Christians vs. Mormons vs. Hindus vs. Democrats vs. Republicans vs. Alt-Rights vs. Utilitarians vs. Existentialists vs. [insert belief here]. Isn’t it exhausting? The constant squabbling and never ending chain of opposing beliefs. All the debate and fracas about proving who knows best. For eons, humanity has waged wars, founded religions, established governments, etc., all in the name of moral justification.
What if there were no morals? I’m not talking about atheism. Some religions and ethicists have circumvented the need for a god/goddess. I am talking about moral truths and laws of right and wrong. Do those exist? I am not going to sell my beliefs to you because I don’t have any. I’m a nihilist.
First off, let’s make a distinction clear. Nihilism and atheism are two separate conclusions. Atheism denies the existence of any god(s) or goddess(es). Atheists are considered independent thinkers, counter-hegemonic, cosmopolitan chic. Of course, while it may be considered blasphemous in Bible Belt country, atheism today is more widely accepted than before. And to be an atheist doesn’t necessarily make one a bad person. After all, they have other avenues to believe in like utilitarianism, existentialism or humanism. Greg Epstein, author and Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, summarizes the beliefs of good atheists in a sentence from his book “Good Without God”: “There is no life after death, so offer kindness to all, not in the next life but now.” But where atheists depart from formal religion saying, “We don’t need a god to be good,” I [and other nihilists] reply with “Well who said good and bad are real, too?”
Nihilism is the assertion that moral truths like good and evil, right and wrong, are as fictitious as the deities atheists denounce. It’s no longer a question of deciding what is good and bad without the guidance of a preacher, it is just deciding there is no good or bad to choose from.
After this point, many misconceptions emerge on what being a nihilist means. Again, I am not selling my beliefs to you, but I want to address these common misconceptions of what nihilism entails. Believers have altars and politicians have pulpits to air their defenses. I have a laptop.
The following are common stereotypes and assumptions people make about what nihilism does to a person. Nihilists are considered destructive, untrustworthy, suicidal or just plain confused. That simply is not the case.
The Destructive Nihilist
A nihilist believes there is no true value in words like good and bad. Morality is a conventional tool which humanity created for itself, by itself. For opponents of nihilism, it follows then that nihilists are morally absent and a danger to society. They imagine nihilists murdering and bombing and so on because nihilists wouldn’t know how to distinguish between good and bad actions.
My rebuttal: Why are nihilists categorized as inherently destructive? Yes, we don’t believe in moral truths, but is demonizing nihilists truly founded? This assumption that nihilists are destructive seems to branch from the argument that people need religion or some equivalent to be a “good” person. If that is the case, explain the Crusades or ISIS to me. Explain how the most ruthless of kings and destructive of dictators can preach divine appointment or moral justification if it’s really the nihilists society should be worried about.
In short, having some moral belief is not sufficient on its own for one to be a productive, altruistic member of society. Ultimately, whether nihilist or otherwise, violent people will be violent. The concern is that humanity needs a big book or normative philosophy to prevent unnecessary violence, but that hasn’t stopped killers and tyrants before. Just as the pendulum can swing from destructive to altruistic, nihilists can be either or somewhere in between. I choose to be altruistic — not because I believe karma or moral goodness expects it, but because I choose to be altruistic for no other reason than to be giving. Nihilists aren’t all killers, just like how preachers aren’t all saints.
The Untrustworthy Nihilist
Apparently, you can’t trust a nihilist either, at least that is what I’ve heard. The stereotype of the deceitful nihilist seems to be concluded after considering if nihilists don’t believe in good/bad then they have no ethical obligation to keep promises or duties. In other words, nihilists are liars that will not honor any commitments made with them.
My rebuttal: Liars lie, but not all nihilists are liars. Similar to the destructive nihilist double standard, this assumption implies moral believers don’t lie because their morality obligates them to tell the truth. We all know that’s not true, so again, belief in morality isn’t enough for someone to be completely trustworthy. Some Methodists lie about email scandals and some Evangelical Christians institute scam colleges.
The point is that, again, morality alone isn’t sufficient to keep an individual from deceitful behavior, so labeling nihilists as inherently untrustworthy is intellectually dishonest.
The Suicidal Nihilist
This is the idea that morality gives people a purpose in life, and that without it we are empty shells with the bleakest of outlooks. After all, if there is no true meaning to life or moral goodness, then what is there to live for?
My rebuttal: Is life not enough of a reason to live? I understand that life on Earth is no piece of cake. For some people, the world is a cruel, unjust, despicable place. But does it follow then that life is not a sufficient enough reason to live? Do we need some grand deity or moral tally score at the end of our lives to put meaning into living on Earth? I am comfortable with not having an afterlife or cosmic scoreboard tracking my good deeds. I don’t feel the need to have my experiences on Earth be validated later on. I still appreciate life and people. I still find art beautiful, rainy days wonderful and cartoons magical. I look up to J. K. Rowling and Nathaniel Hawthorne as great writers, and my family and friends are dear to me. All these statements do not conflict with my belief in nothingness. I understand some may need a moral mission in life, but nihilists are not all suicidal for not having one.
The Fake Nihilist
No, I’m not an atheist. No, I’m not an existentialist. No, I’m not a humanist. No, I’m not an agnostic. Nihilism is a harsh position to relate to for many people. It’s not like finding similarities between a pastor and rabbi or understanding the doubt of an atheist or agnostic. Nihilism throws everything out the door and rejects the basic concept of morality. Some people handle that by labeling us as “confused.” They refuse to dignify our belief in moral absence by properly recognizing it — instead infantilizing our capability to understand nuanced philosophies and maturity to recognize our own beliefs.
My final rebuttal: Why are you threatened? How does my belief threaten your own spiritual autonomy? It is not as if I am frequenting your home regularly and asking to share the words of Friedrich Nietzsche. I do not set off across the globe in hopes of converting the religiously diverse into a homogenous network of global nihilism.
I respect the beliefs of my family (all of which are one variant of Christianity or another). I respect my friends that identify as Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon, Catholic, etc. I do not degrade their beliefs by claiming they just haven’t figured it out yet or they are just confused. In the same way, I am not confused: I am a nihilist. I am just as capable of making that identification as the next fellow.
Nihilism may not be your cup of tea, and I am not asking for it to be. But in an age where religious tolerance and acceptance are widely paraded, don’t forget that it is a diversity of thought that should be respected, not just religion.