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Atheist existentialism

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Atheist existentialism or atheistic existentialism is a kind of existentialism which diverged from the Christian works of Søren Kierkegaard and has developed within the context of an atheistic worldview.[1]

The philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard provided existentialism's theoretical foundation in the 19th century. It became evident in atheist form after the 1943 publication of Being and Nothingness of Jean-Paul Sartre and later explicitly alluded to in Existentialism is a Humanism in 1946. But also previously Sartre wrote works in the spirit of atheistic existentialism, i.e. the novel Nausea (1938) and the short stories in his 1939 collection The Wall. After Sartre in such spirit are the works of Albert Camus (specially with The Myth of Sisyphus) and also Simone de Beauvoir wrote in such sense and then can be considered writers in the spirit of atheist existentialism.

The novel Nausea is, in some ways, a manifesto of atheism in existentialism. Sartre deals with a dejected researcher (Antoine Roquentin) in an anonymous French town, where Roquentin becomes conscious of the fact that the vegetable nature as a root tree, and obviously every inanimate object, are indifferent towards him and his tormented existence. Furthermore, they show themselves to be totally extraneous to any human meaning, and no human can see anything significant in them.

Camus utilizes dualisms between happiness and sadness as well as life and death. In Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), such dualism becomes paradoxal, because humans greatly value their existence while at the same time knowing their endeavours are meaningless. He therefore becomes contradicting and absurd, because if he asserts that he can accept periods of unhappiness because he knows he will also experience happiness to come, then it is difficult to reconcile this statement with the paradox that he thinks his life is of great importance, but he also thinks it is meaningless. Therefore, Camus spoke of experiencing as well as accepting the Absurd. However, Camus is very rarely classified as an existential atheist because he stated multiple times that acceptance of the Absurd implies neither the existence of a god nor the nonexistence of a god.


The term atheistic existentialism refers to an existential way of excluding any transcendental, metaphysical, or religious beliefs from the philosophical thought. Still, it can share the element of anguish and defeat for human finitude and limitations with religious existentialism (like what is typically found in Kierkegaard's works). Atheistic existentialism is an independent type of existentialism, though, with little relation to metaphysical existentialism (mostly through phenomenology and Heidegger's works) and even less with religious existentialism. Instead, it is quite similar to philosophical atheism.

Atheistic existentialism shares with the religious one associated torment and angst, but while the religious version is able to have an optimistic item in communion with God, or at least with reference to him, the atheist has nothing on which to rely, being alone in front of an existential malaise. For some, this malaise is real and not just theoretical. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre was certainly a noted existentialist philosopher, but he does not seem to have been very affected by existentialistic anguish, while Albert Camus certainly was.



From a historical point of view, there are elements of atheistic existentialism already present in the poetry of Lucretius. Many passages of the De rerum natura evoke problems and feelings typical of modern existentialists.[2]. Book III reads in part:

Mind and soul, I say, are held conjoined one with other, And form one single nature of themselves; But chief and regnant through the frame entire Is still that counsel which we call the mind, And that cleaves seated in the midmost breast. Here leap dismay and terror; round these haunts Be blandishments of joys; and therefore here The intellect, the mind. The rest of soul, Throughout the body scattered, but obeys— Moved by the nod and motion of the mind. This, for itself, sole through itself, hath thought; This for itself hath mirth, even when the thing That moves it, moves nor soul nor body at all.

(Lucretius, On the nature of Things, III Book, vv.136-146)[3]

Early Modern Period

The beginning of modern atheistic existentialism is mainly represented by Jean-Paul Sartre through his philosophy, novels, and plays.

Late Modern Period

The later portion of the modern period has seen the rise of a type of atheistic existentialism proposed by André Comte-Sponville.


  1. [1]
  2. Such thesis was recently asserted by Carlo Tamagnone in a philosophic essay titled Philosophic Atheism in the Ancient World, Florence 2004, pp.227-240

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