Does atheism require nihilism?

During my years of training, a string of contemporary thinkers (both secular and religious) began promoting views of humanity that downplayed human depravity and offered more utopian ideas about human progress — ideas previously crushed by two world wars.

The contrast offered a new outlook in contrast with the philosophy of despair that spread to the US from Europe.

This philosophy of despair is also called “nihilism” – a label made popular by Nietzsche.

 Nihilism logically rests on the proposition that ultimately the world is meaningless. Nihilism also necessitates belief in atheism.

Nihilism (as atheism) logically flows from faith in blind evolutionary development and the necessary conclusions that history is random, life is absurd and everything is meaningless.

Advances in science and technology can lure people to believe that we can close the windows to everything beyond the visible and tangible universe.

But do we really believe it?

So many today operate as naive recipients of the reigning viewpoint of the academy. This is the notion that the physical, material universe is all there is, was, or ever will be. The only real world (we’ve been told) is the world of the five senses.

This is a worldview with different labels (physicalism, philosophical naturalism, scientism, and secularism). In this kind of world, the ceiling is in place (sealed and secured); the windows are shut and the blinds have been pulled. We’re locked into a world without transcendence, mystery, and especially, without God.

Yet those who hold to this notion battle intuitive recognitions and intrinsic yearnings they cannot explain nor escape.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Why should I care to find meaning outside of survival? Is morality nothing more than alternative choices based on personal preferences? If he says peace is better than war or love better than hate; is it like saying chocolate is better than vanilla?  Are there no real evils, just violations of human customs or conventions? How hard it would be to think of murderers as merely having bad manners. But why should he think of it differently? 

Are we humans simply products of blind chance operating on the primordial ooze and differing from animals by only a few genes? If so, the wonders of human achievement and the moral dignity we ascribe to human beings just doesn’t fit the claim that we are no different from the animals. The realities of human creativity, love, reason, and moral value seem to indicate that humans are creatures of unique distinction. What accounts for this? 

Does our awareness of how things are not the way they ought to be and our longing for something better testify to our nature as beings of dignity? If evil is a metaphysical necessity for finite creatures, why do we so strongly oppose it and long for a world without it? Why do we cry foul? Why do we long for a restoration of Paradise Lost? Why do we even think in terms of good and evil?

These universally intuitive human thoughts, desires and capacities cannot be adequately explained by an impersonal evolutionary development because they reach beyond the physical to the metaphysical in unexpected ways. We are beings who think, feel, and choose in profoundly deep and relational ways. As helpful and insightful as scientific inquiry has been, universal longings for love and meaning are unexplainable on scientific grounds. This is where we find a significant discontinuity between humans and animals.

Dust and glory?

Struggling honestly with this exasperating enigma, Scottish writer, Richard Holloway, groaned,

“This is my dilemma. I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioral responses, … riddled with fear, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…. But there is something else in me…. Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…so my life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…the strange duality of dust and glory.”

We are paradoxical beings, Jekylls and Hydes; combinations of dust and glory. We have plenty of empirical evidence for these universal realities but what is there to account for this narrative?

The same mind that can be used to invent life-saving machines and medicines and invents instruments of war and torture. We do we possess moral sensibilities to recognize right and wrong and participate in benevolent activities? We are capable of distinguishing justice from injustice, love from hate and freedom from oppression, but so often our vision of these things is twisted in self-serving ways. 

The apostle summarized the cause of our searching well:

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:24-28).

Final thought:

When I look at the world, I cannot endorse the overuse of the science of biological evolution to explain realities outside of the reach of science. I reject the myopic optimism of humanism and the dark pessimism of cynicism — in exchange for — the grounded realism of a Christian worldview revealed in Scripture.

Yet please understand that although I believe that the Bible offers the most realistic and hopeful perspective for history and the world, I am not interested in using it as an imperialistic or oppressive tool to impose on moral creatures a belief system they have not chosen.

God made humans as morally culpable beings who will ultimately answer to Him as Maker and Savior. While I believe in the need for law and order and I practice Christian influence by bearing witness to God’s love and grace, I don’t believe in the human use of coercion to force beliefs on anyone.

There are surprisingly few places to turn for thoughtful answers to deeper questions about good and evil; human suffering, and life and death. I always welcome opportunities to explore the plausibility of competing world views on these important matters. Without suggesting that I have all the answers, I have only found one source to be wide enough to explain the complex dimensions of the human story and large enough to address the innate longings of the human heart.

Steve Cornell

This entry was posted in Afraid to die, Anthropology, Apologetics, Atheism, Atheists, Nihilism, Philosophy, Relativism, Science, Seeking God, Self esteem, Self love, Truth, Worldview. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Does atheism require nihilism?

  1. “Does atheism require nihilism?”

    No.

    All atheism requires is the lack of belief in a god or gods.

    It’s right there in the definition.

    • Not so fast. Is nihilism a logical necessity if one chooses the philosophy of atheism? What kind of rational meaning can I build off of a theory of atheism? Will my moral opinions and beliefs prove logically inconsistent with my atheism? These are worthwhile questions to those who wish to maintain intellectual and existential integrity.

      • “Is nihilism a logical necessity if one chooses the philosophy of atheism?”

        I have no idea what ‘the philosophy of atheism’ is supposed to be.

        Atheism is a single position on a single issue. It is part of many philosophies, but it isn’t one by itself.

        Certainly there are people who are nihilists or who have nihilism as part of their worldviews that are also atheists. But the one doesn’t come from the other, as far as I can see.

        “What kind of rational meaning can I build off of a theory of atheism. ”

        What kind of rational meaning can I build off a theory of not believing in bigfoot?

        That’s an equivalent question. My meaning doesn’t come from my lack of belief in a god, or my lack of belief in a yeti.

      • It could seem more than a little disingenuous to portray atheism as “a single position on a single issue.” This suggests that atheism has no explanatory framework and is just a simple proposition without need of explanation or defense. If this is the case, why do so many atheist work so hard to deny theism and provide “reasons” for their denial? Even your slight-of-hand condescending comparison to bigfoot betrays more behind your belief in the theory of atheism. Atheism, after all, is just a theory and is therefore open to debate about rational plausibility. I think it would be much more honest for those who postulate atheism to join philosopher, Thomas Nagel in saying, ”I hope there is no God.”

      • Keith says:

        I understand NotAScientist’s response: people link all sorts of world views with atheism, which is why we push back. We have all internalized that “Christian” is a big umbrella (Calvinist? Catholic? Charismatic? Mormon?), but when we identify as atheists, we are immediately linked to various other beliefs with which we may or may not agree.

        Steve, to argue that atheism leads a rational person to some parts of nihilism (moral nihilism comes to mind), is a fine argument to make, but atheism is a much smaller definition than nihilism. Nihilism covers a lot of topics, and you’re not making that clear in your post. A nihilist might believe there is no such thing as objective reality, and that certainly isn’t a commonly held atheist position.

  2. RigoHC says:

    no not believing in god doesnt mean you don’t believe in anything it does mean you believe in science

  3. wm brown says:

    ……….”I have only found one source to be wide enough to explain the complex dimensions of the human story and large enough to address the innate longings of the human heart.”

    That is basically why, at age 15, after an many years of existential angst, sinking to despair about the significance and consequences of my nihilist beliefs, I became a Christian. The big questions of meaning and existence made sense only within that framework. Everything I have learned since then has deepened and confirmed the truth of this worldview. I studied and researched belief systems – reading and talking to folks who represent many different worldviews. I care only for truth, and I want to go wherever that leads me.

    –Bill

  4. “If this is the case, why do so many atheist work so hard to deny theism?”

    Because it’s an interesting subject. And because most of us live in countries where the majority of people are theists and try to get their particular brand of theism at least given special attention by the government, if not overtly preferred.

    I have many beliefs. I hold many positions. About life, the universe and everything. One of those positions is atheism. But that is only one. Calling my overall philosophy or worldview ‘atheism’ would be simplistic and inaccurate. Calling anyone’s overall philosophy ‘atheism’, I think, would be equally simplistic and inaccurate.

    “Atheism after all is just a theory and is therefore open to debate about rational plausibility.”

    Atheism isn’t a theory. It’s a position. We can, of course, debate whether or not that position is the correct one…but all it is, is a position.

    The theist position is “a god or gods exist.” The atheist position is “I don’t believe you.” My particular position is ‘I don’t believe you because you haven’t met the burden of proof for the claim you’re making’.

    “I think it would be much more honest for those who postulate atheism to join philosopher, Thomas Nagel in saying, ”I hope there is no God.””

    Some would hold that position, and others would not.

    Depending on the god in question I might hope that it doesn’t exist in addition to not believing it exists. But that would depend on specifics.

  5. If you define Nihilism as the fact, that there is neither an absolute morality nor an absolute meaning of life, universe and all the rest, then yes, atheism leads automatically there, because an absolute morality or an absolute meaning of life would imply someone outside the whole system who defines this things.
    Of course, if you remove “absolute” from the whole definition, then no, atheism has nothing to do with it, as there can be definitions or morality and meaning of life without someone claiming them to be absolute. These definitions can also be tested, for example on how happy they would make the people or how well a society based on them would work. Of course, these goals are also not absolute.
    But, of course, atheism also automatically leads to the conclusion, that every religious answer to these problems is also just completely random and not more valid than any other answer. You have to believe in god to be able to believe that the mess of contradicting rules that most religions are built on are actually some form of “absolute morality”.

  6. No, Atheism does not require one to be a nihilist. Atheism simply rejects the belief in gods. Now, are there certain aspects of Nihilism that are analogous with Atheism? Sure. For instance, most atheists will agree that the universe is meaningless. However, that does not require life to be meaningless – as a nihilist would exclaim. Many atheists find happiness in the fact that we live in an anomalous time; that we are lucky enough to experience life, and that others deserve that same experience. Morality is then derived from this, which can lead to a number of different philosophies (i.e. Utilitarianism, Kantian Deontological etc.). Atheism requires one to be a nihilist as much as theism requires one to be a Muslim – there isn’t a universal description; other than the lack of a belief in gods.

    • Aaron Sullivan says:

      You assurance in your faith is based on a belief that this time is an anomalous time. I’m not denying that, i’m simply want to ask how do you know that to be a fact? Then you use the word “lucky”… as if you now do believe in chance? If it was chaos that brought you this far, isn’t chaos going to bring you to happiness? … oops … seems were trying to make sense of chaos again… but what else can an atheist in denial hold on to… right?

      i’m sorry, but to the one’s standing in the light… you just look foolish.

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