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4 Tutorials that teach Humanism, Atheism, and Nihilism
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Humanism, Atheism, and Nihilism

Humanism, Atheism, and Nihilism

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson discusses non-religious "solutions" to the same problems central to religion: God, faith, despair, death, hope, and meaning, among others.

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Humanism, Atheism and Nihilism

Source: Image source: Music by Boyko and MacLeod;

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello and welcome. Along your pathway, you've found that there are many directions to go, many forks in the road, so to speak. The questions that we've been considering had been with humanity forever, questions about origins and meaning and purpose and morality. There are many different angles of approach, many different religious pathways.

The formal possibility of a non-religious approach, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the history of religions and their evolution and all the branches and denominations, different schools of Buddhism in the east for example, the option or choice of a secular path had its formal appearance with certain philosophical and social movements during the late 18th and into the 19th centuries. And of course beyond, into the present day.

Secular humanism was covered in some detail in an earlier lesson, but you remember that humanism is the belief that proper study of human beings is humanity. And we should note that the humanism of the Renaissance was almost always associated with and integrated with some kind of religious practice and belief and religious life.

So secular humanism is specifically a non-religious response to the big questions. So the concerns about an ultimate source of morality, like the Abrahamic monotheistic god for example, or a group of supernatural deities, these were not of interest to the secular humanist. The argument goes that morality concerns the human realm and can be solved by human beings and their institutions, like politics and certain fields and applications of philosophy, science, et cetera.

Historically this turning point, this conscious and determined turning away from religion began around the time of the French Revolution, the late 1700s. Church and state were separated and civil human issues were addressed in their own domain without reference to religious belief and ideology, without the historical weight of religion.

So this movement, the historic shift away from God became known under many names. Atheism is the most comprehensive term, the belief that God just doesn't exist. Atheism is a very broad term that actually had uses in Ancient Greece and throughout the Middle Ages and really came into its own though, with a capital A and all, really in the 18th century.

The argument goes that Atheism is a valid response to the questions about God, eternity, all the unknown, unseeable that religion tries to answer. And it's valid because Atheism makes no assumptions of truth, and religious beliefs make many assumptions, most of which are empirically, scientifically unprovable.

Secular humanism, along with different gradations of atheism, gained some popularity during the European Enlightenment, and later found their way into certain elements of German Idealism. I should say however, that there are many German Idealist committed to the project of reconciling valid humanist concerns with the wisdom of a religious tradition.

But with the tide of modernity and industrialization, there emerged a key figure in Germany, someone who crystallized and consolidated all the wayward strands of discouragement, malaise, and despair. At the same time he harnessed a certain element of hope and affirmation of life, the hope that man could pull himself out of the mess that he's so inclined to get himself into it.

Frederick Nietzsche, German philosopher, philologist, psychologist, whose work in these disciplines was a critique of society and the direction he found it to be going. Atheism is a term that's often associated with Nietzsche and his critique. He believed in the power of the human spirit to manifest it's own solutions to the moral and spiritual predicaments of the time.

And this brings us to another term, key term-- nihilism. This term is also very much associated with Nietzsche. Nihilism has its etymological root in the Latin word nihil, which means nothing. So you could think of nihilism as nothing-ism. It refers to the absence of any objective morality, value, or meaning.

Now the paradox is that how can an organized -ism, a whole school of thought and philosophy comprised of Atheism and some elements of existentialism, et cetera, how can that make conclusions about the lack of objectivity available to us? If not on the basis of objectivity, then subjectivity?

No. Not even that, because then the ripe old questions of human agency in the world appear and a nihilist denies the value of even that on the basis that they are human constructions and therefore artificial and devoid of meaning. So where are we? Where's religion and God in all this? God is dood.

"God this dead. God remains dead and we have killed him, yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murders? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of Atonement? What sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods, simply to appear worthy of it?"

This is a striking observation and commentary on the state of modern man in society, and from his conclusion there are several options left: utter despair and continued nihilism, overcoming the nothingness and pronounced valuelessness with belief and hope and faith in human spirit, or some return to an as yet unknown origin perhaps in the arms and religion.


Terms to Know

The belief that God does not exist.


The belief that, with the "death" of God, there are no binding social, legal, or moral obligations on human beings.


A figure in Greek mythology who was doomed to push the same boulder up the same mountain endlessly.