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.

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • InfraredEyes

    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.

    Absolutely agree. However, I wonder if we are due for a rethink of some existentialist ideas. We may be in a better position now to escape from what you call the Christian dialectic, simply because the church has lost a lot of its cultural power.

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com Ivan

    On the one hand, I definitely see how atheistic existentialism, and related currents of thought, can grant unnecessary ground to religion. I don’t think that atheism necessitates a sense of loss or despair or absurdist revolt. (At least not in the long term. Cut me some slack for now, ha ha.) But on the other hand, I don’t see how to avoid the conclusion that we do indeed live in a universe devoid of meaning. And I’m really looking forward to you tackling that later in the blogathon!

    • consciousness razor

      But on the other hand, I don’t see how to avoid the conclusion that we do indeed live in a universe devoid of meaning.

      It’s easy enough to avoid. Humans are of course part of the universe, and they can define what is meaningful to them. Thus, the universe isn’t devoid of meaning. We don’t need to construe “meaning” as being some kind of cosmic, ultimate significance: that since humans (almost certainly) won’t exist billions of years from now to find things meaningful, or that the scope of what we do find meaningful is limited, nothing at all is meaningful. It simply isn’t the case that everything has to be meaningful in order for anything to be meaningful. If you think something doesn’t meaning anything for you, then it shouldn’t fill you with existential despair or whatever — indeed, you’d have to assume it has significance just to come to that conclusion in the first place.

    • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com Ivan

      Yes, I agree that of course humans value things, and ascribe meaning to things. But this valuing and ascribing does not correspond to anything ultimate or objective beyond itself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jehne.lunden Jehne Lunden

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions. Your insight and knowledge leave me with much to think about. Also, thank you for providing the link to additional information.

  • Anat

    Daniel, why is it important to you that values and meaning be objective? I think the demand for objectivity is simply a derailment. Because then you have the burden of evidence of whether those values are indeed objective or merely subjective but widely agreed-upon. The values of religious believers aren’t objective either (though they may delude themselves into thinking that they are).

    And why can’t agreed-upon subjective values not do everything that objective values do?

    (And why is the conclusion from nihilism that one should kill oneself? The conclusion from nihilism is that one should enjoy life as long as it is enjoyable and realize when it is no longer worth the effort.)

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com/ Ivan

    I, at least, wouldn’t draw any should‘s from nihilism. No, it’s not the case that one should kill oneself. But neither is it the case that one should enjoy life as long as it is enjoyable and realize when it is no longer worth the effort. There’s no should involved. So one can enjoy life, one can kill oneself, one can do whatever one chooses–because there is never any should to the contrary.

  • consciousness razor

    Yes, I agree that of course humans value things, and ascribe meaning to things.

    Then it makes no sense to say the universe is “devoid of meaning.”

    But this valuing and ascribing does not correspond to anything ultimate or objective beyond itself.

    If you say so, but it’s still possibly objective. I haven’t seen anything demonstrating otherwise. What’s the use of the words “ultimate” and “beyond itself” in this sentence? Are they supposed to mean anything? Do you believe scientific objectivity is “ultimate” and “beyond itself”? I don’t.

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com Ivan

    I erred on the side of brevity, since this is someone else’s blog. I’ll try to clarify now, and if you want to carry the discussion further, perhaps we could do so on my blog, or by email.

    First, let me clarify that by “beyond itself,” I meant “beyond itself”—i.e. with the word “itself” referring in that sentence to “this valuing and ascribing.” So the sentence could be more perspicuously restated as follows: Human valuing and human ascribing of meaning do not correspond to anything ultimate or objective; human valuing and human ascribing of meaning do not correspond to anything beyond human valuing and human ascribing of meaning. I hope this clears up what I meant by corresponding to something beyond itself, and dissolves your challenge about whether I believe that scientific objectivity is beyond itself.

    Now, I’ll take it from the top. The material universe does not care about human life, human morality, human intelligence, etc. Neither does the Earth, or the evolutionary process that has created us. These things are fairly obvious, right?

    Starting from the other side, we humans obviously end up caring about things, valuing things, ascribing meaning to things. Having evolved as intelligent social animals, and being deeply influenced by the cultures in which we are raised, we normally value and ascribe meaning to things.

    The question at issue here is what this human valuing might correspond to, or agree with. There is no argument about the human valuing itself—nihilists like me are perfectly aware that humans value things! The question is whether there is anything more. Are our human instincts relating to justice, or altruism, or valuing our own lives in some sense true or good? Or are they really no different from cat instincts relating to aloofness, or killing everything possible?

    Do you have a particular answer in mind? Are you one to talk about society, or utilitarianism, or Kant? I’m well aware that large groups of humans value some of the same things; that certain things are objectively more effective at attaining certain specified goals, e.g. human wellbeing; that certain ethical codes would stand a better chance than others of being collectively agreed to by a group, or of creating fairness and equity across a group; etc. But so what? How does any of this give life meaning? Isn’t human valuing still just human valuing, and nothing more?

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com Ivan

    I should add to the third paragraph that not only do the universe, the Earth, and evolution not care about the things we care about—which is a rather pedantic point, since these aren’t minds, and they don’t care about anything—but more substantially, the things we care about do not significantly match or correspond with the universe, the Earth, and evolution. For example, I can not only pedantically say that evolution doesn’t care about justice or altruism. But I can say, more substantially, that justice and altruism don’t correspond to evolution in any significant sense. Sure, our instincts relating to justice and altruism were produced through evolution. As were our instincts for violence and exploitation. As were the instincts of “nice” animals like rabbits and “mean” animals predators and parasites. Therefore, evolution gives us no grounds upon which to make a principled distinction that favors justice or altruism.

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com Ivan

    That comment posted right away, but the one it refers to is stuck awaiting moderation…


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