Atheism/Nihilism

I’ve read more than a few blog entries around WordPress that compare atheism to nihilism, arguing either that they’re one and the same or that the former neessarily leads to the latter. Of course, most atheists would disagree with this, for various reasons. Rather than bore the internets to death by describing my own view (that will come later), I’d like to pose a question to any atheists or theists reading this:

Assume for a moment that God does not exist and that everything you and I ever experience, feel and build will eventually cease to be. What is the point of living?

(Or, if you prefer, ‘Why then should we not be nihilists?‘, but keep in mind that something like Nietzschian nihilism does generally¬† mean more than just believing that life has no objective or intrinsic value.)

Feel free to challenge yourself a bit by arguing the opposite side of what you usually would – so if you’re a theist, argue that we life does still have worth without God, for example. Seriously, it’s fun!

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17 Responses to “Atheism/Nihilism”


  1. 1 tonyisnt January 20, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    I think that there can be a distinction made between using nihilism as a tool and seeing nihilism as an end, though. If you can see that we’re just here and that there is no divine “meaning,” etc., etc., and get past that and go “So what? I’m alive and I like it,” then I think you’ve done something positive. But going “Life is meaningless and I have no reason to live” is obviously a hasty and silly conclusion.

  2. 2 Jesse January 20, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    The practice of conflating Atheism and nihilism reveals just how historically retarded (in the non-pejorative sense of the word) we are in the U.S. It’s as if Existentialism is just happening, sixty or seventy years after its passage in Europe. I view this as a very bad sign. If people abide by old sensibilities, new problems will never be resolved.

    Viktor Frankl, a “theist” in the sense of the word’s meaning these days, presented a very good take on the meaninglessness of life in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” For anyone actually interested in exploring the nihilism question, I highly suggest reading Frankl’s work. It’s short, handy, and despite the outward appearance of its contents (a gritty Holocaust narrative exploring meaning in a meaningless existence), the book is incredibly motivating. So motivating, in fact, that I always refer to it as the first self-help book, if only unintentionally.

    One may rationalize meaning via Nietzsche or Heidegger or the Aristotelian mean all day, all sorts of technical arguments, but we all know life is not some descriptive argument. I’m always a bit stoic, and yes perhaps even cynical, because the final meaning in life is a realization of the inherent selfishness in expecting life to be meaningful in some external, cosmological way. To ask what the meaning of life is a question which imposes its own disappointment.

    Is this view really such a threat to modern Christians? Have they never read Ecclesiastes? Is faith really faith if it involves some necessary connection to some external, material agency (God, a teleological universe, etc.)?

  3. 3 Samuel Skinner January 20, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    “What is the point of living?”

    Because we enjoy living.

  4. 4 augustine January 21, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Yeah, that would actually be the main thrust of my reply as well. But apparently it’s all pointless if you’re not going to live forever at some point…

    Jesse,

    I find it hard to believe that most theists actually do rely as heavily as they imply on the belief that their life has some greater, eternal purpose. When they’re enjoying themselves or pouring their time into an activity they find meaningful and fulfilling, are they really thinking to themselves ‘This would be pointless if I didn’t believe in an eternal afterlife’?

  5. 5 Jesse January 21, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    I find it very easy to believe. To be a theist inherently means believing in some deterministic external agency, regardless of the afterlife question or other eschatological designs. However, I like your point that it is not a likely life-motive, even if it is the public rhetoric (I would argue the two are inseparable, but that’s only because of my own agenda). The motives to be a good person, in few but some Christian perspectives, is in the small things, not the grand-scheme ideas. The ‘ole mustard seed thing. Like when you help out a stranger and someone asks you why, and you can only respond, “Why not?”
    Turning back toward Frankl, his view was that to exist in time is to live on a pragmatic basis. Religion in most cases tries to say what is beyond the pragmatic scope of experience, which yields all kinds of logical absurdities, tautologies, and contradictions. But in the last few decades or so, there has been a remarkable turn in theist camps, that of redefining moral imperatives as within the pragmatic mode of existence rather than trying to make them contingent to grand-scheme ideological dogma. Makes me think of The Road by McCarthy. There’s just more reconciliation between nihilism and theism than one initially thinks, and substantially more than social conditioning allows for.

  6. 6 shamelesslyatheist January 21, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    The problem for the religious is not “if there is not god, why not be nihilists?”, but rather it is “why aren’t those who don’t believe in god nihilists?”. I know many atheists and none has even a hint of nihilism in them, myself included. Their blinders prevent those that ask the first question from realizing that what is needed is to answer the second. Or maybe answering the second frightens the bejeezus out of them.

  7. 7 Aro January 22, 2009 at 5:45 am

    Thanks, augustine, for your contributions on my blog. I wondered if you’d stopped replying because you’d tired of going back and forth with me, or if I’d actually made a decent point.

    In regards to your post here though, I have a question.

    If you’d been presented with an option to invest in a company that you were absolutle certain was going to go bankrupt in 2 months, how much much money would you invest? Would you sell your house to buy shares? Perhaps your car too. Maybe you’d try and liquidate every single asset you could to have enough money to invest in this marvelous lemon.

    Of course not. You might even say the stock in that company was worthless now, because it’ll be worthless two months from now.

  8. 8 Aro January 22, 2009 at 5:50 am

    Perhaps you’ll counter something along the lines of the following: “Well, it’s a poor analogy, because in life you’ve only got one investment on the market, and you have to invest, so you may as well do it and make the best of it.”

    My response is that you also may as well NOT do it, for all the good it’ll do you.

    I’m not here to make an apologetic argument and show that you have a choice in your investment, just to point out why atheism should naturally lead to nihilism.

  9. 9 augustine January 22, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Actually, I would counter that it’s a poor argument because one invests in a company solely with the aim of gaining a greater payoff in the future. For life to be analogous to this situation, you’d have to believe that the only purpose it has is as an independently worthless investment which only becomes useful at the payoff – ie, at the end.

    This might be how some theists view life, but as I said above, it’s certainly not how I see it, and I seriously doubt that it’s how the majority of people see it. Let me present a different analogy:

    You invest in a company which you know will fold in two months, not because you’re hoping to increase your monetary worth, but because you genuinely get a kick out of investing money – even if it ultimately comes to nothing. What you end up with at the end doesn’t matter. This is closer to how I see life – as an end in itself, not as a means towards some future payoff.

    I also stopped replying at your blog simply because I haven’t had the time. However, I will point out now that I actually do believe that atheism leads to a (limited) form of nihilism, and that this isn’t a bad thing. It wasn’t your conclusion that I took issue with, although you did go further than I feel was warranted, but with your reasoning and misrepresentation of moral philosophy. ‘Nihilism’, taken to mean the belief that life has no intrinsic or objective value, has become an intellectual boogeyman. There’s no need for it to be.

    shamelesslyatheist,

    But most atheists do believe that life has no objective ‘meaning’ or greater ‘plan’ behind it – would you agree that we tend to be nihilists only in that regard, without any of the other associations that the term ‘nihilist’ has?

  10. 10 Jesse January 22, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    “Most atheists do believe that life has no objective meaning or greater plan.”

    Not necessarily. Pragmatic relativism dissolves these kinds of statements. Similarly, a passive recognition of a lack of objective meaning/agency is not a belief or affirmative statement. But that’s all a separate issue.

    More importantly, there is a distinction to be made between recognizing an external, naturalistic kind of nihilism and subjective nihilism. One may recognize the ‘nihilism’ of the natural world, but that does not require that one internalize it. Even if meaning is ultimately subjective, it is not de-centered, ie, it is still meaningful.

    Nietzsche made a compelling argument that Christianity/theism is true (subjective) nihilism, via his death of god argument. He pointed out that in a naturalistic environment religion is merely believing for convenience; beliefs that are constructed purely on a pragmatic basis even if they never recognize their own pragmatic practices out of their reflexive essentialism. If one believes merely for convenience–ie, subjective egoism–belief is just a mechanism for concealing an instinct toward greed, vice, evil, etc.

  11. 11 augustine January 22, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Jesse,

    You’ve gone way over my head with all of that! Could you try to simplify it for me?

  12. 12 Aro January 23, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    augustine – your counter analogy breaks down on one point… nobody does this! Exactly what percentage of investment on Wall Street is just for kicks and grins I wonder? I’m going to take a wild guess and say nearly none. It’s against human nature. I still spend time doing stupid crap that I just consider fun just like anyone else, but to the degree that I invest my time and energy into the eternal, I get to do something of actual significance.

  13. 13 augustine January 23, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    I know that nobody does this, but I felt the need to match your own analogy. But in what sense do you even invest time and energy ‘into the eternal’? How does one actually do that?

  14. 14 Aro January 23, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Jeez, that’s a whole nuther animal right there. I’ve never read it, but I understand there a very good Christian book out there called “The Purpose Driven Life”.

  15. 15 augustine January 23, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    I’ve heard about it, mostly because of all of the Rick Warren stuff. I can’t say I’m in a hurry to go out and buy a copy…

  16. 16 Jesse January 28, 2009 at 4:52 am

    Sure, but I’m sticking to the Frankl example! He is the most accessible of 20th century folks who tried to answer the “ultimate” question in spite of 20th century history (except for the answer given to the ultimate question in The hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “42.”) In brief, the meaning of life in a “meaningless” existence is to make life meaningful by living gracefully. At long,

    “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”

    or,

    “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

    Good stuff, and Frankl isn’t very widely read either. He’d spare a lot of folks the expense of buying some new-agey author’s hard-bound, cover-portraited, plagiarisms of Frankl, Jaspers, Sartre, or Nietzsche. Just sayin.

  17. 17 augustine January 28, 2009 at 11:24 am

    I’ll have to look him up! Thanks for the recommendation.


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