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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

The Sustainable State- Book Review

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Chandran Nair’s new book, The Sustainable State, is a response to runaway consumption by a rapidly expanding world populace. He explains how the rise in living standards, especially in the developing world, is soaring an unsustainable demand for everything from meat, to cars, to modern housing and then gives possible solutions.

Nair reminds me of economist Ha-Joon Chang in both his premise and the evidence he uses to defend it.  Both scholars are highly critical of the current economic ecosystem and the multinational corporations that run it.  Nair points out that the major industries of today are what’s causing the unprecedented environmental crises that we’re experiencing today.  Not only are corporations polluting the environment and depleting natural resources, but are also covering it up and blocking possible legislative antidotes.

Thus, Nair endorses Ha-Joon Chang’s solution: East Asian-style state regulation of the economy.  Since corporations will never voluntarily do anything that will hurt their profits, a strong federal government must force them to do so through laws that have the planet’s future in mind.  The book points out that the manufacturing and sales costs of consumer products don’t reflect their full cost.  For instance, a roll of toilet paper cost the forest it came from a tree; deforestation has existentially high long-term costs to Earth’s inhabitants.  Anything produced for or shipped to market cost the world through energy consumption, if nothing else.  Thus, Nair supports making producers pay for the full cost of their merchandise through programs such as cap-and-trade and reforestation taxes.

The book gives several examples of (generally East Asian) countries and cities trying to regulate their way to higher sustainability, with varying degrees of success.  For instance, China has arguably become the world leader in terms of environmental initiatives through tough laws governing pollution and a long-term environmental strategy.  In China’s Youyu County, they went from having under 1% of land forested in 1949 to over half today.  Singapore has largely staved off the kind of affordable-housing crisis seen in major cities and city-states by instituting a comprehensive public housing system.  Jakarta, on the other hand, has struggled in their efforts to reduce their crippling traffic congestion.  For instance, when they created 3-person minimum carpool lanes, car owners simply hired pairs of people to meet the requirement.  When Jakarta changed to an odd-even license-number congestion scheme, people simply bought extra license plates.

This book fits in nicely in the post-Trump, post-Brexit era in its skepticism of Western democracy.  Example after example is given of Western government ineptitude towards environmental management, from oil lobbyists’ consistent ability to kill or water down regulations, to general short sidedness.  India’s democracy is also criticized for its failure to clean up the Ganges, among other things.  Nair has a lot of praise for single-party governments in China, Vietnam and Singapore in their recent environmental policy records.

He stresses that he isn’t anti-democratic per se, but rather, he can’t ignore the trends.  Most Western democracies are currently neutered by partisan deadlock, lobbyist money and a myopic obsession with the short term, due to the nature of the election cycle.  Single-party states, by definition, have no partisan deadlock, aren’t reliant upon lobbyist money for re-election and can implement policies that may piss off their constituents in the short term, but are critical for the future.  The recommendation is thus given that democracies stick up to corporate interests and institute long-term policies that will meaningfully address the environmental issues of the future.

The Sustainable State is sobering in its assessment of our current state of resource depletion and global warming, but also cautiously optimistic in its faith that government, when acting in good faith, can curb the excesses of industry and regenerate the planet.  There are diagnoses for specific problems, such as the wildfire haze that emanates from Borneo every year and for pollution.  The main omission of the book is in regards to the water crisis.  Nair mentions high-efficiency circular farming and water pollution, but otherwise largely ignores the disturbingly low supply of water for drinking and farming.  This deficit has already sparked conflicts in countries such as Syria and will only snowball as the population continues to explode.  Desert countries and landlocked countries will eventually succumb civil war over access to water, creating a refugee crisis that the world has never seen, if radical and affordable solutions aren’t found for supplying water for consumption and irrigation.

Chandran Nair gives plenty of real-life examples of good policies that are mitigating issues and explains why they are successful.  Oftentimes, the solution lies in the checkbook.  Governments can spend money on decades-long programs, corporations can pay through sustainability taxes and individuals can pay through gas taxes and car ownership caps.  In democratic and nondemocratic nations alike, we the people must push our leaders to do more, for the future of the human species.

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New Social Compact

In Northern Nigeria, Online Skills Help Youth, Women Tap New Opportunities

MD Staff

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A mother holds her baby during the Click-On Kaduna Workshop held recently in Northern Nigeria. Photo: World Bank

Rashidat Sani lost her job when she was pregnant with her child.  Now a nursing mother, she has been unable to find flexible employment that would allow her to take care of her baby and earn a living.

That was before Sani attended the Click-On-Kaduna digital skills workshop earlier this year, which helped her become an “e-lancer;” a self-employed contractor who can work various online jobs.

“This workshop has been perfect for me,” said Sani. “I can stay home and take care of my baby while working on my computer. I can’t thank the organizers enough.”

Sani is one of more than 900 young people who attended the three-day workshop designed to help young Northern Nigerians tap into the digital job market. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the workshop was created by the Kaduna State government and the World Bank to increase job opportunities for the country’s youth—which currently makes up more than half its population—and decrease youth unemployment which has risen to 33%.

“There are nine million people in Kaduna State, 75% of whom are below 35,” said Muhammad Sani Abdullahi, Commissioner of Budget and Planning for Kaduna State. “There are also roughly 70,000 government jobs in the state and this cannot meet up with the job deficit.”

The hands-on workshop aimed to give unemployed and underemployed youth, women, and disadvantaged groups some of the tools needed to compete in the online job market. Sessions included practical trainings on how to set up an online profile, build a personal brand, negotiate a fair compensation, and land a first job. The workshop also provided opportunities for participants—nearly half of them women—to interact with e-lancing platforms like Upwork, a key partner of Click-On Kaduna, as well as several local platforms such as Efiko, Asuqu, MotionWares, or Jolancer.

In the last decade, digital technology has disrupted the global economy and fostered the creation of countless new markets, products, platforms, and services. Among the innovations, there has been a rise of online freelancing platforms which have enabled disadvantaged people across skills, gender and income levels to overcome physical and socio-economic barriers to earn an income through the Internet.

In Nigeria, unemployment rates have increased from 11.92 to 15.99 million in 2017, with the youth reported to be the most affected. This is further aggravated in Northern Nigeria due to its fragility and where the educational and economic infrastructures remain inadequate.

Kaduna State, located in the northern part of the country, faces these challenges. Plagued by years of endemic violence, government leaders recognize the importance of creating jobs for its young people, and the immense opportunities the digital economy offers.

Boutheina Guermazi, World Bank Director for Digital Development, said the global digital economy has given rise to a massive new market facilitated by digital platforms that are accessible to anyone who has access to the Internet.

“It is helping to promote inclusion by creating economic opportunities for youth in fragile states by equipping them with the skills needed to improve their social welfare regardless of their gender and income levels” she said. “These new income-generating opportunities need to be leveraged to create and connect people with jobs, especially women in the North who often do not have equal access to markets and jobs.”

Building on the success of the workshop, the Bank and Upwork rec+ently launched a pilot program that aims to kickstart the online careers of about 150 job seekers, expose them to more and better jobs, and contribute to Click-On-Kaduna’s sustainability and long-term impact.

Each of the selected participants will be given five tasks created under the Upwork pilot program. Once successfully completed, they will be paid for their work and rated, increasing their competitiveness for jobs on the platform. Participants will also be provided with further opportunities for mentoring and capacity building from Upwork while receiving payment for their work.

“I did not even have any idea of Upwork in the first place if it had not been for Click-On Kaduna,” said Nehemiah John, who participated in the workshop and the pilot program. “Aside from [participating in] the pilot project I am about to round a [new] contract with a client on Upwork. He requested a t-shirt design which I have done, and he liked it.”

The outcomes of the pilot program will continue to be monitored by Upwork and the Bank team, with the goal of increasing the number of people able to access online jobs and increase their incomes.

World Bank

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New Social Compact

Wedlocks in Kashmir’s landscape

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Marriage is a sacred institution in the human societies. Down the passing phases of time, the human beings have tied knots of man and woman in pairs to continue the order of the universe. God created human being in pairs and created humans out of those predecessors. This is even today the order of the nature and will remain so forever.

Marriage is a social and legal contract where man and woman are tied in a holy knot under the auspices of religious principles of Nikkah,as in Islam to carry forward the legacy of humans and human beings. Marriage is a pious knot that brings a man and a woman together forever to created an edifice of support for one another in times of need pain happiness, good and bad, nothing and something etc and is equated with one half of the Muslims faith. Marriage holds a vibrant symbolic significance in that people still want to marry and revere the institution. Overall it is said that the institution of marriage gives peace and order to the life of the man and Islam is in fact testimony to that bizarre fact.

Marriages form a major component of our Kashmiri culture which have come a long way since times immemorial. Marriages in Kashmir have undergone a fundamental transformation. In simpler terms, the age of marriage has risen. During the past times, the marriages in Kashmir were performed in an atmosphere of extravaganza where a lot of food and dishes were wasted and those nostalgic memories are perhaps etched to one and all if one recalls the memoirs of the past life. However today a civic and moral sense has prevailed among the masses where lavishness is slowly and steadily losing grip in our society and austerity is taking the substitution there of. Even the persons who accompany the groom towards the bride’s house have been reduced to few.The guests are also nowadays restricted in our society.It is a good gesture and a positive step towards development of society in Kashmir.

In an interview to India today T.V. few years back, i reteriated and favoured the stance of the government regarding ban on lavish marriages in Kashmir and guest control.

However the major problem that besets our marriages in Kashmir is the night long overuse of loudspeakers and subsequent firecrackers at the time of bharat reception. Suppose a person is suffering from disease and is ill, a student has examinations next day, a pregnant woman is expecting a child and the neighbours marriage causes the trouble. It becomes a major sin and music is prohibited in islam as wrong(haram).This ultimately causes trouble to one and sundry. Above the social plane lies the plank of moral conduit. We need to totally stop the use of loudspeakers during mehandirats. Although women can sing in pairs through get together.

Today, when our valley is under the grip of political violence and chaos and uncertainity has become order of the day, people need to show a religious and responsible civic sense and say goodbye to lavish marriages, particularly the menace of dowry in Kashmir.When parents of affluent give huge gifts and dowry to their daughters on their marriages,it causes roadblocks for the poor and disadvantaged sections of the societies and hinders their marriage prospectus..After all, it is the questions of our sisters. A parent who raises a girl child and marries him to a different person knows the pains of departure. Girls need to be respected and cared. They are not the property of their in-laws. There must be regard for the sacrifice of the women’s parents and the bride itself.

According to a famous Hadith, Prophet Muhammad SAW says that a marriage is performed on the basis of four factors. Some marry for the prestige of the caste some marry for the financial prospectus, some marry for the beauty of the girl and others marry for the character of the girl.Our beloved Prophet Muhammad SAW says that we need to focus and keep the last factor that is character of the girl in consideration for the to be married man.

In contravention, in our valley the parents are wary of the future of their daughters and want and wish to marry their daughters to the government employees. How many parents ask about the past, character, morality of the man.Be he a morally bankrupt but he should be a government employee. How sad and pathetic? Besides, the daughters are pushed towards late marriages on account of getting education and other factors.It is good to have education,but age factor matters. Parents should rather focus on the humbleness, compassion, character of the to-be grooms. Delaying marriage until personal and professional goals are achieved is a illogical response of our society.

Today,our society has degraded enormously. Our youth are under the grip of a moral disaster and soaked in immoral acts. The problem of late marriages has already aggravated and compounded the problem. The late marriages have given rise to various social problems and ills. Parents should marry off their wards once they become adults and attain maturity. God is responsible for their future. This will prevent our society from moral ills and our society will metamorphosize into a moral hub of social order. Unfortunately, we lack marriage planning  and counseling centers in Kashmir. Besides, there is no problem if parents ask about the choice of their wards. Compatibility is a vital factor and golden rule in marriage.

The money which we spent on the lavish marriages can be exploited for the overall good and development of our society.The poor can be helped via this mode. This will make our society a just and humane and also please our creator Allah SWT.

Post-marriage step is a crucial phase in the life of a man. According to John D Gray, men are like rubber bands and women have a wavy nature. The married men and women ought to understand each other and have a regard for each other and their families. Patience is the essence of life. Differences can arise, but it is the role of the married persons to annihilate the crisis that makes inroads almost in everybody’s life day-in and day-out and display a calm attitude thereof.

Kashmir history is witness to the fact that in some cases ,the demand of dowry ruins the marital bond during post-marriage time.In some cases, the daughters have committed suicide or have been dragged towards the same under the circumstances. There should be a total ban on the use of dowry in Kashmir. Government should rope in a permanent ordinance to ban lavish marriages and dowry in Kashmir. I was stunned when recently in a facebook post,it came to light that thousands of girls are unmarried in Kashmir. What causes that and who is to be blamed? Let’s ponder over it….One day we have to answerable before Allah SWT about our worldly deeds as this life is too short.

The parents which raise a child in the hope of pillar of support tomorrow need to be respected and regarded by the daughter-in-laws. The in-laws become the parents of the women after marriage and they need to treat them equally in that perspective and kind regard. This creates a healthy atmosphere in the lives of couples during post-married life and turns as boost in arm to solidify their strength of oneness forever. Marriage is more than being together. It is a responsibility in vogue, vis-a-vis the creator and created. We can’t turn a blind eye to this raw fact. This is all about the conjugal commitments.

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