Existentialism as a Secular Faith by Nina Belmonte Introduction

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Existentialism as a Secular Faith

by Nina Belmonte


In the closing months of World War II the famous French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave what was at the time a scandalous lecture entitled, “Existentialism is a Humanism.” In it, he claimed that this new philosophy - for which he invented the term, “Existentialism”- was “nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position.”1 The lecture caused a riot; furniture and fist-fights broke in the streets. Ironically, however, Sartre’s conclusions were themselves far from scandalous. In fact, they resemble a simplified, austere version of the values of major world religions, except that the existence of god, together with all the accompanying dogma and decoration, are not so much disproved as irrelevant. Now, 70 years later, Existentialism turns out to be - not an irresponsible, nihilistic philosophy - but rather the ground of a kind of secular faith that might have continuing force for our time. I know this because every semester that I teach this philosophy, students tell me how profoundly it touches them, and sometimes changes them.

But why is this so? The term ‘Existentialism’ sounds intellectual, but in fact, the kind of philosophy that falls under that name all begins from a simple starting point. Existentialism’s fundamental claim, articulated by Sartre in that now-classic lecture, is that “existence precedes essence.” This means simply that we live and think from the absolute ground zero of our singular consciousness, our own awareness of our selves. Regardless of what world-view we hold, as humans every one of us exists most basically as particular individual consciousnesses, at specific points in space and time. I would add here that each of us is therefore unrepeatable in the cosmos. Each of us begins from the same self-awareness. Each of us counts absolutely; each of us is the only possible ground of truth.

This seems obvious, but when one considers the overarching, impersonal world-views of ancient, medieval and even modern thought -and especially our current brand of scientific materialism - it is still a radical insight. In most of these larger pictures, the human individual is an instance of a type - a particular specimen of the group ‘human’ and therefore defined in advance. Over and against these ‘objective’ world-views - existentialism asserts the personal and experiential nature of life as it is lived. We do not exist as universal subjects, ideal types, or grand theories. Everything that exists - even an idea or a belief, a planet or a star - exists as a particular entity in space and time. All existence is particular existence; that is Existentialism’s only fundamental truth.

So what does this mean for us? In the traditional discourse of Existentialism there is much talk about abandonment, angst and despair. This would appear to be a hopeless, selfish understanding of human existence. But this is so only if one thinks from within the vacuum left by an obsolete religion. That is, from the standpoint of “the death of God,” as the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche - considered posthumously to have also been an “existentialist” - so notoriously declared. If our lives at present are lived in mourning for a religion no longer tenable for us, then yes, our lives would be empty and tragic.

So what does this mean for us? In the traditional discourse of Existentialism there is much talk about abandonment, angst and despair. This would appear to be a hopeless, selfish understanding of human existence. But this is so only if one thinks from within the vacuum left by an obsolete religion. That is, from the standpoint of “the death of God,” as the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche - considered posthumously to have also been an “existentialist” - so notoriously declared. If our lives at present are lived in mourning for a religion no longer tenable for us, then yes, our lives would be empty and tragic.

Abandonment as Freedom

Another 19th century philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard -- usually considered to be the first “existentialist” (though he himself did not know that term) -- spoke poetically about Abraham. In his book, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard retells the story of Abraham again and again, in awe of the faith of a man willing to sacrifice his only son, his best thing to God. Abraham is prepared to go through with the most horrendous, unthinkable act, and yet he truly believes that God will make everything right. He has unshakeable faith in the impossible. Kierkegaard calls Abraham a “knight of faith.”

Unfortunately, most of us are not “knights of faith.” We struggle with the burden of our situation; our decisions are risky because there are no guarantees. That is what faith means - conviction without proof; inward, personal knowledge. Abraham’s faith shows us the truth of faith - that it is an inward, solitary thing. From the outside Abraham would appear to be a murderer. The truth lies in the living individual. We are free to choose, free to act and our acts will have only an outward aspect for others. Free will means that we are ‘abandoned’ to our own decisions. Even if we are faithful, there are no positive guarantees.

Jean-Paul Sartre saw this abandonment as a good thing: it is the freedom rooted in our very being, in the very the nature of what we are. Consciousness is not an object - it is no thing - therefore it can never be completely determined or controlled by material circumstance. We are free always to choose, to change the future. Indeed, there would be no future possibilities if there were no being with the power exceed the mere sum of its past or surmount the obstacles that limit its present. If a higher being decides our essence in advance, and knows and controls everything that happens to us and everything we do, then there is perhaps comfort in that, but there is no freedom. And if there is no freedom, then there is no responsibility, Christian theology, in particular, is full of examples of thinkers trying to get around this paradox - if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then humans are not free, not blameworthy, and therefore reward or punishment is unjust and God is not Good. If there is freedom, then God, as that Entity is traditionally conceived, is not in control. We might feel abandoned, left to suffer our own decisions, but we are free to make of ourselves what we will.

Anguish and Responsibility

And if we are free, then we are solely responsible for the meaning we create, for the world we create. We are, as Sartre says “condemned to be free”, and we must answer for ourselves, our acts and our world, even our thoughts. Like Atlas, each of us holds the weight of whole world on our shoulders. We are entirely “without excuse”. This realization - that our meaning is our own, and only our own - is the source of our anxiety (the famous German word is angst). But it is also the condition of our potentially limitless creative powers. Nietzsche, who described his life’s work as the reevaluation of all values, tells us in his book entitled, The Gay (Joyful) Science, that his motive for opposing traditional, bourgeois Christianity was to take away the shame from humanity and replace it with the redemptive power of our own creative force. We are the beings who make meaning - intelligence is that capacity that makes the raw data of experience into ever more complex and changing forms. And these forms can destroy us or push us to higher and better things. We are capable of the greatest evil and the greatest good. So we must take hold of our freedom and responsibility, confront our anxiety in order to overcome it and become the best of what we might be.

Despair into Hope

The problem, of course, is that though we are free and boundlessly creative, we are not all-powerful. Our consciousness, which is no thing, exists in a world of things - including our own mortal bodies. Consciousness is always consciousness-of something - - it is our very mode of existence to experience, to witness and to interpret it and act upon the world. We are always within a situation that precedes and exceeds us. So our experiences, our actions, will always be limited. That is what despair means. We must act knowing that our aims may not always be accomplished. We must live knowing that we will someday die. But we must live well and do the good thing anyway.

So where is the hope? We find it in two places. First, although our own consciousness is singular, we exist in a community of others with whom we have a fundamental relationship; part of our being is “being for Others.” Traditional Existentialists often see this relationship as a mostly adversarial one - the Other’s view of me from the outside makes me into an object and challenges my freedom. But I believe we should see our fundamental relation as a kind of call - we are not only responsible for ourselves, we are responsible to each other. If we are each and every one of us absolutely valuable and absolutely free, then we all have an obligation to work toward a world in which that freedom has the fullest possible expression.

But the greatest hope is built in to what we are - in our imagination. Because we are free, responsible and creative beings, we have the capacity to move beyond the way things have been in the past, or the way are now. Against all odds and out of thin air, we can create new ideas, new structures. We can imagine something better and work toward it. Imagination is not frivolous, not a luxury - it is the key to the future and we already have it.


With or without God, Existentialism brings us back to the nature of our existence, to freedom, responsibility and hope. Each and every one of us is the only possible source of value in the world. In the very nature of what we are, we are absolutely free and absolutely responsible, even if our power is limited. But we are also bound to one another, and boundlessly creative, so there is great hope. I believe it is this hope that speaks to my students, as I hope it does also to you.

-- this is the text of a talk to Capital Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Victoria, on May 4, 2014. Dr. Belmonte graciously answered questions for 45 minutes after the service.

Existentialist philosophers – helpful notes [Wikipedia; not from Dr. Belmonte]

An existentialist reading of the Bible would demand that the reader recognize that he/she is an existing subject studying the words more as a recollection of events. This is in contrast to looking at a collection of "truths" that are outside and unrelated to the reader.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, ethics, psychology and philosophy of religion. Much of his philosophical work deals with the issues of how one lives as a "single individual", giving priority to concrete human reality over abstract thinking, and highlighting the importance of personal choice and commitment. His theological work focuses on Christian ethics, the institution of the Church, the differences between purely objective proofs of Christianity, the infinite qualitative distinction between man and God, and the individual's subjective relationship to the God-Man Jesus Christ, which came through faith. Much of his work deals with the art of Christian love. He was extremely critical of the practice of Christianity as a state religion, primarily that of the Church of Denmark.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philologist, philosopher, cultural critic, poet and composer. He wrote several critical texts on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy and science. His key ideas include the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, perspectivism, the Will to Power, the "death of God", the Übermensch and eternal recurrence. A key tenet of his philosophy is the concept of "life-affirmation," which embraces the realities of the world in which we live over the idea of a world beyond. It further champions the creative powers of the individual to strive beyond social, cultural, and moral contexts. While he was sick with brain cancer, his caretaker sister assumed the roles of curator and editor of Nietzsche's manuscripts. Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche was married to a prominent German nationalist and anti-Semite, and she reworked Nietzsche's unpublished writings to fit her own ideology, often in ways contrary to Nietzsche's stated opinions, which were strongly and explicitly opposed to antisemitism and nationalism. Through the sister’s editions, Nietzsche's name became associated with German militarism and Nazism, although later 20th-century scholars have counteracted this conception of his ideas.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a German philosopher known for his existential and phenomenological explorations of the "question of Being". He wrote extensively on Nietzsche. Heidegger maintained that our way of questioning defines our nature. Heidegger claimed that Western philosophy since Plato has misunderstood what it means for something "to be", tending to approach this question in terms of a being, rather than asking about Being itself.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist. Key figure in the philosophy of existentialism and phenomenology, and Marxism. His work has also influenced sociology, critical theory, post-colonial theory, and literary studies, and continues to influence these disciplines. Sartre has also been noted for his open relationship with the feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature but refused it.

1 Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is Humanism,” in Kaufmann, “Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, New York: Plume, 2004, p. 369.

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