Is Non-Nihilist Atheism Possible?

A reader with the servile, dovish yet doglike name of Malcolm the Cynic writes and says:

I am not saying Stoicism is nihilism, but rather that it will lead to the same place whether it wants to or not.

Nihilism is just more honest about it.

(Not that I think stoics are actually lying, just wrong).

Basically, what I think is that any coherent atheist philosophy will ultimately have to deny that there is meaning in the universe.

My response:

I understood what you said. As someone who had coherent atheist philosophy for over four decades of his life, I would appreciate being allowed to examine your argument to back that assertion.

I am frankly fascinated by the assertion, since I have heard theologians I respect make the statement, but none, so far, to my satisfaction, have proved his case or even given his argument. If you are in a position to do so, I invite you to.

To start: “(1) Atheism implies a belief that the universe is entirely natural with no supernatural part to it, set in motion by blind and indifferent natural forces. (2) Nihilism is the belief that there is no final truth, no ground of being, no objective morality, no difference between virtue and vice, nothing worth doing.”

I submit that there is no way to deduce statement (2) from statement (1). The one does not logically imply the other.

I moreover submit it is as easy to deduce the existence of an objective moral code, even absent the supernatural, as it is to deduce the existence of logic itself.

The argument in both cases is the same. In order to deduce whether or not logic is useful, one must use logic. Hence, it is inescapable, part of the human condition outside of which no human can step, not even for the brief moment it takes to ask a hypothetical question. Likewise, in order to deduce whether or not morality is objective, one must face the question with the honesty, humility, and perfect integrity of a philosopher, that is, one must adhere to at least these moral imperatives. Again, it is inescapable.

Nothing in the above argument presupposes the existence of a god or gods. Hence I submit that it is possible to deduce the existence of rules of logic and rule of morality that govern all men, all life. And if rules of morality exist, virtue and vice exist, are meaningful terms, and apply to real objects and events.

A meaningful life is one lived according to virtue. Hence, if virtue exists, life can be meaningful, even for an atheist.

I welcome a rebuttal from your or from anyone who cares to pick up the gauntlet.

ADDENDUM: Several comments below argue about whether or not philosophical materialism, also called reductionist materialism, leads to nihilism, or, again, whether reductionist materialism is incompatible with moral absolutism.

Lack of time and loss of patience do not allow me to answer these arguments. They are off topic.

It is certainly possible, even obvious, that an atheist does not need to be a reductionist materialist, for the same reason that no one not a total fool is a reductionist materialist. It is a philosophy that one can refuse in a single sentence: if all things are nothing but matter in motion, and the philosopher’s thoughts are things, then the philosophers thoughts are nothing but matter in motion. Matter in motion can have vector and mass and other material properties, but cannot have imponderable values such as true and false, valid and invalid, accurate and inaccurate, since these are symbolic and not material properties. Hence the philosopher who assents to the truth of reductionist materialism eliminates himself.

I have an extensive collection of columns and articles against philosophical materialism, freely available for anyone willing to page through them. I will not in this space go through those arguments again.

An argument showing that anyone who is an atheist logically must be a reductionist materialist is a welcome argument, and one I will be happy to answer.

I however urge those those who venture on such an argument to stand ready to show how and why believing thoughts exist and believing symbols have meaning necessitates a believing that the supernatural exists.

Unless one defines the word ‘thought’ to mean ‘a supernatural entity’, I myself do not see how the argument would follow. And this definition is one I would reject as highly suspect, even circular.

On the other hand, a mere statement that anyone who is an atheist is a reductionist materialist is nonsense, and must find someone more patient than I to answer it.