by Bill Nugent
It is vital for us to understand existentialism which is the principle ethical outflow of atheism and the dominant philosophy of our times. It is a direct challenge to Judeo-Christian morality.
Down through the centuries Christian and Jewish philosophers believed that absolute truth was given by revelation from God in the form of the Ten Commandments and other biblical principles. (Absolute truth is a firm, objective, reliable, unchanging standard of right and wrong that applies to all people at all times.)
A major shift occurred during the philosophical period of the mid 1700s called the Enlightenment which was also known as the age of reason. Enlightenment or modernist philosophy asserts that man must use reason, not revelation, to discover absolute truth.
In the 1800s philosophy deviated still further and entered what is called the Romantic period of philosophy. The romantics returned to nature (think Emerson, Thoreau, Walden Pond, etc.) and emphasized personal experience and subjective rather than objective thought. It was in this romantic period that existentialism was born. In this period philosophy began the shift from modern to postmodern.
Postmodernism can be called “post-reason” or “post-rational.” Postmodernists regard truth as not given by revelation or even discovered by reason but truth is created by the human will of each person and is unique to that person. This is subjectivism. Each person has their own truth. There is no objective truth that applies to all people at all times. This is the moral isolation of the individual and is the essence of existentialism. But I’m getting ahead of myself — let me first explain the rather innocent beginnings of existentialism.
The man who coined the term “existentialist” was Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). His philosophy was so earth shaking that prominent author Noah Hutchings considers him to be one of seven men who rule the world from the grave (along with Darwin, Marx and four others). Ironically, Kierkegaard was a religious man who tried to reconcile his explosive philosophical meanderings with Christianity. He reached a crisis point when he broke off his engagement to be married. It was this anguished choice that set him on a path to develop a philosophy of choice.
The Enlightenment philosophers emphasized human reason but this new existentialist philosophy would emphasize the human will. Man must throw off social constraints and in passionate emotion choose his own personal destiny. The existentialist must be totally responsible for his destiny and be utterly free. The above sounds radical but in early kierkegaardian innocence it might mean choosing to be a shoemaker rather than run the family farm as your parents expect. It remained for later generations of philosophers to take existentialism to its logical and destructive extremes.
The existentialists who followed Kierkegaard, especially the atheist existentialists, taught existentialism as a means of throwing off social convention and self-justifying many harmful and destructive behaviors. This gave rise to Bohemianism. The Bohemians were early beatniks or hippies. The French called them Bohemians because they thought they originated in Bohemia in central Europe. They didn’t come from Bohemia but the name stuck.
The essence of bohemianism is a wandering, nomadic lifestyle and slovenly, nonconforming clothes and hairstyle. Each person creates his own truth by his own will. It’s “different strokes for different folks.” Each person must “do his own thing” even if that means getting a girl pregnant and abandoning her. There is no objective standard to judge other’s behavior. Just let it slide. Does anyone see 1960s America in that? The 1960s is when existentialism reached the masses after its long journey form elite European academia.
A famous atheist existentialist of the generation following Kierkegaard was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who wrote that the most fundamental urge that motivates humans is power. Humans desire power to choose for themselves and they desire power over others to dominate and make choices for others and to order society after their own will. This is “I do my own thing and you must do my thing too!” He called this “The will to power.”
Adolf Hitler was greatly influenced by Nietzsche as was the entire Nazi movement. The most dramatic Nazi propaganda film wasThe Triumph of the Will. This film aggrandized Hitler and the sixth Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg in 1934.
After World War II there arose a cult of nihilism around the writings of the famous French existentialists Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1959). Nihilism is the idea that the world is absurd and there is no real meaning to life. Existentialism and its offspring, moral relativism (subjectivity is truth), are the dominant philosophies of our time. The universities, liberal politics, literature and film are rife with existentialist and subjectivist notions.
I hope this article has helped you understand the mind of the existentialist so we can gently point them to God as truthgiver. Multitudes, by God’s grace, are turning away from existentialist narcissism (excessive self love) and are finding true meaning in the objective eternal reality of Christ.