In my mind nihilism is of a most radical philosophy, it is also a philosophy that runs parallel to atheistic existentialism. The word “nihilist” was first coined by Ivan Turgenev, a 19th century Russian writer, in his work Fathers and Children where he used it to define a radical form of socialism. Not long after that nihilism would become an influential perspective in the Russian academy. Essentially, nihilism can be defined as “negative doctrines, total rejection of current beliefs, in religion or morals; a form of scepticism that denies all existence” (1).

As a philosophy it claims that there is no reason why the universe exists and that there is no goal towards which it is moving; that nothing is of value, that human existence is totally meaningless, that human beings are biological accidents, and that there is no life after death. On nihilism, suicide, one could argue, may actually be the more rational approach than to go on living a purposeless, torturous existence. And when it comes down to values, morals and ethics human existence is fully futile, and as a result of this personal satisfaction becomes the motive behind any form of behaviour.

Nihilism is also not new and we can see some of its sentiments reflected by the famous poet William Shakespeare who once called life “… a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (2). However, arguably the most influential modern nihilist was that of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, sometimes called the father of modern nihilism. Nietzsche would define human life as being Das Nichtige (the nothingness). He would also poignantly write that “Regarding life, the wisest men of all ages have judged alike: it is worthless” (3), and on the notion of hope for humanity he believed that it was “the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man” (3). And, very sadly, a tormented man Nietzsche would become prior to his death in 1900 at age 55. He would soon pen some letters to his friends that he called Wahnzettel (“Madness Letters”), and not long after was he overcome by dementia (4).

Nietzsche, however, was not the only person to have experienced the despair of nihilism and its philosophy. Some decades later the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung would be equally as bleak when he would say that “The vast neurotic misery of the world could be termed a neurosis of emptiness” (5). Further, in a more contemporary setting, especially in the worldview espoused by modern atheists, we see nihilism stick out like a sore thumb; for example, Richard Dawkins believes that “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (6). Similarly, the late William Provine claimed that “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either” (7).

I believe that atheists who make statements, much like that of Dawkins and Provine, cannot live consistently with their nihilism since they live out their lives as if love, morality, meaning, and value really do exist. I also believe that in the end it comes down to one’s view on the existence of God, as the philosopher John Frame captures. Frame writes: “The choice is between God and chaos, God and nothing, God and insanity” (8).

To this Nietzsche would undoubtedly agree.


1. Concise Oxford Dictionary. p.685.

2. Shakespeare, W. Macbeth, Act V, Scene V.

3. Graham, D. 2014. The Very Best of Friedrich Nietzsche: Quotes from a Great Thinker.

4. Sax, L. “What was the cause of Nietzsche’s dementia?” in Journal of Medical Biography 2003; 11: 47-54.

5. Quoted by Kaushik, R. in Architect of Human Destiny: Who Brings about Peace Or Chaos. p. 167.

6. Dawkins, R. 1995. River out of Eden. P. 131-32.

7. Provine, W. 1994. Origins Research. p. 9.

8. Frame, J. 1994. Apologetics to the Glory of God. p. 102.


3 responses to “Nihilism

  1. You make an enormous error when you equate atheism with nihilism, and when you assign a nihilist philosophy to Dawkins (who is a humanist).

    While the naturalist would agree with the nihilist belief that “there is no reason why the universe exists and that there is no goal towards which it is moving”, that conclusion does NOT necessarily lead to the conclusion that “human existence is totally meaningless”. The humanist believes that our lives have meaning – but rather than having that meaning being externally imposed, it is up to each of us to find (and create) meaning in our own lives.

    “Atheism” only defines what we DON’T believe in. Why do religious folks so often mistake it to be a definition of what we DO believe in?

    • Nihilism is atheistic in outlook, Rich. Just like naturalism, secular humanism, and materialism are.

      Relating to Dawkins I know he is not a nihilist. However, his claims are nihilistic in orientation – which is the point I made in the article.

      I am critical of secular humanism precisely because any alleged meaning is essentially subjectively orientated (meaning that it is an illusory construct in the face of existential despair in a meaningless universe) and a product wishful thinking. This is the case simply because at bottom there is no meaning in the universe so to create any is pointless. If meaning really objectively existed no-one would have to “create” it.

      Regarding your last part atheism is a belief system, a worldview. As the atheist philosopher Etienne Borne once remarked:

      “Atheism is the deliberate, definite, dogmatic denial of the existence of God… It is not satisfied with approximate or relative truth, but claims to see the ins and outs of the game quite clearly — being the absolute denial of the Absolute.”

  2. The cosmos remains a mystery to me, and God an ever bigger one.

    Nihilism, like atheism and even humanism, seem to stir up both fear and exhilaration, i.e., fear of death, and exhilaration at relying on one’s own discoveries and making one’s own choices in life. I think Christianity stirs up both fear and exhilaration too with its notion of being saved or damned. Certainly many Christians fear for their souls and those of their loved ones and the souls of everyone on earth for that matter, and that viewing one’s self as part of a divine comedy as Dante did, is exhilarating. On the other hand, many Christians also seem to retain a fear not simply of hell, but of death as nothingness, and mourn just as greatly as atheists do when someone they love has died. The thought of anyone becoming a nihilist, including themselves, i.e., accepting that death is the end, also seems to strike a note of fear into Christians. Though ancient Hebrews apparently were able to accept that everyone who died, even the prophets, simply went to the same place as the animals, i.e., Sheol, the shadow land of eternal death, never to return.

    Does nihilism and atheism drive people to commit suicide? Atheists usually point out that they have everything to live for and not a whole lot of things they are eager to die for. Also, Christians suffer depression and even commit suicide like everyone else according to these figures (at the end are some quotations from nihilists on suicide, including some of thoughts that one might call, “the lighter side of suicide”:

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