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The Consolations of Nihilism

I'd thought I was done with him for the present, but I'm afraid I must resurrect the spirit of Samuel Johnson one more time. It is not the consequence of an obsession, but an obligation imposed by coincidence. He has been the victim of an insult and needs defending. I'm here to return the vituperation in kind, to heap calumny, shall we say, on the calumniators. It's dirty work, but somebody's got to do it. To make a short story long, here's how it happened.

Back in about December of 2006, I was reading a friend's blog which mentioned in passing that National Review columnist and lukewarm Anglican John Derbyshire no longer considered himself a Christian. "What!?" I thought. "This is shocking, astounding, and" - given his indifference to early abortion and approval of the death sentence passed upon Terri Schiavo - "totally expected." I asked my friend, who can always be counted on to keep me from falling too far out of touch, to send a link to something where I could read about this insignificant blow to the unity of the conservative movement and the progress of religion in America. He complied and, sure enough, it turned out that John doesn't love Jesus anymore, noting in the process, of his own children, that "the experience of raising two kids - mine are now 13 and 11 - was one I found de-spiritualizing." Apparently Mr. Derbyshire's recent acquaintance with the facts of human biology, especially when accompanied by Darwinian explanations, had forced him to recognize that our brains contain religious "modules", and watching these "come awake" in his children had somehow contributed to his feeling jaded in their presence.

Shortly thereafter (my friend kept sending links), he and Wesley Smith exchanged testy missives in The Corner about God stuff, of which only Derb's supercilious tone sticks in the mind. I'd thought the unpleasantness over when my friend sent one more link, commenting that the Corner's "other atheist" had now weighed in on Derb's behalf. This was Andrew Stuttaford, who further linked to a New Yorker article (no longer available online, which I find aggravating), lauding the achievement of Charles Darwin, his "view of life", and the subtle subterfuge of the literary means by which he had advanced it. In Stuttaford's counsel, we should simply go read this "important, lovely and oddly moving piece," because mere words could not do justice to a thing of such beauty, even though it was itself made of words. Well, I finally got around to reading it (completing it, I should say) last week, and have decided to do it justice.

The article's author, an Adam Gopnik, is not engaged in an act of indifferent inquiry or objective reporting, but of hagiography, though one would think that sainthood's caché among evolutionists ought to be valued for its very repudiation of the concept. Mr. Gopnik quickly reveals himself to be an evolutionist of the proudly godless, materialistic variety, a thorough-going true believer for whom none of the premises are in question, but manifestly true. Not only are the premises true, but so too the metaphysical implications, which seem to trail in this theory's wake like no other in the history of science. We are simply informed that Darwin "had proved that the forms of life were shaped by history, not by a supervising mind"; that "Darwin's revolution...was the most profound and successful challenge to dogmatic religious belief that had ever been launched"; and that the great man himself had "sensed that his account would end any intellectually credible idea of divine creation." Of his narrative gifts, and the story employed of how we came to be, Gopnik calls Darwin a "natural novelist", and would place him among "the great natural English prose stylists." Upon Darwin's peering into the human soul, we are reminded of his love for reductive and demeaning synecdoche, as when he responds to Plato's theory of the pre-existence of the soul with, "Read monkeys for pre-existence"; or when a similar revelation punctuates his contemplation of odd notions like sin and the Devil: "Our descent is the origin of our evil passions! The Devil under form of baboon is our grandfather!" To the form of what creature we may give thanks for the angels and our virtues he does not say.

It's not my purpose here to refute the theory; nor to depose others equally implausible, like the literary inanity that Darwin the stylist can now take his place in the pantheon beside Newman, Chesterton, Burke and Johnson (no, I haven't forgotten him); nor to delay myself with wonder at a cast of mind given to reflexively wallowing in reverse anthropomorhism, deducing from every higher capacity of the human soul a mere animal instinct. But because some conservatives have thought to make friendly dalliance with a theory claiming (in Gopnik's words) that "design is just chance plus time", I would like to say what that theory means for the soul - the one, that is, whose immortality many of you are loath to part with.

But, if you would be a Darwinist, part with it you will. This is made most clear in what is, for me, the only truly fascinating part of the article, that dealing with Darwin's reaction to the death of his daughter, Annie. She fell ill in 1850 and, after a long illness, died in 1851. Darwin wrote a ten page memorial, the conclusion to which appears at first sight not in the least peculiar: "She must have known how we loved her. Oh, that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still."

He wants to believe, it seems, but he can't. It seems so much like the prayer of any man's heart at the loss of a loved one, until you realize it isn't a prayer at all, but a doctrinal denial. "That she could now know..." - but she can't. It takes away with one hand the full measure of love offered by the other. In the end he is more impressed by the war of all against all taking place on the savannas, in the trees, and behind every bush and every blade of grass, than he is by the love that would offer eternity to a child's soul, and by the love that soul elicited from his own. The sweep of the selective war is a thing so immense, a mere love so small. How remarkable that "a view of life" can embrace so much by making so little of it. "After Annie's death," says Gopnik,

Darwin abandoned the remaining vestiges of Christian faith, the last preference for even a Unitarian theology, and became, essentially, a stoic. He believed that the contemplation of the immensity of time, and the repertory of feelings, was all that was left to us. There was no inherent meaning in Annie's dying at ten, except the recognition that mortality was the rule of existence; serenity could be found only in the contemplation of the vast indifference of the universe.
Well, as the cliché goes, good luck with that.

Darwin the natural novelist went on with his narrative, publishing the Origin eight years later, which attempts to resolve itself in our hearts and minds, as many stories do, with the uplift of enlightenment:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
I think I've resented nothing so much in the efforts of the evolutionists as this phony appeal to our love of beauty and to our sense of awe at the "grandeur" of creation; the rank hypocrisy of invoking the scriptural "breathed"; this resort to the poetic impulse, which is really just an acknowledgement that the patient will not swallow the pill of nihilism unless it is made palatable.

At article's end, Gopnik himself tries his hand at it, attempting to summon the ineffable by intonation:

...reading him also shows us that no emotion we would fear losing is lost in the transformation. The hardest Darwinian view of all is still roomy enough for ordinary love to breathe in. Darwin was a Darwinian fundamentalist. But he was not a Darwinian absolutist. He knew that what feels to us like soul or spirit - the flash of understanding at an infant's smile or grief at a child's death - can never be argued away. He thought that he had found the secret of life. But he knew that nothing could solve the problems of living. That takes all the time we have.
It is here, at the end, that we encounter the attack on Johnson, though far more than just Johnson is at stake:
...the soulless materialism of the Darwinian universe can be a comfort: one wishes that a Darwinian could have been by Dr. Johnson's deathbed as he sank into desperate fear of eternal damnation for having lusted after actresses in his youth. He would have found solace in the idea that there was nothing out there save oblivion, and that the world would remember the things that he had said on Earth.
And that's it, mentioned, as it were, in passing. And one wonders: how can a man write such a thing? Does he realize what he's saying? Does he know anything about the man of whom he's saying it? Where is the awe at the "grandeur" of a human love that can run so deep that a man thinks he has wronged a woman, not by anything he's done, but by what he has thought about her?

In Johnson's universe, thoughts are things, and some thoughts need repenting. In Gopnik's universe, thoughts may also be things, but most of the ones circulating in Johnson's brain were a waste of time. Why would anyone want to remember anything he said, when virtually everything he said found its origin in this single source - Christian love and redemption? When Johnson wasn't writing for publication, he wrote other things. Here's an example:

Almighty God, heavenly Father, who desirest not the death of a sinner, look down with mercy upon me, depraved with vain imaginations, and entangled in long habits of sin. Grant me that grace, without which I can neither will nor do what is acceptable to Thee. Pardon my sins; remove the impediments that hinder my obedience; enable me to shake off sloth, and to redeem the time mispent in idleness and sin, by a diligent application of the days yet remaining, to the duties which thy providence shall allot me. O God, grant me thy Holy Spirit, that I may repent and amend my life...for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whose covenant I now implore admission, of the benefits of whose death I implore participation. For his sake have mercy on me, O God; for his sake, O God, pardon and receive me. Amen.
He wrote a lot of those things, frittering away valuable time, begging for forgiveness and fortitude when he could have been seeking solace in the oblivion of Darwin's soulless materialism. Oh, that he could now know...but he can't. He was a man of whom one compiler of his works was moved to notice that "The source of this brave man's terror was, of course, his religious conviction that...eternal salvation waited upon the discharge of obligations inherent in the terms of earthly existence," and that Johnson, though "a being gifted with very extraordinary powers of mind...remained essentially and profoundly a humble man...For, by increasing his sense of mortal obligation, religion reduced him to the level of the humblest...and contributed much to that wide sympathy and compassion for human weakness which, in spite of strong moral principle, is so indelible in his character."

He was a man who, when he closed down The Rambler, signed off with this estimation of his own purpose and worth:

The essays professedly serious, if I have been able to execute my own intentions, will be found exactly conformable to the precepts of Christianity, without any accommodation to the licentiousness and levity of the present age. I therefore look back on this part of my work with pleasure, which no blame or praise of man shall diminish or augment. I shall never envy the honours which wit and learning obtain in any other cause, if I can be numbered among the writers who have given ardour to virtue, and confidence to truth.
In short, when Gopnik talks about remembering the things Johnson said on earth, we are really being counseled to forget virtually all of it; more heinously, to forget the man and his character, to erase his memory, for his words were not more than the man, and the man not more than his love of God allowed him to be. The attack on Johnson is an attack on you, and on the prayer of every Christian who has ever lived, on every charitable act of their hands and supplication of their hearts, which now in our wisdom have been reduced to breath wasted on the void.

Of any hope we have for a love that "endureth all things," Darwinism is its death. I think that if one would be a Darwinian, he ought to follow his master and be like Darwin. The man seemed to harbor no illusions as to his theory's import, and followed it faithfully into unbelief. If anyone would reconcile "chance plus time" with the "Love that surpasseth all understanding," he is welcome to try, though if any have been successful they seem to relish anonymity. I would advise caution, lest you end up like Mr. Derbyshire.

As regards the theory itself, I have a theory about it. I wish I could say it was original, but it is so obvious that others have gotten there first. And that is that if you cannot believe in a revealed religion, then, to satisfy your mind, you will end up revealing one of your own - because the mind is not an entity exemplifying reason apart. Natural selection, falling down on the job, seems to have inculcated in it other qualities as well, such as a longing for immortality, and an attitude of reverence toward the Cause of all being. Since all of Darwinism requires that we bring to bear this reverent mind upon a mindless process, the process itself will not long suffice, but will need to be invested with an importance to which it does not aspire.

The recent descent of the Dawkinoids upon this very website confirms the observation. Was the fanaticism of the fundamentalist ever on more egregious display? Here we witnessed the adherents of the Church of Darwin trapped by a useless urge of Nature's own devising: the need to be right, to gain converts; and to cast the unbelievers into outer darkness. Unlike his Christian counterpart, he has no need of acknowledging, as a condition of the faith, that not only is he wrong about many things (especially himself), but that he needs forgiving for having done wrong; that the credit for any converts should be deferred to any power other than that of deified reason; nor that the unbelievers in exile should be prayed for, let alone that their absence should be as keenly felt as that of a missing member of one's own family. It seems to me that the two dispositions are - how shall I put it? - fundamentally different.

If people genuinely find comfort in the "soulless materialism of the Darwinian universe", I say let them worship among a congregation with whose members they are most comfortable. I would simply ask them to do one thing for me, as an act of unaccustomed charity:

Stop pretending, a la Hitchens, that you really do appreciate the religious origins of certain great works of music, art, and architecture, when we know very well that you think Michaelangelo's time would have been better spent executing a technically advanced cave painting rather than the Sistine ceiling. Leave off poetic appeals to creation's "grandeur", when we know full well that you don't believe it was created. Stop pretending that Darwin's story of life has a happy enough ending to satisfy the truly healthy mind, when his agony at his own daughter's death shows that it doesn't. In short, stop trying to convince me of the solace to be taken in the prospect of my own annihilation, and of those I love, when you know before you say it that there is none. The consolation to be found in nihilism is a lie unworthy of a believer in the one true faith.


Of further interest: though I can no longer find Gopnik's article intact online (you have to pay for it), here's an admiring review of it at Slate, and another less so at Commonweal.

And here's a fascinating New Yorker piece on Alfred Russel Wallace (in which Darwin naturally figures prominently), who arrived at, and supported, the very same theory while retaining a belief that it was the instrument of God's plan.

Comments (14)

Well-thought and carefully written. The good news is that opinions change, even on death-beds.

And one wonders: how can a man write such a thing?

Yes, and why Johnson and T. S. Eliot suddenly loom like windmills to destroy. One wonders, too, why it is the newborn atheist who is most conversant about God over in the Corner.

I think you explain it: the process itself will not long suffice, but will need to be invested with an importance to which it does not aspire.

They hope, to someday talk God without talking God (pace Rushdie). Short of that, it's boredom and diversion.

Hey, KW.

They hope, to someday talk God without talking God I like that.

As to those deathbed conversions, viva Voltaire.

A small masterpiece, Bill.

There is, out there in the Republic, a prejudice against Darwin, evolution, and the rest. You have shown us why it is a very just and healthy prejudice.

The notion that fundamentalist interpretations of evolution carry with them their own forms of consolation seems to me reminiscent of Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal recurrence. I have never been persuaded that Nietzsche intended by this doctrine a metaphysical hypothesis of literal recurrence, or of something like the Hindu cycles of creation and destruction, though some Nietzsche scholars beg to differ. I have, on the contrary, always read the ER as a metaphorical doctrine meant to govern the attitude of the ubermensch towards his works of self and world creation: the ubermensch ought to ordain each moment in the series, and the series as a totality, as though he would have to endure and affirm everything recurring eternally, without alteration. In other words, he ought to ordain only such things as conform perfectly with the contours of his will, with the scope, depth, colour, and quality of the vital forces coursing within him; and having once willed, he should affirm all, never indulging the slavish tendency to negate the world by imagining an ideal version of it.

And, of course, this is all presented by Nietzsche as, yes, a terrible and forbidding doctrine, but also as a consoling one befitting the self-mastery and free-spiritedness of the ubermensch.

And I have never felt that there was any consolation to be obtained from this doctrine - though there is much more to it than self-creation - for what consolation can there be in a doctrine which bids a man attend to each moment of his life as though he will have to endure this moment over and over throughout limitless eternity? Who can bear this burden? - and Nietzsche is also clear about its being a burden of sorts. In Christianity, and particularly for those immersed in the more ancient traditions, there is a doctrine of watchfulness, of the mastery, by divine grace, of the passions which drag one down to the depths of alienation from God and man; and this doctrine is also forbidding in its own right, as any viewing of an icon of St. John Climacus and the Ladder of Virtues will impress upon one.

But in Christianity, there is that reality of divine grace, of mercy, of forgiveness. In Nietzsche, there is nothing but the barrenness and desolation of unrelieved responsibility, of a groundless obligation one somehow cannot shirk. In the end, it would seem that the consolation of doctrines such as these lies in the ability they possess of persuading that one will never face divine judgment.

One of the more distressing facts of our culture is that Johnson is virtually forgotten while Darwin is lionized. I have suspected that Darwin is an icon while Wallace sharing almost the same oblivion as Johnson is due precisely to Wallace's faith. History gives due credit to both Newton and Liebniz for their shared advances in mathematics but in a similar situation Wallace has been cast aside.

Very well done. I personally give no quarter to the encroachment of Darwinism upon religion, although it has become very fashionable these days to do so (and I am dismayed, even as a non-Catholic, at the Catholic church's capitulation in this area). Apart from the important philosophical implications of Darwinism (which was created specifically as a theory which would render God superfluous), there is the rather important point that our Savior and the canonical writers quoted liberally from the first 11 chapters of Genesis, and further quoted them as historical fact. What does it say about the entire system of Christianity if both the inspired writers and the author of our faith were either duped or lying about the origins of the world and mankind?

Thanks for the fine comments.

Jeff, I think the parallel between Darwinism and Nietzsche's doctrine is more than "reminiscent". People tend not to pay much attention to the eugenicist sympathies of Darwin's later writings. But that's for another time.

the consolation of doctrines such as these lies in the ability they possess of persuading that one will never face divine judgment.
There must be much truth in this. I also suspect that, so long as he lives, each man gets to be his own little god.

johnt - Life isn't fair, is it? A cause for mourning.

Leon - I would hope you will continue to give no quarter as to Darwinism's encroachment upon religion, or to its aspiring role as a substitute for it. But if by 'historical fact' you mean scientifically accurate (and I'm not sure that's what you mean), I just want it noted that such a parallel is not what I'm asking readers to embrace. An account can be historically true without also having to take into account every split of the chromosome. I think the important point to remember is that, even if Genesis had given a more biologically detailed explanation of our origins, something more congenial to the modern mind, it would still be rejected for the simple reason that God had anything to do with it; for, as you say, Darwinism gives the appearance of a thing that "was created specifically [to] render God superfluous."

Meaty post & elegantly written Bill. Re: 'Even if Genesis had given a more biologically detailed explanation of our origins, something more congenial to the modern mind, it would still be rejected for the simple reason that God had anything to do with it..' is so true. Walker Percy recognized that. In his novel The Thanatos Syndrome he had one character say:

But when he invited me to serve Mass routinely, I refused. I told him the truth: that since I no longer was sure what I believe, didn't think much about religion, participation in Mass would seem to be deceitful.

He nodded cheerfully, as if he already knew. "Don't worry," he said, doing a few isometrics in the hall, pushing and pulling with his hands. "It is to be expected. It is only necessary to wait and to be of good heart. It is not your fault."

"How is that, Father?" I ask him curiously.

"You have been deprived of faith. All of us have. It is part of the times."

"Deprived? How do you mean?"

"It is easy enough to demonstrate," he says, shrugging first one shoulder high, then the other.


"Sure. Just consider. Even if the truths of religion could be proved to you one, two, three, it wouldn't make much difference, would it? One hundred percent of astronomers have discovered that the universe was created from nothing. The explanation is obvious but it does not avail. Who can handle it? It does not signify. It is boring to think of. Ninety-seven percent of astronomers are still atheists. Do you blame them? They are also boring. The only thing more boring would be if the ninety-seven percent all converted, right? It follows that there must be some other force at work, right?"

I, uh, hate to admit it (as someone whose literary roots are solidly Southern), but Percy is one of those writers I've unjustly neglected. Your excerpt has prodded me to change that.

"It's not my purpose here to refute the theory"

Right. It has what you regard as unpleasant consequences and therefore we can't deal with details like whether it is true or not.

As one piece of evidence for the contention that modern scientific doctrines are interpreted by nonintellectuals in a nihilistic fashion - and with due caution against any lowering of the tone on this site, I submit the following rock lyrics:

Inside the particle storm
Where clouds of napalm shimmer
With the promise of one final dawn

Inside the particle bliss
Where ages collide into nothingness
Obliteration's one final kiss

A claw in the garden of eden
Clogging the bloodstream of birth
Tearing a hole in the fabric of life
The horizon enriched with scars

Inside the particle blaze
A chamber of dissolution
Proclaiming the end of days

We leave now
Nothing will follow, nothing at all
The cleansing flames of entropy
To devour us all

Our lungs are filled with sarin
Our children drowning like dogs
Handcuffed to the weight of cold dark matter
Without purpose, meaning, or name

Inside the particle storm
The poison gene of humanity

This is the moment
When black ships anchor to the sky
The heavy hands of chaos
Descend in merciless demise

Laying aside the grandiloquence (or bathos) typical of heavy metal lyrics, what is manifest is that the members of Dark Tranquility, a Swedish metal act, accept the materialist interpretation of modern science, and find this pregnant with nihilistic implications. In this, they are entirely representative of the broader sweep of popular culture. At least they are forthright about the disconsolate states of soul this induces.

Actually, some of that's pretty good, if it could be taken as a commentary on materialism and not an endorsement of it. But I don't follow such groups and wouldn't know.

"In the end he is more impressed by the war of all against all taking place on the savannas, in the trees, and behind every bush and every blade of grass, than he is by the love that would offer eternity to a child's soul, and by the love that soul elicited from his own."

This is a very beautiful sentence.

Thanks, Ivan.

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