Existential Nihilism vs. Atheism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are several philosophies that reject the concept of a divine authority, but not all of them are the same. In this lesson, we are going to look at atheism and existential nihilism to see how they are different and how they are similar.

The Death of God

In the 19th century, the German philosopher and founder of modern pessimism Friedrich Nietzsche extolled philosophy as the ''death of God''. Nietzsche wasn't trying to literally define the mortality of a supreme being, but rather question the ability of religious institutions to provide an adequate moral compass for humanity. In doing so, however, he helped set the foundation for modern philosophical ideologies that deny the existence of any sort of deity. Of course, even without belief in a deity, people still argue over their worldviews. Some things never change.

Friedrich Nietzsche


The philosophical rejection of a deity is known, in its broadest terms, as atheism. Atheism as an ideology is most directly focused against the idea of a monotheistic supreme being as purported by Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In a wider sense, however, Atheists reject the idea that any sort of omnipotent entity controls the fate of the world, the cycles of nature, or the cosmic order of existence. To atheists, nature and science are generally seen as substantially explaining the Universe and the order of things within it.

Existential Nihilism

Atheism is a broad ideology, embraced in part by many different branches of philosophy. One branch that was closely connected to the rise of atheism as a doctrine is existential nihilism. The original nihilists (like Friedrich Nietzsche) believed that all values were baseless. This meant that institutions like the Christian Church were trying to force subjective values over society, presumably to secure their own power. In reality, according to the nihilists, there are no universal moral truths.

Nihilism was eventually infused with the existentialist focus on individual experiences to create existential nihilism, a skeptical and pessimistic ideology that sees all existence as meaningless. Joy, sorrow, suffering, triumph and all other human experiences have no internal meaning or value, nor does life itself. This ideology was advanced by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who famously extolled that ''existence precedes essence''. In short, existence is real but we create meaning for it. Stripping away the illusion of meaning reveals the true baselessness of all morality and meaning.

Jean-Paul Sartre
JP Sartre

Atheism and Existential Nihilism

The modern atheistic movement largely grew out of the works of Sartre and other similar philosophers. Nevertheless, atheism and existential nihilism can be very different doctrines and shouldn't be immediately conflated. While both reject the concept of a divine authority that dictates a single set of moral values over the universe, they treat the concept of morality itself very differently.

Existential nihilists claim that there is no purpose to existence and that all morals are meaningless. In fact, any attempt to assign moral value to existence is an exercise in the absurd. That's an idea that most atheists don't agree with. While atheists reject the idea of an omnipotent being, most do not reject the concept of morality itself.

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