed that they need ecstasy and transcendence, which give them a conviction that, despite depressing evidence to the contrary, life has ultimate value. Without this transcendent insight, humans fall into despair in a way that other animals do not. The compassionate ethic, which is held to be crucial in all the great world religions, also helps us cultivate an ideal of the sacredness of every single individual. Modern secular culture has been liberating and exciting, but the history of 20th-century Europe shows that we abandon this type of spirituality at our peril.

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