Does Atheism Truly Lead to Nihilism?
According to this belief, if one is an atheist, then he is either an outright nihilist, or at best a nihilist in denial. Atheism is assumed by Christians to have so irresistible a gravitational pull to nihilism that escape is not possible. Given this, it is further reasoned, theism is to be preferred as though it prevailed by default, without the need to show that any of its tenets are objectively true. If you don’t want to be a nihilist, you’ll have to be a theist, and since every form of theism other than Christianity is supposedly invalid, Christianity is characterized as the only viable alternative to nihilism. These assumptions, as self-serving as they are for the apologetic program, are often re-asserted by believers to keep them alive and consequently provide a source of consolation for the converted. It’s one of the locks that evangelists put on the door to keep believers in the fold.
To be sure, many outspoken atheists are completely unhelpful in correcting this misguided view since they frequently supply the theists’ confirmation bias with ready offerings which only serve to reinforce it. But in fact, unbeknownst to these atheists (as well as the theists who equate atheism with nihilism), they are more often than not borrowing from the Christian worldview, having accepted a number of its core features (e.g., the human mind is impotent, reason is “the greatest enemy that faith has,” absolutes can be possible only if they are a product of some dictatorial authority – e.g., the state, man is naturally predisposed to wrongdoing and injustice and therefore must be subservient to authority, selfishness is evil, sacrifice is virtuous, accepting the unearned is the proper path to a moral future, the good of others is one’s standard of morality, man has a “duty” to obey authority, etc.). With mundane and disappointing predictability, atheists who concede that “moral and existential nihilism” is an inevitable consequence of atheism will be caught carrying such borrowed Christian capital.
Christians who link atheism with nihilism do not consider the matter in such terms since, on the one hand, they are not inclined to understanding worldviews in terms of rational analysis, and on the other, doing so would not further their narrative and also implicate their own worldview’s fundamentals for what they are. Instead, they tend to stick to surface trivialities which can be easily construed as confirmation of their maligning bias against atheism as such and to treat the matter as though it boiled down to “either you believe in the god I imagine, or you’re some kind of moral and intellectual reprobate.” It’s the same kind of tribalism that has torn humanity apart for millennia dressed up in a tawdry guise of pretending to have found all the answers to mankind’s woes while ignoring the devastation and stagnation that religion always brings when it is implemented politically and aligned with state power.
And of course, if quotes from particular atheists can be found to support such a link, so much the better; they will be pushed to the front of the line while anything that does not play into such a narrative will be ignored.
But once we start comparing the philosophical features and implications of religion with those of nihilism, we start to see the kind of kinship that theists would love to be able to peg to atheism as such, but cannot.
Before we delve deeper into this matter, let’s get a definition of nihilism on the table. According to The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.
Contrast this with atheism. Atheism is essentially nothing more than the absence of god-belief. In this sense, atheism and non-theism are essentially synonymous: while theism is belief in a god (esp. the belief that a god exists), atheism is the negation of this – i.e., the absence of such a belief. Lacking a belief in something, either real or merely imaginary, is not equivalent to a positively affirmed position on anything. For instance, if I lack belief in Santa Claus, one cannot infer from this that I think knowledge is achievable or unachievable, that effort is productive or futile, that relationships with others are important or unworthy, that marriage is sacred or stupid, etc. It could be the case that I have never heard of Santa Claus to begin with (and thus cannot possibly have the belief that Santa Claus is real) and that I have never formulated any opinions on the achievability of knowledge, the nature of effort, the importance of relationships, the value of marriage, etc.
Similarly with atheism: if I do not believe that any gods exist, one cannot infer from this that I therefore believe that “all values are baseless” or that “nothing can be known or communicated.” To make such inferences one would need some positive evidence in support of attributing such positions to me, but my lacking a belief in any gods does not constitute such positive evidence. But it’s entirely possible that a person has never encountered god-belief claims while being very much convinced that values do have a legitimate basis and that things can be known and communicated. Or, as is the case with me, I may have very good reasons to reject theism while wholly embracing the achievability of knowledge, the relevance of values to human life, the ability to know and communicate, etc. In short, there is no logically binding connection linking atheism as such with the distinctives characterizing nihilism.
So the claim that “atheism entails moral and existential nihilism” essentially means that no atheist thinks that values have any basis or that anything can be known or communicated, that every atheist is overcome with “extreme pessimism” and “condemns existence,” that no atheists believe in anything or have any loyalties, that every atheist has “no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.” On the face of it, such a claim seems utterly absurd. But clinging to absurdities is nothing new to the religious mind. So it should not surprise us that theists associating nihilism with non-belief in their gods would put in a conspicuously weak showing when it comes to arguing for such a claim.
It must be emphasized at this point that atheism as such is not a worldview and thus does not affirm any positively informed philosophical positions about the world, about man, about knowledge, about morality, etc. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, while not consistent with itself, confirms this interpretation when it defines the term ‘atheist’ as follows:
The term “atheist” describes a person who does not believe that God or a divine being exists.
When one identifies himself as an atheist, he’s only telling us what he does not believe; it does not tell us what he does believe or hold to be true. As Dr. Leonard Peikoff points out in his lecture Religion vs. America:
"Atheism" is a negative; it means not believing in God - which leaves wide open what you do believe in.
So to underscore the point: in the truest sense of the term, atheism as such does not affirm a commitment to any particular view about reality, man, knowledge, moral values, etc. This means that no particular positive philosophical view is inherent to atheism. Quite simply, like it or not, atheism is not a philosophical code. This does not imply that atheists (i.e., individuals who do not believe in any gods) necessarily lack a philosophical code. Most have amassed a hodgepodge of imprinting from their surrounding culture, inheriting many assumptions from religion along the way (or never fully shaking them off if they once were religious) without giving much if any attention to integrating their views in any systematic, non-contradictory manner. In this way, many atheists are, like many religionists as well, intellectual mongrels at best.
By contrast, nihilism is in fact a position, not merely a negation or contrast to a position, and as such it makes a number of affirmative assessments about man or reality or both, for example that life is pointless, that nothing really matters, that there is no such thing as moral values, that “despair” is the only proper outcome of any investigation into human nature and life, etc. A lack of a belief in a god or gods (i.e., atheism) does not commit one to any of these positions, either logically or hereditarily, any more than a lack of belief in Islam’s Allah or Buddhism’s Avalokitesvara does. Atheism as such is just as compatible with nihilism as it is with any non-theistic form of anti-nihilistic philosophy, such as Objectivism.
Consider the Age of Enlightenment. Boiled down to its philosophical essence, the Age of Enlightenment – aka the Age of Reason – constituted not only a rejection of the religious view of the world (notice the success that the separation of state and religion has enjoyed in the west since the Age of Enlightenment), but also an embrace of the rational view of the world (so far as this was feasible at the time). It was during the Enlightenment that thinkers demonstrated the power of the human mind when they adopted reason as their source to knowledge and their standard of judgment. (It may be argued that it was primarily because the Enlightenment thinkers failed to adopt reason as their only guide to action that they failed in constructing a consistently rational worldview.) Thus while many Enlightenment thinkers may have still retained certain religious beliefs (as the vast majority of thinkers of the time did), the implicit tenor of their approach to matters of science and knowledge was overtly pro-reason and, therefore, anti-religious. Their effectual rejection of religion did not lead them to nihilism, nor would it have had they adopted a wholly consistent rational approach to knowledge, life and social policy.
A nihilistic view of the world usually begins with a nihilistic view of man. Unfortunately there has been no shortage of philosophers who have apparently made it their mission in life to destroy confidence in the human mind. This tendency can be found in both religion and its secular variants. One such thinker was David Hume. Publishing his book A Treatise of Human Nature in 1739 – a little more than a decade after the death of Sir Isaac Newton (who demonstrated par excellence the immense power of inductive reasoning), Hume shows how a man who does not really want to understand how his own mind works can talk himself into corners of ignorance, concluding that one cannot be certain that a door he just passed through still exists unless he turns and looks directly at it. In his attempt to answer Hume’s radical skepticism, Immanuel Kant gleefully deepened the plunge into the bottomless labyrinth of self-inflicted irrationality in an express effort to make room for faith. And since then things have only continued to get ever worse in the philosophy departments, funded by institutional theft from the populaces which are forced to support them.
Nihilism is at its root a consequence of the choice, conscious or otherwise, to give up on the human mind. It is ultimately a negation of the conceptual level of cognition, the severing of concepts from the perceptual level of consciousness brought to its logical conclusion. This does not mean that we cannot learn how to operate our cell phones or withdraw money from an ATM, or how to get to the mountains for a holiday getaway. Rather, this has to do with crippling our ability to discover and understand the important fundamentals of philosophy which provide a rational framework for our lives by means of firsthand reasoning. Nihilism essentially says that your mind is impotent, for whatever reason, and consequently to acquire knowledge you must accept it from a revealing authority – a god or a state – in passive resignation.
Religion and nihilism, then, are just two sides of the same coin. In fact, nihilism is the ultimate starting point for an adult religious believer. Those who for whatever reason adopt a nihilistic view of themselves and the world will either continue on with it, or find it unsatisfactory for some reason and consequently look to find answers. Christianity can with varying degrees of facility prey upon an adult thinker if he accepts, however implicitly, certain notions on some unseen authority’s mere say so, such as the premises that the human mind is not only ineffectual, but inherently predisposed against the truth (cf. “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” – Romans 1:18 et al.), that he cannot achieve the good on his own (cf. “there is none that doeth good, no, not one” – Romans 3:12; “we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” – Isaiah 64:6 et al.), that there is something wrong with being human simply because one is human (cf. “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” – Romans 5:12), etc. Christianity requires such nihilism to take over a mind before it can move in and set up shop.
Nihilism breeds the presumption that there’s nothing one can do about his predicament of deficiency and depravity, for this is something he has inherited from the reality he was born into. Like Christianity, nihilism implies that one is ultimately helpless if left to his own devices. It also treats man as though he were a passive participant in his own life, pushed hither and thither either by angels or demons as a cog in a giant wheel called “God’s plan,” or by one’s “environment” and whatever mechanism of intervention implemented by the state. If there’s something actually wrong with an individual, it’s essentially congenital, a “sin,” a deficiency as a matter of a birthright that he did not choose. Either way, the nihilist can’t help but see himself as inherently a victim of circumstances beyond his control, but guilty at the same time by virtue of heredity as well as for crimes he’s encouraged to imagine himself having committed.
Ultimately, since there’s nothing an individual himself can do about his situation (again, his righteousnesses are as “filthy rags”), someone else must come to the rescue, someone else must pay, someone else must be sacrificed. In the case of Christianity, this someone else is Jesus, the “fully God, fully man” who died on the cross in order to bury man’s sin and guilt once and for all (even though sin seems to persist with each passing year). In the case of an authoritarian state, this someone else is the nameless “society,” something no less imaginary than the Christian believer’s Jesus.
So like Christianity, nihilism holds that the human mind is impotent to discover and validate knowledge. Hence, for Christianity, we need truths to be “revealed” to us by some supernatural being; in nihilism, we need the state to dictate its whims. Since on either view answers to life’s fundamental questions cannot be ascertained by investigating the world we find here before us by looking outward, we must look elsewhere, namely to the supernatural or the equally imaginary “State,” neither of which can be objectively discovered by looking outward.
We can see how this plays out in today’s political spectrum in the pitting of liberals against conservatives. If you’ve ever suspected that there’s more in common between these two tribal factions than either side lets on, you’re right. Has anyone else ever noticed how the modern state is becoming more and more like the god imagined by Christianity’s faithful? Like the Christian god is supposed to be, the state today has become an all-knowing, all-seeing voyeur-authority whose scrutiny is inescapable and irresistible. It holds total power over the individual and, if it so desires, will punish every infraction or offer clemency, but only with a price. It demands unquestioning obedience and has the ability to destroy lives. Whether it’s Hurricane Katrina or an audit by the IRS, either way your goose is cooked.
The underlying worldview of both sides, today’s conservatives and the liberal left, point unequivocally towards such an almighty authoritarian leviathan. The dirty little secret is that, philosophically they are joined at the hip. Both sides have renounced reason as the epistemological standard for knowledge, morality and judgment. And this is clear in both sides’ unmistakable embrace of authoritarianism. The liberals endorse the authority of an almighty state while the conservatives endorse the authority of an almighty god. This further plays out in terms of their respective approaches to sanctions: the authority of an almighty state pursues its ends by crippling men through material sanctions: taxation, regulation, subsidies, penalties, etc., ultimately through the threat of a gun; the authority of an almighty god pursues its ends by crippling men through psychological sanctions: guilt, fear, obedience, humility, etc., through the threat of eternal damnation. Both have ultimately the very same thing in common: the subjugation of the individual to someone else’s will. The only question becomes: who gets to him first?
So I would argue not only that nihilism is compatible with at least some atheistic philosophies as well as theism, but also that nihilism is a fundamental view of man which, once accepted, can lead one to either some form of religion or a secular variant of the same which shares religion’s inherent anti-reality, anti-man and anti-rational proclivities. Nihilism, then, can be said to be the handmaiden of authoritarianism, either religious or secular.
The nihilistic bond between religion and its secular counterparts should not be so difficult to grasp. If nihilism is essentially the view that the human mind is impotent (and all the fallout that this implies regarding his mind, his life, his values, etc.), that one cannot discover facts and truths, moral or otherwise, by means of reason, then clearly the religious view of the world as well as its secular variants have a fundamental presumption of nihilism in common with one another.
Both religion and its secular variants (i.e., those secular worldviews which reject reason in favor of some form of authoritarianism in the spheres of knowledge and morality) require the individual to surrender his rational faculties and place his faith in authority figures to issue or “reveal” the truth to him, a truth which he cannot discover and validate on his own so-called “unaided reason.” He has to be told that murdering and lying and stealing are wrong. Why are they wrong? Because an authority figure says so, that’s why. He has to be told that he is his brother’s keeper, and that if he happens to be well off, he has a duty to help those who are not so well off. Why is this the case? Because an authority figure says so. He has to be told that governing his choices and actions by self-interest is vicious and that the virtuous thing to do is to be willing to sacrifice himself to strangers simply because they have not earned what he has earned. Why is this the case? Because an authority figure says so. He has to be told that he should be willing either to die or to kill if he is commanded to do so. Why is this the case? Because an authority figure says so.
Both the state-worship of the liberals and the supernatural-worship of the conservatives, then, share several fundamental tenets in common, namely:
- the abnegation of the sovereignty of one’s own mind- the subjugation of the individual to authority- the renunciation of the human mind as ultimately impotent- the duty to sacrifice one’s own self-interest- the duty to concern oneself with others
1. Surrender your mind2. Surrender your values3. Surrender your life
How often does one find the folks on Christian apologetic blogs advocating and defending reason as the proper epistemological method for man’s mind, as the proper standard of judgment, and as the proper guide to an individual’s choices and actions?
Let us also ask:
If I have reason, why do I need someone to tell me what to believe?If I have reason, why do I need someone to tell me what to think?If I have reason, why do I need someone to tell me what I need?If I have reason, why do I need someone to tell me what to do?
Question: What’s present in all this?
Answer: Subordination to authority and renunciation of rational self-interest.
What’s missing in all this?
Answer: Commitment to reason and resolve to further one’s own interests.
Here’s another question: What specifically does the bible say about values? There are a few passing references to values (see for example here), but merely using the word ‘value’ here and there is vastly insufficient to constitute a self-consciously developed axiology. Where does Jesus talk about values? What are values according to what the bible teaches, why might they be important, what is their purpose, and whom are they supposed to benefit (if anyone)? And how can any pro-value teaching be reconciled with a worldview which condemns selfishness, treats self-sacrifice as though it were virtuous, and offers “not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42) as the model for proper human behavior? Jesus did not issue a bill of rights, but rather a list of duties. But I have already shown that the very notion of “duties” is hostile to values (see specifically my blog entry Craig’s Eight Arguments for God, Part VII: “God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties”). So even if Christians might argue that values do have some basis according to Christian teaching, this is of no avail to the morally ambitious individual if he is expected to be willing to sacrifice his values on someone else’s command.
By contrast to both Christianity and the “mainstream atheism” which occupies apologists’ fixation, Objectivists have the Objectivist ethics. According to this set of teachings, the nature of man’s life is the basis of objective values. Man is a biological organism, and as such he faces a fundamental alternative: life vs. death. Certain things and actions are good for man’s life while other things and other actions are not good for his life. The nature of man’s life and the conditions which make his life possible are not subjective projections which can be wished into being, nor can they be affected or altered by commandments. Essentially, man needs values if he wants to live. Objective morality is the application of reason to the task of living. Such moral theory is objective because it is based on and informed by facts relevant to man’s life and the nature of his consciousness, namely a consciousness capable of forming concepts and identifying and integrating facts in conceptual form. The bible does not offer a morality based on facts, but rather a behavioral code based on supernatural (i.e., imaginary) commandments. (For more on this, see my blog entry The Moral Code of Life.)
It is because Objectivist constitutes a full frontal counterexample to the notion that “atheism entails moral and existential nihilism” that theistic apologists are at a loss as to how to overcome its teachings as the proper alternative both to theism as well as “mainstream atheism.” This is why theists who stump for the atheism=nihilism viewpoint, typically shy away from discussing the philosophy of Objectivism in their conversations. And the reason why this is the case is simple: Objectivism, even though it is atheistic, does not confirm their talking points. Apologists are happy to quote atheist philosophers to support their characterization of atheism, but only so far as the passages which they quote support that characterization. Apologists will not be able to quote Objectivist sources which confirm the view that atheism is inherently nihilistic. On the contrary, Objectivism proves such a characterization to be completely false, which is why apologists are happy to ignore anything that Objectivism does in fact affirm. At best, when confronted with Objectivism as an alternative to “mainstream atheism” (to the degree that there is such a beast), apologists can be expected to attribute non-Objectivist views to Objectivism without ever demonstrating that such attributions accurately represent Objectivist positions. But if Objectivism were truly nihilistic, such caricature and misrepresentation would not be necessary.
Of course, Christians have a most embarrassing problem on their hands when it comes to accounting for the rise of nihilism in western culture, and not only because their worldview systemically feasts on nihilistic presumptions and has enjoyed tremendous influence over the development of western culture. Like other forms of mysticism, Christianity is ultimately wholly deterministic, and this stands to reason: if an omnipotent, omniscient and infallible mind created the universe and directs everything that exists and occurs within it (cf. Van Til, “God controls whatsoever comes to pass,” The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed., p. 160), then naturally everything that happens is whatever the omnipotent, omniscient and infallible mind wants to take place. So, logically, if nihilism starts to crop up in western culture, this must be the result of “God’s will”: the Christian god must have, for all eternity, wanted nihilism to make its popular appearance at this point in time, for whatever whimsical reason it might have intended for it. Put simply, nihilism as the cultural force that it has become today, thanks in fact to the lingering influence of mysticism on a culture that has struggled to extract itself from the influence of religion for centuries, must have been part of “God’s plan” all along.
Consequently, for Christians to rail against nihilism and its influence in western culture today is, to put it bluntly, to offer outright criticism of the Christian god’s chosen handling of the affairs of men on earth. The view that things are wrong or unhealthy in western or any other human civilization, is to say that whatever force is governing the affairs of men on earth is doing something wrong. If men are essentially nothing more than puppets, a moral judgment against men is implicit condemnation of their puppeteer.
If Christians really believe that the increasing pervasiveness of nihilism in western civilization is a bad thing, why don’t they direct their complaints to the imaginary being which their religion has them portray as the “ultimate cause” of everything that exists in the first place? To scorn human beings for the state of affairs that they purportedly find so dissatisfying is quite cowardly; they’re merely getting sore at the effects of the cause rather than at the cause itself. In effect, they are condemning a house for burning down while praising the arsonist for his skill and “grace.” So by condemning secularists for any nihilistic tendencies they might have, is in fact tantamount to a confession that theists really don’t believe what they claim to believe in the first place.
So it should be clear that the claim that “atheism entails moral and existential nihilism” is demonstrably false and is only repeated as a device intended to malign non-Christians and erect an iron curtain of sorts to keep believers from straying from the faith and discovering that the rational life is far more preferable and rewarding.
In a follow-up entry on this topic, I will interact with some statements made by an apologist who continually promulgates the notion that atheism is inherently nihilistic.
By Dawson Bethrick