I was listening to a podcast about some people who left their faith when I was reminded of something from Nietzsche’s The Will to Power. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a collection of notes that Nietzsche had for one or several books he never got to write. In essence, it’s a gathering of raw ideas that he never spun into something eloquent (like in Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
The Will to Power details (in a vague sense) this idea that nihilism isn’t a beginning or an ending of philosophy. Rather, it’s a process of looking with merciless appraisal upon old things that humanity has valued as wisdom, truth, or good. Much of it is focused on Christianity, as faith at the time (and remains today) was seen to hold many core values of society that Nietzsche lived in. But because nihilism is a process of destruction, it has to be applied equally everywhere, which includes faith.
Nihilism isn’t supposed to be an end to moral inquiry, though. Think of it like the demolition of interior structures of a house. That process of destruction is essential to build something new. The assumption that something new is coming afterwards was vaguely tossed about in the podcast. And, since I’ve lived my whole life being told that religion satisfied a basic human need, I’ve given “what comes next” more than passing thought.
But does something have to come next?
Growing up, I’d been told that people wouldn’t know about justice or morality without the Christian deity. I don’t believe that anymore (something which could be a post in its own right). Plenty of societies exist without the Christian deity, and they have their own ideas of what’s right and wrong. What this means is that I now have a sense that this god-shaped morality hole I’d been told about might not exist.
On the other hand, the existence of rules of behavior everywhere indicates that people do worry about morality. The easiest rules to justify relate to physical harm and danger. Don’t kill. Don’t rape. Don’t attack other people. Outside of that, societies will list all kinds of things that they might want to uphold. There’s no accounting for taste. One society might worship cows. Another might worship cats.
Instead of creating some sort of new morality construct, I realize that I don’t have to create my own Ten Commandments to live by. Such an urge is a relic of artificial beliefs. People already do a decent job of guessing what’s okay and not okay. When that fails, laws, social customs, and other social forces take over.
People don’t have to come up with what comes next because it’s already being done.
No, I’m not talking about hedonism (although I’m sure some people of faith will insist on it). What I’m saying is that people have to learn how to make correct moral decisions just by living. These aren’t handed down from on high, but practical iterations which happen over time. Nobody’s born with the knowledge to refrain from drinking and driving. It often takes losing someone to finally learn that lesson.
In my post-Christian life, I’ve struggled with worry about morality and being a decent person. Most of this is fear about responding to the demands of those within the faith I left behind. They want something to point to that they can insist where their deity goes. Life isn’t that easy. It turns out, nothing is missing because nothing was there in the first place.
Even now, I have a hard time feeling the truth of this statement. I shouldn’t be surprised; years went into convincing me to carve a hole in my psyche. It will take years and patience and learning to love myself in order to let it fill. When it does, I’ll be able to appreciate my life without divine support in a warmer light.
As it turns out, healing comes next.
I’m not the only one needing to heal. Communities will eventually heal. Nations will heal. Everyone is going to cast off the things that scar them and let the healing begin. That’s what life does. It heals, or it dies.
Life without an overlord isn’t scary or hopeless or bereft of morality. I think about it just as much as before I left Christianity. Instead of pleasing some deity, I now think in concrete terms. What are the effects of my actions? What are the consequences? Are these consequences okay? Those are the questions I should have been asking the whole time.
3 thoughts on “What Comes After Faith?”
Re “But because nihilism is a process of destruction, it has to be applied equally everywhere, which includes faith.” I do not agree that nihilism is “a process of destruction” because, if it were, atheism would be a process of destruction of gods. Nihilism has multiple meanings but I will only speak to the part that is “life is without objective meaning.”
The whole “objective meaning” idea is bogus. It is referring to there being a meaning established outside of the individual (usually by some deity). So, just for fun, let’s assume that “we were created by God to worship God” is that meaning. (This seems to be popular in some circles.) If this is true, are we under any obligation to act accordingly? (Answer: threats of punishments aside, no.) So, we still get to choose whether this “meaning” applies to us. Nihilists insist that such objective meanings do not exist (which is not destruction, merely rejection, as you can’t destroy what does not exist).
From Wikipedia “Nihilism is the point of view, or philosophy, antithetical to the reputedly meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not exist at all.”
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What I’m referencing by destruction is the riddance of old values. In a sense, they’re getting destroyed when a person admits that these values aren’t the magically ordained ones they used to believe. No physical matter is lost. But sometimes old values become lost. Sometimes the old ideas are simply rejected.
With that in mind, atheism isn’t bound up with nihilism, although some of the concepts can overlap. One can be an atheist or agnostic after nihilism forces a rejection of religious values.
Love your last paragraph! Too bad more don’t follow that same perspective.
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