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It is a divine right of madness, not to be able to see the
evil which lies just in front. - Unknown Danish Playwright
Meaning, or the Lack Thereof
Existentialism: The Apotheosis of Secular Philosophy
Faced with the enormous amount of evil and suffering in our world,
the rational, critical thinking man is tempted to conclude that there is no meaning to be
found within the universe apart from the limited and temporary meaning
of living and maximizing one's own fulfillment and that of other
temporal humans. This
evil and suffering has seemingly gone on for as long as human life on
the earth, and apparently no one escapes the end of life's withering, decaying or dying
process unless one is earlier cut down "in the quick." Even if Jesus is God, this evil seemingly has swallowed up even
God himself, and with the claimed exception for mystical personal
experiences he hasn't been heard from for over two thousand years.
One writer characterized life as dealing with the three bedeviling
demons of: 1) lack of meaning, 2) evil, and 3) death. The first demon,
of meaning to our lives, stares us in the face much of the time. For most of us
“privileged” citizens of the USA who have the necessities of life and
the civil protection of the law, courts and police, one face of the
demon—any significant tangible evil—is outside our house rather
constantly staring in through the
window seeking a way to get in and get at us. The other face of this
demon—any significant emotional or psychological trauma—is always
looking in through various windows. Finally, the demon of
aging, decay and death is
always looking over our shoulder, inexorably coming ever closer. This is
one way to sum up the
current human condition.
So, we will begin with what James Haught says
in Free Inquiry, April-May 2013, p.16:
“When I came of age and slowly began to
think about life, I developed a strange feeling that the world is senseless, irrational, and chaotic.
Forty million people had just been killed
in World War II and everyone said how noble and heroic it was. The "Big
One” was only the latest in thousands of gory wars reaching back before
the earliest records began. The number is impossible to know, and the
reasons for many are poorly understood. But some are dubious, at best.
Honduras and El Salvador fought a war in 1969 over a soccer match.
England fought with Spain in the 1700s because a British ship captain's
ear was cut off by some Spaniards. I wondered: Is this what people
do—send their patriotic young men to kill other young men who feel just
as patriotic for the opposite side, no matter what the cause?
Also in the 1950s, I saw three-fourths of
humanity praying to invisible spirits and hoping to go to magical
heavens. All politicians invoked the gods. But there was no evidence
that any of it was real. I thought: it's crazy to worship something that
probably doesn't exist, yet billions of people do it.
I saw breast cancer killing women,
leukemia killing children, hawks ripping shrieking rabbits, sharks
slashing baby seals, and pythons crushing pigs—and everyone said that
these things happened according to the divine plan of the all-loving,
all-merciful Father Creator. Good grief!
I saw the cruel unfairness of life: how
some people are developmentally disabled, blind, abruptly ravaged by
cancer, slowly dragged down by wasting diseases, paralyzed by strokes,
or killed by drunken drivers, while others are not. What an
incomprehensible lottery—spin the wheel to see whether you'll have a
long, healthy life or die early and perhaps in agony.
… Sometimes I felt like a visitor in a
vast asylum, baffled as I watched unusual behavior.
…I decided that the universe doesn't care
whether we live or die or whether we're virtuous or sinful. Nature
simply doesn't give a damn.
…Somehow, existentialism seems a perfect
philosophy for secular humanists…
How can one disagree with the author’s point made so eloquently above? It is hard not to rant,
hard not to get apoplectic in denouncing the idea of this being the plan of a
loving creator, or to say that this creator imposed this upon us because
of an allegorical forefather, Adam, disobeying an arbitrary demand. Elsewhere on this site
the context of our lives has been stated thusly: "We are born into a
dirty, messy, pathologic, troubled, dangerous, insane world under a
sentence of death."
And, it should be well understood that hate is not the
opposite of love. Indifference is! The message that comes to us as
humans from the physical universe is not one of affirmation for our
wonderful human dimensions but one of relentless indifference.
What the author is saying above is that there is seemingly no sensible
purpose, no meaning to which humans can relate in the wider universe as
we experience it. This is the essence of “Existentialism”, that there is
no meaning or purpose that can be found “out there” and that the
individual must accept what exists as apprehensible to us—“What is”—and
create or manufacture our own meaning. The above author’s brand of
existentialism is that of Camus, one where “what is” makes looking for a
message or meaning from God absurd, and that we should have the courage
to admit this and soldier on while creating our own meaning.
Nietzsche in his own way, philosophically disassembled the existing theologies or God-belief systems and
built the foundation for the “God is dead” movement. He lays down the
challenge for us—in the face of the aforementioned absurdity of the
world—to have the courage to become paragons of virtue, supermen with honor, virtue and
integrity, to be all that we can be despite everything. Stirring, I’m sure, but no cigar,
for his nihilism and lack of any larger meaning were probably the means
that drove him insane! Not to
put too fine of a point on it, it didn't work for him by my criteria for
A word about Paul Tillich, a so-called "theistic existentialist":
Tillich, born and raised under a Lutheran Pastor father, became a
theology professor in Germany. After coming into conflict with the Nazi
movement and being dismissed from his position, he wound up in America
where he published a number of books concerned with integrating
Christian theology and existentialism. He was obsessed with ontology,
the philosophical study of being, of what it means to exist as a finite,
mortal, vulnerable human being in this absurd context. The point that he
missed in his multifarious books and ocean of words is that it doesn't
mean a whole lot! There is nothing to get very excited about if our only
option is to "man up" while we suffer the "slings and arrows" and slowly
wither and decay—IF WE'RE LUCKY!
Besides, Tillich should have understood that theism and existentialism
are incompatible or mutually exclusive at the foundational level.
This is the best that existentialism offers, a challenge to have the
courage to create some temporary "meaning" and make the best of it, a
challenge to be so-called "authentic" men. For the rational man who eschews
superstition, the myth-based world religions, and the multifarious mystical
systems, and who does not entertain the possibility that, men to this day, have not
seen the rational, logical reasonable purpose and meaning that have been demonstrated
for us, existentialism
is the only road left to travel upon. But it is NOT the only road for
the reasonable man open to unparalleled goodness. Good grief!