In a bookstore 40 years ago, having fallen away from the Roman Catholicism of my youth and young adulthood without adopting any replacement for it or resolving much of anything to my own satisfaction, I happened upon Bertrand Russell’s essay “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903), published with his better-known “Why I Am Not a Christian” (1927) in a book bearing the latter title. I found myself unexpectedly struck, even thrilled, by the following paragraph:
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 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. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
The last sentence is the one that thrilled me most. Unyielding despair! Here was the habitation that my soul had been seeking! Throw that master switch and feel the relief spread through your mind and body, feel the burden of hope lift from your shoulders, feel the freedom of no longer needing to make anything happen for anybody, including yourself. I copied the sentence down on a little slip of paper, and for 10 years I carried it in my wallet as something like my secret mantra.
And in all candor, it worked for me. When I came across the book, I was exhausted and depressed in the wake of Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 defeat of George McGovern, the candidate I had worked for tirelessly in the vain hope of ending the bloodbath of the Vietnam War. Ironically, given Russell’s lifelong political activism, his gospel of despair calmed me down. It excused me from politics and all such larger efforts and returned me, with paradoxical energy, to the private adventure of young-adult life. As the years passed, I no longer thought about the quote every day, but it stayed there in my wallet, my firm foundation, my good-luck charm.
And then I lost my wallet.
Actually, my wallet was stolen from a gym locker. As I reassembled its contents (driver’s license, credit card, etc.), I had to look up and copy out the Russell quote again. But now, a decade later, though I still responded to the rhetorical swell of the prose, I noticed that Russell had claimed only that the science on which he had laid his firm foundation of despair was “nearly certain.” I noticed that I had no independent knowledge of the scientific basis for his existential claims. And I reflected that, in any case, science itself must surely have moved on in important ways since his day. But then I noticed something else: My Russell romance had not been my only such love affair. I had been rhetorically smitten at least twice before, and both times the words were very like Russell’s.
Though I could read French, I had read barely a dozen or so entire books in that language. Among those few were two that affected me so strongly, I can still recall where I was when I read them, most especially where I was when I read the entrancing passages I might have recalled (but didn’t) when I originally transcribed Russell.
The first passage is the famous conclusion to the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). Camus, like Russell, asserts that despair and—going beyond Russell—even suicide are the logical responses to the human condition. But he proceeds to assert that we must rebel against that logic and happily embrace the absurdity of life. The embrace of hope and the refusal of suicide constitute the rock that the mythical Sisyphus, standing in for you and me, must endlessly push to the top of the mountain of existence, knowing that as he reaches the summit—as despair fades and hope nears triumph—the rock will tumble punishingly to the bottom, forcing him to an absurd renewal of his commitment to life and hope.
To him this now lord-less universe appears neither sterile nor futile. Every particle of that rock, every mineral glint from that mountain swathed in night, forms a world unto itself. The struggle toward the peaks is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
The second passage that so transfixed me was by a French scientist who was a close personal friend of Camus’s, as I learned only later. This was Jacques Monod, a molecular biologist and, like Camus, a Nobel laureate. In his book Chance and Necessity (1970), he did not just declare that the universe was an accident but went on to explain in mesmerizing detail how the accident might plausibly have happened. If Monod’s account of the initial accident and of its inevitable continuation was correct, what did it say about the human condition? How were we to live? Monod answered that question as follows:
If he is to accept this message in its full meaning, man must finally awaken from his age-old dream to discover his total solitude, his radical strangeness. He knows now that, like a nomad, he stands at the margin of the universe where he must live. A universe deaf to his music, as indifferent to his hopes as to his sufferings—or to his crimes.
We were to live as gypsies, then, looking in from the outside upon a settled universe deaf to the most plaintive strains from our violins.
What to say? In my 20s, I was a sucker for such stuff. Worse, I was painfully slow to notice my own posing. Only after the passage of some time and the small, salutary shock of having my wallet stolen did I examine these three professions of secular faith and realize, with an inward blush, that what I had wanted was simply closure, a way to stop thinking about questions whose answers were beyond my reach. Camus may have earned his existentialism in the French Resistance. Monod must have earned his both there and in his laboratory. I could not, I cannot, do other than honor their memory. But my own identification with them seemed a meretricious, adolescent borrowing. It was the secular equivalent of what the German theologian and martyr of the German Resistance Dietrich Bonhoeffer had scorned as “cheap grace.” I felt a little ashamed of myself.
Then, some years later, having begun for no reason that I could easily name to intermittently and anonymously attend services at an Episcopal church, I heard a hymn whose opening stanza jolted me awake with its use of some of Russell’s language—specifically, his “firm foundation of unyielding despair”:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
To you that for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Given the secular company I then generally kept and the reading habits I had and still have, I was accustomed to the idea that religion was a refuge for those not brave enough to face the uncertainties of the real world. But now I asked: Had not Russell, too, sought a refuge, a “soul’s habitation,” and had he not finally claimed rather more firmness for it than was really there?
The thought came and quickly went, but it would come back. Even granting that faith was “ridiculous” (the word I heard so often from my friends), was it any less ridiculous to pretend that one was Sisyphus and then declare that by sheer force of imagination one was happy about it? Absurd indeed! Why should this form of nonsense be regarded as any less ridiculous than religion, once the spell of eloquence was broken? But then, too, why belittle Camus for coping with his perceived dilemma as well as he could? And if we were all becalmed in the same boat—Camus, Monod, Russell, the pious poet who wrote the hymn, and Jack Miles—what were we to do? Sink the boat? Was I now to be ashamed of all of us? What good did that do them or me, or anybody?
Finally, I began to inch past that embarrassment. I began to wonder whether it was really wrong for any of us to seek some kind of interim closure, some way of coping with our own invincible ignorance. Over the decades, I had been an avid reader of popular science, always fascinated by the latest findings but increasingly aware that each new discovery raised at least as many questions as it answered. The research recently conducted at the Large Hadron Collider of CERN (the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), for example, baffles me as much as it does any other untrained reader, but I followed its development over the past several years not just with interest but also with a little research question of my own. Suppose scientists demonstrate the existence of the Higgs boson, or “God particle,” I asked myself. Suppose they confirm the Standard Model of modern particle physics. Will that not simply raise a host of new questions for further research? Is that not the result of every new discovery?
Well, the scientists did demonstrate the existence of the Higgs boson. Peter Higgs won his belated Nobel Prize. And the success of CERN has indeed pointed the way to further research. At the same time, that success has increased our ignorance even more than I had imagined. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, concluded a 2013 article titled “Physics: What We Do and Don’t Know” with the following rather chastened sentences: “Physical science has historically progressed not only by finding precise explanations of natural phenomena, but also by discovering what sorts of things can be precisely explained. These may be fewer than we had thought.” If science is the pinnacle of human knowing and physics the pinnacle of science, and if physics is deemed crucially limited even by the gifted few—Weinberg’s “we”—who know it best, where does that leave the rest of us?
Scientific progress is like mountain climbing: the higher you climb, the more you know, but the wider the vistas of ignorance that extend on all sides. Alexander Pope described this experience in the heroic couplets of his 1711 “Essay on Criticism”:
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But, those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labors of the lengthened way,
The increasing prospect tires our wand’ring eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
I have begun to imagine human knowledge and ignorance as tracing a graph of asymptotic divergence, such that with every increase in knowledge, there occurs a greater increase in ignorance. The result is that our ignorance always exceeds our knowledge, and the gap between the two grows infinitely greater, not smaller, as infinite time passes.
Ignorance was a great human breakthrough, perhaps the greatest of all, for until our prehistoric but anatomically modern ancestors could tell the difference between ignorance and knowledge, how could they know they knew anything? The actual date, the actual occasion, the actual individual who first became conscious of the difference between knowing and not knowing are all beyond historical recovery, but some such moment surely had to have come long before the invention of writing. And how different was that moment in the life span of the human species from this moment?
One thing Russell was right about is that Earth and the human species alike have finite life expectancies: “The whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” You may die never having learned the one fact that would have changed everything for you. In just the same way, extinction may befall the human species with key questions still unanswered and perhaps even unasked. And as that moment nears, will science have been superseded by something that differs from it as much as it differs from philosophy or philosophy from religion? When we reflect on how slightly, on the one hand, our genome differs from that of the chimpanzee and how greatly, on the other hand, our knowledge surpasses that of our genetic cousin, can we not imagine that a further minor genetic alteration might bring into existence a being whose knowledge and modes of inquiry dwarf ours as much as ours dwarf those of the chimpanzee?
How can we know just how brutal or wonderful—or, above all, how basic—the surprises that lie ahead may be? Kay Ryan, an Alexander Pope for our moment in history, captured this distinctly contemporary kind of uncertainty in a poem titled “On the Nature of Understanding”:
Say you hoped to
wild and stayed
calm and inched up
day by day. Or even
not tame it but
meet it halfway.
Things went along.
You made progress,
it would be a
in your hair and
nails. So it’s
strange when it
attacks: you thought
you had a deal.
So, do we have a deal or not? Those who speak the language of “we now know” think they have a deal, and more power to them, even if—as we have lately learned from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the civilization that pays their enormous bills may have only another 15 years before it slides into a decline no technology can reverse. For the rest of us, suffice it to say that if religion rests on human ignorance, it rests on a firm foundation indeed, and the same may be said of the claim that religion rests on a foundation of fear. Of course it does, and how could it not? Though some of us are understandably impressed with what we collectively know (which most often means being impressed with what other people know and we believe), our ignorance still exceeds our knowledge, and we still have eminently good reason to fear the unknown.
And how do we cope with that? However we cope with our ignorance, we cannot, by definition, call the coping knowledge. What do we call it? Let’s not give it a name, not even the name religion; the dilemma precedes religion and irreligion alike. But if we can concede that religion is among the ways that humankind has coped with the permanence and imponderability of human ignorance, then we may discover at least a new freedom to conduct comparisons. If we grant that we must all somehow go beyond our knowledge in order to come to enough closure to get on with the living of our lives, then how do religious modes of doing just that compare with irreligious modes? Since the challenge is practical rather than theoretical, the comparison should be of practices and outcomes rather than of theories and premises—yet the hope must be for a reasonable way of coping with the impossibility of our ever living a perfectly rational life.
Religion seems to me to assume one aspect when considered as a special claim to knowledge and quite another aspect when considered as a ritualized confession of ignorance. One may certainly be struck by the peculiar way in which ostensibly authoritative pronouncements made in the course of religious revelation always seem to arrive coupled to the disconcerting proviso that ordinary human knowing could not have reached what is about to be conveyed: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9). So much, it would seem, for empirical confirmation. But rather than construe such language as vicarious boasting, one may take it, counterintuitively, as Isaiah’s way of reckoning with the limitations of his own mind. To this day, most expressions of religious commitment can be understood as utterances in either of those registers. The boastful construction is smug, loud, insufferable, and can sometimes seem omnipresent. The confessional construction is reticent and thus easily overlooked, yet its appeal shouldn’t be underestimated. The world harbors many a muffled believer and many a shy practitioner, reluctant to undergo cross-examination about a confession of inadequacy that defies ready articulation.
Not long after Monod published Chance and Necessity, Leszek Kolakowski, the repentant Polish Marxist who became a distinguished historian of ideas, wrote of this confessional construction in an essay titled “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture” (1973):
Religion is man’s way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat. That it is not an inevitable defeat is a claim that cannot be defended in good faith. One can, of course, disperse one’s life over the contingencies of every day, but even then it is only a ceaseless and desperate desire to live, and finally a regret that one has not lived. One can accept life, and accept it, at the same time, as a defeat only if one accepts that there is sense beyond that which is inherent in human history—if, in other words, one accepts the order of the sacred.
Inevitable defeat is the plight of Sisyphus, but while Camus takes irreligion to be a condition for the acceptance of that defeat, Kolakowski sees religion as the acceptance itself. He maintains, in other words, that we cannot even recognize (much less accept) our inadequacy in the face of the human condition without accepting the reality of another, contrasting condition—his “order of the sacred”—in which our deficiencies are made good. I myself do not go that far. I do not assume that there necessarily exists an order “beyond that which is inherent in human history,” including the history of the cosmos as humans write it—only that such an order may exist. How can I know, either way? And, just as important, how soon can I know? The mystery need not be absolute or eternal for it to rule out the consolation of existential despair. Kolakowski, no less than Camus and the others, thus returns me to the closure question, and it matters to me that religion rather than irreligion conducts him to the outer limits of human experience. It matters because there, at that brink, religion and irreligion seem to meet, and in that meeting lie lessons about extending hospitality toward beliefs we do not share.
In practical terms, religious pluralism, by this late date, is very much in the American grain despite recurrent social challenges to it. The question remains: How deep can it go? I have been working as an editor for seven years on the massive new Norton Anthology of World Religions, which earnestly aims to put a century of comparative religious scholarship at the disposal of a public, including policy makers, struggling with the political consequences of involuntary religious mingling on a planet without a religious majority. But pluralism is a personal challenge as well. On a spectrum of postures toward religious faith that runs from organized hostility to muffled contempt to resigned forbearance to never-crosses-my-mind indifference to against-my-better-judgment curiosity to serious interest to fellow-traveling to heartfelt engagement to missionary fervor, where do you place yourself, and how does that dispose you to others’ positions?
Having put in all this work, how do I feel about the very different agenda of, say, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, which for six years now has been diligently seeking nonreligious alternatives to religion? In one light the NSRN seems to me to be fabricating versions of the faith that I lost when I lost my wallet. Yet if a faith of some sort is inevitable, why should the NSRN not devise something that suits it? Its language may teeter at times between assumptions of superiority and professions of humility, but so does conventionally religious language. Professionally, I judge that its work complements rather than undermines the work that my colleagues and I have done on our anthology.
Am I kidding myself? No doubt, but let’s be clear: there is a component of self-kidding—a suspension of disbelief—in even the most serious human enterprises. (Does anyone really believe that all men—and women—are created equal? But recognizing the delusional premise of American democracy needn’t undermine our faith in it.) The element of play is particularly, though by no means uniquely, prominent in religion. Herbert Fingarette, a philosopher interested in self-deception—that is, self-kidding—has written:
It is the special fate of modern man that he has a “choice” of spiritual visions. The paradox is that although each requires complete commitment for complete validity, we can today generate a context in which we see that no one of them is the sole vision. Thus we must learn to be naive but undogmatic. That is, we must take the vision as it comes and trust ourselves to it, naively, as reality. Yet we must retain an openness to experience such that the dark shadows deep within one vision are the mute, stubborn messengers waiting to lead us to a new light and a new vision … Home is always home for someone; but there is no Absolute Home in general.
Science is immortal, but you are not. History is immortal: Earth could be vaporized, and on some unimaginably distant planet on some unimaginably remote future date, another civilization’s historians could still choose to use the terrestrial year as a unit of time measurement. But where does that leave you? You have a life to live here and now. “Tell me,” the poet Mary Oliver asks, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” We never truly know how to reply to that challenge, do we, since more knowledge—the knowledge we do not have—could always justify holding current plans in abeyance just a little longer. But when life refuses to wait any longer and the great game begins whether you have suited up or not, then a demand arises that religion—or some expedient no more fully rational than religion—must meet. You’re going to go with something. Whatever it is, however rigorous it may claim to be as either science or religion, you’re going to know that you have no perfect warrant for it. Yet, whatever you call it, you’re going to go with it anyway, aren’t you? Pluralism at its deepest calls on you to allow others the closure that you yourself cannot avoid.
Science keeps revealing how much we don’t, perhaps can’t, know. Yet humans seek closure, which should make religious pluralists of us all.
We want to hear what you think. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.