Are you trying to figure out if you are an existential thinker? Or are you concerned for a loved one and trying to figure out if he or she is an existentialist? Many people are existentialists and most of them probably don’t even know it. As a philosophy and worldview it encompasses a lot which makes nailing down a strict definition somewhat difficult. However I will attempt to answer these and other questions in this section of frequently asked questions regarding existentialism.
1. What is existentialism?
As usual, you can find great information on the meaning and history of this philosophy on Wikipedia. You can learn more by checking out my section of required reading which has the major works from the major philosophers of existentialism, including Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre and Kierkegaard.
To be concise, the premise of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. Imagine for a moment you want to cut some wood. You think of the tool you would need to create- a metal saw. You then gather the resources needed to bring this tool into existence. In this case, essence preceded existence. In other words, the purpose or use of my saw existed before my saw existed. My saw was created to fulfill a purpose.
Existentialists believe that existence precedes essence, so all life, all creation, the whole universe, exists in random chaos. There is no meaning, no essence and no purpose to any of it. If we stop right there, we have a philosophy called Nihilism, otherwise known as the philosophical pessimist. But existentialism is the philosophical optimist. Rather than despair and simply embrace random chaos, otherwise known to us as the absurd, we believe that each person can choose their own purpose and meaning in life.
This is a very empowering thought. There is no absolute, universal truth or meaning out there. All things are relative and subjective. Through our own experiences and choices we discover who we are and give our own meaning to our lives. This discovery and its associated purpose is called being authentic.
So existentialism is recognizing that life is absurd, so each of us must create our own meaning and live an authentic life. There is a lot more to it than that, but that is the basic premise of existentialism.
2. How do I know if I am, or a loved one is, an existentialist?
Do you or a loved one struggle to understand God as taught by Mormon theology? Or do you struggle to comprehend God as taught by any theology? Then chances are you might be an existentialist.
Don’t confuse that with atheist mind you. Some famous existential philosophers were theists. But if you wonder why God answers the prayer of a child in Utah looking for a lost toy but doesn’t answer the prayer of a mother in Nigeria who only asks that her daughter not get abducted and raped, then you might be an existentialist.
It seems in Mormon theology especially we have an unusual paradox. Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. We are commanded to be perfect just as they are. We are to do our best to become like them. But on the other hand, they are unknowable, cannot be fully comprehended or understood, and demand our faith and obedience when we are unable to grasp their actions or inaction.
“My ways are not your ways, neither are my thoughts your thoughts.” Sound familiar? I’ll relate a part of my own story to help you see how I realized I was an existentialist.
God never made sense to me. It never clicked. There were a few possibilities in my mind. Maybe God just couldn’t intervene in man’s affairs. Maybe things attributed to him were dumb luck and coincidence because he simply cannot do anything. Or maybe he can but simply chooses to not act on our behalf. That would imply coincidence in all things.
But these didn’t jive with Mormon theology. They only option that works in Mormon theology is that God can intervene in our affairs and chooses to do so selectively. I couldn’t stomach this. Why God would care about lost keys but not starving children didn’t line up with the image of a perfectly loving Heavenly Father. Which led me to internally accept the first options, that either God cannot act or chooses to never act.
Then it occurred to me that if God was not involved in our affairs, then His existence was indistinguishable from His non-existence. If He plays no role in our lives and all things are chance and random and determined by our own choices and the choices of others, then God really plays no role in the world. He might as well not exist if His only relevance is in the afterlife.
I then became and apatheist and left questions to God alone. I now know my philosophy is existentialism, and if you think at all like I do, chances are it is your philosophy too.
3. Is Existentialism compatible with Mormonism?
From a theological point of view, no. Not at all. They are really polar opposites. Mormonism teaches we are eternal beings, intelligence turned into spirit packed into a body. We had a council in heaven about coming to earth. Our purpose or meaning was known long before we existed here. Existentialism posits the opposite- that we first come into existence and then must choose our own meaning and purpose.
So if you want to be a devout, orthodox Mormon, you cannot subscribe to Existentialism. You have to accept that God is our Heavenly Father, He created all things, there was a Fall, Jesus redeemed us and the plan of salvation is real and relevant. Fail to accept those things and you wouldn’t pass a baptismal interview, let alone a temple recommend interview.
However, there are a few tenets of Existentialism that are very compatible with Mormonism. Free choice is huge for existentialists. Since we have no essence, purpose or meaning, we must find it. We find it through our own experiences and choices, hence our need for free choice and its consequences is paramount.
The Golden Rule is key to existentialist ethics, and it was central to Jesus’ teachings.
So if you are an existentialist and want a temple recommend, you will probably have to lie. This is obviously the antithesis of living authentically however. So I don’t see how you can be an existentialist and a true believing Mormon.
4. Can I be Mormon and Existentialist if they are incompatible?
YES! Being Mormon has a certain image in our minds. If I were to ask you, “what is a Mormon?” What would you say? You would probably rattle off someone who believes in Jesus, Joseph Smith, loves their family, was sealed in the temple, etc. Is that what a Mormon has to be? Or is that just what Mormon culture has created?
I would argue that anyone can be a Mormon. Being a Mormon simply means participating in the Mormon church. You don’t have to believe the Mormon religion to be active in the Mormon church. The only thing that gets you kicked out of the church is actively trying to persuade others to believe something totally contrary to church teachings. Believing something contrary won’t bring any discipline on you. Preaching it will. So keep it to yourself and you have nothing to worry about.
Want a calling? Women can serve in Cub Scouts and men can serve in Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts. Nothing religious about that. No temple recommend required (just a criminal background check). Don’t want to give 10% or feel uncomfortable giving tithing? Give what you feel comfortable with and put it under Fast Offerings or Humanitarian Aid. Uncomfortable in Sunday School? Don’t go, or attend a class about marriage and family instead of Gospel Doctrine.
You can make this work. Scientists know as a fact that humans are social creatures and that we all need and crave community in our lives. The Mormon church is a fantastic community. Few communities care for their own like Mormons. You certainly don’t have to let anyone know what you believe or don’t believe. As long as you are attending and participating, let them think what they want. You will be totally included and accepted in the community. And that is a good and important thing, especially if your spouse is a completely faithful and devout Mormon.
5. What if I don’t agree completely with Existentialism?
That’s fine, there have been many existential philosophers who disagreed with each other on plenty of points. Maybe you are a Transcendental Existentialist who believes the basic premise of existentialism but also believes in some kind of transcendent, divine existence that we can experience through intuition. Maybe you are a Pantheist who feels God is nature and the very mysterious and creative forces in the universe.
Existentialism is not an exclusive club. There are no worthiness interviews to see if you can be one of us. If you believe that the universe and life is random chaos and that each of us can choose our own way, then you are probably an existentialist. Add what you want to that and no one will care. In fact, if you do feel your heart and mind pulled toward something more, you absolutely should follow that in order to live authentically.
My purpose and meaning is not going to be your purpose and meaning. My experiences will not be yours. You have to decide for yourself who you are and what you believe and then live accordingly. Maybe Existentialism is the foundation of your worldview. That doesn’t mean you can’t pull the perfectly good things you like from Stoicism, Transcendentalism or hey, even Mormonism.
6. Does Existentialism answer any of life’s great questions?
No. We are programmed to think that we must know where we came from, why we are here and where we are going. This is simply unavoidable if you are raised Mormon.
Existentialism will at least answer one of those. Where did we come from? You came from your mom and your dad. That’s it. If you don’t remember any life prior to this one, it’s probably because there wasn’t one. Your physical features are determined by your genes and DNA which you inherited from your parents. What did you look like in the premortal life? Like you do now? Impossible, that implies predetermination, an anti-Mormon thought if ever there was one.
No, existentialists feel our existence begins when we are born. Most believe it ends when we die, but that’s not true for all of us. Existentialism offers an answer to the second question that is even better than what Mormonism gives us. Why are we here? You decide! You get to choose why you are here. You aren’t here for any reason in particular. You’re here because your parents conceived you and gave you life. If you want purpose you have to find it for yourself.
Some find meaning in service. Some find it in travel. Some find it in family. Many find it in religion. It’s up to you. Each of us decides our own meaning. As far as where you are going after this life, you are going in the ground. Or an oven if you go that route. Totally up to you.
Maybe there is life after death. I’m primarily concerned with life before death, and if there is an afterlife, I’ll become concerned with it when I get there.
7. Isn’t Existentialism very depressing?
Pretty much all of the original existential philosophers were depressing. You’ve heard of a Mormon faith crisis. Have you heard of an existential crisis? Well, from Wikipedia, “An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether this life has any meaning, purpose, or value. This issue of the meaning and purpose of existence is the topic of the philosophical school of existentialism.”
Existentialist philosophers couldn’t get out of the rut of existential crisis. The thought of death and nothingness always seemed to keep them in despair, in spite of the optimistic outlook that any human could create their own meaning. It seemed meaning-making was difficult for them because they always felt pulled toward Nihilism.
But does an existentialist have to be depressed like some of those guys were? Not at all! Existentialism is at its core a happy philosophy, an empowering philosophy. We have total freedom. This is of course a huge responsibility as well, and perhaps the weight of the responsibility of freedom was too much for some to handle.
But I think they just thought about it too much. Here’s the thing. Death is scary, sure. As existent beings, we cannot grasp the concept of not existing. It confounds us. It frightens us. But guess what? Non-existent beings have no concern for their non-existence. Does Santa Claus worry he isn’t real? Not at all. When you die, and if this life is all there is an you cease to exist, you certainly won’t be worried about your non-existent status.
As humans living now, we cannot fathom this. We think non-existence means darkness, emptiness and nothingness and that our conscience will somehow survive to observe all of this. It won’t. When you didn’t exist before birth, were you concerned about your non-existence? Likewise, after death, you won’t be worrying.
I think existentialism is very happy and optimistic. Enjoy life. Enjoy living. We don’t have to think like Camus that the only real question is whether or not to kill ourselves. We need only ask ourselves what we want. What do you want out of life? What do you want to accomplish? What is your purpose? Choose it, define it, then live it.
Yes, existentialism has that “dark side” if you will. I choose not to go there or dwell on what isn’t or won’t be. I like to dwell on what is and will be.
Existentialism is an appealing philosophy to anyone who has struggled to understand the seeming inconsistency of God in this world. If the Mormon version of God doesn’t line up with what you are observing in reality, then maybe you are an existentialist like me.