Atheism is simply the lack of belief in the supernatural and supernatural beings such as god(s) or a personal God.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, nihilism is: a theory promoting the state of believing in nothing, or of having no allegiances and no purposes. The term is incorrectly used to characterize all persons not sharing some particular faith or particular set of absolute values.
When theists accuse atheists of being nihilists and incidentally conflate atheism with nihilism they are confusing their terminology. They may be getting it wrong on purpose to further disparage atheism, a detectable apologetics ploy, but sometimes they just lack the proper understanding of the terms. Nihilism stems from the doctrine of the extreme Russian revolutionary party c.1900, which rejected all authority exercised by the church, the state, and/or the family—and consequently, in so doing, rejected all religious and moral principles in total. Nihilism is unjustifiable, even by naturalistic terms, since as Lao Tzu revealed in the Tao Te Ching that:
If people do not revere the Law of Nature,
It will inexorably and adversely affect them.
If they accept it with knowledge and reverence,
It will accommodate them with balance and harmony.
Naturalism cannot be nihilistic for this reason, as it would not revere the laws of nature, and this is contradictory to very the definition of naturalism, which is predicated on the laws of nature! Yet theistic thinkers continue to improperly conflate atheism and naturalism with nihilism because they feel justified in claiming the two are one and the same, ergo atheism, and specifically naturalistic atheism, is equally senseless and unjustifiable. But they would be wrong to do so.
Those theists who conflate atheism and naturalism with nihilism are chiefly mistaken. They have misconstrued the definitions for reasons which, more often than not, fit with their propaganda to make the former concepts appear just as profane as the latter or sponsor their proselytizing agendas to make their faith seem more appealing than the misrepresentation they pawn off as naturalistic atheism. But we might ask why this is. Why is this semantic word play so common among devotional apologists? I would venture three main reasons: 1) they have misunderstood atheism and naturalism and don’t have a clear understanding of what either definition entails, 2) they are trying to force natural philosophies into a religious worldview and must adapt the definitions accordingly, 3) or they are simply rehearsing apologetic rhetoric.
Atheism, meanwhile, is clearly not even close to nihilism. Anyone who can read a dictionary should know this. Atheism only rejects one positive claim—namely that the supernatural is real. Nihilism, on the other hand, rejects all claims by assuming that since everything is ultimately meaningless then holding any positive claim would, in turn, be just as meaningless. But such a position is indefensible.
True enough, atheists often tend to be naturalists also. The reason for this is because once you’ve rejected supernatural explanations all you are left with are the natural explanations. To define naturalism more clearly, it is: the view that ultimately nothing resists explanation by the methods characteristic of the natural sciences. Moreover, Keith Augustine proposes that “the de facto success of methodological naturalism provides strong empirical evidence that metaphysical naturalism is probably true.”
Recently I came across a Christian who had conflated naturalistic atheism with nihilism, but this is incorrect, not to mention a strong semantic confusion, since the manipulation of the terminology makes the concepts that much more complicated to grasp (this is frequently a sign of a poor definition or else an improper understanding of the primary definitions in the first place).
According to his definition (seen in full HERE), naturalistic atheism equals nihilism because:
The current narrative of Naturalistic Atheism is that the universe is all there is…. There is no purpose to our creation…. No purpose, no plan, just matter doing what matter in motion does…. Eventually we die… and than [sic] everyone dies extinguishing all memory of the human race, and then the universe will eventually die…. Does this concept entail Nihilism? Yes. There is nothing in this narrative to suggest otherwise.
Right off the bat I must raise several objections. First, this definition is misleading, as often is the case, I feel, when Christians try and supply definitions to concepts they haven’t studied or looked into thoroughly enough. Secondly, as is the case with most Christians, they simply assume creation denotes purpose because in one of the thousands of religions on the planet, in one of the tens of thousands of creation myths which exist or have existed, they think that they have stumbled upon the correct one, and moreover, that it just happens to (coincidentally enough) be the predominant one in their culture which they were likely raised in. What are the odds that the Judeo-Christian version of creation is the correct one and that it actually denotes purpose? Not very likely, I’d assume. This belief in Creation, let alone one obscure creation myth among a plethora of creation myths to choose from, seems to an outsider and a skeptic like me overly ethnocentric not to mention rather strained.
As far as anybody is concerned, whether you’re religious or not, there was a moment of creation which we can discernibly know about as we have the exacting tools of modern cosmology which confirms this in the well supported (albeit incomplete) big bang theory. Regardless of whether you attribute a supernatural cause or a naturalistic cause to creation, that’s all any of us can assume—that creation occurred.
To posit intent behind creation takes us outside of what the evidence allows for and changes the argument from a scientifically observable phenomenon to a philosophical consideration about the nature of the first cause. From here a rudimentary cosmological argument can be argued, but only hypothetically, since it has the problem of assuming what it wishes to prove, which I find fault with. It basically goes something like this: the universe exists, thus we know that the universe was created, which we can detect and reasonably know about, therefore creation denotes causality, causality denotes intent, intent requires an intelligence with purpose in mind, thus the conclusion becomes God created it, and so God must exist. If you’re wondering whether this line of a priori reasoning is valid—it’s not. I’ve raised a devastating objection to the cosmological argument, in particular William Lane Craig’s kalam cosmological argument which I take down once and for all (although I don’t see a reason to repeat it now since you can read it HERE).
At any rate, assuming that which you wish to prove is faulty causality, a known logic fallacy. It does us no good. This is why naturalistic atheists like myself deny the cosmological argument for the existence of God. There is just not enough evidence to say it is so. It’s purely a priori reasoning, theological conjecture, and as such, purpose cannot just be tacitly assumed.
This is the third difficulty with trying to force naturalism or atheism to equate nihilism. Basically the theist assumes God is real and building on this assumption proclaims that God had purpose for creating the universe. These are lofty, and completely unfounded, suppositions and so are inadmissible as evidence.
Even so, for fun we might wish to momentarily give Christians the benefit of the doubt and ask what would that “purpose” look like if God did supposedly create the universe with intent? Namely life, or more specifically, sentient life (which would be capable of detecting God). Another rather stupendous assumption, if you ask me. But let’s grant it for the time being. What does such a consideration entail? It seems to me that it would entail that God deliberately intended there to be life for reasons mysterious to us, and so, in tune with theistic creationist claims God made the world and the heavens, animals, plants, and people too—never mind the Bible difficulties surrounding the unscientific and incomprehensible cosmology found in scripture—if we grant all this we can readily assume that somewhere in all this apparent design, God has a master plan.
However, there is a huge gaping hole in this line of reasoning. Richard Carrier elucidates:
Even the Christian proposal that God designed the universe, indeed “finely tuned” it to be the perfect mechanism for producing life, fails to predict the universe we see. A universe perfectly designed for life would easily, readily, and abundantly produce and sustain it. Most of the contents of that universe would be conducive to life or benefit life. Yet that is not what we see. Instead, almost the entire universe is lethal to life–in fact, if we put all the lethal vacuum of outer space swamped with deadly radiation into an area the size of a house, you would never find the comparably microscopic speck of area that sustains life. Would you conclude that the house was built to serve and benefit that subatomic speck? Hardly. Yet that is the house we live in. The Christian theory completely fails to predict this—while atheism predicts exactly this.
If you’ll observe, granting the Christian claim it seems as though God’s design denotes that life is, in actuality, rather unimportant.[i] This contradicts the Creationist claim that there was purpose in God’s creating agency in the first place, and brings us back to where be began, squarely in the house of Naturalism.
Understandably, naturalism does paint a grim scenario, but that’s simply because most living creatures are disturbed by pain and suffering and humans, who have sentience and can reflect upon their own mortality, subsequently also have a fear of death. But as the ex-Evangelical minister Dan Barker has reassured, “It shouldn’t matter what any of us wants to believe. The fact that life is ultimately meaningless does not mean it is not immediately meaningful.” I personally find consolation in this thought. Contrary to what nihilism espouses, we do and can find meaning in life.
Philosophically speaking, naturalism may ultimately mean non-existence, but meanwhile it doesn’t have to mean the existence we have is meaningless or trivial. As a result of this understanding we can precisely maintain that naturalism should not be confused with nihilism. Additionally, nihilism is the rejection of everything meaningful while there is nothing to suggest a naturalistic worldview would necessarily cause us to reject anything other than the supernatural.
Extra support, which makes the distinction crystal clear, is found in the principle of double effect. The principle of double effect states that an action that has both good and bad results may be morally permissible, and that such acts are permissible if:
1. The action is not wrong in itself, (ii) the bad consequence is not that which is intended.
2. The good is not itself a result of the bad consequence, and
3. The two consequences are commensurate.
Consequently, when the principle of double effect is applied to both naturalism and nihilism we find that naturalism (according to its proper definition) is morally permissible where nihilism is not. This distinction should settle once and for all whether naturalistic atheism equals nihilism. It does not.
In summary, does Naturalistic Atheism entail Nihilism? No it doesn’t. There is no reason to believe it goes that far, and to assume so is a stretch of the imagination which goes too far outside of what is reasonable to believe.
A Short List of References
Ideas that Matter by A.C. Grayling
The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism by Richard Carrier
Godless by Dan Barker
[i] Life may not be God’s ultimate purpose if we find that death and oblivion are, in fact, God’s purpose. Such a cruel design seems to denote a capricious or malevolent deity. The problem here being that such a God is recognizably not benevolent, as Christians claim on behalf of there God, and so could not be the Christian God—unless, of course, Christians are mistaken as to God’s true nature. Undoubtedly, however, a confirmation bias always dissuades Christians from taking this consideration seriously.