Rite & Reason: Is God dead yet?

Still no answer to the question posed by ‘Time’ magazine 50 years ago

It is just over 50 years since the cover story of US magazine Time posed its famous question: "Is God Dead?"

A predictable reaction followed – an avalanche of criticism, mainly – but it was the cover rather than the very substantial article itself that attracted most of the ire.

The cover, with its traditional red border, had an all-black background with the words "Is God Dead?" standing out in stark, large, blood-red type; it was the first time in the magazine's history that text with no accompanying image was used for a cover. In 2008 the Los Angeles Times said it was among "10 magazine covers that shook the world".

It was a pity so much of the reaction focused on the cover rather than on the article inside. As Philip Goldberg wrote in the Huffington Post last year: "At the time, believers read the headline as blasphemy or an apocalyptic announcement or a declaration of war" and "atheists and other secularists heard the death knell for all religion".


In fact, the article was none of these things. That the proposition was posed as a question and not as a declaration should have given pause for thought. The accompanying article had the headline, "Towards a Hidden God", and was written by the magazine's religion editor, John T Elson.

"The quiet, studious Mr Elson was an unlikely bomb-thrower, and his article, for those who ventured past the cover, reflected his scholarly bent," his obituarist wrote in the New York Times in September 2009.

Radical theologians

Elson made no assertions or dramatic predictions; asGoldberg wrote, he “saw that the search was on for new ways to pursue the timeless yearning to know the infinite”. And it was on one of those “new ways” that Elson focused.

He had worked on the story for more than a year and had interviewed a wide range of people, from theologians and religious leaders to ordinary workers going about their daily lives. But his main focus was on those radical theologians who seemed to be taking the “theos” (ie God) out of theology.

The 1960s was a period of political and intellectual radicalism, and great cultural changes were occurring. Theologians were not exempt from the zeitgeist and as well as referring to Americans such as Thomas JJ Altizer and Paul van Buren, who sought to espouse a theology without God, Elson's article also referred to other philosophers and theologians, such as Soren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who questioned the relevance of God in an increasingly secular world.

Although acknowledging counter-arguments for the vitality of religion such as the second Vatican Council and the popularity of evangelical preachers such as Billy Graham, Elson's survey of scientific discovery from Copernicus to Descartes and from Newton to Darwin pointed to non-religious explanations for what were once considered mysteries.

Faith crisis

Nevertheless, he said there was still plenty of interest in the role of God and modern theologians seemed to have four choices: “Stop talking about God for a while, stick to what the Bible says, formulate a new image and concept of God using contemporary thought categories, or simply point the way to areas of human experience that indicate the presence of something beyond man in life.”

The article then considered the positive and negative aspects of all four approaches and said the current faith crisis could be beneficial for Christian churches if it led to “reverent agnosticism” towards “some doctrines . . . previously proclaimed with excessive conviction”.

By the end of the 1960s, the "theology without God" movement was dying out. Indeed, Time itself had a cover story asking, "Is God Coming Back?" in December 1969 and as recently as 2009, the then Economist editor John Micklethwait and its Washington bureau chief Adrian Wooldridge published a book entitled God Is Back looking at the growth in religion all over the world.

To the question posed in that long-ago headline, Goldberg thought the best answer was: “It depends on what you mean by ‘God’ and ‘dead’.”

Brian Maye is a journalist and historian