“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” Nietzsche, The Gay Science, The Madman.
I thought of Nietzsche’s well-known quote as I came across an article by David Mitchell in the Observer last month. The basis for the article was something said by Neil MacGregor, who is following his highly-successful and fascinating series A History of the World in 100 Objects, with another series: Living with the Gods. MacGregor has proved himself an able art historian, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s qualified to set out a history of religious belief. I heard him on the Today programme a couple of weeks ago, describing the series, and using ‘belief’ and ‘habits’ interchangeably, which is precisely the kind of imprecision that will get you into bother with a history of religions.
Anyway, MacGregor had made a really important observation, an observation that everyone should take seriously. It’s candid, and perceptive. MacGregor had said about Britain in 2017:
We are exceptional. It’s important to know that we are different. We are a very unusual society. We are trying to do something that no society has really done. We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time. Our society is, not just historically but in comparison to the rest of the world today, a very, very unusual one in being like that.
Mitchell picks up on the significance of this statement. So should we all. Read that again – let it sink in. After reflecting on it in his usual sardonic manner, Mitchell concludes:
To change so quickly from a society where most people took comfort from the establishment telling them, loudly and clearly, that death is not the end, to one where many proclaim that it is, and few are totally convinced otherwise, will have had an incalculable impact on our state of mind. It’s not a development I regret, but it’s a more persuasive explanation than smartphones or commuting of why we feel so stressed.
So, here’s Mitchell putting together 21st Century Britain’s rejection of it’s Christian metanarrative, in a way no other nation quite has, with the rise in anxiety which so many people feel. There are all kinds of social statistics that suggest that British society is not particularly healthy (whether rates of prescription anti-depressants, teenage pregnancy, or lower measures of happiness and well-being). Then, there’s the evidence from the recent hand-wringing reckoning around abusive and exploitative sexist behaviour in Westminster (which reckoning is the socially acceptable iceberg-tip for the reckoning that no-one – mostly no-ones who are men – wants in their own workplaces or homes or clubs on a Saturday night).
So, put Mitchell’s connection together with a story that appeared about the same time in the media. Esther Rantzen appeared on a number of TV slots to speak about a 15-20% rise in calls to Childline prompted by suicidal thoughts. Why this alarming rise? Was there an explanation? Well, the usual suspects were brought out. I’m sure social media is part of it. I’m sure the objectification of women and a highly-sexualised society are part of it. I’m sure that casting our goals in life within the framework of aggressive consumerism and an immoral capitalism – yes, part of it too.
Rantzen pointed out something very important: when you compare children’s happiness across the developed nations, the United Kingdom does particularly poorly. And that’s when my thoughts went back to Mitchell’s article. Why is our culture like this? You can bring out the usual suspects, but one suspect not in the identity parade, but skulking in the shadows (as Mitchell realises), is The Murder of God. Our exceptional experiment, our swift, ignorant and hubristic rejection of a 2,000 year tradition of thought and belief that has formed the pillars of European culture. Our rejection of Christianity. Who will wipe this blood off our hands?
David Mitchell might not regret the Death of God in our culture, but I regret it. Yes, I regret it personally, because of my intellectual convictions about truth. But I regret the cost to our society, and especially to our children.