So far, one of the chief lessons the twenty-first century has taught us is that you can’t deduce anything from what century it is. President Obama likes to denounce Vladimir Putin’s power politics in Ukraine as belonging to the nineteenth century, but Putin seems to have no problem conducting a nineteenth-century foreign policy in the year 2014. Likewise, ISIS’s beheadings of “infidels” evoke the seventh century, and West Africans living in terror of Ebola are reenacting the Black Death of the fourteenth. To say that these things should not exist today is itself a kind of primitive incantation, which attempts to banish as historical things that every day prove themselves utterly contemporary.
A milder, but in a sense even stranger, manifestation of this principle can be found in the current debate about religion and atheism. In the polemics of the New Atheists, we find reprised the furious Enlightenment contempt for religion that animated Voltaire and the philosophes, alongside the scientific arguments against religion that convinced Darwin and his contemporaries. The arguments have not changed; even the emotions are the same. Yet the paladins of reason, having slain the beast of superstition, find that it refuses to stay dead.
The reason, of course, is that the loss of faith is not something that happened to all of humanity at a single moment. Because faith still survives, and in many places thrives, the loss of faith is not a historical phenomenon but a biographical one. As Nietzsche’s madman foresaw, the death of God does not happen once, but again and again, whenever the news of it reaches a new listener:
This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant to them than the remotest stars—and yet they have done it themselves!
What this means is that, like the early Christians, secular humanists have the duty to be evangelists—to spread what is, to them, the good news that there is no God. Life After Faith, the deeply thoughtful new book by Philip Kitcher, takes this duty seriously; and its seriousness lies in its recognition that this fact, to many people, sounds not like a liberation but a defeat. The language we still use betrays this emotional fact: we talk of the death of God and the loss of faith, rather than the birth of reason or the achievement of truth. Perhaps this is because the absence of God, like our own mortality, runs contrary to our native instincts. Just as children are fundamentally convinced that they will not die, so they are born believing, or prepared to believe, in…
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