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Preaching to the diverted

By Craig Thompson - posted Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The weekend after this brings to Melbourne the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, a "celebration of reason." It promises to be a noisy time, for the speakers coming to town certainly justify fanfare. We can expect to hear a lot about who has said what, and probably not a little of the responses from "the religious". At the same time there is a risk that, despite all the noise, it will not be as interesting a time as it might be. For if what is presented bears too much resemblance to the content of populist atheistic publications of the last decade, not much will be said which will threaten to get to the heart of the matter. There is a risk that the lectures and addresses will largely be a preaching to the diverted. Why the diverted? Because "religion" is a convenient distraction from the difficult business of life together, even for the anti-religious.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, while he was rabidly anti-Christian and anti-God, at least had clear understanding of what it would mean to wash our hands of the gods. He encapsulates beautifully what is at stake in his parable of the madman at noonday. Here the arch-atheist declares that atheism is still too difficult, that it is beyond human beings as we currently are. This is not because there actually is a God, but because believers and unbelievers alike don't have the courage for there not to be one.

The first truth the madman puts to the cultured despisers of religion is that God is dead. This is met with rapturous applause and jocularity: "Ha, ha, where is God?" The second truth cuts much deeper: must we not then become gods? Must we not wipe away all horizons, unchain ourselves from all anchors, eschew all ideals, systems, all spirits-of-the-age?


The madness of Nietzsche's crazy man is he lights a lantern in the bright light of day. Noonday is the age of enlightened thinking which has done away with God. But the madman sees what the jovial sceptics do not: what it would actually mean for there to be no God, for there to be only human beings who, having killed God, must now become like gods themselves. Though the day has come, the madman lights his lantern to show that the mockers are still benighted, still unable to grasp what must now happen.

It is one thing to mock belief and the gods, or to locate in them the sources for all which ails us as a species. There is indeed much to make fun of, and much blame to be laid at the feet of religious belief and politics. But it is quite another thing to deal with each other in a world in which there are no longer gods and their followers to blame for whatever goes wrong. Do we actually have it in ourselves to become gods, to re-order the world according to that seductive but finally vague concept, "reason"? It is this question which brings the madman's listeners to stunned silence. Nietzsche holds that the answer of his contemporaries at least, as self-avowed atheists, was No – it is too much. And so the madman finally declares that he has come too soon. The gods still hold sway, even among the godless.

Do we actually have it in ourselves to become as gods? Unless this is the question, then anything which seeks to be atheism is simply a diversion – a self-congratulatory mocking which misplaces the problem and imagines that if only God would go away we'd get along with each other just fine. Yet while it might seem that we can think ourselves out of God, we can't think ourselves out of ourselves. The absence of God will not bring with it the presence of human harmony because we will still have to deal with our fear of each other, or our frailty in the face of nature, or our deluded sense of self-importance. It is in relation to these things, after all, that the gods are of most use to us.

What Nietzsche declares lies before us is starkly confronting: to be alone with each other, not just with the people who think and want like us, but everyone. For this is to have to take social, political and moral responsibility. It is to have to adjudicate, to balance, to include and to exclude. It is, in the end, to have to resort to violence, and all without any real common ground, any "god" to which we can appeal for justification – not even "reason".

At stake in all this is not only God but also humanity. Belief and unbelief are not merely religious questions but also socio-political ones which have to do with our living together. The irony is that, while much argument about the existence of God has revolved around whether or not we need God to ground the moral law, in the absence of God all we have is law, whether natural law or our particular cultural mores. And we see daily how poorly the law does at keeping the peace and bringing justice to all who seek it.

Whether believers and non-believers like it or not, we have a common problem. What ails us as human beings is not "God" as such, but the absence of a common story which both calls us to live together in peace and takes seriously that, in the end, we cannot do just that. Any conception of reason which could help us to live with this contradiction, without reducing us to all kinds of quasi-religious justifications of violence by the state or by individuals, would indeed be a thing to celebrate. Let us hope that what is proffered the weekend after next will do more than divert attention from this hard work. It is too easy to imagine that overcoming all that ails us is a matter of dealing with "them" and the problems they seem to present, rather than dealing with our own fears and failings.

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About the Author

Rev Dr Craig Thompson is a Uniting Church minister in North Melbourne. His research interests include the relationships between different spheres of philosophical and religious discourse, and the theological dimensions of political life and thought.

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