Should religion be considered philosophical suicide?
Updated: Oct 20, 2022
When pondering the meaning of life, it is not uncommon to come up empty-handed. After all, the idea of life has infinite boundaries. How is it possible to identify one single purpose in life?
Absurdism refers to the inherent desire for humans to search for meaning in life and the inability to do so. Albert Camus, a French philosopher born in 1913, dedicated most of his life to studying Absurdism. One of his notable and controversial ideas compared religion to philosophical suicide. In this paper, I will argue against Camus and discuss why religion should not be considered philosophical suicide and abandoned as a response to the Absurd.
As an empiricist and an existentialist, Camus presents the Absurd as the situation in which the chaotic and irrational universe stands in the way of the rational and meaningful man to find purpose in life. From Camus’ perspective, the world does not satisfy the longings of man. While man asks for reassurance to live, the world offers death. While man desires knowledge, the world remains opaque. The world is the only arena in which man can fulfill their needs, yet the world does not offer enough for man to do so (Caraway, 126). This is the situation that man finds himself in that Camus defines as the Absurd. Confronted by the Absurd, man can choose suicide or recovery.
Albert Camus said, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” (The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 15.) This is the opening statement of his eminent novel, The Myth of Sisyphus. While Camus highlights suicide to hook his audience, he believes that suicide, though it escapes the Absurd, cannot be ethically justified. This is one of the two alternatives Camus suggested to escaping the Absurd. This logic follows the incompatibility of man and the world. If the universe is so unwilling to adhere to our desires to know, to live, to find, why should this partnership exist? Is existence truly worth it? While it’s true that the Absurd lives only in the human mind, and suicide will put an end to this dilemma (Madison, 226), self-destruction only abolishes the Absurd for that individual. Provided that man exists, the Absurd dilemma will continue to exist. Therefore, Camus deems suicide an unacceptable response to the Absurd.
A counterpart to corporal suicide, philosophical suicide is another means of escape that Camus examined in his work. The predicament of the Absurd is the inability to find meaning. If man were to give himself a purpose in life, theoretically, the Absurd should be demolished. Like many prominent philosophers, one would argue that God is the true solution. To believe that a higher power has given us life allows man to live a purposeful life. As seductive as this offer sounds, this leap of faith can only be completed by abandoning man’s rational nature. Philosophy largely refers to logic and reason, and adopting a religion is deserting those core elements. By nature, this is philosophical suicide; it is a desperate attempt at escaping the Absurd. To Camus, philosophical suicide is an unsatisfactory response to the Absurd. The cost of relinquishing human rationality cannot be offset by destroying the Absurd.
In Camus’ novel, The Rebel, he said, “In order to exist, man must rebel.” (The Rebel, p. 35.) Camus proposed that there was no true way to conquer the Absurd. Instead, the main focus should be redirected to living authentically in the Absurd. Rebellion is key. It is the only ethically correct way to live, to maintain rationality, and to remain human. In order to do so, man must maintain a lucid awareness of the Absurd. He must live indifferently without hope and in lucidity (Scott, 255). The rebel is a man that refuses his Absurd existence, yet longs to live. Understanding the absurdity of life, he lives by his own personal experience. The rebel has no concern for the future; he doesn’t believe in hope beyond his present. However, he believes in the value of this life. (Caraway, 129)
Though Camus was outspoken about his opinion against philosophical suicide, his alternative response, rebellion, is spotted with flaws. The proposed solution is not a significant improvement compared to philosophical suicide. The rebel is indecisive in that he has contradicting opinions. While he refuses his existence in the Absurd, he longs to live. Simultaneously saying yes and no, Camus’ rebel lives in a state of confusion and uncertainty. On the other hand, one that believes in religion lives in a state of assurance and meaning. With a higher power supposedly guiding them, a religious man can live a determined life.
Another flaw with rebellion is that the rebel does not escape nor destroy the Absurd. There is no significant difference between the outcome of the leap of faith and rebellion. In fact, one that commits philosophical suicide has at least found a purpose in life. Though he abandoned his rational nature, he is able to live with meaning. On the contrary, the rebel lives in discomfort. He is merely a slave that is against servitude and lives for life. He dedicates his life to finding an antidote for nihilism (Caraway, 132), but nevertheless, the rebel does not truly escape the Absurd. While the rebel is conscious of the absurdity of life, he is living a pessimistic life filled with constant struggle. Camus’ rebel attempts to fight against the Absurd until death; he lives in the present but spends his life trying to solve an unanswerable quandary. Is living consciously and in lucidity worth giving up finding a satisfactory purpose in life, even if it is false hope?
Lastly, a true rebel is torn between two values: the love for life and the love for justice (Schwarz, 30). Camus deems the purest image of rebellion as a creator of values, and such is done through terrorism. However, innocence and justice must be sacrificed inevitably through this process. A rebel can design his own morality, but there is an unavoidable tragic cost that accompanies triumph over injustice. A religious man not have to dwell on such a moral issue. His love for life is derived from the God that blessed him with life, and justice will prevail through God’s plans.
Perhaps, Camus is too critical of the idea of religion. Camus’ idea of God is rather extreme. His vision of God is an omnipotent being that deprives man of subjectivity. He is a tyrant that degrades man into less than an object (Scott, 253). Given this description of God, there is no question that one should refuse religion. Camus is infatuated with a certain idea of God, one that models totalitarianism, one that has total control over his believers, and one that expects ridiculous absolute devotion. Yet, there is no way to prove that God operates in that manner. He rejects the leap of faith as a solution because of the abandonment of logic and reason. However, who’s to say that one must forsake rationality to be religious? There is no evidence to prove that followers of God are obligated to be wholly irrational. While it is true that believing in a higher power lacks reason, it is not extreme to the extent of losing human nature.
There exists rationality within religious faith that Camus refused. In Kellenberger’s Problems of Faith, he simplifies rationality into four conditions: one’s faith is indifferent, tentative, waits for reason, and has reasons in its support (Kellenberger, 422). Religious belief in the context of absurdism is reasonable in the fourth sense of rationality. The leap of faith is a means of escaping the Absurd; this itself is a reason to support religion. In this sense of rationality, religion should be able to coexist with reason.
Consider Pascal’s wager. This is a philosophical argument by Blaise Pascal that proves the coexistence of religion and rationality. Although it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God, Pascal proposed that the reasonable choice in both premises is to take a leap of faith. Under the circumstance that God exists, a religious man would have eternal happiness whereas the secular man would face eternal damnation. However, if God does not exist, neither the secular or the religious man would face any consequences. With Pascal’s argument, it is evident that the rational choice that would yield the optimal outcome under either premise is choosing to believe in God. This example of how rationality exists within religion dismantles Camus’ religion as philosophical suicide argument.
The coexistence of religion and rationality is possible, therefore, the existence of the absurd Christian man is also plausible. Camus’ perspective of the traditional Christian man is one that accepts facts of the world as well as evil in the universe as “meant to be”. They must submit to God and accept all that happens in the universe, once again abandoning reason and rationality. It is illogical to assume that the Christian man cannot be absurd. It is fair to say that a Christian man must know that there are limitations to his faith; he cannot spend the entirety of his life completing what he believes was the purpose that God has given him. The rationality of human nature will not allow the Christian man to devote his life to finding a magical ticket to an afterlife in heaven. The absurd Christian man may be less inclined to struggle against the absurd than the typical absurd man, but a Christian will not entirely base his life on the sole purpose that God has given him. While they do hope for a future path, they must also focus on the present to achieve that future, thus making them similar to the present-only absurd man.
Camus’ understanding of God is that of a power-thirsty, unjust and immoral tyrant. Camus fails to mention that there are much healthier God-follower relationships, many of which involve a notion of freedom that God cannot impede upon. Camus is correct when he criticizes the Christians that submit to an omnipotent and unfair God, however, this should not apply to most Christians as this premise does not hold true. The absurd man and the Christian are both fighting against the same thing – the horrors of evil and death. The absurd Christan man can exist; Camus refused this idea due to his extreme image of God. (Loose, 213)
Albert Camus raised insightful and interesting notions in his lifetime. His proposed dilemma, the Absurd, captured the attention of numerous scholars. The confrontation between the desire to search for meaning and the universe forbidding people to do so creates a precarious situation. Camus resented both suicide and philosophical suicide as responses to this dilemma. Although suicide could put an end to the Absurd, Camus argued that the Absurd would still exist. Philosophical suicide, the leap of faith, is merely a way to ignore the Absurd. However, it is evident that religion should not be considered as philosophical suicide. The proposed solution, rebellion, is not significantly better than faith. While one can suggest that religion abandons rationality, the rebel is indecisive in his stance, rebellion does not escape the Absurd, and the rebel is torn between life and justice. However, a religious man does not have to consider his values or live in certainty; the religious man lives comfortably. Religious faith can be reasonable. It has reasons in support that make faith reasonable in some senses. Additionally, Pascal’s wager proves that, in fact, the rational choice is to believe in God. Camus rejects the idea of rationality within Christianity because his idea of God is far too biased. It is unfair to assume that God is some omnipotent being that forces man to completely abandon rationality. Ironically, this notion itself is irrational. The absurd man and the Christian man both have the same goal of fighting against evil and death. These two qualities can coexist and create the Christan absurd man. Camus’ theory of philosophical suicide, though raises some fascinating points, is not strong enough to invalidate religion.
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