Museums of religion

“What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” – Nietzsche, The Gay Science


Along with a few others, I have often balked at the New Atheists’ triumphalism. My worry has been that, yes, even though God is dead, we should worry a bit about what comes next. Religion has long served most (all?) societies as an institutional moral foundation. A great many human beings – across classes, incomes, employments, races, and nations –  have been brought up to believe in a moral structure to the universe, an objective right and wrong that is embodied in divine beings who care about how we live. At the center of our many great cities are tremendous, soaring buildings that serve to inspire us – and perhaps also intimidate us – into benevolent lives. Even if we follow Plato’s arguments in the
Euthyphro, and admit that these divine beings aren’t responsible for making these moral truths true, we still will insist that religious superstructures add a powerful reinforcement to any moral intuitions. There is more than a shade of difference between “This seems right to me” and “The almighty God commands it.”

Okay, it’s all fiction. But (or I have thought) it is a fiction we should not lightly abandon. As Voltaire wrote, “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him” – for, as Dostoyevsky wrote, “If God did not exist, all things would be possible.” And while it is true that I know many morally upright atheists, and try myself to be one, there is the worry that the morality with which we atheists easily coast along is in fact a kind of hangover from religious upbringings. Cultural inertia carries all of us along in a quasi-religious direction, but the resistance of every day will eventually erode that force, and then where will we be, with neither compass nor horizon? At the end of my book on Spinoza’s theology, I wondered whether some form of his pantheism may offer as more hope in a moral future.

But my recent travels in the Netherlands have made me think I worry too much. In the past, when I have entered into a cathedral, I have done so with a peculiar feeling of trepidation, worried that I might in some way offend the people for whom the buildings are houses of God. I whisper quick instructions to my kids, taking their hats from their heads and insisting they move slowly and quietly, with reverence and respect. I offer occasional explanations of this or that stained glass window, of the stations of the cross, of the candles burning before altars. I hope that they get a sense of the deep spiritual power of these places. And when I have caught sight of someone kneeling in prayer, I feel like a rude intruder.

But this time, as we entered various magnificent churches, I had none of those feelings, since the buildings have been turned entirely into museums. Informational boards are set up, explaining the history of the building, and telling of the famous people buried beneath our feet. Visitors converse at normal volume levels, and freely roam everywhere. You can walk up around the altar and take a selfie, if you want.

There still are functioning churches in the Netherlands, to be sure; there is even a Bible Belt (De Bijbelgordel) of conservative Protestants. But, as some Dutch friends explained, for most citizens religion is a thing of the past. “Then are most people atheists?” my wife asked. No, they answered; it’s more like, for most people, religion just is not a live issue. (They liked my term “post-theist.”)

And, at least so far as I can see, the Dutch are not experiencing any sort of moral drift or spiritual ennui. Their society, as a whole, evidences a far greater “Christian” morality in its sense of social justice than does the allegedly Christian United States. (Our friends tell us that the Dutch are having to import prisoners from other nations, since theirs are going empty.) And while I am sure that people knowledgeable about Dutch politics and society than me can point to many real problems, those problems will not seriously compete with tens of thousands of handgun deaths, the cruelty of anti-abortion lawmakers, the ignorant battles over Texas textbooks, and state-sanctioned executions. (My own state recently legalized death by firing squad, in case we have trouble securing the favored drugs for lethal injections, since other nations are feeling moral qualms about assisting us in killing our own citizens.)

Okay, okay; let my rant subside. I know that my very limited experience is not broad enough to establish serious conclusions about such matters. But it has been enough to suggest quite strongly to my own mind that the worry “what happens if religion dies?” is misplaced. There are scores of factors going in to the form of morality in a society, and while religion is implicated in some of them, its presence or absence is not decisive.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, Nietzsche. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Museums of religion

  1. Mike says:

    I’ve often thought the death of God was overly melodramatic. But for people who used to be religious I suppose there’s some sort of christian-illusions-shaped hole that’s left and Nietzsche felt that as much as anyone.

    I’m not worried about the new atheists triumphalism nearly so much as their refusal to learn from the past and their transporting the terrors of Christian apologetics (specifically Christian beliefs about the power of beliefs) and dogmatism into atheistic space.

    In support of your more general point I’d add a less melodramatic Nietzschean reading. When drives are turned against themselves, what comes out the sides is more terrible than what would result naturally (in most cases) and drives expressed end up being moderated naturally in more balanced and healthy way then drives suppressed (especially by abstinence or another form of absolute suppression). The validity of that is a question for psychology but that makes sense to me.

    The outstanding problem I see with being rid of religion is that religion is sorta a naturally occurring governing mechanism for communities. That’s nice if you want a state without the full apparatus of a state but it probably even lacks that power in modern society. “Individuality has replaced faith, reason the Bible, politics religion and the Church, the earth heaven, work prayer, poverty hell, and man Christ.” [Feuerbach]. I’d add we should expect those replacements to have similar characteristic failures.


  2. Huenemann says:

    Nicely put, Mike. The “individuality” you/Feuerbach mention is rife with the alienation Marx thought comes with industrial capitalism. The trick, I suppose, is to find plausible ways to overcome that alienation and concern ourselves with one another. Getting gov’t out of rich people’s pockets would be a decent start.


  3. No real problems over there like the cruelty of anti-abortion lawmakers over here. That got me thinking.

    I’ve paid little attention to abortion; it is (more or less) settled law, it doesn’t directly concern me, and though I am aware of the applied ethics type of reasoning (Thomson and Marquis and others) for or against, I can’t really be bothered.

    But now we have the PP videos that have surfaced this summer.

    Suppose there was some place in the world overrun with unwanted rabbits. People killed the unwanted rabbits, and sold their fur and meat. We have no moral intuition that tells us this is wrong. We just don’t. PETA types might argue that it is wrong, but they have to work out a sequence of arguments to get there that many people would find overly arcane or vacuous.

    Now suppose there was another place in the world that had many unwanted adult humans — unemployable people who were a burden. If these people were killed and their organs sold, everyone — well, nearly everyone — would be outraged. One needs no complicated arguments.

    Put aside the secular for-or-against abortion debates; put aside all religious doctrine as well. Even without any of that, I would say anyone who pays attention would be bludgeoned by the barbaric, ghastly nature of PP’s practices revealed by the videos. One has a direct and irrefutable moral intution: what they do is much more like the killing of the adult humans than it is like the killing of the rabbits. One needs a sequence of PETA-style arguments, plus plenty of euphemism (bodily autonomy!) and misdirection to hold the line against what is obvious.

    Since the Dutch as I understand it are even more relaxed about abortion than we are, here is a perfect example of the loss of compass and horizon, not in the future, but now. It’s not visible to those who agree with Dutch mores, so there seem to be no real problems over there, and cruelty over here. Or maybe you are a sly and subtle Christian satirist.


    • Huenemann says:

      Nope, I’m not a Christian satirist. Regardless of whether or not abortion is morally permissible, it does seem to me that many conservative politicians’ proposals make sense only if one believes women who are going through the truly agonizing decision to abort are shallow, idiotic creatures who need to be given a stern talking to, and shown a video of a live fetus, in order for them to grasp the magnitude of horror they are about to commit. That sort of presupposition is not only blindly ignorant – when it is put into practice, it is cruel.


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