A Firm Foundation of Unyielding Despair?

Betrand RussellBertrand Russel was a celebrated 20th century intellectual, philosopher and atheist. He was a social critic and anti-war activist, believing on moral grounds that war was inconsistent with human goals and ideals. In 1927 he wrote, “Why I am Not a Christian,” which proved to be highly influential in a dawning age of skepticism. I must admire his candor as he followed the logical trail of his worldview. Once having excised a Creator from the body of humanity he was left with the inescapable conclusion that meaning and purpose were impossible without some way of enlivening the corpse. 

Unyielding Despair

In his oft-reprinted essay, “A Free Man’s Worship.”  Russel observed:

Purposeless [and…] void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product 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 labours 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. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

In Russell’s world, to worship the gods of Time, Fate and Death is the mark of human superiority in an inconsequential universe. In short, our greatness comes from our ability to satiate our hunger for meaning by becoming intellectually content with the promise of futility. That ignores what should be obvious: meaning and purpose are hard-wired in the human soul. Concluding by logic and contemplation that existence is pointless is no proof of human dignity nor substitute for purpose.

Unyielding Faith

CS Lewis-2Contrast Russell’s worldview with C.S. Lewis who wrote in his book, The Business of Heaven:

Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning… If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents-the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts-i.e. of materialism and astronomy-are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true? I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give me a correct account of all the other accidents. It’s like expecting that the accidental shape taken by the splash when you upset a milk jug should give you a correct account of how the jug was made and why it was upset.

Moreover, science and mathematics seem to be pushing against the door of faith as academics consider the possibility of parallel universes. Perhaps the door is not locked as Russell supposes, but is merely closed, waiting for an opening from the other side.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *