Saturday, May 14, 2011

Does Atheism Equal Nihilism?

Does Naturalistic Atheism Equal Nihilism?

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him.
–Friedrich Nietzsche

Contrary to what you may have heard, atheism isn’t a nihilistic philosophy, since it’s not really a philosophy at all. Atheism is, rather, merely a cogent position which rejects the fallacious claims of the theist. Yet ever since religion has espoused the existence of God, atheism has been getting some bad press. Atheism is often demonized by religionists who have misunderstood it, or by those who wish to demean atheists for political reasons, usually to bolster the illusion of their group's uncontested prestige (often a misguided form of devotional allegiance aided by a massive confirmation bias which refuses to acknowledge any other outside philosophy as worthy of consideration). Needless to say, those believers who have felt threatened by the irreligion of the skeptic and the atheist have resorted to throwing out all kinds of senseless accusations. Among them is the accusation that atheism equates to a nihilistic philosophy. This is simply absurd for reasons we shall now examine.

For Friedrich Nietzsche nihilism ultimately meant a series of aimless or empty philosophies which went nowhere, cluttered your mind with nonsense, overrode common sense, and left you worse off than where you began. In other words, genuine nihilism would leave you ideologically monochrome. Accordingly, Nietzsche viewed Christianity as a false philosophy, the lie of all lies, and his animosity for Christianity mainly stemmed from his belief that it waged war against any higher type of man, the intellectual man who strives to be a ‘Superman’. Because Christianity, not only the institution but also the doctrine, hindered mankind’s natural progress toward this end, Nietzsche believed that Christianity was, in his words, “part of all the weak, the low, the botched; it has made an ideal out of antagonism to all the self-preservative instincts of sound life; it has corrupted even the faculties of those natures that are intellectually most vigorous, by representing the highest intellectual values as sinful, as misleading, as full of temptation.”[i]

Nietzsche was right in asserting that Christianity involves a moral accusation against humanity. It’s surprising to me how many Christians, who have not read Nietzsche, misconstrue what he meant by nihilistic philosophy, and therefore, under the wrong pretenses, like to equate his concept of nihilism with atheism. For Nietzsche, it was the other way around, Christianity was the nihilistic philosophy! Nietzsche said as much when he quipped, “Nihilist und Christ: das reimt sich, das reimt sich nicht bloss…” [Nihilist and Christian. They rhyme, and do not merely rhyme...].[ii]

Welcome to the Desert of the Real
Basically, Nietzsche’s description of Christianity is much like a computer virus. In fact, if you’ve seen the Matrix films you’ll know what Nietzsche really feared was much like the trilogy depicts—the rogue Agent Smith virus wiping out everything in living memory, a corrupt system with but one purpose, to override and consume the Matrix from within, and make it exactly like him. In the end there would be nothing left—no individualism, no freedom, no independence of thought, nothing. For Nietzsche Orthodox Christianity was much like this rogue virus which threatened to consume the world and eradicate everything of importance—including our very minds. If you recall the climactic finale of the Matrix series, Neo and Agent Smith, now demigods, face off in a no holds barred show down amid a crowd of on looking Smith duplicates, obscured by the pouring rain. Agent Smith launches into a long soliloquy asking Neo why he persists, why when it all proves to be ultimately meaningless, why does Neo keep on resisting him? Why, he asks, why?! Neo simply replies, “Because I choose too.”

Powerful words.

Agent Smith represents every dogmatic belief system in the world—he is utter totalitarian authority at its worst, he doesn’t just want you to follow him, he wants you to become him! Smith embodies the concepts of conformity, uniformity, compliance, and for the Matrix, as well as for Nietzsche, this ideologically monochrome existence meant total oblivion. Meanwhile, Neo represents the opposite of Agent Smith. Neo stands for flouting the restraints of conformity (just as when he first meets Agent Smith in the interrogation room of the first film and flips him the bird), and freeing the mind. Neo contained in him the light of revelation and knowing, but more importantly, the ability to see—to comprehend—something Agent Smith could never truly do (hence his frustration to try and understand Neo—to grapple with human free will).

If faced with the choice between a dogmatically enslaved mind or enlightenment, which will set your mind free, which would you choose? The blue or the red pill? I know which I’d choose—in fact—I think atheists everywhere are inimitable in the sense that they are breaking free of the restraints of the program, they seek dissimilitude, perchance to gain independence and the freedom of thought. Atheists everywhere are waking up to a reality free of imposed controls, while those still under the burden of their faith are trapped in the Matrix of delusion—most of what they feel, think, and believe is constrained (or controlled) by the program. What kind of reality is this? The answer is difficult to swallow: a simulation. An illusion.

So who is correct? Are Christian apologists right in assuming that atheism is nihilistic, or was Nietzsche right in assuming that Christianity is nihilistic? Actually, I’m afraid both are mistaken. Nietzsche simply meant oblivion, not nihilism according to how we understand it today. Meanwhile Christians have missed the ball entirely. Nihilism, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, is a theory promoting the state of believing in nothing, or of having no allegiances and no purposes. The term is incorrectly used to characterize all persons not sharing some particular faith or particular set of absolute values.[iii]

When theists accuse atheists of being nihilists and incidentally conflate atheism with nihilism they are confusing their terminology. They may be getting it wrong on purpose to further disparage atheism, a detectable apologetics ploy, but sometimes they just lack the proper understanding of the terms. Nihilism stems from the doctrine of the extreme Russian revolutionary party c.1900, which rejected all authority exercised by the church, the state, and the family—and consequently, in so doing, rejected all religious and moral principles in total. Atheism only rejects one positive claim—namely that the supernatural god(s) of religion are real. Nihilism, on the other hand, rejects all claims by assuming that since everything is ultimately meaningless then holding any positive claim would, in turn, be just as meaningless. But such a position is indefensible.

Naturalism has no Room for Nihilism
Atheists often tend to be naturalists also. The reason for this is because once you’ve rejected supernatural explanations all you are left with are the natural explanations. To define Naturalism more clearly, it is: the view that ultimately nothing resists explanation by the methods characteristic of the natural sciences. Moreover, the philosopher Keith Augustine proposes that “the de facto success of methodological naturalism provides strong empirical evidence that metaphysical naturalism is probably true.”[iv] I tend to agree. Nihilism, on the other hand, is unjustifiable, even by a naturalist’s reckoning, since as Lao Tzu revealed in the Tao Te Ching that: 

If people do not revere the Law of Nature,
It will inexorably and adversely affect them.
If they accept it with knowledge and reverence,
It will accommodate them with balance and harmony. 

Naturalism cannot be nihilistic for this reason, as a true nihilist would not revere the laws of nature, and this is contradictory to the very definition of naturalism, which is predicated on the laws of nature! Also Naturalism trusts the scientific method, so cannot be nihilists for this reason too, since nihilism rejects even the scientific claims. Yet theistic thinkers continue to improperly conflate atheism and naturalism with nihilism because they feel justified in claiming the two equate nihilism, and so are one and the same, ergo the religious apologist claim becomes that naturalistic atheism is equally as senseless and unjustifiable as nihilism. But they would be wrong to say so.

Those theists who conflate atheism and naturalism with nihilism are chiefly mistaken. They have misconstrued the definitions for reasons which, more often than not, fit with their agenda to make the former concepts appear just as profane as the latter or sponsor their proselytizing agendas to make their faith seem more appealing than the misrepresentation they pawn off as naturalistic atheism.

I recently came across a Christian minister’s blog in which he had deliberately conflated naturalistic atheism with nihilism. But such a conflation is improper. Usually this is a sign of a poorly chosen definition or else an improper understanding of the primary definitions in the first place, and so cannot be as precise as we would hope, therefore it is likely to be incorrect. According to his definition (which seems to directly mirror William Lane Craig’s rhetoric in his essay “The Absurdity of Life without God”) he feels a naturalistic atheist’s worldview equals nihilism because:

The current narrative of Naturalistic Atheism is that the universe is all there is…. There is no purpose to our creation…. No purpose, no plan, just matter doing what matter in motion does…. Eventually we die… and than [sic] everyone dies extinguishing all memory of the human race, and then the universe will eventually die…. Does this concept entail Nihilism? Yes. There is nothing in this narrative to suggest otherwise.[v] 

As far as anybody is concerned, whether you’re religious or not, there was a moment of creation which we can discernibly know about as we have the exacting tools of modern cosmology which confirms this in the well supported (albeit incomplete) big bang theory. Regardless of whether you attribute a supernatural cause or a naturalistic cause to creation, this is all any of us can assume—that creation occurred. We can’t just assume any “purpose” behind it. That would be imputing human values on a valueless system, which is a huge mistake. This notion that the universe exists for a purpose is a metaphysical notion which cannot be derived from looking at the universe. In actuality, there was no reason for the universe to begin—it just did—it happened. Truthfully, the universe likely sprang from nothing as Stephen Hawking demonstrated mathematically over thirty years ago, showing how the universe could have arisen from a quantum field of virtual particles (the closest thing to nothing there is).[vi] To posit intent behind creation takes us outside of what the evidence allows for and changes the argument from a scientifically observable phenomenon to a philosophical consideration about the nature of the first cause and takes us into the realm of ontological conjecture.

Theologians love to latch onto first cause arguments for the very reason that, within their theological frame of mind, they can readily reconstruct the world according to their doctrinal understanding, having the preconceived notion of God’s existence, thereby deduce intent and purpose from a first cause event. From here a rudimentary cosmological argument can be argued, but only hypothetically I might add, since it has the problem of assuming what it wishes to prove. This form of reasoning I find fault with since it basically goes something like this: the universe exists, thus we know that the universe was created, which we can detect and reasonably know about, therefore creation denotes causality, causality denotes intent, intent requires an “intelligence” with purpose in mind, thus the conclusion becomes God created it, and so God must exist. But you can only arrive at this conclusion if you first posit that God must be the cause which you seek to define. If you’re wondering whether this line of a priori reasoning is valid—it’s not—since minus God the universe would still be here.[vii]

At any rate, assuming that which you wish to prove is faulty causality, a known logic fallacy. It does us no good. This is why naturalistic atheists like myself deny the cosmological argument for the existence of God. There is just not enough evidence to say it is so. Anyone who claims otherwise is relying far too much a priori reasoning, theological conjecture, and pure speculation about things impossible to demonstrably confirm. As such, purpose here cannot just be tacitly assumed.

Even so, for fun we might wish to momentarily give Christian theologians the benefit of the doubt and ask what would that “purpose” look like if God did supposedly create the universe with intent? One possible answer could be one which is finely tuned so that it is capable of developing sentient life with conscious minds which would be capable of detecting God, namely us! As egocentric as it sounds, assuming that God deliberately intended the universe to sustain life so that we could exist, if we grant all this, the most we could assume is that somewhere in all this apparently fine-tuned design God has a master plan. Knowing what that master plan exactly is would be another matter entirely, and one which would take us into the realm of metaphysical assumptions supported by dubious reports of divine revelation. However, if this wasn’t bad enough, there is a huge gaping hole in this line of reasoning for other reasons as well. Richard Carrier elucidates further:

Even the Christian proposal that God designed the universe, indeed “finely tuned” it to be the perfect mechanism for producing life, fails to predict the universe we see. A universe perfectly designed for life would easily, readily, and abundantly produce and sustain it. Most of the contents of that universe would be conducive to life or benefit life. Yet that is not what we see. Instead, almost the entire universe is lethal to life—in fact, if we put all the lethal vacuum of outer space swamped with deadly radiation into an area the size of a house, you would never find the comparably microscopic speck of area that sustains life. Would you conclude that the house was built to serve and benefit that subatomic speck? Hardly. Yet that is the house we live in. The Christian theory completely fails to predict this—while atheism predicts exactly this.[viii]  

The universe we observe contradicts the Christian claim that there was purpose behind God’s creating sentient life in the first place, and brings us back to where we began, squarely in the house of naturalism.[ix] Carrier puts the case to rest by informing that “Given the lack of any clear evidence for God, and the fact that (apart from what humans do) everything we’ve seen has been caused by immutable natural elements and forces, we should sooner infer that immutable natural elements and forces are behind it all.”[x]

Understandably, naturalism does paint a grim scenario, but that’s simply because most living creatures are disturbed by pain and suffering and we humans are no exception. Those who have sentience and can reflect upon their own mortality, and subsequently will also have a healthy fear of death, but even so, as the ex-Evangelical minister Dan Barker has reassured, “Truth is truth. It shouldn’t matter what any of us wants to believe. The fact that life is ultimately meaningless does not mean it is not immediately meaningful.”[xi] I personally find consolation in this thought. It’s inspirational to me that even as we live in a doomed universe we can still find meaning in life.

Nihilism?—There Ain’t No Way—No How!
Philosophically speaking, naturalism may ultimately mean non-existence as the universe cools to its eventual heat death, but meanwhile, such inevitability doesn’t have to mean the existence we have is meaningless or trivial. As a result of this understanding we can precisely maintain that naturalism should not be confused with nihilism. Additionally, nihilism is the rejection of everything meaningful while there is nothing to suggest a naturalistic worldview would necessarily cause us to reject anything other than the supernatural.

Extra support, which makes the distinction crystal clear, is found in the principle of double effect. The principle of double effect states that an action that has both good and bad results may be morally permissible, and that such acts are permissible if: 

1.     The action is not wrong in itself, (ii) the bad consequence is not that which is intended.
2.     The good is not itself a result of the bad consequence, and
3.     The two consequences are commensurate. 

Consequently, when the principle of double effect is applied to both naturalism and nihilism we find that naturalism (according to its proper definition) is morally permissible where nihilism is not. Although the universe will die, according to the second law of thermodynamics, it is a morally neutral consequence of the physical laws of nature. The universe does not choose to freeze you to death; get over yourself for one second! We just so happen to inhabit a universe which is slowly going to freeze and where life will eventually become impossible to sustain. A spot of bad luck, not for us of course, but for whoever is alive when that cooling off period comes to pass—so we’re the lucky ones, you might say. But this doesn’t imply nihilism in any way whatsoever. This distinction should settle once and for all whether naturalistic atheism equals nihilism. It does not.

As we have seen there is no logical progression from holding a naturalistic worldview to the dismissal of all worldviews, just as there is no correlation between atheism, the rejection of or lack of belief in any god or gods, and the total rejection of all beliefs. In conclusion, does naturalistic atheism entail nihilism? No it doesn’t. There is no reason to believe it goes that far, and to assume so is a stretch of the imagination which goes too far outside of what is reasonable to believe.

[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, sect. 5
[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, sect. 52
[iii] I quote the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy here since it contains a more comprehensive overview on the philosophy of Nihilism and is better suited to define it beyond the standard definition. The Oxford Dictionary of English (2nd Ed. 2005) defines Nihilism as [mass noun]: the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.
               [v] Available online:
[vi] See the transcript of Hawking’s lecture on how the universe instantaneously “popped” into existence at:
[vii] See the philosopher Quentin Smith’s essay “Kalam Cosmological Argument for Atheists” in which Smith shows how a Cosmological Argument may in fact prove a creator-less universe, and instead predicts a natural universe formed from nothing in accord with current theories of quantum mechanics and big bang cosmology. PDF available online at:
[ix] See: Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism by Richard Carrier.
[x] Richard Carrier, Why I am Not a Christian, part 4, sec. 4 & 5, available online:
[xi] Dan Barker, godless, p.347

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