How many times have we atheists heard it said that atheists do not believe in a purpose to life, or in any kind of moral code? In other words, those who so vehemently condemn atheism often believe that atheism and Nietzsche's vision of nihilism are basically the same thing. Here I will outline some key (and obvious) differences between the two "isms."
Nietzsche viewed nihilism primarily as a philosophy of hopelessness, despair, and complete apathy. In my opinion this is an oversimplification of nihilistic philosophy, but a decent rough approximation of some of the adherents of nihilism, and also of how atheists are viewed by many (particularly fundamentalist) theists.
Moral nihilism posits that morality is nonexistent. That there is no inherent good or evil and that actions are personal in nature and reflect individual preference rather than a common value set. Its easy to see where this can be construed as an anarchistic, or apathetic view. The writings go much deeper, but this is the most basic point. Let us compare that with an atheistic view of morality. It is similar, but not the same as the nihilistic one. Atheism is primarily an individualistic philosophy in regards to morality; it does not necessitate a nihilistic world view, neither does it preclude one. An atheist is above all an individual, and morally tend to largely reflect the society that they grew up in. I have often seen legalistic views, as well as views that are focused on the what is best for the society as a whole. That said, there is no defining aspect in atheism that decrees a particular world view.
Existential nihilism is a bit trickier. Existential nihilism at its most basic premise is that life has no purpose. Life is, in and of itself fairly meaningless, and worthless, lacking any inherent value. Here, atheism and nihilism almost always diverge. Atheists mostly believe that life does have value in what we do with it; that what we do in our lives determines its value, and that having only one life, it would be a shame to waste it in apathy or doing nothing of value. Neither philosophy takes a god-given goal for life as granted, but atheism takes its (individualistic) approach towards making the individual life meaningful to society and the world at large.
This view comes largely (in my opinion)from the early 20th century view that nihilism was the opposite of Christianity. By extension the common belief is that atheism, being a rejection of God (vainly assumed to be the Christian God) not only rejects the existence of God, but also rejects anything it stands for i.e morality, charity, etc (ignoring all the terrible things about God we also reject). Yes, atheism rejects the god hypothesis, but does not reject our humanity, ethics, or personal moral principles. This, I think is why so many atheists today like the terms "rationalist" or "free-Thinker"; it separates them from the label that is so commonly used as derogatory.
So, remember. An atheist who is not nihilistic is not one who lays in bed mourning over what a waste life is and how pointless existence is. If we were, we would not have such vocal proponents as we have today, nor would the advancement of science and humanity be such a common goal among us. So remember, while nihilism is almost always atheistic, the reverse is not the norm, or even common.
Yeah, I'm Here
5 years ago