Disenfranchising God

Humanity's disbelief in God has traveled an interesting route.  Until the nineteenth century (we can argue about the date), proclaimed atheism was frowned upon in Western societies, and it remained a rare abnormality in non-Western mono- and polytheistic societies.  The World Religion Database states that in 1910, 0.2 percent of world population declared itself agnostic; in 2010, it was 9.8 percent.  In Western Europe, not to believe in God became commonplace after World War II.  Statistics point to progressive secularization of virtually all Western countries and quite a few non-Western ones.

The aspect of secularization that seems worthy of reflection is the evolution of attitude of those who reject God.  At the beginning was anger.  Voltaire's "écrasez l'infâme!" and Nietzsche's declaration that God is dead were full of sound and fury and mirrored the speakers' zeal in campaigning against God.  In Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche attempted to deconstruct the Christian idea of a relationship between man and God by arguing that Christian morality was driven into the population by resentful priests, who wished to gain obedience of the masses.  However, anger meant that the adversary's power was duly acknowledged.  Dead or alive, God mattered to Nietzsche, while Voltaire's fury against the Catholic Church was predicated on the Church's importance in history.

Philosophy and science continued the attack, but God was hard to uproot, as nineteenth-century European literature attests.  Throughout Europe, we see in belles-lettres an overwhelming presence of the Judeo-Christian God, although this presence is often camouflaged by the writers' imagination.  Drawing on the biblical story of Job, Goethe's Faust created an imaginary wager between God and Satan that diverges seriously from the standard biblical interpretations.  In Forefathers Eve, Adam Mickiewicz briefly flirts with the idea of God's perceived cruelty and his similarity to the Russian tsar.  Goethe and Mickiewicz anticipate Nietzsche's anger and encourage readers to over-interpret religious texts, thus undermining their trustworthiness.  On the other hand, many nineteenth-century writers injected into their novels and plays inseparability of the Christian God and Western cultural imagination.  In France and throughout continental Europe, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables resonated with readers who could not envisage man's estiny without holding on to the idea that right and wrong are "inscribed in men's hearts."  I would venture the opinion that Russian literature's popularity in Europe and America has been largely a function of its unashamed reliance on God-related topics at a time when these topics began to disappear from Western philosophy.  Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov and his struggle against God has fascinated readers in Europe and America ever since Dostoevsky was first translated into European languages in the early twentieth century.  Tolstoy's search for God reached tremendous depths in Death of Ivan Ilich and Father Sergius; the first of these stories even made it to high schools in America.  On balance, God is woven into nineteenth-century texts so tightly that ignoring his presence distorts these texts.

All this while science and philosophy marched on.  The theory of evolution seemed to send God off to the dustbin of history in a decisive and scholarly way, but those who dug deeper soon found out that it was irrelevant to belief or disbelief in God.  Attacked and damaged by Nietzsche and others as he might have been, God remained a grand nineteenth-century presence invoked by writers dealing with things fundamental to human life.  By and large, however, scientific discoveries emboldened people to reject God.  A century later, when the moon turned out to be a surface on which humans could walk rather than a celestial body hung there by the divinity and inaccessible to human touch, the breach continued.  To be fair, however, it should be stressed that the believers (a minority) consolidated their position.  They are not easily swayed by arguments that used to be effective a few generations ago, such as crude interpretations of religious texts or multiplying evidence of scandalous sinfulness of religious leaders.

In twentieth-century life and literature, God's role continued to grow smaller.  As the middle classes cremated their dear departed, they often availed themselves of urns rather than church ceremonies, and they placed these urns on mantelpieces where no religious symbols reside.  For many people, God ceased to be the giver of children: their number is regulated through contraception, and secular vows made in Las Vegas are as valid as those made in a church.  The occasional declarations of moral indignation (twentieth-century sex scandals culminating today in the #MeToo campaign) have celebrated unwillingness to be subjugated by fellow human beings rather than manifesting adherence to Ten Commandments.

A recent development transcends this trajectory of secularization and brings the rejection of God to a level the radicalism of which, I submit, has not yet been fully grasped.  These are the gender theories according to which gender is not an aspect of our personality over which we or society have no power, but rather a choice that can be reversed by society or the subject himself.  This is accompanied by another postulate: that pure biological sex does not exist and that we all are more or less bi-gendered; this explains the desire of (allegedly) a good number of people to change their sex, now that social custom and material wealth make surgeries and rehabilitation possible.  Introduced by academic scholars a generation or so ago, the idea has spread through universities and social institutions.

Gender theories disenfranchise God once and for all.  We are told by gender theorists that we acquire our deepest identity by choice; in fact, we can choose our identity from a cafeteria-like display.  "Traditional" agnostics and atheists speak of nature as the source of gender, but they too take it for granted that the choice does not belong to individuals or communities.  Now these individuals and communities are offered power they have never wielded before.  It is a theoretical offer, but an offer nevertheless.  Few people have pondered its implications for future human relations.  Pope Benedict XVI remarked that gender theory is more dangerous than Marxism, because it destroys the structure of society, starting with the family.  We do not battle God any longer or get angry at him, nor do we bother to scientifically prove that he has played no role in our creation.  We make him inconsequential.

Gender theories strip God of his primary creative privileges: assigning indelible features to each human being, limiting certain choices, claiming authority over our privacy.  It is possible that, as some suggest, in this proposed orgy of liberty, the ancient heresies of Pelagianism and Gnosticism came back in a modernized form.  The fact remains that the offer of societal or personal gender assignment excises God from our lives so completely that the only way to return to him would be by total conversion, an earthquake no one has yet anticipated.  For now, the drive toward absolute human autonomy promises to annul the unity of spirit and matter so characteristic of the Western notion of man.  No one has yet come up with a credible prediction of where this will take us.