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What is absurdism?

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Absurdism refers to a philosophy derived from existentialism but taken to an extreme. Absurdism is often expressed in atheist literature, even if accidentally. In short, absurdism claims that the universe is not inherently rational, nor does it have any particular purpose. As a result, when man tries to make sense of reality, he only finds confusion and conflict.

Absurdism suggests that existence is not to be understood in any objective or meaningful way. All we can do is apply a subjective experience, one perhaps shared by others. But we cannot, according to the absurdist, truly make sense of a universe that is inherently senseless and random.

Absurdism has inspired a whole genre of theatrical literature aptly called theater of the absurd. Playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco crafted plays in which there is no plot, no forward-moving action, and an abundance of non sequiturs and circular, repetitive dialogue. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, for example, two tramps spend the whole play waiting for someone (or something) without knowing why they’re waiting or if he (or it) will ever come. The absurdist theme communicates the fact that there is no real purpose for the tramps’ existence.

Absurdism is a sub-set of the philosophy of existentialism. Existentialism suggests that human experience cannot be entirely understood by pure reason but requires certain “leaps” of faith. This is not exactly the same thing as absurdism; existentialists don’t all deny order or meaning in the universe. Existentialism itself only suggests that the finer details of such things are beyond human comprehension. The absurdist takes this further by suggesting we struggle to discern order and meaning because the universe is neither ordered nor meaningful.

Obviously, absurdism has close ties to an atheistic worldview. The concept of an entirely purposeless reality is incompatible with any notion of God or gods. Interestingly, while not all atheists are professing absurdists, true atheism implies absurdism. In other words, one can either believe in reason or in atheism, but not both. Philosophers have pointed out that, if there is no design or purpose in the universe, then human thoughts are nothing but particle interactions driven by chance. By definition, that would mean even our own thoughts and minds are unreliable and devoid of meaning. “Morality” would be just another subjective, pointless, purposeless side effect of blind physics. In other words, if atheism is true, then there is no such thing as “reason”—and the denial of reason is a simplified explanation of absurdism.

A major component in philosophical absurdism is the idea of angst and conflict. Writers like Sartre and Camus often explored feelings of hopelessness, frustration, and despair when faced with the concept of a purposeless, heartless, meaningless existence. Non-absurdist existentialists, such as Kierkegaard, were able to temper their frustrations and uncertainties by accepting the idea that purpose and meaning were merely beyond human comprehension, rather than fictional.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022