The development of atheist existentialism- UPDATED

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.


  1. TC said,

    April 24, 2010 at 9:18 am

    I think the primary objection to the New Atheism is simply the amateurishness of its proponents’ philosophical “arguments”. It’s not simply a philosophical dispute; it’s that the New Atheists have no apparent capacity for philosophy, and cannot even understand the significance of the philosophic issues.

    It’s a bit like calling Randianism “philosophy”. It tries to be, and it touches on philosophic issues, but one can’t seriously call it philosophy. To do so would be to give up one’s credibility.

    The situation may be different with Erhard. I haven’t read him, so I can’t pass any judgment there.

  2. April 24, 2010 at 11:02 am

    I think that your critique is good, though I wonder if the “amateurishness” itself might be the development of atheist existentialist philosophy (I put it in scare quotes since, from the perspective of Erhard’s critique, sloppiness in reasoning would just be a sign that reasoning- or at least reasoning about profound things- wasn’t anything to take too seriously).

    Don’t Dawkins or Hitchens or PZ or Coyne actually seem to celebrate the idea that any serious reasoning about these issues is just silly? This seems to account for the peculiar iridescence of their rhetoric, which strives to be amusing from one angle and want to be taken in deadly earnest from another. I don’t think they thought their rhetorical style out- I just figure they have a knack for knowing what their philosophy should sound like, and the ultimate motivation for their style (unknown to them) is that serious reasoning about the Absolute is not worth doing and should not be done. One can make arguments if he must, but it seems at least as important to them that their arguments be funny as that they be right.

    If it is right that the real motivation of their thought is that the things they are critiquing should not be given any serious reasoning, then it would be important to know this (though it wouldn’t be important to them).

  3. Joseph A. said,

    April 24, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    I think you’re largely correct with the idea that New Atheism wasn’t/isn’t all that concerned with taking religion seriously or thinking things through. In fact, in the David B. Hart thread (which really seems to have struck a nerve) I was surprised at how many don’t even bother denying the charge. The reply was largely ‘Well, most believers don’t have a very mature view of God either – they’re the ones we want to get at!’ Or, put another way, their thought is shallow because they think they’re going up against shallow believers. I find it interesting that so many can repeat that and not notice the problem, particularly with supposed champions of reason.

    I think that political/social aspect is also important to keep in mind. Particularly in politics, we see that poorly thought out or justified arguments happen far more often, probably because said arguments are nothing but tools to an end – it’s more important to be effective than truthful. Heck, truth may be a liability. And the New Atheism was almost expressly borne out of political/social interest. (Harris thinking religion was an impediment to the world government he craves, Dawkins practically equating nationalism with religious belief, etc.)

  4. Martin T said,

    April 28, 2010 at 3:26 am

    You’re very kind but from your description I’m not sure there’s a difference between these guys and the Greek sophists.

    • April 28, 2010 at 10:44 am

      Plato and Aristotle defined sophistry both in moral terms (one who desired to be wise without actually being so) and according to the structure of the arguments they gave (which they proved were primarily based in the manipulation of the per accidens- the articulation of which is the goal of Plato’s dialogue “Sophist”) The difficulty is that they did not tell us what relation, if any, these two definitions had to each other. One gets the impression that the love of the per accidens just is a desire to be seen as wise without being so. Is this so? Aristotle makes things more tricky by claiming that to be deceived by the per accidens can happen even to the wise, and so this seems to open a broad road for the wise to trade in sophistical arguments; and a fortiori the extremely clever and knowledgeable might trade in them too.

      The same dilemma confronts us: are we dealing with those who have a moral problem or an intellectual one? Are these argumentative conclusions the logical working out of an implicit premise, or the rationalizations of a perverse will?

  5. Martin T said,

    June 16, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    John Wright has an interesting view on this.

    I propose the study of a new science, to be called Sophomoronology. It will investigate the pathology of philosophy, that is, this new science will study the causes and reasons behind the death of philosophy.

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