An Increase in Nihilism Plays Havoc With Mental Health

What is your take on nihlism and mental health in regards to the article linked above?

It’s made mine net better.

1 Like

Interesting in the light of the Penner book After Apologetics we’ve been discussing in the thread @Kendel started. I’m sure nihilism does contribute to the incidence of depression and anxiety. Fortunately even we godless need not embrace nihilism.

… it helps to have a basic knowledge of the so-called “post-structuralist” theory that took hold in U.S. English departments in the 1960s. This theory, at its heart, is nihilistic—nothing can be trusted, nothing is certain, nothing is as it seems.

Personally I think that theory is crap. Just because the meaning you draw from a poem or novel may be different than what someone else finds doesn’t mean there is no meaning at all. Perhaps what some find disturbing is that there is no basis to determine who is correct. But that is too simplistic. Perhaps everyone’s meaning is correct - for them. And what’s wrong with that? People are subjects and meaning is processed subjectively. No reason to expect objective universality there since we’re not all the same person.

Rationality and science are appropriate in empirical matters but not every question has an empirical basis. There is no reason to think we should all prefer to marry the same woman, like vanilla bean ice cream best or agree that Groundhog Day actually is the best film ever made. The same goes for literature obviously. But what about the big questions?

There does seem to be some agreement on what those big questions might be: what are we, what in the world does or should matter, and what are we here to do? If you are following an established wisdom tradition you can pretty much look your answers up or ask someone. If all the wisdom traditions vary somewhat in how they answer the big questions does that mean there are no answers or that the choice is arbitrary? No. If like me you need to figure these things out yourself, then in addition to what we are you’ll need to also pay give some thought to who you are and what moves or inspires you.

It may seem daunting or even onerous to have to do this extra work to do, but you can always look over all the ready answers from those on offer in traditional systems around the world. A book @Mervin_Bitikofer recommended called Holy Envy isn’t exactly a menu of these but you might get some ideas there as I found it valuable too. For that matter I find I pick up lots of ideas from the novels and poems I read. I was always a non-fiction guy until I retired. Now I find myself living through a number of lifetimes vicariously through the characters I encounter there. Some of my finds and those of others can be found in the Pithy Quotes thread.

One of the take aways from the Penner thread is that Truth isn’t something lke propositional statements which you simply have to assent to and then they’re yours. If you find the right one(s) they can open your world up. But it won’t be because they are factually true but because they have that effect on your experience. You have to taste some things to find out what you like and of course we’re not talking about what is fun or a pleasant distraction. We’re talking about what floats your boat.

Good luck.


I am tempted to say… only the humanities could people come up with such nonsense. The success of science is that it found a way to objective truths about some things. There may be limits to this but it is there and it is quite solid. But perhaps this shows the weakness of naturalism for those who would do other than science in their life. If the only reality and truth is to be found in the natural world alone then what is left but nihilism if you would do something other than science?

Yes… and perhaps this needs to be the addendum to naturalism - which I guess we can call pluralism outside of science.

I am tempted to say that atheism and naturalism is not for the mentally lazy. But then religion can be quite dangerous if considerable thought isn’t spent there also.

My overarching take is to defend theory and proper engagement with it, which may actually not be precisely what you’re asking about, but I think I can get to your concerns as well.
Subpoints are:

  1. The article gives the most superficial gloss of post-structuralist theory, that the gloss is nearly meaningless in itself and only functions to be terrifying. This is destructive to people who are trying to figure out meaning in their lives.
  2. The title of the article sounds like a death sentence, and then places the blame on (in my opinion) some of the most challenging and truthful thinkers I am aware of.
  3. Real, philosophical nihilists do not all see their nihilism as a sentence to mental illness, and not everyone who embraces post-structuralist (I’ll broaden it to post modern) theory is a nihilist.

To complicate matters, I agree with both @MarkD and @Klax.

The article mentions the theorists Barthes, Foucault and Derrida. I’ve read Barthes, Foucault, Derrida and plenty of other Post Modern theorists at an introductory level. A book of mind-bending translated-from-French prose per week with additional readings. Foucault’s short article took me 8 hours. It’s not possible to adequately present in one brief, popular-level article in Psych Today the depth, breadth and subtlety of the points they were making and how that applies to an individual and her or his life. Do not believe anyone who leads you to believe that these ideas are easily or completely summarized in a statement like: “There is no truth.”

The article title sounds like a death sentence. To be sure, the ideas of postmodern theorists rock some people’s worlds to the core. I wrote about my husband’s and my friend Bill, over here: Three Tips from a Pastor to Care for Those Deconstructing - #11 by Kendel. When we knew Bill, he was already falling apart (which wasn’t helped at all by a severely broken heart). Then we moved away and lost contact.
Bill and I were reading a lot of the same theory at that time. Admittedly, Bill had worked with it longer and more intensely than I had, and was also a very intense, and sensitive person. But I also came back to more of it later.

I have not found a need to embrace nihilism, but have found both complicating and freeing many of the ideas I worked with in theory. Recognizing that we are creatures living within a context that molds and shapes us gives us an awareness that we can evaluate and work against, when needed, even if we can never entirely leave the context within which we exist.

In my case, as a Christian, I find much of what I learned through postmodern theory an important tool for evaluating what I’m doing, what the Church is doing, how we understand people, how I live my life. It makes thinking and engaging in a culture with so many unquestioned assumptions much, much harder. But I feel no need to assume it’s all meaningless. In fact, right now, trying to write to you seems quite meaningful to me. I hope I have something to give you that you find meaningful.

Pulling around to what I think is more on your mind, it IS, admittedly, a challenge to rethink meaning in our lives and its source and context. We find that meaning is not always clearly handed to us on a plate. Reevaluating what we find meaningful or sources of meaning in our lives is something we must do, and will do again. And you aren’t alone in this process. The process will continue, if you let it, and you will come through it with a better understanding of what is meaningful, even if it’s very different from how you started.

Philosophical nihilism is not a sentence to mental illness.
Here’s a fine quote from Michele Foucault to demonstrate my point: “Nihilism is not a sickness but a historical horizon in which man experiences and comes to know his own subjectivity.” “Nihilism” is not equivalent to “hopelessness.”
Foucault’s personal life is better-known than the other theorists mentioned in the PT article (at least to me), although I know very little. He was rather a philosophical rock star as a younger man, and he was a man who had no problems with uncertainty. If you would like to get a taste of his thinking, this discussion between him and Noam Chomsky (also of great interest) is worth watching. I saw the segment on justice, and found it helpful for understanding better the relationship between things we take as ultimate truths, and their societal source.

Over in the “The End of Apologetics” thread, we have just finished reading a book together that was specifically about apologetics, but was also an excellent introduction to some of the thinking of Søren Kierkegaard. He was a Christian AND a nihilist. So there’s room, I think for a wide range of thinkers and believers/nonbelievers under the umbrella of “nihilism” and it doesn’t mean one must be plagued with mental illness.

If one is stuck, though, at the point where nothing seems meaningful and seems it never will, that is actually a different problem, isn’t it? That is depression. Depression leads to a different kind of nihilism that is not philosophical.

Sorry to write you a book. I hope I’ve brought my thoughts around to adequately address your concerns and that I’ve written something that is helpful to you.


Brava! Brilliant.

Right now I’m trying to review a the end of The End of Apologetics and I just ran across a few sentences I want to share with you, @Trippy_Elixir because they say better what I have tried to say a few times before:

Truth undoes or compromises the easy confidence we have in ourselves and our received beliefs, so that faithfulness to ourselves and our traditions often takes the form of questioning our ability to account for our world. I am placed in question by the Truth, and I in turn place the practices and beliefs of my community in question. (pg. 167)

One who has been edified by the truth has also been dislocated by it and has been (or is going) through the violent process of being remade by something that is beyond the self. (pg. 168)

You are in the thick of it right now. This isn’t where the process of being remade ends.


Foulcault at 30:43 in he video: “creativity only becomes possible because of the existence of a system of rules”.

Seriously? Wow. Chomsky is much more fluid and appealing as a thinker.

Really excellent find. I don’t have time to watch it all right now but look forward to coming back to it.

1 Like

I don’t think so!

Kierkegaard spoke of nihilism:

Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855): The nineteenth century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard—who many academics regard among the first existentialist philosophers—wrote about nihilism, calling it “leveling.” Kierkegaard felt that leveling was not a positive thing, because the problem of nihilism was that it meant everything was meaningless and it suppressed individuality. He felt that human life did have intrinsic meaning and therefore believed a person should avoid nihilism at all costs. link

Are you perhaps equating postmodernism to nihilism and because you see a bit of postmodernism in Kierkegaard you are thinking of him as nihilist? But postmodernism is far far too broad of a thing (naming an entire era) to equate with nihilism!

Thanks, @mitchellmckain. Yet there are other’s who see him as a nihilist. Certainly not of the sort as Nietzsche.
Always more to learn!

One thing that website does is outline several kinds of nihilism.

  1. Epistemological nihilism: This form of nihilism goes one step further beyond the thinking of a skeptic who questions the validity of information. In this case, nihilism states that knowledge does not exist. Alternatively, if there is knowledge in the universe, we cannot attain it, therefore it might as well not exist at all.
  2. Ethical nihilism: Someone who considers ethical nihilism to be their moral philosophy believes that there are no ethics. Therefore, there’s no reason to hold themselves or anyone else to any ethical standards.
  3. Existential nihilism: Here the position is that life has no meaning. Everyone everywhere, at every point, has no value to the universe. Existential nihilism overlaps with the branch of philosophy called existentialism. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about existential nihilism.
  4. Passive nihilism: This philosophy of nihilism states that nihilism is its own end, and there is no reason to pursue higher values.
  5. Political nihilism: This methodology states that nobody should hold any political views and should instead try to tear down all political institutions.

Clearly Kierkegaard would oppose ethical and existential nihilism. And so the only one might question Kierkegaard on is with regards to epistemological nihilism. Whether this is true of Kierkegaard I cannot say. But epistemological nihilism is precisely the one which I have claimed above is excluded by science.


On the other hand, perhaps it is a bit postmodernist of me to reject the traditional definition of knowledge as justified true belief, because nobody believes things which they don’t think are true or don’t believe to be justified.

Instead I define knowledge as the beliefs we live by. It fits well with science as those things science have made the tools of inquiry. That would easily include things like the theory of evolution, relativity and quantum physics.

It would also include both subjective and objective knowledge. The objective knowledge being those things where we have a reasonable expectation that others will agree such as when we have the written procedures of science which anyone can follow to get the same results. But clearly there are a lot of other things (even most things) where we live by them only because of our own personal experience – and these would be in the subjective category – but still knowledge because we live by them.

From the article:

I think there is some truth in those words. Some people who have recently left the church and become atheists report that they really struggle with the idea that there is no intrinsic purpose or meaning in the universe, that we have to construct these things for ourselves. Others, like myself, had no such rough transition, but some people do agonize over these concepts.

Could a dose of Humanism help? I tend to think so, but could certainly be wrong. I’m not saying that we should all fully embrace some Orthodox Humanistic Humanism, or anything of the like. Rather, we embrace what it means to be human, which may very well include religious belief for many people. We should also embrace our subjective experience. We shouldn’t construct a dichotomy of subjective=wrong and objective=right, but instead recognize both the subjective and objective as part of the human experience. Could the your meaning in life be a subjective belief? Absolutely, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as we understand that it is subjective and why we think it is important.

I also think that this doesn’t require adoption of post-structuralism. Although some beliefs may be subjective, they are nevertheless shared by a lot of other humans who also find these beliefs to be important. Community makes the difference here, IMHO. The human experience is not a solo affair.

1 Like

I am so privileged to have actually increasing continuity in the faith community regardless of where my deconstructed head’s at. I’m the longest serving social volunteer at one church, have started at another, got a job as a janitor in yet another and may end up its administrator!

1 Like

One of the greatest draws of the church is being part of a community. I think we can all agree with that, regardless of what we may believe about specific religious beliefs.

On a related note, I like to people watch when I watch sports on TV. More and more, when you look into the crowd you find people sitting next to each other at a great sporting event, and what are they doing? Their heads are down looking at their phones. They could have just stayed home and saved the money. We are quickly becoming little islands unto ourselves, even when we are out in public.

1 Like

If psychology is the root of your world view such as when like me you are raised by two psychology majors, then psychological health can be one of your reasons choosing to embrace a subjective world view – not by disregarding the objective facts but by holding the two in balance as two equally important parts of life. One might, as I have, embrace the epistemological theory of pragmatism, that the effect of believing on the living of your life is part of the truth value of what you believe.

Indeed! All it requires is abandoning the illusory demand for certainty. There is no certainty in the choice of bird, worm, or cat in the way they live – it is simply part of what they are. Likewise we can choose who we are, embracing a structure as part of our subjective choice of who we want to be and thus how we live our life.

In this case, the choice of Christianity is not a matter of finding proofs or evidence but rather one of weighing the good things you see in it against the bad things. To be sure such an approach may require a few adjustments regarding the sort of Christianity you embrace. You are likely to be less inclined to buy into the Svengali approach of brainwashing yourself with such rhetoric as “you’ve got to know that you know you are saved.” And instead making room for uncertainty as a natural part of faith.

1 Like

I tried watching this video posted of a debate between Foucault and Chomsky. The problem I am running into is this… Foucault chooses to speak in French uncertain that he can express himself as well in English but that means those of us who do not speak/comprehend French have to trust that the translators are accurately expressing what he is trying to say. And this discussion is subtle and complex enough where this is likely to have a profound impact. I am certainly seeing a lot more intelligence in what Chomsky has to say but don’t know for sure if that is the difference between the two speakers or the difference between Chomsky and the translator.

On the other hand… maybe it is just the fact that my thinking is far more aligned with that of Chomsky than Foucault.

Stick with the translated subtitles. I have read a brief article by him, in translation of course. His writing is murderously hard.

Here’s a Word-on-Fire video (Bishop Barron) where he speaks quite a bit specifically on Foucault. And as always the good Bishop makes it reasonably accessible to a curious public - and of course with some obligatory Catholic reaction and overlay. But it seems that he does a reasonable job trying not to be too partisan about everything.


1 Like

Gosh! The more I hear about Foucault the less intelligence I see in him. I now begin to wonder… if I did understand French and heard what He was really saying in that debate, would I have an even worse impression of him than I have from the translators. I am frankly reminded of Marx and the Communist manifesto in which I never saw any work of intelligence – only empty rhetoric and nonsense in the service of immense hatred. I see only a perfect example of that description in the 2 Timothy 4:3 “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings.” Is this not best fit by people acclaimed as brilliant only because they say what some people want to hear.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.