POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Building Life on Despair?

The British atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell coined an interesting phrase in his 1929 essay A Free Man’s Worship; his ideas was that future life must only be built on the firm foundation of unyielding despair. This thought came by way of his philosophical interpretations of science:

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more 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.1

Russell was writing in a time where he was rejecting belief in God amidst a society that had a long Christian tradition. It was natural for there to be a sense of despair for those who had long thought the God and human beings were the center of the universe’s purpose.  His idea is that we must come to grips with the truth the we live in a chaotic universe, which has no overarching meaning or purpose.  All that exists is just matter and physical law…and nothing else.  Once one greets this despair in a courageous manner, he can realize how wonderful humans are and get on with life. 

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made similar commentary in his works. Nietzsche saw humans as being in need of a transition.  They needed to move from acting as beasts in the herd to a few people becoming superior men: perfected, bold and completely unrestrained creatures.  His view was that we must get over the infantile ideas about God and morality and will a greater future where a few great people rule the many.  Nietzsche knew that the world would struggle to “live without God” and penned the following words in his parable The Madman:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—-for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.2

Whereas Russell would choose to nostalgically worship the human struggle for compassion in an empty world of despair, Nietzsche would recommend power.  In either case, human beings would need to go through a gate of despair and confusion, in order to go to a higher history where hope is found in ourselves.  There is only one problem with this project.  When humanity looks into the mirror, he finds neither ultimate goodness nor a creature worthy of wielding ultimate power.  So he lives perpetually afraid; his gods have become weak, they look very much like himself.

Though it is hard to persuade many otherwise, the history of human beings is not one of pure goodness accompanied by a benevolent wielding of power. In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Human beings are quite capable of killing one another for a myriad of reasons and causes.  Some do it in the name of religion, others political ideologies, and others for just plain greed and power.  Some may love to retort that religion is the source of all intolerance and war.  This is a specious claim that holds no reality.  The fact is that human beings are the source of all intolerance and war and the non religious regimes of the 20th century are convincing proof that one does not need a “god” to pillage the world.  The murderous reigns of Stalinist Russia, the cultural revolution in China and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge prove that man needs not belief in a god to destroy his neighbor, he only needs to erroneously act like he is one.

Hope is difficult to build on a lie—and building hope on the reality of the goodness of human beings is a particularly hard thing to do.  If the future belongs only to the whims of humanity and the torrents of nature, how can we have any confidence that things will go well.  In fact, it is fear which rises when we realize that we are alone.

  • Will some strange animal born virus destroy us?
  • Will we destroy the environment and bring catastrophe on us all?
  • Will we blow each other to bits over land and labor?
  • Will we be hit by a mammoth asteroid and go the way of the dinosaur?
  • Will some alien race drop in to destroy us?

In the naturalistic worldview of both Russell and Nietzsche, we are quite hopeless in the face of such possibilities.  It is but a posturing to think that hope can be built on yourself.  Hope must aim towards the future, in a reality yet to come to pass. Yet the future is certainly unknown to us and it is far from under our control.  What is our destiny both personally and corporately? The answers from the realms of unbelief are hardly encouraging.  In fact, I believe they are filled with irrationality and dread.

The boastful unbeliever pokes at those who believe in God as if people of faith are somehow weaker and in need of a crutch for life.  My contention is that God is not a crutch in the human quest for hope, but rather God is like legs for those who wish to run. When we ask human beings to find hope in the brute reality matter/energy/space-time we send him on a perpetual goose chase, he will frenzy about but make little progress.  He is running without legs. 

When we speak of hope, we speak of the future.  We speak of hope amidst a world of disease, death, war and despair.  We speak in a strange tongue to those who only have hope for this life because our hope is not from ourselves, our goodness or our plans for the world.  Our hope is in God, his goodness and his ways in the world. We desire to place our trust in God as he holds the future, knows our destiny and guides us today in our relationship to creation and one another. Hope comes to us as a gift and a virtue due to our relationship with the living creator God and his work in our lives.  God has entered history, conquered death and given us new life in Jesus Christ. He is transforming us today, will transform our world and ultimately make all things new in the end. 


1. Bertrand Russell, A Free Man’s Worship—available online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1917russell-worship.html

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Madman—available online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/nietzsche-madman.html