Exvangelical nihilism

Image: Randomly generated meaning by Sam G.

By Sam G.

When I say that I’m a nihilist it never seems to really be taken seriously. To some people it seems so obvious a position that its barely worth mentioning. Other people likely dismiss me as not really being serious. I think part of the reason for this is that, outwardly, I probably don’t show much evidence of being a nihilist. I don’t have a “f*** everything!” attitude. Or live as if nothing mattered. In fact, I generally act as if I have very strongly held egalitarian values. So how do these two pictures come together? Is my nihilism just intellectual, not deeply rooted enough to affect my behaviour? Or is my sunny disposition deeply rooted enough to not be affected by my nihilism? Perhaps I’ve just read too much Nietzsche and am being edgy on purpose? My (tentative) answer is that this is because being a nihilist isn’t necessarily very nice. It’s a bit like believing in God but hating them (not an uncommon experience, I believe). So, nihilism doesn’t necessarily push me to behave misanthropically, but, like any other belief about the world, it does open up its own ways of thinking and being.

I see nihilism as the conviction that the meanings we give things have no ultimate grounding in anything else. The universe is effectively indifferent to us – we are just another animal species carving out a space for ourselves to survive, and not special in any cosmic sense. Most religions assert a source of meaning and value beyond the human world, and following these values becomes a choice with moral (and often eternal) consequences. For a nihilist, meanings have only social consequences, insofar as morality is simply another value on the same level as those that it judges over. In this sense nihilism is generally atheistic, though it is certainly compatible to an extent with many other belief systems. Talking about ‘meanings’ and ‘values’ gets confusing very quickly since we can mean all kinds of different things by them. Saying “waving means hello” is very different to “my children give meaning to my life”, for example.  Nihilism tends to focus more on the second example here, and is often stereotyped as implying that nothing matters, or that there is no point to anything.

However, I certainly do believe that things matter, that they are important and that they have meaning. I simply limit the scope of those meanings, taking human beliefs and values to be of the same order as everything else in nature – they are created in specific circumstances, they live, evolve, and eventually disappear, leaving traces on the world but never tapping into any universal or deeper truth. For me, values are still real, in the sense that they change the world, but their realness goes no further than the human lives they touch. Most of the values of a thousand years ago are lost to us and so will our values be to future humans. Thus, our meanings have a shifting foundation, and this is the truth that gives sense to our social, political, or moral system. One consequence of this is that the possibility of ethical or moral claims and the strength of their justification is limited – they become wrapped up in lots of qualifiers ‘right for us’, ‘destabilises our community’, ‘desirable for this group of people in this time and place’ etc. Nihilism therefore casts meaning as a specifically human construction and nothing more – the natural world doesn’t have meaning as far as we can tell, even if sometimes animals and natural systems behave as if things did have meaning for them. Meaning is a layer that humans add between themselves and the world and, to my mind, is most likely directly related to our evolved use of language and abstract thinking.

The universe is effectively indifferent to us – we are just another animal species carving out a space for ourselves to survive, and not special in any cosmic sense.

Sam G.

But where did my nihilism come from? As I said before, I’m not very obviously a nihilist. I’m not belligerent like Richard Dawkins and his new atheists, for example. Nor do I lack respect for people with faith. For me, nihilism is where I have ended up retreating to as confidence in other ‘truths’ has been steadily stripped away; a wall I’ve eventually found at my back. Nothing I believe is held so deeply that it couldn’t be unseated, and though this is a tendency I’ve had since I was a child, the impossibility of objective truth is something that has been reinforced for me again and again.

I was raised in an evangelical Christian family and went to church until I was allowed to stop, around the age of eleven or twelve. As it was a fundamental part of my family’s life (my dad is still an elder in the church), I continued to have contact with it through my teenage years. I don’t have significant experience of other denominations or religions to compare, but evangelicals tend to claim for themselves a rich and close personal relationship with God/Jesus, one perhaps deeper and more meaningful than in the cultural belonging and ritual of Catholicism or Anglicanism, for example. So, my early life was coloured by repeated claims of closeness to God, behaviour suggesting the direct touch of God’s spirit and moral directives supported by God’s active guidance. Rites of passage were supposed to bring you closer in this relationship and knit the congregation together. It was a strong, even overbearing narrative, and for many years I strove to access this experience too. However, despite my earnest attempts I never had a single experience of the divine. Not even religious euphoria, which I would consider one of the most likely claimed experiences to be purely psychological. My disenchantment eventually turned into disinterest, and I left the church behind. It was only many years later that I reconsidered my personal connection to Christian belief, and to my family. In my twenties I went, humbly, to many of those that I considered most convinced of the truth of their faith – including my father who was still an elder – and asked for the details of their religious experience. I reasoned that if their claims of a benevolent creator God were true, then contact with the divine ought to be undeniable – before the divine, our own world ought to seem like a shadow. At the very least having a personal relationship with such a being must feel more real than a relationship with another human. This was my test: human experience in general contains so much weirdness that serious, widespread religious belief should require a much higher bar of evidence than, say, claims about UFOs or the spiritual significance of mushrooms. These are belief systems that have lasted centuries and been tempered by many, many different minds, from brilliant theologians to industrious peasants. Some of the Christians I’ve spoken to about this have been scientifically minded, and all have professed that faith and revelation must be experienced personally and cannot give way to reason or evidence.

Nihilism is where I have ended up retreating to as confidence in other ‘truths’ has been steadily stripped away; a wall I’ve eventually found at my back

Sam G.

To my horror, my investigations revealed only vague and uncertain spiritual experiences: strong faith but nothing that could not be put down to wishful thinking or mundane psychological effects. No-one I’ve asked has had any experience that is so much more ‘real’ or exceptional that it must not belong to this world or be an effect of the human mind. If communion with God is no more potent than drugs then, for me, God almost certainly cannot exist. All of the moral authoritarianism of my upbringing was, it turned out, based on a hope. I have to say, my quest really ended there. It seemed to me so unlikely that widening the net would bear any fruit that I gave up almost all interest in the spiritual or divine. So, I am left with a sceptical nihilism that is almost an agnosticism – I don’t discount any tale of supernatural realities beyond my immediate world and senses, I just don’t put a lot of stock in other humans as reliable sources of them. Without finding any convincing evidence for the intrinsic value of values, I am left with what is given to me.

And yet, for me the belief that values go no further than those of my community and the ones I select for myself hasn’t yet led me to great crimes. What I believe it has given me is a deep pragmatism and an openness to difference, a flight from dogmatism. Nihilism is still dangerous – there is no real bulwark against fascistic values except the weight of social conscience, which is of course fickle and changeable. For me this danger is always visible on the horizon and makes a society built on a nihilist foundation a terrifying prospect. However, for my part the values I follow and choose are shaped by bringing joy and love to the world around me. To say that everything is ultimately meaningless is not to say that no experience is enjoyable or meaningful for me but is also not to say that the values of society more broadly are empty and should be discarded.

Sam G. is a radical organiser, researcher and artist based in Brighton.

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