Does atheism lead to nihilism?

by Neil Rickert

The recent book

by John Loftus and Randal Rauser, has been made available as a free kindle book for one day.  I guess that is intended as a way of promoting the book.  And I guess that works, since here I am making a blog post that will help to promote the book.

I have not read the entire book so I won’t call this post a review, though I am categorizing it in “reviews”.

The book consists of 20 chapters, each covering a question that is supposed to be an issue between the religious and the non religious. For each chapter, John Loftus presents an atheists viewpoint on the question while Randal Rauser presents a theist’s viewpoint.  It will be no surprise to readers of this blog, that I tended to side with John Loftus in these debates.

I started with chapter 1, and this post is mainly about that chapter.

Does meaning come from God?

One of the claims of theists is that, without God, life is meaningless.  That is the topic of the first chapter of “God or Godless.”  I have heard this argument many times.  I have participated in the argument in Internet forums.  It has always seemed a silly argument.  Of course we have meaning and purpose in our lives, and that does not depend on whether we are adherents to a religion.

I expected that I would find this chapter to be a rehash of the many arguments that I have previously encountered on the issue.  However, to my surprise, I found the discussion refreshing.

Randal Rauser opens the discussion by making his argument for the importance of God.  He illustrates this with the example of go-go boots designed for a purpose, which he compares with a rock which is just there but has  no designed purpose.  It is this use of illustrations that helps enliven the discussion.

John Loftus responds by arguing that meaning and purpose come from within, not from a designer/creator.  He illustrates this by looking at a bunch of people locked in a house for a purpose which they do not know.  He then describes how the people make the best of their circumstances and develop their own purpose and meaning for their lives.

This opening discussion is followed by a rebuttal argument by each author, and then by final summary comments by each author.  I won’t go through the details of the arguments.  That’s for you, if you decide to read this book.

My assessment

After reading this chapter, I have a better understanding of the theist’s view, or at least of the version of the theist’s view that is presented.  I did not find it at all persuasive, but at least the theist’s claims no longer look quite as absurd as they had previously seemed.

I came away from the discussion wondering whether nihilism (or lack of meaning) is really more of a problem for theists than for atheists.  Perhaps they have to invent a God to convince themselves that their own lives are meaningful.  And I began to realize that the reason I was always filled with doubt back when I was engaged with religion, was because I was already leading a life that was filled with a meaning that was independent of any deity.

You won’t find a discussion of the particulars of that assessment in the chapter.  But you might find that the book stimulates your thoughts so as to lead you to your own interesting assessment of the positions argued.


The small amount of time that I have already spent reading this book was time well used.  I look forward to being similarly stimulated by other chapters.


9 Comments to “Does atheism lead to nihilism?”

  1. Thanks for this post. Glad it provokes thought.


  2. “Nihilism” is used in many ways. What do you mean when you say “Theists risk nihilism more than Atheists”?


    • Yes, I should have explained that more clearly.

      Theists, overall, tend to depend more on authority as their source of meaning, though that is less true of liberal theists. If they lose faith in their preferred authority, they have less that they can fall back on. Non-theists, particularly those I know from within academia, are more self-reliant.


  3. Hmmm…
    I haven’t thought about this a terrible amount, but I will take a stab.
    (1) I think “meaning” really needs to be nailed down — and I’d prefer it done physiologically. Heck, even the studies of happiness would be a fuzzy area.
    (2) I think buying into the notion of “meaning” is problematic from the get go.
    (3) “Dissatisfaction” may be helpful
    (4) I think both theists and atheists and everyone else gets most satisfaction from similar things: relationships, fun activities, creating, safe-secure-promising futures and much more.
    (5) I think world view are rarely conscious activities in most people
    (6) When theists have their god-model rocked, they realize that meaning (satisfaction) is in all the things in #4 — however, if friendships, career and activities are all tied up in the religion, then meaning slips. Thus it is not the belief but the social connections the belief facilitates that is the cause.

    Summary: to buy into the notion that we are systematic-worldview builders who must construct a correct world view based on sold basis in order to find meaning is a total buy-in mistake.


    • I mostly agree with that.

      I was discussing a book chapter, and both contributors to that chapter do actually try to nail down what they are discussing. That’s why I found the discussion in that chapter to be quite refreshing.


  4. The Christian Delusion by John Loftus happens to be the first book on atheist philosophy that I’ve ever taken the time to read. Prior to reading this book, I assumed that all philosophy was far outside my realm of understanding and that I’d never be one to buy such literature. However, I feel as though The Christian Delusion was fairly accessible to a teenage reader, such as me. That isn’t to say that it was an easy read; in fact, I found that if I tried to read this as quickly as I do with other books, I retained little to none of the information. I’ve learned that with philosophy, it takes time to let the ideas truly sink in and resonate with the reader. I realize that many of my classmates do not share the same beliefs as me (or lack thereof), but I would still encourage them to read this book because I honestly feel like it was intended to be read by theists as well, not solely atheists.


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