The Burden of Doubt What to Believe in if Not in God?

Just what do non-believers believe in? Despite all the tempting spiritual goodies our world offers, enlightened skeptics still seek to practice a secular, humanist morality. But the lure is growing hard to resist: Even pious Catholics are starting to dream of reincarnation.

By Johannes Saltzwedel

Just what do non-believers believe in?

Just what do non-believers believe in?

The legendary Spanish movie director Luis Buñuel fantasized about taking leave of his earthly body with one final twist:

I ask all those old friends who, like me, are dyed-in-the-wool atheists to drop by. Filled with sorrow, they assemble around my bed. Then the priest I've summoned arrives. My friends watch in horror as I confess, ask forgiveness for all my sins, and receive the last rites. Then I turn toward the wall - and die.

This last laugh underscores just how seriously the anarchical left-winger took Christian rituals; for Buñuel, the charade of seeing the light while on his deathbed was the ultimate parting shot.

A quarter of a century on, the lust to wreak vengeance on anything that reeks of religion has all but disappeared. With the passing of Marxism, the staunchly materialistic criticism of church and religion - an article of faith in the former eastern bloc that resonated in Western intellectual circles - has also died a humble death.

Marx's slogan - "Religion is the opium of the people" - used to be all but emblazoned on every intellectual's brow. Today's age is one of brooding and shrugged shoulders: Why plumb the depths of perennial problems when nobody has sensible answers anyway? What's the point of Gretchen's timid question to Faust - just what do you think of religion? - if nothing is at stake bar its rituals and ceremonies, and even weddings and funerals can get by without any help from the Good Lord's terrestrial servants?

Supernatural forces may exist

Yet, in Germany at least, passionate atheists still have cause to rejoice: One in three is no longer officially registered as a Christian. Just one in four eastern Germans believes that Christ was actually crucified. Only two-thirds of registered Catholics say they believe in God - and only one of two Protestants do. Finally, if pressed on their views, 11 percent of officially registered Protestants actually turn out to be card-carrying atheists.

"The church is just an option now, nothing more," says religious sociologist Klaus-Peter Jörns, who compiled these statistics some years back. According to a study conducted by Shell, one in five youths today belongs to a breed that Jörns calls "transcendence believers": They admit that supernatural forces may exist, but are unwilling to pin the word "god" on them - let alone put faith in concepts like the epiphany, sin and salvation.

Simultaneously, adults raised within a Christian culture are increasingly expecting to be reincarnated. More than a quarter of all churchgoing Swiss Catholics say they can relate to Buddhist ideas on the subject. Heiner Barz, a professor for educational science at Düsseldorf University, has identified the "displacement of the resurrection doctrine by the reincarnation doctrine" as a key religious trend in contemporary Europe - albeit with the caveat that it lacks "the doctrine of karma that is associated with it in the Eastern cultural sphere" and its personal accounting system.

Religion's historical detractors could scarcely have imagined their protests producing such confusing and checkered results: the heralds of Reason like Immanuel Kant, for whom the search for evidence of God was a futile exercise; do-gooders who sought to replace all religion with an abstract cult of virtue; and die-hard materialists who - since the French Revolution - had been hoping for the end of all this "puerility," as the Leipzig philosopher Christoph Türcke once termed religion.

"Philosophy of revelation"

But the Romantic movement had already voiced its doubts about unceremoniously dumping God. One by one, the day's brightest minds reverted to Catholicism around 1800. Religion experienced a similar revival among Protestants: Friedrich Schleiermacher, the streetwise Berlin philosophercum-preacher, referred to faith as a "sense and taste for the infinite," an "independent province in the soul" beyond the realm of words. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, the boldest of Kant's followers, actually posited a "philosophy of revelation" in the 1840s.

That, of course, was a cheap stunt mimicking Prussia's reactionary Protestant king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Intellectually speaking, natural scientists and radical thinkers had reinforced doubts about faith. A higher power? "I had no need of that hypothesis, Sire," the mathematician and physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace reportedly told Napoleon. The leftist Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach labeled God "the certain, blissful IS" of the human heart, at best a product of wishful thinking. With the concept of "opium," Karl Marx crystallized religious criticism into a battle cry.

Earnest Victorians like Britain's Matthew Arnold conceded that faith offered little more than "morality touched by emotion." His American contemporary, the pious intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson, saw himself in a "moment of transition," in which "the old forms rattle, and the new delay to appear." And while Frenchman Auguste Comte, a proponent of science, was dreaming up a cult of facts equipped with its own department of morality, a pastor's son who would ultimately certify God's demise in 1882 ("God is dead"), was a schoolboy in Naumburg: Friedrich Nietzsche.

The rhetorical drum that Nietzsche used to beat against "religious neurosis" in his attempts to debunk it as an illusion and hypocrisy echoed well into the 20th century. Since then, poets and philosophers (like Nietzsche himself) have reacted with feelings ranging from pensiveness to horror when confronted with the gaping void bearing the name God. One by one, researchers lined up in support of Nietzsche's visionary verdict. Sociologists like Émile Durkheim and Max Weber demystified religious dogma, calling it a form of moral adhesive. Psychologists from William James to Sigmund Freud dissected the concept of God and, having exposed its entrails, saw the refuge for a better self, a sense of being in harmony with the world - or an infantile quest to recreate one's father.

Self-generated constructs

Theologians were at a loss to counter sociologist Georg Simmel's sober description of religious feeling as a "strange blend of selfless devotion and eudaemonic desire, of humility and exhilaration." At the same time, proudly disruptive workers were singing the German version of the Internationale: "There is no supreme savior, no God, no emperor, no tribune. / If we want to escape our misery, we need to free our own commune!"

Yet materialistic strategies offered no solution, either - as evinced by the many attempts at the beginning of the 20th century to compensate the disappearance of a guaranteed meaning to life with self-generated philosophical constructs. Human life is "essentially borderline in nature," Simmel proclaimed in 1918. Later on, existentialist philosophers such as Martin Heidegger took up the challenge of "ultimate justification."

In 1940, religion remained a matter of conscience for Heidegger's cultured contemporaries. By terming faith "psychic reality," the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung sparked a heated debate. Today, as the erosion of all religious camps is even unnerving agnostics, the "feeling of absolute dependence" (as Schleiermacher once described religious ties) represents just one of the many options offering meaning to many Western Europeans' lives.

"What is a good religion?" Just two decades ago, this question would have sounded blasphemous or flippant. But when the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper recently posed it, only two authors expressed doubts about comparing religions in the same way as "food supplements" or "wellness programs." Tellingly, these two were the Indian religious scientist Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad and the German sociologist Gerhard Schulze. The other contributors floated rafts of dreamy ideals ranging from "personality development," "maturity and freedom," "wisdom" and "self-awareness" through to "the ability to criticize and think."

Almost anything goes today

Obviously, such rational ideals - values philosopher Hans Jonas calls "experiences of self-growth and self-transcendence" - can survive without Allah, Buddha, Confucius or Christ. Rather than tormenting themselves with prayers and commandments, the soporific inhabitants of the First World prefer to smile at the post-Nietzschean jokes penned by the late science fiction author Douglas Adams, who attributes the bestsellers Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who Is This God Person Anyway? to a master thinker named Oolon Colluphid.

But beyond the core issue, almost anything goes today. Salvation, immersion, ecstasy or colorfully packaged rules for living number among the tamer brands being peddled at the spiritual bazaar, which Heiner Barz sees as a flea market of "patchwork religiousness." This drugstore for the soul offers healing herbs from the mystic Hildegard von Bingen's "divine pharmacy" and shaman sweat lodges, not to mention psychic tools, precious stones with mysterious powers, guardian angels, Feng Shui and Tantra.

Innocuous supernatural phenomena which do not strike the fear of God into people have proven the most popular. Anyone no longer giving credence to the Easter bunny - or Easter itself for that matter - might find fulfillment in meditation or at a summer solstice bash. In any case, God's time as Georg Simmel's "absolute manifestation of the causal drive" is basically up. Even Christianity is forced to slip in through the side door - via tourism for example: "Tour operators from the esoteric scene," says Heiner Barz, "have begun to present visits to traditional Christian shrines as supercharged experiences that pack a special spiritual punch."

Even insiders have trouble keeping track of the multitude of other-worldly dreams, human images and existential puzzles sold as popular soft-core religion. Religious educationalist Georg Hilger has discovered that young people today are capable of viewing nearly everything in their lives as "sacred" - their parents and friends, God and the church, their motorcycles, hamsters, bedrooms and even their spare time. Nearly one in four German adolescents believes in benevolent spirits or astrology. And almost half believe in predestination. Even adults are not immune to this "para-religious" fever.

Critics of the church and faith

"Our modern world is far less enlightened than we think," says Hartmut Böhme, a Berlin-based cultural scientist who sees palpable evidence of "fetishism" in the modern European mindset. But there is one positive aspect about this profusion of enlightened cults and creeds: Very few unorthodox believers will shed blood in their efforts to spread the word.

In France, where critics of the church and faith indulge in linguistic acrobatics to get their message across, atheists like Luc Ferry (Of Human Divinity) and Michel Onfray (We Need No God) are still capable of firing up a debate every now and then. Combative German heretics like Gerhard Rampp or the aged cultural historian Karlheinz Deschner (Christianity's Criminal History) usually elicit no more than condescending smiles.

Understandably, organized unbelievers demonstrate less missionary zeal. Their names may pack a resounding punch - "German Free Thinkers Association," "German Humanists' Association," "Federation of Free World View Organizations" or "International Federation of Non-Denomination Members and Atheists." But lurking behind these fancy titles we find nothing more than bland criticism of institutionalized churches, a hackneyed consensus morality, and assistance in organizing preacher-free weddings and funerals. Such groups, which the Berlin expert Andreas Fincke carefully designates as "non-denominational," are reluctant to address burning existential issues. They prefer to debate the ethical issues of the day: the environment, peacekeeping, sexual equality, euthanasia and genetic engineering. But are special-interest groups really needed for these questions? Isn't it more typical of modern secularism that the hottest topics - e.g. the afterlife and the meaning of life - are shelved in the deepest, most private recesses of our existences?

In the Western world, this attitude has taken such a strong hold that choosing religion can be the more difficult path, as Canadian cultural philosopher Charles Taylor has found. For him, this is a quite extraordinary development in the history of thought, as well as an admirable achievement. Still, there are more than enough question marks to go around: In the present "eclipse of God" - something of an anomaly in world history - where can we anchor our values and inspiration? How can we justify a "love of humankind"? How do we come to terms with the painfully pointless "quest for meaning"?

Isn't something missing?

Not with a "postmodern ethics" shorn of principles that sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once propagated in a rush of words that yielded a dearth of results. Nor by immersing oneself in a media- and event-driven universe that offers instant highs on everything from soccer to pop music. When sins primarily involve calorie binges, when confession - if it takes place at all - happens at the marriage-guidance counselor's, and when faith becomes the exclusive domain of capable and successful egos eager to profit in a market of existential possibilities - isn't something missing? And, if so, what?

Georg Simmel evocatively described God as the "transcendent place of group energy": a yearning for a spiritual communion with oneself and with others that even those who have shunned the rites and rituals of faith can't quite abandon. "I am constantly circling God, looking in at the age-old tower," the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in 1899. Nearly 100 years later, the sociologist Niklas Luhmann described the remaining imponderable questions of life in somewhat more prosaic terms: "The paradox of the sacred is simultaneously the end and the beginning of analysis."

Even the theoretician of discourse Jürgen Habermas - Luhmann's erstwhile archrival - would agree with him on that. A leading thinker in Germany since preunification days, the 77-year-old Habermas is still a true-blue Western intellectual when it comes to religion in that he rejects specious simplification. Habermas views himself as being as "religiously unmusical" as the great Max Weber considered himself to be. But he recently called on his compatriots to stay in tune with "the expressive power of religious languages."

The head of the Lutheran Church in Germany, Bishop Wolfgang Huber of Berlin, said Habermas had "heralded a post-secular era." Heralded? More likely, this appeal to respect all faiths represented a way of easing the mounting tensions between denominations without having to disclose his own position.

It is this same form of civil liberalism - "all religions are equal and good" - that Prussia's young ruler Friedrich II espoused in 1740. The stately magnanimity, summed up in the words "let everyone live as they choose," is an echo of antiquity. In imperial Rome, for instance, all manner of gods were worshipped: from the official Jupiter and Egyptian moon goddess Isis to the mysterious bullfighter and savior Mithras. Emperor Alexander Severus, who ruled from 222 to 235, reportedly worshipped every morning before images of Christ, Abraham and Orpheus - in a chapel bedecked with pictures of numerous deities.

Dare we hope that our world, with all its religious turbulence, could take inspiration from such a tolerant and laissezfaire multiculturalism? Or will zealots crawl out of religious woodwork from all directions and trample enlightened pluralism, a Western achievement that is less than 300 years old? In all probability, respectful, enlightened religious skeptics will still have to bear the burden of their doubts - just like the noted Basel art historian Jacob Burckhardt, who lost his Christian faith early in life but resolved: "Heretics we may be, but we are resolved to remain honest."


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