- Thursday, July 31, 2008
It is fairly clear, in retrospect, where Nietzsche’s philosophy led. It led to nihilism and eventually to the Third Reich. Even so, Nietzsche is one of the most celebrated figures in intellectual life today, a fact borne out by the sheer number of dissertations being written these days on Nietzsche and his heirs such as Michel Foucault. Nietzsche’s radicalism makes him one of the most fascinating figures in modern thought. He believed himself to be declaring what should be obvious to all, and he was confident that others did see what he saw but were too timid or intellectually fearful to declare themselves.
If anything, Nietzsche’s atheism serves to remind us all that atheism has consequences. As we shall see, one of the features of the New Atheism that seems most perplexing is its cultural cheerfulness. The New Atheists seem genuinely to believe that God is dead, but that humanity can now move cheerily along into a brave secular future. Nietzsche knew that atheism would be very costly—and very dangerous.
* * *
One of the fascinating themes to note in all this is what historians now call the “Victorian Loss of Faith.” This is the context in which the word atheism becomes far more widespread, indicating a change in the mentality of very many people who lived in Victorian England. We tend to look back to Victorian England and note the overt religiosity of the era—the great churches, the great preachers like Charles Spurgeon, and the publicity given to Anglican luminaries. But what you might miss if you are not careful is that the Victorian era also saw a significant slide from Christian belief, famously encapsulated in the British motto, “My mind is no longer a Christian even though my body is.”
In other words, a person can continue to live as a Christian without believing anymore in the basic tenets of the faith, even in the existence of God himself. One symbolic figure of that era is the Reverend Leslie Stephen, who was the father of the writer Virginia Woolf. Stephen was an orthodox Anglican pastor who lost his faith, resigned his orders, left the church, and thus became a symbol of the Victorian loss of faith within British intellectual thought.9 This loss of faith was perhaps best expressed in poetry, for example in Thomas
Hardy’s poem “God’s Funeral.” Hardy wrote:
And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed,
'Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality,
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.
‘So, toward our myth’s oblivion,
Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope
Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,
Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.
‘How sweet it was in years far hied
To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,
To lie down liegely at the eventide
And feel a blest assurance he was there!
‘And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?’
And then later:
I could not prop their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, once had prized.
One of the most notable hallmarks of this Victorian loss of faith is a sense of mourning. That is extremely important, because it is conspicuously lacking in the New Atheism. Among the New Atheists, there is no sense of mourning something that was lost, no sense that something precious is now gone. Instead, there is actually a sense of celebration that theism is finally left behind.
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