Atheism and nihilism

by Marcus Loane

"It is not hardness of heart or evil passions that drive certain individuals to atheism, but rather a scrupulous intellectual honesty." - Steve Allen


Atheism is the lack of belief in any gods. Atheism may be due to lack of knowledge of any god ideas. If someone has never heard of the concept of a god they are atheist. Many Buddhists do not believe in a god or the question is not important to them so Buddhists can be atheists. Atheist does not mean anti-religion. It just means lacking a belief in any god. Other atheists have actively investigated the possibility of the existence of a god (usually because of a religious upbringing) and as a result lack belief in any god. I am of the latter variety.

I acquired a belief in the Bible God as a child. I was brought up as Protestant - Presbyterian/Brethern and I was taught that every word in the Bible was literally true. That has had a large effect on who I am now. It is quite a traumatic process to discover that a lot of what you once believed is false. At a young age I could see the contradictions in Christianity. I asked questions but never got satisfactory answers. "Mysterious ways". "Just have faith". We look back and laugh at the Greek gods and Roman gods as obvious myths. In time everyone will do the same with Allah, Brahma, Jesus and other modern gods. I stopped believing in Bible-god when I was about thirteen years old, but what about a more generic sort of God? It was only later in my twenties that I seriously examined all the arguments. My conclusion was "There is no evidence or argument for the existence of any god therefore it is not rational to believe in any god."

Freedom of thought

Atheism is often painted as only negative or destructive. I see it as positive: It is the lack of belief in falsehoods, the lack of superstition and the lack of fear of the unknown. You are free to think for yourself. You do not have to accept dogma on the authority of others. No subject matter is "forbidden knowledge". There are no restraints on your thinking or what you can learn. The freedom to let your mind follow any line of enquiry without guilt or fear, is what religious belief denies millions of people.

I will never tire of the joy of learning something new.

Without a god, everything makes more sense. Everything falls into place. The contradictions and inconsistencies which popular conceptions of a god bring, disappear. "God does not exist" is the only solution to the thousand puzzles and questions that religious belief systems get bogged down in. You can have a worldview free of contradictions. The universe by itself has an underlying simplicity and elegance. God is unnecessary, incoherent, and explains nothing.

When you realise that your one and only life is all you have, you appreciate it much, much more.

Nihilism

Atheists are often accused of nihilism (nothing matters) and it is assumed that their lives must be bleak and meaningless. Now I am not a nihilist. I believe meaning comes from ourselves and nature, and theists believe meaning comes from God, but meaning is still there for the taking either way.

People ask "If we are just conglomerations of atomic particles, why does anything matter?" Things matter to us because we evolved so that things matter to us. Humans that love life and care about things are more likely to survive and leave offspring with those traits. We can't help feeling that things matter. Which particular things matter is up to the individual. What matters to me is the search for truth and acquiring knowledge. To that you could say, "but why should truth or knowledge matter? However you can always pose that particular "why" question regardless of what anyone says matters. Ask them why X matters and they say "because of Y". Ask them why Y matters and they say "because of Z". Ask them why Z matters and on it goes, ad infinitum. You can go on asking the "but why does that matter?" question whether we are conglomerations of atomic particles or if we have some kind of ethereal soul blob pulling the strings in the physical world. I can equally apply nihilism to a religious worldview. Why does it matter if God is displeased? Why does it matter if two billion and one souls go to Paradise instead of two billion and two? Really - in the big picture, why does it matter? If you can produce an answer to that I can simply say "Well why does that matter?" Religious worldviews are as susceptible to nihilism as an atheistic worldview.

A limited form of nihilism can lead to a wonderful sense of freedom. If nothing ultimately matters then many everyday worries start to seem ridiculous. Life becomes so much less serious, at least for those living in the comparatively rich Western societies. You get to choose what is of value to yourself rather than have it dictated from some authority. I have invented the term "positive nihilism" to describe this sense of freedom, this blank canvas view of life where we find what is meaningful to ourselves.

An evolutionary algorithm created meaning

Stars are born and they die. There will come a time approximately 5 billion years from now when our local star, the sun, will run out of hydrogen fuel, swell up and destroy all life on earth before it dies itself. Humanity or its evolved descendants will have been wiped out (unless they escape to other solar systems). What was it all for? I like to see human civilisation, or the whole evolutionary epic producing the diversity of all life, as a small nugget of meaning in a meaningless universe. Just because its time was brief does not make it less. Why should anything have to last forever to be of value?

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Marcus Loane