Thursday, April 2, 2009

Atheism is not Nihilism

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.


  1. I did comment on one of these asshat's post that "atheism =/= nihilism".

    His response proved to me that (a) he had no idea what "=/=" referred to, and (b) he had no idea what "nihilism" is.

  2. Modern understanding of nihilism is ver limited in my experience. I personally think nihilism is a self defeating philosophy as it is, in my opinion, rather defeatist in nature. I do think it was a step towards the current Atheistic worldview and philosophical naturalism, but I don't think the two share much anymore.

  3. This has made me think of a good answer to the question 'if I have no God, how to I have morals and what is the purpose of life'

    The way I see it now, my idea of the 'purpose of life' is to continue the development of my species and my morals reflect that purpose.

    I'm really enjoying this blogging thing, I'm fairly new to it and it really helps me communicate my beliefs better then I had before. One of the first blogs I ventured into had a person who commented to me that if I found this important I should do the research. I'm happy to say I'm enjoying the research as much as the debates I've entered. People like yourself really help me understand and communicate my own beliefs :)

  4. I tend to think of nihilism not so much as "self-defeating" as "having no utility".

    Practically speaking, I don't think you'll ever find a real Nihilist. You may find one who advocates it in certain situations, but then demonstrates enlightened self-interest in others. Even ignoring this contradiction, what exactly is useful about Nihilism?

    At its best, it reveals that things we place great value in are not essentially valuable; nihilism keeps us humble. But taken to the logical extreme, there's no purpose to life - we should really just stick our collective heads in the oven.


    I view Nihilism as to be so worthless a philosophy that I choose to ignore it. In my mind, it's the only argument that works: dismiss it on subjective grounds, and move on.

  5. I agree, mostly. But recognizing the issues of nihilism in relation to a warped view of atheism I think gives some perspective on arguments, and alos gives a direction to point a debating party as to what they're really referring to.

  6. Your interpretation of Nietzsche's view of nihilism is incomplete. You are only talking about his view of passive nihilism, but are right on in that respect.

    He also spoke of active nihilism, which I consider myself, instead of an atheist. For me, there are two foundations of nihilism. 1. Human existence has no inherent meaning; and 2. There is no absolute moral authority or code.

    This does not mean the same thing as morality is nonexistent or that your life has no meaning. Instead, it means there are millions of meanings to lives as well as moral codes, all being correct and wrong at the same time.

    As a nihilist, since I don't accept the notion of an absolute moral authority, it goes without saying that I don't believe in a god or gods, and that is why I don't want to define myself as an atheist.

    Nihilism is important to understand because it is an intellectual movement away from established institutions, such as churches, governments, who use their power to define morality for their own interests. When someone finally sees that their trust in these institutions has been broken, they are apt to slip into nihilism because it seems nothing matters.

    Whether we call ourselves, atheists or nihilists, it is important to help these people out of their passive nihilism and show them how we can create meaning in our own lives.

    In response to one of the commenters, you can't dismiss that. You have to understand it.

    Thanks for starting this discussion.

  7. Ok, that's fair. I do think I made it clear that I am not an expert on nihilism, and that it was a very cursory view. I don't disagree with you on active nihilism, as that is a new term to me.

    What I'm getting from your description is that active nihilism is individualistic, much in the way I view an atheistic worldview. And that I see as completely fine. I think what I believe should be taken away from this mostly is that while nihilism is inherently atheistic, atheism is not necessarily nihilistic.

  8. Yes, I agree entirely with that. One can't be a nihilist without being an atheist, but being an atheist doesn't necessarily mean you are a nihilist. Atheism is more specific (no belief in gods) while nihilism is much more general (no belief is absolute moral authority or meaning). I would be interested in hearing more atheists talk about their views on morality and the meaning of human existence. As you say, I'm sure it is an individualistic view that varies from person to person.

  9. The thing that I believe will separate atheism in practice from active nihilism is that nihilism is even more individualistic and Atheism will have a tendancy to be more group focused. This is entirely speculation, but it makes sense in my head.

  10. True, and that is also where much of the criticism about atheism is based, that it is trying to be a replacement for religion.

  11. Question:
    Does nihilism make you somewhat apathic to human life being all important? I went though a phase in my teens where I thought that the death of fellow human beings wasn't all that bad a thing since we were overpopulating the planet and had no real predator to keep our population in check. I felt that human life was no more valuable then any other animal. It's not that I wanted people to die, I felt bad about that, but thought that in the bigger picture it could help the species and the planet.

  12. I know there is a God,but still it seems that all the people of earth in this pitfull thing of morals is most sading when really the logic of nature answers them all.male female so thefore no gays right wrong good evil are all right in front of us all.i simply hate the world it sucks and therefore say to every group of sorry people fuck you all this world will burn.and all your stupid quarrls over land rights and love will go burn in flames so all is for not.

  13. I agree with your post, though I am personally a nihilistic existential atheist.
    I believe there is no point to life, that it is meaningless, but I'll use my gameboard metaphor to expand this idea...
    I see life as a game, you have a game board, and sometimes the dice get rolled for you, but mostly you get to choose your paths. The boards overlap and you run into people...there is nothing but this life, and it has no point but perhaps to enjoy it. You only play a game if you're having fun playing it, and you quit if you aren't. Same thing goes for life. Though you have to know that you're going to leave at least a few people struggling with to continue the game without you.

    And, Imtherabbit, to me that is very true, and yet very not true. We are, as far as I can see, the only animal that can choose to enjoy or not enjoy or quit the game, so....

  14. Wow Justin, you really are special. Come back when you can understand grammar and actually make a lick of sense.

    Moonshadow: I can agree with you on that. I don't think there is any grand purpose to life, but I do believe it can have individual meaning if we make it have one.