Secularism has been on the rise for decades in Western countries, where people perceive the world and their place in it in purely “material” or “natural” terms, and critique is often voiced against religion and spirituality, which see reality and man’s place in it as founded upon ideal and transcendent grounds (e.g. God, cosmic consciousness). What are the cultural and social consequences of the rise of this group of secular people? What is their worldview and how does it intersect traditional distinctions within politics (e.g. left and right) and economics (e.g. low versus high levels of education)?
Traditionally, religion and theology have conceived of God as an infinitely imposing, omniscient, all-powerful Being that resides in a transcendent realm called “Heaven”. Like God, religion was everywhere in the lives of people, being the primary domain and institution that guided people’s lives in terms of culture, norms, values and ideals. In the 19th century, German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel launched a radical critique to this traditional conception of God and religion. According to Hegel, God cannot be a “being” because that would limit the idea of God, as beings are determinate things. According to Hegel, for God to be truly infinite, he must not be dependent on others and other relations but must be determined in and by himself. A tree cannot be infinite, because what we conceive as a tree is determined by other categories and relations, such as our idea of a forest, the plant kingdom, and even our words for describing a tree. What’s more, this self-dependent being must not be an abstract concept that is detached from all reality. For this, it must determine its own actions, goals and interests in and for the world and thus become conscious of itself. Therefore, our idea of God cannot be something that is wholly detached from Earth and man, because then God would not determine himself in his actions, goals and interests but remain wholly abstract and unconscious of himself.
The result of this conception of God is that God is not a being nor an abstract entity, but a self-determining and self-conscious being in the world of man. Hegel calls this Geist, or Spirit, emerging out of actions, deeds, and thoughts of finite, semi-conscious beings like man and trees. God or Geist can be seen as the spiritual substance of man on Earth, emerging as the spiritual bonds in well-ordered societies and communities, in the logical development of history, in the way our thought is logically structured. In this way, Hegel tried to philosophically understand the Christian idea that God is amongst us, that God has descended upon earth, mythologically in the narrative and imagination of the Son of God (Jesus) coming to earth to incarnate God. In this sense, Hegel already foresaw the “death of God” as philosophy could now understand the idea and religious imagination of God in logical and rational philosophical terms. That does not mean that God is reduced to man or the material world, but that God emerges in the image of Man as the being that is fully real, conscious, and self-determining: as the absolute Idea that permeates all our human activities, thoughts and actions. For Hegel, religion and philosophy both aim to know God, but religion only offers imaginative representations of God while philosophy really understands God as He is. This result of Hegel’s conception is that God is “being brought back to earth” is made more concrete and rationalized.
"We see that this Unhappy Conscious constitutes the counterpart and the completion of the comic consciousness that is perfectly happy within itself. Into the latter, all divine being returns, or it is the complete alienation of substance. The Unhappy Consciousness, on the other hand, is, conversely, the tragic fate of the certainty of self that aims to be absolute. It is the consciousness of the loss of all essential being in this certainty of itself, and of the loss even of this knowledge about itself-the loss of substance as well as of the Self, it is the grief which expresses itself in the hard saying that 'God is dead'." — Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §752 (1807)
We can consider Hegel as the pinnacle and logical conclusion of the modern idea of God. The only possibility of criticizing this idea is then a full denial of the Hegelian-modern conception of God. As such, Hegel also works with a “modern” conception of the idea of God, and since Hegel, a new philosophy of religion and God has emerged. The Russian writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky launched such a fundamental attack on the last point made by Hegel, that we can only find God by rational, logical thought. For Dostoevsky, we find God not because we think he is as the most rational or logical conclusion, but because we have a deep inner feeling that we as finite but spiritual and moral beings are dependent upon God, both for our moral and spiritual lives. Thinking that we can live without a God or that it is sufficient to know God but not believe in God leads to moral and spiritual nihilism, which Dostoyevsky saw emerging in the 19th century. For Dostoyevsky, we can only reach God through the “irrational” – resembling Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” – by seeing that the existence of God is not founded upon sound logic but on an inner feeling and spiritual outreach towards something that surpasses man and guides our behavior and thought and provide meaning to the things we do. In his books, themes such as suffering, suicide, poverty, are often unbearable without faith, and people often “lose their minds” without the security and stability provided by a strong faith. In this way, “demons” can quickly enter our minds and make us do evil and bad things (explaining the title of one of his greatest novels Demons (see quote).
“God is necessary, and therefore must exist... But I know that he does not and cannot exist... Don't you understand that a man with these two thoughts cannot go on living?” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons (1873)
In the 19th century, the German philosopher further radicalized Hegel’s rationalization of religion and God, although he gave it a diametrically opposite interpretation: there is no God at all and religion is “irrational”. Nietzsche’s “death of God”: following Hegel’s idea of God being in the image and emerging in and through the interactions of man. As such, we could “easily” kill God as being a delusory projection of ourselves. But Nietzsche warned that we are not ready to kill God, that there is not enough water “for us to clean ourselves” as we are soaked in the blood of God. Because God is not a transcendent or absolute being but is also the foundation of our moral system: killing God means killing all of our morals and thus the firm foundation of our worldview and everything we hold valuable. We no longer have a stable bedrock of our worldview and morals. As such, Nietzsche predicted, man will find other “idols” that have the same “religious structure” that God and Christianity once had and will give us values to subject ourselves to and provide an idea of how to live our lives, such as nationalism, scientism, capitalism.
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” — Friedrich Nietzsche, the Gay Science §125 (1882)
Nietzsche warned that people would not see the radical uplifting of our ideas and morals by the death of God: he saw that people internalized the critique although they remained “religious”, whether in the old, traditional way of institutions or in new twilight realms filled with idols. Like the old religion, these idols would have severe ideological destructive power, as it provided a new cause for people to dedicate their lives to – you live for the fatherland or the communist revolution, as proclaimed in the crusades centuries before. The 20th century proved Nietzsche right in this sense. But eventually, if we failed to create our own values and worldview, we would turn into passive nihilists, who Nietzsche called the “last men”, who only look out for their own material comfort and pleasure, without any pretension to live a life for higher values and ideals. We would finally descend into the Earth – without any God but pleasure and comfort.
Peter Berger is an important sociologist who inquired into the consequences of people’s changing ideological framework and morality. In his book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, Peter Berger uses the term nomos for the societal and cultural structures that guide human behavior and thinking. We do this by externalizing our internal values and ideals, projecting them onto the world, e.g. through language, institutional structures, societal practices, cultural norms. By realizing or objectifying our values and ideals into reality, reality become a “reflection” of our values and ideals and becomes “objective reality” because it emerges from the actions and deeds of people and is upheld by them. Lastly, we use this societal and cultural realization to ground and found our own ideas and actions, and then the process of internalization begins, in which we see the social structures again reflected in our subjective state. Then we believe that our social practices, institutions, and cultural norms are “the” absolute, given forms.
This threefold process of externalization, objectivation, and internalization thus creates a nomos: the subjective and objective structures through which people think and act in the world. As such, we make the world our “home”, we come to “own” reality instead of reality being a strange dimension in which man prima facie has no place. For millennia, religion provided the guiding institutional and ideological structures for this process: our reality was a religious nomos. This provided guidance, clarity and concrete commands to people, and thus a stable moral and spiritual outlook on life and reality. But with the process of secularism and the rise of atheism, religion lost its power for most people. As such, radical – radical in the etymological sense of the Latin radix, the root – change has happened to people’s worldview. And when this change comes too fast or is too “radical”, people may start to have a feeling of getting lost, as if nothing is valuable. In fact, it leads to the moral and spiritual nihilism Nietzsche and Dostoevsky warn of, which was presaged in Hegel’s modern conceptualization of God. What are the consequences of this?
A recent study by PEW Research finds that the religiously unaffiliated are now the largest group in the U.S. as well as the fastest-growing group. This cultural subgroup believes in nothing religious or spiritual in particular, and their defining characteristic is that they have an aversion to being defined. Demographically, they are more likely to be middle-aged, and are skeptical of institutional authorities (e.g. unwilling to receive Covid-19 vaccines). What is striking, according to the PEW Research Center, is that these people are often alienated from society, in one or several of various ways: i) they have a low level of education and low incomes and thus lack economic success, ii) they are politically inactive and indecisive and thus lack a clear political view, and iii) most have become disaffiliated with societal affairs, leading to a kind of social detachment. “Apathy” or passive nihilism can thus be considered their ethos, of which Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky warned in their philosophical analyses more than a century ago. What are the socio-cultural consequences of this? How does the death of God manifest in social, political and economic structures? How is this development being imaged and reflected in the arts, and what new worldviews are emerging in response to this? In what follows, we provide a brief overview of responses to these questions, structured along the moments of Berger’s process of creating a nomos in relation to the problems addressed by Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky.
First, we see that groups that lack a stable and foundational – meaning objectified – worldview (whether secular or religious) are potentially dangerous groups as these people are “rudderless” and could easily become the playthings of political and sociological forces. The sociologist Emile Durkheim called this anomie, in which one “does not have laws” (from the Greek a (without) and nomos (law)). For example, populism and conspiracy theories could be seen as new “idols” after the death of God that aim to provide people with guidance in living their lives and forming their worldview – all in “religious” terms, with a clear demarcation of Good and Bad, a “fall” from a superior period in time to which we must return (e.g. Make America Great Again), often providing leaders with a historical mission to save mankind. These populist movements want to establish new societies based on these foundations, a new way to externalize ideals and values.
The same anomic dynamics can be observed in countries that are just starting to modernize and where the abstract forces of modernization are disrupting people’s objectified and traditional ways of living and thinking – including religion. In his work Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra describes how rapid modernization in places such as India, Indonesia and the Middle East is creating a spiritual backlash in the form of fascist and fundamentalist religious groups, comparable to the situation in, for example, Italy and Germany in the 1930s, and resembling Dostoyevsky’s moral nihilism in the 19th century.
The group of “religiously unaffiliated” can also be divided into various subgroups, such as outright atheists, agnostics, spiritual practitioners, or “somethingists”. People who believe there is something like a God, although they do not adhere to institutionalized religion, have less recourse than atheists and religious persons for the objectification of their worldview, as religion has its churches, mosques, synagogues, and an increasing number of atheist institutions is cropping up, but “somethingists” lack these kinds of institutions and thus struggle with internalizing their worldview. However, the old, traditional political loyalty is crumbling, which creates opportunities for new political parties and spiritual groups to form institutional alliances with a distinct worldview with metaphysical statements and positions. Climate change and its relationship to nature has potential for a new story for this group, as does the belief in the “divine qualities” of technology.
After Hegel, we entered the cultural and philosophical era of postmodernism. Central to this was the disbelief in Grand Narratives and the modern belief in rationality and progress, and the deconstruction, skepticism and critique of this objectified culture and philosophy. However, as the postmodern discourse didn’t yield any positive narratives and principles, we are moving to a new era of “metamodern” culture and philosophy. In metamodernism, we no longer have an unambiguous worldview which is also externalized in institutions and practices. On the other hand, we dwell in uncertainty and face a plurality of options in our search for meaning, perspectives on the Good Life. This means that we have to creatively reconstruct meaningful stories and narratives that we internalize into our subjective states and worldview. This requires wholly other qualities than rational and logical thinking, or “sharp” criticism and deconstruction; it requires imagination, speculative scenario-building and synthetic thinking to create God.
New spiritual practices are emerging in the Hyper-Experience Economy, responding to the loss of our spiritual nomos, attempts to recreate the “higher or altered states of consciousness” that religion provided, taking the form of yoga, meditation, psychedelic drugs, or immersive virtual experiences. These practices try to internalize new ways to connect to the divine, whether in ourselves or in the external world. Interestingly, this could become the spiritual foundation of a society that is more just, inclusive, sustainable and equitable, i.e. it could be the beginning of a socio-technical Second Deep Transition. Media and entertainment are also attempting to fill this spiritual void and create new images of the divine and meaning, e.g. with "mythological" storylines (e.g. Marvel, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones), literary currents that stress meaning and activism (e.g. New Sincerity, post-irony), cultural practices that reach back to a pre-religious form of connectedness and spirituality (e.g. neo-paganism, deep ecology).
There is also a digital angle to this, as people can search for “their own truth” online and on social media. And if you find and voice a view that resonates with a broader network, such views can also gain enormous momentum, which can be dangerous and disruptive to the objectified world (e.g. Brexit, Trumpism, Anonymous). In such a “swarm culture”, this could lead to a huge new field of socio-cultural currents, with an explosion of views that were given room after the postmodern critique and deconstruction. This was especially the case when the modern state withdrew from the public life - particularly in Western Europe after totalitarianism – so that in metamodern societies there is room for Grand Narratives, mythological stories and heroic leadership again. This could lead to a new phase of convergence of all those worldviews, in which we playfully and creatively synthesize these views into new religions and spiritual practices to internalize these ideas. The same holds for science, which, in the modern period, was said to be non-normative and not at the level of worldviews. But scientists are now increasingly pushing those boundaries in order to be religious too, and express themselves philosophically about existential questions, e.g. what quantum metaphysics tells us about God or how the existence of complex life forms at the cellular level says something about the nature of intelligence.
And as we have moved beyond the modern belief in one religion and one God, we are also moving beyond the postmodern idea that there is nothing between heaven and earth, that all religion and spirituality must be deconstructed and unmasked as irrational forces. As such, more “syncretic” religions are emerging, in which people experience a sense of belonging to multiple religions at the same time, picking elements of various traditions that they find worthwhile and interesting. For religious institutions, this requires a fundamental rethinking of their roles in the lives of people, less focus on dogma and preaching the “one and only” true scripture and teachings, and more on creating new religious and spiritual assemblages of the world’s traditions. Interestingly, as we are increasingly moving our physical, real-world practices into virtual worlds, religions are becoming virtualized as well. This could stimulate religious institutions to “codify” their teachings and religious frameworks, as software developers do for their applications, so that users can enter these lines of code as if reading holy Scripture. With an open-source approach, the various “religious codes” could compete against each other, in which the most broadly adopted and “best” code could become something like the core protocol or code of religion, a kind of virtual revelation of God.
These examples show that new forms of religion, ideas of God and spirituality as well as religious institutions are emerging. Following Nietzsche, we could say that God is dead and will remain dead, and that the secular age is here to stay. And following Dostoyevsky, new pathways and ways of relating to the divine and spiritual are being developed. In this sense, we are also moving beyond Hegel’s idea of the death of God and welcoming a new idea of religion and the divine.