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Atheism & Existentialism

Existentialist Philosophy and Atheistic Thought

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Although there is no denying that many Christian and even some Jewish theologians have made use of existentialist themes in their writings, it remains a fact that existentialism is much more readily and commonly associated with atheism than with any sort of theism, Christian or otherwise. Not all atheists are existentialists, but an existentialist is probably more likely to be an atheist than a theist — and there are good reasons for this.

The most definitive statement of atheistic existentialism probably comes from the most prominent figure in atheistic existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, in his published lecture Existentialism and Humanism:

    “Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man....”

Atheism was an integral facet of of Sartre’s philosophy, and in fact he argued that atheism was a necessary consequence of anyone who took existentialism seriously. This is not to say that existentialism produces philosophical arguments against the existence of gods or that it refutes basic theological arguments for the existence of gods — that is not the sort of relationship which these two have.

Instead, the relationship is more a matter of fitting together in terms of mood and predisposition. It isn’t necessary for an existentialist to be an atheist, but it is more likely to make for a stronger “fit” than theism and existentialism. This is because many of the most common and fundamental themes in existentialism make more sense in universe lacking any gods than in a universe presided over by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent God.

Thus, existentialist atheism like that found in Sartre’s writings is not so much a position arrived at after philosophical investigation and theological reflection, but rather one adopted as a consequence of taking certain ideas and attitudes to their logical conclusions.

A central theme of Sartre’s philosophy was always being and human beings: What does it mean to be and what does it mean to be a human being? According to Sartre, there is no absolute, fixed, eternal nature that corresponds to human consciousness. Thus, human existence is characterized by “nothingness” — anything which we claim is part of human life is of our own creation, often through the process of rebelling against external constraints.

This is the condition of humanity — absolute freedom in the world. Sartre used the phrase “existence precedes essence” to explain this idea, a reversal of traditional metaphysics and conceptions about the nature of reality. This freedom in turn produces anxiety and fear because, without God, humanity is left alone and without an external source of direction or purpose.

Thus, the existentialist perspective “fits” with atheism well because existentialism advocates an understanding of the world were gods simply have no great role to play. In this world, humans are thrown back on themselves to create meaning and purpose through their personal choices rather than discovering it through communion with outside forces.

This does not mean, however, that existentialism and theism or existentialism and religion are completely incompatible. Despite his philosophy, Sartre always claimed that religious belief remained with him — perhaps not as an intellectual idea but rather as an emotional commitment. He used religious language and imagery throughout his writings and tended to regard religion in a positive light, even though he didn’t believe in the existence of any gods and rejected the need for gods as a basis for human existence.

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