Nihilism—So Attractive!

Of the many religions shaping human experience at the moment, few have as much sway on the deep worldview of people in the global north as two that aren’t often considered “religions”: Humanism and Materialism. 

I’m using “religion” here in line with one of the definitions in Merriam-Webster: “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” 

The system of beliefs called Humanism revolves around the idea that humans are the most valuable beings on the planet, and that our desires and needs and experiences are more important, and more real, than those of other fauna or flora. When I say it that way, you may be protesting that you certainly don’t hold that view! And maybe you don’t, but by and large our actions as a species (both conscious and unconscious) suggest that most of us either do hold this view, or are so deeply trapped in humanist systems that we are unable to act otherwise. 

Certainly the difficulty humans have burning less carbon, harming fewer animals, and preserving more ecosystems suggests that even with intentions to the contrary, the humanist religion and its attendant patterns of action are nearly inescapable in the modern world.

The related system of beliefs called Materialism is the result of the scientific and industrial revolutions in Europe. It is the mirror twin of theist religions (both mono- like Christianity and Islam and poly- like Vedānta) that believe that we have a soul that after death or enlightenment spends eternity in some other realm. 

Materialism says that anything we can’t measure in the physical world doesn’t really exist in any meaningful way. In materialism there is no soul, no afterlife, no heaven or hell, no reincarnation. Materialism’s explanation for things people experience but can’t be measured, like near death experiences, psychic visions, or other “spiritual” phenomena (but also dark matter, quantum universes, and theorized but never seen subatomic particles) is that they are either imagined/not real or potentially real but not yet confirmed through measurement. 

In the Buddhist system, both of these extremely influential religions/worldviews would be considered “wrong view.” Humanism is wrong view because it denies the interconnectedness of beings. Materialism is wrong view because it denies conditionality. Both of these being “wrong” depend on how we hold the canonical descriptions of rebirth.

When the Buddha says that as part of his awakening process he saw his previous births, and saw how beings die and are reborn based on their own actions, he is making a claim that is a direct threat to both Humanism and Materialism. His claim is that in the beginningless cycle of rebirths, we have all been animals of many different kinds, spirit beings both good and evil, and humans of many different cultures and social locations. For this to be true, even on the level of it being a metaphor for organic and cultural evolution, requires that we include animals, plants, and subtle forces not just in our map of the world as “other beings,” but as past and potential future manifestations of our own self. 

At the heart of this vision is the Buddha’s insight that the rebirth process has a fundamentally moral engine. What we become is conditioned by what we do—the harm or blessing we bring to the world through our actions. Don’t take this in an over-simplified way! The conditions that give rise to any moment’s state of being are infinitely complex. Systemic, generational, ancestral, and cultural forces in many ways determine what’s possible for us to be or become in a given lifetime. But even the simple proposal that our actions condition our future beyond our own lifetime is anathema to a core principle of materialism: that after death, individual consciousness simply ceases, with no further experience possible. 

If this were true, the whole of the Buddhist system of morality and justice, called kamma (karma in Sanskrit) would crumble. If a being can do terrible evil in their lifetime, but not suffer the results of it after their death, it would also mean that beings might work hard to do good and practice toward liberation, but no matter their degree of awakening, death would erase everything they had ever attained. This is the definition of nihilism: that our actions don’t really matter. If you’re practicing toward awakening but succumb to nihilism—which is one of the most harmful views, according to the Buddha—your path is seriously hindered. Nihilist views sow a seed of doubt that can fester for years, creeping toward the heart like a shard of a morgul blade, draining the vigor from everything we do. 

Without accepting that the results of our actions determine our own experience of suffering or happiness after our death, the argument to do good must rest only on generosity and empathy towards the suffering of others. That’s a very difficult argument to maintain. (This is common in activist subsects like social justice, which skew materialist like everything else now, who work very hard to maintain empathy and alarm for the suffering of others in their flock, lest action and service work diminish.)

If you mix humanism and materialism together, you get an intense concoction of beliefs. If humans really matter more than everyone else, but nothing personal happens after we die—the world just goes on without us—a natural result is a very narrow vision of life. If my personality inclines toward fear and anger, I think despair and purposelessness are likely. If my personality inclines toward grasping and enthusiasm, we’ll see hedonism. Pleasure as spirituality.

In my politically-progressive, post-religious communities, where a lot of folks have turned to Humanism as a refuge from toxic Christianity and Judaism, I might call Hedonism the predominate humanistic sect. This sect celebrates the body, pleasure, health, sexuality, art, and relationship, supported by a worldview that spiritualizes these things. It also spiritualizes “nature” but generally in ways that still center the human—wilderness as backdrop for human emotional narrative. 

The sect is so powerful right now that I am compelled by my inner censor/editor to add a caveat here that those things are certainly healthy and worth supporting in a culture that has previously denigrated all of them in various ways. Hedonism can be seen as a reactionary movement in support of a feminist, post-Patriarchal, post-Christian culture, and in this way, I support it. But without a vision of our place in the cosmos that decenters the human and admits a longer arc of individual justice than one lifetime, Hedonism falls into myopic indulgence. It’s still nihilism. 

This puts us in a terrible bind, if we are convert Buddhist practitioners living in Dharma-unfriendly cultures, like the European-American colonial sphere. We come to Buddhism with a disadvantage compared to those raised in Dharma-friendly cultures where Materialism and Humanism are only recent imports. Overcoming deeply ingrained cultural views is fantastically difficult, which we see in our efforts to recover from other powerful systemic forces like racism, sexism, and nationalism (all manifestations of Humanism), or consumerism and capitalism (manifestations of materialism). 

How do we as practitioners get through the resistance we probably feel to a worldview that takes rebirth in its many forms as a given? How do we do the work of moral and soteriological (concerned with liberation) education when it depends on a vision of causality and justice far more extensive than one lifetime?

It’s destabilizing work to deconstruct view, and mindfulness and lovingkindness alone won’t do it. Only wrestling with what we actually believe and the implications of our beliefs will we find our way to the other side of nihilistic doubt. It’s ok, I think, to let this be an implicit—rather than explicit—process. Just staying curious about what we’re doing, and why, and the messages we’re getting from our communities and culture about what’s important, if kept in awareness, and nurtured by spending time with wise friends, will develop into wise view, which in the end is simply a way of observing. 

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