The death of God

Last Updated 21 September 2013, 14:06 IST

‘When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that God is dead!”’

I was in college when I read these words, in an old book inherited from my grandfather. Thus Spake Zarathustra was written by Friedrich Nietzsche, reputedly Hitler’s favourite philosopher — though, as with most things, Hitler was too stupid to understand him. This phrase, written at the end of the 19th Century, before the mindless destruction of the two great World Wars and just a few decades after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, is so powerful an insight into humanity that we are still struggling to come to grips with it.

The death of God was not a minor event, and maybe it requires the perspective of more than a century to understand its effects. At one level, the world still seems very religious. Except for the marginal states of Europe (East and West), religion seems to be flourishing everywhere. Gods and monsters battle it out in the Middle East while the Chinese are embracing everything from Daoism to Christianity and even rushing back towards Tibetan Buddhism. In India, of course, we happily assassinated Narendra Dabholkar for showing up purveyors of magic as the charlatans they are. If God is dead, a lot of people do not seem to have gotten the memo. And why are Richard Dawkins and his tribe still fighting, all raw invective and dripping condescension, to show that it was all a delusion anyway, and look, the real world is that much more magical?

God always fulfilled more of a role in life than merely a white-bearded old gent that we imagined in the sky getting all ornery and throwing thunderbolts. The idea of a Creator with a capital ‘C’ helped humans struggle with three basic questions of life: the how, the how and the why.

The first how was about how things came to be. Humans had limited knowledge of their environment and very few tools to enquire as to how things came to be. When the sum of your tribe’s knowledge was that it usually rained when a particular dance was performed a certain way, then it was easy to imagine it pleased a deity. Of course, if it did not rain, it was probably because somebody had sinned and had to be punished — and humanity has never lacked for sinners, or those willing to punish them.

Over time we struggled with logic, with the bare beginnings of mathematics, various crude tools and good basic observation to transform the mysteries of the world into comprehensible ideas that we could use to dominate the world. By the end of the 19th Century, we did not have to turn to God to answer how the world came to be in the shape it was — we were well on the way to figuring out most of that by ourselves.

This knowledge of how things came to be also seemed to partially answer the second how, which was how we were supposed to live. If science could tell us how we were made, then it could tell us how we could be perfected, maybe even how we could live forever. In some ways it did. In other ways, badly understood science had terrible consequences. The identification of bacteria, of basic ideas of hygiene and surgery were perfected during these times — enhancing the lives of all of us.

Of course, the sciences were still young, people made mistakes. Doctors were often considered charlatans, and in fact, the reason that they took to wearing their white coats was because technicians wore them — the doctors hoped it would give them prestige. This is not surprising considering that the cutting-edge treatment for ‘women’s problems’ in Europe and the US at the turn of the century was the surgical removal of clitoris. Stupid ideas of ‘scientific’ racial superiority informed the Nazi party, as did a corrupted idea of ‘scientific progress’ among the Communists. Later, the Cold War was fought along ideas of how to live and organise society. This is the principle quarrel between political parties pretty much everywhere today.

As we dispensed with God in trying to find out how the world worked and starting to argue about how we should live, the question of why we exist became a little lost.

The how of this has a simple answer: the physical body is something created out of complex processes of physics and biology. We can rely on science to tell us that, as we search for better and better means to study both physics and biology. But if there is nothing else, then we run into sticky territory. Our laws, our sense of self, of community, of ideas like justice, integrity, compassion or love are premised on the idea that we have some responsibility for what we are. If we are only outcomes of physics and biology, then ‘we’ don’t exist, only our bodies do, and they are what they are because of the blind work of evolution.

The hard truth is that without the ability to imagine God we may not be able to imagine humanity, not in any way that we can conceive of with the terms we have. We use old terms and old concepts to regulate our lives that have no meaning in the context of a purely physical world. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche hoped that people would search for a purely new idea of what it was to be human, that they would discard old ideas of being human and now search for what it meant, to be post-human. But he ended by talking about ‘The New Idol’, what most people would worship now that God was dead. This was the state.

‘“On earth there is nothing greater than I: it is I who am the regulating finger of God” — thus roareth the monster. And not only the long-eared and short-sighted fall upon their knees!’ He may have died a syphilitic madman, but on this Nietzsche was spot on.

(Published 21 September 2013, 14:06 IST)

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