Religion and Pessimism

Commenting on this post by John Horgan about religion and defeatism, PZ writes:

John Horgan criticizes Francis Collins for his defeatism in thinking that human beings will always be evil to one another:

Christians castigate atheists such as Richard Dawkins for propagating a dark, nihilistic view of human existence. But Dawkins is Pollyanna compared to Christians like Collins, who has so little faith in human reason and decency that he thinks we’ll kill each other until the end of time.

I’m not quite as optimistic as Dawkins–I don’t think that the disappearance of religion would necessarily or rapidly lead to an improvement in the human condition. I do think it is an essential start to the process, however; reason is the tool by which we will build a better future, and we must clear the interfering clutter of superstition to make a beginning of it.

I’m not sure pessimism, in the philosophical sense, is the sole purview of either atheists or the religious. Albert Camus, in the 40s and 50s, was a tenacious defender of philosophical pessimism (“The Myth of Sisyphus”). Anyway, this gives a good excuse to reprint part of Camus’ essay, “Pessimism and Courage”:

For some time now, articles have been appearing about works that are supposed to be pessimistic and consequently to lead directly to the most cowardly of all forms of subservience. The reasoning is elementary. A pessimistic philosophy is by its essence a philosophy of discouragement, and those who don’t believe that the world is good are therefore said to be willing to serve tyranny. The most effective of those articles, because it was the best, was the one by M. George Adam in Les Lettres Francaises. M, Georges Rabeau in one of the recent issues of L’Aube makes the same accusation under the unacceptable title of “Nazism not dead?”
I see only one way of answering such a campaign, which is to answer openly. Although the problem goes beyond me, although it is aimed at Malraux, Sartre, and a few others more important than I, it would seem to me sheer hypocrisy not to speak in my own name. Yet I shall not insist on the basis of the argument. The idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile idea, but one that needs too long a refutation. I shall speak only of the method of thinking that inspired those articles.
Let me say at once that this method is reluctant to take facts into account. The writers who are the butt of the articles have proved, as best as they could, that, though they lacked philosophical optimism, man’s duty, at least, was not alien to them. Hence an objective mind would be willing to say that a negative philosophy was not incompatible, in actual fact, with an ethics of freedom and courage. Such a mind would see here merely an opportunity to learn something about the human heart. That objective mind would be right.
For the coexistence, in certain minds, of a philosophy of negation and a positive morality illustrates, in fact, the great problem that is painfully disturbing the whole epoch, In a word, it is a problem of civilization, and it is essential for us to know whether man, without the help either of the eternal or of rationalistic thought, can unaided create his own values. Such an undertaking goes infinitely beyond all of us, I say this because I believe it: France and Europe must now create a new civilization or else perish.
But civilizations are not built by rapping people on the knuckles. They are built up by the confrontation of ideas, by the blood of the spirit, by suffering and courage, It is not possible that concepts which have belonged to Europe for the past hundred years should be judged in the twinkling of an eye, in L’Aube, by an editorialist who, without hesitation, attributes to Nietzsche a lustful appetite and to Heidegger the idea that existence is useless. I do not have much liking for the too famous existential philosophy, and, to tell the truth, I think its conclusions false. But at least it represents a great adventure of the mind, and it is hard to see it subjected, by M. Rabeau, to the judgment of the most shortsighted conformism.
In reality, such concepts and such undertakings are not judged at this moment according to the rules of objectivity. They are judged not according to facts but according to a doctrine. Our Communist comrades and our Christian comrades talk to us from the vantage point doctrines we respect. Their doctrines are not ours, but has never occurred to us to talk of them in the tone they have just used toward us and with the assurance they show. Let us pursue then, insofar as we can, our experience and our thought. M. Rabeau blames us for having an audience. I believe that is an exaggeration. But this at least is true: the uneasiness that concerns us belongs to a whole epoch from which we do not want to dissociate ourselves. We want to think and live in our history. We believe that the truth of this age can be found only by living through the drama of it to the very end. If the epoch has suffered from nihilism, we cannot remain ignorant of nihilism and still achieve the moral code we need, No, everything is not summed up in negation and absurdity, We know this, But we must first posit negation and absurdity because they are what our generation has encountered and what we must take into account.
The men who are indicted in these articles are loyally attempting both in their work and in their lives to solve this problem. Is it so hard to realize that one cannot settle in a few lines a question others are not sure of solving when they devote themselves to it altogether? Can’t they be granted the patience that is granted to any sincere undertaking? Isn’t it possible to address them more humbly?
I shall end this protest here. I hope I have been restrained. But I should like my indignation to be felt. Objective criticism is the best of things, in my opinion, and I can’t object when someone says that a work is bad or that a philosophy is not good for man’s fate, It is only fair that writers should answer for their writings, That forces them to reflect, and we all have a dreadful need to reflect. But deriving from such principles judgments as to this or that mind’s disposition toward slavery, especially when you have proof of the contrary, and concluding that this or that line of thought must necessarily lead to Nazism suggests an image of man which I prefer not to qualify and constitutes very paltry proof of the moral advantages of optimistic philosophy.
COMBAT, September 1945

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