The Universe: Magical, Meaningful, and Modern

Famously, in God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens claims, “The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.”[i] The Christian has been caricaturized by moderns like Hitchens as not skeptical enough. The Christian is the infant of the human species who lacks the curiosity of the child. In some sense Hitchens is right. Quite often there comes a point when a believer encounters dogmatic truth claims that are unexplainable testaments of faith. For example, can one really prove the divinity of Christ though “historical” texts? Or is it possible to explain the mystery of the trinity in terms of mathematical equations or proofs? The Christian often finds herself placing faith in revelation not in human logic. This article will argue that despite scientific claims of skepticism and neutrality, science and those who defend the validity of the scientific enterprise as a means toward progress make their own existential truth claims. This paper will argue that despite the post-Enlightenment rebellion against the metaphysical view of the universe, moderns, particularly Bertrand Russell, still seek to locate themselves in a universe that is meaningful and magical and make science a religion in and of itself. To clarify, this article is not by any means an attack on science. However, it is an exposition on the human experience, a human experience of presuppositions of truth and meaningfulness in the universe.

In The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger argues that human beings rely on social institutions and postulations of an orderly universe in order to protect themselves from the terror of meaninglessness. Without the comfort of meaningful order man is faced with the ultimate separation—“a nightmare in which the individual is submerged in a world of disorder, senselessness and madness.”[ii] Religion becomes the sacred canopy— “the cosmization in a sacred mode.” Religion both “transcends and includes man” whilst emerging from the chaos that is created by mankind.[iii] The following paragraphs will focus on the religious world-making agenda of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and how he sought to establish a sacred, magical, and religious universe. Russell’s universe, although absent of superhuman beings, replaces hope derived from a theistic reality with hope which rests in the ability of mankind to see the world for what it is and conquer it though the mysterious and awesome power of science.

Before one examines how certain philosophies of science have attempted to replace traditional conceptions of Christian religion, one must understand the origins of the rebellion. Theodicy, or the explanation of evil, is key. This theological quagmire was particular troublesome for Bertrand Russell. As the adolescent Russell discerned a vocation to the priesthood, he could not see divine harmony amidst the suffering of his war-torn, twentieth century world.[iv] It was difficult to see God’s hand when, “Civilized states spend more than half their revenue on killing each others’ citizens.”[v] Russell lived in a time of wholesale extermination by poisonous gas, trench warfare and the atomic bomb. To Russell, religion, or at least Christian religion in the traditional sense, could not give man the power to change the world in light of contemporary chaos. Russell thus took extreme issue with the argument of design. In “Why I’m Not a Christian,” one of his most influential essays, Russell sarcastically comments, “Do you think that if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience, and millions of years to protect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan and fascists?”[vi]

Furthermore, if one believes God is the origin of all things, according to Russell, one must therefore conclude that God himself is the reason for the existence of the Ku Klux Klan, fascists, and the holocaust—all of these seemingly evil occurrences are simply speed bumps in the monadic progression towards the kingdom of God. Russell thus attempts to find a way to understand his place in the world amongst the chaos externalized by man. Subsequently, Russell would create his own sacred canopy to give meaning and order to the chaos of the twentieth century.

Russell could not accept a metaphysical theodicy of medieval scholastics. The common explanations that evil was merely the absence of good or that mankind, although presently in a state of sin, was teleologically destined to perfection, were not sufficient. Russell, however, did not leave his audience void of another explanation. To Russell, if mankind could not ground its existence in a benevolent creator, abstract science could act as a replacement. Despite Russell’s rejection of a superhuman being, he still sought to place mankind in an orderly universe—an anthropomorphic magical reality where man is at center stage, united in the mystical dance macabre. Russell expresses:

United with his fellow man by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love. The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, toward a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which our happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to she’d sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instill faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and their demerits, but let us think only of their need—of their sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindness, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy with ourselves.[vii]

Despite his rejection of abstract notions of love or sorrow as typified in Christianity, Russell brings meaning to his nihilistic universe by anthropomorphizing it. Although he believed “life of man is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of nature,” Russell still desperately clung to magical reasons for existence.[viii]

Russell spoke of abstract notions of “happiness,” “misery,” “sorrows,” and “sympathy” without exactly explaining how the physics or reductionism can explain these feelings. Further, in using this language of optimism in the face of hopelessness, Russell used these abstract terms to somehow give meaning to the emptiness of life of which he is afraid. He refused to believe the love he had for his children or his romantic interests can be included in a reductionist theory of reality. The idealist in Russell still held tight to the neo-Hegelian idealism popular during his early days in Cambridge.[ix]

Furthermore, to combat the fear of cosmic nihilism Russell presents an alternative worldview—the ability of man to conquer nature. Russell believed in the magic of “the capacity of the universe to generate organisms with minds capable of understanding the universe itself.”[x] Russell ends “Why I Am Not a Christian” with his very own message of “What We Must Do.”[xi] He urges us as members of mankind “to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world— its good facts, its bad facts, it beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it.”[xii] He urges us to “conquer the world by free intelligence” instead of being enslaved by the “oriental despotisms” that come from religion.[xiii] He tells us that through the power of our “knowledge, kindliness, and courage” we have the power to make the world “the best.”[xix] Russell succinctly states, “Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generation.”[xv] Man is not trapped but rather has the reigns of the world and has the ability to understand it. In Russell’s reality this magic is the essence of science. How beautiful it is that the human being, being a sole product of science, can master science and create a utopian reality. Science can rid the world of all jealousy and envy. According to Russell, “Intelligence, artistic capacity, and benevolence—all these things no doubt could be increased by science.”[xvi] Furthermore, “science can, if it chooses, enable our grandchildren to live the good life, by giving them the knowledge, self control and characters productive of harmony rather than strife.”[xvii] Therefore, it is through science that mankind can end all war, all starvation, and all other hardship. Science provides a goal through which mankind can find meaning.

A further agenda of the scientific outlook of Russell is to replace Christian dogmatism and faith with scientific curiosity. According to Russell, “a man with a scientific outlook on life cannot let himself be introduced by texts of scripture or by teaching of the church. He will not be content to say ‘such and such an act is sinful, and that ends the matter.’”[xviii] Instead, an intelligent man with a scientific mindset will inquisitively challenge moral standards. Yet, one cannot help but wonder how science, at least as understood by Russell, can become in itself dogma. Indeed, according to H. Allen, “But plenty of scientific truths are counterintuitive (does anyone find it intuitive that we’re hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour?), and a scientific education is, to a considerable extent, an exercise in taming the authority of one’s intuition.”[xix] Russell states, “What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught to from early infancy to do it.”[xx] If a child is told to believe in the magical form of science that Russell seems to subscribe to, it seems nothing will hinder a future critic to simply replace “science” with “God” in the sentence above. Furthermore, one must wonder if Russell really has the authority to speak of the importance of science if he does not precisely know what it is? It is a known fact that Russell was not a scholar of any of the natural sciences. He studied mathematics and philosophy at Cambridge. Russell in essence is setting up a straw man argument against religion in favor of an abstract notion of science. He is guilty of imposing the same “vast forces of superstition,” which he accuses Christianity of utilizing, onto the scientific universe he seeks to create.[xxi]

Russell’s explications on science correspond to sociologist Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion and church. The science of Russell becomes a religion or “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things… beliefs and practices that unite into one single moral community called a church who adhere to them.”[xxii] This church becomes the community of mankind who come together to form a social structure that preserves scientific reality. Further, one could argue the science that will end all fear and bring man to his fullest intellectual capacity becomes abstract reality that is similar to a superhuman being. To paraphrase the popular passage from the book of Revelation, “Science will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Science will usher in a new world order analogous to the Christian idea of the “City of God.” Man can put his faith into science.

Whether one refers to religion as “myth,” “cosmopolis,” or “sacred canopy” one will realize that religion is a system man uses to make sense of the world around him. Russell seeks to categorize his experiences and his thoughts into abstract realities and definitions in order to make sense of the their respective worlds. Whether it be because man is part of a pantheistic divine being or whether man exists to master the natural world though science, there is reason for why man exists. One can thus conclude even if we live in a world of superhuman beings or not one still must recognize the inherent desire of man to make sense of and give meaning to his existence. Man wants to feel at home in the universe—man wants to be a material object that matters.[xxiii] In The Gay Science, Nietzsche states that science is

still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire from the flame that was lit by a faith thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.[xxiv]

Science, as we have seen in the philosophy of Bertrand Russell, thrives on presuppositions of an orderly universe and many counterintuitive statements. Furthermore, like Christianity, science relies on a dogmatic claim that there is indeed some metaphysical truth that we as human beings can discover in order to make our existence in the world more worthwhile. Why is truth so divine and why do we need to give meaning to our existence? Whether this meaning is found in science or religion there still exists a desire in mankind to determine his or her meaning in this vast universe. What we must realize is that we as human beings thrive in religion. Religion is not just defined as traditional conceptions of Judaism, Islam, or Christianity. No matter how anomalous or distasteful it sounds, science too is a “religion.”

From this I pose the question, who am I to judge, and who are you to judge? What is the standard by which we judge science as superior to Christianity? Conversely, by what standard do we judge Christianity as superior to science? Can a materialistic, physicalist account of the universe answer the fundamental questions of our existence—what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a meaningful life? As we have seen, despite the modern attempt to rid the world of metaphysics, science itself becomes a metaphysical belief system when one uses it as a guiding philosophy of life and progress. Perhaps, it is unwarranted for criticizing the Christian as not skeptical enough. The scientific worldview of the universe places a significantly large emphasis on dogmatic truth claims. It seems to be unfair to criticize the Christian as not introspectively critical when the modern philosopher imposes similar doctrinal language in their discussions of science. I am not seeking to prove whether one belief system is inherently superior to the other, however. What I encourage the reader to examine are the outcomes and the applied existential systems.

Whether one’s creed is the one constructed at the Council of Nicaea or the scientific method, he or she makes basic assumptions about the universe that expound the language abstraction. These abstractions provide much grey area that can prove toxic to kind and considerate interactions among people. This is why this publication fights the temptation to lapse into dogmatism and seeks to stimulate discussion about Christianity and belief. It is important to provide spaces where Christians and non-Christians alike can freely debate life’s toughest questions.


Marylynne Sitko ’16 is from Baltimore, MD. She is a double major in Religion and Government.


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