Religion, Secularity, and Suicide

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide" (Albert Camus)

We all know, or think we do, what religion is. Nor is there any question in anyone’s mind regarding the finality of suicide. But regardless of all the rantings against secularism by churchmen or religionists ― who seem to forget that it is secularity that gives us the freedom to be religious in whatever way we choose ― there seems to be quite a bit of confusion on the subject.  So just what is it that we mean by the words “secular”, “secularity”, and “secularism”?

In his 2010 book A Secular Age, the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, described secularity in terms of a worldview that concentrates on the present and which permeates society without any dimension of the transcendent. In other words, it is a mindset or lifestyle that is closed or resistant to any influence from or especially any interference by religion. However, toward the end of his immense study, Taylor seems puzzled by the emergence, in especially our time, of two rather sharply contrasting, even opposed forms of secularity.

One of these two, the one we are most used to, if often called “secular humanism”. It tends to be generally optimistic in mood, confident that the human race is capable of intelligently guiding itself and solving most of its problems through a combination of benevolence, rationality, and accumulated wisdom. Its origin, at least on a scientific basis, seems to be founded in a belief in what is termed the “irreversibility” of evolution and a rather naïve belief that “Every day, in every way, things will [somehow] get better and better.”

The other form of secularity, in contrast, tends to be pessimistic. It believes that the world and its history, whatever the successes of the past, is now caught in a downward spiral, compounded by overpopulation, environmental degradation, which, even if they could be overcome, would at the most only extend the lifespan of the human race for a limited time on this planet. Instead, based on the findings of planetary science and astronomy, and if the prevailing cosmological theory, life in any form seems destined to disappear not only from planet Earth, but eventually from whatever else might be left of the universe.

Given the dilemma described above, it is quite easy to see the problem posed by existential philosophers such as the atheist, Jean-Paul Sartre, or the agnostic, Albert Camus. For them, the fundamental question is not why there is something rather than nothing, or even the origin of life, but whether that life, once it reached an intelligent form, is worth living. In other words, it is ultimately a question of meaning. Both rejected, as did Sigmund Freud, religion as an “illusion”, the product of wishful thinking. But on the other hand, basing ourselves on Freud’s distinction between an illusion ― which could, against all odds, turn out to be true ― and an outright delusion, which is clearly out of touch with reality, we might say that while religious belief, because it transcends the realm of the natural sciences, cannot be scientifically disproved, that secular humanism, no matter how genuinely pursued and even praiseworthy in its intentions, ultimately rests, on what seems to be turning out, scientifically speaking, the delusion of a stable or permanent universe.

Thus, the inescapability of the existentialist challenge. Not since the days of the clash between the Epicureans, with their “eat, drink, and be merry” hedonism, even in the face of death, and the Stoics, with their “grin and bear it” fortitude, has philosophy seen a more stark contrast in attitudes toward living. For Camus, the rejection of suicide, whether through sudden violence to oneself or by slowly drugging oneself unto oblivion, the choice to live in spite of the certainty of death was the highest form of courage and freedom. Still, when it came to the choice as to how we should live, even he, agnostic as he was, had to admit that perhaps something might still be might be said for the hope for something better and more lasting. Thus, echoing Pascal's famous wager, Camus wrote: “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t than live as if there isn’t and to die to find out that there is.” Hardly an example of a firm faith, a critic might say. But nevertheless, a good example of intelligent or at least shrewd, thinking

R W Kropf  4/17/2013         Religion, Secularity & Suicide.doc   13-04-17.html