Werner Erhard, a pioneer in the popular self-help/ therapeutic self-actualization movement in the 1970′s, described his project as a continuation of the Atheist existentialism that stretched from Nietzsche to Sartre. Existentialism, he said, discovered that things were empty and meaningless, but they stopped there. Erhard said that he took the next step: it’s empty and meaningless that things are empty and meaningless. If things were pointless, why moan about it? If all there is is an abyss, why bother with morbid struggles against it? Why bother with being bothered? So what if there is no Absolute? Shut up already! You sound like an old man who complains about all the pills he has to take, or a teenager who complains that everyone is fake!
Everyone knows that Nietzsche would have railed against Erhard with all he had – in fact, some of his most emphatic condemnations were against such “shallow” nihilism (though, from Erhard’s perspective, it is in fact a deeper and more profound nihilism). Some modern theist philosophers have echoed Nietzsche’s critique: David B. Hart has just written a rollicking condemnation of the “new atheists” on this point, as has Fr. Robert Barron. If only our atheists were like Nietzsche and Camus! Those were atheists that took the absence of the Absolute seriously!
Perhaps. What we have here is simply a dispute in atheist existentialism, just like any other philosophical dispute (say between idealism and realism, Platonism and Aristotelianism, consequentialism and deontologism, etc.) The dispute is this: does the absence of an Absolute matter? Sartre and Nietzsche both give a resounding yes- the absurdity of things/death of God must be taken with extreme gravity and solemnity. Erhard is the only one I know who has said a resounding “no”, but the rhetorical style of the new atheists seems to be more in line with Erhard’s notion of how one should act in the face of profound questions; and in this sense their philosophy is a more rational and reasonable a development of atheist existentialism: according to Erhard’s principles, it is a more perfect expression of atheist existentialism. Nietzsche would savage such philosophy with the most vituperative language- but again, his savaging them would just be one side of a philosophical dispute like any other, and deserves to be recognized as such.