CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being (In a World Without God)

May 26, 2008

Modern man is in a bad way. Everywhere we see people in the modern Western world in crisis and chaos. The signs of disintegration and degeneration are of course apparent for all to see. And the ways people seek to cope with the modern plague of alienation, meaninglessness and despair take plenty of forms: suicide, drug abuse, reckless relationships, sexual promiscuity and random acts of violence.

From whence does this mess arise? Why are we in such dire straits? The answer is as simple as it is profound. We are in a monumental mess because we are seeking to carry a load we were never meant to carry. We are seeking to do the impossible. We are seeking to put a square peg in a round hole.

We are, in a word, seeking to be God. Modern man has declared there is no God. There is no centre to the universe. There is no divine glue that holds all things together. We have wrenched God out of the universe, and there is now a gaping hole where God once was.

But just as nature always abhors a vacuum, so the only thing left to fill this massive hole of God’s banishment is mankind – individuals who have been made in God’s image, but who no longer believe that the creator exists anymore.

So now we are seeking to climb a mountain impossible to climb. In kicking God out of the universe, we are seeking to take his place. We are vainly pretending that the centre of all things is ourselves, and that we can hold all things together. We are now the source of all meaning, of all purpose, of what is true and false, right and wrong.

We, the creature, have usurped the rightful place of the creator, and now think we can somehow take his place. But that means we are now carrying a burden impossible to bear. We have supplanted God and enthroned self. But naked self, without the God of heaven and earth, is crushed under the load of its own choosing.

No wonder we have an obsession with self today. With no more God in the universe, all we are left with is self. We have sought to replace the sovereign God of the universe with the Sovereign Self. With such a huge burden to shoulder, we are not holding up very well. Thus we are awash with techniques and programs to help the self cope.

We are up to our ears in self-fulfillment, self-actualisation, self-esteem, self-identification. Therapists, psychiatrists and counselors are working overtime to deal with the problems of self. But to the extent that these are secular counselors, their help will be of limited value.

Man is more than just a slab of meat. He is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs. When we deny this aspect of human reality, we end up with alienation, despair, and frustration. In biblical terms, our real problem is sin.

Sin robs us of our rightful place because it robs God of his rightful place. And when we do that, we destroy ourselves. As David Wells puts it in his new book, “The self that has been made to bear the weight of being the center of all reality, the source of all our meaning, mystery, and morality, finds that it has become fragile and empty. When God dies to us, we die in ourselves”.

We are simply not built to carry the world on our shoulders. Atheists can chirp all they like about the non-existence of God, but all they are doing is chaining mankind with a death-wish. Instead of liberating mankind, atheism enslaves him.

In his superb examination of atheistic humanism, and the huge costs of it in recent human history (as in the reigns of Stalin and Hitler), Vincent Miceli closes with these words:

“Whoever strikes against God strikes down himself. The atheist denying God degrades himself. The atheist exalting himself above God sinks below the level of animate and inanimate beings. Liberation from God is enslavement in creatures. Absolute humanism is the sure road to absolute despotism. Denial of God as truth begets the imprisonment of man in the self-imposed darkness of his own myths.” (The Gods of Atheism, 1971)

The twentieth century certainly bore witness to the despotism and inhumanity of the atheist utopias. How could it be otherwise, when we seek to take the place of our Creator? When we attempt to dethrone God, and put our own fallen and finite values and wisdom into place, we are doomed to failure.

Yet we have not learned the lessons of the previous century. We continue to make the same mistakes today. Only now we celebrate these moves and glory in our past mistakes. The new militant atheists positively applaud and fastidiously promote the eradication of all religion – at least in its public expressions.

The new atheist fundamentalists like Dawkins and Hitchens pronounce a curse on all religion, but will probably not live long enough to see the full results of such foolish thinking. They should have learned from what was attempted in the name of Sovereign Man last century. Instead they make excuses for it, and claim that communism was not atheistic, or that Hitler was somehow really a Christian.

The inhumanity of humanism was warned about by many earlier prophets. C.S. Lewis spoke much of the “abolition of man”. The secular experiment is a grand experiment to see what life is like without God. And the results are not looking very good.

As the late philosopher, and atheist turned Christian, C.E.M. Joad put it, “For the first time in history there is coming to maturity a generation of men and women who have no religion, and who feel no need for one.” Or as the late ethicist Paul Ramsey said, “Ours is the first attempt in recorded history to build a culture upon the premise that God is dead.”

Announcing, and believing, that God is dead has consequences. And it is we who suffer the most for it. We cannot bear the whole universe on our shoulders. We were not meant to. We must let God be God. Only then can men be men. Only then can we find the way forward to be possible, and the burdens not insurmountable.

Miceli again lays out what is at stake here. Although negative in nature, a-theism has an affirmative component: “For atheism receives its true, full meaning from the reality it rejects – God. It represents a choice the creature makes of himself and his universe in preference to his Creator. For every temptation to deny God has as the necessary correlative of the denial the affirmation of the creature over God”.

“The affirmation of the creature over God”. If that sounds like an absurd proposition, it is. But the Psalmist rightly expressed this absurdity three millennia ago: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 53:1). For most of human history mankind has let God be God. Today we think we know better. But the foolish and tragic results only continue to multiply.

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19 Responses to The Unbearable Heaviness of Being (In a World Without God)

  • What we witness today is nothing new. The temptation of Adam and Jesus Christ was exactly the temptation to usurp the Father’s place. This then was followed by the temptation to deny that our natures are fallen, except when we need to minimise or excuse our failings by being able to claim that we are after all only chemicals and puddles of water and from which nothing more should be expected.

    When God’s Ten Commandments or rules for living are discarded, there is not this great mythical emancipation from an overbearing master. Instead there is transfer to another master, simply because society, in order to run smoothly, still needs rules and a referee. The master needs to rewrite and replace God’s ten simple laws with a colossal edifice of legislation that accounts for every breath, thought, feeling, intention and action that we make. Like the character in the film “Bruce Almighty,” he has to respond simultaneously to millions of citizens, all asking whether their next thought will be considered as criminal or not. In fact our British government is doing precisely that.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Your description and characterization of those who have discovered the emptiness of the god concept is completely without basis in reality. Recognizing the failure of a popular myth is not to place oneself at the center of a universe in which we, very obviously, are not the center.
    The absence of god is a recognition of the importance of properly placing oneself in relation to an accurate assesment of the nature of ourselves (the plural is necessary as I am a compilation of the lives of thers), and the rest of the material universe.
    We are a social species for whom the self can never be sovereign. Criminality exemplifies the failure of those who thought their ego was the supreme nexus of existence.
    I would agree that the self obssessed, narcisists who dominate popular culture consitute a dead end. But they are the creatures, not of thoughtful atheists, but of the meanness and greed of an aggressive capitalist meme that does not harbor any inclination to cultivate a true human-centered culture.
    It is not the absence of god, but the presence of our own continuing failure to cultivate an intensive, literate, and popular intellectual life that is the greatest threat to the realization of a vital culture and perhaps the very survival of our species.

    Jim Peterson

  • Thank you Bill for a great posting. I agree with your sentiments whole heartedly and with the comment by David Skinner. As our culture moves away from God’s laws and creates this vacuum, it is filled with an athiest and secularist driven culture that is shallow and meaningless. We only end up tying ourselves into knots and gagging not just our mouths but also our minds. As I observe the growing emptiness in this world I often despair about where it will all end up.
    Frank Norros

  • Hi Bill,
    So eloquently put: “Man is more than just a slab of meat.”

    I couldn’t agree more

    Robert Philllips

  • Thanks Jim

    But it is always interesting how much faith atheists have in the speculative and the theoretical, instead of the factual and empirical, which they always go on about. Here we are again with Dawkins’ meme theory, which has no scientific basis whatsoever – indeed it cannot have any. It is an act of pure faith to postulate such a thing.

    You talk about a capitalist meme. But if it exists, then people simply are capitalists by their memetic programming. And then too there would be a socialist meme, which people also would of necessity see enacted in their lives.

    Of course then there is also a God meme, and so too an atheist meme. People simply believe what their memes have programmed them to believe. That is the end of the story. In which case why bother wasting your time in seeking to persuade us otherwise?

    You say the real hope is “to cultivate an intensive, literate, and popular intellectual life”. There we go again, human reason alone will save the day. Of course Germany in the 1930s was among the most civilised, cultured and well-educated societies on earth at the time. Mere human reason did not seem to get them very far.

    And what if some of us simply have anti-intellectual memes? Dawkins and Co. want to say everything is the result of our genes and memes. But then they seek to change track and say somehow we are not determined by these genes and memes. Which is it?

    It takes more faith to believe in such silly notions than it does to believe there is a transcendent, personal God who has made all things.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Jim, I simply cannot reconcile the contradictions, most of which were tackled by Bill in his reply, and the flaws in your argument.

    Firstly, I disagree that “The absence of god is a recognition of the importance of properly placing oneself in relation to an accurate assesment of the nature of ourselves (the plural is necessary as I am a compilation of the lives of thers), and the rest of the material universe.” On the contrary, it is by accepting and understanding our relationship with God that we come to understand not only our place and nature, but also our purpose. It is this last item that atheism and science will never be able to address as it belongs in the realm of theology and philosphy.

    Secondly, I’m not sure of what you mean by a “human-centered (sic) culture”, but you seem to suggest that the ego, and therefore criminality, would cease to exist in such a culture. This suggests that criminality is something outside of our nature. In addition, you suggest that a full cultivation of “an intensive, literate, and popular intellectual life” would somehow lead to a “realization of a vital culture and perhaps the very survival of our species.” Such utopian theories were fundamental to the growth of nazism and socialism and were a significant part of the rhetoric in the most brutal regimes in history. If you think scepticism in those platitudes (especially when coming from atheists) is misguided, then read Hitler’s Mein Kumpf, Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, and the speaches of Stalin. And that’s just for starters!

    Thirdly, I fail to see what are the features of atheism that put it outside realm of “popular myth”.

    Finally, I also disagree with your statement that the “self obssessed, narcisists who dominate popular culture… are the creatures, not of thoughtful atheists, but of… “. You suggest that they are athiests who somehow have it all wrong. I guess that qualifies them as ‘heretics’ of true atheism! Go figure…

    Frank Norros

  • Hi Bill,

    I’m concerned that you have elevated despair over a small number of lost souls to something that infects all of mankind. Most people I know, both believers and non-believers, have not fallen into the self-destructive activities you mention. In fact most Australians seem to live happy and contented lives, notwithstanding struggles with the family budget and concerns about future climate change, energy security and population pressures on the environment and the food supply.

    The theology of despair is pushed hard by American pop evangelists, and there is strong evidence to suggest that a dominionist agenda is behind their infiltration of the US political scene. Is there not a danger in promoting a message of despair and disillusionment with the world that it will support the rise of dominionism, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a distortion of the Christian message and not a desirable path for any nation to follow.

    Juliana Simbroski, Darwin

  • Hi Bill,

    I recently had a letter published in the Leader which I wrote in response to a letter saying how irrelevant the Bible was to our times and in this I said there is no way we can make this world right without God and that it was extremely relevant as nothing had changed since the battles and warfare of the Old Testament.

    This is the letter:

    BIBLE – OUR MANUAL FOR SURVIVAL

    I would have to disagree with Keri Miller (Opinion 22/4/08) who says the Bible is irrelevant and out of date with its battles and warfare. The Bible doesn’t hide the sins of the people against the Lord – the whole Bible is about God waiting for his beloved children to come to him and stop living in sin. We see time after time where people turn away from God until He acts and punishes them and then they return to Him but then when times are better, they stop relying on God and go their own way again and repeat all the old sins. As far as I can see nothing much has changed when you look at the anger, violence, abuse of children, terrible cruelty, war, self interest, drug and alcohol abuse that we see all around us that is in our world today.

    The New Testament shows God’s great grace to us by allowing his beloved son to be crucified and later resurrected in order that our sins could be covered by the one true and pure sacrifice that could be made to cover our sins.. Until we return to God and acknowledge what Jesus did for us and follow in his steps, no matter how much good will and intent there is to make things better, we are unable to change things to peace and harmony while we are estranged from God.

    The Bible could not be more relevant than it is today.

    Anne Darbyshire

  • Bill,

    I suggest you do some actual research into memes, as you seem totally out of your depth here.

    I am neither agreeing or disagreeing with the theory of memes, but the one thing I do know is your description of the theory resembles nothing out of the large amount of material I have read about it.

    Chris Mayer

  • Thanks Chris

    While I make no pretentions to being an authority on the memetic theory (and nice of you to fess up that it is just a theory), my understanding of it comes directly from its originator, Dawkins himself. And even Dawkins is not fully clear in what he believes about memes, as a careful reading of his writings reveals. Indeed, the tentativeness of which he speaks about memes in The God Delusion is most revealing.

    And far better minds than you or me have declared the utter bankruptcy of the theory. It is junk science, pseudo-science. It is certainly not real science. Memes cannot stand the test of empirical verification. It is simply a bogus postulate, clung to in faith by atheists who simply do not like the alternative: that God is fact exists.

    Yes there is a big literature around it, just as there is a big literature around astrology and tea leaf reading. It might be far better to admit that atheism is “a mental virus of faith,” to use Dawkins’ own words.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Juliana

    But I am at a loss as to how a description of mankind without God has anything to do with dominionism, whatever you mean by that term. And underneath the thin veneer of civilisation and happiness, there lies a deep spiritual and psychic despair and cry for meaning and purpose, which is the condition of those without God. Or as Augustine has put it, ‘You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”

    We simply fill the emptiness with all manner of fake substitutes, be it power or career or sex or money or pleasure or drugs. Or as Pascal rightly notes, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator”.

    There can be no good news offered to people until they first admit to the bad news, and that is that we are lost, broken and needy people in need of a great physician. No doctor will be of any help unless the patient is first honest about his condition, and his need for help.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Just a minor point Bill, but saying something in science is ‘just a theory’ is rather meaningless.
    Chris Mayer

  • Thanks Chris

    Actually I think it might be a bit meaningful in the context of this discussion. Sure, science proceeds by making models, or theories. And some theories are better than others. But atheists, who cling to scientism, are always insisting that theories be empirically testable and accurate. Can this be said about the theory of memes? Absolutely not.

    As a colleague of Dawkins at Oxford, Alister McGrath, put it, there is “no clear operational model of a meme, no testable model for how memes influence culture”. Indeed, “the mainstream scientific community views it as a decidedly flaky idea, best relegated to the margins”.

    Or as David Aikman puts it in his new book, The Delusion of Disbelief, no “scientist has ever found a way to observe [a meme] or measure it, much less reproduce its likeness in a laboratory setting. It is an alluring theory of culture change, but its existence has never been proved. The theory of ‘memetics’ is a proto-science, some might say a pseudoscience. It might not be too unkind to compare memetics with ‘phlogiston’ theory,’ a now entirely defunct scientific hypothesis” of the seventeenth century.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • As I said from the start Bill, I was never supporting the theory of memes. I was merely making a clarification that firstly I didn’t think you were representing memes as they have actually been presented by its proponents.

    Then secondly, you mentioned that I ‘fessed up’ about memes being ‘just a theory’. Saying something in science is ‘just a theory’ makes no real claim about the strength of evidence behind that theory. As Jonathan Safarti has written here:

    www.answersingenesis.org/home/area/re2/chapter3.asp

    Chris Mayer

  • Chris, thank you for citing my work. But in future, would you please:

    1. Spell my name correctly
    2. Cite my articles as posted on the CMI site. They are illegally and against my wishes posted on that other site. The article on the proper site is creationontheweb.com/content/view/3262/

    As for the debate at hand, I agree that saying “just a theory” is inadvisable. But for the reasons Bill gave, memetics doesn’t even deserve the status of a theory. I wrote about that in a later chapter creationontheweb.com/content/view/3293#memes

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Apologies Jonathan on both counts. I have seen your name enough times, but my fingers don’t always type what I want them to. As to the link, that is google’s fault as it had it as the first link, which I am sure given what you are saying, would just be more aggravating to you!
    Chris Mayer

  • Apologies accepted, Chris. For some reason Google downgrades a newer site version of the same article, even though in this case it’s the rightful one and it’s the older one that shouldn’t be there.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Bill, I think you provide a wonderful assessment of the root of the problem plaguing our modern Western world. I am going to quote from your opening paragraphs in my sermon this Sunday. Thanks.
    Tom Tripp

  • Great article, giving form to my own thoughts, thank you!

    I also enjoyed the many unintended truths that came up in the comments.

    Reading Richard Dawkins ‘The God Delusion’ at the end of a two decade decline from a firm belief in God and a Roman Catholic childhood into the self-centric world of secularism … I encountered the most agonizing downward spiral and descent into life despair that i ever thought possible to climb out of. To the ‘organic’ atheist, the worldly 5 senses are the only things that can be relied on. But when your 5 senses comprise all that you can rely on, life can become very distorted. For an organic human life form to embrace the senses beyond the physical – to tune into the senses required in the spiritual union … the big picture becomes a masterpiece in which not a single piece will ever go missing. Belief in eternal life puts life into perspective on every level. But that’s just my take on it 🙂

    Susan Morgan

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