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Humanism, Atheism, and Nihilism

Humanism, Atheism, and Nihilism


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, Nihilism

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Welcome to this tutorial on humanism, atheism, and nihilism These three movements largely depend for their meaning not on God but on human beings. So my little guys here are not any particular human beings. They're just generic philosopher types who are looking for meaning in human beings and not in the divine.

So let's talk for a minute about secular humanism. Secular humanism really became prominent during the Enlightenment. And it's just the idea that human beings can find purpose and meaning in life in their own constructions and not necessarily in anything revealed by a divinity. So secular humanism is really the foundation for much of the science, arts, and philosophy of today.

Secular humanism is not necessarily against religion. It just doesn't build anything on a religious foundation.

Atheism just means without god, a- theos, not having a god. Atheism really does deny the existence of God and does not think that any type of theistic idea is especially helpful.

Finally, we're also going to talk a little bit about nihilism. This term is associated with the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. And Nietzsche wrote in a very compelling literary style, breaking away from the conventions and the discipline of philosophy.

And he really thought that what he called the ubermensch, the over-man or the superman, would overtake the conventional religions of the day. And that this over-man would not look to God or religion for answers but would be a sort of creative genius who would look towards a new future in poetic inspiration. And also the ubermensch would express the will to power. Unlike the subservient Christian, the ubermensch would be willing to take the reins of society and lead it in new directions. So Nietzsche saw in this will to power and into what he saw as the stagnation in European culture.

Nihilism literally means nothingness. Nietzsche said that God is dead, which created a vacuum in society. And out of this vacuum, new meanings were supposed to arise. So Nietzsche did not see the death of God as an end, but rather as a beginning.

We also should mention a French writer named Albert Camus who wrote some important works that would be important for the development of nihilism. The Myth of Sisyphus, a myth that you might be familiar with from Greek mythology, where Sisyphus just rolls the same stone up the hill again and again. Well, in the absence of ultimate meaning, we really are all Sisyphus. But rather than rail against that, we can just accept that as our human fate. And we could find solace in the figure of Sisyphus.

Another important work, The Stranger. It's a really disturbing short novel in which a young man shoots an Arab on the beach for no reason at all. He's just sort of hot and uncomfortable. And he shoots this completely innocent bystander. And at the end of the story, there's really no resolution. The young man just kind of, I think he just gets back on the train and goes home. So it really just does come to a kind of a dead end.

So we could save maybe it's more Camus who's responsible for our vision of nihilism, even more than Nietzsche. But certainly both of them contribute to the development of what we often think of as nihilism.

We discussed secular humanism as a non-religious answer to many of the problems that confront humankind. And also not only practical problems, but also problems of meaning, that is asking where humanity comes from, where the universe comes from, what we're all doing in here, and what it means to live a good life.

We also discussed atheism as the belief that God does not exist. And we spent some time discussing nihilism, which is the belief that with the death of God, there are no binding social, legal, or moral obligations. Rather, human beings simply have to construct their own meanings, have to become their own gods.

We associated nihilism with the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. We also talked about the Myth of Sisyphus, which was important to Albert Camus, who also wrote The Stranger. Of course, in the Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus keeps rolling the same boulder up the mountain endlessly, which we could see as something horrible and pathetic. But we could also see it as something that we should just calmly accept.

So nihilism began in the 19th century. But it continued into the 20th century in existentialism.

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.