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New Social Compact

Musings on Nihilism, Atheism, Existentialism, Terrorism, and Faith

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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Though religious people often say that without their faith life would be meaningless, we know that for some it is faith itself that leads them to the same conclusion. The question arises: what is life compared to Heaven or the next life after this earthly one?

For many religious people life is merely a means to an end with no meaning in itself. Ought we be surprised that those who hold such a view seem not too concerned about the environment or social justice when polls indicate that nearly half of them expect the second coming of Jesus and the glorious end of the world within the next 50 years; when their main concern seems to be “salvation?” It’s as if the inhabitants of Pompeii knew exactly when Vesuvius would violently erupt in 71 AD. In that case we would have found precious few petrified bodies attending to their daily routines 20 centuries later. Life loses its routine daily meaning when a catastrophe ensues.

Since Nietzsche, nihilism is usually conceived as lack of meaning in life to be overcome by the individual’s “will to power” and building up of meaning; existence trumps essence. Yet, despite Nietzsche’s famous quip that “God is dead,” the first step toward nihilism is not disbelief in God. Rather, it is acceptance of the notion that for the existence of the world to be justified it must have some external purpose to guide it. It must be the shadow of some truer world than this one; one that has the power to grant meaning to this world in which we live and have our being, and if no such other world exists then this world ought not to exist because it is meaningless. This is quite similar to what William James describes as “the religious impulse.” It is this impulse rather than atheism itself that produces nihilism.

Nihilism is the outright rejection of at least some aspects of the value of life, and it is attached to the notion that meaning must come from somewhere outside one’s self and in fact outside the world of ordinary experience. It is indeed the religious impulse to seek justification “out there” rather than having doubts about religion that is the first step toward nihilism. One can take this step toward religion and find no convincing externally imposed meaning. On the other hand, if one never goes looking for meaning to come from somewhere “out there,” one never encounters nihilism. Nietzsche was aware of that, not those who consider faith and its practice passé. But some actually do find such an externally imposed meaning and are still nihilistic. In fact, the extreme case of religious nihilism is the suicide bomber who is nihilistic in rejecting the meaning that others find in the value of human life while having a deep conviction in the externally imposed meaning of his own death through martyrdom and divine reward in Heaven.

The suicide bomber is indeed nihilistic. He may be thought of as having placed some value on the lives he takes as fulfilling some religious purpose, but in doing so he is decidedly rejecting many other aspects of the value of individual human life. In Kantian ethical language, he is treating others solely as means to serve his purposes of glorifying God rather than as having worth as ends in themselves. That is a form of nihilism—a radically religious nihilism. One might argue that the suicide bomber is not nihilistic because his death and the deaths of those he murders had profound significance to him in glorifying God. But the question of nihilism is not whether death has meaning but whether living life has meaning. There is no stronger version of nihilism that valuing death above life.

It is not being claimed here that this sort of nihilism is a necessary consequence of all Christian belief, rather, that Christianity gets interpreted by some (such as the murderers of abortion doctors) in very nihilistic ways where aspects of the meaning of life are deemed entirely insignificant next to the enormity of Eternity. Nihilism is not then part of a problem with atheism as it is often claimed. Nihilism is in fact incompatible with a thorough-going atheism that has ceased to seek meaning “out there.” Nihilism is not the inevitable result of anti-religious skepticism but part of the religious impulse which includes the supposition that such an external order is necessary and foundational to all value, meaning, and purpose that the world of our everyday experience can ever have.

Atheists only become nihilists when they take their atheism with a small dose of religion. Atheists inclined toward pessimism sometimes take the fact that the world seems to exist without such external justification as evidence for the absurdity of existence. Some atheists respond to the human condition by saying that we must live life in such a way to make it a worthy protest to the injustice of death. Such a response is one of a very religious sort of atheist.

Miguel de Unamuno, who like almost all writers and philosophers who get labeled existentialists denied being one articulated this view when he said, “If it is nothingness that awaits us, let us make an injustice of it; let us fight against destiny, even though without hope of victory.” This is the sort of atheist existentialism that announces the death of God but seems to be angry and in great despair about that fact. The claim, “God is dead…the bastard!” is trying to have it both ways. Nihilism is a real possibility when one simultaneously rejects the existence of God but retains enough of a religious outlook to insist that something very much like God would be necessary to make life meaningful. In making one’s life a worthy protest one hopes to justify one’s own existence. This sort of nihilism is an unconscious sort of nihilism that Nietzsche himself called “religious nihilism.” In fact, there is no other kind. Nihilism depends on the affirmation of another world as the only possible legitimate source of all value and the denial of this world as able to sustain its own value. Nietzsche called the phenomenon “the trans-valuation of values.” All nihilism is religious in this sense.

In contrast to this pseudo-atheistic pessimistic nihilism, the nihilism of the religious is often not recognized as such because it is often an optimistic sort of nihilism. The promise of the next world is thought to be the assurance of everything that one could ever hope for. But then, we know how that sort of thinking in the suicide bomber works out for the rest of us, so even optimistic nihilism can be something to be concerned about. Religious people who think that believing in God makes them immune to nihilism and the nihilism is part of “the atheism problem” should turn to the Bible and reread Ecclesiastes which has Solomon, son of David renowned for his great wisdom, exclaim: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Clearly even the Bible demonstrates that nihilism is not just a problem for skeptics.

Though the one who never look to other worlds to justify this world is less nihilistic than the one who takes this first step toward nihilism even if she does find meaning “out there,” avowed religious person who take the first step toward nihilism by seeking meaning in the great beyond are unlikely to consider themselves nihilist. The most prominent authority on meaning among Christians today is Rick Warren who sold 30 million copies of The Purpose Driven Life. In that book Rick Warren writes: “If there was no God, we would all be ‘accidents,’ the result of astronomical random chance in the universe. You could stop reading this book, because life would have no purpose or meaning or significance. There would be no right or wrong, and no hope beyond your brief years on earth.” This declaration is not merely one small step but a giant leap toward nihilism. Warren has hung all his hopes upon the need that a single fact turns out to be true.

A believer such as Warren is not likely to recognize the nihilism behind his statement and his belief that without some external source of worth our world would be worthless. Instead he is more likely to mistake those of us who accept this world as sufficient unto itself as nihilists. But doing so is indeed a mistake. The complete lack of nihilism is not to deny the “objective” meaning of life but to stop thinking of the question as one even worth asking—to stop looking for the justification the world to come from somewhere else. The complete opposite of nihilism is not to be able to affirm the objective meaning of life, but to never need to go looking for meaning because meaning abounds.

St. Francis of Assisi found meaning in the beauty of nature and its creatures and via that bridge he got to God. He got to the ultimate via the penultimate: the value of this world and this life in themselves. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but asking bad “philosophical” questions like, ‘what gives one’s life objective meaning?’ if taken too seriously can also make life seem not worth living. We don’t need to be convinced by some philosophical or theological argument that life has meaning or feel at all like something is lacking in not being able to provide a Cartesian foundation that stands outside of time and space upon which meaning in life can rest. Meaning abounds for all those who love so long as they don’t get fooled into thinking that love needs a philosophical foundation—that “why love?” is a question that needs an answer. Only the psychopath needs a reason to love.

It takes a lot of intellectual wheel spinning to even get one’s self to the point in thinking that the love of family and friends and our efforts to make the world better than we found it are not meaningful. This whole question of meaning only becomes a question when one follows the religious impulse to search for meaning “out there.” It comes from the idea that meaning must come from outside one’s own life and even outside the world altogether. How about starting where St. Francis started, with the love of nature and its creatures?

It needs to be emphasized here that nihilism is not an atheistic phenomenon. Both atheists and theists are capable of denying aspects of the meaning of life. Nihilism—the belief that the world in itself is without value, meaning, and purpose as some existentialist philosophers claim—is not the inevitable result of atheism. Atheists only become nihilists when their lack of belief in God is taken together with a half-measure of religion, while the theistic nihilism of the suicide bomber is the result of taking a full measure of the wrong sort of religion.

Note: This article has already appeared in Ovi Magazine on November 16, 2015.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

Women outnumber men in higher education but gender stereotyped subject choices persist

MD Staff

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Education is essential to achieving gender equality. From the earliest schooling to the highest levels of post-graduate study, education influences the opportunities that can shape people’s lives.

This is why education and training of women is one of the 12 critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, while target 4.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for the elimination of gender disparities in education by 2030.

In the UNECE region girls tend to outperform boys in terms of learning outcomes in schools, and women outnumber men in tertiary education (university level and beyond) in almost all countries of the region.

Women remain in the minority, however, as students of stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as ICT and engineering, although in recent years they have begun slowly gaining ground.

Tertiary level graduates

In 39 out of the 47 UNECE countries with data, more than 55 per cent of tertiary graduates are women. Iceland has the highest share, with 66 per cent women.  Seven countries are close to gender parity, with the share of women ranging from 48 to 55 per cent, and only in Uzbekistan are women in a clear minority, with 38 per cent of tertiary graduates.

After decades of increase in women’s participation in higher education, women substantially outnumbered men among tertiary level graduates in most countries by 2012. Since then, women’s share has declined in 32 out of the 47 countries with data. Whilst in Azerbaijan and Turkey fewer than half of tertiary graduates were women in 2012, more women have entered tertiary education in these countries since and the 2017 data already show gender parity there. 

Subject choices of women and men

The subjects studied at tertiary level by women and men can reflect stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” subject areas. Some subjects may be preferred by potential employers and may affect occupational segregation once graduates enter the labour market. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (EMC) are two broad groups of subjects where male students have historically predominated.

Women remain a minority among ICT students in the UNECE region, with percentages ranging from 11 in Belgium to 33 in Greece. The four countries with the largest share of women among ICT students are all in the Balkan region. Among students of EMC, the share of women is somewhat higher, but still falls far short of parity, ranging from 14 per cent in Georgia to 44 per cent in North Macedonia.

In both of these subject groups, the recent trend shows small gains for women in some countries but reductions in others. Overall, progress towards gender equality in these two typically male-dominated subject areas is uneven and slow.

UNECE Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting

Progress in achieving gender equality in education will be one of the areas in focus at the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region, with a particular emphasis on how women and girls can enter currently male-dominated fields.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. 

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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New Social Compact

Call for Action from Leaders and Business on Violence against Women

Newsroom

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Spiralling levels of violence against women in Africa require immediate action from governments and businesses, including tangible measures to create safe spaces, experts from across the continent told the World Economic Forum on Africa today.

Protesters in South Africa have taken to the streets and social media to demand action, following the rape and murder of a Cape Town university student who was attacked in a post office. Uyinene Mrwetyana was just the latest of many victims of brutal assaults in a region where approximately 45% of women and girls over 14 years have experienced physical or sexual violence.

“I’m dumbfounded by the idea that we can continue with business as usual,” said Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso, Director of African Monitor, who urged technology companies to take a lead in delivering solutions. “It would take a click of a finger for a tech company to say we are going to deploy a software that can assist us with an emergency response system for poor women in South Africa free of charge.”

The potential for technology to help in the fightback highlights the need for businesses to think creatively, given that cyberbullying can also contribute to discrimination in the first place. Mniki-Mangaliso said the wider business community should also step up to the plate by backing a gender-based fund to address the deep-rooted problems behind the rising tide of physical and sexual assaults.

Hafsat Abiola-Costello, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Women in Africa Initiative, said Africa could learn from China, where decisive action was taken to ban harmful practices like foot binding and polygamy. African governments, by contrast, too often fail to enforce bans on polygamy or genital mutilation, thereby reinforcing a culture of discrimination against women that becomes embedded from childhood.

The failure to protect women is not just a moral issue; it also comes with a high economic cost. “Who drives African communities? It’s our women. Our women can drive Africa’s development, if given the chance, if protected, if their rights are respected,” Abiola-Costello said. “Africa missed the first industrial revolution, we missed the second, we missed the third. If we don’t address this issue, we will miss the fourth.”

Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili, who spearheaded the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria and is a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, said calls for women to help drive African development will simply ring hollow if violence is not addressed. “The world lacks the moral pedestal to stand on to ask girls to aspire if we cannot have the back of those who are vulnerable,” she said.

With 16,000 deaths due violence against in women every year in South Africa alone, Akudo Anyanwu, Associate Dean at Johns Hopkins University, said: “Our presidents and the leaders in government need to come out and take a position. We need to have our leaders come out and call crimes a crime.”

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New Social Compact

Young women learn government fundamentals in nationwide leadership program

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This July, two teenage girls from every state in the country met in Washington, D.C., for the 73rd annual American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation. This one-week government-in-action leadership development program is designed to educate future leaders on U.S. government fundamentals and the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizens.

The girls selected to go to ALA Girls Nation are chosen from week-long ALA Girls State programs in each state. The young women become “senators” for a week and participate in mock political campaigns and debates, visit historical sites, and meet their real-life counterparts on Capitol Hill. For a number of the participants, the program’s impact extends beyond the weeklong event: Many go on to serve in the military and credit ALA Girls Nation as their source of inspiration.

New ALA member and U.S. Army Capt. Virginia Clark, stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, is an ALA Girls Nation alumna. Though she says she has always been patriotic, her experiences at ALA Girls State and ALA Girls Nation helped her realize she wanted to serve her country. “Being around really motivated people made me realize I wanted to be around people who were spending their time doing things rather than looking for the next great party,” Clark said.

Reflecting on where she has been and where she is going, Clark says she owes it all to the American Legion Auxiliary. “I wouldn’t have gotten into West Point without ALA Girls State and ALA Girls Nation … I 100 percent owe, I think, my current life and my career — I met my husband at West Point — to the fact that I went to ALA Girls State and ALA Girls Nation.”

For some girls, the Washington, D.C., leadership program is their first opportunity to connect with peers with common interests. For others, it is the first time they encounter students whose perspective differs from their own. For all, it is a moment in time where similarities and differences come together to symbolize strength, democracy and freedom.

Former ALA Girls State and ALA Girls Nation attendee Allyson Snelling, who is attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, chose a career in the military because she “loves everything it represents.” She adds, “The values and lessons I’ve learned during my short time at West Point have made me a better person and leader.” Snelling said the program taught her the power of one voice and the importance of communicating with others. “Being able to communicate with someone you may completely disagree with is becoming a lost art,” she said. “ALA Girls Nation taught me that it doesn’t matter if you agree; it matters that you understand.”

ALA Girls Nation alumnae have gone on to hold leadership roles in industries spanning government, media, education and law, and many have become high-ranking members of the military.

Notable alumnae include Jane Pauley, national media personality; Susan Bysiewicz, lieutenant governor of Connecticut; retired Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, former superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy and former Air Force aide to the President; Ann Richards, former governor of Texas; and Susan Porter-Rose, former chief of staff to First Lady Barbara Bush, among many others. ALA Girls Nation is proud to be a foundation of support to the future strong women of this great nation.

The American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) is a nonpartisan organization committed to advocating for veterans’ issues, mentoring America’s youth and promoting patriotism. They advance the mission of The American Legion, incorporated by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization founded on four pillars: Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation, National Security, Americanism and Children & Youth.

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