‘God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!’ cries and yells the Madman in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Those visionary words echoing in that imaginary marketplace still reverberate today, louder than ever. But what did the Madman really mean by that? What he meant is that the advent of science and the confidence that humanity had put in rationality deeply shacked the long-established roots that Christianity had grown during the previous millennia. God and the Catholic Church were not needed by the post-Enlightenment individual anymore because their gravitational center now converged on their own abilities and on their own free will. There was no space for otherworldly hopes and expectations anymore, the pinnacles of the churches should have been oriented downstairs facing the human being living on earth and not the God remotely dwelling on heaven. God was dead, humanity had killed him with rational daring and success. And the modern, contemporary individual would reiterate the same words. They would proudly boast around how humanity managed to set itself free from the austere Christian yoke and how it courageously ran away from medieval obscurantism.
In spite of the fact that this would find its confirmation in the fact that the Catholic Church had objectively lost the major influence it exercised in the past, it remains to be assessed how hermetically humanity did close the doors of those much-condemned cathedrals. Indeed, if we dare to look close enough, we will find those doors to be surprisingly ajar. The reason for this is to be found in one of the most intrinsic and peculiar characteristics of any given religion: its ability to absorb and become tradition; its capacity to extend itself and articulate human life. Religions grew, matured and developed all along the history of humanity: they forged and absorbed our history and culture. And because religions constitute the depositary of our cultural, historical memory, we cannot and should not simply turn away from them completely. We can’t close all the communication with religion because we can’t close our communication with our past. Can we just simply forget about all the religious literature, art and architecture? Can we forget the terrible wars, the philosophical thinking, the revolutions that humanity accomplished in the name of, or against religion?
Surely this constitutes a motive that decelerates our runaway from the latter and actually, not even the only one. Indeed, if on the one hand the contemporary consolidation of atheism actively fights religion, on the other hand it ambiguously seems to promote a new kind of faith. I am not here arguing that atheism endorses religious contents or any dogmatic belief, but that it managed to substitute our past religion. And in doing so, it does resemble some of the ways religion (or at least, Christianity) actually works. Indeed, if the traditional Christian religion outwardly directed its attention and focus towards God, atheism, the new herald of our western and progressive thought, directs its contemplation on the nature of human beings and on human beings only. The perspective has been inverted, and now, with humanism and anthropology at the core of its ideological frame, atheism has become the place in which we find our certainties and assurances. Its dedication to human beings is its profession of faith, humanity and its correlated potential, its credo. In other words, human beings contain in themselves the object of their prayers, because what they are is homo faber, not anyone else’s product anymore.
However, when I refer to substitution I do not attribute to the term any implication of annihilation. Speaking in literary terms, I do not see atheism as potentially incarnated by the figure of Dostoevskij’s Grand Inquisitor: even if appearances would say the contrary, atheism did not put Christ in any jail. Neither did it die, as the Nietzschian Madman proclaimed. Indeed, what mythology and theology teach us is that the death of a god is only the beginning of his resurrection. In simpler words, God is not dead but, as one of the gospels would exclamate: ‘he has risen!’ (Luke:24:6-7). Risen, yes, but within another form, the form of our humanism.
How many times in fact, instead of collecting ourselves in a church aisle and recite prayers do we prefer to collect ourselves gazing at a spectacular sunset? Or how many times Instead of finding consolation in front of a divine image, do we find peace reading a book or maybe, by trying some kind of meditation? God has risen again but in a completely different form because what used to be sacred we now define as laic, and what used to be secular we now made sacred. What we stopped searching for in religion, we started searching elsewhere: in the world that surrounds us, in the mystery and in the complexity of science, in ourselves. What I find absolutely interesting in all this is the continuous, stubborn upheaval that human beings look for and that they are eager to obtain. Does it really matter whether they are searching that ascension on the gothic summit of a church or up the summit of their thoughts? Are the two even really unrelated? These all are questions we should pose to ourselves, questions that I believe touch important issues on the definition of religion and on the ways in which we still attempt to relate to it.
[Daiana Veronesi, she/her, @daianver]
[Photo credits: Charmaine]