In his wide-ranging Economy and Society (1921), German sociologist Max Weber contended that rationalized technological power structures intended to control life would eventually collapse into “emotionalism” and irrationality:
The objectification of the power structure, with the complex of problems produced by its rationalized ethical provisos, has but one psychological equivalent: the vocational ethic taught by asceticism. An increased tendency toward Hight into the irrationalities of apolitical emotionalism in different degrees and forms, is one of the actual consequences of the rationalization of coercion, manifesting itself wherever the exercise of power has developed away from the personalistic orientation of heroes and wherever the entire society in question has developed in the direction of a national “state.” Such apolitical emotionalism may take the form of a flight into mysticism and an acosmistic ethic of absolute goodness or into the irrationalities of non-religious emotionalism, above all eroticism. Indeed, the power of the sphere of eroticism enters into particular tensions with religions of salvation. This is particularly true of the most powerful component of eroticism, namely sexual love. For sexual love, along with the “true” or economic interest, and the social drives toward power and prestige, is among the most fundamental and universal components of the actual course of interpersonal behavior.
Similarly prescient and equally wide-ranging, Oswald Spengler argued in his The Decline of the West (1918) that materialism would become unbearable and that people would therefore feel impelled to toy with esoteric cults and beliefs as a means of escape. He called it the “second religiousness”:
It appears in all Civilizations as soon as they have fully formed themselves as such and are beginning to pass, slowly and imperceptibly, into the non-historical state in which time-periods cease to mean anything […] The Second Religiousness is the necessary counterpart of Caesarism, which is the final political consitution of Late Civilizations; it becomes visible, therefore, in the Augustan Age of the Classical and about the time of Shi-hwang-ti’s time in China. In both phenomena the creative young strength of the Early Culture is lacking. Both have their greatness nevertheless. That of the Second Religiousness consists in a deep piety that fills the waking-consciousness—the piety that impressed Herodotus in the (Late) Egyptians and impresses West-Europeans in China, India, and Islam—and that of Caesarism consists in its unchained might of colossal facts.
These observations are yet another reason to reject the misleading interpretation that secularism means simply the replacement of a worldview that is religious with one that is not. Modern society is awash with religiosity. This view has, in part, been confirmed by Tara Isabella Burton’s recent book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (2020). According to Burton, we do not live in a godless world. Rather, we live in a profoundly anti-institutional one, where we have rendered “ourselves simultaneously parishioner, high priest, and deity” (Burton 2020). The recent emergence of the “Nones” should actually be called the “Remixed,” who seek to satisfy the deep need for meaning, purpose, community, and ritual with new and personalized intuitional faiths rather than traditional institutional counterparts. The growing religiously unaffiliated offers adherents a new religion of emotive intuition, of aestheticized and commodified experience, of self-creation and self-improvement. This, again, is not the rejection of religion, but rather its remixing.
Secularization, in short, is not the eraser of religion. Rather, it is the flourishing of anti-Christian religions. This religious secularity has usually come in the form of humanism. Indeed, anthropologist Margaret Mead, in her autobiography, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (1975), praised secular humanism, calling for its spread throughout the world.
Other works can be cited, but what should be clear is that what is regarded as a struggle between religious and secular is really, and has always been, a struggle between religions.
The American Scientific Affliation’s (ASA) latest issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith has published my recent study on Isaac Newton and his unique theological perspective. You can either find the issue in your local university library or you can become a member of the ASA and subscribe here.
I recently had the privilege to speak about the history of Christianity and science and my own interpretation of the origins of the “conflict thesis” with the folks at Covenant Presbyterian Church here in Madison, Wisconsin. I had a great time and very much appreciated the comments and questions after each lecture. Below you’ll find Parts 1 and 2.
I recently had the chance to talk about my book and research with Shoaib Ahmed Malik at Academic Access. He has a great collection of other videos on his YouTube page. Take a look and let me know what you think.
Albert Camus attempted to “transcend the nihilism” through literature, which he believed could more powerfully depict and analyze existence than any philosophical treatise. He had lived through the travesty of two Great Wars and, like many of the time, felt that such bloodshed was absurd and meaningless. The silence of God—which was a constant theme throughout his writings—was deafening. Indeed, it was only five years after his tragic death that Time magazine, on 22 October 1965, highlighted a small group of theologians who all agreed that “God is dead.” This “death of God theology” is essential background for understanding Camus’ Plague.
In the late nineteenth century Friedrich Nietzsche had already proclaimed that God was dead. Camus had in fact clarified that Nietzsche had not tried to “kill God,” but rather that he had “found him dead in the soul of his contemporaries.” By the turn of the century, God had simply fell out of fashion. As Nietzsche observed:
“What is now decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons.”
Nietzsche recognized the simple fact that God had gradually been eliminated from modern Western culture. But what are the implications? In his Joyful Science (1882), where he first declared that God is dead, Nietzsche argued that humankind must learn to live without him. This meant the reevaluation of all values, particularly those association with the Christian religion. He writes:
“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth—it stands and falls with faith in God.”
In place of Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed the “superman” (Übermensch), someone without fear of others, self, or death. This Übermensch was compatible with scientific naturalism, but for Nietzsche he also transcended science, for life has no meaning other than what individuals give it. If one is ever to rise above meaningless existence, they must choose a way of life that has dignity for them, though it might bring suffering to themselves and others.
This revolt against God was also aptly described in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, particularly in his The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Dostoevsky observed the Russian bourgeois liberals and their revolutionary optimism and argued that it could open the door to unprecedented brutality and oppression, precisely because it removes any divine limitation to human actions. Whereas Nietzsche claims scientific justification for his views, Dostoevsky attacked the pretensions of scientific humanism and urged the necessity of God as the basis of human freedom. He rejected the idea that humans were bound by scientific laws and thus totally determined by physical factors. He also rejected the idea that everything is governed by reason.
The rise of the naturalistic worldview and its consequent nihilism, in short, led many to become increasingly concerned with problems of human life in modern, secular mass societies. Many were beginning to question accepted values and philosophies and noted the absurdity of life and the quest for meaning in death. These questions are central to philosophical existentialism at the beginning of the twentieth century.
It should be noted that most scholars trace the origins of existentialism to Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard, who responded to what he perceived as the dead orthodoxy of Danish Lutheranism. Kierkegaard presented faith as a purely personal endeavor, and that institutionalized Christianity had become confused and irrelevant. Underlying all his writings is the conviction that God exists, and that God had become incarnate in Christ. Yet for Kierkegaard God remained wholly other, and could never be identified with anything finite. Even in revelation God remains hidden. When people saw Jesus on earth, they saw only a man. The infinite cannot be changed into something finite. In the incarnation, God remained incognito. Only from faith can one get a true view of God. But this requires the commitment of one’s whole being to discipleship, for the truth of existence is grasped only in total faith, according to Kierkegaard.
By Camus’ day, belief in God seemed to many intellectuals simply impossible. This is somewhat surprisingly confirmed also in the writings of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, writing to a friend from his prison cell in 1944, that humanity is now accustomed to living with God. Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’ In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing on which one now hardly dares touch. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become incresingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything also gets along without ‘God’—and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.”
Whatever our views of naturalism and modern science, to Camus and many others science had eliminated God. As an older contemporary of Camus puts it, historian Carl Becker,
“Edit and interpret the conclusions of modern science as tenderly as we like, it is still quite impossible for us to regard man as the child of God for whom the earth was created as a temporary habitation. Rather must we regard him as little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn, a sentient organism endowed by some happy or unhappy accident with intelligence indeed, but with an intelligence conditioned by the very forces that it seeks to understand and to control.”
So the only question that remains is what to do about it. Since naturalism leads to nihilism and the absurdity of life, how then should we live? Atheistic existentialism accepted most of the conclusions of philosophical naturalism. Matter exists and God does not. Death is extinction. History is linear, linked by cause and effect, but without an overarching purpose. Though human reason can understand the cosmos, what does that matter? This highly organized world stands over against humanity and appears absurd. The ultimate absurdity is death. But according to Camus, we must live in the face of the absurd. This is how existentialism goes beyond nihilism—how it attempts to transcend the absurdity of death. We must create value in a world where there is no objective value. According to Camus, the “authentic life” is the one recognizes fully the absurdity of the cosmos and yet rebels against it and creates her own meaning. That is, for Camus the most authentic person must revolt against the absurdity of death and create his own values.
In his Myth of Sisyphus (1942), for instance, Camus used the story of Sisyphus, the mythical king of Corinth, as a metaphor for the absurdity of human existence. Having insulted the gods, Sisyphus was condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld repeatedly rolling a rock to the topic of a mountain, at which point the stone would roll back down and Sisyphus was then obliged to begin the endless and pointless cycle all over again.
But for Camus, Sisyphus was a hero—he was the hero in our absurd reality. Condemned by the contingencies of history to a futile and meaningless existence, he sets out to make the best of it. His situation cannot be changed. He must accept his lot. There is no ed in sight, no respite from the absurdity of existence. This is the metaphor Camus chooses to illuminate the human condition. When naturalism eliminated the notion of God, we are left with this meaningless struggle. Moreover, death is the ultimate absurdity. For Camus, any philosophy that believes it is possible to make sense of things is deluded, whether in the form of religion (vertical) or Marxism (horizontal). Indeed, in his The Rebel (1951), Camus completely rejects what he calls the “horizontal religions of our time.” Political systems such as Marxism, a sort of messianic utopianism, elevates humanity to the position of a deity, according to Camus.
“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms . . . I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone.”
There is no God to give meaning to events. The only way to be happy is by acknowledging the absurdity of the situation. As Camus observes:
“You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”
At the conclusion of Myth of Sisyphus, Camus leaves the reader with these final thoughts:
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile, nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus is happy. I feel alive. I breathe in and out and I am happy.”
Camus and the Silence of God
Before WWII, Camus viewed Christianity as “absurd.” Belief in God amounted to a betrayal of reason, and Christians in particular are people who commit “philosophical suicide.” Camus does not know that God does not exist; he chooses to believe it. How could there be a God? If there is a God, he is silent, offering no justification of himself. For Camus, the idea of the death of God is best expressed in terms of his silence rather than his absence.
At the same time, those who have read Camus have often been struck by the essential role which Christianity plays in his novels and other writings. At some point elements of the Christian faith emerges. In fact, it readily becomes apparent that in all his literary pieces Camus is centrally concerned with religious-moral themes and that these constitute much of the force and attractiveness of his works. In this sense, Camus was a “religious thinker” who took a unique position in the battle of ideologies during his lifetime. As I will outline in another post, Camus’ most intense treatment of religion—and Christianity in particular—occurs in The Plague. Indeed, some commentators have even argued that Camus became more open to Christianity near the end of his life, and this transformation is apparent in this novel.
A colleague and friend has recently suggested starting a reading group on Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. Perhaps the timing is a little too obvious, but the Plague still speaks to us today.
I read the book a long time ago—probably in my early twenties. It was actually one of the first books I read when I switched from being an architectural drafter to enrolling in a philosophy program at the University of California-Davis. I remember reading it out loud to myself, perhaps because I was so captivated by it. The copy I owned was published by Vintage International, and it had this memorable cover illustration of a pool of blood draining in what appears to be a shower stall.
“Matter in Spontaneous Motion” : Naturalism
But before one reads Camus, there are several preliminary questions one must keep in mind. There are deep and complicated layers of naturalism and nihilism in Camus’ existential thought. Indeed, Camus was responding to the problems posed by naturalism and nihilism. In naturalism, for instance, the basic idea is that prime reality is nothing more than matter in motion. Matter is all there is. The cosmos exists as a uniformity of cause and effect. In this way the system is closed. An older version looked at humanity as “machines.” Today we might simply called ourselves complex “organisms,” subject to chemical and physical laws. While we are still learning about these laws, the “naturalist” is certain at least about one thing: death is extinction. The Humanist Manifesto, for example, states it plainly:
“As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context. There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body.”
Similarly, British philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed that
“man is the produce of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving ; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.”
Perhaps more positively, naturalism does encourage us examine the universe through the methods of science. We have indeed made great technological progress. But science, some naturalists maintain, can also help us better understand morality and the human experience. As French naturalist Baron D’Holbach put it in the eighteenth century,
“To discover the true principles of morality, men have no need of theology, of revelation, or of gods; they need only common sense. They have only to commune with themselves, to reflect upon their own nature, to consult their visible interests, to consider the objects of society and the individuals who compose it, and they will easily perceive that virtue is advantageous, and vice disadvantageous, to such beings as themselves. Let us persuade them to be just, beneficent, moderate, sociable, not because such conduct is demanded by the gods, but because it is a pleasure to men. Let us advise them to abstain from vice and crime, not because they will be punished in the other world, but because they will suffer for it in this.”
But with naturalism, history has no overarching purpose. There is no goal. There is no end.
“42” : Nihilism
As a consequence of these views, another view emerged that Camus was particularly concerned about. The rise of naturalism left many in despair and anxiety. If there is no overarching purpose, what is the point? Samuel Beckett’s play Breath perfectly illustrates the hopelessness of a life without purpose. Another example, perhaps more amusing (but not really) is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The enormous computer “Deep Thought,” after seven and a half million years of calculation, provides an answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life.” The answer is 42. The most rational object in the universe has given an absurd answer to an absurd question.
Beckett, Adams, and others (like Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., e.g.) reveal (and perhaps revel in) a life without purpose and without meaning. For them, the rationalism of the enlightenment was a ruse. The results of reason did not bring assurance or comfort. The closed universe was confining, and the notion of death as extinction psychologically disturbing. We are but a mere speck in a seemingly endless and meaningless universe. Freedom was an illusion. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition.” He adds, “the acting man’s delusion about himself, his assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculating mechanism.” In short, all activity is predetermined. In such a closed system, freedom is simply a determinacy unrecognized. The notion of chance doesn’t help. In fact it may be even more terrifyingly absurd. Chance, after all, is causeless, purposeless, directionless. In this sense, consciousness itself is capricious. Charles Darwin himself once said:
“The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the conviction of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
The biologist J. B. S. Haldane similarly wondered:
“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms”
In short, I cannot even trust my own thoughts. Thus morality itself is on shaky grounds. To quote Nietzsche again:
“Morality is only an interpretation of certain phenomena, more precisely a misinterpretation. Moral judgement belongs, as does religious judgement, to a level of ignorance at which even the concept of the real, the distinction between the real and the imaginary, is lacking: so that at such a level “truth” denotes nothing but things which we today call “imaginings.” To this extent moral judgement is never to be taken literally: as such it never contains anything but nonsense.”
There is a great scene in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) in which he seems to parody religion. “In the beginning” he wrote,
God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make creatures out of mud, so mud can see what We have done ” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man Mud as man alone could speak God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around and spoke Man blinked “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely “Everything must have a purpose?” asked God “Certainly,” said man “Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God And he went away.
But this is not a parody on religion so much as a satirical account of naturalism. We have been thrown up by an impersonal universe. With a cosmos that has no meaning, we must manufacture it for ourselves.
And here is where Camus comes into play. In 1950 he wrote that “I have sought only for the means to transcend nihilism.” His novel, The Plague, is one such attempt to escape or transcend the absurd. His was an atheistic existentialism, though. There is a theistic variety which I will mention in a following post. As our reading group meets to discuss each part of The Plague, I will jot down the main ideas and share them here.