Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Refuge in Nihilism


For some individuals nihilism is preferable to faith.

To make that a little clearer, some individuals prefer a view in which there is no inherent meaning or greater purpose to human existence, only a blind mechanical world in which such values are at best a contrived state.

It may seem that this would split along the lines of those which are religious or spiritual versus those who are not, but this is too simple. There are those who cannot relate to religion who sense a profound structure and meaningfulness to existence beyond any post-modern analysis or cultural meta-narratives, and there are those who identify as religious who live as if there really is no such grand vision.

Then there are those who are unable or unwilling to sit with the big existential questions except as an analytical or conceptual puzzle or hobby, and, having come up with some simple personal philosophy, go back to living without really concerning themselves about such issues in an introspective and vulnerable way. Some don't even go that far, simple borrowing a religious or philosophical outlook like a coat or hat but never really paying it any mind.

For these people, there are projects, plans, and problems to be worked on, and life is just a series of minutes, hours, days, and weeks organized around the activity these issues present. There isn't really any time or any need to be worrying about "what it all means". Just take care of what comes your way and let everything else take care of itself. Again, these people may or may not self-identify as spiritual or religious. At best, faith and its accoutrements is to some degree a commodity or accessory for many such people.

Based on my recent writing about spirituality, and about faith, and about religion, I am introducing a concept I call spiritual nihilism [1]. To be clear, this doesn't mean being spiritual but engaging in moral nihilism (the belief that there is no objective morality). It is close to what is referred to as existential nihilism, and may in fact be considered a variant of that collection of views. However, it is stripped of any romanticism about honesty or bravery. It makes no particular claims of being able to create ones own meaning, or living stoically in the face of absurdity.

Spiritual nihilism doesn't strictly deny the possibility of some greater meaning or purpose in which humans can participate, but rather an inability to personally perceive and participate in such meaning. Or to use the concepts and language of spirituality recently developed here, an inability to integrate oneself into systems and structures of meaning, regardless of their ultimate value or veracity.

For any number of reasons, then, it seems preferable or even necessary to embrace existential nihilism or one of its closely related views espousing the triviality of human existence, and in particular the individual's own existence.

How is such nihilism a refuge?

This may seem like an odd thing, an unromantic, dull, and depressing orientation toward existence that does not even have the fire or focus that similar views have in trying to deny, challenge, or over-turn established narratives and systems of meaning such as those found in religion. The idea that the brevity and fragility of life and the utter finality of death somehow makes human existence more potent or important to appreciate is also lacking as a necessary component.

This form of nihilism is not something one deliberately chooses as some philosophy, or that one arrives at through solely through a conviction born of deep and impressive sounding formal analysis. It isn't any kind of badge of courage or honor.

The reasons one may arrive at such are no doubt varied, but perhaps a starting point and even a commonality is the feeling that one's life has failed in some fundamental way or that one is somehow irretrievably damaged or ineffective. This felt imperfection or inadequacy is connected to the inability to connect to and become a part of a larger system or structure of meaning, such as:
  • having children (by birth or adoption) and more fully participating in the continuity of one's family, community and the species through this process;

  • being inducted into a religion or sacred tradition and participating in the continuity of that tradition and the larger values/sense of reality and purpose it entails (which itself may or may not be like joining a family);

  • joining in on and making significant contributions to a project or endeavor that spans multiple lifetimes, such as a political or social justice movement or an academic pursuit, at least when this entails a sense of purpose and continuity from a period prior to your own life and extending well beyond it.

Other examples could be named, but the general pattern is evident.

The felt or perhaps even subconscious sense of fault or deficiency associated with either the failure to or the inability to participate in these or similar system of meaning may stem from (now regretted) choices, from social or cultural pressures, from social, verbal, emotional, or physical abuse, from physical illness or injury, or from mental illness, to name likely causes.

Such nihilism may be a kind of defensive reflex. If family, religion, and other systems of meaning are meaningless in the larger scheme of things, then failure to effectively integrate into one of more of those systems is in some way canceled out.

This "reflex" doesn't need to be conscious, but its manifestation in avoiding or feeling guilty, anxious, depressed, resentful, frustrated, angry, or fearful when confronted with a relevant system or structure of meaning in the context of the value of one's own life would be telling. (There are naturally other reasons one might feel this way toward such structures in addition to the form of nihilism proposed here, so such feelings needn't indicate such nihilism.)

In a sense, then, this kind of nihilism can be thought of as a defensive contraction away from systems of meaning. But to describe this more fully, I prefer to use spiritual language.

Why I call it spiritual nihilism

Having already referred to previous suggestions that spirituality involves a desire to discover and integrate oneself into higher orders or structures of meaning and potential, the inability to do so could rightfully be thought of as a kind of spiritual nihilism.

More than that, there are also concepts that arise in religious and spiritual imagery that may help describe such a state [2]. For example, much talk of hell and divine judgment in the Judeo-Christian tradition involves imagery of being cut off, of having one's name erased from the book of life, of being cast into the outer darkness, and so on.

It is presumed that this implies the person is bad or unworthy, as it has become increasingly common to associate sin with a personal moral failure to live up to some code of established behavior. Therefore, the imagery mentioned is supposed to be the punishment for such failures.

The broader view of sin, which has just as much antiquity, includes faults which may or may not be due to the specific actions of the individual. The most well known example is probably that of "original" sin, which itself has many interpretations and is often used as a weapon by the self-righteous to attack and subdue others in the name of some idolatrous version of their God. That aside, the very idea that sin doesn't have to be (the result of) an intentionally immoral act, or even an act that could in context be deemed immoral, is useful.

It suggests that sin (and it's cousins in other religions such as impurity, karma, and the like) can be thought of more as the personal struggles one must endure because of the details of their life up to that point. It may have made sense for people to frame sin in terms of justice when looking at large societal problems regarding war, violence of the state against the weak, the problems of class and caste, institutional greed, and so on, but when used that way on an individual level it becomes uncompassionate and destructive.

What if such language of being cut off and cast out is reframed in terms of the perspective of the pain, isolation, despair, or (spiritual) numbness/blindness [3] associated with spiritual nihilism? It may be that some people end up that way as the result of living a life of total selfish and shallow egocentricism, but for those who are wounded in some way, it is counter-productive to accuse or chastise them for feeling that the truer and safer path lies in rejecting or avoiding structures of meaning. In ignoring or being outside of systems they are unable to join.

I used the term wounded, and again, to use spiritual-religious imagery, this would be a wound of the soul. Of the deeper levels of the heart. The part that can do more than limit itself to the routine of those who, for whatever reason, avoid the spiritual impulse and existential dilemma -- the routine of dealing with the series of projects, plans, and problems that pop up on the horizon. The part that can dream of a more meaningful life, a life of purpose and fulfillment. The part that can open itself (more) fully to ones own potential and the risks that such openness brings. The part, in short, that can open itself to faith.

Spiritual nihilism is the antithesis of (religious/spiritual) faith. If such nihilism is complete, faith is impossible. Even if it is incomplete, consciously acknowledging and contemplating the potential value of the relevant systems of meaning is like pouring salt in a wound. Admitting the possibility of such relevance and important to the pertinent systems of meaning while recognizing one is unable to participate in them would set up a conflict further antagonizing the individual. (Faith is therefore still inaccessible.)

Thus, such nihilism can itself form a kind of refuge. A refuge in which such lofty or otherwise unattainable ambitions are out of mind and irrelevant. A refuge from faith.

From a spiritual perspective, it could be said that this kind of living for the moment or a series of material goals is a kind of avoidance behavior. In other words, it is not the same being the moment, or as William Blake phrased it, finding eternity in an hour.

The question that suggest itself to me is this: Even if you have found greater meaning and purpose to your life in the sense that the notion of spiritual is used here, would it be better to leave such a person to live whatever life they seem comfortable with or to try to convince them that there is something more worth trying for? That is, if you already believe in that "something more", would you risk their balance and level of contentment by encouraging them to open up?

If you answer in the affirmative, then how exactly would you even try? The connection between any person and a particular system of meaning certainly must be very complex and subjective, so what works for you (the system or how you relate to it) is not necessarily going to work for them. And what if they lack the resources or traits necessary? Asking someone to start a family or a storied career/life of honored pursuit at 75 is impractical. Asking someone who is hostile or suspicious toward religion to be open to a higher power is also impractical. You get the picture.

Moreover, what if they are able to open up to some degree to take the risk, and they still fail to connect? What then? Even if it is possible is it ethical to push people into such risks?


1. I am not a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. I write about things here based on my own experiences as well as my observations, things that are related to issues concerning spirituality and religion.

2. If you have a semantic allergy to such imagery and language, my apologies, but the imagery of the arts, which is related to/overlaps with the imagery of spirituality and religion, can better express some aspects of the human condition.

3. Or even escapism into intellectualism, fantasy, etc.

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