The Gods That Failed

Will Our Civilization Survive?

Something has gone wrong with our twentieth century civilization. Mankind today is full of fear and anxiety. Toynbee in his A Study of History sought to analyze the breakdown and the disintegration of civilizations. Lash, in The Dilemma of Our Times, claims that the prevailing mood of our day is “one of somber pessimism and of bitterness.” Modern man’s hope of a triumphant march to a blissful society capable to fulfill all human desires has undergone a rude shock. The anticipated millennium did not arrive. The rapid advancements in technological science have left modern man more fearful than ever. Modern man has been rudely disillusioned and he is fearful that the house he himself created will now collapse on his own head. Sputnik and Mutnik have even added to that fear. The present crisis is not restricted to Western civilization but touches every major geographic area of the world. All kinds of diagnoses and panaceas are being offered to instill new hopes for a survival. Toynbee has written about an “affiliated civilization” (A Study of History, p. 244) which may arise out of the debris and death of our present civilization. Others are not so hopeful that western civilization will eventually enter upon an “era of the Prodigal Son again coming to himself,” and learn to understand “‘his alienation from the source of his true being” (Lowry, Communism and Christ, p. 112). Our world is in the throes of a gigantic struggle between individualism and collectivism. On the one hand we have an extreme individualism in which each one goes his own way, striving to fulfill himself by charting his own course and using others as it suits him. On the other hand our modern society and its culture have produced a collectivism in which the individual counts for nothing. Will our present world survive this struggle?

Modern Science

Science has been a mighty factor in creating the crises of our present world. We have, indeed, become one small world. The World Wars of the past few decades were rather evidences and results than creators of the crisis. Instruments of production and the increasing competition for raw materials and for markets of distribution have resulted in placing within the hands of men the means by which they can destroy themselves and their civilization. Science has produced the modern machine age. The machine has made man’s conquest of nature possible, but it has also turned on man and conquered man. It has liberated man, but it has also enslaved him. The gods which modern man created have failed him in the hour of peril.

Some are turning to religion to find a source of comfort. But many are turning to gods that will once more miserably fail man in the crisis hour of our modern civilization.


The Nihilist is determined to forge his own future by his own will in complete defiance of the nothingness in which all will finally end. We are today confronted with an intellectual, rapidly spreading world of thought known as Existentialism, which has been correctly termed a “philosophy of the meaninglessness of life, of the nihility (nothingness-D) and mortality of human existence which is devoid of any prospect or future” (Spier, Christianity and Existentialism p. xvii). The teachings of Existentialism have found a very fruitful soil in our time of crisis because of the catastrophe that has come to our modern twentieth century. Many have lost all faith in their modern culture and have now turned to a new god that will utterly fail. Existentialism claims it has discovered the answer to the ills of the modern man. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Heidegger, Marcel, Lavelle, Loen, Sartre, are all advocates of some form of Existentialism; but though there is a wide divergency of thought among them, not one advocates a return to true historical Christianity. One of the most popular is Jean Paul Sartre, the Frenchman. He denies that there is a God who plans and directs our universe. Man simply appears on the earth for no ultimate reason or purpose, and he “only afterward defines himself.” He is at first nothing and afterwards he becomes something; that is, whatever he wills himself to be (Sartre, Existentialism, p.18).

Among the Existentialists Sartre is the one who brings the teachings of Humanism to their logical conclusion. According to Humanism, man must become completely autonomous, that is, he must create his own laws and norms to achieve full freedom for himself. This means he cannot condone or tolerate the idea of a supreme God. Faith in a God is a barrier to real freedom for the individual. Man must be outside of all law and must be responsible to no one except himself. To save man from even greater chaos than the present one, and to assure him of a better future, Sartre proclaims a false gospel. For if man is what he makes of himself he must also choose what will be good for all other men. My choice must be one that can be imposed upon all others as well as myself.

It is at this point that we see how Sartre’s philosophy shows why humanism is bound to lead to despair. The terrible anguish of the individual is increased by consideration of the fact that every other individual has precisely the same right as myself to determine what is freedom and what is a real threat to his freedom. The false god of Sartre, worshipped by large numbers today, is nothing less than anarchism; for each individual makes himself a god.



The Increase of Religion in America

There is another factor in American life today which, in the opinion of many, will dissolve the anxieties created by the threat of cultural self-destruction. Barbara Ward, in her “‘Report to Europe on America,” has said that there is every sign of a notable “turn to religion” among American people today (The New York Times Magazine, June 20, 1954). All kinds of figures are adduced to prove that within the United States religion is “on the upswing.” It is pointed out that from the year 1949 to 1953 the distribution of the Scriptures within the United States has increased 140 per cent (Report of American Bible Society, 1954). According to a recent poll, four-fifths of adult Americans said they believed the Bible to be the “revealed Word of God” rather than a grand “piece of literature” (Catholic Digest, 1954). To offset at once this enthusiasm over the increasing religiousness of Americans, we hasten to add that a Gallup Poll revealed that fifty-three per cent of Americans could not even name one of the four Gospels (Public Opinion News Service, Dec. 1954).

No one will doubt the “upswing” in religion in the United States. The Gallup Poll conducted in 1955 indicated that no less than ninety-five per cent of the people in our country professed belief in the Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish religion while only five per cent expressed no preference of any kind. Sixty-eight per cent of our population is classified as Protestant, twenty-three per cent as Catholic, and Four per cent as Jewish. In the years 1926 to 1950 the population of the United States increased twenty-nine per cent, but in that same period church membership grew twice as fast as the population. Total church membership in 1950 was counted at eighty-five million, and in 1954 at ninety-five million, making an all-time high.

It seems that our day is also notably free from such popular atheist figures as Darrow and Ingersoll. In our day this type of free-thinker simply could not gain a large hearing in our country. The feeling that is dominant today is: “How could anyone be against religion?” Even in politics it is a great advantage for a candidate to have some religious affiliation. Only one among the ninety-five Senators in the 83rd Congress professed to be without any religious affiliation. To all this must be added that religious books have a far better sale in our present decade than ever before. Such writers as the two Niebuhrs, Buber, Tillich, and Kierkegaard enjoy a large following among the intellectuals of our nation.

It is agreed that public opinion is more favorable to religion today in the United States than ever before, and that we have made rapid strides ahead religiously since the 1920s. From a very superficial appraisal we would be inclined to think that our nation is deeply religious and that only five per cent of the population are the objects of mission work and in need of conversion to Christ. We certainly have the quantity if figures mean anything; but how about the quality of the Christianity that is professed?

Decadence of American Religion

The religion which bound the early immigrants to our country was virtually a transplantation from the old world to the new. Churches were organized rather along racial and national lines. Immigrants who had the same religious convictions would break up into different groups because of language barriers. Many of the second generation cast aside the religious identification of the first generation immigrants. To a large number the religion as well as the language of their fathers was a foreign importation to be discarded as excess baggage. With the rise of a third generation of Americans, the ties with the old country were almost completely severed, and the old racial and national groups also disappeared.

Through legislative enactment the stream of immigration dried up, and the tie to the old historic Christian creeds also vanished. Most of our denominations are transplantations of parent churches from across the ocean. But when we step behind the external institutional glory to examine the foundations of American Christianity, we have reasons to be alarmed. Religious illiteracy exists to an alarming degree. The contents of the latest edition of any popular magazine is better known among church members than their creeds and the Bible. This means we must contend with a rootless Christianity, one that is without doctrinal foundation; it is a Christianity without real theology. Arnold classified it as a “morality touched with emotion?’

A religion of only moral ideals stands in no need of divine revelation. It can get along exceedingly well without dogmas and historical creeds. The Christianity of the average American has been reduced to a golden rule Christianity, a religion rooted merely in the Sermon on the Mount with the supreme emphasis on brotherhood and love. Other fundamental doctrines of the Scriptures are unknown or completely ignored. The premise upon which most of American Christianity is based is that men are not inherently bad but basically good.

This type of Christianity, so prevalent in America, is no longer the classical Christianity taught in the Scriptures. The Christianity of tradition has become an unknown religion. T. Valentine Parker in his book American Protestantism, makes this observation, “With all our progress in knowledge and our emphasis upon education, members of the churches know less of the Bible than did their grandparents. College students coming from supposedly Christian homes are ludicrously ignorant of the book that holds the record of Christian revelation. The explanation of it all is indifference” (page 87).

It cannot be denied that in our nation we have two types of Christianity, and the one that should be well known is largely unknown, while the one largely accepted is the worship of a false god. God as Lawgiver and Judge has been removed and replaced by the Jesus of the four Gospel narratives. Divine wrath and divine punishment have been replaced by an all-compassionate love. Man is represented as being able to save himself and others by a diligent pursuit of the pattern of the life of Jesus. Such doctrines as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Deity of Christ, Vicarious Atonement, Predestination, Justification do not fit into the pattern of the religion of Jesus the martyr-hero. The entire New Testament is considered important only in so far as it interprets or illustrates human brotherhood.

American Christianity and Historic Creeds

The revolt in our own nation against dogmas has become itself a dogma. Christianity stripped of its doctrinal foundations and advocating only the acceptance of so-called Christian ideals makes such ideals its god. It ceases to be a religion of salvation. Man becomes his own savior, and raises himself to the status of a deity. What happened to Jesus, if we follow his footsteps, will happen also to us.

It is not difficult to understand that a Christianity loosed from God and centered in self-sufficient man can easily yield to diabolic forces based on the autonomy of man. Hitler appealed to it, promising a new and better Germany based on the worship of man. Communism also promises a better salvation than the one promised by American Christianity. It undertakes to create a heaven on earth, not through the agency and ability of one man, but through corporate man.

It was this emphasis on man’s autonomy and sufficiency in the writings of Nietzsche and Karl Marx which gave them such a wide hearing. Both Fascism and Communism teach that the individual exists merely for the welfare of the community; and that the individual, if needs be, must be sacrificed to achieve the highest good of the community. Society can do with man as it wills.

The teaching of Scripture that man is created in the image of God is totally lost, and the distinction between man and the animal has been virtually wiped out. As soon as man loses the truth of his creation in the image of God, the sense of his personal dignity and personal worth must vanish. He becomes a puppet in the hands of men stronger than himself, and so he reaps the bitter fruits of his idol worship.

It has been correctly said that much of America’s Christianity today is a religiousness without religion, without content, without a commitment to God and Christ and the infallible Scriptures. What do Americans believe and what is the real content of their faith? Their god is an “unknown God” and their worship a worship of faith itself. Most Americans turn to religion merely to obtain peace of mind and the church must administer some kind of sedative to soothe upset nervous systems.

Herberg says in his Protestant-Catholic-Jew: “Not God, but man, man in his individual and corporate being — is the beginning and end of the spiritual system of much of the present-day American religiosity… In this kind of religion it is not man who serves God, but God who is mobilized and made to serve man and his purposes — whether these purposes be economic prosperity, free enterprise, social reform, democracy, happiness, security, or peace of mind. God is conceived as man’s omnipotent servant, faith as a sure-fire device to get what we want” (p. 284, 285).

The popular volume, “This I Believe,” edited in 1952 by Edward P. Morgan, bears out the fact that the kind of religiousness accepted by Americans is one in which God, Christ, and the Bible play a very minor role. To dethrone God inevitably results in the enthronement of an idol god, and is sure to lead to the disintegration of our civilization through the forces of inner decay.

Must we, then, receive as members in our churches all who claim to be Christians? The distinction between religion and secularism appears have lost its meaning. Many assume Christianity to be identified with what is called the American Way of Life, including the mere need of religion and “a faith” instead of the old historic Christian faith demanding repentance, the broken and contrite heart, and the acceptance of Jesus Christ both as Savior and Lord.

Rev. Ralph J. Danhof [1900–1971] was the Stated Clerk of the Christian Reformed Church when this article was first published.