The word “nihilism” (derived from the Latin root nihil, meaning nothing, that which does not exist) was popularized by Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), a 19th-century Russian writer, in his work Fathers and Children (1862) where he used it to define a form of scientism. Not long after this did it become an influential perspective within the Russian academy where rationalism and materialism became the primary sources of knowledge.
Nihilism is not a new philosophy but one that can be found in the ideas of notable historical schools of thought. In ancient Greece, nihilism took the form of a skepticism over knowledge claims (“epistemological nihilism“) by a school known as the Skeptics who rejected the possibility of knowledge and truth. Moreover, existential nihilism denotes a total rejection of all objective value, purpose, and meaning to human existence (1). It is an atheistic perspective underpinned by a rejection of the existence of a God or Creator as well as religious truth. It also claims that objective moral values and duties do not exist and that no one action is preferable to any other (often referred to as “moral nihilism“). The nihilist claims that there is no ultimate reason why the universe exists, that there is no goal towards which it is moving, that nothing is of value, that existence is totally meaningless, that human beings are biological accidents, and that there is no life after death.
The most influential proponent of this school was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), sometimes called the father of nihilism and famous for declaring the death of God. Nietzsche defined human existence as being Das Nichtige (the nothingness) and stated that “the wisest men of all ages have judged alike: it is worthless” (2). Although Nietzsche accepted this he did not consider it to be pleasant, particularly because he saw how it would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions,
“Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plough; one destroys” (3).
Reason had shown that all sacred and privileged beliefs and truths were no more than myth not warranted to believe in. This realization would, however, have disastrous consequences for human civilization,
“What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism… For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end” (4).
Other thinkers articulated and explored similar views, such as Martin Heidegger, Helmut Thielicke, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, all of whom found humanity to experience an existential challenge when confronted with apparent meaninglessness and nothingness.
Challenges and Criticisms
Attempts to avoid the implications of nihilism have been a challenge to proponents seemingly unable to live the philosophy out consistently.
The atheist writer Richard Dawkins stated in River out of Eden (1995) 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). Such a statement is unambiguous in that human existence possesses no existential and moral value. However, this lacks coherence with Dawkins’ other work where readers can find many of his ethical beliefs and value judgments. But if life truly had no value then what is one to make of this apparent inconsistency?
And what about human purpose? As one philosopher states, on nihilism,
“both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever” (5).
If such a scenario is true, as the nihilist believes, then none of the work he has ever done nor any of the achievements he has made amounts to anything meaningful. If Richard Dawkins really believes that life has no purpose then what value could he ever ascribe to his work conducted within a purposeless universe?
A further claim is that nihilism is unlivable. Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures and many would be unable to live with nihilistic convictions that reject all meaning and purpose itself. This inability is not an argument against nihilism per se, but it suggests that as a philosophy it is inconsistent with most human thought and experience, which is that the world and life are meaningful.
Many philosophers disagree with moral nihilism and argue that objective moral values and duties do exist because human beings experience them. On this view, raping and murdering innocents is evil because it concurs with our experience of the world, and based upon this experience, objective moral values exist. If this is the case then it would suggest moral nihilism must be a false philosophy. Further, if moral values and duties can be grounded in a transcended source, such as God, then it means that existential nihilism cannot be true because it is predicated on atheism, namely the rejection of God. A critic might point out that if there really is no such thing as moral values then it is odd that nihilists experience and articulate moral convictions, and expect these to be taken seriously.
Epistemological nihilism also faces a challenge. Nietzsche stated that “Every belief, every considering something true is necessarily false because there is simply no true world” (7). Taken at face value, this statement would undercut itself. If every belief about something thought to be true is necessarily false then that must also, by definition, include Nietzsche’s own convictions, nihilistic and other.
1. Almeida, Michael. “Two Challenges to Moral Nihilism.” The Monist 93(1): 96-105. p. 96; Altizer, Thomas. 1994. “The Challenge of Nihilism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62(4): 1013-1022. p. 1013.
2. Graham, David. 2014. The Very Best of Friedrich Nietzsche: Quotes from a Great Thinker. U.K.: David Graham.
3. Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2015. Delphi Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Delphi Classics. 24.
4. Ferrer, Daniel Fidel. n.d. Nietzsche’s Notebook of 1887-1888. p. 126.
5. Craig, William Lane. n.d. The Absurdity of Life without God. Available.
6. Dawkins, Richard. 1995. River out of Eden. New York: Basic Books. p. 131-32.
7. Spinks, Lee. 2003. Friedrich Nietzsche. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 105.
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.”
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”: https://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2015/08/christians-or-non-christians-who-suffer.html
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