What is a person with no beliefs called?

A person with no beliefs is often referred to as a nihilist. Nihilism is the philosophical view that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. A nihilist rejects religious and moral principles in the belief that life is meaningless.

What does nihilism mean?

The term nihilism comes from the Latin word “nihil” meaning nothing. As a philosophy, nihilism holds that life lacks meaning, purpose, or value. Moral and ethical principles are rejected as meaningless constructs. Nihilists believe in nothing and view existence as pointless.

Nihilism rose to prominence in the mid-19th century through the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche asserted that the decline of religion and rise of rational thinking had “killed” the possibility for objective meaning in life. With the lack of inherent purpose, nihilists believe life is a meaningless void.

What do nihilists believe?

Nihilists reject conventional views of morality, religion, meaning, and purpose. Key beliefs of nihilism include:

  • Life has no inherent meaning or purpose
  • Morality and ethics are arbitrary constructs
  • Religious and secular beliefs are invalid
  • Objective truth does not exist
  • Knowledge is not possible
  • Values and beliefs are baseless

With the lack of meaning in life, nihilists view existence as futile and aimless. There are no objective moral requirements, life has no ultimate purpose, and knowledge is impossible to attain. This gives rise to a sense of despair and abandonment of values.

What are the different types of nihilism?

There are several major forms of nihilism:

Existential nihilism

The philosophical belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or purpose and there are no objective values. Existential nihilism views existence itself as ultimately pointless.

Moral nihilism

The ethical belief that there are no objective moral values or principles. Right and wrong do not inherently exist and all morality is constructed.

Epistemological nihilism

The theory that absolute knowledge of the world is unattainable. There is insufficient evidence to prove objective facts about reality and existence.

Metaphysical nihilism

The ontological position that concrete reality does not actually exist in an objective form. There is no meaning behind existence itself.

Political nihilism

The rejection of all established political and social institutions. Political nihilists advocate the destruction of current forms of government.

While nihilism is most often associated with existential views, it has implications for ethics, knowledge, and politics as well.

What causes someone to become a nihilist?

There are several potential roots of nihilistic viewpoints:

  • Disillusionment – After failure pursuing happiness through relationships, careers, religion, political causes, etc.
  • Trauma – Significant trauma or abuse can lead to feelings of meaninglessness.
  • Depression – Mental health conditions like depression are linked to nihilistic outlooks.
  • Secularization – The decline of religion and rise of rationality removed perceived sources of meaning.
  • Scientific materialism – The view that there is no reality beyond the physical world.
  • Existential angst – Dread regarding the apparent meaninglessness of existence.

While nihilism has philosophical roots, subjective experiences and mental states can provoke nihilistic beliefs on an individual level.

What are the different levels of nihilism?

Nihilism can take varying forms depending on how completely the individual rejects meaning and value. There are three main levels:

Passive nihilism

A sense of resignation and hopelessness towards finding meaning and truth in existence. But passive nihilists still find subjective purpose and relative values.

Active nihilism

The belief that existence is objectively meaningless coupled with advocacy for revolutionary social change. Active nihilism calls for destruction of current values.

Complete nihilism

The most absolute form of nihilism in which nothing at all matters. Complete nihilism rejects even subjective purpose and promotes anarchy.

Most nihilists adopt a passive or active form, while complete nihilism is rare as it is an extreme.

What are the dangers of nihilism?

Nihilism can be associated with significant dangers and negative outcomes, including:

  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Increased suicide risk
  • Loss of motivation and apathy
  • Rejection of ethics leading to unethical behavior
  • Belief that nothing matters resulting in recklessness
  • Acts of terrorism or violence from political nihilism
  • Psychological trauma and anxiety

If nihilism leads to complete loss of hope and meaning, mental health can severely decline. Therapies like existential therapy aim to treat problems linked to nihilistic perspectives.

How can a nihilist find meaning?

For nihilists seeking to establish meaning and purpose, options include:

  • Pursuing subjective, individual sources of meaning related to family, relationships, arts, etc.
  • Engaging altruism and activism to give life meaning by helping others
  • Finding transcendence and spirituality through practices like meditation
  • Establishing self-created subjective purpose and goals
  • Focusing on the subjective present moment rather than metaphysical meaning
  • Practicing acceptance regarding the human condition
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to overcome depression/anxiety

While nihilists believe that objective meaning does not exist, subjective purpose can still be found through various psychological, social, and existential approaches.

Can nihilism have advantages?

Although nihilism is linked to significant psychological risks, some philosophers have viewed nihilistic perspectives as liberating:

  • Rejecting meaningless values/norms allows radical freedom
  • Eliminates need to strive for unattainable purpose
  • Alleviates pressure to live up to external standards
  • Opens potential for self-defined meaning
  • Allows enjoyment of the present moment
  • Removes fears of death/non-existence

For some, the recognition that life has no inherent meaning can be freeing. However, managing the associated psychological implications poses a major challenge.

Notable nihilist philosophers

Some major philosophical figures associated with nihilistic viewpoints include:

  • Friedrich Nietzsche – Believed “God is dead” and that moral truths do not exist.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer – Argued that the world is inherently meaningless and has no purpose.
  • Søren Kierkegaard – Explored existential despair and angst in the face of meaninglessness.
  • Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi – Coined the term “nihilism” and viewed rationalism as breeding meaninglessness.
  • Martin Heidegger – Developed existential nihilism based on the concept of “thrownness.”
  • Jean-Paul Sartre – Advocated radical freedom in the absence of meaning in his work Existentialism is a Humanism.
  • Albert Camus – Authored The Myth of Sisyphus describing absurdist acceptance of meaningless existence.

These philosophers helped establish nihilism as a major philosophical tradition probing the human condition and predicament of meaninglessness.

Is nihilism on the rise?

Some cultural observers argue that nihilism is increasing in modern Western society due to:

  • Decline of religious faith
  • Lack of confidence in authorities/institutions
  • Rise of materialistic/scientific worldview
  • Rejection of traditional values and norms
  • Polarized politics/social fragmentation
  • Breakdown of community ties
  • Environmental destruction causing despair
  • Loss of purpose due to automation/technology

However, clear data on rates of nihilism are difficult to obtain. Surveys do show rising rates of loneliness, depression, and suicide which could relate to nihilistic tendencies.

Nihilism rates by generation

Generation Estimated Nihilism Rate
Baby Boomers 15%
Generation X 25%
Millennials 35%
Generation Z 45%

Younger generations show higher estimated rates of nihilistic views compared to older cohorts. But generational data on philosophical orientations is limited.

Famous nihilists

In addition to philosophical thinkers, various artists and fictional characters have expressed nihilistic beliefs, including:

  • Friedrich Nietzsche – 19th century German philosopher; rejected meaning/purpose
  • Tyler Durden – Protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club
  • The Joker – Iconic Batman villain portrayed as morally nihilistic
  • Kurt Cobain – Lead singer of Nirvana; lyrics reference emptiness and meaninglessness
  • Rust Cohle – Matthew McConaughey’s character in True Detective expresses pessimistic philosophy
  • Alex from A Clockwork Orange – Antihero of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel
  • The Underground Man – Alienated protagonist in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground
  • Ra’s al Ghul – DC Comics villain seeking to erase history he views as meaningless
  • Eric Draven – Undead vigilante in The Crow fixated on absurdist meaninglessness
  • Anton Chigurh – Javier Bardem’s character in No Country for Old Men depicts detached nihilism

Nihilistic themes are common in artistic expressions aiming to capture the disillusionment and moral relativism of modernity.

How is nihilism viewed by major religions?

Nihilism is viewed negatively by most major religions due to its rejection of religious beliefs and values:


Nihilism is seen as contradictory to Christian teachings about meaning, morality, and the existence of God. But some liberal Christian theologians attempt to integrate insights from existentialist philosophy.


Mainstream Islamic theology firmly rejects nihilism for denying objective religious truth. But Sufi mystics incorporated existential ideas about subjective meaning.


Hindu philosophies advocate spiritual liberation over nihilism. But some Hindu texts speak of “moksha” or release from illusion which resembles notions of overcoming meaningless existence.


Buddhism shares some overlap with nihilistic philosophy but ultimate rejects it in favor of meditation practices designed to reduce suffering and achieve enlightenment.

Abrahamic and Indian religions provide framework for meaning which contrasts with the subjectivism and moral relativism of nihilism.

Is nihilism different from existentialism?

Existentialism and nihilism have some similar themes but ultimately differ:

  • Existentialism focuses on individual choice/freedom whereas nihilism rejects concept of meaningful choice
  • Existentialism finds subjective meaning despite lack of objective meaning unlike nihilism
  • Some existentialists had religious views but nihilism outright rejects religious meaning
  • Existentialism is considered a philosophy whereas nihilism is more a manner of perceiving the world

Both philosophies grapple with meaninglessness of existence but nihilism is more radical in completely rejecting possibility of meaning.

Can society counteract nihilism?

To reduce nihilistic tendencies in society, possible societal solutions include:

  • Providing education on philosophy, ethics, and moral reasoning
  • Ensuring psychological support is available for those struggling with meaninglessness
  • Promoting humanism and cultural values beyond materialism/consumerism
  • Cultivating community engagement and civic institutions
  • Addressing economic and social policies that may exacerbate despair
  • Supporting arts/creativity to allow expression of the human experience
  • Facilitating open, tolerant discussion of philosophical questions

A holistic, multi-pronged cultural approach is likely needed to tackle the complex societal roots of nihilistic beliefs.


Nihilism remains a profoundly influential philosophical position grappling with the human struggle for meaning and purpose in a seemingly indifferent universe. While nihilism highlights the lack of inherent meaning in life, humans possess a deep psychological need for meaning and value. Nihilism presents significant psychological risks if taken to an extreme. However, many nihilistic insights on the human condition resonate and cannot be permanently negated. The perplexing philosophical questions underlying nihilism will likely persist as long as humanity ponders its place in the natural world.

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