Religion and Nihilism
Religion and Nihilism: I was going through some of my school notes today and i came across the following lecture notes id taken from a class on religion and illusions when i was still a student. Hence, I figured I introduce you guys to this very interesting topic as most of what we are tought regarding religion in the mainstream media is usually all but the same. Hope you enjoy it and find it interesting. Dont hesitate to leave your opinion at the end.
Nihilism as a philosophy seemed passé by the 1980s. Few talked about it in literature expect to declare it a dead issue. Literally, in the materialist sense, nihilism refers to a truism: “from nothing, nothing comes.” However, from a philosophical viewpoint, moral nihilism took on a similar connotation. One literally believed “in nothing,” which is somewhat of an oxymoron since to believe in nothing is to believe in something. A corner was turned in the history of nihilism once 9/11 became a reality. After this major event, religious and social science scholars began to ask whether violence could be attributed tonihilistic thinking—in other words, whether we had lost our way morally by believing in nothing, by rejecting traditional moral foundations. It was feared that an “anything goes” mentality and a lack of absolute moral foundations could lead to further acts of violence, as the goals forwarded by life-affirmation were being thwarted by the destructive ends of so-called violent nihilists. This position is, however, argumentative.
Extreme beliefs in values such as nationalism, patriotism, statism, secularism, or religion can also lead to violence, as one becomes unsettled by beliefs contrary to the reigning orthodoxy and strikes out violently to protect communal values. Therefore, believing in something can also lead to violence and suffering. To put the argument to rest, it’s not about whether one believes in something or nothing but howabsolutistthe position is; it’s the rigidity of values that causes pain and suffering, what Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen calls “the illusion of singularity.”Since 9/11, nihilism has become a favourite target to criticize and marginalize, yet its history and complexity actually lead to a more nuanced argument. Perhaps we should be looking at ways nihilism complements Western belief systems—even Christian doctrine—rather than fear its implementation in ethical and moral discussions.
Brief History of Nihilism
To understand why some forms of nihilism are still problematic, it is important to ask how it was used historically and for what motive. Nihilism was first thought synonymous with having “no authentic values, no real ends, that one’s whole existence is pure nothingness.”In its earliest European roots, nihilism was initially used to label groups or ideas as inferior, especially if they were deemed threatening to established communal ideals. Nihilism as a label was its first function.
Nihilism initially functioned as apejorative label and a term of abuse against modern trends that threatened to destroy either Christian hegemonic principles or tradition in general. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, modernization in France meant that power shifted from the traditional feudal nobility to a central government filled with well-trained bourgeois professionals. Fearing a loss of influence, the nobility made a claim: If power shifted to responsible government, the nobility claimed that such centralization would lead to death and destruction—in other words, anarchy and nothingness. Those upsetting the status quo were deemed nihilistic, a derogatory label requiring no serious burden of proof.Such labelling, however, worked both ways. The old world or “tradition” was deemed valueless by advocates of modernization and change who viewed the status quo as valueless; whereas, traditionalists pictured a “new world,” or new life form, as destructive and meaningless in its pursuit of a flawed transformation. Potential changes in power or ideology created a climate of fear, so the importance of defining one’s opponent as nihilistic—as nothing of value—was as politically astute as it was reactionary. Those embracing the function of nihilism as a label are attempting to avoid scrutiny of their own values while the values of the opposition are literally “annihilated.”
Since those advocating communal values may feel threatened by new ideologies, it becomes imperative for the dominant power to present its political, metaphysical, or religious beliefs as eternal, universal, and “objective.” Typically, traditionalists have a stake in their own normative positions. This is because “[t]he absoluteness of [one’s] form of life makes [one]feel safe and at home. This means that [perfectionists]have a great interest in the maintenance of their form of life and its absoluteness.”The existence of alternative beliefs and values, as well as a demand for intersubjective dialogue, is both a challenge and a threat to the traditionalist because “[i]t shows people that their own form of life is not as absolute as they thought it was, and this makes them feel uncertain. . . .” However, if one labels the Other as nihilistic without ever entering into a dialogue, one may become myopic, dismissing the relative value of other life forms one chooses not to see. This means that “one can’t see what they [other cultural groups]are doing, and why they are doing it, why they may be successful . . . Therefore, one misses the dynamics of cultural change.”
Through the effect of labelling, the religious-oriented could claim that nihilists, and thus atheists by affiliation, “would not feel bound by moral norms,” and as a result would “lose the sense that life has meaning and therefore tend toward despair and suicide.”death of God. Christians argued that if there is no divine lawmaker, moral law would become interpretative, contested, and situational. The end result: “[E]ach man will tend to become a law unto himself. If God does not exist to choose for the individual, the individual will assume the former prerogative of God and choose for himself.” It was this kind of thinking that led perfectionists to assume that any challenge to the Absolute automatically meant moral indifference, moral relativism, and moral chaos. Put simply,nihilists were the enemy.
Nihilists were accused of rejecting ultimate values, embracing instead an “all values are equal” mentality—basically, “anything goes.” And like Islam today, nihilists would become easy scapegoats.
Late 19th – 20th Century; Nietzsche and the Death of God
Friedrich Nietzsche is still the most prestigious theorist of nihilism. Influenced by Christianity’s dominant orthodoxy in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche believed that the Christian religion was nihilism incarnate. Since Christian theology involved a metaphysical reversal of temporal reality and a belief in God that came from nothing, the Christian God became the “deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy.” Nietzsche claimed that Christian metaphysics became an impediment to life-affirmation. Nietzsche explains: “If one shifts the centre of gravity of life out of life into the ‘Beyond’—into nothingness—one has deprived life of its centre of gravity . . . So to live that there is no longer any meaning in living:that now becomes the ‘meaning’ of life.”What Nietzsche rejected more was the belief that one could create a totalizing system to explain all truths. In other words, he repudiated any religion or dogma that attempted to show “how the entire body of knowledge [could]be derived from a small set of fundamental, self-evident propositions”(i.e., stewardship). Nietzsche felt that we do not have the slightest right to posit a beyond or an “it-self of things” that is ‘divine’ or the embodiment of morality.
Without God as a foundation for absolute values, all absolute values are deemed suspect (hence the birth of postmodernism). For Nietzsche, this literally meant that the “belief in the Christian god ha[d]become unworthy of belief.”This transition from the highest values to the death of God was not going to be a quick one; in fact, the comfort provided by an absolute divinity could potentially sustain its existence for millennia. Nietzsche elaborates: “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.—And we—we still have to vanquish his shadow too.”
We are left then with a dilemma: Either we abandon our “reverences” for the highest values and subsist, or we maintain our dependency on absolutes at the cost of our own non-absolutist reality. For Nietzsche, the second option was pure nothingness: “So we can abolish either our reverences or ourselves. The latter constitutes nihilism.” All one is left with are contested, situational value judgements, and these are resolved in the human arena.
One can still embrace pessimism, believing that without some form of an absolute, “our existence in this world will take a turn for the worse.” To avoid the trappings of pessimism and passivity, Nietzsche sought a solution to such nihilistic despair through the re-evaluation of the dominant, life-negating values. This makes Nietzsche an perspectivism a philosophy of resolution in the form of life-affirmation. It moves past despair toward a transformative stage in which new values are posited to replace the old table of values. As Reginster acknowledges, one should regard “the affirmation of life” as Nietzsche’s defining philosophical achievement. What this implies is a substantive demand to live according to a constant re-evaluation of values. By taking full responsibility for this task, humankind engages in the “eternal recurrence,” a recurrence of life-affirming values based on acceptance of becoming and the impermanence of values. Value formation is both fluid and cyclical.
Late-20th Century – 21st Century; The Pessimism of the Post-9/11 Era
Since the events of September 11, 2001, nihilism has returned with a vengeance to scholarly literature; however, it is being discussed in almost exclusively negative terms. The labelling origin of nihilism has taken on new life in a context of suicide bombings, Islamophobia, and neoconservative rhetoric. For instance, Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff described different shades of negative nihilism—tragic, cynical, and fanatical—in his bookThe Lesser Evil.Tragic nihilism begins from a foundation of “noble, political intentions,” but eventually this ethic of restraint spirals toward violence as the only end(i.e., Vietnam). Two sides of an armed struggle may begin with high ideals and place limitations on their means to achieve viable political goals, but such noble ends eventually become “lost in all the carnage.” Agents of a democratic state may find themselves “driven by the horror of terror to torture, to assassinate, to kill innocent civilians, all in the name of rights and democracy. As Ignateiff states, they “slip from the lesser evil [legitimate use of force]to the greater [violence as an end in itself].
However, cynical nihilism is even more narcissistic. In this case, violence does not begin as a means to noble goals. Instead, “[i]t is used, from the beginning, in the service of cynical or self-serving [ends].” The term denotes narcissistic prejudice because it justifies “the commission of violence for the sake of personal aggrandizement, immortality, fame, or power rather than as a means to a genuinely political end, like revolution [for social justice]or the liberation of a people.”Cynical nihilists were never threatened in any legitimate way. Their own vanity, ego, greed, or need to control others drove them to commit violence against innocent civilians (e.g., Saddam Hussein in Kuwait or Bush in Iraq).
Finally, fanatical nihilism does not suffer from a belief in nothing. In actuality, this type of nihilism is dangerous because one believes in too much. What fanatical nihilism does involve is “a form of conviction so intense, a devotion so blind, that it becomes impossible to see that violence necessarily betrays the ends that conviction seeks to achieve.” The fanatical use of ideology to justify atrocity negates any consideration of the human cost of such fundamentalism. As a result, nihilism becomes “willed indifference to the human agents sacrificed on the alter of principle. . . . Here nihilism is not a belief in nothing at all; it is, rather, the belief that nothing about particular groups of human beings matters enough to require minimizing harm to them.”Fanatical nihilism is also important to understand because many of the justifications are religious. States Ignatieff:
From a human rights standpoint, the claim that such inhumanity can be divinely inspired is a piece of nihilism, an inhuman devaluation of the respect owed to all persons, and moreover a piece of hubris, since, by definition, human beings have no access to divine intentions, whatever they may be.
In the twenty-first century, humankind is searching for a philosophy to counter destructive, non-pragmatic forms of nihilism. As a middle path,positive nihilism accentuates life-affirmation through a widening of dialogue. Positively stated: “[The Philosopher] . . ., having rejected the currently dominant values, must raise other values, by virtue of which life and the universe cannot only be justified but also become endearing and valuable.” Rejecting any unworkable table of values, humankind now “erects another table with a new ranking of values and new ideals of humanity, society, and state.”Positive nihilism—in both its rejection of absolute truths and its acceptance of contextual truths—is life-affirming since small-t truths are the best mere mortals can hope to accomplish. Human beings can reach for higher truths; they just do not have the totalizing knowledge required for Absolute Truth. In other words, we are not God, but we are still attempting to be “God on a good day.” We still need values—in other words, we are not moral nihilists or absolutists—but we realize that the human condition is malleable. Values come and go, and we have to be ready to bend them in the right direction in the moment moral courage requires it.
Nihilism does not have to be a dangerous or negative philosophy; it can be a philosophy of freedom. Basically, the entire purpose of positive nihilism is to transform values that no longer work and replace them with values that do. By aiding in a process that finds meaningful values through negotiation, positive nihilism prevents the exclusionary effect of perfectionism, the deceit of nihilistic labelling, as well as the senseless violence of fanatical nihilism. It is at this point that nihilism can enter its life-affirming stage and become a compliment to pluralism, multiculturalism, and the roots of religion, those being love, charity, and compassion.
Source; Professor Stuart Chambers.
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