Saturday, March 30, 2013

We Are the Last Men

A recent study of religious attitudes and beliefs shows that 20% of Americans describe themselves as having no religious affiliations at all (up from only 8% in 1990).  This includes people who may be vaguely spiritual, but who have no interest in being part of any organized religion, as well as those who describe themselves as agnostics or atheists.   More telling still, one-third of men and women under the age of 30 claim to be “nothing in particular” when it comes to religious affiliation.
What accounts for this sudden surge in the number of people who describe themselves as having no connection to any religion?  Organized religion itself is undoubtedly to blame.  In the past decade we have seen leaders from all the major religious groups in the United States engage in financial improprieties, abuses of power, sexual transgressions with minors, and every manor of hypocrisy imaginable.  Such behavior has most certainly tainted the “brand” of organized religion in the eyes of many Americans. 
The study also indicates that the association of organized religion with a conservative political agenda that at times can come across as racist, sexist, and homophobic has apparently also played a role in the decline of organized religion.  40% of self-identified liberals, for example, claim to have no religion (compared to 9% of conservatives).  This may also be why younger Americans, who tend to be fairly liberal on social issues, make up a much larger percentage of the religiously unaffiliated than older Americans.
While it is clear that organized religion is not going away any time soon, when the youngest, best educated, and most upwardly mobile members of a society turn away from organized religion—as appears to be happening in the United States—that doesn’t bode very well for the future of religion in this country. 
It’s interesting that this trend away from organized religion was predicted in the 19th century by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  In language that is as provocative today as it was in his own time, Nietzsche dramatically declared that “God is dead.”   In The Gay Science, Nietzsche has his “madman” run to the marketplace, shouting, “I seek God, I seek God,” only to be mocked by atheists in the crowd.  In response to their taunts, the madman proclaims the following:
“Where is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. 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? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars and yet they have done it themselves.”
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”  (The Gay Science, 125).
It should be noted that Nietzsche was not claiming that God didn’t exist—although he certainly believed that.  What he was trying to say is that the hypocrisy and fundamental dishonesty of organized religion would eventually lead to the death of religious belief itself.  God is dead because religion is no longer able to provide order, meaning and value to our lives.  We are moving, he believed, from a religious era to a post-religious one, and we’ve found nothing yet to replace our belief in God. 
Or have we?  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche describes what he calls, the “last man”.  “There will come a time,” he writes, “when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas!  There will come a time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself. Behold! I show you THE LAST MAN.”
In the absence of the meaning and order provided by organized religion, the last man strives to avoid suffering and struggle and lives for comfort and pleasure.  In the end, the last man is actually closer to a beast of the field than a human being, and about as far removed from the Superman—the endpoint of human evolution for Nietzsche—as one can possibly get. When the concept of God dies, when the Churches become his tombs, Nietzsche believes that the nihilism that results provides fertile ground for the propagation of decadent last men and women.
In proclaiming the death of God, the madman in the Gay Science admits that he has “come too early”—that the world is not ready for him.  This was Nietzsche’s problem as well.  But Nietzsche’s prophetic views on the end of organized religion, and what that fact means for human society, seems to be coming true in our own day and age.  If the study cited above is accurate, God may not be completely dead yet in the United States (as he is in most of Northern Europe), but he is certainly on life support.  And, in the absence of a new generation of Superman, what we have in our own society is a nation of the kind of “last men” that Nietzsche describes so wonderfully in Zarathustra. 
Like Nietzsche’s last men, we have become a people that no longer is capable of lofty ideals, a nation of individuals who see no value in struggling to improve ourselves and who are content instead to swill cheap beer on our lazy boys, watching reality TV as we graze on an endless supply of artery clogging snacks.  The planet is literally choking on the shit that is emitted from our cars, our smoke-stacks, and our energy-intensive homes, but as long as we have our daily pleasures, what difference does it make to us?
Nietzsche believed that out of the nihilism caused by the death of God a new race of Supermen would emerge to create new values and ideals.  I’m not so confident that a Superman will appear in our own society any time soon.  And, if he did, I have no doubts that the last men would kill him off the way that other morally superior human beings, like Jesus or Gandhi, have been killed off in the past. 
No, we’re definitely not ready for the arrival of a Superman.  We’ll have to content ourselves to living in a world without God and without any transcendent values.  The consolation is that when the end comes for us last men, we probably won’t even notice it.  And even if we do, we’ll be far too absorbed by the endless pleasures provided by Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashian sisters to give a damn, anyway.

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