Religion after the death of God—A conversation with Rupert Read, Andrew Brown and Stephen Watson—A Cambridge Festival of Ideas event

Last night, the philosopher and Green politician Rupert Read and I introduced an evening conversation on the subject of religion after the death of God. The evening was chaired by Professor Stephen Watson and was part of Cambridge University's Festival of Ideas. Rupert has written a book which, in part, explores the associated subject of religion without belief: “Philosophy for Life” (Continuum, 2007).

After introducing the speakers Stephen began by reminding the audience that the evening was not an occasion to discuss the question of whether God does or does not exist but, given that many many people in our culture can no longer believe in God, the question was what might be the possibilities for religion in this changed situation?

Rupert delivered his opening remarks from notes (which, alas, I don't have) so, from memory, I offer below a few of the things the particularly struck me. I drew my remarks from a finished text which I reproduce below.  Neither of us liaised about the content of our presentations so it was a pleasure to discover how many points of contact there were.

I thank Rupert for his excellent and interesting contribution and also for Stephen's fine chairing of the whole event.

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Rupert began by exploring something of the history of the death of God and, along the way, considered particularly animism, pantheism and pan(en)theism, the latter two he saw as being particularly powerful candidates for any religion after the death of God. This philosophical position was related related by his to his own personal commitment to Buddhist practise and also to the Quakers. He also explored something of the opportunities and insights opened up for religion by Wittgenstein's philosophy about which he has written extensively. Rupert felt religion was important to the human species but only if the forms which develop after the death of God manage to avoid the traps of both relativism and fundamentalism. Rupert also spent time exploring the ways some kind of pantheism/pan(en)theism might help us creatively address the current ecological crisis we are facing.

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Here is the full text from which I drew my opening remarks.

The historian in me wanted to begin by spending some time simply outlining the history of the death of God. But tonight is not an evening about the history of the death of God — by which is generally meant the history of the death in our culture of the idea that there exists an actual, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient being — but rather about how religion might, or might not, remain a live option in response to the general background fact that the God is, for a very large number of people in Europe today, a dead, or at least dying, concept.

Although Nietzsche and those who followed him were acutely aware that acknowledgement of the death of God would bring with it a realisation that the world did not possess the stable, objective (behind-the-scenes) eternal value or meaning we once believed it had, and that this, in turn, would precipitate what is called nihilism, many people began to see that it could also, as the contemporary philosopher Mark Wrathall has observed, “open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred” (Religion after Metaphysics, Cambridge University Press 2003 p. 1),

For my part, I’m going to use my opening remarks to introduce into our conversation just two of the most important, basic, ways I see this opening up happening within the liberal religious Unitarian Universalist and Unitarian and Free Christian movement to which I belong.

Firstly, perhaps the most important thing to have occurred, is that the natural world is now being taken with an increased religious seriousness — a fact that connects strongly with our current ecological concerns and crises. I’ll briefly return to this thought at the end. Although this process began in the physical realm during the Renaissance with people like Copernicus (1473–1543) and then Galileo (1564–1642), after Nietzsche’s proclamation there was simply no longer even a metaphysical need to split the world into the heavenly and earthly, into God “up there” and creation “down here” and this, in turn, has resulted in an increasingly complex intermingling of ideas about the sacred and secular, the holy and profane. This latter, philosophical process was, of course, well underway by the end of the eighteenth century when pantheism began to become very influential — especially via Idealist philosophy and the Romantic movement. As Frederick C. Beiser (After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900, Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 4) puts it,

Spinoza’s famous phrase ‘deus sive natura’ made it possible to both divinize nature and naturalize the divine. Following that dictum, a scientist, who professed the most radical naturalism, could still be religious; and a pastor, who confessed the deepest personal faith in God, could still be a naturalist.”

This move to divinize nature and naturalize the divine, has continued apace and continues to play an important part in the development of a much broader modern movement known as “religious naturalism”.

Religious naturalism is a philosophy that combines a naturalist worldview (namely, that the natural order is all there is, and that nothing, including a deity, may exist or act in ways that are independent of the natural order) with various perceptions and values once commonly associated with religion, such as gratitude, wonder, awe, humility and compassion, etc..

Religious naturalists of all kinds take nature to be the proper focus of their religious commitment and concern. In saying this they do not (generally) mean that nature is somehow to be worshipped — I want to be clear about that — but, because nature is perceived by a religious naturalist to be metaphysically ultimate, “that is to say, self-sustaining and requiring no explanation for its existence beyond itself” (A Religion of Nature, Crosby, p.xi), nature is also understood as being religiously ultimate. This is because, even though nature is not accorded self-consciousness, personality, will or morality etc. (as the theistic God would be), nature is perceived to be the source and reason for everything we see and experience around us and so religious naturalists feel that we can “grant to nature the kind of reverence, awe, love, and devotion we in the West have formally reserved for God” (A Religion of Nature, Crosby, p.xi).

I think it is important to stress that for many religious naturalists — myself included — when they talk about nature as being the proper focus of religious commitment and concern they are not referring en bloc to the sum total of all created things and natural laws — to some giant collective entity, substance or thing. This present, sum total of things and natural laws, we can call “natura naturata” — nature natured, the way the natural world happens to be at this moment. Instead, many religious naturalists use the word nature to refer to the creative power of nature, “natura naturans” — nature naturing, nature endlessly doing what nature does both now and in the future.

OK, so that’s the first thing introduced: nature as religiously ultimate. So let’s now move on to the second thing connected with religion after the death of God.

Many of the people I meet, in addition to making nature their central religious focus and concern, also now take what is being called the “Epic of Evolution” as their basic story of how things are and what things matter rather than the divine, theistic story that we find in our various sacred religious texts, such as the Bible. The “Epic of Evolution” may be defined as follows.

“[It is] the [approximately] 14 billion year narrative of cosmic, planetary, life, and cultural evolution — told in sacred ways. Not only does it bridge mainstream science and a diversity of religious traditions; if skillfully told, it makes the science story memorable and deeply meaningful, while enriching one’s religious faith or secular outlook” (Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature).

All foundational religious stories are ones which try to say something to us about how things are and what things matter but the post death of God, religious naturalist Epic of Evolution differs in one very important way to those told by our old religions.

In our old stories, how things are and what things matter were indissolubly conjoined at the beginning of things. God creates both the physical universe AND what is believed to be the world’s unchanging, essential moral and ethical laws which are forever to govern our responses to the world and which help us discern what things matter.

The Epic of Creation, however, separates out the creation of the physical world and the creation of our moral and ethical laws. In the Epic of Creation our conceptions of what is understood to be good and what is bad and our religious and ethical responses to them “are not front-loaded into the story” as they are in traditional religion but, instead, are to be understood in wholly evolutionary terms. In other words our moral and ethical laws are perceived as being, like life itself, wholly natural and emergent; they are not perceived as things divinely given by God from the beginning. This means that the question of discerning what things matter, what things are good and bad and how to deal with the ramifications of this, is for a religious naturalist part of an ongoing, natural evolutionary process in which, in the company of fellow explorers, we continually seek to discover and experience the world “informed and guided by the mindful understandings inherent in our human traditions, including art, music, literature, philosophy, and the religions of the world” (RNA website).

In short, after the death of God, the Epic of Creation offers many of the people I meet a new guiding religious story that they find powerful both in terms of its scientific basis and its poetic, artistic and narrative aspects. It is a story which has the power to appeal because it feels to have about it both an intellectual and artistic persuasiveness relevant and meaningful to our own age and state of knowledge — a state, I should add, that every religious naturalist is happy to acknowledge is highly likely to undergo considerable modification and, perhaps, even fundamental change in the future as our knowledge, experience and insight changes.

So there are the two things I want to bring to the start of our conversation tonight about religion after the death of God: nature as religiously ultimate and the Epic of Creation as the basic story of how things are and what things matter.

But I think it is important to conclude by stressing the importance of story in all this. Although it is necessary, it doesn’t seem to be sufficient for human well-being merely to articulate a naturalistic world view after the death of God. Instead we need to ally a naturalistic world view to good story telling in a way that results in the creation a mutually supportive, intellectually and emotionally satisfying, challenging and informative whole. It must not be forgotten that we are as much poetic as scientific beings and over the past five years I’ve been very impressed and influenced by the work of a still small cultural movement called the “Dark Mountain Project” which was set going in 2009 by two British writers Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth. On the project’s website we find the following text:

The stories which any culture tells itself about its origins and values determine its direction and destination. The dominant stories of our culture tell us that humanity is separate from all other life and destined to control it; that the ecological and economic crises we face are mere technical glitches; that anything which cannot be measured cannot matter. But these stories are losing their power. We see them falling apart before our eyes. New stories are needed for dark times. Older ones need to be rediscovered.”

And it seems to me that, after the death of God, the Epic of Creation and an associated religion of nature can provide human kind with one such new story.

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The floor was then opened up to questions and a very interesting hour and a half of conversation followed.


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