The Descent Into Nihilism

December 26, 2007

Salon is carrying a terrific interview, titled The atheist delusion, with of all people a Catholic theologian. His is an analysis that I've been wanting to be brilliant enough to make about the three atheists, and the concept of science and/vs. religion in general. One of the issues he brings up is the concept of extreme atheism leading to nihilism, as demonstrated in the works of Nietzshe, Sartre, and Camus. I want to add one more person to his list: Dostoyevsky.

I've recently finished reading Demons, Dostoyevsky's "comedy." Relative to his other works it is indeed a bit comedic. A bit. For the record, I enjoyed it more than Notes..., Karamazov, or The Idiot, but did not find it quite as engaging as Crime and Punishment. Can you tell I like him? While his prose, wit, and intellectualism are superb, it can be a bit dense. And plodding. But not as repetitive as Tolstoy. Anyway, the reason I like him is that explores spirituality from a "modern," optimistic, and positive standpoint.

For all that Sisyphus and Mersault, Nietzsche's Zarathustra and many soundbite essais, and Sartre's abyssal stage signify the descent of man from belief into complete disbelief, nothing illustrates that fall and its effects better than Raskolnikov's reaction to his murder. In Demons we see the chaos, confusion, and a pointlessness to life through characters like Verkhovensky, Stavrogin, and Kirillov. At the same time, Dostoyevsky explores the trials of spirituality in modern life through Alyosha, through the Prince, through Shatov and, paradoxically, Kirillov again.

This is not to say that atheism of necessity leads to wasteful, pointless existence. But I'll let the theologian above go into more detail on that. The best part of his interview: explaining the different realities to the question of "why is the tea boiling?" Answer: Because molecules are heated, etc. Because I turned on the gas. Because I wanted tea. All are accurate answers. None contradicts the other. Asking only the scientific question ignores the aspects of volition and desire.

Still, there is a question we are left with: if we can imagine a world without God, why do we bother imaginging one with? Sure, it might make us happy, better adjusted, and more capable of dealing with the world — but it also might lead us to intra-religious violence instead. I'll leave this question for another day.