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Is Nihilism the Logical End of Atheism?

Is Nihilism the Logical End of Atheism?

What happens when nihilism is taken to its logical and philosophical conclusion?

“Human rights are just like heaven and like God. It’s just a fictional story that we have invented and spread around. It may be a very nice story… but it’s just a story. It’s not a reality.”

So says Noah Yuval Hariri, a historian and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of Homo Deus (“Man God”), along with many other bestselling publications, including children’s picture books.

Harari is a World Economic Forum agenda contributor and rumored advisor to Klaus Schwab. Among his highbrow fans are Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Barack Obama.

Harari’s chilling quote above comes from a TED Talk he gave almost a decade ago but that has been making the rounds on social media recently and garnering millions of views and thousands of negative comments.

Here’s some more context to what Harari said in that talk:

Many—maybe most—legal systems are based on this idea or this belief in human rights. But human rights are just like heaven and like God. It’s just a fictional story that we have invented and spread around. It may be a very nice story; it may be a very attractive story—we want to believe it. But it’s just a story. It’s not a reality. It is not a biological reality. Just as jellyfish and woodpeckers and ostriches have no rights, Homo sapiens have no rights also. Take a human, cut him open, look inside. You find the blood, you find the heart and lungs and kidneys, but you don’t find any rights. The only place you find rights is in the fictional stories that humans have invented and spread around.

The full video can be viewed here, but be warned: There is no redemptive story arc; no happy ending—either in Harari’s TED Talk or his nihilistic worldview.

Harari couldn’t sound more assured in his assertions that both God and human rights are fictional.

But his remarks are just that: assertions. Harari is asking us to believe him but offering no evidence for his assertions.

Worse, he is exposing the dangerous and nihilistic logical endpoint of this worldview. Namely, that if there is no God or higher power, then even the most fundamental moral boundaries that the vast majority of human nations have subscribed to are null and void. No moral evil is ultimately out of bounds in a world without a higher power or objective moral foundation. Not terrorism, not pedophilia, not murder.

Not only that, but if God is fictional and human rights are fictional, then so is mathematics, reason, and love, not to mention human meaning and purpose.

Noah Yuval Harari faces a predicament known as the is-ought problem—and it’s not the first time he has stumbled on this point, as previously highlighted by Intellectual Takeout.

A perennial of secular philosophy, the is-ought problem is that without a higher power, there is no way to cross the threshold from what is in the world around us, to what ought to be.

Specifically, in the realm of morality, unless there is a moral standard that transcends human cultures, we could justify many terrible deeds as our human tastes shift from one era to the next. Moral relativism might be a convenient framework for people who want to live without moral restraint, but over the long haul, it has no power to hold people or civilizations back from the most wicked deeds imaginable.

While many secular philosophers see this as a problem, Harari promotes it as some kind of triumph. So did his intellectual antecedents—men like Friedrich Nietzsche. The horrors of the 20th century loom in recent history as examples of what this line of thinking can justify.

What of the argument that human rights are secular, not theistic?

Actually, human rights, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar documents, have distinctly Christian origins.

According to the University of Notre Dame’s Iain Benson, “The major proponents of human rights as it was developed and codified in the twentieth century were themselves Christians—people like Jacques Maritain from France and Charles Malik in Lebanon.”

Nick Spencer, author of The Evolution of the West, agrees. He says, “In the sense that the Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t draw explicitly on any religious doctrines of course it’s thoroughly secular, but if you lift the lid you find an awful lot of Christian workings underneath the bonnet.”

So while Harari, an atheist, might gleefully credit atheism or nihilism with “freeing” us from the obligation of human rights, what he actually does is the opposite.

It’s a reminder that if human societies are to function at all—if nations are going to hold themselves and each other to any moral framework—we need to believe in something. The question is what that something will be. Will we rise to the morality that founded our civilization, or will we submit to the forces that seek to destroy life and liberty?

Image credit: Unsplash

Kurt Mahlburg
Kurt Mahlburg

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  • Avatar
    Jackson Pemberton
    January 31, 2024, 4:29 pm

    What is needed is a bulletproof secular basis for natural rights. A few years ago I went looking and praying for a new basis for natural rights because the secularists now outnumbered the believers. I avoided any study of the famous natural rights philosophers for fear my mind would be blinded to a new paradigm. Using Einstein's "Look deeply into nature" principle, and using my training in Physics and Mathematics, I discovered something hidden in plain sight.
    Realizing that natural rights had always been a human-centric idea, I felt vindicated in this new universal rights paradigm. It goes like this:
    A right is an abstract notion of authority to do what one can do. Everything in the universe has some power to do something, even if it is only to take up space. That power is also its authority to do what it does: its natural right. These rights are intimately tied to their owners and intrinsically inalienable.
    Human rights philosophers have looked past this obvious source of rights because they were focused on humans and missed this most natural of all natural rights paradigms. These rights have been unnoticeable because they are profoundly ubiquitous.
    I believe #temporalRights is a religious freedom breakthrough. There are several treatments of them on the mentioned website.

  • Avatar
    Logan Daugherty
    February 5, 2024, 6:27 am

    Hello, Curt,

    According to the Bible, what happens to those that are not Christian?

    Are all beliefs that don't accept Jesus as Lord and Savior nihilistic?


  • Avatar
    Jason Lee Seiler
    February 5, 2024, 1:36 pm

    The best argument that I've ever seen work among secular humanists is to argue that belief in God was the first step in the human evolution of civilization, as it offered a way to regulate resources and conduct in a manner that promoted mutual survival. When you make the argument that the survival of a civilization is dependent upon it's numbers, mutual benefit, and spirit of community you can easily push towards being part of something larger than any one individual taps into the human need to be part of a large, well regulated and effective social group.

  • Avatar
    February 5, 2024, 3:56 pm

    //A perennial of secular philosophy, the is-ought problem is that without a higher power, there is no way to cross the threshold from what is in the world around us, to what ought to be.//

    Hume's Law (or Guillotine) refutes moral realism and objective morality. Here is a brief explanation of why, using logic to demonstrate the point…and the point remains even if you try to invoke a God (I won't even get into the Euthyphro Dilemma or the Epistemic Problem theists face for now)…

    It is logically impossible to get a prescriptive statement from a descriptive fact without using subjectivity to bridge the is-ought gap. The is-ought problem arises when one makes claims about what ought to be that is are based solely on statements about what is. This is closely related to the fact-value distinction in epistemology. I will demonstrate the is-ought gap and how logic itself shows morality is necessarily subjective:

    Objective: That person *IS* spanking a child.
    Subjective: The child did/did not deserve a spanking.
    Subjective: The spanking is appropriate or excessive.

    VALUE (subjective): One *OUGHT* not (should not) be spanked without cause (justified cause is subjective), and *OUGHT* not be spanked to excess ("excess" is also subjective).

    Subjective gap filler: I care about children and have a bias against them being spanked without cause or to excess.

    Moral ought: I think spanking children without cause or to excess is immoral (something someone *ought not* to do).
    I think stopping someone from spanking a child without cause or to excess (whether the spanking is justified or excessive is subjective) is moral (something someone *ought* to do).

    As you can see, the value and the subjective gap filler are always subjective (influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; not based on facts; biased).
    The VALUE section would be a "moral value". The second half of the "moral ought" section is a "moral duty". The only way to bridge the is-ought gap is through the use of subjectivity.
    Objective empiricism attempts to relay solely the facts being observed by the senses while leaving any subjectivity out of the equation.

    Objective: I see a flower.
    If everyone sees a flower, and you can take away and add different observers, then the flower seems to be there independent of any single mind, and therefore no mind.
    With subjectivity, it doesn't matter how much consensus there is, it can't exist outside the mind.

    Subjective: That's a pretty flower. That's a good table.
    "Pretty" and "good" don't exist independent of the mind's opinion. You'd need at least one of those minds to consider the flower "pretty" or the table "good".

    Objective: person A is spanking child B
    Subjective: I don't like spanking. I think that's wrong.

    Objective: person A is stealing an apple
    Subjective: I don't like stealing. I think that's wrong.

    Moral judgment is necessarily contingent on a mind.
    It cannot exist independently of any mind.
    Now, let's apply logic:

    Premise 1- That person *IS* stealing an apple.
    Premise 2- ___(insert is-ought gap filler)___
    Conclusion- That person *OUGHT* not steal the apple. (moral value). Someone *OUGHT* to stop them from stealing the apple. (moral duty)
    As Philosophy Engineered points out, the very idea of an OBJECTIVE moral VALUE is an oxymoron.

    P1. All objective facts are independent of agent desire or preference.
    P2. All values are dependent on agent desires or preferences.
    P3. Objective value is, therefore, a contradiction.
    P4. Contradictions do not exist,
    C. Therefore, objective moral values do not exist.

  • Avatar
    Mark Juelg
    April 7, 2024, 7:16 pm

    Yes, the logical end of atheism is nihilism. As you point out, following Hariri’s childlike casuistry implying that only the material world is reality (see Piaget), we can dismiss as fiction love and hate, good and evil, and—ironically—every idea Hariri ever had. Rationality and morality would then be fiction, and humans would be no more than robotic beasts chasing the genocidal fiction of “me first.” It’s the myopically foolish perspective and justification for Soros’ Dark-Triad obsession with personal profit.


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