Questioning the Questioners

Atheists celebrate scientific rationality. But even the most thorough experiment cannot resolve all mysteries about human existence.

Modernity knows only one form of religion: That which sparks dissent. Some of the most vocal atheists of our times are former believers who have renounced their faith. Ironically, a committed Christian provided the fertile ground for modern atheism: Martin Luther. By challenging the celibacy of the Catholic Church, he paved the way not only for the Protestant faith but also for nucleus of modern atheism: protestant clerics and their families.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose project it was to question all established values and thus to free himself of the norms of his time. Yet even Nietzsche cannot ignore God, and thus sends a “noble man” out with a lantern to search for the highest authority: “God is dead, and we have killed him.”

Today’s atheism has ceased to be merely an inquiry into the existence of God. Instead, atheists demand absolute discursive authority – not unlike religious dogmatists. New atheists call themselves “the bright ones”, or “the enlightened ones”. Armed with the toolkit of science, they aim to expose religious faith as folly. Their ultimate dream is the withering-away of religion altogether; their atheism is explicitly combative. They claim a monopoly over questions of divinity.

A new kind of faith

Atheism has thus come to resemble a kind of new faith, despite attempts to legitimate it with scientific objectivity. At its core, modern atheism is predicated on the notion of scientific progress: Atheists argue that advances in the natural sciences will eventually empower us to conclusively answer all questions about the existence of man and God. The consequences of this trend are rather dramatic: If questions about the existence of God disappear, inquiries into the transcendental human Self will disappear as well. Martin Luther foresaw this development when he warned that man without God would become “a crippled creature”.

Yet this trend is neither unstoppable nor without alternatives. It is possible to approach science from a different, more thoughtful angle: We must not confuse an explanation of life with questions about the purpose of life.

New scientific insights provide answers, but they also lead to new questions. The decoding of the human genome sheds light on our evolutionary history but not on the human Self. Neurobiological inquiries into human decision-making do not resolve the question of free will. Yuri Gagarin’s declaration that he “did not encounter God in space” does not provide an answer to the perennial question about the purpose of human existence. We continue to ask transcendental questions even in the Age of Science.

Modern societies provide religious and secular answers to these questions. It is thus misleading to believe that the forces of secularization will eradicate religious faith. We live in an age dominated not so much by secularism but by value pluralism. The “secular option” is one among many, to paraphrase the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Secularism proposes to answer questions about purpose self-referentially and without appealing to a higher authority.

The flipside of Taylor’s argument is, as the German social philosopher Hans Joas has put it, the co-existence of secularism with “the option of faith”. Religion is more than a remnant of bygone times; it isn’t inherently “pre-modern” and will not necessarily be replaced by its “modern” successor, atheism. Faith remains irreplaceable: The humanity of man hinges on our ability to examine ourselves with reference to “the other” – with reference to God.

One of the great discoveries of modernity is, to invoke Hans Joas once more, the “sacredness of the person”. The urge to oppress others by exerting power over them can only be countered by stressing the inviolability of the person – an idea that is commonly expressed as “dignity”. But the concept of dignity can only flourish if its justification goes beyond merit or self-actualization. Man is more than a product of his own making. It’s worth emphasizing this point in light of advances in reproductive medicine.

Mutual responsibility instead of personal gain

A responsible approach to human life presupposes an understanding of life as a gift, and not merely as a result of biology or medicine. Communities prosper when we see others not merely as atomistic beings (and thus leave them to their own devices) but embrace the idea of mutual responsibility and care.

New technologies have rendered religious ideas more important than ever. We must understand ourselves not as self-referential beings but as constituted through our entanglements with the lives of others. We become who we are through our relationship to God, to our fellow humans, and to the world (which we must “build and preserve”, according to the biblical creation narrative).

Atheists proclamations about the “death of God” should not be the final words. Christians believe in the story of crucifixion and thus in God’s partaking in human suffering and death. Their response to the imperfections and the cruelty of the world isn’t resignation (“God is dead”) but hope and love. Hope that goes beyond probabilistic arguments, and love that refuses to surrender human life.

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