Existentialism as atheism?

Existentialism emerged as a European belief structure in the 19th-20th century. Its hypothesis begins with the ‘human' as central and primary both as a ‘thinker’ but also as an ‘experiencer’. It is proposed by existential thinkers that this philosophy engenders freedom. The main tenant of this belief system is that authenticity is mankind's primary virtue. 

What is existentialism?

In simple terms it is broadly accepted by existentialists that the 'existential mindset' is a state of confusion, dread and meaninglessness in the context of an absurd existence. It is vital to clarify in simple terms what existentialism means. Many who talk about existentialism dive deep into hypothetical discussions and immediately expose themselves as either unread or blind to some real challenges existentialism holds as a manmade belief structure.

Kierkegaard who never used the label existentialism is the notable 19th century ‘father’ of the movement. In the books Kierkegaard, Basic Writings of Existentialism and the Stanford Book of Philosophy for example we understand that Kierkegaard proposed that each individual, not society or religion, is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely. This engendered the semantic (signifier) to live “authentically”. 

Biblical misconception

One key misunderstanding about Kierkegaard is that people interpret him as criticising God’s construct (creation). In reality he criticised man’s control over society through religion. Many misunderstand this 'religious control' as God’s plan, which is not the case, and is a misunderstanding of the scriptures: notable the call from law in the Old Testement (when mankind was wholly unable to control their own destiny) and toward freedom in the New Testament when humans have the choice to be more functional images of God, led by truth and authentic inner spiritual power. There is a proven distinction between what people think the Bible says and what it actually does say. This is especially important concernig conduct, subordination and faith and crucially the difference between Old and New Testaments. The theological reference we find in the New Testament is that we are called to live as images of God, to be like God and to be free and not bound by man made religion, through the work of calvary  This sounds like the 'ultimate existentialism' but with a meaning to reality, and acceptance of the scientific proof of the 'first mover principle'.

Do we really understand existentialism?

In any enquiry we must be sure on a semantic level about the terms we use. In discussion with some existentialists it is common to find that their thoughts are actually ‘atheist' while having a cloak of intellectualism entitled 'existentialist'. In short these are simply atheists who use the term existentialist to mean ‘atheist’. Those who have actually studied existentialism will know that existentialism is not atheism or theism. Atheism and theism sit alongside as wholly separate things. It would be more honest for an atheist who is an existentialist to say that they are an ‘atheistic existentialist’: that would be honest and ‘authentic’.

True origins of existentialism predate Kierkegaard

In truth it can be evidenced that existentialism is a Biblical principle that dates far back into the annuls of history, the book of Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. In these ancient text we find many discussions about the absurdity of life, destiny, and the justification for and against being virtuous or authentic as a person. Some of the finest thinkers of existentialism were Christian including Paul Tillich, Rudolph Bultmann, John Macquarrie, Lincoln Swain, Clifford Williams, Gabriel Marcel, Emmanuel Mounier, Pierre Boutang, Karl Jaspers, Miguel de Unamuno, Nikolai Berdyaev, Lev Shestov. 

For example, Karl Barth probably the greatest Protestant theologian/philosopher of the 20th century expanded on Kierkegaard's ideas that in truth, in reality, existential despair leads an individual to an awareness of God's infinite nature. Furthermore, Fyodor Dostoevsky could be placed within the tradition of Christian existentialism too. Existentialism goes way back into history to St Augustine, Pascal and the extensive writings of Thomas Aquinas, probably one of the greatest influences on western thought and culture today.

Atheistic existentialism 

We turn now to the atheistic idea of existentialism (the position of Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre) because the subject of theistic existentialism is proven in historical writings, theology and by the rationale that as human individuals it is indeed noble to pursue deep authentic lives, with the realisation that we are independently responsible for the broader context of humanity. This is a simple truth a 'common sense’ if you will, and need not be buttered up in an ‘ism’ to make it sound deep. Existentialism is a nobel virtuous fragment of a broader common sense. 

So let’s explore what challenges existentialism might hide behind its marketing campaign of ‘virtue' (living an authentic life for the greater good).

Challenges for atheistic existentialists

1) The world is without meaning in the face of the fact that the world has explicit molecular, atomic and subatomic structures that are factorable within a proven scientific construct: in the sense that one element can be ‘meaningfully’ distinguished from another and that we can build from these factors other meaningful things too.

2) Atheistic existentialism is a bed fellow of post-modernism, in the sense that its 20th century thinkers are children of its time, and these are evidenced to have deconstructed broader themes into smaller bite sized concepts. Thus the outcomes of these smaller (non-rhyzomatic considerations) naturally produce flawed conclusions about the broader contexts in-which they were first extracted.

3) From the above, as a result of existentialism's cultural and generic juxtaposition with post-modernism existentialism inadvertently omits the ‘noumenon’ factor in its equation and thus only provides a rationale within a restricted knowledge frame of reference that we call ‘phenomenon’.

4) Atheistic existentialism rejects the ‘noumenon’ factor in practice when paradoxically it says that reality is absurd. Yet one could argue that the noumenon is the real absurdity (existentialism) of phenomenon. This is one of the biggest oxymorons when you follow that thinking to its conclusion. The conclusion is that the noumenon by definition is absurd to phenomenological perspective!

5) How can atheistic existentialism reconcile its nihilism: that is, the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless; when the core virtue of existentialism holds that an individual is ultimately responsible for virtue (moral goodness) that is primarily and isolated from external control and that this noble pursuit to live authentically benefits the broader community…

Conclusion

From a philosophical, theological and aesthetic perspective we can conclude that in its crude form ‘atheistic existentialism’ takes an age old Biblical principle of righteousness and individual responsibility, deletes ‘God’ or any meaning that this construct has in which we find ourselves. It is a sad reality that many of its evangelists suffered from schizophrenia or wrote in a manner which would be described as schizophrenic. For example, the life of Nietzsche, his diatribe and helter-skelter publication Beyond Good and Evil (from his middle and most astute period) and Sartre’s publication Nausea (regarded has his finest novel).

Atheistic existentialism and to a lesser extent general existentialism has a flawed ’authenticity’ because it presents a meaningless to life postulate in the face of the brute evidence from science that the universe has an underlying structure and therefore meaning. Even if we mere humans only understand it in part it doesn't by reason mean that it has no meaning. A scientific schema is still a calculable structure which obeys meaninful laws ergo the universe has meaning, even though we have only understood a few of its 'meanings’.

Some existential words of the teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

The words of Kohelet the son of David, king in Yerushalayim: 

Pointless! Pointless! - says Kohelet -Utterly meaningless! Nothing matters! 

What does a person gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? 

Generations come, generations go, but the earth remains forever. 

The sun rises, the sun sets; then it speeds to its place and rises there. 

The wind blows south, then it turns north; the wind blows all around and keeps returning to its rounds. 

All the rivers flow to the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they keep on flowing. 

Everything is wearisome, more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, the ear not filled up with hearing. 

What has been is what will be, what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 

Is there something of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It existed already in the ages before us. 

No one remembers the people of long ago; and those to come will not be remembered by those who come after them. 

I, Kohelet, have been king over Isra'el in Yerushalayim.

I wisely applied myself to seek out and investigate everything done under heaven. What a bothersome task God has given humanity to keep us occupied! 

I have seen all the activities that are done under the sun, and it's all pointless, feeding on wind.

What is crooked can't be straightened; what is not there can't be counted. 

I said to myself, "Look, I have acquired much wisdom, more than anyone ruling Yerushalayim before me."Yes, I experienced a great deal of wisdom and knowledge; 

yet when I applied myself to understanding wisdom and knowledge, as well as stupidity and folly, I came to see that this too was merely feeding on wind.

For in much wisdom is much grief; the more knowledge, the more suffering.

Ecclesiastes 1 from the Complete Jewish Bible

www.OnlyGod.co.uk URL brand was founded on 3rd July 2006. The site in its current form was created in 2014. Third party logos and URL links are for illustration purposes only. Any other logo or pictures contained on this site are also subject to Copyright law. Photos and images are either designed or privately owned or Copyright paid from Shutterstock.