Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

The gleeful nihilists

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Christianity is the most materialist of all religions. Read the Hebrew bible and you will find that the quest for land is a key aspect of the history of Israel. Read the New Testament and you will find that the body is central to its concerns. However, this kind of materialism may not be confused with that fostered by atheists who would reduce all things to interactions in matter.

There are two kinds of materialism, the methodological and the ontological.

Methodological materialism is the rightful domain of the physical sciences. Objects under investigation cannot be imbued with mind; they cannot contain spirit. If they did then scientists would not be able to replicate experimental results because the mind inhabiting objects could change its mind and throw everything into disarray.


While this kind of materialism appears to be contradicted by Biblical miracles, a closer inspection reveals that such accounts are narrative devices that point beyond themselves to theological realities formulated in a prescientific culture.

In Christian theology the creator is separated from the creation. Without this separation natural science could not exist. It is notable that natural science could not and did not arise from pantheistic cultures. The Romans could formulate fine legal systems, control a vast empire, build magnificent cities, write histories but they could not examine the world in a methodical way because gods were everywhere.

The problem is that methodological materialism has led to ontological materialism, the belief that our material being governs all that we are.

We may think we have free will, hope, dreams, obsessions but it is only the flux of neural impulses, a billion synapses flickering away in our brain. Human existence may be explained in terms of mechanism. The next step is to conclude that humanity does not really exist as we had thought. All things are reduced to the material. There is no origin of anything but in the material; that is what ontological materialism means.

The problem of human consciousness cannot be solved by the assertion of body/mind-soul dualism because, theologically, this has to assume the existence of spirit in matter. If we postulate a ghost in the machine our problem is transferred to how spirit interacts with matter and we are, conceptually, no better off.

So, we must agree that everything is material, including human consciousness, but does that lead to the conclusion that empties humanity of all meaning to produce nihilism?


A close cousin of ontological materialism is radical Darwinism that asserts that we are nothing but machines for carrying our genes into the future. This, again reduced the human to mechanism and is used to argue that there is really no such thing as the human as we understand and experience it.

Other similar arguments are used to empty life of all meaning. Humanity has been reduced to insignificance by the discovery of deep time and space in which human history is reduced to the last few seconds of the age of the universe and the earth is relegated to a spec of matter in a minor galaxy among billions of galaxies. We are not the centre of the universe but merely a very small sideshow. This reduction of humanity is used to establish nihilism. The reduction of the human leads to the reduction of all that humanity stands for.

But let us get to the nitty gritty of the argument. Why does the discovery that we are all material arrive at the emptying of humanity; the discovery that humanity is just material? Why does that lead to the conclusion of nihilism, nothingness, in spite of our experience of the world and of culture that is infinitely rich? Is this not a perverse conclusion that flies in the face of our everyday experience?

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

This article owes much to Conor Cunningham's Darwin's Pious Idea. And to a lecture given by him to be found here.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

68 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Peter Sellick

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Peter Sellick
Article Tools
Comment 68 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy