February 03, 2015

Dear Christians: What do atheists believe?

Dear Christians is a recurring column that deals with my intersection between belief and nonbelief. It looks at my personal views of belief and deals with the myths of nonbelief that I was taught growing up. All opinions are, of course, my own. To see more Dear Christians columns, click here.

One of the questions that kept me in belief was quite simple: What do atheists believe?

From the pulpit, I received a convoluted mess. They were immoral, because morals come from God. Therefore, they believed all actions were allowed. They worshipped human beings--thus the name "humanism." They were working for Satan and worshipping him, even if they didn't know, and their aim was very nearly the same--to put mankind above the throne of God.

The process of leaving my faith was already a slow refinement of my beliefs. As I refined them, questioned them, found new information about them, I embraced what I truly believed and what I did not. This is what caused the largest and most irreparable schism between myself and my former faith: I simply could not reconcile my belief system with what I had been taught to believe over the decades.

So what do atheists believe?

This should go without saying, as this is my personal blog, but I am not a mouthpiece for atheism or other atheists. The best way to understand what atheists believe is to talk to them like individuals. But perhaps sharing my own belief structure can help dispel some of the mystery and give you some ground to stand on when talking to other atheists.

On that note, let's dig in and take a look.

What do atheists believe...

...about the meaning of life.

As a Christian, I often encountered the idea that there was no meaning to life without God, and I have to say, that's not wholly incorrect in my opinion.

There is no external meaning to life. There is no overarching plan for it. We are here; we can make the most of it.

Instead, I draw meaning from the bonds of species brotherhood--we are all one species, spread across a little piece of space debris in a meaningless corner of a meaningless galaxy. But we are in it together.

Thus for me meaning, instead of being imposed on my life, has grown from the consideration of those around me.  For me, this is a richer and more satisfying meaning.

...about morality.

"Oh, you're only an atheist because you want to do whatever you want with no rules."

This is a frequently expressed thought that is simply patently untrue.

It IS true that I personally take issue with several aspects of the moral code that I was raised with. For instance, I don't see the point of never drinking. Responsible indulgence doesn't seem sinful to me, and it never has. I don't see the point of not swearing. I can see the point of teaching the differences in social environments, but sinful? No. Sex before marriage and making women into sexual gatekeepers--that seems disturbing to me. I found it deeply damaging.

That I part ways on some subjects of morality doesn't mean that I reject the entire concept out of hand.

For instance, I still know that it is wrong to kill or cheat or steal or harm another human. Why? Because I respect the rights of my fellow humans, as I expect my own rights to be respected. This is the social contract that we are signed onto as social animals.

There also aren't exceptions to my morality. There's no "it's okay to kill those people over there because they believe differently than we do," for instance.

...about science.

This is one of those topics that consistently comes up: "You worship science."

I really don't.

Science gives me a framework for approaching the world that makes sense to me. You'll see me reading books on scientific matters (not currently--I'm still working on The Portable Atheist, The Second Sex, and Building Moral Intelligence, but I've got Undeniable, A Briefer History of Time, The Pluto Files, Brilliant Blunders, The Serpent's Promise, and Scientists Confront Creationism waiting on my "To Read" shelf...), and I follow a variety of blogs on the subject. I Fucking Love Science and Grammarly are probably my two most shared sites on Facebook.

But it's not that I worship it. I don't owe it anything. It just fascinates me.

...about evolution.

"Well, if we came from monkeys, why are monkeys still here? And what's special about humans if we all descended from the same sludge?"

That's the undertone I hear in most anti-evolution arguments.

There are plenty of religious people who have found a way to comfortably reconcile evolution and faith. For the life of me, I don't know how. I don't see how that can fit in theologically with the concept of a world that needed redeeming.

But it doesn't matter what I think: it's their beliefs, and if they are comfortable with them, that is amazing.

But what does it mean to me? Well, I see a kinship that I didn't see before. I share DNA with the bird tweeting outside of my window right now, with the tigers at my local zoo, with gorillas and elephants overseas, with the carrots that I'll be cooking for dinner tonight--it's a distinctly different perspective.

I am not the master of this world. I am but one part of it.

And that, my friends, is the nature of evolution, in my opinion. It takes all of us, every single being on the planet, and organizes us into one great big beautiful awesome tree of life.

We are one.

…about creation.

“Something can’t come from nothing.”

This is an argument that I heard countless times—and made myself as well.

It’s also one that I no longer agree with. There are a few arguments from the creationist viewpoint that I once accepted and no longer do: the fine-tuning argument, the watchmaker argument, the distortion of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the entire idea that a miracle had to occur for us to be here. These are things that I now reject in the form that I am most familiar with.

It’s hard to imagine that something came from nothing, or that something has always been here. I mean, the universe has a beginning, right? The Big Bang, we call it. So how can it be eternal? Something had to have been here.

And I don’t agree or disagree. To us, the universe has always been here. The actual time that we live in—actual time, mind, not our perception of it—started in that moment, as far as we know. So despite having a beginning, the universe has always been. We are very equipped to think of time as a linear progression, but it isn’t.

The hardest part of understanding a universe with no god for me has been accepting that in many respects the universe only exists because we do and because we are able to perceive it.

It’s not that there isn’t something physical out there; there is. But if we weren’t here to observe it, what would it be?

It would be nothing. It wouldn’t exist.

I’m not taking positivism to an extreme here, it’s just the reality that for us, for our shared experience on this speck, the universe only exists because we do.

In that respect, we are in fact the ones that create it.

…about death.

This is a topic I’ve gone on at length about in the past. This entry won’t be so long, I promise.

How do you deal with death as an atheist? Quite simply, there’s no right way.

One way that I deal with it is to commit myself to living that person’s legacy. Whatever impact they had on my life, I try to truly feel it. For instance, I lost an aunt whose smile was among the many amazing things about her, and so I committed myself to smiling—truly smiling—as often as I could. Hearing the stories of how her smile changed people’s days and made their lives a little brighter, and recognizing that effect in my own life too, fortified my resolve to just…smile.

There’s also the fact that energy and matter can’t be created…and they can’t be destroyed. Why is that comforting? The people we love are still around us. They may not be with us, but they are a part of this world. It’s all the more reason to take care of it.

And of course, memories. Sometimes the most beautiful pain is just remembering those that have gone on, purposefully and forcefully.

So what happens when we die? We cease to exist. I think it was Epicurus (but I might be wrong) who first proposed this simple idea of dealing with the thought of nonexistence: Where were you before you were born?

You were nowhere. You did not exist.


This is just a tidbit of the things that I have come to believe. I mostly stuck with topics that are relevant to my atheism or that have changed because of my atheism since the time that I was a Christian.

As this is just a sampling, I may be tempted to rinse and repeat at some point, with different topics—or perhaps my views will change on these. Who knows?

That’s the beauty of freethinking.

The ability to change.

The ability to grow.

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