terrence_j_sejnowski's picture
Computational Neuroscientist; Francis Crick Professor, the Salk Institute; Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Co-author (with Patricia Churchland), The Computational Brain
Is God Dead?

On April 8, 1966, the cover of Time Magazine asked "Is God Dead?" in bold red letters on a jet black background. This is an arresting question that no one asks anymore, but back in 1996 it was a hot issue that received serious comment. In 1882 Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science had a character called "the madman" running through the marketplace shouting "God is dead!", but in the book, no one took the madman seriously.

The Time Magazine article reported that a group of young theologians calling themselves Christian atheists, led by Thomas J. J. Altizer at Emory University, had claimed God was dead. This hit a cultural nerve and in an appearance on "The Merv Griffin Show" Altizer was greeted by shouts of "Kill him! Kill him!" Today Altizer continues to develop an increasingly apocalyptic theology but has not received a grant or much attention since 1966.

The lesson here is that the impact of a question very much depends on the cultural moment. Questions disappear not because they are answered but because they are no longer interesting.

TERRENCE J. SEJNOWSKI, a pioneer in Computational Neurobiology, is regarded by many as one of the world's most foremost theoretical brain scientists. In 1988, he moved from Johns Hopkins University to the Salk Institute, where he is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and the director of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory. In addition to co-authoring The Computational Brain,he has published over 250 scientific articles.