For example: the gods of communism, nazism, and fascism. The first claimed to represent the story of history itself, and so could be supposed to serve as an inspiration until the final triumph of the proletariat. It ended rather suddenly, shockingly, and without remorse, in a rubble of stone on the outskirts of West Berlin, leaving the proletariat to wonder if history, like the universe, is also malicious. Hitler’s great tale had an even shorter run. He prophesied that the Third Reich would last a thousand years, perhaps longer than history itself. His story began with a huge bonfire whose flames were meant to consume, once and for all, the narratives of all other gods. It ended twelve years later, also in fire and also in Berlin, the body of its godhead mutilated beyond recognition. Of fascism we may say that it has not yet had its final hour. It lingers here and there but hardly as a story worth telling. Where it exists people do not believe in it; they endure it.
Is there then no secular god left to believe in? There is of course the great narrative known as inductive science. It is worth saying of this god that its first storytellers–Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, for example–did not think of their story as a replacement for the great Judeo-Christian narrative but as an extension of it. In fact the point has been made more than once that the great age of science was prepared by a beIief in a god who was himself a scientist and technician, and who would therefore approve of a civilization committed to such an enterprise. ‘For all we know,’ Eric Hoffer once wrote, “one of the reasons that other civilizations, with all their ingenuity and skill, did not develop a machine age is that they lacked a God whom they could readily turn into an all powerful engineer. For has not the mighty Jehovah performed from the beginning of time the feaits that our machine age is even now aspiring to achieve?” Galileo, Kepler, and Newton would largely agree, conceiving of God as they did as a great clockmaker and mathematician. In any case, there is no doubt that from the beginning of the age of science, its creators believed in the great narrative of Jehovah. Their discoveries were made in the service of the Judeo-Christian god. And could they know of Stephen Hawking’s remark that the research permitted by the (now abandoned) supercollider would give insight into the mind of God, they would be pleased.
The difference between them and Hawking is that Hawking, as an avowed atheist, does not believe what he said. To him, the story of Jehovah’s wonders is only a dead metaphor, and the great story of science is enough for Hawking, as it has been for many others. It is a story that exalts human reason, places criticism over faith, disdains revelation as a source of knowledge, and, to put a spiritual cast upon it, postulates that our purpose on Earth is to discover reliable knowledge. Of course, the great narrative of science shares with the great religious narratives the idea that there is order to the universe, which is a fundamental assumption of all important narratives.
In fact, science even has a version (of sorts) of the concept of the “mind of god.” As Bertrand Russell once put it, if there is a god, it is a differential equation. Kepler, in particular, would probably have liked that way of thinking about the matter; and perhaps that, after all, is what Stephen Hawking meant. In any case, the great strength of the science-god is, of course, that it works–far better than supplication, far better than even Francis Bacon could have imagined. Its theories are demonstrable and cumulative; its errors are correctable; its results practical. The science-god sends people to the moon, inoculates people against disease, transports images through vast spaces so that they can be seen in our living rooms. It is a mighty god and, like more ancient ones, gives people a measure of control over their lives. Some say the science-god gives more control and more power than any other god before it.
But in the end, science does not provide the answers most of us require. Its story of our origins and our end is, to say the least, unsatisfactory. To the question, “How did it all begin?”, science answers, “Probably by accident.” And to many people, the accidental life is not worth living. Moreover, the science-god has no answer to the question, “Why are we here?”, and to the question, “What moral instructions do you give us?”, the science-god maintains silence. It places itself at the service of both the beneficent and the cruel, and its grand moral impartiality, if not indifference, makes it, in the end, no god at all.
Into the breach has come still another contender–the offspring of the science-god–the great god of technology. This is a wondrous and energetic story which, with greater clarity than its parent, offers us a vision of paradise. Whereas the science-god speaks to us of both understanding and power, the technology-god speaks only of power. It refutes the promise of Christianity that heaven is a posthumous reward. It offers convenience, efficiency and prosperity here and now; and it offers its benefits to all, the rich as well as the poor,as does Christianity.