Red Skulls

« Peking Man Skull Fragments »

« Modern atheism is dying a beautiful death » and « modern nihilism » will soon, too, « lose the game », Philippe Nemoi wants to believe. The good news, he prophesies, is that as a consequence, a period of glory will open up for new ideals, with infinite possibilities for the development of the human adventure, on the way to the highest destinies…

Quite a radiant perspective…

But « modern atheism » and « modern nihilism » actually do resist very much. They have occupied the front stage in the West during the last two centuries.

Only two centuries, one may ask? …. Is atheism a « modern » specialty?

When it comes to anthropology, nothing beats the measure of millenia.

Traces of religious practices dating from 800,000 years ago have been found in the excavations at Chou-Kou-Tien (Zhoukoudian 周口店 ). Eight thousand centuries ago, then, so-called « Peking Man, » or « Sinanthrope, » painted red carefully prepared human skulls and placed them in a composed circle for ceremonial purposes. To evoke what? For what purpose? For what sort of Deity?

Almost a million years ago, hominids in the Beijing area could probably answer these questions in their own way, and not necessarily confusedly, but we actually know next to nothing of their understanding of the world.

We only can infer from the clues left behind that death was certainly a profound mystery to them.

Analogous questions will no doubt still arise for future anthropologists, who will analyze the few remains of our own “civilization”, that may still be accessible in a million years from now, preserved in a some deep geological layers… Future anthropology, assuming that such a discipline will then still make sense, will perhaps try to infer from the traces of many future, successively « modern » civilizations yet to appear, the role of « atheism », « nihilism » and religious « creeds », throughout millenia?

I find it is a stimulating thought experience. It is necessary to try to project oneself into the distant future, while at the same time connecting through a reflexive and memorial line to the still accessible depths of the paleontological past. In order to test our capacity to represent the ‘human phenomenon’, we can try to draw a perspective on the history of religious feeling (or absence thereof), to gauge its essence, to understand its nature and foundation.

Some provisional lessons can already be drawn. Let us listen to Benjamin Constant: « The time when religious feeling disappears from the souls of men is always close to that of their enslavement. Religious peoples may have been slaves; but no irreligious people remained free.”ii

Benjamin Constant was without illusion about human nature. « India, Ethiopia, Egypt, show us the humankind enslaved, decimated, and, so to speak, confined by priests.”iii The priests of antiquity were « condemned to imposture », by their very functions, which involved constant communication with the gods, with oracles to be rendered, – the correctness of which could be easily checked afterwards, not to mention the wonders, miracles and other revelations. Fraud must have been, one can imagine, a permanent temptation, if not a vital necessity.

Regardless of past and future (religious) frauds and impostures, the most significant question that men of all times have asked themselves and will ask themselves remains that of the meaning of life, for a man confronted with the mystery of an assured death, after a rather short life.

Hence this quite logical (and cynical) statement:

« To defend freedom, one must know how to immolate one’s life, and what is there more than life for those who see beyond it only nothingness? Also when despotism meets with the absence of religious sentiment, the human species prostrates itself in dust, wherever force is deployed.”iv

Absurd, useless, inessential lives and deaths, crushed by despotism, pose a question to which neither atheism nor nihilism can provide the slightest answer.

Perhaps « atheism » is already « dying its beautiful death », if we are to believe Nemo.

This does not mean that from this death will arise some « theism » ready to live a new life.

The mystery cannot be solved by such elementary, simplified qualifiers.

In a million years, it is a good bet that all our « philosophies », all our « religions », will appear only just as some sort of red skulls, arranged in forgotten circles.


iPhilippe Nemo. La belle mort de l’athéisme moderne. 2012

iiBenjamin Constant. De la religion considérée dans sa source, ses formes et ses développements. 1831