By Rashid Abdi
“God is dead,” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared in 1882. These three words – audacious, shocking and iconoclastic at the time – have since been the subject of huge controversy.
And to this day, academic sleuths continue to pore over them with forensic intensity in a bid to decipher what the controversial thinker, uncharitably called “the Anti-Christ”, exactly meant.
Nietzsche, arguably the most plain-speaking thinker of his generation, must be turning in his grave at the massive scholarly enterprise that has ironically grown around the statement and the ensuing over-analysis.
Whether it was an oblique reference to the ossified form of official Christianity current in his day – a subtle critique of the complex and ritualised faith presided over by a clerical hierarchy that has “killed God” – we may never truly know.
In the event, whatever nuance he may have intended got lost as the phrase entered conventional discourse and lexicon as a bold declaration of atheism.
Two centuries since Nietzsche uttered those words, organised religion – a phenomenon he ridiculed as “deadening” and obsolete – is for billions very much alive.
The notion of a supreme deity – a God – is at the core of many diverse faiths, especially the three Abrahamic faiths. It is an intrinsic component of their spiritual systems, lending meaning and continuity to their unique rituals and forms of worship.
As a German and a European, Nietzsche must have been aware of the centrality of Europe to the fortunes of one organised faith tradition – Christianity.
Throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, and at the height of the age of empire, Europe was home to two contradictory processes that influenced Christianity positively and negatively.
Christian missionaries sent to the far-flung corners of the world to spread the gospel and build churches increased the number of adherents even while the power of the church was beginning to diminish at home. A number of philosophical and scientific ideas that sought to subvert all forms of organised religion grew in currency and underpinned the new positivist zeitgeist that created the secular ideal transmitted through education in Europe and in the colonies.
Understood thus, colonialism was both an evangelising enterprise as it was a secularising venture.
Because it was non-confessional and packaged as a progressive ideal towards which all human societies must evolve, European-style secularism had tremendous cross-faith appeal and was avidly copied by the political and intellectual elites in much of post-colonial Africa and Asia.
Whether understood and practiced in its liberal or Marxist sense, secularism remained the resilient and dominant idea that has shaped our modern societies and influenced socio-political and economic thinking throughout much of the 20th century. While secularism was never framed by its proponents as an anti-faith venture, it has had the cumulative, perhaps inadvertent, effect of eroding the religious way of life.
But has secularism run its course? Is the discernible religious revivalism in Muslim and Christian societies in particular a pointer to the looming demise of the secular age? What would be the impact if that were to happen?
Impossible perhaps to draw a definitive conclusion or make an accurate prognosis, but true to say secularism in on the back foot, and not just in the Muslim world where Islamist parties have been steadily gaining ground and taking over power.
The emerging body of evidence seems to suggest an ever increasing number of people in all human societies are turning to faith, mostly to organised religions, but also to a variety of New Age spiritual systems.
Experts seem to differ on the key drivers of the phenomenon. Some suggest it is a backlash against the dehumanising materialism of the consumer society fostered by the impersonal and disruptive forces of globalisation and, therefore, an attempt by individuals to regain some higher meaning, autonomy and certitude. Others say it is an innate existential imperative and a quest natural and common to all of humankind.
For millions of individuals, the rediscovery of faith is immensely rewarding and beneficial. These people tend to be more optimistic, well-adjusted, happier,and on average cope better in times of adversity. For many, faith seems to inspire great acts of human fellow-feeling, charity and generosity.
But the converse is also true. The return to faith can turn pathological and unleash malign and darker forces. Al-Shabaab, lets not forget, is a product of the return-to-faith phenomenon. In this case, faith has turned nihilistic – inspiring great acts of violence, human cruelty and barbarism.
By Rashid Abdi