- Thursday, July 31, 2008
The sense of mourning was also captured in another, equally famous, poem—Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. He writes:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The sense of absence here is palpable. The One who once had been here, who had defined all of reality, was now gone, no longer accessible and no longer existent. And that absence of God began to define everything the Victorian intellectual knew.
In the twentieth century, the Victorian loss of faith was codified intellectually, first in the philosophy of logical positivism and secondly in protest atheism. It’s interesting to note that the Holocaust became—along with the other unspeakable tragedies of the twentieth century—the great cause of much protest atheism. Evil became a catalyst for a form of atheism that argues that if there is a God, he cannot be a God like this. If this is God, then there is no God. In his play J.B., Archibald MacLeish has his character, speaking in the form of Job, say, “If God is God He is not good, If God is good He is not God.”10 For many, the events of the twentieth century—in particular the Holocaust and those two murderous World Wars—seemed to prove that point beyond doubt.
* * *
There has also in the early twentieth century the rise of the explicitly atheistic state. The Russian Revolution in 1917, and successive revolutions as well, produced the first atheistic states. Tsar Nicholas II had not only been Tsar of all the Russias, but also the titular head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Now, however, the state was explicitly atheistic and dedicated to Marx’s assumption that religion is “the opiate of the masses.”11 And as the cultural elites saw it, that opiate must be taken from the people and replaced with the vision of the new Communist man.
After World War II, the West accelerated toward modernity, particularly in terms of technology and science. Great social changes affected the way most people in the West lived. People became more mobile than ever before, which led to unprecedented levels of social dislocation and, in turn, to the demise of the extended family. No longer was it natural for successive generations of the extended family to live together under one roof.
Personal autonomy began to be prized, the therapeutic culture started to take hold, and the elites of culture became increasingly secularized. By the time we reach hyper-modernity, after the atom was split and Sputnik was launched, after vaccines were invented and man had stood on the moon, there was a sense that human beings, much like Nietzsche’s prototypical human, had finally come of age. People began to believe that God is simply no longer necessary.
Then arises the postmodern era, in which the very foundations of theism are denied, along with all other foundationalist thinking. God is made merely one thought among other thoughts, one principle among other principles, one socially constructed reality among others. And in the midst of this arise the New Atheists.
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