Saturday, January 26, 2008

Is there anything good about atheism?

Atheism is so negative. You just trash other people's beliefs and don't have anything to offer instead."

This sort of criticism is often levelled at atheists. And it is true. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in deities. It does not tell you how to live your life or treat other people.

reposted from: via Stumbleupon
Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.

Of course, the same is also true of theism. Just having a belief in a god gives you no direction to take in life. Theists try to live their lives according to the religion that they follow. Simple belief is just as lacking as simple disbelief.

It is where your belief, or lack thereof, leads you that is important. Not just the fact that you believe or disbelieve.

So, where does atheism lead you? To an emotional dead-end? To bleak hopelessness? To despair and resentment?
No. Quite the opposite, in fact.

People who do not accept the teachings of religion need something else to help them deal with life. Humanism, in one form or another, is a common route (it varies from person to person, as there is no strict definition). There are plenty of Humanist websites that can give you a good idea of the basic principles of Humanism (Fredrik Bendz has a good list of Humanist sites, and the Infidels Library has an extensive collection of humanist texts).

Apart from Humanism, what else does an atheist lifestyle offer? If you are a theist you may well find that many of the following apply to yourself as well. Fair enough - it just shows that atheists aren't so alien after all.

It encourages an inquisitive mind

You've lost your religion, you reject the ideas about creation, biology, cosmology or whatever your religion taught. So, naturally you want to find out what is really going on. As you start to learn about the scientific views on certain subjects you cannot help but want to learn more and more. Also, atheists are often challenged to support or explain a particular theory, and so you want to learn about it if only for a quiet life. Personally, the more I learn about evolution and astronomy, the more I want to learn.

The freedom to think for yourself

Religions often discourage people from thinking about certain issues, or thinking about them outside the context of that particular religion. As an atheist, you often feel a remarkable sense of freedom when you realise that you can think about previously taboo subjects (such as abortion, assisted suicide, birth control etc.) without referring to scripture or a priest for guidance. You are free to decide for yourself. You may even reach the same conclusions -, but you got there through logic and reason, not just unquestioning acceptance of whatever your church dictated.

This is called "freethought" and can lead you down avenues of thought that were previously closed to you. You do not have to follow the teachings of your church, religion or tradition - you can research the subject and decide for yourself. No more must you put up with answers like "God moves in a mysterious way", "Man was not meant to understand such things" or "Because it says so in the Bible, therefore it is true".

No unnecessary guilt

Atheists do feel guilt about things they consider to be morally wrong. However, they do not feel guilt about many of the things theists might. The Catholic Church, for example, seems to expect you to feel guilty about everything from picking your nose to looking at any part of a member of the opposite sex except for their eyes. You should determine your own morality, not let someone else impose theirs on you.

It is better to decide for yourself what is Right and Wrong - what can benefit or harm yourself and others - than to simply accept the teachings of an arbitrary authority. When asked why a certain act is considered immoral, many theists will reply "Because that is what my religion teaches, and what I have been raised to believe". In many instances a moral code based on thought and reason will overlap with a purely religious moral code, but there will be many issues on which the two will either strongly agree or disagree for wildly different reasons.

Intellectual honesty

"Pah! Intellectual snobbery, more like! You think you're so clever, denying God and being a smart-arse."
This is tricky to define without sounding arrogant, so bear with me. I do not mean that theists are intellectually dishonest. I mean that atheists admit if they do not know or understand something, and they are quite likely to accept the views of mainstream science (although not unquestioningly). We do our best to recognise if an idea is irrational - if it is, then we can either discard it or investigate further. Faith, on the other hand, often requires the belief of an irrational idea.
[ It has been pointed out to me that I should say "most atheists" here, as there are plenty of atheists out there who can be stupid and irrational. Present company excepted, of course. =) ]

If I do not know something about the universe I say so, and refer to the current theories of the experts in that field. I'm not a microbiologist, but I trust the experts in microbiology to know what they're talking about. They might not be exactly right (scientists rarely are), but they have come to their conclusions based on the weight of scientific evidence, not personal belief or religious dogma.

If I believe something to be true, it is because of the weight of evidence in it's favour, not because of superstition, wishful thinking or the assertions of religious leaders. ( If a church changes it's views on a subject, followers are expected to simply cease believing the old version and start believing the new - X was true yesterday, but now Y is true and X is false. )

Atheists need to be honest with themselves about why they hold their beliefs. Otherwise they are just god-denying smart-arses.

A sense of wonder

Many theists profess to having a deep sense of awe and wonder whenever they see something special in God's Creation. Leaves in autumn, rainbows, flowers, babies, morning dew on a cobweb, sunsets etc. "How clever and loving God is. What a beautiful world He has created for me to experience." they might think to themselves.

I feel a similar sense of wonder when I see these things. Not because I think about a deity creating them for me to marvel at, but because I understand (to a certain extent) the processes that created them. Plate tectonics, evolution, refraction and reflection of light, cell growth. To some people it's boring old science. To me it's amazing. I feel awe at the natural world and how it all works. I think it belittles it to just say "God did it.". That's not good enough. I want to know how it all works, how cells grow, how stars form, how photons refract and what antimatter is.

Finding out about one thing makes me want to know more and more. Finding out the real answers is much more satisfying than attributing it all to one of the thousands of deities.

( I've tried to express some of the wonder I feel on my Godless Universe page. )

Deeper understanding of atheism and theism

I don't want to suggest that atheists understand religion better than all believers, although I suspect that atheists understand it better than many (after all, most atheists started out as believers). This sounds odd, and indeed rather arrogant (again!).

However, as an atheist you are often challenged to justify yourself and your beliefs. When a Christian meets a Hindu, they just sort of accept each other for what they are. Most Christians have a rough idea of what Hindus believe, and vice versa (one might think that the other is worshipping a false god, but at least they're on the right path). Unfortunately, many theists have a poor idea of what atheists are, and often find it necessary to challenge them, pity them, pray for them or even run them out of town.

This is what drives atheists to try to understand why theists believe, what theists believe, and why they themselves do not believe. Many atheists actually have a better knowledge of the Bible than a lot of Christians (indeed, it is often this knowledge that drives them away from Christianity). Many people who describe themselves as Christian have never really thought about it very deeply. They just think "Yes, God and Jesus are watching over me, and when I die I'll probably go to Heaven. What's on the television?". People rarely challenge them about their beliefs (and as long as they don't try to impose those beliefs on others, there is no need to challenge them).

Atheists, on the other hand, seem to be evangelist-magnets. This forces them to think a little more deeply about their lack of belief and also learn about the beliefs of others. (I was having an IRC chat with some Christians recently, and I mentioned the beliefs of Hindus and Muslims. Several people said things like "How do you know so much about this stuff." Well, I don't really, it's just that they knew so relatively little about it.)

It sounds a bit paradoxical, but losing your religion often gives you a deeper understanding of that religion - you get a much better view of it from the outside.

Hope for the future

As an atheist, I believe that this is the only shot we get at life. We have to make the most of it while we can; for ourselves and those who follow us. Our scientific understanding of the universe increases daily, despite the historical and current attempts of organised religion to keep us in the Dark Ages. As knowledge increases, there is less and less room for superstition - the God Of The Gaps is running out of space.

I believe we have the potential to make the world a better place - free from superstition, fear of the unknown, irrational persecution and harmful dogma. Do we want our children and grand-children to grow up in a world governed by ancient commandments that must be obeyed simply because a priest says so? We must teach them why it is wrong to harm others, not just say "You shouldn't do that - Baby Jesus can see you.". A child should be able to truly understand the reason why an particular action is wrong, not just accept that it is wrong because somebody (parent, priest or god) declares it to be so.

It's no good expecting God to sort out our problems. It's entirely up to us. I do not think that religion will ever die out entirely, but the world will be a better place without it.

Conversely, a strong religious belief can actually discourage hope for the future - in this physical form, anyway. There are many people who believe that we are living in the End Times. Biblical prophecy, such as that in Revelations, is about to be fulfilled. Jesus is going to come back, fight with Satan, and rule with the righteous for a thousand years. All this is going to happen within our lifetimes. Or at least, Real Soon Now. This might seem fairly harmless, until you realise that these beliefs also drive theists to enter government and gain positions of power, in order to help prepare the way for the Second Coming. If you believe that the world is about to end, why bother following long-term policies, when it is more important to turn as many people to Christ as possible? Why bother helping the needy in distant countries when there are still children over here who don`t have Bibles? This sort of mentality not only expects Armageddon soon, but actually wants to hasten its arrival to purify the planet. (It seems that President Ronald Reagan held these sorts of beliefs. How scary is that?) But, I digress.


Atheists are entirely responsible for their own actions and lives. I accept the consequences of my actions. I don't expect a god to get me out of trouble, nor do I blame a Devil for getting me into trouble. I neither expect a reward in an afterlife nor fear a punishment.

Atheists do things because they feel them to be right, not because they hope to get into Heaven, or fear going to Hell, or because they think they're doing God's will. They do whatever they do knowing that they are responsible to their own conscience, their family, friends and society (of course, the same also applies to many theists).

To blame a god, demon or evil spirit is to give up your personal responsibility. "The Devil made me do it" is not a good excuse (unless you're mentally ill).

And finally...

The knowledge that I'm right and you're wrong.

[ sorry, couldn't resist that 8-) ]

© Adrian Barnett 1998
Last updated : 16th May 1998

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