By Nominis Expers

      Existentialism can be divided into two basic camps: Theistic Existentialism, affirming a belief in the existence of God, and Atheistic Existentialism, as the name indicates, denying the same. Existentialism in general has been described as the attempt to philosophize from the standpoint of the actor rather than from that of a detached spectator. As one might well imagine, the resultant philosophy will vary enormously depending upon its Theistic or Atheistic presuppositions. Our examination here will be of the atheistic variety of existentialism, as this is the more prevalent in our culture today.

      Atheistic Existentialism is, simply put, the philosophy of mere existence. It falls under the rubric of Secularism, having an ontological position involving a denial or exclusion of transcendent, supernatural realities. It rejects the idea that there is any Truth, only particular truths; it rejects the idea of any objective absolutes, stating that "existence precedes essence." It maintains an anti-supernaturalist posture, holding that subjective existence has primacy over any sub-stratum of the supernatural. Without any absolute basis, morality is subjective and reduced to preferences; without design or purpose, life, as pure existence, has no meaning, and is absurd. Jean-Paul Sartre (see below) summed up man as a "useless passion", caring deeply about an existence that ends at the grave, futile, meaningless and devoid of value.

      A glimpse at a few...

Influential Existentialists

Frederich Nietzsche (1844-1900): Atheistic Existentialist

Major Work: "Thus Spake Zarathustra"

      "God is dead...and He died of pity." For Nietzsche, religion emerged in order to bring comfort and consolation to weak people lacking courage to create their own values. Human culture is decadent due to the "herd morality" and due to Christianity's emphasis on peace, love, forgiveness, meekness and humility, which is nothing but weakness.

      The distinctive of the human animal is the "will to power", the basic drive to be the best, the most powerful. In encounter with each other and our fundamental aggression, we flee conflict and sublimate our basic drive for power. The "authentic" human will be the "Ubermensch", the Superman who will submit to no rules, refuse the will of the community or the common good, the individualist, the conqueror with the courage to define his own morality and values in his own interest. (Is it possible that a thinking person would fail to classify this nut as a sociopath?) This is philosophical crime at its most heinous. It was largely from his (some say "mis-") reading of this book that Adolf Hitler developed his view of "Biological Heroism", whereby he attempted genocide of the Jewish people and establishment of the "Aryan" race.

      A quote from Nietzsche: "Don't believe those who speak to you of super-terrestrial hopes...they are poisoners, whether they know it or not." Thus Nietzsche grounds religion in the human needs of the insecure person.

      Although Nietzsche was openly hostile to Christianity and religion in general, despised Christian virtues, ridiculed theology and and the metaphysical systems of others, he indulged in a theoretical system of his own, which revived the Greek notion of the eternal recurrence of all things.

     He died insane, after spending the last eleven years of his life believing himself to be Jesus Christ.

Jean-Paul Sartre: 1905-1980 Atheistic Existentialist

Major work:

"Being and Nothingness"

      In this work Sartre reduces the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it, and "...overcomes embarassing philosophical dualisms by the monism of the phenomenon."

Some Definitions, Please!
Dualism opposes 'interior' to 'exterior' in the existent.

Exterior: A superficial covering which hides from sight the true nature of the object.

Interior: The 'secret reality' of the thing which one can suppose but never reach because it is the 'interior', the 'true nature'.

      In Existentialism, these distinctions do not exist. The appearances which manifest the existent are neither interior or exterior; they are equal; all refer to other appearances, none is privileged. The dualism of Being and Appearance is not allowed any legal status within the philosophy of existentialism. The appearance refers to the total series of appearances and not to a hidden reality which encompasses the true being of the existent. Neither is appearance an inconsistent manifestation of this being. (cf: Neitzsche: "the illusion of worlds-behind-the-scene").

      For Sartre, the appearance is "full positivity"; its essence is an appearing which is not opposed to being but on the contrary is the measure of it. The being of an existent is exactly what it appears. This is the idea of "the phenomenon" found in the Phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger: The 'Phenomenon" or the "Relative-Absolute". The phenomenon remains relative, for "to appear" supposes somebody to whom to appear. It doesn't have the double-relativity of Kant (the phenomenal-noumenal). It doesn't point over its shoulder to a true being which, would be, for it, absolute. What it is, it is absolutely, for it reveals itself as it is. The Phenomenon can be studied and described as such, for it is absolutely indicative of itself.

      In analyzing the nature of human existence, Sartre claims that the fundamental distinctive of human "Being" (ontology) lies in man's ability to make free choices, which freedom defines man as a "subject", rather than an "object". Sartre equates this freedom with complete "Autonomy". This word comes from "auto" (self) and "nomos" (law), yielding the meaning of being totally a law unto oneself, answerable to no other. "If man exists, God cannot exist...", says Sartre, because God's attributes, particularly that of "Omniscience" (having all knowledge) would reduce man to a thing, an "object", thereby destroying man's ontological distinctive of freedom.

      "Existential Self-Awareness", created under the gaze of another, destroys our basic humanity; we are thereby degraded and reduced to a state of being suspended in a fixed, dependent way between the "already", and the "not yet". It is a state of conciousness of shame, having a sense of having "fallen into the world", and needing the mediation of another to be made what one ought to be. For Sartre, God's omniscience would make human free moral choice impossible, for such a choice under the scrutiny of another is not altruistic. Further, declaring total moral independence from any standard other than one's own with impunity would also be an impossibility.

      In Sartre's play "No Exit" this sense is elucidated in the closing scene where the character, feeling himself under the gaze of others, turns in surprise to discover what he assumed would be a multitude to be only a few people, their eyes intent upon him. His next lines express his discomfort and feeling of de-humanization:

"...all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I'd never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the "burning marl." Old wives' tales! There's no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS--OTHER PEOPLE"

      Assuming you are accustomed to thinking in something akin to rational categories, the question has probably occurred to you of how a person's discomfort with a concept can be used as a proof for or against a truth-claim for an ontological objective reality. "If man exists then God can not exist." Not without upsetting Jean-Paul, evidently. I submit that this highly technical, complicated and obfuscatory song and dance is a denial amounting to little more than "whistling past the graveyard"; not a very cogent argument. Rather than being a reasoned response to an argument for the existence of God, this particular denial would have to be classified as "volitional". Sartre's reasoning is flawed; he has here committed the logical fallacy of Appeal to Consequences (argumentum ad consequentiam). The perpetrator of this fallacy points to the disagreeable consequences of holding a particular belief in order to show that this belief is false. Proper reasoning will lead to the conclusion, however, that what one wants to be the case does not affect what is in fact or may be the case. As we have seen, one of Sartre's arguments for atheism was that God cannot exist because the existence of an omniscient (all-knowing) being would destroy what Sartre considered to be a human distinctive: autonomy. As disagreeable as Sartre may have found this concept, it has no logical bearing on the truth-claim of the objective reality of the existence of God.

Another quote from Sartre:

'Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view.'
Here's my take on Sartre's statement: As we have seen, one of Existentialism's objections to "God" as a concept, hypothesis or objective reality is that, were such a being to exist, Humankind's essential defining characteristic, freedom (read: 'Absolute Autonomy'), would be compromised to such an extent that a human being would no longer be able to 'authenticate' his/her existence. Such a condition being so inconceivable mitigates against the existence of God. To read between the lines, if I may, Sartre is refusing to consider any arguments or examine any potential evidence to support the proposition that God exists as an objective reality a priori, dismissing any such possibility out-of-hand. Thus his choice of Atheism as an element of his worldview is volitional rather than being a reasoned response to rational arguments. In other words: "I refuse to believe in God, not because there is no reasonable evidence or argument to support such a claim, but because I choose not to, since the very idea offends me. True or not, no matter, still I refuse to believe."

Coming at it from another angle, Sartre denied God's existence based on the argument that God, by His very nature is a "self-caused being", which is a logical absurdity. He would have to be ontologically prior to Himself in order to cause His existence: That is, He'd have to exist before He existed in order to cause His existence. This, however, is also a fallacious argument (The "Straw Man"...this fallacy attacks an argument which is different from, and usually weaker than the oppositions best argument.) God is not argued to be "self-caused", but "uncaused", having the power of "aseity", or the power of "being" or "existence" within His nature. (Incidentally, this very fallacy was at the root of the atheistic conclusions of two other philosophers of note: John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell.)

      Sartre evidently reassessed his position, embracing Christian theism before his death. In 1980 he said: "I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God." Two months before his death Sartre admitted to his doctor that he "regretted the impact his writings had on youth," that so many had "taken them so seriously."

Albert Camus: 1913-1960 Atheistic Existentialist

      In Albert Camus we find the secularist's denial of the eternal and yet another proponent of the doctrine of the absurd: Human life is rendered ultimately meaningless by the fact of death and the fact that the individual cannot make rational sense of his experience. The "Absurd Hero" gains victory by focusing on his freedom, his refusal to hope, and his knowledge of the absurdity of his situation. He continues to perform his duty no matter how useless or how insignificant his action. Man's proper allegiance is to man and not to abstractions or 'absolutes'. In Camus' epistemology we know only two things:

"This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction."

      With this, Camus concludes that life is meaningless; yet refusing to grant a meaning to life does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that it is not worth living:

      "There are some words that I have never really understood, such as sin...For if there is sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for another life and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have."

      Despite man's irrational desire for unity, for absolutes, for a definite order and meaning to the objective universe, no such meaning exists. It is this juxtaposition of the irrational, longing human heart and the indifferent universe that brings about the notion of the absurd.

     For Camus, it is refusing to hope that makes the "Absurd Hero", he who embraces despair and realizes that the only question left for philosophers to consider is the question of suicide.

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." ~ Albert Camus

Have a nice day.

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