Many times I’ve heard these words from a Christian who thinks disbelief in his or her theology means no beliefs at all! The obverse of that well-intended coaxing is more in the form of an accusation: “You don’t believe in anything!”
Sometimes these expressions arise from genuine inquiry—a Christian honestly wanting to know how a non-theist thinks. Other times they are meant as indictment, denigration, or denunciation. Whatever the motivation, they are based on the curious notions many of the faithful have about atheism or, curiously, about religion itself.
Of course, atheists as a group believe in a number of things, for one cannot live without doing so. I can only speak for myself, a run-of-the-mill atheist. I believe in something, actually a number of somethings, though none rely on the supernatural. But before saying more about that, I should point out that when statements like the foregoing are made, the “something” the speaker means is virtually always a supernatural something. Christian churches rear their youth and somehow even convince grownups that a belief in the supernatural is essential to a satisfying, productive, ethical, and happy life. How many times is “a man of faith” or “a woman of faith” used as a badge of trustworthiness and good intent, as if people with religious faith are kinder, more ethical, and more fulfilled than those of no religious faith?
That’s rubbish, of course. It’s disinformation widely propagated by religious leaders and their flocks, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes due to blatant lying. Ever heard the reasons interviewed voters cite for ruling out atheists for public office? (Atheists are near or at the bottom of lists of least trusted groups.) It isn’t surprising that evidence to the contrary is disregarded, for Christian ethics in practice value defending the faith more than honesty.
The very core of religious faith—a core without which religion would not exist—involves pinning one’s philosophy of life on implausible events with no evidence and, going further, even holding on to that faith against evidence. These are acts of intelligent human beings who would find such behavior bizarre, even psychotic in more rational areas of life.
In fact, many of these same persons have sincerely-held commitments that conflict with their religious faith, though they often don’t feel safe being open about them. (Think Catholics and birth control; Baptists and alcohol; priests and child abuse; Muslims and sex; a surprising number of Christian leaders and sex.) There are uncountable instances of such veneer religion with the predictable guilt and denial.
More to my point, however, are the multitudes of religious people who would live according to their humane commitments, their better angels, even if there were no religion to base them on. That is, they are kind or honest not because of the demands of their religion, but because they are just good, well-meaning people. Their reason for being kind, helpful, fair, or honest is not because of a mystical god who threatens them with everlasting incineration, but because they want to be good human beings. Such persons hold humanistic intents and are capable of fidelity to them quite well without feigning a foundation in religion.
What are those beliefs about behavior based on human reason? They include ethical treatment of others in business and personal affairs; live-and-let-live tolerance of those who have other persuasions; kindness toward others, particularly those of less power or money; fundamental respect of other people; integrity in honoring promises; honesty in representing others’ points of view, especially views of those with whom they disagree. And the list goes on. It requires no Bible, no Koran, and no army of priests (by any name) and missionaries. Giving intentional thought to honing these beliefs can instill in them even more integrity and focus lives on these virtues. These are humanist ethics.
Biblical beliefs have nothing better to recommend and, in fact, support some very inhumane behaviors. That’s why I view morality as found in the Bible as such a mixed bag. First, any really good moral rules found there are also found in other sources, many of which predate Biblical writings. Second, Bible-based morality is largely (a) sullied by threats and (b) genitally focused (consider the types of things normally thought of when the topic of “immorality” is raised) with detrimental effects on healthy sexuality. Third, grave injustices are supported or given a wink-and-a-nod acceptance, such as slavery, suppression of women, and social ostracism of homosexuals.
These considerations are what motivated renowned theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg to observe, “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
I began this post with the inquiry about what atheists believe. Then my remarks went directly into ethics and even internal integrity in viewing and forming conclusions about the universe. The reason for that narrowing of the topic is that beliefs necessary for and promoted by religions add a great deal of dogma baggage to a human-focused code. That baggage not only includes beliefs that have nothing to do with how we treat each other, but shift the proportionality toward arcane religious requirements, diluting what in part might have been useful ethics. Even the vaunted Ten Commandments (first set) contain fewer directives about humans ethically dealing with each other than about satisfaction of a jealous, vindictive god. If you add the other hundreds of Hebrew rules, the disproportion is even greater.
What do atheists believe? They believe—absent evidence to the contrary—that we are all we have and our best, nay, our only light in the darkness is ourselves. Humanist ethics make sense to all persons not infected by religion, for believers seem determined to look to phantasms for instruction. I can‘t speak for other atheists, but for me religious beliefs add nothing unique to that darkness and, in fact, make it worse. That is what this atheist believes.
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