The movement that began about the thirteenth century (I am not going to get involved in any argument about the exact date) towards the autonomy of man… has in our time reached an undoubted completion. Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the “working hypothesis” called “God.” …it is becoming evident that everything gets along without “God”—and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, “God” is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 8 June 1944, in a letter from Flossenbürg prison. Less than a year later, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazi Gestapo for opposing the regime of Adolf Hitler.
[John Dewey and Walt Whitman] dreamed that Americans would break the traditional link between the religious impulse, the impulse to stand in awe of something greater than oneself, and the infantile need for security, the childish hope of escaping from time and chance. … They wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle, the nation’s soul. —Richard Rorty, quoted in “How Richard Rorty Found Religion,” First Things, May, 2004.
Everything gets along better without God.
There are still a few of us whose “infantile need for security,” in Richard Rorty’s words, drive us to look for answers in the clouds. We put our faith in superstition or magic or luck or gods, hoping against hope that we will find some revealed knowledge from beyond this world. We who need such reassurances are to be pitied, but not imitated. Devotion to God or gods has been thoroughly discredited, and society cannot progress if it remains mired in the muck of ancient history. We need to dig out, move on, and build a new faith for a postmodern age.
What is needed is a secular faith, a religion that empowers the spread of social democracy, a religion that elevates humanity and embraces justice, equality, brotherhood and peace, a religion that is not content to bide its time for some future reward in some mythical heaven, but is energized by the possibility that we can build a better world today, right here, right now.
Richard Rorty calls his particular version of this secular religion “romantic polytheism,” a religious faith in which our gods are the lofty values of liberty, fraternity, equality and justice. “The deeper meaning of democracy,” he says, “is that we are alone in the universe and have only one another as reference points for truth and meaning.”
Rorty is not alone in thinking that human intelligence stoked by human initiative can build a more perfect world. It is a faith that many find attractive, both for its optimistic vision of the future and for the freedom it grants each of us to live by the lights of our individual consciences, unfettered by ancient ideas of morality and truth.
Could a wholly secular religion live up to its billing? Could “romantic polytheism” really transform the world we know into the world we wish we had?
The difficulty, according to Christian theology, is that optimism and good intentions are not nearly enough to leap the hurdles that our human sinfulness throws in the path of such a project. Our collective efforts at building a just society will be inevitably undermined by our individual failures to act justly, because the character of a society is merely the character of its individual citizens, multiplied.
C.S. Lewis compares these utopian hopes to an armada of ships sailing in formation towards a distant land.
What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? …nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Can any society whose god is itself rise above narcissistic self-interest long enough to sustain the sort of collective goodwill necessary to establish justice? Jesus gave these warnings:
The light from heaven came into the world, but they loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. They hate the light because they want to sin in the darkness. —John 3:19,20, NLT
I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who parts from me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. —John 15:5,6, NLT
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who lived most of his life in a world without God, put it this way:
The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of [the 20th] century. The first of these was World War I… The only possible explanation for this is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them… —Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1983 Templeton Prize lecture
Adolf Hitler was, unfortunately, no anomaly. A power structure that has no allegiance to any authority higher than itself will inevitably turn rancid. While claiming to pursue the best interests of German society, Hitler justified and normalized genocide, slavery and the forcible occupation of most of Europe.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived and died in Nazi Germany. His story reminds us that Nazism, Stalinism, Fascism and Communism all shared a utopian instinct, a utopian hope. In the absence of God, all political systems quickly embrace every ungodly excess: tyranny, murderous ambition, genocide, depravity, greed, hatred and abject evil.
If evil appears in the form of light, beneficence, loyalty and renewal, if it conforms with historical necessity and social justice, then this… is a clear additional proof of its abysmal wickedness. … One is distressed by the failure of reasonable people to perceive either the depths of evil or the depths of the holy. With the best of intentions they believe that a little reason will suffice them to clamp together the parting timbers of the building. They are so blind that in their desire to see justice done to both sides they are crushed between the two clashing forces and end achieving nothing. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
History gives us more than ample proof: in a world without God, we will labor for a better society in vain. A just social democracy requires individual recognition of and obedience to the God who is there and who still waits for us to seek him out. Social justice and an enlightened democracy are only possible when we acknowledge the Moral Authority of the universe, and when we permit his goodness to flow through our veins.