By Ryan Velez
On April 8th, 1966, TIME religion editor John Elson published a story called “Is God Dead?” Making the cover, the story made history in a number of ways. It marked the first time a cover of TIME included only text, and also caused an unprecedented amount of backlash, including 3,421 letters from readers and countless angry sermons. Even Bob Dylan called out the article in a 1978 Playboy interview, asking “If you were God, how would you like to see that written about yourself?” Now, 50 years after the fact, Time is addressing both the controversy and the message itself.
TIME is quick to point out that the article itself was a great deal more subtle than the striking cover may have led on, but it was still promoting a complex theological idea. As experts featured in the article like William Hamilton and Thomas Altizer explained, this was a literal statement based in ethics. God had once existed, but was now dead.
The article was very much a product of the time it was written. Coming off of the horrors seen in World War II abroad and embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement at home, it may have been difficult to see an all-powerful god as a benevolent figure. In the article, TIME wrote, “As always, faith is something of an irrational leap in the dark, a gift of God. And unlike in earlier centuries, there is no way today for churches to threaten or compel men to face that leap; after Dachau’s mass sadism and Hiroshima’s instant death, there are all too many real possibilities of hell on earth.”
Between all these factors as well as a rising counterculture that called long-held beliefs into question, it can be understandable as to where these ideas may have stemmed from. But 50 years after the fact, the table of religious debate has shifted quite a bit. One statistic in particular paints a different picture. In 1966, 97% of Americans reported believing in God. In a 2014 Pew poll, that number dropped to only 63% believing with absolute certainty. In addition, there is a rising movement of people who claim to be spiritual, but claim no formal religion.
With people beginning to take a more personal approach to their religion, and growing international diversity causing different belief systems to collide, the question of “Is God Dead” has evolved. While belief may be declining, especially in America, the presence of religion is still everywhere, from pop culture to education to politics. Rabbi Donniel Hartman, author of the new book Putting God Second, says there no is question if God is dead today.
“You can’t understand three-quarters of the conflicts in the world unless you recognize that God is a central player,” he explains. However, with so much suffering still present in the modern day, there is still the lingering question of whether there is a God present, and if there is, what kind of entity is it? There are several different schools of thought, but not all have changed since 1966.
TIME reached out to Thomas Altizer, one of the original contributors to the 1966 article, via phone call. While still writing about death, the nearly 90-year-old noted that the world has changed around him, and that he didn’t have the fervor he once had, even though he still holds some of the same beliefs. “All the things that were crucial to me in the ’60s are now gone,” he said. “I’m not saying this is a bad time, but I think it’s a rather empty time—empty of the joy that we once celebrated.”