Did God die on the assembly line of capitalism?

On the way to the industrial age, the world seemed to have come apart at the seams: “God is dead” – announced Friedrich Nietzsche in 1883.

The hell in the cities

With the onset of industrialisation, millions of people left their villages and abandoned their traditions to move to the cities. There, where large factories and tenements were built on a gigantic scale. Although their wages were low, they worked between noise and heat, hoping for a better life by day and by night, breathing dust and spitting blood.

They liked to numb the dreariness of their cramped apartments, where violence, illness and death were permanent guests, with alcohol. While they remained destitute, the factory owners enjoyed their rapidly growing wealth. Was that justice? Could this be God’s will?

Although church representatives, for example Pope Leo XIII with his Rerum Novarum of 1891, advocated a balance between labour and capital – this balance did not really happen: until today! Religion and traditional belief in God increasingly seemed to be a relic from the past that had served its time: Really?

A common story about and for the world

Before industrialisation, religions regulated family life, social order, secured power relations and gave people a higher meaning. The collective faith was always based on shared stories that helped to understand the world. The common belief in a superior narrative led to laws being obeyed and people cooperating with each other. Many achievements of the modern world can be traced back to Christianity and Islam. Ultimately, the civilization in which we live today, with all its schools, hospitals and bridges, was born of the collective belief in a higher power.

Break in history – and in faith

The first industrialisation destroyed the image of orderly work in a world ordered by God. In a religious sense, work reminds us that paradise is lost and that the sweat in the face is part of man’s lot. “He who does not work shall not eat” is the apostle Paul’s motto – and it is certainly no coincidence that the same sentence is found in Karl Marx: Work orders the community – it is the link between heavenly and earthly paradise. It is the work that is to elevate man above the animal.

But the conditions of the workers in the first industrial factories did not reflect this sublimity. Their life was not good, for most of them all their hopes for a better life remained unfulfilled. It was only later, with the industrial action of the trade unions, that part of the wealth was passed on to the working population. Hunger, disease and need disappeared from everyday life, as livelihood security moved into the households. But the answer to better living conditions was not a grateful return to organized religions.

On the contrary: progress, economy, science and democracy have increasingly created a secularized world in which institutionalized religions have lost their power. With the spread of scientific principles, the influence of the churches and religions declined noticeably almost everywhere in the world. Religious explanations of how the world and its inhabitants came into being have been superseded by scientific approaches. Organized faith often became an obsolete model in affluent regions.

Our world – a godless place?

One of the driving forces for change in recent years has been individualism, which has been accelerated by new technologies. We have arrived at a time that seems to be global, restless and uprooted: free to believe whatever we want, at least if we do not cross an invisible border. There are many debates about which direction capitalism will take in the future.

Perhaps it is precisely democratic freedom and the search for individual happiness that creates numerous problems. In unrestrained capitalism the community suffers and the individual’s sense of entitlement benefits. Products and experience that were once limited have now become available to everyone.

The broad prosperity that reached the masses has become the enemy of traditional religions: People’s newly acquired purchasing power made it possible to acquire immediate comfort and sensual pleasure. Deep thoughts about the meaning of life have often been suffocated in an ecstatic consumer frenzy.

What place does faith have in a world of individual whims and desires?

The fear of God was replaced in industrialized societies by religious zeal – without religion at all: this was manifested in a wealth of new sects, star cults, consumer disciples, a renaissance of superstition, astrology or personal beliefs – like a tailor-made church – tailored to the wishes of the individual consumer. For example, pagan religions, such as the indigenous Asatru and Celts, shamanism, Slavic paganism, witches, wicca and druids experienced their renaissance. In the industrial world, a coexistence of science, institutionalized religions and superstition, as we know it today, developed.

Faith – nothing but longing?

All places of faith have a common denominator: they serve the irrepressible longing of people for magic. With the industrial age, the question of faith was increasingly answered with an individual worldview. A higher meaning was no longer given by society, but by the one who sought it.

In spite of all progress, people have not stopped longing for a promise of a future, for a higher meaning. We all long for a connection and a connection. Most of us would like to have at least some idea of belonging to a reality that is greater than ourselves.

Whether in the silence of meditation, prayer, dance, song or love, we all want to drink – from the one infinite source that will constantly gush forth, no matter what direction the flow of our lives takes.

Organized religion may have died on the assembly line of capitalism, but the human longing for the source of all life seems to be immortal.


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