Modern attitudes toward progress share many characteristics with traditional Christian theology.
Progress as we know it has been entirely dependent on the breakneck exploitation of half a billion years of stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels. In After Progress (New Society Publishers, 2015), John Michael Greer addresses the impending paradigm shift as the Western world adjusts to the finite reality of resources on earth. The following excerpt is from chapter one, “The Noise of the Gravediggers.”
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There are any number of ways we could talk about the religious dimensions of the crisis of our time. The mainstream religions of today’s industrial societies offer one set of starting points, while my own Druid faith, which is very nearly as far from the mainstream as you can get, offers another set. Then, of course, there’s the religion that nobody talks about and most people in the industrial world believe in, the religion of progress, which will be central to the discussion ahead and which has its own noticeably dogmatic way of addressing such issues.
Still, a starting point a little less obvious than any of these may be better suited to the exploration I have in mind, so we will begin in the Italian city of Turin, on an otherwise ordinary January day in 1889. Over on one side of the Piazza Carlo Alberto, a teamster was beating one of his horses savagely with a stick, and his curses and the horse’s terrified cries could be heard over the traffic noise. Finally, the horse collapsed; as it hit the pavement, a middle-aged man with a handlebar mustache came sprinting across the plaza, dropped to his knees beside the horse and flung his arms around its neck, weeping hysterically. His name was Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and he had just gone hopelessly insane.
At that time, Nietzsche was almost completely unknown in the worlds of European philosophy and culture. His career had a brilliant beginning — he was hired straight out of college in 1868 to teach classical philology at the University of Basel, and published his first significant work, The Birth of Tragedy, four years later — but he strayed thereafter into territory few academics in his time dared to touch. When he gave up his position in 1879 due to health problems, the university was glad to see him go. His major philosophical works saw print in small editions, mostly paid for by Nietzsche himself, and were roundly ignored by everybody. There were excellent reasons for this, as what Nietzsche was saying in these books was the last thing that anybody in Europe at that time wanted to hear.
Given Nietzsche’s fate, there’s a fierce irony in the fact that his most famous statement of the core of his teaching is put in the mouth of a madman. Here’s the passage in question, from The Gay Science (1882): “Have you not heard of the madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they shouted and laughed.
“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried: ‘I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained the earth from the sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continuously? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’”
Beyond the wild imagery — which was not original to Nietzsche, by the way; several earlier German writers used the same metaphor before he got to it, and it has a long history in ancient religious traditions as well — lay a precise and trenchant insight. In Nietzsche’s time, the Christian religion was central to European culture in a way that’s almost unthinkable from today’s perspective. By this I don’t simply mean that a much greater percentage of Europeans attended church then than now, though this was true; nor that Christian narratives, metaphors and jargon pervaded popular culture to such an extent that you can hardly make sense of the literature of the time if you don’t know your way around the Bible and the standard tropes of Christian theology, though this was also true.
The centrality of Christian thought to European culture went much deeper than that. The core concepts that undergirded every dimension of European thought and behavior came straight out of Christianity. This was true straight across the political spectrum of the time — conservatives drew on the Christian religion to legitimize existing institutions and social hierarchies, while their liberal opponents relied just as extensively on Christian teachings for the ideas and imagery that framed their challenges to those same institutions and hierarchies. All through the lively debates of the time, values and ethical concepts that could only be justified on the basis of Christian theology were treated as self-evident, and those few thinkers who strayed outside that comfortable consensus quickly found themselves, as Nietzsche did, talking to an empty room.
It’s indicative of the tenor of the times that even those thinkers who tried to reject Christianity ended up copying it right down to the fine details. Thus the atheist philosopher Auguste Comte, a well-known figure in the generation before Nietzsche’s though almost entirely forgotten now, launched a “Religion of Humanity” with a holy trinity of Humanity, the Earth and Destiny, a calendar of secular saints’ days, and scores of other borrowings from Christian theory and practice. He was one of dozens of figures who attempted to create pseudo-Christianities of one kind or another, keeping most of the moral, conceptual and behavioral trappings of the faith they were convinced they had rejected. Meanwhile their less radical neighbors went about their lives in the serene conviction that the assumptions their culture had inherited from its Christian roots were eternally valid.
The only difficulty this posed is that a large and rapidly growing fraction of nineteenth-century Europeans no longer believed the central tenets of the faith that structured their lives and their thinking. It never occurred to most of them to question the value of Christian ethics, the social role of Christian institutions, or the sense of purpose and value they and their society had long derived from Christianity. Straight across the spectrum of polite society, everyone agreed that good people ought to go to church, that missionaries should be sent forth to eradicate competing religions in foreign lands and that the world would be a much better place if everybody would simply follow the teachings of Jesus, in whatever form those might have been reworked most recently for public consumption. It was simply that a great many of them could no longer find any reason to believe in such minor details as the existence of God.
Even those who did insist loudly on this latter point and on their own adherence to Christianity commonly redefined both in ways that stripped them of their remaining relevance to the nineteenth-century world. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher whose writings formed the high-water mark of modern philosophy and also launched it on its descent into decadence, is among other things the poster child for this effect. In his 1793 book Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone, Kant argued that the essence of religion — in fact, the only part of it that had real value — was leading a virtuous life, and everything else was superstition and delusion.
The triumph of Kant’s redefinition of religion was all but total in Protestant denominations up until the rise of fundamentalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, and left lasting traces on the leftward end of Catholicism as well. To this day, if you pick an American church at random on a Sunday morning and go inside to listen to the sermon, your chances of hearing an exhortation to live a virtuous life, without reference to any other dimension of religion, are rather better than one in two.
The fact remains that Kant’s reinterpretation has almost nothing in common with historic Christianity. To borrow a phrase from a later era of crisis, Kant apparently felt that he had to destroy Christianity in order to save it, but the destruction was considerably more effective than the salvation turned out to be. Intellects considerably less acute than Kant’s had no difficulty at all in taking his arguments and using them to suggest that living a virtuous life was not the essence of religion but a modern, progressive, up-to-date replacement for it.
Even so, public professions of Christian faith remained a social necessity right up into the twentieth century. There were straightforward reasons for this; even so convinced an atheist as Voltaire, when guests at one of his dinner parties spoke too freely about the nonexistence of God, is said to have sent the servants away and then urged his friends not to speak so freely in front of them, asking, “Do you want your throats cut tonight?” Still, historians of ideas have followed the spread of atheism through the European intelligentsia from the end of the sixteenth century, when it was the concern of small and secretive circles, to the middle of the eighteenth, when it had become widespread. From there it moved out of intellectual circles, spreading through the middle classes during the eighteenth century and then, in the nineteenth — continental Europe’s century of industrialization — reaching the urban working classes, who by and large abandoned their traditional faiths when they left the countryside to take factory jobs.
By the time Nietzsche wrote God’s epitaph, in other words, the central claims of Christianity were taken seriously only by a minority of educated Europeans, and even among the masses, secular substitutes for religion such as Marxism and nationalism were spreading rapidly at the expense of the older faith. Despite this, however, habits of thought and behavior that could only be justified by the basic presuppositions of Christianity stayed welded in place throughout European society. It was as though, to coin a metaphor that Nietzsche himself might have used, one of the great royal courts of the time busied itself with all the details of the king’s banquets and clothes and bedchamber, and servants and courtiers hovered about the throne waiting to obey the king’s least command, even though everyone in the palace knew that the throne was empty and the last king had died decades before.
To Nietzsche, this clinging to the habits of Christian thought in a post-Christian society was incomprehensible. The son and grandson of Lutheran pastors, raised in an atmosphere of more than typical middle-class European piety, he inherited a keen sense of the internal logic of the Christian faith — the way that every aspect of Christian theology and morality unfolds step by step from core principles clearly defined in the historic creeds of the early church. It’s not an accident that the creed most broadly accepted in Western churches, the Apostle’s Creed, begins with the words “I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” Abandon that belief, and none of the ideas that depend on it make any sense at all.
This was what Nietzsche’s madman, and Nietzsche himself, were trying to bring to the attention of their contemporaries. Unlike too many of today’s atheists, Nietzsche had a profound understanding of just what it was that he was rejecting when he proclaimed the death of God and the absurdity of faith. “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality,” he wrote in Twilight of the Idols. “Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands.”
To abandon belief in a divinely ordained order to the cosmos, he argued, meant surrendering any claim to objectively valid moral standards, and thus stripping words like “right” and “wrong” of any meaning other than personal preference. It meant giving up the basis on which governments and institutions founded their claims to legitimacy, and thus leaving them no means to maintain social order or gain the obedience of the masses other than the raw threat of violence — a threat that would have to be made good ever more often, as time went on, to maintain its effectiveness. Ultimately, it meant abandoning any claim of meaning, purpose, or value to humanity or the world, other than those that individual human beings might choose to impose on the inkblot patterns of a chaotic universe.
I suspect that many, if not most, of my readers will object to these conclusions. There are, of course, many grounds on which such objections could be raised. It can be pointed out, and truly, that there have been plenty of atheists whose behavior, on ethical grounds, compares favorably to that of the average Christian, and some who can stand comparison with Christian saints. On a less superficial plane, it can be pointed out with equal truth that it’s only in a distinctive minority of ethical systems — that of historic Christianity among them — that ethics start from the words “thou shalt” and proceed from there to the language of moral exhortation and denunciation that still structures most of Western moral discourse today. Political systems, it might be argued, can work out new bases for their claims to legitimacy, using such concepts as the consent of the governed, while claims of meaning, purpose and value can be rebuilt on a variety of bases that have nothing to do with an objective cosmic order imposed on it by a putative creator.
All this is true, and the history of ideas in the Western world over the last few centuries can in fact be neatly summed up as the struggle to build alternative foundations for social, ethical and intellectual existence in the void left behind by Europe’s gradual but unrelenting abandonment of Christian faith. Yet this simply makes Nietzsche’s point for him, for all these alternative foundations had to be built, slowly, with a great deal of trial and error and no small number of disastrous missteps. It has taken centuries of hard work by some of our species’ best minds to get even this far in the project of replacing the Christian God, and it’s by no means certain even now that their efforts have achieved any lasting success.
A strong case can therefore be made that Nietzsche got the right answer, but was asking the wrong question. He grasped that the collapse of Christian faith in European society meant the end of the entire structure of meanings and values that had God as its first postulate, but he thought that the only possible aftermath of that collapse was a collective plunge into the heart of chaos, in which humanity would be forced to come to terms with the nonexistence of objective values, and would finally take responsibility for their own role in projecting values on a fundamentally meaningless cosmos; the question that consumed him was how this could be done. A great many other people in his time saw the same possibility, but rejected it on the grounds that such a cosmos was unfit for human habitation. Their question, the question that has shaped the intellectual and cultural life of the Western world for several centuries now, was how to find some other first postulate as a basis for meaning and value in the absence of faith in the existence and providence of the Christian God.
They found one, too — though one could as well say that one was pressed upon them by the sheer force of circumstance. The surrogate God that Western civilization embraced, tentatively in the nineteenth century and with increasing conviction and passion in the twentieth, was progress. In the wake of that collective decision, the omnipotence and benevolence of progress have become the core doctrines of a secular religion as broadly and unthinkingly embraced, and as central to contemporary notions of meaning and value, as Christianity was before the Age of Reason.
That in itself defines one of the central themes of the predicament of our time. Progress makes a poor substitute for a deity, not least because its supposed omnipotence and benevolence are becoming increasingly hard to take on faith just now. There’s every reason to think that in the years immediately before us, that difficulty is going to become impossible to ignore — and the same shattering crisis of meaning and value that religious faith in progress was meant to solve will be back, adding its burden to the other pressures of our time. Listen closely, Nietzsche might have said, and you can hear the noise of the gravediggers who are burying progress.
Reprinted with permission from After Progress: Reason and Religion at the End of the Industrial Age by John Michael Greer and published by New Society Publishers, 2015.