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Musings on Nihilism, Atheism, Existentialism, Terrorism, and Faith Musings on Nihilism, Atheism, Existentialism, Terrorism, and Faith
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-11-16 11:35:06
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Though religious people often say that without their faith life would be meaningless, we know that for some it is faith itself that leads them to the same conclusion. The question arises: what is life compared to Heaven or the next life after this earthly one? For many religious people life is merely a means to an end with no meaning in itself. Ought we be surprised that those who hold such a view seem not too concerned about the environment or social justice when polls indicate that nearly half of them expect the second coming of Jesus and the glorious end of the world within the next 50 years; when their main concern seems to be “salvation?” It’s as if the inhabitants of Pompeii knew exactly when Vesuvius would violently erupt in 71 AD. In that case we would found precious few petrified bodies attending to their daily routines 20 centuries later. Life loses its routine daily meaning when a catastrophe ensues.

Since Nietzsche, nihilism is usually conceived as lack of meaning in life to be overcome by the individual’s “will to power” and building up of meaning; existence trumps essence. Yet, despite Nietzsche’s famous quip that “God is dead,” the first step toward nihilism is not disbelief in God. Rather, it is acceptance of the notion that for the existence of the world to be justified it must have some external purpose to guide it. It must be the shadow of some truer world than this one that has the power to grant meaning to this one in which we live and have our being, and if no such other world exists then this world ought not to exist because it is meaningless. This is quite similar to what William James describes as “the religious impulse.” It is this impulse rather than atheism itself that produces nihilism.

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Nihilism is the outright rejection of at least some aspects of the value of life, and it is attached to the notion that meaning must come from somewhere outside one’s self and in fact outside the world of ordinary experience. It is indeed the religious impulse to seek justification “out there” rather than having doubts about religion that is the first step toward nihilism. One can take this step toward religion and find no convincing externally imposed meaning. On the other hand, if one never goes looking for meaning to come from somewhere “out there,” one never encounters nihilism. Nietzsche was aware of that, not those who consider faith and its practice passé. But some actually do find such an externally imposed meaning and are still nihilistic. In fact, the extreme case of religious nihilism is the suicide bomber who is nihilistic in rejecting the meaning that others find in the value of human life while having a deep conviction in the externally imposed meaning of his own death through martyrdom and divine reward in Heaven.

The suicide bomber is indeed nihilistic. He may be thought of as having placed some value on the lives he takes as fulfilling some religious purpose, but in doing so he is decidedly rejecting many other aspects of the value of individual human life. In Kantian ethical language, he is treating others solely as means to serve his purposes of glorifying God rather than as having worth as ends in themselves. That is a form of nihilism—a radically religious nihilism. One might argue that the suicide bomber is not nihilistic because his death and the deaths of those he murders had profound significance to him in glorifying God. But the question of nihilism is not whether death has meaning but whether living life has meaning. There is no stronger version of nihilism that valuing death above life.

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It is not being claimed here that this sort of nihilism is a necessary consequence of all Christian belief, rather, that Christianity gets interpreted by some (such as the murderers of abortion doctors) in very nihilistic ways where aspects of the meaning of life are deemed entirely insignificant next to the enormity of Eternity. Nihilism is not then part of a problem with atheism as it is often claimed. Nihilism is in fact incompatible with a thorough-going atheism that has ceased to seek meaning “out there.” Nihilism is not the inevitable result of anti-religious skepticism but part of the religious impulse which includes the supposition that such an external order is necessary and foundational to all value, meaning, and purpose that the world of our everyday experience can ever have.

Atheists only become nihilists when they take their atheism with a small dose of religion. Atheists inclined toward pessimism sometimes take the fact that the world seems to exist without such external justification as evidence for the absurdity of existence. Some atheists respond to the human condition by saying that we must live life in such a way to make it a worthy protest to the injustice of death. Such a response is one of a very religious sort of atheist.

Miguel de Unamuno, who like almost all writers and philosophers who get labeled existentialists denied being one articulated this view when he said, “If it is nothingness that awaits us, let us make an injustice of it; let us fight against destiny, even though without hope of victory.” This is the sort of atheist existentialism that announces the death of God but seems to be angry and in great despair about that fact. The claim, “God is dead…the bastard!” is trying to have it both ways. Nihilism is a real possibility when one simultaneously rejects the existence of God but retains enough of a religious outlook to insist that something very much like God would be necessary to make life meaningful. In making one’s life a worthy protest one hopes to justify one’s own existence. This sort of nihilism is an unconscious sort of nihilism that Nietzsche himself called “religious nihilism.” In fact, there is no other kind. Nihilism depends on the affirmation of another world as the only possible legitimate source of all value and the denial of this world as able to sustain its own value. Nietzsche called the phenomenon “the trans-valuation of values.” All nihilism is religious in this sense.

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Miguel de Unamuno reflecting on life’s meaning

In contrast to this pseudo-atheistic pessimistic nihilism, the nihilism of the religious is often not recognized as such because it is often an optimistic sort of nihilism. The promise of the next world is thought to be the assurance of everything that one could ever hope for. But then, we know how that sort of thinking in the suicide bomber works out for the rest of us, so even optimistic nihilism can be something to be concerned about. Religious people who think that believing in God makes them immune to nihilism and the nihilism is part of “the atheism problem” should turn to the Bible and reread Ecclesiastes which has Solomon, son of David renowned for his great wisdom, exclaim: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Clearly even the Bible demonstrates that nihilism is not just a problem for skeptics.

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King Solomon receiving the gift of wisdom

Though the one who never look to other worlds to justify this world is less nihilistic than the one who takes this first step toward nihilism even if she does find meaning “out there,” avowed religious person who take the first step toward nihilism by seeking meaning in the great beyond are unlikely to consider themselves nihilist. The most prominent authority on meaning among Christians today is Rick Warren who sold 30 million copies of The Purpose Driven Life. In that book Rick Warren writes: “If there was no God, we would all be ‘accidents,’ the result of astronomical random chance in the universe. You could stop reading this book, because life would have no purpose or meaning or significance. There would be no right or wrong, and no hope beyond your brief years on earth.” This declaration is not merely one small step but a giant leap toward nihilism. Warren has hung all his hopes upon the need that a single fact turn out to be true.

A believer such as Warren is not likely to recognize the nihilism behind his statement and his belief that without some external source of worth our world would be worthless. Instead he is more likely to mistake those of us who accept this world as sufficient unto itself as nihilists. But doing so is indeed a mistake. The complete lack of nihilism is not to deny the “objective” meaning of life but to stop thinking of the question as one even worth asking—to stop looking for the justification the world to come from somewhere else. The complete opposite of nihilism is not to be able to affirm the objective meaning of life, but to never need to go looking for meaning because meaning abounds.

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St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi found meaning in the beauty of nature and its creatures and via that bridge he got to God. He got to the ultimate via the penultimate: the value of this world and this life in themselves. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but asking bad “philosophical” questions like, ‘what gives one’s life objective meaning?’ if taken too seriously can also make life seem not worth living. We don’t need to be convinced by some philosophical or theological argument that life has meaning or feel at all like something is lacking in not being able to provide a Cartesian foundation that stands outside of time and space upon which meaning in life can rest. Meaning abounds for all those who love so long as they don’t get fooled into thinking that love needs a philosophical foundation—that “why love?” is a question that needs an answer. Only the psychopath needs a reason to love.

It takes a lot of intellectual wheel spinning to even get one’s self to the point in thinking that the love of family and friends and our efforts to make the world better than we found it are not meaningful. This whole question of meaning only becomes a question when one follows the religious impulse to search for meaning “out there.” It comes from the idea that meaning must come from outside one’s own life and even outside the world altogether. How about starting where St. Francis started, with the love of nature and its creatures?

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Socrates discussing the meaning of life with modern young nihilists

It needs to be emphasized here that nihilism is not an atheistic phenomenon. Both atheists and theists are capable of denying aspects of the meaning of life. Nihilism—the belief that the world in itself is without value, meaning, and purpose as some existentialist philosophers claim—is not the inevitable result of atheism. Atheists only become nihilists when their lack of belief in God is taken together with a half-measure of religion, while the theistic nihilism of the suicide bomber is the result of taking a full measure of the wrong sort of religion.

 


     
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