WASHINGTON (CNS) — It hit like the proverbial ton of bricks: the Time magazine cover story of April 8, 1966 — Good Friday that year — asking, “Is God Dead?”
The tenor of the times made it a plausible question. Less than three years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled the mandatory recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools unconstitutional. Individuals had always questioned what kind of God is in heaven — if God is there at all — if God had let their spouse, or child, die. That question was writ large by Jews in America and elsewhere were still grappling with the horror of 6 million dead in the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.
To some Catholics, the question, asked as it was months after the close of the Second Vatican Council, might have felt like a punch in the gut. But other Catholics not enamored with Vatican II reforms might have offered a bitter chuckle seeing the question posed in Time.
A few months after the Time cover, Beatle John Lennon’s remark that the Fab Four were “more popular than Jesus now” hit like a tidal wave crashing against the cultural shore. The incendiary remark brought a literally incendiary response, as Beatles records were burned at fundamentalist-sponsored bonfires in the South.
Although the Time cover merely asked the question, the 5,000-word essay inside by John T. Elson, the magazine’s religion editor, asked how preachers and theologians were making God relevant to contemporary believers. But it was not long before many Americans skipped the question and simply answered “God is dead,” evoking German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1882 declaration using the same three-word formula.
Yet a half-century later, despite some bothersome signs, there is little question that God is alive and well today to hundreds of millions of Americans.
The Pew Research Center’s latest polling revealed that 89 percent of Americans believe in God. That’s down from 92 percent in 2007, according to Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of religion research. The same overall number of Americans believe in God, he said, but the decline in percentage can be attributed to the growing U.S. population. He did note that belief in God among those who have no religious affiliation, itself an increasing segment of the populace, has grown weaker since 2007.
Another troubling sign comes from Michael Murphy, director of Catholic studies at Loyola University Chicago: a decline in religious literacy. “Fewer and fewer people are getting the kind of basics,” he told Catholic News Service. “People just aren’t as curious about that, they have a much more narrow field of interest. That’s ironic, because there’s so much information out there.”
Susan Ross, chair of the theology department at Loyola, said the entire “God is dead” concept is a Western construct. Go elsewhere in the world, and the question would be almost too absurd to be asked. Ross cited “the theology of the suffering God — feminist theologians, black and Latino liberation theologians, and Pacific islanders” — all of whom describe a God “who identifies with people and their suffering.”
The Rev. Martin E. Marty, a celebrated Lutheran church historian, professor and author, agrees. “Globally, it’s huge,” he said. “World religions are booming, and there are more Lutherans in Ethiopia than there are in North America.”
Rev. Marty asserted that the God-is-dead concept was “a fad,” adding the only campuses where the movement had any traction were Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago, where he was in his third year of teaching when the Time issue came out. “A year later, someone published a book on the death of God, and it bombed. If you had a conference today on the death of God, you wouldn’t get much interest,” he said.
Church attendance peaked in the late 1950s, but “that was a very artificial thing,” Marty added. In the Depression-wracked 1930s, he noted, “people were broke. The boom came after the war, the GIs came home to work, came home, had kids, built homes, making sense of their life, and religion was very available.”
Church attendance started decaying in the 1960s. Ross pointed to a number of factors, among them “the bankruptcy of religion” in dealing with the Holocaust, and Americans questioning what need they had for God after accumulating material wealth in an ongoing postwar economic boom.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee, remembers being part of his temple’s youth group, which in 1966 did “a big deal” by going on a joint weekend with a Catholic parish’s teen group, with both groups attending Friday night synagogue services and Sunday morning Mass.
“Growing up in a liberal Jewish environment, you were always kind of questioning: Who really is God? What does God mean from the perspective of learning about Jewish tradition? You talk about a God who has a very active presence in human history,” he told CNS. “Within a kind of liberal environment in terms of liberal Judaism, there was a certain kind of distance away from that kind of particularity . … It’s the kind of topic that still engenders some debate.”
Rabbi Baker added, “I can recall this discussion even as a student: Judaism would have a very established liturgy, established rituals. People go through it and you go through it by rote. And in doing so, it may seem that you’re just going through the motions. And some might sort of dismiss that; it’s not right, it’s not important. But I can recall one of my teachers saying, ‘Look. They may be times when you really need it. So you need to learn it so you can be comfortable.'”
“Even in Rome, the cover made news,” said Augustinian Father Allan Fitzgerald, director of the Augustinian Institute and a theology professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia, who then was a Rome-based seminarian.
His view of the cover story: “Instead of being a challenge to the existence of God, it was ‘we’ve got a difficult job to do here,’ because people are not tuned in to God hearing it from the pulpit.” The challenge even came from Father Fitzgerald’s dad the day he was ordained: “You know, Allan, I’ve been going to church for a long time, and when I hear the Gospel, I know what’s going to be preached. Don’t you be like that.”
He has little regard for those who say they’re “spiritual but not religious,” In his view, to use a 1966 phrase, it’s a cop-out. “It’s kind of an unwillingness to really look. It’s an escape phrase,” Father Fitzgerald said.
The challenge remains, he added. “It’s not whether or not God exists or not, but who God is to you, what difference your faith makes to you,” Father Fitzgerald said. “I think a lot more people have an answer to that today than they used to, because they were the generation that asked their parents, ‘Why do I have to go to church?’ They have a better answer to that question today than they used to.”
It will also be up to pastors to motivate their parishioners, regardless of how frequently or infrequently they go to church, according to Father Fitzgerald. “Big changes take a hundred years,” he said. “This has been only 50.”