Against Atheistic Existentialism

Jehne Lunden asks why I don’t identify as an existentialist:

I’d be interested in your thoughts on existentialism. It seems it gets a bad wrap by both the philosophical community and the public at large.

I understand that you are a Nietzschean scholar. Apparently he never called himself an existentialist. I am not versed enough on Nietzsche to know whether or not I would regard him to be one or not. I only mention this to inform you that my interest in existentialism isn’t tied to his writings.

Existentialism is my metaphysical paradigm. I think that we are born, live as physical beings on earth, and then die. That’s it. There is no god, karma, nor fate that has predestined our life’s purpose. We are free to choose our life’s course. Of course the environment and genetics will limit our agency.

Therefore, we must give our lives meaning. Perhaps we can find it through the connections we have with our fellow beings or through creating art, music, or literature.

This philosophy is enough for me. It can be bleak but it is the only one I’ve come across that makes sense to me. All others encompass leaps of faith and wishful thinking.

Why don’t more atheists adopt the existentialist label? After all, atheism isn’t a philosophy, creed, nor belief system. You advocate an atheistic religion. Why not advocate atheistic existentialism? We don’t all need rituals, community, and moral codes to be connected to our metaphysical belief system. At least I don’t.

Is it possible that most self-described atheists don’t even realize that existentialism is an option?

First, quickly, Nietzsche could not identify himself as an existentialist because he came decades before that cultural and philosophical movement. Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche are commonly among other 19th Century figures thought to be the godfathers of existentialism, but it is a 20th Century phenomenon.

I resent the influence of the atheistic existentialists of the mid-20th Century because they promulgated all sorts of notions that objective meaning and objective value were impossible outside of the Abrahamic God. They played right into the Christian’s paradigms. They adopted as their own notions that the world without the Abrahamic God was a nihilistic one and by doing so they trapped many atheists within a false Christian dialectic that favored the Christians.

Nietzsche was a proto-existentialist insofar as he emphasized the pressures on the post-Christian West in general and on individuals in particular to create new values for themselves in the wake of what he saw as the death of God. Unlike generations past who could be deceived that their values came from some other worldly source, some gods, we had to be the ones to assume the responsibility of creating our own values. This meant we had to become “like gods”—at least as we would perceive ourselves from within the deluded received paradigm in which only gods create values.

It has always been humans making the value judgments and creating the institutions to perpetuate them and to remake the world according to them. Now we live in an era in which we cannot escape this responsibility and pretend that we are simply receiving these values from on high. And, yes, when we try to make new traditions for expressing our new values, we get laughed at because new traditions lack “that old tradition smell” that gives them a weighty feel for authority-deferent human minds. This makes sense to an extent. Received traditions are only worth our attention to the extent that their success over many years gives them credibility as wise guides. To the extent that they have become outdated or have all along hindered some goods, they need to be vigorously queried. But to the extent that things are good and they are good in part due to the role played by existing traditions—tradition at least deserves a thorough hearing before it is altered in many cases.

With new traditions staked on new values, there is a great deal of danger and uncertainty. There is so much that is unproven in them. There is so much prediction in them. Precisely the part of us that is looking for something tested and trustworthy in tradition is the part of us that is put on edge by new values and new traditions. But Nietzsche called for them repeatedly.

And in doing this, Nietzsche went beyond mere existentialism. He did not envision a future of isolated individuals with no shared traditional or values bonds. The values creators of the future might have to break with old traditions but not with all traditions. And Nietzsche was deeply naturalistic. There are naturalistic value judgments which run all throughout his work. He was suspicious of moral language as too superstitiously convinced of absolutes. But nonetheless he believed pretty clearly that there were objective differences between health and sickness. And he talks about the possibilities of naturalistic moralities, developed based on both scientifically accurate and emotionally affirmative takes on reality, which could help create the best humans. Such moralities would be in some real sense better than the “slave moralities” that he accused of turning humans against the best humans, against the best in humanity, against their bodies, and ultimately against themselves.

And I basically agree that there can be naturalistic sources of values, including moral values, and of meaning. I reject the idea that a godless nature is one devoid of objective value and objective meaning. I think that’s a Christian lie which atheists should reject with all the others. And I think that whatever an individual atheist’s loner proclivities (and I surely have some of them myself as a quick scan of my life circumstances would attest), atheists should not embrace the disconnected life as a hallmark of atheism. It’s not a solution to overcoming the hegemony of authoritarian religions to just skip out on building communities distinctly oriented around raising families in common, transmitting values in common, celebrating ideals in common, marking major life events through shared rituals, etc.

The existentialism which was ascendant among atheists in the mid-20th Century was a recipe for self-paralysis and mainstream irrelevance which gave all the goods of morality, meaning, value, hope, and community away to theistic religions by encouraging atheists and religious people to falsely define atheists as nihilists trying to figure out why they shouldn’t just “be honest” and kill themselves.

Yes, we are what we do, yes there is pressure to figure out our own values both individually and collectively, without pawning off the responsibility on God. But no, we do not live in a universe devoid of meaning, and, no, values are not arbitrary emotional judgments of human beings, and, no, the rejection of community rooted in shared values and shared metaphysical speculation are not the most honest, best, or most necessary implications of atheism.

For more of my criticisms of nihilism and defenses of naturalistic value and meaning, please read If You Don’t Believe In Objective Values, Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either, and the posts linked to within it.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.