Winter 2000

Religion and Spirituality

Funeral Pyre of a Straw God

David F. Lloyd

As if to reemphasize Nietzsche’s well-known words, “God is dead, several books about the Deity’s death and funeral have been published as the millennium draws to a close.

Can God—should God—finally be laid to rest as we head into the new millennium? After all, the funeral wake has been going on for an inordinate time—over three centuries by some calculations.

Preparing the Pyre

One of the books fueling the Deity’s funeral pyre is God’s Funeral (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1999) by the influential British biographer, journalist and novelist A.N. Wilson. Wilson’s erudite and scholarly work is about the rejection of a belief in God by many philosophers and thinkers in Victorian England, and how they “killed off” God—at least to their own satisfaction. What they did for much of the rest of the English-speaking world was to shatter what had once been the absolutes of God’s existence and the certainties of religious dogma.

Wilson contrasts the relative religious certainty of the earlier part of the 19th century with the subsequent decline of the Anglican Church in England and the Catholic Church in Europe.

In his partly autobiographical work, All in the Mind: A Farewell to God (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1999), Ludovic Kennedy, British broadcaster and writer, spells out why he is a confirmed atheist. When his aging father—a man who prayed twice daily—lost his life early in World War II, Kennedy’s doubts and unanswered questions were painfully focused. He commented, “Intelligent Christians must know that prayers go unanswered. If it were otherwise, every non-believer in the land would convert to Christianity tomorrow. Why then do Christians continue to pray?” (p. 12).

Karen Armstrong’s A History of God (Vintage Books, London, 1999) approaches the issue of God’s “death” from her religious and personal background. “The more I learned about the history of religion,” she says, “the more my earlier misgivings were justified. The doctrines that I had accepted without question as a child were indeed man-made, constructed over a long period of time. Science seemed to have disposed of the Creator God and biblical scholars had proved that Jesus had never claimed to be divine. As an epileptic, I had flashes of vision that I knew to be a mere neurological defect: had the visions and raptures of the saints also been a mere mental quirk? Increasingly, God seemed an aberration, something that the human race had outgrown.”

Armstrong continues, “Despite my years as a nun, I do not believe that my experience of God is unusual. My ideas about God were formed in childhood and did not keep abreast of my growing knowledge in other disciplines. I had revised simplistic childhood views of Father Christmas; I had come to a more mature understanding of the complexities of the human predicament than had been possible in the kindergarten. Yet my early, confused ideas about God had not been modified or developed. People without my peculiarly religious background may also find that their notion of God was formed in infancy. Since those days, we have put away childish things and have discarded the God of our first years” (p. 3).

The Seeds of Christianity’s Demise

In different ways, these three books trace the dynamic forces and profound changes that have shaped the confused world of modern Christianity and its counterbuffs, agnostic and atheistic humanism. The writers offer no solutions. Indeed, Kennedy’s All in the Mind eagerly anticipates the further demise and destruction of what he sees as an outworn faith.

Wilson, author of God’s Funeral, commends Armstrong’s A History of God: “This is the most fascinating and learned survey of the biggest wild goose chase in history—the quest for God.” Armstrong herself concludes: “Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation; they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. . . . If we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings” (A History of God, p. 457, emphasis added).

Was the true God ever involved in this religious confusion in the first place? Or is the god some seem so eager to kill off merely an empty human construct? 

It is in response to this suggestion that we ask whether the true God was ever involved in this religious confusion in the first place. Or is the god some seem so eager to kill off merely an empty human construct? If so, we may be witnessing the heaping up of the most colossal yet futile funeral pyre in history—for the burning of a straw god.

A Despotic God?

Kennedy and Armstrong both trace the demise of God back to Judeo-Christian roots, although Armstrong also brings in Islam, the other major monotheistic faith. Michael Harrington, author of The Politics at God’s Funeral (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1983), more accurately assigns the roots of modern Christianity as Greco-Judeo-Christian. That distinction will be revisited, as it is a vital clue to the origins and development of traditional Christianity.

Kennedy, who presses his case for atheism based on the record of bloodshed in the Old Testament, agrees with 18th-century philosopher and writer Thomas Paine: “Referring to what he called ‘the obscene stories, the cruel executions and unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Old Testament is filled,’ Thomas Paine . . . said it was more consistent with the word of a demon than the word of God. ‘A history of wickedness,’ he concluded, ‘that has served to corrupt and brutalise mankind’” (All in the Mind, p. 47).

Armstrong, on the other hand, sets God’s judgments in the context of ancient Israel’s persistent covenant breaking and their involvement in the indigenous pagan religions (and their lewd and sometimes murderous rites), against which God had incessantly warned His people.

Yet both, in their way, designate the Old Testament God (as they understand Him) as a human construct. Kennedy states: “God, like all other gods of the pantheon, is not autonomous but the brainchild of those who invented him” (All in the Mind, p. 52). Armstrong writes of “the various forms of fundamentalism that are rife among Jews, Christians and Muslims at the time of writing. A personal God like Yahweh can be manipulated to shore up the beleaguered self in this way, as an impersonal deity like Brahman can not” (A History of God, p. 68).

Perhaps they are both right—the notions of God that have developed over two millennia are a construct. Perhaps the construct does indeed need to be rejected as a straw god rather than manipulated and resuscitated. But in that case it begs the question, Is there a real God? When did the world lose touch with the reality of such a God? Might discovery of the true God—not mistaken ideas about God—form the basis for Armstrong’s “vibrant new faith for the 21st century”?

The Pagan Connection

Armstrong makes some insightful comments about the way Christianity was adapted by the religions of the Roman Empire.

Nobody [in the first-century Roman Empire] expected religion to be a challenge or to provide an answer to the meaning of life,” she says. “People turned to philosophy for that kind of enlightenment. . . . Religion was a matter of cult and ritual rather than ideas; it was based on emotion not on ideology or consciously adopted theory. This is not an unfamiliar attitude today: many of the people who attend religious services in our own society are not interested in theology, want nothing too exotic and dislike the idea of change. . . . They do not expect brilliant ideas from the sermon and are disturbed by changes in the liturgy. In rather the same way, many of the pagans of late antiquity loved to worship the ancestral gods, as generations had done before them” (A History of God, p. 109).

By the end of the second century, . . . some truly cultivated pagans began to be converted to Christianity and were able to adapt the Semitic God of the Bible to the Greco-Roman ideal.”

Karen Armstrong, A History of God

Armstrong continues: “By the end of the second century, however, some truly cultivated pagans began to be converted to Christianity and were able to adapt the Semitic God of the Bible to the Greco-Roman ideal” (p. 116). For instance, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215) equated Yahweh with the god of Plato and Aristotle.

But the new religion was not standing still. “It was beginning to appeal to highly intelligent men who were able to develop the faith along lines that the Greco-Roman world could understand” (p. 125).

Augustine and other early church fathers had a similar fascination with the thoughts of ancient philosophers. Church teachings such as celibacy, asceticism and penance owed much more to paganism than they did to early Christian thinking.

This fascination with, and addiction to, the Greek and Latin classics, when viewed through the prism of traditional Christianity, continues even today in English public schools. Wilson comments: “The English love affair with the ancient world is a fascinating object of study. For the purposes of our consideration of the loss of religious faith in the nineteenth century it is remarkable that a man like Dr Arnold [Thomas Arnold, 1795–1842, headmaster of Rugby Public School], who believed it was his mission to make boys Christian, should have seen nothing odd about them spending the four or five most formative years of their lives being filled with knowledge of pre-Christian culture. . . . While English law, following St Paul, told them homosexuality was the most heinous of sins, Plato and Sappho told them otherwise. While their Bibles told them to mortify the flesh, their Catullus told them to celebrate its joys while they could. A confusing diet” (God’s Funeral, p. 211).

Confusing indeed. And frightening. For it was the English public schools (particularly Eton, Harrow and Rugby) and ancient universities (Cambridge and Oxford) that produced many of the leaders, thinkers and shapers of Britain.

Constantine, Christianity and Coercion

Kennedy’s book consumes much space surveying the bloody past of Christianity. Once it became the Roman state religion at the behest of Roman emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, the oppressed became the oppressor. Coercion within the church began in earnest with Constantine forcing an interpretation of the Trinity on 500 bishops during the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.

The church’s exercise of power reached new heights with the elevation of Ambrose, who progressed from unbaptized layman to Bishop of Milan in eight days. He later became Bishop of Rome and was responsible for the baptism of one of the most well known individuals in the history of traditional Christianity, Augustine. Augustine’s intolerance started the church down the long road to the 16th-century Inquisition. Jerome records Augustine’s approval of the hideous tortures used against those who refused to recant: “‘If discipline were removed,’ [Augustine] said, ‘there would be chaos.’”

Another trend that Augustine set in motion was the church’s revulsion toward, and suspicion of, sex—an aversion Kennedy traces back to Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Hippocrates, and to Romans such as Seneca and Pliny the Elder.

All in the Mind continues with harrowing accounts of the eight Crusades, of ruthless suppression of “heretics,” of a church oppressively obsessed with sex and celibacy yet riddled with scandals of fake relics, indulgences and corruption at all levels of its hierarchy.

Then there were the horrors of the Inquisition. And the religious killings didn’t stop with the advent of Protestantism. Martin Luther himself called for the death of members of a new sect, the Anabaptists, who believed in adult baptism by immersion. “A crude saying among the Lutherans and Calvinists was that if the Anabaptists wanted water, they should have it, and they executed them by drowning while the Catholics stuck to their traditional method of burning” (All in the Mind, p. 144).

All in all, in his chapter “Christianity’s Killing Fields,” Kennedy traces almost 1,300 years—from 500 to 1800—of church history. Yet, in contrast to Christ’s teachings of love, mercy, forgiveness and unselfishness, Kennedy notes that “there was very little recorded about love and forgiveness” as it pertained to the religion of those who claimed to follow Christ.

Again the question, Was the God of the Bible involved in that kind of religion?

The Renaissance and the First Atheists

According to Kennedy, it was the Renaissance that opened the first cracks in the armor of religious dogma. “It was the rediscovery of the ancient Greeks and Romans at the time of the Renaissance that led to the first beginnings of dissent from Christian orthodoxy. George T. Buckley in his Atheism in the English Renaissance says it brought about a shift of interest to the affairs of this world as opposed to the Church or state: ‘Men began to be aware that Plato and Aristotle were not forerunners of Christ but representatives of a culture in which Christ and his church had no part’” (All in the Mind, p. 163).

Additional food for Renaissance thought was Pliny the Younger’s Natural History, which went into 38 editions between 1469 and 1532. He denied the existence of a god who oversaw or was concerned about people or their affairs, and he denied the immortality of the soul. “Most pleasing of all, however, to Humanists of the time were the works of Plutarch and Seneca who preached a morality based on reason and conscience rather than one dictated by a god; which led Erasmus to say, ‘Remain good Christians but profit by ancient wisdom’” (All in the Mind, p. 164).

This is a “heads, I win; tails, you lose” scenario for the influence of pagan thought against the unadulterated message of the Apostolic Writings. 

Here we have a supreme irony, apparently passed over completely in the books we are surveying—and indeed by most historians. On the one hand, the early shapers of the Roman Church were heavily influenced by the pagans and their philosophers. On the other hand, it was also pre-Christian Greek and Roman thinkers (sometimes the same ones) who shaped the Renaissance revolution of philosophical and religious thought. This is a “heads, I win; tails, you lose” scenario for the influence of pagan thought against the unadulterated message of the Apostolic Writings.

One of the more interesting aspects of All in the Mind is Kennedy’s eighth chapter, “The First Atheists, 1540–1840.” It comes as a surprise that there were overt atheists in Italy as early as the mid-16th century—at the height of the Inquisition. In England, although there were rumblings of atheism and anti-atheism, it was not until the second half of the 18th century that atheism took a certain hold. The writings of Scottish philosopher and author David Hume (1711–1776) were greatly instrumental in this. He produced numerous works that eschewed all religion, although he apparently saw himself as more of a skeptic than a thorough-going atheist.

From the end of the 18th century, openly atheistic publications were printed in Britain; writers included Matthew Turner and the poet Shelley. In the early 19th century Richard Carlisle spent nine years in prison and suffered punitive fines for publishing atheistic and other radical works—though he continued his publishing endeavors even from Dorchester Prison.

As Kennedy attests, the undercurrent of atheism and agnosticism was flowing even while there was an immense resurgence of Christianity. There was a boom in church building, and the 19th-century atheists were “as pinpricks in the sides of the religious establishment.”

In America, the 19th-century anarchist Morrison I. Swift wrote acerbically about the enigma of human misery: “These facts invincibly prove religion a nullity. Man will not give religion two thousand centuries or twenty centuries more to try itself and waste human time; its time is up, its probation is ended. Its own record ends it. Mankind has not aeons and eternities to spare for trying out discredited systems. . .” (God’s Funeral, p. 7).

Yet more wood for the pyre—but whose?

Enlightenment and the Erosion of Faith

Kennedy links the decline in religious bloodletting with the approach of the Age of Enlightenment. The grip of the Catholic and Protestant churches was loosened, and in came other denominations such as Congregationalists, Independents, Unitarians, Methodists and Quakers. A further undermining came from philosophers such as John Locke (1632–1704), who found such doctrines as original sin and the Trinity logically questionable and sought a more solid philosophical platform for religion.

The Enlightenment,” says author Harrington, “. . . began the task of destroying the theological basis of despotism and helped create the consciousness which exploded in the French Revolution. But its rationalist substitute for faith turned out to be simplistic and unworkable, which is one of the reasons for the void in contemporary culture. Moreover, at the same time that the Enlightenment put humans in God’s traditional place at the center of the universe, it defined that universe as amoral” (The Politics at God’s Funeral, p. 12).

Bearing in mind the ignorance that certain church dogmas had not only encouraged but created, it is not surprising that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species had the effect it did. As Kennedy points out, there were children who knew the catechism backward yet had no tangible concept or knowledge of God.

Wilson notes that “the nineteenth century had created a climate for itself–philosophical, politico-sociological, literary, artistic, personal—in which God had become unknowable, His voice inaudible against the din of machines and the atonal banshee of the emerging egomania called The Modern. The cohesive social force which organized religion had once provided was broken up. The nature of society itself, urban, industrialized, materialistic, was the background for the godlessness which philosophy and science did not so much discover as ratify” (God’s Funeral, p. 12).

The rise of secularism and atheism and the consequential demise of belief in God cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the impact that scientists such as J.B. Lamarck, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin and T.H. Huxley have had on modern thinking. Science and enlightenment proved to be a deadly brew in the weakening of faith.

All of this, as Wilson points out, played itself out on the Victorian age, which prefigured and, in part, shaped our own. He observes that “only when serious religion began to revive, first among the evangelicals, then among the Anglicans and Catholics, did the destructive business of thinking about religion begin” (God’s Funeral, p. 25).

Various works on the life of Jesus appeared around that time, their purpose being to strip Him of His deity and reduce Him to a mere man. Notable among the books that sent shock waves through mid-Victorian Britain was “Das Leben Jesu” (“The Life of Jesus”) by David Strauss (1808–1874), translated by George Eliot. The deep currents of unbelief in this work were corrosive to any belief in a deity. Eliot’s own words were ahead of the times, but indicative: “I regard these writings [the Scriptures] as histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction. . . .”

In Wilson’s words, “It was the growing sense that this indeed was all that He was or had been—a man, and not a god—which lay at the heart of the nineteenth century loss of faith” (God’s Funeral, p. 131).

A New Religion Without God

As religious beliefs in general waned, optimism grew in a future based on scientific discoveries. The French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857) believed that the world had entered “the Positive Stage.” Humanity was now lord of creation—courtesy of science.

In the post-[French] Revolutionary situation of the 1830s and 1840s the Church made its comeback,” Wilson explains, “and the pious revivals in England—with their Clapham Sects, their evangelical reformers, their Puseyism and their Irvingism, their resurrection of the Church of Rome, their Cardinals Wiseman and Manning—had their Continental counterparts. But as far as the intelligentsia were concerned (and their attitude was undoubtedly shared by many of the periodical-reading, middle-class public) the Church, together with the ideas and stories it enshrined, was out of date. The future lay with radicalism, feminism, parliamentary reform, suffrage, education” (God’s Funeral, pp. 51–52).

Kennedy, commenting on present-day Britain, is pleased that this came to pass. “[The Christian denominations’] boat is sinking,” he says. “To all intents and purposes we already are a secular society in which Christian faith and practices have become largely moribund. Take the teaching of Christianity in schools. . . . In my own county of Wiltshire the syllabus is extraordinarily thorough, embracing not only the Old and New Testaments but also the main tenets of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. For fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds the syllabus is surprisingly catholic, subjects included being: Theism, Atheism, Humanism, Marxism, Freud, Christian Myth, Darwin, the Big Bang” (All in the Mind, p. 17).

Regarding humanism, Armstrong points out that it is itself a religion. “My study of the history of religion has revealed that human beings are spiritual animals. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. . . . It is also true to say that our Western liberal humanism is not something that comes naturally to us; like an appreciation of art or poetry, it has to be cultivated. Humanism is itself a religion without God—not all religions, of course, are theistic. Our ethical secular ideal has its own disciplines of mind and heart and gives people the means of finding faith in the ultimate meaning of human life that were once provided by the more conventional religions” (A History of God, pp. 3–4).

Kennedy rejoices that “many of us have freed ourselves from Christianity’s shackles.” One can sympathize, if by that he means the oppressive tyranny of humanly devised state religions that allowed no opinion—on pain of death, torture, imprisonment or censure—but their own. Indeed, the lack of correlation between the beliefs and practices of the church down through history and the ideals espoused by Christ is, as atheist Kennedy points out, a gaping chasm.

The lack of correlation between the beliefs and practices of the church down through history and the ideals espoused by Christ is, as atheist Kennedy points out, a gaping chasm. 

The yawning incongruities within traditional Christianity over the past two millennia may have heaped fuel on the funeral pyre, but is the biblical God—whom Kennedy uses to embarrass traditional Christianity—deserving to be placed on it?

Dilemma for the New Millennium

For her part, Armstrong believes that “when religious ideas have lost their validity, they have usually faded away painlessly: if the human idea of God no longer works for us in the empirical age, it will be discarded. Yet in the past people have always created new symbols to act as a focus for spirituality. Human beings have always created a faith for themselves, to cultivate their sense of the wonder and ineffable significance of life. The aimlessness, alienation, anomie and violence that characterises so much of modern life seems to indicate that now that they are not deliberately creating a faith in ‘God’ or anything else—it matters little what—many people are falling into despair.”

She continues, “In the United States, we have seen that ninety-nine per cent of the population claim to believe in God, yet the prevalence of fundamentalism, apocalypticism and ‘instant’ charismatic forms of religiosity in America is not reassuring. The escalating crime rate, drug addiction and the revival of the death penalty are not signs of a spiritually healthy society. In Europe there is a growing blankness where God once existed in the human consciousness” (A History of God, p. 456).

Harrington comments that “the committed believers and unbelievers now have the same enemy: the humdrum nihilism of everyday life in much of Western society” (The Politics at God’s Funeral, p. 11).

Is the ongoing evolution of religion anything to pin our hopes on for the new millennium?

The fabrication of creeds continues [from the nineteenth century] to the present moment,” says Harrington, “and is one of the signs of the death of the traditional God. ‘A rain of Gods,’ Leslek Lolakowski writes, ‘is falling from the sky on the funeral rites of the one God who has outlived himself’” (p. 35).

Perhaps the problem with this dying deity is that men have too often transformed him into the image of their own current convenience. Not only has traditional Christianity absorbed immense influences from the pagan philosophers and the syncretic, parasitic concepts of gnosticism, but paganism itself is at the very root of much Christian practice.

In the meantime, the comparatively new religion of humanism really doesn’t promise new and better things. Perhaps we can identify with the thoughts of the philosopher Hegel as we face the new millennium. Harrington quotes: “As in the times of the Roman Empire, because the general unity of religion had vanished and the gods had been profaned and political life was without wisdom or trust, reason took refuge in private rights . . . and [just as at that time] private well-being was turned into an end in itself, so it is now” (The Politics at God’s Funeral, p. 73).

Harrington’s somewhat pessimistic forecast of 17 years ago is still applicable. “There is indeed a de facto atheism in the West today,” he says, “but it did not come about as a result of a heroic struggle to create a new type of human consciousness. God is dying, but without an heir. Or, more precisely, the heir is not the heroic, this-worldly consciousness of Marx’s communism but the this-worldly consciousness of a hedonistic capitalism which wallows in an eternal, spiritless present” (p. 81).

Sociologist Max Weber’s words also have an amazing resonance in today’s society. Harrington comments: “No one knows, Weber writes, ‘whether at the end of this tremendous development there will be completely new prophets or the rebirth of new ideas and ideals or—if neither of these—a mechanistic ossification embellished with a desperate self-importance. Then the truth about the “last men” of this cultural development would be “specialists without spirit, hedonists without heart, these nothings imagine themselves to have climbed to a never-before-achieved stage of humanity”’” (p. 119).

Go to the Handbook

As we face this contemporary crisis of belief, the world would indeed benefit from a “new focus of meaning” as Karen Armstrong suggested. She admits, “The doctrines that I accepted without question as a child were indeed man-made, constructed over a long period of time.”

It should be apparent, then, that any new focus in meaning will not be found in the examination of human ideas about God. This has been part of the problem all along. Humanity needs to put aside failed human reasoning and go to the source itself—the Bible. Yet the book that claims to be God’s handbook for the human race has been ignored and suppressed by bigotry, custom and practice.

This book, which so many seek to discredit, is the only tangible constant in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And it doesn’t come with any man-made religious, political or sociological agenda. Humanity has tried everything else. Why not allow God to speak to us directly through His inspired Book of books?

When all is said and done, it’s not the true God who is dead. What has died is a straw god—the product of the endless machinations of human reasoning.

As for all these empty man-made ideas, by all means light the fire.