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Does a God Who is Silent Exist?

Modern Atheism and Christian Faith


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 44/2007, P. 369f. and 45/2007, P. 377f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


While for a long time forecasts persisted, stating that religious convictions and the faith in God would be blurring like a face in the sandy shore by the advancing modernization of societies, yet since the nineties one could be taught otherwise, also in this country. Religion was regaining significance. Public awareness of church and faith issues as an example, had since the election of the Pope and World Youth Day increased in a way that religious scepticism had been almost forgotten, let alone hard-bitten atheism. The Christian faith suddenly seemed to be young again, and the media were full of it. Only fundamentalist obstructionists, who drove a sting into the euphoria for the religious, were disturbing this general euphoria. But a sting hurts if it is not removed. And so it was probably only a matter of time before the pendulum swung back in the other direction.

For suddenly atheism again speaks up distinctly. The "Spiegel" and other magazines devoted already title stories to the "Return of Atheism". The book market is supplied with atheist reading that causes great attention especially in the English-speaking world. It is striking that the whole "litany" of arguments returns which have been used in classical criticism of religion. The disasters in the history of mankind are attributed to the faith in God: violence and war, intolerance and oppression of women, mental deformities and devaluation of sexuality… The belief in God was repressive if not even aggressive and must therefore be enlightened.


Does Religion Poison Everything?

In the books which meanwhile have become best-sellers of Richard Dawkins - "The God Delusion" (London 2006) - and Christopher Hitchens - "God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (New York 2007) - there is this pattern. Their idea is: If one bans the belief in a God and once mankind lives without religion, life will become more humane. In the Christian understanding however the original sin explained in former times why the world is as imperfect as it is, and why the best of all possible worlds that God could want now bears the marks of misery.

In the swelling goat song of the new atheism the belief in God is the actual "original sin" of mankind. If mankind had not fallen victim to that delusion - so the "redemptory" motto of the new atheistic manifestos -, the world today was also no paradise for the laws of evolution determine the world affairs. But it would be at least better than it is. Hence the "spectre" God needed to be abolished.

Now there are hard facts to support this conviction. Dreadful events have happened and continue to happen in the name of religion. Who would want to conceal that? Nor can one simply present the converse historical reckoning by drawing attention to the also given humanizing power of religion. One single creature tortured in the name of God is already too much and raises the question of religion's disadvantage and benefit for life. But is there this benefit at all?

The Anglo-American journalist Christopher Hitchens completely concentrates on this question. Plain and simple, he cannot recognize the added value of religion, quite on the contrary. But: Does such an approach exclusively interested in the effect justice to the nature of religion? Certainly, religion can and must be questioned also about its effect. But that is not enough. Religious convictions always also lay claim to truth, and that wants to be examined. Just as atheism lays claim to truth, and therefore must be subjected to the examining reason.

Just as the belief in God absolutely could be a projection, a purely human imagination, so vice versa the assertion of his non-existence can also spring from a human need. The religious person, the believer, as one might suppose, shifts a God into a heaven that is empty in itself. The non-believer however lets God descend to the earth. Who is right?

The religious question is from time immemorial interwoven with the question of man about himself. An animal does not ask the question about a last principle of all reality or a Creator. This requires consciousness, the ability to distance oneself from the world and from oneself. Only those who are able to question themselves, only those who are able to ask about reason and meaning can be religious. Such religiousness does not simply mean just a vague feeling but reason. A mere "vague religiousness" could not become an issue for itself. It could not be distinguished from the movements of a leaf falling from a tree. Only a life that is not absorbed into the immediacy of its existence can religiously behave and develop.


Marvelling and Being Frightened

As the immediacy of existence disappears and as man gains consciousness, he begins to marvel: at the "starry heavens" for example or at the relative usefulness of the world: that it guarantees us for our everyday life a relative reliability, and that its laws of nature can be examined and are technologically manageable. Also its beauty is able to excite admiration.

But man does not only marvel, he is also frightened how fragile everything - and he himself - is. The one evolution that spawns human, intellectual life at the same time treats all life without mercy. Biology is ruthless. And man, who could be considerate since he is not simply identical with the biological conditions of his existence and in his freedom is capable of moral self-determination, all too often turns out to be abysmally evil.

Whether it is marvelling at the existence or rather being frightened by it that drives man to the question of God, remains to be seen. Without these basic experiences man had hardly become the "religious animal" that he is. In this sense man is religious by nature. He asks for something absolute, for a final ground of existence. If he takes the standard for the longed-for absolute from his need of sense, then he will - if he first of all has let himself in for human dignity - long for a God who for his part respects this dignity, yet, who saves the fragile and immortalizes it. But at the same time man suffers from that longing for God, since his reality can only be believed. This reality always eludes everyday experience. The authors of the Old Testament already describe that opposite experience: that God is missing. Where is God, he who is believed as merciful and righteous?


Everything just Selfish Genes?

Authors like Hitchens and Dawkins seem strangely unaffected by such fundamental questions of mankind. With Hitchens the perverse abuse of religion - religious violence in the name of God - is already sufficient for pillorying faith altogether. Dawkins, the theorist of evolution is more ambitious, even if - with him as well - it is mainly about the countless deadly sins of religion and faith.

Similar to religion which is not appearing modestly but proffering to unravel any mystery, Dawkins is giving his answers. Why man has this strange inclination towards religion, this puzzle he "solves" by the theory of evolution. Everything that comes into existence and continues to exist is traced back to the selfishness of genes. Thus, what is to be explained is explained merely by the pattern of the evolution. Applied to religiousness this means: religion is to be interpreted as evolutionary advantage at some period in time, as advantage of selection and survival.

But everything that is temporary will have had its day, can lose its function. According to Dawkins, the "biological" progress of the human race consists in getting rid of any religion by seeing through it and understanding it is a projection. Dawkins' completely self-contained quasi-religious biological conception of the world, in which the whole supposedly spiritual reality is explained in the way of a mere materialistic reductionism, combines with belief in progress. But then what does progress mean?

Such "reasoning" is by no means new. But at present it is revived in a strangely cheerful way. In the German-speaking language area philosopher Michael Schmidt-Salomon has managed to get even into the newspapers' arts sections with his "Manifest of Evolutionary Humanism" (Manifest des Evolutionären Humanismus, Aschaffenburg 2006). Indeed he differentiates more carefully on the historical level: he definitely sees a certain humanizing power of religion. But then he takes the same line when it is about categorizing man in terms of a naturalistic-monistic conception of the world, where all freedom is limited from the outset. Free will is a pure illusion from this perspective. With it dies the previous self-concept of man. The whole is promoted as being up-to-date and in addition as more humane than all previous conceptions.


The "Ego" - a Fantasy?

But does man really want to be reduced to being - in all that constitutes him - the result of a "selfish" gene? Richard Dawkins biologism is just as much a fundamentalism contrary to all reason as religious fundamentalism, against which he holds all the misery of the world. By arguing exclusively in the way of evolutionism Dawkins pushes ahead the sobering up from the belief in God (Gottesausnüchterung), but in a surprisingly undemanding way. When one blames religion for the misery in the world, one should first explain why and how happiness from misery, good from evil, truth from wrong are to be distinguished.

Against it Friedrich Nietzsche has clearly seen that moral will always lead to the point where the idea of God is considered. That is perhaps the reason why Nietzsche at the end called everything into question: whether any reason exists or whether the terms of reason are not mere fantasies; whether there is an "Ego" that thinks and acts freely or whether this could be the fundamental error. Could it not also be that "something" - whatever this then may be - led me to believe "I" existed? Perhaps nature? Could not self-awareness, the feeling of one's "Ego" be a deception - only the phenomenon of processes that can be explained by biology alone?

But if the 'ego' is a mere idea then also the whole world of concepts built upon it is mere fiction. Everything sinks into nothingness without faith in our freedom, without faith that it is us who reasonably can make ourselves understood about what we are able to know and about what we want and are allowed to hope. Then only a world of mere appearances would exist. All distinctions in "our" consciousness as real and unreal, true and wrong, beautiful and ugly, good and evil would only be distinctions in this consciousness, merely put into it - by whomever -, but without reality in the world that exists outside consciousness.

Consciousness in that perspective is actually no longer real awareness "of something." Then there is also no awareness in the higher form of self-awareness , which allows me to keep distance and in addition enables me to react freely to the world, to other people and in it to me myself. According to that logic everything that presents itself and happens on the level of consciousness is just the surface of processes of merely biological nature and therefore can be explained by natural science alone. We think we are in control of our concepts, we think we are free - but we are not. Everything is limited and predetermined, even the felt feeling to be free.

No atheism is so radical in the truest sense of the word as harsh naturalism. For here the root of the question of God is taken away: man asking about himself. Already in the 19th century the ambivalent Friedrich Nietzsche had considered that naturalism - but in a much more complex way. His modern followers imitate him only weakly charged with theory by the immense progress of the doctrine of evolution.


A Mammal Regarding Itself as Important

The exciting journeys of evolution biologists into the history of mankind and that of brain researchers into the 'Ego' cannot simply be wiped off the table. Their findings show how the human being is embedded in the biology of life. But for the religious question it is decisive whether man is nevertheless able to see himself as "mammal of God's grace", as the theologian Ulrich Lüke says, hence as that being that the Creator has made possible as freedman of Creation. To be able to believe that against naturalism the principle of freedom must be saved.

Now the attempt to explain man only biologically resp. the phenomenon of consciousness purely brain-physiologically doesn't ultimately lead far and raises new questions; above all that: Why then does man regard himself as so important? Why has he developed an awareness of his importance and a will to infinity? "Something like 'importance' can only occur to a conscious life", the philosopher Richard Searle counters naturalism. Where there is only nature everything would happen out of pure necessity. Then it would even be unimportant whether consciousness is 'tuned' in a religious or non-religious way. But all that is just no matter of indifference for man endowed with the talent for freedom. Hence least indifferent is and remains for him also - God. Even the longing for a world without God, for an atheistic world shows that not everything is indifferent to man.


Does a God Who is Silent Exist?

Atheism has many faces. There is not only the biologistic atheism that admittedly is resolute in its behaviour but weak in its theories. In 2005 Herbert Schnädelbach stood up to the tenor that the end of a godless modernity had been rung in and religion returned to its ancestral place with the conjecture that the phenomena pointing to a return of religion indicated "at best the return of a religious need" ("Wiederkehr der Religion", "Return of Religion", in: "Zeit", No.33, 2005).

Furthermore Schnädelbach is irritated by the functional pocketing of religion to which church representatives oppose nothing. When values are in danger to run out, when the moral substance of a society wastes away one recalls religions. But can that be the claim of religion, to give it's backing where the social cohesion becomes fragile? The advances are seductive. But there is danger that religion loses its face when it becomes the supplier of values.

Schnädelbach is even more amazed by the theological-spiritually undemanding nature of the current "religious boom." Do disasters like the tsunami killing more than 300.000 people and further immeasurable misery through diseases, epidemics, accidents still irritate the faithful today? Questions of this kind are old. They have always mightily pestered the faith in God. It makes sense to remember the history of those questions. It can so become a blessing for theology for Christianity, a bulwark against a time and again impending religious harmlessness and triviality. But for it one must let oneself in for those who talk less in a matter of course way but also less harmlessly about God. The master of the absurd theatre, Samuel Beckett has set the silent God a literary memorial: "The scoundrel does not exist," is provocatively said in "Endgame." This small sentence only states what Blaise Pascal already dreaded as possibility. "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces makes me shudder."


Pascal's Wager Remains Topical

But there is neither with Beckett nor Pascal an atheism that tries to refute God's existence with all the possibilities of man's intellect. Pascal admittedly considers the possibility that God managed to survive only in the mind of man, and that only cold silence comes to us from infinite space of the universe. But faith gains the upper hand again. In view of the alternatives faced by man the wager on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can be risked. It still remains a possibility of human existence. Is that grace? But have then the following generations, which not even want to risk the wager on God, fallen out of God's grace?

Pascal had a presentiment of the awareness of life that then at the latest in the 19th century and continuing until today was to slightly move many people. Persistently it was Friedrich Nietzsche, who 125 years ago in his "Gay Science" (Fröhliche Wissenschaft) coined the word "God is dead". Nietzsche was none who considered the arguments for and against the existence of God. He only succinctly stated: God does not exist. The philosopher read it in the faces of the people of his time. He smugly and sarcastically attacked the faithful who no longer believe. With a wink they deny the smell of decomposition of God and continue to diligently light candles for the non-existent God. But they know better. Nietzsche has tried to describe people of this type with the concept 'weak nihilism'. There is no longer any desire, any question. One furnishes one's home comfortably. Life tires.

But Nietzsche himself, the brilliant artist of language, does not betray the melancholy accompanying the death of God. It is no easiness to kill God, to give room in oneself to the presentiment of his possible non-existence. Anyway, it means a disaster for someone who once longingly loved, who deeply distressed let himself in for the greatness and misery of man, and who therefore also gave room in himself to the idea of a every mean human calculation surpassing God who and has ready for man an eternal reconciled life. In the second century B.C. Israel had let itself be caught by the faith in such a God. Jesus has naturally shared it. And Nietzsche? And the many people born later?

Nietzsche's "madman", who announces the word of God's death in the market place, is the anti-Pascal. The initial experience is identical but the consequence changes: "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?"


Morals in the Ice-Cold Universe?

Nietzsche was unsparing in his radicalism with which he brought home to man the consequences of God's death. One can argue about the consequences drawn by him. Whether e.g. moral had at last to fall, so that man was able to escape the current to want to believe in God, in a God of whom one knew that he did not exist. For who wants to live in a morally sensitive world will want that also when no God exists. But then one must feel with all the more bitterness the cold of the silent cosmos. Nietzsche's thinking is immensely complex. It is fed by many motives. Between the lines there is a certain "text" that is easily overlooked. Once the great artist of words let himself be carried away to a remark that shows like no other why he by this biting sharpness wanted to free himself from Christianity's tradition in which he himself had grown up. Nietzsche himself wonders whether he by any chance was jealous of Stendhal: "He has snatched away from me the best atheist-joke that just I could have made:'God's only excuse is that he does not exist'. There you already hear Samuel Beckett, and one guesses the infinite melancholy that gets expression here. It is not easy to say good bye to the belief in God. The sea is by no means already open, when God is pronounced a spectre. The human longings continue. There remains in the end the longing for a God who answers the questions of man.

Nietzsche has considered whether a life after God's death did not mean happiness. "Somewhere I myself have said: what was till now the greatest objection to existence? God." A God who only torments and is the big brother of a petit bourgeois, narrow life is of course a horrible objection to existence. Such a God paralyzes, suffocates, takes away man's creativity, his ability to seize the world and to shape it. Where always only sin is suspected, where man is only seen as someone broken by the power of sin, there God is the greatest objection to existence. But, so one can ask, is also that God an objection to existence who as the "I am the one who will be there for you" promises life in infinite abundance? Does a God overwhelm us who is believed to have himself been incarnated, to have become man?


Why Nietzsche Could no Longer Believe

As far as this can be assessed from the outside at all Nietzsche failed in the faith in which he had still grown up. Not out of arrogance, not only because he had experienced Christianity as narrow, priggishly indignant Philistinism, but rather because he suffered from the problem of justifying God in view of a world in which, God knows, not everything is good. Is it anyway possible - in view of the tragedy of so many lives - to communicate convincingly that a loving God exists? Does not lie, yes, is not cynical who sings of God's love which was so wonderful, because he previously closes his eyes from the perversions of human freedom? What about the agonizing physical pain? When the faith in the prayer of supplication waned the natural sciences set out to fight pain. And at least in the rich regions of the earth it is possible, thanks to modern medicine and pharmacology to get control of it. But the sting of 'Why at all?' sits deep and hurts those who would like to believe in God's good creation. Those questions are to be asked. But also the question is to be taken seriously, what a future without God would mean for man. A time without God devours everything and so some day lets everything be forgotten.

Richard Dawkins' and Christopher Hitchens' atheism does no longer toil at all with such questions. But the current religious event scene too is strangely unaffected by them. One celebrates God (or only just oneself?) and screens him off individualistically fixated to one's own needs. How long such religious merriment lasts and is able to take the burdens of life remains to be seen. Life takes its own course, treats a naive faith in God in a ruinous way. Or life says good bye to any reasoning, keeps quiet about its questions, and looks away from reality.


Faith in the School of Atheism

In addition there is also the fact: such naive-pious or also dissociating itself from the world religious cheerfulness can no longer refer to the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to the faith of Jesus. That belief is deeply rooted. The mothers and fathers of that faith have wrestled with God. They confronted this world with the faith in God's good creation and were then always close to despair. But they have finally fastened themselves in God, in the faith of past generations looking on tomorrow. A faith that wants to remain faithful to those traditions should be a grateful faith that knows also about Job's struggle. Yes, should it not even learn from a pious atheism? With piety it is a bit tricky. Sometimes it is looking for other locations than expected, turns into an agnosticism that is not only profoundly human but stems from the core of the belief in the God of Israel, the God of Jesus. No atheism that puts on airs in an opinionated manner and thinks it was able to explain the world once and for all and to create a better one than all those who feel obliged to follow religious world views. It is rather an atheism that lost its faith because it took it too seriously.

Herbert Schnädelbach talks about the "piety" of atheists, about a piety that "cannot (help it) but take the lost religiously seriously." That's why he finds it annoying "when religion is degraded to a mere garnish of our secular life". A nursery rhyme had said, "(God)… knows also you and loves you." "The child had firmly believed in that." And the grown-up could not only not forget it but fought with tears when he heard e.g. the final chorale from Johann Sebastian Bach's St. John Passion "O Lord, let your little angel dear" (Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein) or the double quartet "For he shall give his angels charge over thee" (Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir) from Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah." Then a "mixture of anger and sadness began about it that all that is not true". Neither could the devout atheist accept the offer of Christianity as "soft-washed security religion", because here he suspected "intellectual regression", nor follow the aestheticizing incorporation of those traditions. The existential longing and distress is too strong to allow that such a bourgeois secularization in the modern concert hall became a consolation.

Schnädelbach argues for his atheism, not about God's existence or non-existence. He knows that this dispute will remain fruitless. But although the possibility of God theoretically remains open Schnädelbach follows Nietzsche. This one states only the end of a faith tradition and looks into the atheism of the European Enlightenment as consequence of a Christian commandment: truthfulness - as consequence of "two-thousand years of cultivation of truth, which in the end forbids itself the lie in the faith in God", as Nietzsche writes.

Thoughtful people do not carelessly lose faith. Faith does rather disappear because of the disappointment about God's 'godlessness', i.e. his time and again experienced abstinence from the world lets break up the faith in himself. The consequence is man's abstinence from God. The once believed God dies a slow death. In tears man finally forbids himself the faith in that God, admittedly remaining inconsolable, because he knows in what God he can no longer believe and what this means for man.

And what is it with grace giving faith? What is it with faith that - so Schnädelbach - "Christianity ever since understood as a work of the Holy Spirit, as a divine gift"? The devout atheist can only say that he does not have it. Worldly gaiety remains "suspicious to him, because he considers the cost." One had first to forget to be able to be (always) happy in an unbroken way. The price that had to be paid for it was: to give up humanity.

Pious atheists can neither the one nor the other. They take God, the God of the Bible too seriously to be still able to believe in him - since experience is against it. And they are too old-fashioned-humanistic to be able after the death of God to sacrifice now to the idol of trivial gaiety.

Theologically at least two lessons are to be learned from it. First, it is essential to formulate more clearly and precisely the speech about faith as work of the Holy Spirit. According to Christian conviction God works, yes, but in a completely open history making himself dependent on man's freedom. It is conceivable that God wants the one evolution of life, in which the history of mankind participates, as medium of his revelation. Social forms, economic systems, cultures, religious interpretations of world and man - all that are forms of human life developing in constant confrontation with nature. How man is to live does not simply drop from the sky but wants to be decided. Mission, greatness, and misery of man become so apparent. Could it not be that God just wanted to give mankind a free hand in forming itself, for it even accepted appalling atrocities, since he wanted to reveal himself to no other than a free man? - Through the murmuring of his Spirit, through historical manifestation of himself?


God Does not Act but Court

When one so tries to understand God's "act" in an evolutionary-dynamical world one says at the same time farewell to the idea that faith was brought about by God. Indeed, it is absurd to believe that, because then the question why some are moved by this grace and others are not presents God in a very dubious light. God does not bring about but courts man's freedom - with all the risks. Also the plurality of religious interpretation of man and world would be explained; it would above all out of itself be infinitely recognized for that reason, because in it are both the dignity of man and the greatness of a God wanting man's freedom; but also agnosticism and atheism would be explained and recognized, at least as long as it does not lead to ethical relativism or finds complete fulfilment in a worldly hedonism. But God knows, the atheism that is in Schnädelbach's mind cannot be reproached for that.

In connection with it secondly a quite different sensitivity for the distress of the agnostic, the pious atheist must be developed in theology and church. The devout atheist reminds us to take faith seriously. The believer should take himself seriously.


    {*} Magnus Striet, Dr. theol., born in 1964, professor of fundamental theology in Freiburg. Main focus: Question of God in the horizon of the present time, theodicy, dialogue with non-theological sciences. Recent Publications: "Monotheismus Israels und christlicher Trinitätsglaube" (Freiburg 2004); "Kant und die Theologie" (Darmstadt 2005).


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