I don’t see either of these things as something that I ever wanted to embrace. I see them as philosophical problems to be overcome, and nothing really to be celebrated. Of course I say that while at the same time having been very influenced on the topic of atheism by Christopher Hitchens. My whole life I’ve been trying to find something that wasn’t there, and I suppose that atheism is a kind of giving up on that for me, rather than a position for me to dig in and defend. Nihilism I guess is an outgrowth of that.
I suppose I need to start off with defining what I mean by these words. There is a lot of political passion wrapped up in these words that makes the idea into different things for different people.
By atheism I mean that I have never been satisfied by anyone’s arguments or proofs for the existence of a creator being that I cannot see, and primarily because it usually follows that this thing they want me to believe in is also proof of their authority over me as well as all kinds of other things that don’t seem to logically follow. I suppose if you made an argument in a supreme being or creator without any of the rituals or commandments of religion, that is without relying on “revealed” truth but kept to logical arguments, I might come around. I might even be inclined to want to believe it. Nobody ever stops there, though. One minute you’re talking about prime movers and uncaused causes but you let your mind stray for a few seconds and suddenly this god has a name, a chosen people, opinions about how you cut your hair, and also there is a very special hat you need to wear. I just can’t go from “someone had to create all this” to “come join me in this little room and describe to me all the times you’ve masturbated since last we met.” I use confession as an example because I was, believe it or not, Catholic for a while. Not a born Catholic, but sort of a phase I went through after 9/11 and then gradually decided was not all that it had been sold to me as. I just spent a year working in a conservative synagogue and could easily descibe lots of other nonsense. Because it always seems to come to that. One minute you’re sincerely wanting to contemplate or discover the great truths of life and the next thing you know there is all this other stuff that seems wildly arbitrary and not a little bit silly to someone who wasn’t raised into it. And I was not raised into it. My grandmother made a couple of attempts, taking me to church with her and making sure I had a child’s picture Bible, but without someone forcing me to go, forcing me to accept the authority of the church and the authority of their traditions, I never willingly participated. So in that aspect I suppose I expect religious people to approach me with their reasons as if I were an uncontacted tribesman from the New World that they are not allowed to whip or otherwise bodily threaten. And they can’t do it. At my most receptive to the idea of organized religion the most pious I ever was happened at my actual confirmation ceremony, and it was all really downhill from there. I had taken the adult conversion classes and had been interested in their ideas, but afterward kept on reading and kept on questioning and eventually it all sort of got blown apart. And not to pick on the Catholics, I also tried this with Buddhism in much the same way, only this time I never bothered to take the step of officially joining, I just never went back after the introductory classes.
What logically follows is “if there is no intelligent creator, then what is the meaning of all this?” Nihilism was a slow knife, gradually sliding into my brain as all the arguments for God X, Y, or Z drained away. What do I mean specifically by “nihilism?” I mean that there doesn’t seem to be a meaning overall. There are little meanings all over the place. There doesn’t seem to be a grand, unifying meaning as might be embodied in the person of a creator. Meaning of this kind is what religion presumes to deliver. What is the meaning of life? So that when you die you get to go to heaven and be with the creator and sadness and sorrow will cease to be. Because life seems to be toil and suffering. There is a part in the beginning where in better societies the children are protected from the harsh realities of life, and in the best versions are prepared to deal with them. Things get worse following puberty, but by middle age you’re peaking and things seem OK, but then the aches and pains of old age start to creep in and you can’t help but notice that all the older people you know are quite literally falling apart and eventually dropping dead, and nothing about that is pleasant to look forward to. When our loved ones die they don’t come back. And so it is natural that we fear these things, and religon provides mental relief from existential dread and the sorrows of loss. I like the idea of heaven. I want to see my grandmothers again. I want to meet my grandfathers. My parents are still alive but when they inevitably die I will miss them terribly and the thought of being able to see them again would be fantastic. And like any problem that people have, there is someone selling you an answer to that. And we want to believe, or we’re scared not to, or we were raised from a young age to never seriously question it, so again, we go from “yes, it is logical that there is a creator god” to “and also if you don’t do what I tell you to do he’s going to kick your ass forever.” But I’ve never really had that problem. My problem is that since none of those religious arguments were ever convincing to me, then everything else in its absence seems arbitrary.
Let me explain. There is a misconception out there that nihilism is a position unto itself. These are usually the same people that think atheism is itself a religion. Nihilism, as I understand it, is an obstacle to one’s peace of mind. It’s the problem posed immediately after the religious “leap of faith” moment. Because every organized religion has to come to that moment, the point where you have to admit that none of what the priest is peddling is verifiable and you say to yourself, “I choose to believe this nonsense anyway.” I am unable to do that. I tried. God how I tried. It is not in me. So after you’re left with the question, “what now?” Camus famously put forth that the big question then is do you commit suicide or find a way to continue living? Religious people hold that a nihilist who doesn’t want to die is proof that nihilism is somehow a false doctrine. Which doesn’t make sense to me, because nihilism is not a doctrine, but again, a question to be answered, and a question for people who have rejected religion as the answer. I have been trying to find my own meaning ever sense the deeper meanings proposed by other people all seemed inadequate.
Religion? No, for reasons I’ve already touched on. Maybe there is a god and maybe he wants certain things, but I just cannot trust the people trying to tell me about it enough to make the necessary leap of faith. Even the sincere, decent people.
Hedonism? Another habitually mischaracterized idea. I like to feel good, but as a worldview it seems too simple, and as a lifestyle potentially self destructive. When I was younger I veered toward the extreme end of hedonism, and truthfully it was as unsatisfying as religion.
Stoicism? I’ve probably read the least about this, because Marcus Aurelius’ book was dead boring for me. Maybe I don’t get it, but ascetism seemed to be some kind of part of it, and I enjoy my stuff too much. Maybe I need to look into this more, I don’t know.
Absurdism? I struggle with this one. All I get out of is black humor of the kind I learned serving in the military or the ironic fatalism of corporate humor. Those two things are ways of dealing with the inevitable and the painful, so maybe that is a sort of absurdism? I don’t know. I remember the moments when bad things were about to come down from on high and we all just laughed and said “here we go again!” But I can’t sustain that. I was never a good soldier, and I was not a successful corporate drone. Is absurdism supposed to make you happy? Or is it supposed to just get you through the day? Stoicism seems to be that, to just take the bad shit and roll with the punches, so is absurdism the same thing but with an emphasis on humor? I wish I knew.
I liked a lot of Buddhism initially. There is a lot of stuff people have adorned Buddhism with that I can go without. But the idea of universal oneness makes a kind of sense to me. Karma, reincarnation, levels of enlightenment, different planes of existence based on where on the reincarnation scale you are… all of that just seems made up to me. Buddhism embraces contradiction and contemplation, at least, so even though I never joined a sangha or believed enough to take any of the refuge vows, I do think I gain some kind of benefit from Zazen meditation. But that is not an embrace of the unprovable and ineffable, it’s based on how it makes me feel, of the effect it has on my mental state. Prayer in the Christian sense never did that for me, but meditation certainly does. I claim, sometimes, to be part Buddhist based on this. It’s pretty American of me to take what I like and ignore the rest, but what the hell? I am an American.
I have said quite recently that I hit a point in my life that I stopped giving a shit, and that I have lately been chasing a certain feeling. I suppose that’s my religion for right now. The whole Heathen thing? I never stopped that, but I never went into Heathenry believing that the Aesir were literal beings. It’s a cultural ritual for me, as well as a personal one, and based on the fact that people who have strong ethnic identities are in general happier and I’m just trying to game the system.
But nihilism? I don’t embrace it and I don’t hold it as a position. It is just that I am struggling to overcome it. Nihilism is a storm-tossed ocean and I’m a castaway trying to keep my head above water. I’m not suicidal, so if you read this and you’re a friend or loved one of mine, don’t worry about that. In fact if it ever looks like I’ve killed myself tell the police I was definitely murdered or suffered a bizarre misadventure, because suicide is something I would never do. But here I am at a time in my life that I don’t believe that I will ever find an answer.
I do not believe that I will find an answer to nihilism. Or to life. Or anything like that.
I think I’m probably bound to spend the rest of my life using bits and pieces of religion, hedonism, stoicism, and absurdism to just get by. I’m not unhappy, it’s important to note. Happiness comes and goes as the days and nights come and go. I am not at the bottom of some pit of endless depression and sadness. Certainly, I have said I find it hard to give a shit about anything anymore, but put that in the context that I find happiness in everyday things and that my family is a constant source of comfort and joy. Acceptance that there is no answer, and if there is I shall never find it in this life. That’s basically what my brand of atheism is. Some day I am going to die. I don’t want to, and if medical and technological advances make it possible to extend my existence beyond what is naturally alotted I am definitely going to reach for it. But it is certain, even in that event, that I am going to die eventually anyway. It’s irritating and unfair and meaningless on a larger scale, even though it means everything to me personally. If that happens and there is a deity I’m certain I will be able to answer for my life, so what need do I have of priests, rabbis, or whatever?
I don’t know what the meaning of life is.
I don’t think there is one.
I’m tired of all this snipehunting.
That is all.