Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Albert Camus (1913-1960): The Meaning of Life Without God

Can life without God be meaningful?

There are two answers to this question: yes and no. The ‘no’ answer seems to become apparent in Bertrand Russell’s description of the universe as presented to us by modern science. In his essay “A Free Man’s Worship (Mysticism and Logic),” Russell first quotes a passage stating that the universe was created by a heartless being, and then he continues,

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 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 inspirations, 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.

Given this kind of universe, many people will say that life has no meaning and seek to find refuge in God — a Being that Russell believes does not exist. However, Russell continues and finds some meaning in life without a God:

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

Russell has certainly painted an unromantic picture of the universe; however, we know that he found meaning in his existence on earth despite his lack of belief in God and in an afterlife. Russell found his meaning first in mathematics and philosophy, and later in his opposition to the atomic bomb. For much of his life he was in opposition to war. Certainly in this world there are evils to be fought and new knowledge to be discovered.

I believe that Norse mythology also presents a picture of a universe that will ultimately end in chaos, but is yet a universe in which there are gods who find meaning in their lives by struggling mightily and heroically to stave off the final destruction of the universe.

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the name given to the twilight of the gods and the destruction of the universe. Ragnarok will be preceded by the coming of three straight winters with no intervening summers. These will be followed by three more winters, during which wars will be fought on earth. Three great monsters that the Norse gods had previously bound will break free and will attack the gods, riding over the rainbow bridge Bifrost into the domain of the gods. The wolf Fenris will kill the chief god Odin, but will in turn be killed by Odin’s son Vidar. Another son of Odin, Thor, will kill the Midgard serpent, which is so big it encircles the earth, but Thor will die from the serpent’s venom. The watchman of the gods, Heimdall, will fight the evil Loki until both are killed. The god Freyr, who cares for the fruits of the earth, will be killed by Surtur, who will then burn up the universe.

So, the Norse gods knowthat the universe will end in destruction, but rather than despairing, they devote their efforts to postponing the day of destruction. Odin is the chief god responsible for this. He values wisdom. In one story, he went to the Well of Wisdom and begged its guardian, Mimir the Wise, for a drink from it. In payment, Mimir, who was blind, asked Odin for one of his eyes. Odin paid this price in order to gain wisdom. Perching on Odin’s shoulders are two ravens, Thought (Hugin) and Memory (Munin), who fly over the world and bring Odin the information they discover.

Odin was always a benefactor to Humankind. He won the knowledge of the Runes by suffering for it in a kind of crucifixion, and he gave this knowledge to Humankind. In addition, he took from the Giants the skaldic mead, which made a poet of anyone who drank from it. Odin also gave this mead to Humankind.

Despite the view that the universe ultimately cares nothing for human endeavors and that the universe will eventually destroy Humankind, both Bertrand Russell and the Norse gods found meaning in their lives. That meaning lay in acquiring knowledge, serving Humankind while Humankind exists, and staving off the final day of destruction as long as possible.

Of course, we cannot stave off the destruction of the universe; however, like Bertrand Russell, we can try to stave off the destruction of the human species — or, at least, try to reduce human suffering.

Albert Camus is a 20th-century author who was an atheist, but who believed that we can give meaning to our life through trying to reduce human suffering. In The Plague, Camus gives a portrait of a city that is infected with an epidemic of plague, and a portrait of how different people respond to the plague.

Dr. Donald Borchert, a philosopher at Ohio University, describes the plot of The Plague in this way:

In the French town of Oran on the Algerian coast, life had revolved around making money and other financial interests. Things were business as usual until suddenly all the rats in the town begin to die. Thousands of them emerge from their hidden dwellings and die in the open streets and hallways. As the city takes care of the rats, the townspeople are ignorant of the source of the epidemic until the citizens themselves fall victim to a strange and deadly epidemic. Dr. Rieux identifies the sickness as the plague. Oran is eventually quarantined: its gates are closed and its citizens are isolated from the outside world, behind impenetrable walls. For the next few months, the death toll continues to rise at an alarming rate while the morale and hope of the citizens steadily fall until a plateau of numb apathy is reached. As the plague rages on, the characters in the story are faced with death and inevitably have to evaluate their lives and the meaning that life and their situations hold. After the initial psychological shocks of the epidemic pass, the able-bodied persons of the town (realizing that they are all in the same situation) unite in an effort to fight the plague. Eventually the plague begins to subside and families and friends are reunited as the city is reopened. But the plague surrenders with a vengeance: Tarrou (Rieux’s close friend) is its final victim. Added to that loss is the death of Rieux’s wife who was in a sanatorium in another town. The story closes with an eerie and ominous lingering of the now-dormant plague.

One thing we can ask about the novel is why Camus chose to write about a walled city. My answer is that the walled city represents life on Earth. We are born, and the only way to escape from life is to die. It is as if we are surrounded by walls we cannot cross. We are imprisoned in a life that is fraught with suffering. After all, everyone suffers.

As an atheist, Camus does not believe that life has a given meaning. After all, there is no God to give a meaning to life. Therefore, Camus would say that when we ask the question, “What is the meaning of life?” that we are asking an incorrect question. Instead, we should be asking the questions “What gives my life meaning?” and “How shall I make my life meaningful?” It is up to each of us to choose how to give our life meaning; it is up to us how we choose to deal with life.

Camus’ spokesperson is The Plagueappears to be Dr. Rieux, the doctor who fights the plague. Camus’ spokesperson is not the Christian Paneloux, who at first believes that the plague was sent to Oran as a punishment. However, after witnessing the great suffering and death of a young child infected with the plague, Paneloux comes to believe that the plague is a part of God’s ultimately good plan for Humankind.

But according to Dr. Rieux, “… every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence.”

Still, Dr. Rieux knows that he will eventually lose his fight. In this life, at least, death is not optional. The plague, to Dr. Rieux, represents a “never-ending defeat.” Eventually, everyone will die — if not of the plague, of something else. Dr. Rieux may win a battle here and there, but eventually the enemy will win the war.

There are three ways to face life, and it is up to us which one we choose:

1) The Atheist (Nonreligious) Way: In this, Camus’ way, we act as if the war can be won, although we know that it cannot.

2) The Religious Way: We act as if the war can be won, and we believe that the war will be won.

3) The Way of Uncertainty: We act as if the outcome of the war is uncertain. Some theists, such as John Stuart Mill, who believes in a finite or limited God, believe this. So do agnostics.

Notes:

The quotations by Bertrand Russell are from his essay “A Free Man’s Worship (Mysticism and Logic).”

Albert Camus’ The Plague is widely available and has been translated by many people.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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