Archives for posts with tag: existential ennui

What does it mean to be an atheist? Many people conflate atheism with scientism, the unabashed fellatio of scientific idealism. The universe is provably more ancient than 6000 years old, therefore God does not exist. Beyond scientism, atheism is often confused with Western-centrism. Women wearing head coverings are being oppressed, therefore God does not exist. However, being an atheist isn’t simply being a contrarian who establishes their beliefs solely as oppositional to religious and cultural dogma, it is its own unique belief set. And I do mean a full set of beliefs because true atheism requires more than just a belief in the lack of a God or gods.

Friedrich Nietzsche, as I’m sure everyone knows, is the guy who said that God is dead. Unfortunately, this has become a meaningless phrase to be scribbled on the inside of a bathroom stall, typically followed by the equally useless retort, “Nietzsche is dead – God.” Taken out of context, the quotation just seems like a badass way of saying there is no God, but the ‘death’ motif is not used simply because Nietzsche is metal as fuck. It is very deliberate. Let’s look at the full context, from the book The Gay Science:

THE MADMAN—-Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

“God is dead” is not a celebration, nor even is it an exclamation of God’s ultimate non-being. Consider the Thomas theorem – If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. God most certainly exists since people do define Him as real, and through that definition, His presence has material consequences on humanity unconditional to whether or not He is objectively ‘real.‘ God had been the foundation of Western civilization for centuries, and arguably still is, and therefore His non-existence is not a simple void to be filled by smug self-righteousness as shown by the townspeople in this parable (and in many atheists today, even); it is the destabilization of our entire world, plunging us into darkness. The prime basis for morality, purpose, hope, identity, and even society itself, the measurable ‘consequences’ of God, are no longer relevant; this is not some triviality to be approached with condescending mirth. This is a dirge.

Without God, our morality is flummoxed by David Hume’s Is/Ought problem. We cannot look at a state in the world and derive a moral obligation from it without first imposing a human value. For example, economic inequality is a thing that exists. Any ethical action must first be based on a value statement: equality is good, therefore measures must be put in place to redistribute the wealth, or competition is good, therefore there must be losers, therefore inequality is not inherently bad so long as competition is allowed to flourish. If there is a disagreement, it is entirely possible that no middle ground could ever be reached because each party may be working from entirely different foundational premises. If there is no objective measure of value, such as through God, then subjectivity infects moral decision making and clouds the process.

Nietzsche’s solution can be summed up quite succinctly in his own words, “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” This is in reference to Nietzsche’s problematic Übermensch: the being who has ascended their own humanity to become something greater. We Übermensch create our own values and disregard other opinions because we’re super great and other people are only ever means to our own ends. While certainly a solution to the problem of a now deceased diety, the sociopathy and narcissism of the Übermensch makes it less than appealing in a broad application.

There are, of course, other solutions. I have already written out my perspective on secular morality, as well as on finding meaning, so I won’t bother going over those again. For our identity, we must consider Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory, existence before essence. If our essence (the you-ness that defines you) precedes our existence, for example if we are made for a divine purpose, or we are built in such a way that we are driven in a particular direction (eg. toward God/goodness), then we as individuals can never define ourselves as we are limited by an essence predetermined by outside forces. If existence precedes essence however, then we can fully define ourselves based on our conscious choices and freedom. We must endure the responsibility of building ourselves, which is no small task to bear.

This is why agnosticism cannot work. If there is no God, then answers to these questions must be found through secular means, and if there is a God or gods, then the answers would be provided there. Agnostics, those who sit on the fence between these two positions, cannot offer any solution because there is no solid foundation of faith upon which it can be built. Descartes was only able to overcome his doubt to build the infrastructure of his philosophy when he realized there was an all-powerful God whom he knew would never deceive him. How can you build an identity if you are ambivalent as to whether your purpose has been predetermined by some divine force (God, fate, etc.) or not? If there is a God or gods, then presumably their impact on the universe ought to be acknowledged, and answers would need to be derived from within that paradigm. Even Nietzsche, despite his often harsh criticism of religions, admired that they at least offered answers, even if those answers were now obsolete.

New Atheism, as proselytized by the likes of Richard Dawkins and company, is partially responsible for this diversion away from building identity, hope, meaning, etc. toward an atheism that mostly insults the intelligence of religious individuals, possibly as a continuation of the post-modernist trend to deconstruct ideologies rather than create solutions. Really though, people have been complaining about the inconsistencies and implausibilities in religion since Xenophanes 2500 years ago. Criticizing religion based on reason achieves little because what separates religion from atheism isn’t the illogical myths, it’s the promulgation of answers to these existential questions that atheists must answer for themselves if they wish to maintain coherence in their godless world view.

Post-script: Yes, atheism is a faith. Consider our senses, and how terrible they all are. Our eyesight is poor, our hearing is garbage; none of them are remotely close to being the best in the animal kingdom. We rely on our massive brains to distinguish ourselves from an otherwise entirely mediocre body. However, it is incredibly naive to think that our brains are perfect considering how sub-par the rest of us is. To think that we even have the capacity to have full, universal understanding is beyond egotistical. More likely is we don’t. If we consider that there must be something that exists beyond our cognizable capacity, as there quite reasonably may be, then to claim complete atheism requires just as much faith as there does to claim that there is a God that exists within that realm. You might reasonably claim that because this realm by definition exists outside our capacity to understand it, we could never coherently speak about it, and you’re right. That’s where faith comes in.

A young boy dashes through the park, trampling through the flower beds. He stops to admire his handiwork, trying to memorize the patterns of dislocated petals and frantic insects. Weary of play for the moment, he collapses onto a bench.

He sees a group of children come up with rules to a new game, devoid of any reason. They scream and run about, tagging one another then arguing over new sets of rules to replace the old ones which allowed them to be tagged. Their laughter rings across the park, the frivolity creating an ambiance of innocence.

He witnesses a young man let his dog off the leash. The young man throws a ball down the field, and the dog bounds after it. With the ball retrieved, the dog jubilantly takes off across the park. The young man yells out after the dog, and begins a slow lope to chase it down.

A couple walks past the bench, hand in hand, talking quietly among themselves. The words are meaningless, but the conversation between their eyes and the dialogue of their bodies express a mute intimacy.

He looks further across the park, and sees a man with a stroller. The stroller is surrounded by a cooing group of women, while the man sheepishly stands by, feeling awkward with the attention. The group of women carry on their way, waving their high-pitched goodbyes to the infant, while one waves only to the man, who waves back with a grin.

Hearing a commotion, he turns to see that the couple, further down the path, have erupted into an argument. They remain mostly hushed to avoid public embarrassment, though passion elevates the occasional phrase before a scrutinizing stare quiets it down again. The words maintain their meaninglessness, however, while tone conveys everything they didn’t intend to communicate.

He sits back in the bench and observes the environment surrounding him. The lives of so many blur together to create a primordial vision of human existence. A flurry of sound and colour wash over him, engulfing him in their emotions. The world spins around him while he sits in the centre, calm and unmoving.

An old man struggles to his feet, and walks slowly toward the gate. As he reaches the old iron bars, he pauses. He pats at his pockets, and turns slightly, as if to look back. Shrugging his shoulders, the old man raises the collar of his jacket against the bitter cold and crosses the threshold, certain he’s forgotten something.

Charles Eisenstein (2013) predicts that a convergence of crises where the devastation of the environment, the increasing social hostilities across the world, the domination of monolithic international corporations over the global economy, and the impotence or facilitation with which governments typically respond to these factors will inescapably lead to the end of civilization. Ronald Wright (2004) looks at the rise and fall of previous civilizations and sees that there is a large sampling of civilizations that grew too large, consumed all their resources, and then spread out once those resources were finished. In an effort to see how humanity behaves without any room to expand, Wright looks at Easter Island as an example of a confined society where every last resource, in this instance trees, was eliminated, thereby destroying the civilization and the ecology of the island.

This analysis of the past and prediction for the future paints a bleak picture for our now global civilization. Humanity has run out of room to spread, and it is quite quickly running through its finite resources. Eisenstein (2013) suggests that those who wish to do some good for the world should continue their progressive practices in order to provide a solid foundation upon which humanity is to rebuild after the coming calamity. Another somewhat facetious approach is accelerationism; if we accept that the end of our global civilization is inevitable and imminent, the morally righteous course of action would be to speed that process along so as to hasten the opportunity to rebuild. This posits a critically important question, however: are we truly bound by a predetermined Armageddon where all hope of salvation for our current world is already lost?

Possibly the greatest threat to the stability of the world is the proliferation of international corporations. The Corporation (Achbar, Simpson & Abbot, 2003) illustrates the way that businesses that might otherwise be benign have infected the status quo by externalizing the problems they produce and internalizing anonymous blamelessness. Corporations lack any kind of accountability (outside of the profit motive) due to their personhood lacking any kind of body to incarcerate or otherwise punish. This leads to environmental and ecological destruction which damns future generations, and inhuman working conditions that damn the current one. Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices (Greenwald, Gilliam, Levit & Smith, 2005) localizes these issues by demonstrating how large corporations can turn communities into ghost towns by using predatory market practices to eviscerate smaller businesses and unfair labour practices to impoverish their workforce. These corporations run not just an oligopoly in the world’s economy, but in the media as well. In 1983, there were 50 different companies running the news media in America, and as of 2004 there are six (Perkins, 2011). By achieving a stranglehold on what the general population consumes as ‘news’, and by providing only the dominant cultural narrative through it (Mullaly, 2010), the corporate agenda can act with an even greater impunity than what the anonymity of corporate personhood normally would allow.

While these corporations continue to increasingly subjugate every aspect of the planet, the general populace faces contrasting destitution. The debt of the average Canadian is approximately $1.64 of debt to every dollar of income and continues to grow (Wong, 2015). This spiraling debt is the result of the credit industry; a tragedy caused by a gluttonous system creating superfluous demand to consume its petty trinkets (Perkins, 2011). This demand is built on a foundation of nothingness, however, and by witnessing its rapid growth we can predict a debt bubble destined to burst.

In addition to these worrying dilemmas, speaking out against them has its own problems. The film What Would Jesus Buy? (Morgan & VanAlkemade, 2007) depicts the criminalization of dissent as the protagonist of the film, Reverend Billy, is routinely harassed by police and security, or even arrested as he attempts to decry the commercialization of one of North America’s most sacred holidays. While many armchair activists might like to believe that posting a politically-themed status update on their Facebook page might be the equivalent of enacting social justice, the reality is that change will only occur through tangible efforts made by real people, such as the Reverend Billy. However, by forbidding that kind of activism through the use of police and the laws to which they adhere, the status quo clamps down on any real activism that might take place. While purporting to celebrate free speech and social justice, by relegating activism to predetermined locations where it might safely go unheard, society creates a wall where change breaks like a wave on the rocks.

Those working to create that change often find themselves at odds with one another as well. By being entrenched in a society that fosters competitiveness and creates a zero-sum funding method for social programs, activists are forced to fight not only against the structural inequalities of our broken system, but also against other activists that are labouring toward common goals. The system by its very function disrupts progress simply by exerting its default ideology of competition and capitalism (Bishop, 2006).

In addition to the systemic factors undercutting progress, there is a further burden on those advocating for change. Quite often when things go wrong, the blame will fall on those working toward ameliorating them. One example is the death of an Aboriginal teen which was primarily blamed on the “persistent indifference of front-line government workers” (Changes being made, 2015, para. 4). The problems inherent in the structure of racist policies that function to the detriment of Aboriginal youth go unnoticed as culpability is thrust upon the persons closest to the issue. This culpability further stigmatizes those seeking social improvement, and acts as discouragement toward even bothering in the first place.

So in the face of the impossibility of overcoming insurmountable global obstacles, or, on the off-chance that they are overcome, doing so in a timely enough manner that the already crippling environmental damages do not become irreversible, why do we bother? What leads us to bang our heads against this wall, suffering the slings and arrows, while facing off quite literally against the world? Would it not be simpler to merely give in, let the wave of inevitability wash over us, and accept somewhat less facetiously the merits of accelerationism?

The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus utilizes the myth of Sisyphus to illustrate how one might be able to confront meaninglessness. While Camus speaks ontologically, the method applies to social justice as well. Sisyphus is condemned to an eternity of pushing a giant boulder up a mountain, seeing it roll down the other side, then walking down to push it back up again. Camus, rather than seeing this as dreadful punishment, celebrates it and declares that Sisyphus must own his task and complete it passionately. He claims that Sisyphus overcomes the will of the gods in this manner in spite of them, and announces that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” (Camus, 1956, p. 314).

Bob Mullaly mirrors this view by declaring that anger is the necessary tool to combat futile odds: “anger at governments that cater to the wishes of the wealthy at the expense of women, children, visible minorities, and other marginalized groups; anger at a social welfare system that homogenizes, controls, and monitors people who are forced to go to it for assistance and that has proletarianized its workers; and anger at the discrimination, exploitation, and blocked opportunities that so many people experience today” (Mullaly, 2010, p. 283). Mullaly suggests anger as a tool to rally a community around an issue in an attempt to overcome it. From this perspective, it is only through owning the cause and becoming passionate about it that pointlessness can be conquered.

There are also those who believe that when knowledge is gained and compassion is utilized, fighting against these crises is humanity’s natural response. Si Transken defines these fruitless warriors as fuchsia elephants, who “may be on the verge of extinction,” but still “cannot blend into the chicken crowd” (Bryant et al., 1999, p. 33). No matter the outcome, fighting for social change compels them, and no amount of pressure from outside forces will quell the fires that have been lit inside. Once one adopts the mantle of the fuchsia elephant, it cannot be discarded. One may submit to the “exhaustive demands of the circus crowd” (Bryant et al., 1999, p. 33) and have their fire reduced to embers, but the fuchsia will never fully wash out.

Whatever the cause, be it natural or passionate, we must continue to fight. Even in the face of impossibility, in the face of meaninglessness, the battle for social justice must continue. Accelerationism works solely on the faith that there will be enough of a world left to rebuild once the convergence of crises has devastated it, and that is a deadly gamble. Giving up is not an option.


Achbar, M., Simpson, B. (Producers), & Achbar, M., Abbot, J. (Directors). The Corporation [Motion Picture]. USA: Big Picture Media Corporation

Bishop, A. (2006). Becoming an Ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression in people. Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

Bryant, V., Dahl, P., Lane, L., Marttila, M., Transken, S., Trepanier, C. (1999). Battle Chant. Sudbury, On: Battle Chant Ink.

Camus, A. (1956). The myth of Sisyphus, p. 312-314 In Kaufmaan, W. (ed.) Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Cleveland: Meridian Books.

Changes being made after report on death of Aboriginal teen: Children’s Ministry. (2015, Oct. 20). Prince George Citizen, p. 6.

Eisenstein, C. (2013). The ascent of humanity: Civilization and the human sense of self. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions.

Greenwald, R., Gilliam, J., Levit, L., Smith, D. (Producers), & Greenwald, R. (Director). Wal-Mart: The high cost of low price [Motion picture]. USA: Brave New Films.

Morgan, S. (Producer), & VanAlkemade, R. (Director). (2007). What would Jesus buy? [Motion picture]. USA: Arts Alliance America.

Mullaly, B. (2010). Challenging oppression and confronting privilege. Oxford, NY:Oxford University Press.

Perkins, J. (2011). Hoodwinked: An economic hit man reveals why the global economy imploded – and how to fix it. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.

Wong, C. (2015, Sep. 12). Household debt ratio grew in Q2 as debt increased faster than income. Prince George Citizen, p. 32

Wright, R. (2004). A short history of progress. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press.