Faith & Boyle-ing Nihilism —

Faith & Boyle-ing NihilismDawson Jackson asserts that atheists have “faith that God absolutely does not exist.” This is a common claim, but it rests on an elementary confusion. Theists are ever making atheism into a strong positive conviction, like their own, but it is nothing of the sort. To believe that something exists is to rely on it in your explanation of the world. That x does not exist is an automatic and idle consequence of the absence of claims about x in your body of belief. If I believe that hydrogen plays a role in explaining the way the world works, then I believe in hydrogen. If kryptonite never enters into my theory of the world at any point, then, by implication, I don't believe in kryptonite. I don't go around exerting mental energy not believing in kryptonite, just as I don't walk around trying not to wear lipstick. Not wearing lipstick is not something I do. In addition to typing, breathing, sitting, etc., I am not also not wearing lipstick, not kicking a dog, and so forth. Obviously, things you are not doing are not among the things that you are doing. If you are an atheist, then one of the things you are not doing is believing in God, but not believing in God is not thereby an ongoing activity.
Also, faith is belief in the absence of evidence. Non-belief in the absence of evidence is the opposite of faith: reason. It doesn't take a logician to realize that opposites cannot be the same thing.
Dawson also gives us a nice quote (?) from T. C. Boyle about atheism and nihilism. I just wish to say that I find nihilism incoherent. If nihilism is the view that nothing matters, or nothing is valuable, then it's just obviously false, and it's hard to see how it's even possible for anyone who isn't suicidal to hold it. It's better to be healthy and well than sick and in pain. It's better to have love and friendship than loneliness. It's true! Just try to dispute it! But then being healthy is valuable, and having friends matters. Boyle is being a dramatic idiot. He clearly believes that good prose is better than bad prose, and that success is better than failure. Maybe Boyle means that he doesn't believe that anything matters from the perspective of the universe or that meaning is conferred on our lives by our role in some grand, pre-ordained story. Well, sure. It would be silly to believe that. But not believing in that is not what nihilism is.
Dawson accuses me of making the “ancient blunder” of conflating two things into an antithesis, but since I have no idea what that could mean, I can't really stick up for myself on that score. I do understand “conflating two things that are antithetical.” It's what Dawson does with reason and faith.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

2 thoughts

  1. Those interested should also take a look at Jason Malloy’s analysis here.
    Malloy’s argument, from the data, is that “People with average and below average IQs are getting just as much of a financial return out of their 4-year degree as those above the 85th percentile.” This leaves open, of course, the question whether there might be alternatives to college that could do equally well for people.

  2. Here is an article on a phenomenon you may be interested in, Will. It talks about the UK’s new policy of allowing McDonalds and other businesses to award diplomas replete with marketing and finance courses to their service employees as a sort of enhanced trainee program. Naturally, many liberal reformers are infuriated by this (It’s a private business institution letting low-income workers make large hurdles in valuable real world education, instead of the state patronizing soul-enriching, but functionally useless liberal arts institutions for the poor – an outrage).
    Here be the link:

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