(This post is part of our continuing “Book Club” reading of Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries for this book)
Many of the kinds of people who would ever bother to wonder “who was the first real atheist?” think that the answer is Nietzsche.
History’s highlight reel would tend to confirm the call: the very words “God is dead” are captioned “Friedrich Nietzsche.” He kind of owns the franchise.
But in the first chapter of “Culture and the Death of God” to really approach modernity, Eagleton has his doubts. These doubts reveal just how difficult it is to live in a world free of religion, given just how conditioned the culture we live in is by its assumptions and epistemology.
Nietzsche himself understood these difficulties better than most. “Nietzsche sees that civilization is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested,” Eagleton writes. “You cannot kick away the foundations and expect the building still to stand.”
You can’t base morality on something you believe to be false without living in a constant state of hypocrisy. But no one has convincingly rethought moral principles from first-principles … or even agreed on what those would be.
It’s like saying: “we want to live in a world free of air.” That’s all well and good, but how exactly would we breathe? Assuming it can be done, that Man does not breathe by air alone, it would be a radically different world.
This was well understood by the “old atheists” of the past century, who grasped that a society based on something other than faith is one lacking in fundamental first principles. Eagleton again:
“What Nietzsche recognizes is that you can get rid of God only if you also do away with innate meaning. The Almighty can survive tragedy, but not absurdity. As long as there appears to be some immanent sense to things, one can always inquire after the source from which it springs. Abolishing given meanings involves destroying the idea of depth, which in turn means rooting out beings like God who take shelter there. Like Wilde in his wake, Nietzsche is out to replace what he sees as a vacuous depth with a profundity of the surface.”
A coherent case could be put together that this is actually Burning Man’s project too: that it replaces depth of shared meaning with arbitrary expectations of conduct (the 10 Principles) and the ability to Choose Your Own Epistemology while you skirt along a dazzling surface of fire-breathing sculptures, instillation art, and naked people that creates an amazing subjective experience but ultimately “means” nothing.
I don’t buy it, but it can’t easily be dismissed. If the burning of the Man doesn’t actually have any shared meaning – if it’s just a wooden man burning – then what else could we be doing?
But we’ll come back to that. In the meantime: it’s vital to recognize the fact that (quoting Eagleton) “God is indeed dead, and it is we who are his assassins, yet our true crime is lees deicide than hypocrisy. Having murdered the Creator in the most spectacular of all Oedipal revolts, we have hidden the body, repressed all memory of the traumatic event, tidied up the scene of the crime and, like Norman Bates in Psycho, behave as though we are innocent of the act. We have also dissembled our deicide with various shamefaced forms of pseudo-religion, as though in expiation of our unconscious guilt. Modern secular societies, in other words, have effectively disposed of God but find it morally and politically convenient – even imperative – to behave as though they had not.”
This is essentially what Nietzsche predicted would happen. He didn’t think very highly of us. Which is frightening, given how right he was about so much.
But for all that, and for all that he wanted to be, Eagleton suggests that Nietzsche cannot be considered the first atheist.
The reason why is instructive, suggesting just how difficult of a bind we’re in trying to be “post-religious.”
I’m just going to quote Eagleton here at length. See you in three paragraphs.
“Yet in his sovereignty over Nature and lordly self-dependence, the Overman has more than a smack of divinity about him, which means, ironically, that God is not dead after all. What will replace him continues to be an image of him.
That the death of God involves the death of Man, along with the birth of a new form of humanity, is orthodox Christian doctrine, a fact of which Nietzsche seems not to have been aware. The Incarnation is the place where both God and Man undergo a kind of kenosis or self-humbling, symbolized by the self-dispossession of Christ. Only through this tragic, self-emptying can a new humanity hope to emerge. In its solidarity with the outcast and afflicted, the crucifixion is a critique of all hubristic humanism. Only through a confession of loss and failure can the very meaning of power be transfigured in the miracle of resurrection. The death of God is the life of the iconoclast Jesus, who shatters the idolatrous view of Yahweh as irascible despot and shows him up in stead as vulnerable flesh and blood.
The absence of God may be occluded by the fetish of Man, but the God who has been disposed of would seem little more than a fetish in the first place.”
Okay … what does all that mean? In a nutshell, it means that Nietzsche essentially replaced the version of Christianity that was current in his day with a more orthodox form of mystical Christianity, one that is structurally and functionally very similar. It doesn’t happen to mention Christ, and yet in many ways Christ would make the perfect Ubermensch. He wasn’t big on the whole “will to power” thing on the surface, but that’s only a gross reading: if the Will to Power isn’t understood as a craven desire to be mean to others (which only a teenager fresh off an Ayn Rand kick could believe) and is properly understood as a rejection of conventional morality in order to build up a truly intrinsic value system that cares nothing for the strictures of authority (a simplistic but largely accurate view), then that’s exactly what Jesus did. They even crucified him, and he didn’t repent. He fucking loved the hell out of his neighbor, even under torture: turned that cheek like a gangsta!
Nietzche didn’t know it – but any good Christian does. Nietzche’s idea of rejecting religion is ultimately a Joseph Campbell style Hero’s Journey … which Campbell theorized through the study of comparative religion.
The planet’s premier atheist basically replaced religious iconography with orthodox theology.
This kind of thing happens a lot. 100 years after Nietzsche, a new crop of atheists, the high tech kind, are proposing that a Singularity will usher in a new paradise, download all our consciousnesses eternally, and reward the faithful. We are constantly replacing religion with religion’s component parts reassembled into Lego sculptures of the original.
I suspect, when we look at Burning Man and ask questions about what it is and what it means and what it’s place in the world is, this will end up happening a lot too. Even if it isn’t religious, even if (as I’ve postulated) it can’t be a religion in the classic sense, participants are going to copy and crib and play theme-and-variations on religious thought and practice in all kinds of ways – because that’s what people do.
That doesn’t mean Burning Man is “religious” in the sense that it is a religious organization or event, but that when given the opportunity to unshackle themselves from the chains of convention, be creative, and do something new … people will tend to reinvent religion’s component parts.
It’s what people do, and what we’re going to do, until a truly new vision emerges. Unless and until an atheism appears that is in fact fundamentally different, we are going to keep coming back to religious ideals, forms, and structures. Knowingly or not.
“If Nietzsche clings to the need for a new mythology, then, it is not primarily for reasons of social stability,” Eagleton notes. “It is rather because ‘without myth, every culture loses the health natural power of its creativity,’ as he writes in The Birth of Tragedy.”
Thousands of years into its run on earth, the only way humanity knows how to create culture and society is through myth of one kind of another, and religion has the market cornered on that. Symbolic resources come from the investiture of meaning – and modernism breaks meaning down and strips it away. It de-enchants the world. That’s exactly the problem. The closest modernity can come to mythology is to reboot the Star Trek franchise.
“In one sense, Nietzsche heralds the end of culture as well as the death of God,” Eagleton writes. What makes Burning Man appealing is precisely because it feels so much like a new culture – it offers symbolic resources in spite of modernity. That’s only novel because, in our post-religious age, culture feels like it’s dying.
Or worse: that it’s dead, but we all have to carry the decomposing corpse wherever we go.
“’In the era of Auschwitz … There is no culture document that is not at the same time a record of barbarism …” Eagleton quotes Walter Benjamin as saying. “[cultural history] may well increase the burden of the treasures that are piled up on humanity’s back. But it does not give mankind the strength to shake them off, so as to get its hands on them.’ George Simmel is another who finds something burdensome about this cultural booty. (In modern times culture) comes to overwhelm subjective existence, assuming an autonomous logic of its own in glacial indifference to human purposes. Human beings now stagger under an oppressive surplus of culture, rather than wilting for the lack of it.”
Here Burning Man clearly plays a role: if you feel like you are staggering under too much culture, you go to a Temporary Autonomous Zone. (Or the closest equivalent.)
If there’s a push-pull here between people using Burning Man to escape culture and people using Burning Man to reinvent religion, we shouldn’t be surprised: both are symptoms of the same underlying problem. Lacking clear meaning and mythology, culture is nothing but custom, which can fossilize into a burden. One solution is to try to get rid of it, the other to re-enchant it. Burning Man allows for both kinds of experimentation.
Neither are guaranteed to succeed. “It is possible,” Eagleton rights, echoing Freud, “that the project of culture or civilization demands more from us than we can properly yield, not least because the superego, being obtuse as well as vindictive, issues its (dictates) in callous indifference as to whether we can obey them or not. Culture is a sickeningly unstable affair.”
Eagleton ends the chapter by suggesting that if society fails to evolve beyond this point, it will neither have nor deserve a long life.
Burning Man may be where people go to play – and that is exactly the right word – with the building blocks of culture and myth, and the question of how much of each we need; but the stakes are high. Modernity may be a vital and necessary step in human development, but it is also a toxin to the human spirit. Burning Man may be an attempt by Moderns to develop a vaccine.