Does shedding religion lead to nihilism?

Updated: May 15, 2019

In the shedding religion process people go in many different directions with respect to their beliefs. There are a lot of options, alternatives and possibilities. But based on what I’ve seen at times you’d think there are only two choices: worship the God of religion OR be an Atheist. This is a false choice, and one of the worst dualisms.

Going from fundamentalist religion to Atheism may be a case of over-correction.

If you are driving down the street and notice you are about to go off the road into a ditch. Your reaction is to grab the wheel and by over-correcting, you fly across the road and off into the ditch on the other side. By avoiding one ditch, you managed to steer right into another. It’s no secret that any person who feels led astray and betrayed by their religion is likely to become its biggest critic. A person who lives many years under the oppression of religion may over-correct as a reaction and become an Atheist. There are a lot of options between a tyrant and condemning God and concluding there is no transcendent reality at all, but when you over-correct you miss all the other possibilities.

That’s not to say that all people are Atheists as a result of over-correction. Many Atheists have done their own inquiry and concluded for themselves that they cannot in good conscious hold a belief in any supernatural deity or reality.

This subject presses into the topic of theism. Theism is a monotheistic doctrine concerning the nature of God and that God’s relationship to the universe, namely belief in one God as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures. The God of institutional Christianity is an example. Many people who come to a place of doubt about their beliefs deconstruct their long unquestioned notions about God and can no longer in good conscious subscribe to them. Non-belief in the God of Christianity is not a complete rejection of the divine; it’s a divestment from the traditional theistic God. Jesus himself did not subscribe to the God of religion, which ultimately became the God of Christianity. But to make the point again, there’s a lot of ground to consider between (a) Christian fundamentalist God, and (b) no God end of story.

We have to be careful of succumbing to a dualistic hardening of the categories that insist upon limiting one’s options to only two divergent choices.

Many people’s views of God change and evolve, especially those who have walk the path of shedding religion. Atheism resonates with some who no longer hold their previous views of God. I tell people that I am an Atheist in the sense that I reject the “God” I previously construed in my heard through religion.

But there are also those who develop an alternative understanding of God, the divine or transcendent reality. Rather than the idea of Sky-God – some sort of separate theistic God-entity up above – or an Atheism that denies any divine, eternal or transcendent reality, they come to believe in a life, energy, spirit, consciousness that runs through all living things and is the basis of one whole and interrelated reality. Many believe that both science and spirituality point to that same eternal reality while using different language, concepts and avenues to identify it. One of the problems here is language, more specifically the language of “God.” The word may be inseparably tied to Theism in many people’s minds. Others reframe the word altogether as something different.

The dualistic mindset that insists upon either Theism or Atheism also clouds people’s considerations about other related matters. For example, consider these dualistic options:

Life has meaning through the God of Theism OR life has no meaning at all

When you die you go to heaven or hell OR when you die that’s it and there is nothing more

God is a person in the sky OR God is an impersonal something that cannot be experienced. (But as I have pointed out before, just because God is not a person does not mean that God as divine/transcendent reality is not personal or cannot be experienced through love and belonging.)

I also see these dynamics apply to the topic of nihilism.

Nihilism is based on the Latin word for `nothing’: nihil. A common understanding of nihilism is the view that nothing we do, nothing we create, nothing we love, has any inherent, intrinsic, or verifiable meaning or value other than what one might subjectively dream up on their own. This concept of nihilism argues that existence is without purpose or meaning, and says that life is inherently without meaning, we are born for no purpose, die for no purpose, exist for no purpose, and there is nothing beyond this life.

However, there are some who argue it is a misleading description of nihilism to say that it is the “belief in nothing.” Instead, a more useful definition might substitute the word 'faith' for 'belief' where faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. In these terms, a universal definition of nihilism would be the rejection of that which requires faith for an answer to the ultimate questions about life. Within nihilism, faith and similar values are discarded because they've no verifiable objective substance. Faith is viewed as an imperative because it said to compel suspension of reason, critical analysis and common sense. Nietzsche once said that faith means not wanting to know. In this view “faith” is essentially saying don’t let the pesky facts get in the way of our mystically ordained path to heaven. All things that can't be disproved need faith, utopia needs faith, idealism needs faith, and spiritual salvation needs faith. Nihilism rejects this idea. In this sense nihilism is very much about skepticism. A nihilist is a person who does not bow down to any authority, who does not accept any principle on faith, however much that principle may be revered. Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless.

Nihilists say that self-delusion is a defining quality of human behavior. Lies maintain our flimsy order, we find consolation in myths like “what we do has significance” and “God punishes the wicked.” The first nihilists were likely the Greek Sophists who lived about 2,500 years ago. They used oratorical skills and argumentative discourse to challenge the values upon which everyday beliefs rested.

One of the earliest nihilistic writers of the modern era was Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard established the foundation of the philosophy later termed existentialism. Kierkegaard's existentialism posits that existence is based on experience and this experience is a uniquely individualized sensation. The common thread in the literature of the existentialists is coping with the emotional anguish arising from our confrontation with nothingness.

In Russia, nihilism became identified with a loosely organized revolutionary movement that rejected the authority of the state, church, and family. Among philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche is most often associated with nihilism. For Nietzsche, there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it.

Closely tied to nihilism is the philosophy of anti-foundationalism, which is the rejection of the idea that there is some fundamental belief, principle or reality which is the basic ground or meaning of existence.

There’s so much that could be said about nihilism and it is quite impossible for me to convey even a fraction of what there is to be known about it. For the purpose of this post, I want to raise the issue of whether or not nihilism is the only reasonable choice for a person who sheds religion and no longer subscribes to the traditional theistic/Christian/religious concept of God.

You could clarify the dualistic choices around this matter as follows:

Eternalism, which says that everything has a definite, true and even transcendent meaning.


Nihilism, which says that nothing really means anything.

Eternalism and nihilism are both responses to the angst, ambiguity and skepticism human beings feel about the ultimate questions of life. If meanings are objective, not human creations, it may seem they must come from some ultimate, transcendent source. In many systems, that is a God. People like this idea because they want certainty. The strategy of eternalism is to deliver it. Religious belief-systems are the most common forms of this eternalism and people are attached to them because they offer a feeling of certainty.

Nihilism, on the other hand, starts from the intelligent recognition that eternalism is false and unworkable. It says that human events are meaningless; meaning is not objective; there is no Cosmic Plan. Nihilism says that seeming meanings are illusory or arbitrary or subjective, and therefore unreal or unimportant. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that if a person calls into question and rejects their religious belief-system and the traditional God-framework that they might swing over to the side of nihilism. When in the eternalist stance, it may seem that the only alternative is nihilism, and vice versa.

An alternate strategy is to try to find a compromise. This requires a shift from dualistic thinking to dialectic thinking. Dialectic thinking is a willingness to embrace two of more different points of view in the effort of discovering a more useful synthesis. It breaks out of the dualistic framework, and involves more complex thinking.

What if we suppose that the world is somewhat governed by an eternal organizing principle (even if we are staunch atheists), and that the world is also somewhat horribly meaningless (even if we are committed eternalists). In this view some things, we suppose, have definite meaning, and others are definitely meaningless.

Consider the possibility that our existence is neither all-meaningLESS or all-meaningFUL, but… both. Consider that both science, nature and spirituality all point toward a quality of interdependence, connectedness, eternality, belonging and harmony that provides an essential and seemingly transcendent framework to our existence. Also consider that all human beings instintually and universally desire (as Maslow pointed out in his Heirarchy of Needs) transcendent realities such as love, peace, belonging, beauty, significance and self-actualization, as well as instinctually see meaning in experessions of compassion, empathy, kindness, humanity, and solidarity.

And yet at the same time we can acknowledge that there is a meaningless to life in the sense that the only meaning that exists is what we individually or collectively and voluntarily create and lift out of ourselves. It's obvious that our world is not based on any meaning that is universally accepted, and instead exhibits a diversity of meanings that range from hatred and violence to love and goodwill.

In this case, eternalism and nihilism are each half right. Eternalism rightly recognizes that the world and our existence is meaningful. Nihilism rightly recognizes that there is no separate source of meaning, and that menaing is unique to the individual. In other words, there is meaning AND we are free from divine law.

This idea is just an alternative. The point of this post is not to create some other ism for you to believe. In conclusion, here are a few thoughts to consider on how you might approach this subject:

Be mindful of becoming a nihilism fundamentalist, which is simply repeating the same mistake of religious fundamentalism by imposing your view dogmatically upon others.

​Consider the possibility that the end-game is not the kind of “certainty” you are conditioned to want in terms of the satisfaction of your mind.

​Work out for yourself what is real, true and meaningful for you. Listen to your own intuition, higher awareness, and inner-voice as you create a life of meaning for yourself. Consider the possibility that this is the way it was always meant to be – rather than receiving/determining meaning from some external source, seeing it as something you create yourself.

​Be a free and independent thinker. Whether it’s nihilism or eternalism, don’t just accept it because of someone else’s views. Look into it and investigate it yourself. Christians and religious people are not infallible guides to truth; neither are atheists and nihilists. Think for yourself. Explore. Have the courage to walk your path. Every path will be met with disapproval for some.

​On the matter of death, if the nihilist view is true that there is nothing more after this life, than you will have to knowledge of this fact. Right? Because you will no longer be alive. If some form of eternalism is true than you will step into it when you get there. Either way, there is no way if having complete certainty either way. Rather than this being a distressing thought, perhaps instead it is a great adventure to embrace.

​Whether you are a nihilist or eternalist, it is worthwhile and wise to live life to the fullest. Acting upon our highest intuitions and intentions for love, belonging, beauty, harmony, wholeness, liberation, self-actualization, transcendence and well-being is a meaningful and fulfilling existence as compared to a life of hatred, greed, division, injustice, narcisism, oppression, dysfuntion and violence.

©  2009 Jim Palmer Author. All Rights Reserved
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