Saturday, June 02, 2007

Correlates of nihilism: In the past, I've posted a number of times on the question of happiness, but I've neglected the arguably more important topic of nihilism. I can safely say that my biggest challenge in life has not been laziness, passivity, or lack of organization--it's been my battle with nihilism. It wasn't a problem in the least when I was a pious boy, but as soon as I became convinced that there was no God, black nihilism started its creep, and it's been like bone cancer ever since.

It doesn't help that I'm inclined to take a distant views of things: "From the vantage point of Alpha Centauri or 100 years from now, I am absolutely nothing." I meet every hassle in life (and they are as omnipresent as advertising) with a "What is the point?" My attempt to develop faith in God--probably the only meaningful thing that could be 100% relied on--has helped, but not as much as I'd like.

Anyway, what are the correlates of nihilism? I did some quick searching in the General Social Survey, and found several items. Respondents were asked if they agree that life serves no purpose. Answers ranged from "strongly agree" (1) to "strongly disagree" (5). Fortunately, only 3.4% agreed, either strongly or moderately. I calculated the means for various groups and subtracted if from 5 to give the most nihilistic people the highest scores. The analysis was limited to whites. Here are the most and least nihilistic groups on several different variables:

Nihilism Score

71-90 .72
41-55 .49

Work status
Unemployed .71
Student .40

Occupational prestige
Low (10-30) .68
High (61-90) .41

Individual Income
<$15,000/yr .82
$90,000+ .14

Less than HS education .80
Graduate degree .34

Belief in God
Agnostic .82
Know God exists .43

Religious Attendance
Never .73
More than once a week .39

None .73
Orthodox .14

Marital Status
Separated .95
Married .50

Number of children
Eight+ .86
Two .46

Fair .75
Excellent .42

Not too happy .77
Very happy .43

So let's create a profile: the average nihilist is old; unemployed or has a low-status job; poor and uneducated; agnostic with no religion who never goes to church; is separated with 8 or more children; and is unhappy and in fair health.

The picture that emerges here is of a person whose life is not going well, and who has no religious beliefs to draw on. The nihilist interprets his life as unpleasant, unsuccessful--maybe he feels impotent. The rich guy with the powerful job is more much likely to think life is meaningful. According to these data, few high-income people are nihilists. Money must give a sense of power, success, reward (not that I would know).

Children are clearly not thought of as assets: the "child-rich" person is the most nihilistic. Having a very large family is associated with many other challenges, like poverty, which overwhelm people. A spouse and 2 kids don't overwhelm, and they make a guy feel like he's part of something larger than himself--part of a family.

I excluded all the intermediate categories because I'm short on time, but I will look at this more closely later. I've been inclined to think that these life characteristics lead to nihilism, but that actually contradicts my own experience, where nihilism came first and caused me difficulties. For example, if life is pointless, why kill yourself in order to make a lot of money? My nihilism always pulls me toward hedonism--I just want to be a happy California cow, with his belly full of hay.


  1. There wasnt an "Atheist" classification?

  2. I wonder whether nihilism is the cause or effect of these people's low income, etc?

    I find that the part of the gospel that helps the most is 1 Corinthians 13--Love. It sounds cheesy, but it's true. Actively serving others--going to homeless shelter and volunteering, etc.--makes a huge difference. So does specifically praying to God for help in opposing nihilism. Pray for specifically hope.

    Your prayer will be granted.


  3. mens: Yes, there is an "Atheist" category, and they were less nihilist than the agnostics. To save time, I only listed the extremes.

  4. random guy: Appreciate it.

  5. Anonymous9:12 PM

    You're whole spiel about taking a distant POV resonates with me. I'm an agnostic and I'm prone to the same sort of thinking from time to time, though much less frequently now than in my moody, often aimless high school years. In fact, I often use the exact same sort of astronomical metaphors you mentioned. I find myself thinking from time to time:

    In the several billion year life of the universe since the Big Bang, amidst hundreds of billions of stars covering vast distances, and here among billions of people living on earth and billions more that have ever lived, what is the point of it all?

    When I get to thinking about it, I really can begin to visualize how cosmically trivial I am.

    Random Guy's point about homeless shelters is well taken also. It becomes much easier to deal with the sense of purposelessness when you are actively involved in doing something productive. Particularly when you are performing works that help others and make you appreciate just where you are versus where you could be. For lack of a better term, it restores your sense of groundedness.

  6. Anonymous9:25 PM

    I just want to be a happy California cow, with his belly full of hay.

    "His" and "cow" don't usually go together :)

  7. Peter: Yeah, I thought about that, but a "bull" sounded too good (and didn't follow the ads), and "steer" made me wince :-)

  8. Get a purebred Siberian Husky. They're hyperactive and need about four hours of exercise a day. After we come back from a two-hour walk mine urges me to play "the chase game" with her in the back yard by grabbing a piece of clothing or some paper(she can pick out the important ones,I think) and merrily fleeing.

    Between work and whatever and that you won't have time to think about the vastness of time and space.

  9. Wily: I should get one--a great breed, that's for sure.

  10. Anonymous1:53 PM

    If you haven't already, I suggest a reading of Dostoevky's short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.

    Talking of lives lacking meaning, I've been feeling a little bit that way since Steve Sailer started moderating comments on his blog. All human life was there.

  11. King Rollo: I certainly will read that: Dostoyevsky is one of my favorites.

    And I don't have the decency to moderate comments, so all you guys, say whatever you want.

  12. King: I read it online. Great story. Thanks.

  13. Anonymous1:13 PM

    You were that crazy about Jupiter and his NATIVE BORN WHITE CHRISTIAN MALES? Svigor says the same thing, better.


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