Religious Traditions Essay

In 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote what would become perhaps the most famous line in the canon Western philosophy: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Nietzsche is often misconstrued as having written his famous line with glee, with a sense of schadenfreude at the recession of medieval superstition, to be replaced by the science, materialism and logic of the Age of Enlightenment. This is not the case however, as becomes glaringly obvious when considering the quote in full. Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God with a deep sense of dread. He continues “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?”

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The reason for Nietzsche’s despairing tone is the age old question of can one derive values from facts in the absence of God. Nietzsche feared that the replacement of God with rationality would cause people to lose the basis of their shared sense of morality. At the time, in Europe, this shared sense of morality would be the Judaeo-Christian ethic. Nietzsche feared that the death of God would lead to people rejecting their morals and values and that this would ultimately lead to a state of nihilism.

If considering the modern world, especially the Western world with its increasingly atheistic orientation, I believe that Nietzsche may have been on to something. However, I also believe his thesis is not universally applicable to non-religious persons…and I can corroborate this from my personal experience. For the sake of context, my grandparents, who were ethnically Lebanese and French, were Christian. My parents, however, were not religious and neither am I. As such, I did not have a religious upbringing, though my parents and I do consider ourselves to be spiritual. Having observed both my parents and grandparents interact with their respective senses of religion and spirituality, the big distinction that emerged to my mind was not one of morals as Nietzsche feared…but rather of dogma.

Dogma has gotten a pretty bad reputation in recent years and I would argue that a fairly large portion of that reputation is earned, but not all of it. The Cambridge dictionary defines dogma as: “a fixed, especially religious, belief or set of beliefs that people are expected to accept without any doubts.” Religion – especially Christianity, which is the religion with which I am best acquainted – does indeed seem to be bound up in a set of axiomatic beliefs that need to be accepted and proclaimed without any doubts. I would further argue that Christianity is uniquely bound up in its dogmatic beliefs, as it is the only major religion where your route to salvation is based on a set of beliefs (in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ), rather than a set of moral codes and actions (such as described in the Tora). The Apostle Paul wrote to this effect in Romans 10:10 “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” (New International Version).

Dogmatic belief often gives rise to a set of endlessly repeatable actions, which is where we get religious tradition. Personally, I never felt excluded or alienated from the modern celebration of Christian traditions, despite not sharing the belief upon which they are founded. My reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, many Christian traditions as become secularized to the point where they have become practically unrecognizable as Christian: Halloween is no longer a vigil for the dead in Christ, but about trick-or-treat and horror movies; Christmas is no longer about the birth of Christ, but about mass consumerism; and Easter is no longer about the death and resurrection of Christ, but about chocolate eggs which (very bizarrely) come from a rabbit. Secondly, many Christian traditions were transposed upon the older pagan traditions that preceded them: Halloween replaced the Gaelic Samhain which co-indices with the autumn equinox on the Roman calendar; Christmas replaced Roman celebrations of the winter solstice; and Easter replaced celebrations of the Germanic goddess Ostara (or Ēostre), whose celebrations were held in April.

Despite some negative characteristics of religious dogma and traditions highlighted above, I have also noticed some positive consequences of religion and indeed dogmatic tradition. If considering the lives of my grandparents, both being Christian and coming from more traditional societies, it did seem that they had a greater and deeper sense of connection with a fairly large community. This community was in large part centred around the local church. In modern times, especially in the United States, a great many people are struggling with severe loneliness, addiction and depression, which has led to the opioid epidemic and a suicide rate that is so high, it has actually caused the life expectancy of the U.S. decrease for three consecutive years.

Therefore, it is my perspective that Nietzsche was wrong about humanity losing its morals values, principally the value placed on of the human life, but that he was right about the encroachment nihilism with the death of God, if for the wrong reasons. Nihilism is on the rise in the west not because of the death of God, but because of the destruction of communities that were centred around the church. Therefore, my attitude towards the church, Christianity and religion in general is nuanced, even though their beliefs are not compatible with my own. Should the dogmatism, hard-coding and extremism disappear from religion, and focus rather be placed on friendship and community, then it is my perspective that religion could be a net positive to society at large.

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