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Nihilism as defense mechanism

Nihilism as defense mechanism

We are the first generation to live in world where belief in God is considered a lifestyle option. We are the first to live in a world in which many people admit the possibility of human flourishing without turning to God. Mainstream Protestant churches are losing people because we suddenly finding ourselves in competition with a flourishing new religion called nihilism, and nihilism allows you to watch ESPN on Sunday morning. Nihilism is an elitist religion, however. You have to be smart to prefer Nietzche. And that’s why the Protestant denominations who historically have been constituted by the most educated of our citizenry are suffering losses disproportionately. We are relatively more vulnerable to nihilism. If we want to fight this, we have to incarnate the antidote to nihilism.

–From Craig Uffman’s response to Ross Douhat’s NYT article on the decline of the Episcopal Church

Out of all the responses to the rash of articles predicting the demise of the Episcopal Church, supposedly for various reasons mostly related to that old canard of “liberalism,” I think Craig Uffman might have hit the symptomatology closest to the real core of what’s going on.

We really are one of the first (if not “the” first; I suspect this has been evolving for 30 years) generations to live in a world where a God-based social network is not a “given” in our shared life together. I suspect it is as much a function of relative societal wealth in America and Western Europe as much as anything, and in America, coupled with that old myth of self-sufficiency. (A quick trip to the Global Rich List is a real eye-opener–for example, someone who makes $30,000/year is still in the upper 7.16% of the world’s “wealthy scale.”) In terms of straight dollars, we are wealthier as a society than we like to believe, despite the very real disproportional nature of the distribution of that wealth. With a certain societal baseline of wealth comes a notion that there is a magic number or magic formula that allows a person to truly be self-sufficient, and free from fear or threat. What is clear, though, is the age old struggle between wants and needs is still with us, as is that old struggle with what makes us, as individuals, happy or content. Nihilism allows us to avoid being challenged by a hurting, broken world. Christianity forces us to look at it.

Existential nihilism makes a great defense mechanism. It’s tempting to find a comfortable fulcrum in a world where the center of the universe is one’s own thoughts, and the need to feed or care for, or even cast our eyes at those less fortunate than ourselves loses steam in a world where certain individuals lack intrinsic value. It’s a well-established statistic that with a certain level of income, even with the tax breaks in this country, comes a decrease in charitable giving. Data from the research group Independent Sector from 2001 showed that a household making $25,000 gives away an average of 4.2 percent of their income to charity; a household making $75,000 gives away 2.7 percent.

A side effect of nihilism can be anti-theism as opposed to a simple atheism or agnosticism. What I see, at least trolling the comments in the Religion and Spirituality section of Huffington Post, is that the most active anti-theists don’t seem happy when people with decidedly progressive Christian viewpoints post articles. In fact, I sometimes wonder if they don’t come after them with their “evangelism of snark” even more determinedly than they do Christian evangelicals. It’s almost like progressive Christians represent some sort of traitors to them, and they push their reactions (which seem to be mostly a pointed version of “There is no Santa Claus”) with a special kind of aggression.

It’s an intriguing voice, a voice in which I often wonder if what I really hear behind it is not its superficial tone of, “I am smarter than you and I have the arrogance that comes with my belief that I am the top intellect in this conversation,” but “I have been deeply hurt in the name of institutional religion.” I am certain that, if some of their pain truly comes from that place, it’s not without good reason. It’s a simple fact that for two thousand years, the institutional church has certainly done as much wrong as it has done right.

As a result, I find myself feeling compassion for the voice I perceive behind the strident voice–the voice that betrays that maybe, just maybe this whole nihilism thing is a lonelier place for which that person bargained.

It becomes even more complicated when one realizes that some of the voices that challenge the shrinking numbers and the theology and the polity of the Episcopal Church, the ones who cry that we’ve lost our way and have strayed from the Bible–are in fact, voices with an undertone of nihilism disguised as theology. I’m in. You’re not. Them? Oh, they’re DEFINITELY not in. I’m right. You’re wrong. I worship a God based in the Bible and truth. You? I’m not so sure about you. Allow me to explain it to you.

We, as a culture, are so surrounded by nihilism, to even begin to extricate ourselves from it seems a near-impossible task–how do we even begin to address Craig Uffman’s call to incarnate its antidote? Perhaps the seeds of this antidote lie in the most uncomfortable stories of the Gospel and the maddening parables that seem to make no sense whatsoever to our modern sensibilities. What does it mean to constantly strive to get in a boat and long to go away to a deserted place, only to find that what we were trying to escape, beat us to our destination? What does it mean to take nothing for the journey but a staff–no bag, no bread, no money, and no extra change of clothes? What does it truly mean to save our lives by losing them? Perhaps the answer begins in sitting with these discomforting messages as a community, rather than alone–and perhaps that also means to find what is living and breathing within a community that the naysayers insist is dying.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


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Maria L. Evans

All very reflective comments. Thank you. Lance, I think we have much to appreciate from the Buddhist way of focusing on ourselves and our path and “live and let live.” We are just beginning to rediscover that in some of the more ancient mystic aspects of Christianity, I believe.

Sarah, I think your children are not alone in being in that “spiritual but not religious” category. I lived there for over 20 years before returning to the church. I have to accept those two decades in my life were a necessary step to be where I am now. I suspect it’s a good thing you are doing, giving them room without compromising your own faith.

Finally, Susan, thanks for reminding me of Friends of Jake’s blog. What you speak of in Deresiewic’s quote is an awakening. It helps me understand how atheists do that without calling it a “spiritual awakening.” Thanks!


This is a topic we discuss frequently over at Friends of Jake (Here is a sampling ). Most atheists I know are friendly non-believers, as I am; some of us just don’t have the “God gene” but are perfectly happy if you do. The anti-theists are a vocal subset.

I like how William Deresiewic puts it

I no longer divide the world between believers and nonbelievers. I divide it between fundamentalists of both kinds and (for lack of a better word) liberals of both kinds. Liberal Catholics, Reconstructionist Jews, various kinds of mainline Protestants: people who understand religion the way that I understand art, as a source of spiritual wisdom and moral guidance, not literal truths about the physical world. The content of my atheism hasn’t changed. What’s changed—what continues to change—is the way that I live it.

Susan Forsburg


“I’m in. You’re not. Them? Oh, they’re DEFINITELY not in. I’m right. You’re wrong. I worship a God based in the Bible and truth. You? I’m not so sure about you. Allow me to explain it to you.”

I think that this kind of attitude from the churched is hugely responsible for driving people away. Though I’m committed to my faith and not going anywhere, I’m offended when confronted by others who suggest (if not outright tell me) that I’m wrong, that I have no clue how to read the Bible, that the Episcopal Church’s willingness to explore progressive movements are evidence of institutional sinfulness, and so on.

My own 2 children were raised in the church, but would now fit into the “no religious affiliation” category. They are not atheists or anti-theists (and I totally agree about this camp), and probably not even agnostics; I think they have spiritual ideas, questions, maybe even longings. But they see the wrongs, the arrogance, the hypocrisy, etc. everywhere in organized religion, and at this point, want nothing to do with it. They see all these different populations, both within Christianity and between Christianity and other world religions, all claiming to have the right answers. Clearly they can’t all be right, but trying to figure out who might be least wrong is, to them, a gigantic waste of time.

Sarah Ridgway

Lance Woodruff

Maria, in your response to both comments, you discuss seeing a distinction between atheism and anti-theism. This helps me. I live and work in a predominantly Buddhist country, and while many more intellectual Buddhists do not believe in a god, they are often not ‘anti-‘ but simply see no god or godness. Popular Buddhists often see Buddha as a god, others see him as a teacher who led the way. Your comment leads me to consider a-theism more positively. I am concerned daily with how Buddhists, Christians and Muslims can live together in peace.

Maria L. Evans

Thanks for both your comments. I am seeing a distinction between atheism and anti-theism. I have very good friends, whom I respect, who are avowed atheists. But they also accept my being a Christian as who I am. They truly are receptive to the needs of others in a hurting world. They have hope–and they are challenged to find that hope in a different, yet same way that I am. The new wave of anti-theists seems to be a reaction to coercive Christianity, and it seems to be based in their own thoughts that they are a morally superior and intellectually superior being because they have no need of a god. My atheist friends whom I respect have a level of humility that I don’t see in the Evangelism of Snark. That said, I don’t like the cocksure-ness of some professed Christians, either. Nihilism exists in the name of God as much as it does in the realm of atheism.

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