The Death of St Francis

This article is a preview from the Summer 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

So far as I know, Jürgen Habermas set the ball rolling. In 2008 the German philosopher wrote a celebrated essay, “An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age”. The thrust of what he had to say first occurred to him much earlier, after he had attended a memorial service for Max Frisch, the Swiss author and playwright, at St Peter’s Church in Zurich in 1991. The service began with Karin Pilliod, Frisch’s partner, reading out a brief declaration written by the deceased. It stated, among other things: “We let our nearest speak, and without an ‘amen’. I am grateful to the ministers of St. Peter’s in Zurich ... for their permission to place the coffin in the church during our memorial service. The ashes will be strewn somewhere.” Two friends spoke but there was no priest and no blessing. The mourners were made up mostly of people who had little time for church and religion. Frisch himself had drawn up the menu for the meal that followed.

Habermas wrote in his essay that, at the time, the ceremony did not strike him as unusual but, as the years passed, the form, place and progression of the service came to strike him as odd. “Clearly, Max Frisch, an agnostic, who rejected any profession of faith, had sensed the awkwardness of non-religious burial practices and, by his choice of place, publicly declared that the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rîte de passage which brings life to a close.” And this more than a hundred years since Nietzsche announced the death of God.

The essay traces the development of thought from the Axial Age to the Modern period and argues that, while “the cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged”, the fact that religious traditions are an “unexhausted force” must mean that they are based more on reason than secular critics allow. This “reason”, he thought, lies in religion’s appeal to what he called “solidarity”, the idea of a “moral whole”, a world of collectively binding ideals, “the idea of the Kingdom of God on Earth”. It is this, he said, that contrasts successfully with secular reason, and provides the “awkward” awareness of something that is missing. In effect, he said that the main monotheisms had taken several ideas from classical Greece and based their appeal on Greek reason as much as on faith; this is one reason why they have endured.

Habermas has one of the most idiosyncratic and provocative minds of the post-World War Two generation – but his ideas on this subject are underlined by an increasing number of his contemporaries, all of whom seem to think that there is something missing in our lives.

First came Thomas Nagel, the American philosopher from New York University. In his book Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament (2009) he put his argument this way: “Existence is something tremendous, and day-to-day life, however indispensable, seems an insufficient response to it, a failure of consciousness. Outrageous as it sounds, the religious temperament regards a merely human life as insufficient, as a partial blindness to or rejection of the terms of our existence. It asks for something more encompassing without knowing what it might be.”

The most important question for many people, Nagel says, is: “How can one bring into one’s individual life a full recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole?” Among atheists, he says, physical science is at the top of the hierarchy of understanding the universe as a whole, “but it will seem unintelligible to make sense of human existence altogether ... We recognise that we are products of the world and its history, generated and sustained in existence in ways we hardly understand, so that in a sense every individual life represents far more than itself.”

At the same time he goes on to agree with the British philosopher Bernard Williams (and with Habermas) that the “transcendent impulse”, which has been with us since at least Plato, “must be resisted” and that the real object of philosophical reflection must be the ever more accurate description of the world “independent of perspective”. He argues: “The marks of philosophy are reflection and heightened self-awareness, not maximal transcendence of the human perspective ... There is no cosmic point of view, and therefore no test of cosmic significance that we can either pass or fail.”

In a later book, Mind & Cosmos (2012), Nagel went further, arguing that the neo-Darwinian account of the evolution of nature, life, consciousness, reason and moral values – the current scientific orthodoxy – “is almost certainly false”. As an atheist, he nonetheless felt that both materialism and theism are inadequate as “transcendent conceptions”, but at the same time acknowledged that it is impossible for us to abandon the search “for a transcendent view of our place in the universe”. And he therefore entertained the possibility (on virtually no evidence, as he conceded) that “life is not just a physical phenomenon”. According to the hypothesis of “natural teleology”, he wrote, there would be “a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them”. He admitted that “In the present intellectual climate such a possibility is unlikely to be taken seriously,” and indeed, he has been much criticised for this argument.

Nagel was followed by Ronald Dworkin, who, just before his death in 2013, published Religion without God, in which he argued that the familiar stark divide between people of religion and people without religion is too crude. Many people who do not believe in a personal god – or the “inanity” of the biblical account of creation, say – nonetheless believe in a “force” in the universe “greater than we are”. It is this, he said, that leads them to “an inescapable responsibility” to live their lives well, with due respect for the lives of others, and if they feel their life is wasted they suffer inconsolable regret.

Religious atheism, Dworkin said, was not a contradiction in terms because even atheists can feel “a sense of fundamentality”, that there are things in the universe that, as William James put it, “throw the last stone”. Life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty, he said, were the main ingredients of a religious attitude, irrespective of whether people believe in a personal god. Moreover, Dworkin added, these are convictions that one cannot isolate from the rest of life – they permeate existence, generate pride, remorse and thrill, mystery being an important part of that thrill. And he said that many scientists, when they confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles, have an emotional reaction that many describe in almost traditional religious terms – as “numinous”, for example. They have “a kind of emotional response that at least borders on trembling”. This is similar to Nagel when he said that “existence is something tremendous”.

This feels new, though some of it at least was presaged by John Dewey between the two World Wars and hinted at by Michael Polanyi in the late 1950s. The main point, for now, is that these three philosophers – on both sides of the Atlantic and each at the very peak of his profession – are all saying much the same thing in different ways. They share the view that, 500 and more years after science began to chip away at many of the foundations of Christianity and the other major faiths, there is still an awkwardness, as Habermas put it; or a blindness or “unsufficiency”, as Nagel writes; or a thrilling mystery, numinous in nature, as Dworkin characterised it, in regard to the relationship between religion and the secular world. There remains an awareness that “something” is missing.

All three agree with Bernard Williams that the “transcendent” impulse must be resisted but they acknowledge ironically that we cannot escape the search for transcendence. This is, in effect, they say, the modern secular predicament. And it accords with what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “subtraction story”: non-religious people lead lesser lives than the religious.

In itself this is impressive enough as a modern movement in thought. But now they have been joined by philosophers nearer home. Earlier this year Terry Eagleton published Culture and the Death of God and Roger Scruton gave us The Soul of the World. It is surely noteworthy when, in the midst of what some people choose to call militant atheism (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett), we have a raft of philosophers seemingly going against that trend.

Eagleton’s view is that atheism is in fact much harder than it looks. In the first part of his book he seeks to show how varieties of culture – the Enlightenment, Romanticism, German Idealism and High Modernism – never really succeeded in dispensing with the religious attitude. “No symbolic form in history,” he writes, “has matched religion’s ability to link the most exalted of truths to the daily existence of countless men and women.” One cannot place “any great hope of redemption in the idea of culture as a whole form of life. There are no whole forms of life.” In culture, he says, there is no grand telos – no common purpose – and we don’t appreciate how inadequate that is as an approach.

The new mood, he says, what appears to be a new need for a telos, has arisen “because the need to believe grows more compelling as capitalist orders become more spiritually bankrupt. It is also because that bankruptcy has been thrown into high relief by the spectre of radical Islam, a binding force that needs to be tackled if the so-called war on terror is to be won.”

At the same time, for Eagleton, post-modernism is probably the first truly atheist culture. “Whereas modernism experiences the death of God as a trauma, an affront, a source of anguish as well as a cause for celebration, postmodernism does not experience it at all. There is no God-shaped hole at the centre of its universe, as there is at the centre of Kafka, Beckett or even Philip Larkin.” This is why, for Eagleton, post-modernism is also post-tragic. “Tragedy involves the possibility of irretrievable loss, whereas for postmodernism there is nothing momentous missing.” And life without the possibility of tragedy, of irretrievable loss, he implies, is impoverished.

For Eagleton, the death of God is inconvenient but it only brings into clearer relief that a feeling of redemption is as urgent as ever and that the “solidarity” Habermas seeks can be found only with the poor and the powerless. In other words, God may be dead, but Marx isn’t.

Finally, and most recently, we come to Roger Scruton. In one sense of course Scruton does not belong squarely among this company – he is, unlike the others, a firm believer in God. In The Soul of the World, however, he conveys at least the impression that his view is softening in interesting ways and he tell us clearly what he thinks is missing in life among non-believers.

“The afterlife, conceived as a condition that succeeds death in time,” Scruton writes, “is an absurdity.” In saying elsewhere that the “I” is “transcendental”, this does not mean that it transcends death and exists elsewhere, he says, but that it exists “in another way, as music exists in another way from sound”. Arguments by analogy are by no means always convincing but notwithstanding Scruton’s occasional “supernatural” lapses, there is in his book some good sense, where originally religious ideas can be re-presented in secular garb – in particular his idea of sacrifice.

Whatever we think of Abraham and the Crucifixion, Scruton says, being guided by the notion of sacrifice places us in a special relationship to the world – this world. Sacrifice helps us verify ourselves, helps us belong, above all unites us – binds us – into a single moral community, reminds us what our obligations are. Our readiness for sacrifice opens us up to others, makes living together more joyful and meaningful. This is an idea of religion – Judaism and Christianity in particular – but he implies that we do not need to believe in God to live in this way. The privileges of first-person awareness are tempered and we become ready to embrace what Oscar Wilde called the “sordid necessity” of living with others. This binding ideal of sacrifice is the most important thing that is missing in our lives.

Where does it come from, this idea that something is missing in our lives? Is it true? Do Western non-believers really envy Islam its explosive binding force?

While I was researching my own recent book, The Age of Nothing: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, I surveyed a raft of playwrights, poets, philosophers, psychologists and novelists who have been active since Nietzsche made his fateful pronouncement, many of whom did and do not share this view that there is something missing in modern life. Some did – Ibsen, Strindberg, Henry James and Carl Gustav Jung would all be cases in point. But far more did not see any reason to mourn the passing of God – George Santayana, Stéphane Mallarmé, Wallace Stevens, Stefan George, Sigmund Freud of course, and, not least, the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. Alfred Sisley and Gustave Caillebotte, Degas, Pissarro and Renoir were each very different in artistic style but they did have something in common. As the art critic Robert Hughes writes in The Shock of the New, “It was a feeling that the life of the city and the village, the cafés and the bois, the salons and the bedrooms, the boulevards, the seaside and the banks of the Seine, could become a vision of Eden – a world or ripeness and bloom, projecting an untroubled sense of wholeness.”

Moreover, there was a time when it was religion that was felt to be missing something. Joshua Loth Liebman may not be remembered today as much as other contemporary American writers (he died young in 1948) but in his time he was every bit as widely read. His book, Peace of Mind, published in 1946 in the wake of war, was top of the New York Times bestseller list for 58 consecutive weeks, a record until it was overtaken by Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking.

Liebman, a Boston-based rabbi, wrote that religion, for all its wonderful achievements, has been responsible “for many morbid consciences, infinite confusions and painful distortions in the psychic life of people”. He drew attention to the fact that the overall strategy employed by the church to cope with wickedness has been repression. With few exceptions, Western religions have insisted that people can be good only through the stern repression of sensual thoughts and impulses; and, most important, he concluded, that strategy has not worked.

Psychotherapy, on the other hand, he said, is designed to help the individual work on his or her own problems without “borrowing” the conscience of a priest or pastor, and “it offers change through self-understanding, not self-condemnation.” It was this, as much as anything, that gave rise to the psychotherapy boom of the late 20th century and led George Carey, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1990s, to remark: “Christ the Saviour has become Christ the Counsellor.”

The turn from religion to therapy has not been wholly successful. As the sociologist Frank Furedi has written, it has led some people to define themselves by their pathology, a very limiting process. Nor is therapy, exactly, a binding process. But for many it has been a fresh form of freedom, and an escape from congenital sin and guilt.

In a sense Habermas answers his own question in a later book, Between Naturalism and Religion, where he argues that the fallibility of science has been as important as its technological successes and its theoretical breakthroughs. It is the “procedural reasoning” of science that counts now, he says, the process by which understanding is built up by trial-and-error, the point being that it directly goes against the previous metaphysical manner of living, which “crystallised around the theoretical attitude of one who immerses himself in the intuition of the cosmos.” The triumph of the one over the many was, for Habermas, the most important aspect of metaphysical thinking, underpinning much of religion as well. In this way, human history, cultures and language were given a sense of unity and purpose – but a synthetic one, which has ultimately held us back. Post-metaphysical thinking was an important step forward.

Yet it seems as though we are switchbacking again, or at least this raft of philosophers is. What they appear to mean is that our lives are missing a sense of unity, telos, of oneness, of wholeness; that the meaning of life is, essentially, as W.H. Auden once said, “a security blanket”.

We must beware this viewpoint. As Habermas said elsewhere, seemingly contradicting himself, “There is no transcendental perspective, but a plurality of perspectives.” Progress in all walks of life comes, as it does in science, from “unforced agreement in dialogue”, what John Dewey called “the unforced flowers of life”.

So it becomes necessary to put alongside Habermas, Nagel, Dworkin and Eagleton the words and example of the French author André Gide, who ended his last major creative effort, Thésée, with words that were to resound: “I have lived.”

Arguably the most important influence on Gide was the landscape that he explored with the family’s maid, a woman of the mountains, who shared – and fostered – his passion for wild flowers. He was, he said later, not just enchanted but “intoxicated” by the beauties of the countryside – above all the garrigue, or scrubland, of the Languedoc, where the wild flowers stood out and allowed him to appreciate their heroic and dignified qualities.

Because of this upbringing, Gide was temperamentally suited to the central idea of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, a horrible word but an important notion, which reacted against the view that the particular is somehow of less consequence than the general. Husserl said that, in giving our attention to the particular, “we fear the risk of fixing ourselves upon an exception to the rule”, but that was never Gide’s worry. He felt we should not “spoil” our life for any one objective; there is no one to pray to, and “a man must play the cards he has”. He came to believe that it is the “duty” of a person to “surpass” one’s self, not toward any specific goal – any telos – but simply toward the enrichment of existence itself. Gide insisted that the particular is as meaningful as the general, from which it follows that “truth” is not to be attained by any procedure – artistic, scientific, philosophical – but only by those experiences which are immediately accessible to perception and sensation. Nothing, he insists, can trump the argument of the individual who says, “I saw it” or “I felt it”.

This is, in essence, what Gide’s 1897 book Les Nourritures terrestres (Fruits of the Earth) was about, emptying the mind of its contents, so that “there is no longer anything between us and things”: “There were merchants of aromatics. We bought different kinds of resins from them. Some were for sniffing. Some were for chewing. Yet others were burned … Sheer being grew for me into something hugely voluptuous.” For Gide, touch was the most immediate of the senses, underlining that “Only individual things exist … things in themselves hold forth, accessible to everyone, all that life has to offer. Objects are neither ‘symbols’ nor manifestations of ‘laws’ more important than themselves, but independent entities that have successfully resisted all of man’s attempts to organise them into other things that can be neither seen, heard nor touched.”

The independence of things, the voluptuousness of objects, is all that there is, he warned. It can be terrible but it can also be exhilarating, an opportunity: “Existence is not something that may be thought of at a distance; it has to invade you abruptly, fix itself upon you.”

What this shows – and many other examples besides Gide could be given – is that there is something missing in our lives only if we think that there is. No wonder the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker advised his disciples, not entirely rhetorically, that in expressing themselves they should “Quit thinking!”

Peter Watson’s The Age of Nothing: How We Have Sought to Live since the Death of God is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God is published by Verso Books; Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World is published by Princeton University Press