“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.