Can Atheism Lead to Nihilism?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The arch-atheist Friedrich Nietzsche certainly believed so, but atheists nowadays have largely disavowed their atheist fathers.  Atheists want to shake their reputation as depressing nihilists and instead tell the world how happy they are.  Freedom from religion is your ticket to joy and fulfillment.

In the UK, atheists paid for a bus campaign that featured the following message: “There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  What a cheerful campaign!

Some in the atheist community, however, disagree with this dressing up of the atheist message.  Julian Baggini, writing for the Guardian, said recently, “Yes, life without God can be bleak. Atheism is about facing up to that.”  Baggini, to his credit, thinks that atheists who tell people to forget God and just enjoy their lives are completely missing the point of atheism.

Baggini writes:

Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life?

He continues:

Stressing the jolly side of atheism not only glosses over its harsher truths, it also disguises its unique selling point. The reason to be an atheist is not that it makes us feel better or gives us a more rewarding life. The reason to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that, accepting the consequences, even if it makes us less happy. The more brutal facts of life are harsher for us than they are for those who have a story to tell in which it all works out right in the end and even the most horrible suffering is part of a mystifying divine plan. If we don’t freely admit this, then we’ve betrayed the commitment to the naked truth that atheism has traditionally embraced.

Baggini finishes his essay by reminding atheists of the ever-present threat of nihilism that Nietzsche warned of.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the threat of moral nihilism. Atheists are quite rightly keen to counter the accusation that life without God cannot be moral. The British Humanist Association, for instance, claims that “Right and wrong can be explained by human nature alone and do not require religious teaching”. But, just as with happiness, there is a need to distinguish the possibility of atheist morality from its inevitable actuality. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to ground ethics either hasn’t done much moral philosophy or wasn’t concentrating when they did. Although morality is arguably just as murky for the religious, at least there is some bedrock belief that gives a reason to believe that morality is real and will prevail. In an atheist universe, morality can be rejected without external sanction at any point, and without a clear, compelling reason to believe in its reality, that’s exactly what will sometimes happen.

Read that last section carefully, because Baggini is arguing, as we have argued here many times, that atheists have a hard time grounding morality, much harder than the religious do.  Speaking to his atheists friends, he says, “Anyone who thinks it’s easy to ground ethics either hasn’t done much moral philosophy or wasn’t concentrating when they did.”

Baggini also admits that “in an atheist universe, morality can be rejected without external sanction at any point, and without a clear, compelling reason to believe in its reality, that’s exactly what will sometimes happen.”  In other words, on atheism, the ability to rationally reject morality is built into the system.  There is nothing that ultimately guarantees that morality can be grounded, and so an atheist who decides that morality is simply optional is within their rational rights to do so.  And, according to Baggini, that is exactly what sometimes happens.

  • tildeb

    Baggini is no friend of New Atheists or New Atheism and is the reason why the Courtier’s Reply has gained such notoriety. Baggini is a philosopher searching for the elusive middle ground between two incompatible methods of inquiry – the scientific and religious. He has yet to find it, but this doesn’t seem to slow him down from criticizing New Atheists for pointing this out.

    Yet for all that baggage, he quite rightly points out the removing one authority for moral guidance can be risky. Getting rid of a Mussolini might mean the trains won’t run on time, or getting rid of a Hitler might mean a blow to the eugenics movement, or getting rid of the Taliban might mean girls can now go to school, but the results may or may not be nihilistic when religious moral authority is questioned and removed. When the moral authority of a religious framework is undermined, we may indeed face a loss of a social structure (resulting in what appears to be some danger from social nihilism), it’s true, but this is a necessary step towards returning moral autonomy to those from whom it has been taken (for their own good, supposedly): the agents who actually exercise it, namely, the individual.

    Is Baggini correct to point out that this danger is real? Sure. But is nihilism a reasonable condition to prevail if we remove religious morality from the public domain?

    Well, what does the evidence from reality allow us to adduce? Let’s hypothesize.

    There should be a direct correlation between a loss of religious moral authority and an increase in social nihilism demonstrated if this danger is true. Such losses of social moral structure by the loss of religious morals imposed on the public should reveal greater rates of all kinds of anti-social behaviour. Is this what we find in reality?

    In fact, there IS a direct correlation… but it is inverse: the higher the rates of religiosity, the higher the rates of all kinds of anti-social behaviour. The lower the rate of religiosity, the lower the rates of all kind of anti-social behaviours.

    Predicting nihilism based on the loss of religious morality imposed through the public domain is not supported by evidence from reality. The evidence indicates that if we want less moral nihilism, we need to reduce the pernicious effects of religious morality in the public domain.

  • Boz

    “In an atheist universe, morality can be rejected without external sanction at any point, and without a clear, compelling reason to believe in its reality, that’s exactly what will sometimes happen.”

    I think it is a mistake to talk about ‘an atheist universe’ and imply that there is ‘an islamic universe’, where morality is real and will prevail.

    When in fact, there is only one universe that we all reside in.
    And our shared universe, everything will not turn out OK in the end. Regardless of whether we falsely believe it to be so.

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