Are Things as Bad as They Appear?

In Robert Wright’s interview with Salon.com today, he was asked about the end of his recent book, The Evolution of God :

At the end of your book, you say the great divide in modern thinking is between people who think there is some divine source of meaning — a higher purpose in the universe — and those people who don’t. Is this different than the usual dichotomy between believers and atheists?

It’s a little different. I’m trying to get members of the different Abrahamic religions to realize that if they want to have an enemy, there’s a bigger one than each other. I don’t want them to declare jihad on atheists, but it might be good for them to realize, in the modern intellectual battle, they all have something in common: not only a specific Abrahamic God, but belief in a transcendent source of meaning. And I’d like to add that there are a lot of other people who don’t subscribe to your notion of God, maybe not to any notion of God, who do believe in a transcendent source of meaning and a larger purpose that’s unfolding.

Wright’s framing of the issue of the great divide between people is actually an old one, and recalls for me these lines from Alexander Pope’s 18th century poem, Essay on Man (289-95):

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;

All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;

All Discord, Harmony not understood;

All partial Evil, universal Good:

And in spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,

One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

If you find those lines ridiculous, and even offensive in the light of how much suffering there is in the world, you are on one side of a great human divide, but if they actually resonate with you, and give you hope, you are on the other. Are things as bad as they appear, or not? Is the universe, ultimately, a purposeless chaos, or a purposeful cosmos? However you answer, it is difficult to know how you might prove to yourself—or others—that you are, ultimately, right.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called those with optimism that the universe has some sort of purpose the possessors of “primary religion.” And Albert Camus, who did not have primal religion, concluded that the universe is quite evidently indifferent to humans, and without purpose, and so therefore obviously an outrage to us, and “absurd.” 

It would thus seem that Reinhold Niebuhr and Albert Camus are archetypal inhabitants of these two separate ridges, squaring off over a great divide.

With whom do you side? On what ridge do you build your life? Do you see yourself on an adventure of faith, or as one trying to make a life amidst the ruins?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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