Ed Simon is one of the editors of a recent anthology, The God Beat: What Journalism Says about Faith and Why It Matters (2021). According to the publisher, Broadleaf Books (an imprint of 1517 Media, formerly Augsburg Fortress), the book highlights “personal, subjective, voice-driven New Religion Journalism” by young writers “characterized by their brash, innovative, daring, and stylistically sophisticated writing and an unprecedented willingness to detail their own interaction with faith (or their lack thereof).”
Simon offers his own thoughts on religion, sympathetic to that perspective, in a recent article at Aeon:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore …
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath.
Simon riffs on this theme, offering to help construct faith in God in spite of God’s absence or presumed death. He covers a number of death-of-God movements (“a paradigm shift in human consciousness”) from the 19th century to today, including Darwinism, salvation through art, existentialism as exemplified by Nietzsche, and the God-is-dead movement in theology in the 1960s.
He covers these trends in a by-now-familiar journalistic way: The movements are assumed to have something vital to offer the world that replaces our age-old apprehension of a non-materialist reality. But do they? It’s been a while since any of this stuff was new, despite the moniker “New Religion Journalism.” So let’s have a look:
● Simon treats Darwinism as a given. One senses that he is unaware of challenges from within evolutionary biology. That’s understandable if all his knowledge derives from pop culture. Despite that, he almost grasps the moral implications of Darwinism. Consider his treatment of “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895):
Of course, evolution had implications for any literal account of creation, but critics like Wilberforce really feared the moral implications of Huxley’s views. Huxley had a rejoinder. Writing in his study Evolution and Ethics (1893), he held that ‘Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, have all had to pass through similar phases, before they reached the stage at which their influence became an important factor in human affairs’ and so too would ethics ‘submit to the same ordeal’. Rather than relying on ossified commandments, Huxley believed that reason ‘will work as great a revolution in the sphere of practice’.Ed Simon, “How to pray to a dead God” at Aeon (December 17, 2021)
So what really happened? Darwinism was a philosophical factor in totalitarian culture, whether that meant Soviet attempts to breed human–ape soldiers or the Nazis’ passion for Darwin’s theory, as detailed in Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism. Just recently, E. O. Wilson (1929–2021), founder of a Darwinian theory of human society (sociobiology) and hailed as the “Darwin of the 21st Century” was found, by volunteers combing through his surviving papers, to have been a scientific racist. That was long suspected but largely kept from the public.
Simon acknowledges that “Huxley’s fantasy [of ethics based on reason alone] was spectacularly disproven in the catastrophic splitting of the atom.” Sure, but that begs the question of why anyone would suppose that the Darwinism Huxley championed (and many religion journalists, New or old, generally accept) would provide moral guidance in the first place. Darwinism has no basis for even trying to provide moral guidance; it is a theory of pitiless struggle for survival.
● Another strand from “after the death of God” was salvation through art:
Art was the way out of the impasse. Our prayers weren’t to be oriented towards science, but rather towards art and poetry. In Literature and Dogma (1873), Arnold wrote that the ‘word “God” is … by no means a term of science or exact knowledge, but a term of poetry and eloquence … a literary term, in short.’ Since the Romantics, intellectuals affirmed that in artistic creation enchantment could be resurrected. Liberal Christians, who affirmed contemporary science, didn’t abandon liturgy, rituals and scripture, but rather reinterpreted them as culturally contingent. In Germany, the Reformed theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher rejected both Enlightenment rationalism and orthodox Christianity, positing that an aesthetic sense defined faith, while still concluding in a 1799 address that ‘belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion.’Ed Simon, “How to pray to a dead God” at Aeon (December 17, 2021)
But then what happened to art? It has reached the point where museums house exhibits such as “dust sculpture” (a pile of dust on the floor at the Tate), an apparent stalagmite made entirely from plastic buttons and glue, an undulating surface of red straws of various lengths, and countless similar items.
This isn’t the place to get into a discussion about whether such productions are or aren’t “art.” The obvious point is that they — and a very large proportion of the current art world — are not about creating any transcendence of everyday life.
● Another strand Simon identifies is the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). He is kinder to Nietzsche than many commentators have been:
Nietzsche is sometimes misinterpreted as a triumphalist atheist. Though he denied the existence of a personal creator, he wasn’t in the mould of bourgeois secularists such as Huxley, since the German philosopher understood the terrifying implications of disenchantment. There are metaphysical and ethical ramifications to the death of God, and if Nietzsche’s prescription remains suspect – ‘Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?’ – his appraisal of our spiritual predicament is foundational. Morning star of 20th-century existentialism, Nietzsche shared an honest acceptance of the absurdity of reality, asking how it is that we’re able to keep living after God is dead.Ed Simon, “How to pray to a dead God” at Aeon (December 17, 2021)
Nietzsche was an influence on the Nazis and the Soviets though some argue that his teachings about the will to power (“best understood as an irrational force, found in all individuals, that can be channeled toward different ends”) were distorted.
The outcomes of all these streams of thought that took root after the “death of God” in philosophy in recent centuries bears out Michael Egnor’s view that faith in God is the only coherent basis for reason.
Simon does a good job identifying major contributions to modern secular culture but he is not at his best when trying to understand theistic culture. For example, he offers a strikingly shallow theodicy (account of the co-existence of God and evil): “Monotheistic theology has always wrestled with the question of how an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God could allow for evil. Theodicy has proffered solutions, but all have ultimately proven unsatisfying. To imagine a God who either isn’t all good or isn’t all powerful is to not imagine God at all; to rationalise the suffering of the innocent is ethically monstrous.”
One wants to ask him, unsatisfying to whom? Most of the evil we encounter is within ourselves and within the other humans who have the free will to commit it or else it is part of the imperfections of a finite world. The best even God can do, in the presence of human free will and finitude, is to offer help, grace, or salvation — and that’s what most religious traditions say God does. But such a view is contingent on the assumption that God cannot simply do away with human free will or natural imperfection without annihilating his project.
He sympathizes with the many God-is-dead theologians who were active from the mid-twentieth century onward, though one outcome of their work is that many mainline Christian denominations will dwindle to nothing within decades. No surprise there; if a church teaches only what can be gleaned from an existentialist novel, then there is no point to it — read the novel instead. Meanwhile, churches that ignored the God-is-dead theologians have generally fared better.
Simon, unfortunately, misuses the concept of apophatic theology (defining God by what he is not) and his approach is essentially nihilist:
How these apophatic theologians approached the transcendent in the centuries before Nietzsche’s infamous theocide was to understand that God is found not in descriptions, dogmas, creeds, theologies or anything else. Even belief in God tells us nothing about God, this abyss, this void, this being beyond all comprehension. Far from being simple atheists, the apophatic theologians had God at the forefront of their thoughts, in a place closer than their hearts even if unutterable. This is the answer of how to pray to a ‘dead God’: by understanding that neither the word ‘dead’ nor ‘God’ means anything at all.”Ed Simon, “How to pray to a dead God” at Aeon (December 17, 2021)
No, that is not apophatic theology; that is irrationalism. Apophatic theology starts with the assumption that the theologian has had an encounter with the living God who is not a “void beyond all comprehension” but an Ultimate Reality that human descriptions can hardly be expected to approximate. But rationality is not useless; time-tested descriptions are better than nothing. They are not, of course, better than a genuine revelation.
In the end, “How to pray to a dead God” is an odd sort of essay because, if the evidence is carefully considered, it refutes its own argument. There is nothing much to be said in favor of the traditions that are supposed to replace rational belief in God. Thus it becomes an unintentional defense of traditional theology.
It will be interesting to see the paths the New Religion Journalists take in years to come.
You may also wish to read:
Faith in God is the only coherent basis for reason. Michael Egnor: Access to truth is always a matter of faith — the validity of reason cannot be validated by reason itself. Atheism provides no coherent warrant to trust the capacity for reason. In this sense, atheist faith is much more radical and less coherent than Christian faith.
Egnor and Solms: What does it mean to say God is a Person? Mark Solms and Michael Egnor discuss and largely agree on what we can rationally know about God, using the tools of reason. Egnor argues that, if the most remarkable thing about us is our personhood (I am), it Makes sense to think of God as a Person (I AM).
Egnor vs. Dillahunty: How can God be both just and merciful? After atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty explains his view of morality, an audience member asks neurosurgeon Michael Egnor to explain how a just God can show mercy. Under what circumstances, a debate watcher asks, would it not be contradictory to show both justice and mercy?