In the 1800s, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a passage that has since become famous in which he proclaimed "the death of God." Although he is generally condemned for the assertion, people generally misunderstand his point; for Nietzsche, the death of God was not a celebration of a theological event but a lamentation over a historical event. Faith in God was dead, and the consequences were, for Nietzsche, horrifying:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" -- As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? -- Thus they yelled and laughed.
The Gay Science
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche's realization was obvious enough: The death of God would be catastrophic. For most of human history, faith in God- called by whatever name- had been central to everyday existence: God created the world; God set the laws of nature in motion; God determined right and wrong; God gave a moral context to human action, and therefore, a moral value to human action. And this pattern was universal: It was as much the case in Oriental cultures as in European cultures, and in every other culture as well. Moreover, much of the order we enjoy in the world today stems from a traditional worldview rooted in religion, again, called by whatever name.
However, all of that began to change in the 19th and 20th centuries when religious skepticism and philosophical nihilism began to sweet through Europe, and through European conquest, the rest of the world. This trend. largely the consequence of resentment towards old world power structures- and thus, towards the underlying religious foundation of old world power structures- began to rip the foundation of civilization out from under it. Slowly but surely, a system of human organization that had lasted for millennia began to decay. Nietzsche saw it before anybody else, and was rightly terrified.
The consequences, though complex and far-reaching, were simple enough in concept: When the concept of God was removed from society, so too would be a number of related concepts that human beings required in order to function with one another, such as virtue, love, and sacrifice. These concepts were so bound up in religion that the death of God was tantamount to the death of all these things- and then what would replace them? Nobody had an answer, because indeed nobody had asked the question yet. But soon enough, the world learned the truth as materialism rushed to take the place of God in the form of two competing systems: capitalism and communism.
Neither of these systems had a spiritual center. The result was that although both of these materialist systems grew in strength, the void at the center of the human being grew larger as well. We are a meaning-seeking species: Religion had given context to the human desire for meaning and mission- and now that context had begun to slowly fade into the background. Consequently, the world began to suffer from what Émile Durkheim referred to as anomie in his book Suicide, a condition of "derangement" and "insatiable will" resulting from social-moral upheaval and a subsequent sense of nihilism.
Today, we see something similar in the form of sky-rocketing rates of psychiatric disorders of any and all kinds, not to mention a number of related social ills- single-mother homes, drug and alcohol addiction, and mass incarceration, to name but a few. All of these social sicknesses, in some fashion or another, are influenced by anomie, and by a general lack of moral-religious context to human behavior. And that is in no way a defense of any particular moral-religious system; it is merely an acknowledgement of the research-supported fact that human beings are religious creatures. So really, there is only one solution to the problem: the revitalization of a sense of meaning and mission in the modern world.
There can be no greater message for those that feel lost, confused, or despondent: The path out of nihilism is the rekindling of purpose. When life has purpose, we can find our way; when life is left without purpose, we rarely bother- or we despair when our solutions continue to fail, which only perpetuates a vicious cycle of depression and self-destruction. But there is a way out of darkness: We must find our mission, and we must find a meaning that justifies that mission.
~ Joshua van Asakinda