Thursday 23 July 2015

" If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him" - the vacuum after the Death of God

That phrase attributed to Voltaire " If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him" recognized that God served an indispensable function in the public sphere - and when Nietzsche stated, noticed and advocated that God was now dead - the reality of that death has turned-out to be primarily in the realms of discourse (rather than in the privacy of the individual mind, where God may still, often, be acknowledged).

The other famous phrase of relevance here is attributed to Dostoevsky and states that: Without God everything is permitted. This captures on the one hand the horror of a world in which evil is openly advocated and enforced under the label of Good; and on the other hand the demonic delight, and intoxication, at the endless new possibilities for transgression and destruction that this allows.

But discussion of this whole area of the post-God world has collapsed over the past forty-some years since I came to adult consciousness. When I read that old socialist atheist Bernard Shaw, I found a man who brooded on the absolute need for a 'new religion' to replace Christianity - and this was a theme of his writings for more than half a century: he even tried to launch this religion of Creative Evolution via some of his most successful plays.

So, despite his being a major figure in promoting the evils of Leftism, Shaw was not so much of a fool as to suppose that Man could live without religion.

But we are! - I mean that is the implicit conclusion of a million items per day of propaganda from the mass media, the education system, government officials and corporations. Their message is loud and clear: that God is Dead - and we do not need to reinvent him.

Shaw knew that men must have religion... or else! So did Fritz (Small is Beautiful) Schumacher - whose early works were based on the advocacy of Buddhist Economics, and whose last book was an argument for traditional Thomistic Catholicism.

When I read Robert Graves, I found another author who, like Shaw, was viscerally hostile to Christianity - but promoting his own version of Neo-Paganism (which turned out to be extraordinarily influential is establishing that new religion). Graves was a very strange man with innumerable odd ideas, but he was not such a fool as to imagine that Man could live without religion.

Anyway, here we are! In a world which has no religion, and has lost that understanding shared by Voltaire, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Shaw, Schumacher, Graves... and indeed everybody who had thought about the subject for more than five minutes: that Man must have a religion.

Is this a paradox - that Man does not have what he must have? If so, the paradox is there for all to see, in the gross incoherence, negativity and destructiveness of modern public discourse.

The answer is that "everybody who had thought about the subject for more than five minutes" knows that Man must have a religion - because we live in a world where nobody from the major leaders of public opinion, the 'intellectuals', from the Politicians to the People - including both the Mandarins and the Masses ever has thought about the subject for five minutes.

Five minutes counts as an impossibly long attention span nowadays. Nobody thinks about anything for five minutes without 'working', or doing, or engaging with the mass media. This was a revelation when I became a medical scientist - to find out that famous researchers had never thought about their subject for five consecutive minutes - and indeed stubbornly refused to do so.

(I became a theoretical biologist simply by thinking about the implications of my empirical research for a little while - although, of course, most theoretical biologists never think either, because they are too busy reading other people's papers and doing hard sums.)

So this is the situation. A few generations ago everybody - including atheists and anti-Christians - knew explicitly (and discussed endlessly) that Man cannot live without religion; now everybody 'knows' implicitly (but never discusses) that Man can, should and does live without religion - and indeed nothing else makes any sense to them!

Thus incoherent nonsense caused by not-thinking, has been take-out of Men's heads and put onto display in the world for all to see... but nobody sees it!



Gary said...

Mr Charlton, what do you attribute this important shift in judgment to? Why are people not willing to think for more than five minutes on anything? I suspect that people are afraid of what they might discover - there is a latent unacknowledged anxiety (about the way people live their lives) which is kept at bay by deferring to the ideological soundbites of others (since these soundbites are tolerant of dysfunction and disorder).
I think people are terrified of the truth (and therefore of independent thought) because they are secretly in despair that there is nothing they could do about it if they were to discover it. Or in any case, that it would take more courage and effort than they are capable of mustering.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GAry - What you say sounds right - and I expect that other factors are also important.

The ever larger, ever more addictive mass media is very important. A culture of hurry, busyness, serial task switching is another. Addiction to sexual fantasy is another (this has replaced God - actual sex is insignificant it is the thinking, remembering, planning wishing that takes up all the time).

But there are factors which ought to have favoured thinking - not least that many people could have a lot more unstructured time than ever they did in the past (when they would be engaged in back-breaking labour for a dozen hours a day. For example, the massive proportion of adult 'students' in The West typically have plenty of time to think - but in practice they avoid it like the plague - as, as you say, there must be a positive aversion at work.

At a deep level, once a person has got into a state of alienation and nihilism, it can be very difficult to get out - because all escape routes are cynically pre-subversted even before they come to be considered.

e.g. everyone already knows and has absorbed by adulthood that Christianity is a ridiculous fairy tale for pathetic and dumb or evil and hypocritical people (including everybody who lived in the olden days) - so why waste five minutes on thinking about it... especially when there is so much cool stuff to do or fantasize about?

John Fitzgerald said...

Colin Wilson was, of course, another thinker in the mould of Graves and Shaw who tried to forge a new religious understanding on what he saw (wongly, I believe) as the ruins of the old. For Wilson, the idea that men and women can live without a deep sense of meaning, purpose and direction would have been anathema. As you have written eslsehwere, he did not think seriously enough about Christianity, but he would never have thought that people should just drift along willy-nilly as is happening today - more and more disorientated and increasingly ripe for conquest.

Thordaddy said...

Dr. Charlton...

What you describe I suggest falls under the rubric of radical autonomy, essentially, a conscious oblivion... A desired state of being where the process of cause and effect can be totally manipulated to one's "soul" benefit. And the evidence tells "us" that the masses and all their institutions, organizations, corporations, etc. desire this conscious oblivion both NOW and after death. Thus, there is a real concerted psychological continuum that seems to purposely contravene the total Christian worldview. Radical autonomy and radical sexual autonomy are the axiomatic precepts of the anti-Christians.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JF _ Yes, another excellent example.

It was not such an outlandish idea a few generations ago to try and create a new religion for The West. Even Colin Wilson did not talk much about it after his second book - Religion and the Rebel (which was also his most nearly Christian book)- he was focused more on the need for higher consciousness as the main goal - presumably if achieved this might lead/ might have led to some new insights and new religion...

But none of the Twentieth Century new religions actually replaced Christianity in terms of occupying the full role in the individual and society. For example, Neopaganism is simply a lifestyle option, a psychotherapy or pleasing set of technologies, functioning within the mainstream secular Leftism.

Anthroposophy - which might be regarded as a counter-example of the early 20th century, gathering millions of adherents at peak - is not a religion; and for its founder was something that existed within Christianity.

But for people *now* to talk glibly of the kind of new religion they want, or which they think should replace Christianity, is to ignore a century plus of experience.

Doug said...

Bravo Bruce!
You always have something wondrous and insightful to say.
By the way, I enjoy your Great Zero Gate. Am a regularly frequent visitor.
Just want you to understand your thoughtful writing I something I am inspired by and I hope become wiser by.
Thank you.

Kind regards,
West by God Virginia

David said...

@Bruce - Great post. I have to say I am constantly bemused by the lack of an innate spontaneous compulsion to explore these kind of ideas in others. As you say thinking at any depth seems to be difficult  or impossible for many people. From a very early age I remember having a strong desire to understand the fantastically curious mystery of our existence and to find a satisfactory sense of meaning to the human condition. I find it very hard indeed to meet like-minded people interested in thinking about these topics at all or even to acknowledge their inherent importance. That is probably why, for me, this blog has become somewhat of an 'intellectual Oasis' in an otherwise almost entirely barren landscape. I am now a Christian, who often struggles with doubts/agnostic tendencies on many subjects that remain impenetrable to me and honestly compels an "I just don't know" as the best response, but a Christian nonetheless, albeit not a particularly good one or the best I can be. I do try to do my best, seeking repentance and loving guidance from heavenly father along the way and acknowledging my transgressions where I can; indeed that is largely the point of theosis as I now understand it.

I think one ongoing severe trial for me, and I suspect I am very far from alone, is to sustain a Christian perspective whilst submerged in the vacuum of an intrinsically hostile atheistic culture. Whenever I even suggest that the Universe is purposeful or God exists at a social event or after-dinner conversation I feel a very rapid sense of anxiety and hostility permeates the conversational atmosphere. Normally the other participants in the conversation look at me like I am fundamentally unhinged or deranged, that they are making a mental note not to invite me back for the unforgiveable faux pas of suggesting the universe is a meaningful place and not just random. They do not appear to even entertain the notion, even in principle or for the sake of detached argument, that the modern atheistic/nihilistic perspective stance is *potentially* wrong. They are so certain about this but they don't know why. If I suggest that the entire history of all known human civilisations stands as counter-evidence to our modern position, all animistic hunter-gatherer societies and all religious-based civilisations, I run the risk of not even being allowed to stay for my dessert.

Having said that I am currently in a Latin American country where there is refreshingly little political correctness and also overt displays of Christian faith to be seen in the churches, by local people praying publically and also many framed photos of the saviour affectionately displayed in hotels and public buildings. God is not dead. He seems to be alive and well in Central America at least, if not England.

David said...

Last night the conversation meandered onto the topic, often discussed on this blog, that the Universe is "alive" in a valid, animistic sense and my suggestion that the current criteria for defining life (post-Erwin Schrodinger) as a purely mechanical/physics-like phenomenon, is a very recent conception of life in terms of human history, and that all living and even inanimate things could be regarded as conscious or 'alive' in an important and real way when we reflect honestly on this for 5 minutes. This had a very mystifying effect on the audience bordering on displeasure or wry amusement. The animistic idea that we belong in the universe, that we are not separate to our environment and that a stone can have a quality of being 'alive' are complete hippy bunk and nonsense as far as they can see. At the very least I would have thought these subjects would interest people and inspire honest curiosity about the nature of their own consciousness experiences of existence. Apparently the subject encroaches so much on the foundation of an already inherently incoherent and unstable world view of secularism that they cannot or do not want to consider the foundations for anxiety the entire structure could come down at any moment like a house of cards. I felt a powerful sense of sadness and despair last night as a direct result of reflecting on this deep alienation and of my feeble Christian attempts of trying to connect with my brothers and sisters.

Nathaniel said...

Another reason Mormons must be discounted, denigrated, etc. - living proof of the value and success of religion.

Heaviside said...

"But the pure concept or infinity as the abyss of nothingness in which all being is engulfed, must signify the infinite grief [of the finite] purely as a moment of the supreme Idea, and no more than a moment. Formerly, the infinite grief only existed historically in the formative process of culture. It existed as the feeling that “God Himself is dead,” upon which the religion of more recent times rests; the same feeling that Pascal expressed in so to speak sheerly empirical form: “la nature est telle qu’elle marque partout un Dieu perdu et dans l’homme et hors de l’homme.” [Nature is such that it signifies everywhere a lost God both within and outside man.] By marking this feeling as a moment of the supreme Idea, the pure concept must give philosophical existence to what used to be either the moral precept that we must sacrifice the empirical being (Wesen), or the concept of formal abstraction [e.g., the categorical imperative].

Thereby it must re-establish for philosophy the Idea of absolute freedom and along with it the absolute Passion, the speculative Good Friday in place of the historic Good Friday. Good Friday must be speculatively re-established in the whole truth and harshness of its God-forsakenness. Since the [more] serene, less well grounded, and more individual style of the dogmatic philosophies and of the natural religions must vanish, the highest totality can and must achieve its resurrection solely from this harsh consciousness of loss, encompassing everything, and ascending in all its earnestness and out of its deepest ground to the most serene freedom of its shape."

On the subject of God not existing in the public discourse, I just want to talk about my own perceptions, even if they might be wrong. An individual mind is very fickle, and its easy to doubt yourself with only a minor provocation. If God isn't part of the public discourse then God doesn't seem to exist "objectively." I mean that he doesn't seem to exist outside of your own purely subjective and particular opinion, and that's exactly the box that modernity wants him in. It seems what's necessary is a way to "objectively" believe, a way to believe even when you doubt.

Bruce Charlton said...

@H - Good points

ajb said...


The idea that the entire universe is conscious in some sense is taken seriously by a significant number of academic philosophers.

This paper

by a prominent academic in the field gives a good introduction to the contemporary academic debate.