What our Cheerfulness Signifies.—The most important of more recent events—that “God is dead,” that the belief in the Christian God has become unworthy of belief—already begins to cast its first shadows over Europe. To the few at least whose eye, whose suspecting glance, is strong enough and subtle enough for this drama, some sun seems to have set, some old, profound confidence seems to have changed into doubt: our old world must seem to them daily more darksome, distrustful, strange and “old.” In the main, however, one may say that the event itself is far too great, too remote, too much beyond most people’s power of apprehension, for one to suppose that so much as the report of it could have reached them; not to speak of many who already knew what had really taken place, and what must all collapse now that this belief had been undermined,—because so much was built upon it, so much rested on it, and had become one with it: for example, our entire European morality. This lengthy, vast and uninterrupted process of crumbling, destruction, ruin and overthrow which is now imminent: who has realised it sufficiently to-day to have to stand up as the teacher and herald of such a tremendous logic of terror, as the prophet of a period of gloom and eclipse, the like of which has probably never taken place on earth before?… Even we, the born riddle-readers, who wait as it were on the mountains posted ‘twixt to-day and to-morrow, and engirt by their contradiction, we, the firstlings and premature children of the coming century, into whose sight especially the shadows which must forthwith envelop Europe should already have come—how is it that even we, without genuine sympathy for this period of gloom, contemplate its advent without any personal solicitude or fear? Are we still, perhaps, too much under the immediate effects of the event—and are these effects, especially as regards ourselves, perhaps the reverse of what was to be expected—not at all sad and depressing, but rather like a new and indescribable variety of light, happiness, relief, enlivenment, encouragement, and dawning day?… In fact, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel ourselves irradiated as by a new dawn by the report that the “old God is dead”; our hearts overflow with gratitude, astonishment, presentiment and expectation. At last the horizon seems open once more, granting even that it is not bright; our ships can at last put out to sea in face of every danger; every hazard is again permitted to the discerner; the sea, our sea, again lies open before us; perhaps never before did such an “open sea” exist.—
The Project Gutenberg EBook of “The Joyful Wisdom” by Friedrich Nietzsche, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52881/52881-h/52881-h.htm. Accessed 4 May 2021
If anyone doubted that change in human society is accelerating over the last few years, the past year certainly made it harder to deny the obvious. Oddly, if you look at just about anything other than the news, the indicators point to a world that is in a better shape than it was at any other point in human history, unless the surviving stories of the antediluvian Golden Age were more than good fiction.
You may not have heard the good news because of the relentless sky-is-falling media jibber jabber, but:
1) Extreme poverty has fallen from 90% of the world’s population to 10%
2) Hunger is falling
3) Child labor is on the decline
4) People in developed countries have more leisure time
5) The share of income spent on food has plummeted in the US
6) Life expectancy is rising from about 30 to 71 worldwide, and 80 in the developed world
7) Child mortality is at its lowest point in recorded history
8) Death in childbirth is rarer than ever
9) Violent crime in the USA has shown a decrease over the last 25 years
10) In 1986 there were over 65,000 nuclear warheads on earth; today there are roughly 10,000
We, my fellow humans, seem to be making significant progress.
In the meantime, Nietzsche’s observation that: “‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian God has become unworthy of belief” has spread throughout Europe and North America. The Pew Research Center notes:
The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid clip. In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009…
…Furthermore, the data shows a wide gap between older Americans (Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation) and Millennials in their levels of religious affiliation and attendance. More than eight-in-ten members of the Silent Generation (those born between 1928 and 1945) describe themselves as Christians (84%), as do three-quarters of Baby Boomers (76%). In stark contrast, only half of Millennials (49%) describe themselves as Christians; four-in-ten are religious “nones,” and one-in-ten Millennials identify with non-Christian faiths.
“In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 9 June 2020, http://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.
Why do things appear to be getting better on so many fronts as more and more people distance themselves from the belief in God? Is it a glitch in the matrix? Is God testing us with some kind of reverse psychological divine play? Or are these almost unbelievable advances truly the results of the humanitarian revolution that has been underway since the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and other modern rational optimists so thoughtfully propose?
If the decline of religious belief is evidence of the death of the idea of God, then so too is the growth of faith in the capacity of humans to act without guidance from beyond. Perhaps the “open sea” to which Nietzsche made reference and the evidence of such unprecedented growth and development is due to the fact that as one has waned, the other has waxed.
Surely the rejection of Christianity would create a vacuum were it not to be counterbalanced by some other force, say human will, that rushes in to fill the void of divine will? It appears as though Christianity set the stage for the Enlightenment and as the lights came on Christianity’s flaws, inconsistencies, and weaknesses became glaringly obvious.
Think about it this way. For over a millennia the belief in God in the Western world has largely determined the way we live, how we are governed and the way in which we have structured society, government, and our institutions. It has informed what we long for and what we fear. It has provided a comprehensive worldview that answers key existential questions like: Who are we? Why are we here? And where are we going?
Christianity provides a system of morality, provides guidelines for successful relationships, and a means of coming to terms with our mortality. Extract Christianity from society and you would think that the whole system would collapse. Yet, the data points to us thriving on virtually every metric despite the emergence of a state described biblically as one where “every man” does “that which is right in his own eyes.”
One possible explanation is that there is inertia in the system and that we have yet to see the effects of stepping off of the coattails of our forefathers. If that is the case, then any optimism is premature, if not unwarranted. Moreover, the end is near. Another is that human consciousness is dynamically stable, that is, that it can quickly return to a steady state of operation after a significant disturbance, such as the death of the idea of God. This would explain the longevity of Christianity but also the ability of humanity to withstand its disappearance. A third possible reason is that Christianity has simply run its course. The numbers seem to support this, and it may be that the “horizon” as Nietzsche put it, is “open once more.”
One thing is certain: change is afoot. To borrow from religious terminology found both in the Old and the New Testament, I suspect that a new heaven and a new earth are imminent, that a new day is dawning in the minds and hearts of mankind. Regardless of it provenance, the new dawn is best met with cheerful and supple hearts filled with “gratitude, astonishment, presentiment, and expectation”. Anything less limits its possibilities.