05/07/2013 06:32 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Religion, Secularity and Suicide

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"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." -- Albert Camus

We all know, or think we do, what religion is. Nor is there any question in anyone's mind regarding the finality of suicide. But regardless of all the ranting against secularism by churchmen or religionists -- who seem to forget that it is secularity that gives us the freedom to be religious in whatever way we choose -- there seems to be quite a bit of confusion on the subject. So just what is it that we mean by the words "secular," "secularity" and "secularism"?

In his 2010 book "A Secular Age," the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, described secularity in terms of a worldview that concentrates on the present and which permeates society without any dimension of the transcendent. In other words, it is a mindset or lifestyle that is closed or resistant to any influence from or especially any interference by religion. However, toward the end of his immense study, Taylor seems puzzled by the emergence, especially in our time, of two rather sharply contrasting, even opposed, forms of secularity.

One of these two, the one we are most used to, is often called "secular humanism." It tends to be generally optimistic, confident that the human race is capable of intelligently guiding itself and solving most of its problems through a combination of benevolence, rationality and accumulated wisdom. Its origin, at least on a scientific basis, seems to be founded in a belief in what is termed the "irreversibility" of evolution, sometimes combined with a naïve confidence that "Every day, in every way, things will [somehow] get better and better."

The other form of secularity, in contrast, tends to be pessimistic. It believes that the world and its history, whatever the successes of the past, is now caught in a downward spiral, compounded by overpopulation, environmental degradation and catastrophic climate change, which, even if they could be overcome, would at the most only extend the lifespan of the human race for a limited time on this planet. Even more, when based on the findings of planetary science and astronomy, as well as prevailing cosmological theory, life in any form seems destined to disappear not only from planet Earth, but eventually from whatever else might be left of the universe.

Given these conflicting views, it is quite easy to see the problem posed by existential philosophers such as the atheist Jean-Paul Sartre, or the agnostic Albert Camus. For them, the fundamental question was not why there is something rather than nothing, or even the origin of life, but whether that life, once it reached an intelligent form, is worth living. In other words, it is ultimately a question of meaning.

Both of these thinkers rejected, as did Sigmund Freud, religion as an "illusion," the product of wishful thinking. But on the other hand, we might turn to Freud's distinction between an illusion -- which could, against all odds, turn out to be true -- and an outright delusion, which is so clearly out of touch with reality as to be completely insane. If so, then we might point out that religious faith (not to be confused with some clearly irrational beliefs), while it might qualify as "illusion" based mostly on hope, nevertheless, precisely because it transcends the realm of the natural sciences, cannot be scientifically disproved.

On the other hand, humanism, particularly that of the optimistic kind, no matter how genuinely pursued and even praiseworthy in its intentions, at least to the extent that it rests on what seems to been the illusion of a stable or permanent universe, is now, thanks to modern science, in the process of turning out to be, in psychiatric terms, an outright delusion.

Thus we are faced with the inescapability of the existentialist challenge. For Camus, the rejection of suicide, whether through sudden violence to oneself or by slowly drugging oneself unto oblivion, the choice to live on, in spite of the certainty of death, remains the highest form of courage and freedom. Still, when it comes to the choice as to how we should live, even he, agnostic as he was, had to admit that perhaps something might still be might be said for the hope for something better and more lasting. Thus, echoing Pascal's famous 17th century wager, Camus wrote: "I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live as if there isn't and to die to find out that there is." Hardly an example of a firm faith, a critic might say. But nevertheless, considering our 21st century knowledge of the universe, a good example of intelligent or, at the very least, shrewd thinking.

Of course, one might object that, even in the face of impending doom, the only decent and humane thing to do is to compassionately care for ones fellow human beings. In fact, if I recall correctly, this is what Camus dramatized in his most memorable novel, "The Plague." Nevertheless, without this transcendent hope or faith, there remains a certain sense of futility, not unlike the "vanity of vanities" of Ecclesiastes, or at best, the tragic or transient beauty that haunts Japanese culture and art. So while I too appreciate the passing spring glory of cherry blossoms, and still more, of the autumn leaves, I would be repelled by the prospect of a winter without end. Maybe this partly explains why, even without the ubiquity of firearms, the Japanese kill themselves at a rate that is more than double that of Americans.