Philosophies of Fear

Philosophies of Fear December 22, 2014

Jack Miles a rambling, erudite, sometimes-insightful, half-hearted defense of religious faith to cultured despisers in the Atlantic

He found that as he matured, his youthful enthusiasm for Bertrand Russell and Camus waned. Turns out that science doesn’t overcome human ignorance like Russell thought it would: “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.”

And if religion makes claims that seem absurd, “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?”

Miles is not far from the kingdom. 

Along the way, he quotes the passage from Russell (from his 1903 “A Free Man’s Worship”) that so enthralled the young Jack Miles: “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.”

Miles also alludes to Russell’s claim that “Religion is based primarily upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly as the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things” (Why I Am Not A Christian, 1927).

Even this doesn’t seem so absurd to Miles anymore: “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?”

In fact, this is precisely what Christian faith denies. Its absurdity of absurdities is to claim, first, that death is not of the essence of existence but an intrusion; and, second, that death has already been overcome by Jesus Christ, so that Christians live in hope of death’s present and ultimate defeat. 

There does seem to be one of those dreaded binary oppositions here: Either we take the empirical universality of death as a given, and work out the ontological and ethical implications; or, we take by faith in revelation that “in the beginning it was not so.” Like the opposition of life and death itself, there doesn’t seem a lot of middle ground here.


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