The New Death of God
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
God died on April 8, 1966. The New York Times ran a half-page obituary mourning the passing of the formerly Almighty One and Lord of the Universe, and Time magazine’s April 8, 1966, issue appeared with an all black cover to observe the death of the Deity. Although God’s death came quietly on Emory University’s tree-lined campus in Atlanta, Georgia, the reverberations of God’s death echoed through the media and America’s churches. God’s death came at a particularly challenging time in American society, one in which churches already found themselves embroiled in debates over politics and social issues—from the Vietnam War and Civil Rights to environmentalism and feminism. Like other social institutions, churches discovered the need to be relevant in order to stay alive in a fractious culture. The death of God, though, made the churches less relevant for those seeking to find a strong religious voice in culture, and so an emphasis on individual experience slowly came to replace God and religious doctrines as the authority for religious faith and practice. Thus, a variety of theologies proliferated in America whose starting point was black experience (black liberation theology) or women’s experience (feminist theology) or the experience of oppression (liberation theology) which resulted in the “changing of the Gods” (in the words of Naomi R. Goldenberg’s challenging 1979 book on feminism and the end of traditional religions, Changing of the Gods).
Of course, God’s death had been proclaimed already by the philosophers Hegel, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche in the nineteenth-century. Much like the end of the nineteenth century, the closing decades of the twentieth century were marked by a sense of optimism and progress in which a supernatural force simply played no role. Nietzsche’s pronouncement that Christians in the church pews had killed God prompted debates in churches throughout Europe and England about the relationship between the natural and the supernatural. The churches found themselves having to defend long-held views about the nature of Jesus (was he both divine and human? And how much of each quality did he possess?), the nature of the Church and the role of the ministry, and the authority of the Bible. Moreover, if science could tell society everything it needed to know about human origins, then was God’s revelation necessary in knowing about the world? In the late nineteenth century the emphasis on human freedom and the science also led to a new rise in atheism and some ferocious debates between T.H. Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) and Bishop Gladstone over whether or not religion was useful any longer to society.
When Thomas J.J. Altizer declared in 1966 that “God as died in our time, in our history, in our existence” in his and William Hamilton’s now-classic Radical Theology and the Death of God, he appeared as a modern-day Nietzsche prophesying the opening of a new era in which the transcendent God of older theologies—who seemed distant from humanity—had died in order to make way for a God, or gods, which would be more immanent, or active, within the world. In the same year, Altizer threw down the gauntlet to religion in his even more original and challenging book, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966). Altizer declares that “the message the Christian is now called to proclaim is the gospel of the death of God. Few Christians have thus far been able to embrace the death of God as a redemptive event, but an acceptance of his death looms ever larger . . . and it is unquestionably true that the greatest modern Christian revolutionaries willed the death of God with all the passion of faith.” Response to Altizer was almost immediate. He was fired from Emory and blackboards in college classrooms across the country began to carry the slogan “God is dead—Altizer; Altizer is dead—God.” In a small, almost pamphlet-like, book, The ‘Is God Dead?’ Controversy: A Philosophical-Theological Critique of the Death of God Movement (1966), conservative theologian John Warwick Montgomery demonstrated the shortcomings of Altizer’s thought. Thomas W. Ogletree issued his more moderate response in The Death of God Controversy (1966). Four years later, process theologian John B. Cobb, Jr., gathered eleven essays about all aspects of Altizer’s writings, with responses from Altizer, in The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response (1970). In 2006, Altizer offered his own recollections of the death of God movement and his role in it in Living the Death of God: A Theological Memoir.
Over forty years later, Altizer’s legacy continues to flourish in the numerous books on religious pluralism in America as well as in the proliferation of books proclaiming the value and superiority of atheism over religion, notably the Christian religion. Some books—like Mark C. Taylor’s After God and John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo’s After the Death of God—take seriously the death of God and ponder what religion in the twenty-first century will look like without God.
Over the past three years, though, numerous other books have championed atheism, challenging organized religion and calling it superstitious and childish. Atheism is hardly a new phenomenon, of course, and can be traced as far back as ancient Greece when the first philosophers challenged the reigning religious worldview. Today’s bestselling books on atheism, however, are often responses to the evil done in the name of religion by religious extremists as well as the irrelevance of a supernatural power in the face of increasingly sophisticated scientific explanations of the origins of human life and the cosmos. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terrorism, and the Future of Reason and Letters to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great attack the Christian faith as irrelevant and dangerous. Several other books take up the cross of atheism in an attempt to demonstrate the shortcomings and inadequacies of organized religion. Russ Kick, the author of You Are Being Lied To, gathers a who’s who of atheists, from Richard Dawkins to Neil Gaiman, to examine a range of ways that religion often misleads people in Everything You Know About God is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion. In a collection of essays, Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, Louise M. Antony, professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, gathers the personal essays of various writers who have turned away from belief. Less strident than Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, the authors of these essays don’t diminish or demean religious belief but explore the reasons such beliefs are not adequate for them. In a similar way, James A. Haught, editor of the Charleston, West Virginia Gazette, grapples honestly with religious belief and its shortcomings in Honest Doubt: Atheism in a Believing Society.
Just as reaction to Altizer’s proclamation of the death of God was swift, so the Christian reaction to the proliferation of books promoting atheism. Some of these books respond directly to Dawkins’ The God Delusion. One of the most interesting and challenging is Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. A former atheist, McGrath criticizes Dawkins for his unthinking dogmatism about religion and demonstrates that such narrow thinking fails to engage deep questions about faith and reason. In The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths, David Robertson, pastor of St. Peter’s Free Church in Scotland, engages Dawkins and his attacks on religion in a series of open letters to Dawkins. Another pastor and author, David Marshall, challenges Dawkins to think deeper about the relationship between faith and reason in The Truth Behind the New Atheism: Responding to the Emerging Challenges to God and Christianity. Pastor Douglas Wilson (Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho) responds to Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation in Letter from a Christian Citizen.
Perhaps the most interesting and controversial book to emerge from the debate between atheism and religion is Anthony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese’s There is a God: How One of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist’s Changed His Mind. Flew, whose essays in New Essays in Philosophical Theology (1955) questioned the existence of God and challenged the notion of God’s omnipotence, here records his twenty-year journey from atheism to belief and, with his co-author Varghese, attempts to reconcile faith and reason.
Forty years after the reports of God’s death in Atlanta, atheists and Christians alike, if the number of books being published on the topic are any indication, are still trying to determine whether the reports have been exaggerated or whether they are true.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at