In a haunting dream sequence in Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries, an old professor is arraigned before the bar of justice. When he asks the charge, the judge replies, “You are guilty of guilt.”
“Is that serious?” the professor asks.
“Very serious,” says the judge.
But that is all that is said on the subject of guilt. In a universe where God is dead, people are not guilty of violating a moral law; they are only guilty of guilt, and this is very serious, for nothing can be done about it. If one had sinned, there might be atonement. If one had broken a law, the lawmaker might forgive the criminal. But if one is only guilty of guilt, there is no way to solve the very personal problem.
And that states the case for a nihilist, for no one can avoid acting as if moral values exist and as if there is some bar of justice that measures guilt by objective standards. But there is a bar of justice, and we are left, not in sin, but in guilt. Very serious, indeed.
–James W. Sire,
The Universe Next Door
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who endured the horrors of Auschwitz, astutely commented on the way that modern European thought had helped prepare the way for Nazi atrocities (and his own misery). He stated, “If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity, and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted,” Frankl continued, “with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazi liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.”
The Dehumanizing Impact of Modern Thought
Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Their Followers
 Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), xxvii.
Men and women can bear hardship, poverty, physical hunger and pain, but there is one thing which they cannot bear very long, and that is meaninglessness. If they are not provided with meaning in one connection, they will seek it in another. The parable [told by Jesus] of the impossibility of the permanently empty house is more applicable to our society today than it has ever been in our lives.
Old-school atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche
recognized that atheism utterly failed
to answer the most profound of human questions,
and thus atheism, he believed, led inexorably
Nowadays, most atheists are very uncomfortable with nihilism and want to distance themselves from their intellectual forefathers. Just because God doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that life can’t be vibrant and meaningful, right?
Well, it seems that not every atheist has abandoned Nietzsche’s insights. Atheist professor Alex Rosenberg provides the following summary of atheism’s answers to life’s most profound questions:
Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Is there a soul? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance!
What is the difference between right/wrong, good/bad? There is no moral difference between them.
He concludes, “So much for the meaning of history, and everything else we care about.”
Rosenberg left out other depressing atheist answers like the following:
Will there be justice for all those who have been wronged? No way.
Is there life after death? Are you joking?
Where did mankind come from? A prebiotic slime.
Wow! What a positive outlook on life! No wonder more people don’t become atheists. It casts such a stunning vision for mankind, doesn’t it?
Atheism is an idea. Most often (thank God), it is an idea lived and told with blunt jumbo-crayon clumsiness. Some child of Christianity or Judaism dons an unbelieving Zorro costume and preens about the living room.
Behold, a dangerous thinker of thinks! A believer in free-from-any-and-all-goodness! Fear my brainy blade!
Put candy in their bucket. Act scared. Don’t tell them that they’re adorable. Atheism is not an idea we want fleshed out.
Atheism incarnate does happen in this reality narrative. But it doesn’t rant about Islam’s treatment of women as did the (often courageous) atheist Christopher Hitchens. It doesn’t thunder words like evil and mean it (as Hitch so often did) when talking about oppressive communist regimes. His costume slipped all the time—and in many of his best moments.
Atheism incarnate is nihilism from follicle to toenail. It is morality merely as evolved herd survival instinct (non-bindng, of course, and as easy for us to outgrow as our feathers were). When Hitchens thundered, he stood in the boots of forefathers who knew that all thunder comes from on high.
― N. D. Wilson,
Death by Living:
Life Is Meant to Be Spent
For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.
Notes on the Way