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Nihilism

Occasionally someone condemns what they call nihilism, and they apply the word carelessly. A week after John Holmes killed 12 and wounded 20 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, John Carr, a PhD student in theology at Boston College, wrote an article titled "Nihilism at the Core of the Colorado Shooting." He asked,

"Who are these young men and why do they commit these murders? They do not want money in return for their actions. They seem to have no other motive than a voracious appetite for destruction.... they are the final expressions of our cultural love affair with nothingness."

John Holmes was, or is, mentally ill. But his case brings to mind another young mass murderer – not the German co-pilot, Lubitz, who flew the passenger plane into the side of a mountain. I'm thinking about a young man named Kimveer Gill who went on a shooting spree on a college campus in Montreal in 2006, killing one woman and injuring nineteen. I haven't read about contempt that Lubitz had for people in general. Perhaps he had little if any. But Gill did. Describing people in general, Gill wrote that they are "worthless, no good, conniving, betraying, lying [and] deceptive." He wrote that "Work sucks… School sucks… Life sucks… What else can I say." He also wrote, "I hate this world, I hate the people in it, I hate the way people live, I hate God, I hate the deceivers, I hate betrayers, I hate religious zealots, I hate everything… I hate so much… (I could write 1,000 more lines like these, but does it really matter, does anyone even care)." To some this must sound nihilistic. But was it?

It appears that the ingredient of hostility toward people played a role in Gill deciding to shoot at them, and Gill considered his targets worthless. At this point let us look at a definition of nihilism:

Noun:
The rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.

Philosophy:
Extreme skepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence.

Historical:
The doctrine of an extreme Russian revolutionary party, circa 1900, which found nothing to approve of in the established social order.

Gill had a lot of negativity. He saw humanity as not measuring up to his standards. He had values, warped though they were. But it's a stretch to label this nihilism. Nihilists are not necessarily hostile to people in general, and all nihilists don't support shooting down strangers.

Russian anarchists described themselves as nihilists and fancied themselves fighting for the well being of humanity. Many an atheist defies the label of nihilist in their advocacy of people finding happiness and meaning in commitments and the joys of everyday life. Who among those without religion rejects all moral principles? There were the shallow intellectuals such as Dadaists who wallowed in what they thought was meaninglessness, but they are not around much anymore.

The PhD student John Carr wrapped up his article saying,

The only solution that I can see for our culture is to turn away from our romance with nihilism and back towards Christ, the center that holds everything else together. Only then can we hope to stem the tide of barbarism and irrationalism that steadily infects ever-wider areas of our culture.

This is Carr's negativity. Carr is finding meaning in life outside of himself, but he is painting many people as nihilistic, barbaric and irrational merely because they have values that differ from his. There are many in our culture like Carr who find meaning in the worship of a god that glories in being worshiped – as if that is supposed to have meaning for all of us. If it helps make him happy that is okay with me. But there are many others who find meaning from a different angle, who value living, who reject the irrational and would reject his nihilist label.

A big problem in the world today is not nihilism or a cultural decline in the United States. It is the attitude of contempt mixed with hostility.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.