Thursday, July 26, 2012

Beliefs of a Nonbeliever

In my “Why This Blog Exists” post, I listed many of the problems that I have with religion and explained my reasoning for being outspoken against it. One response to that was: “Well, what do you believe in then?” It’s a good question, and I’d like to think that I can provide a pretty good answer.

Atheism, on the whole, seems to have a negative stigma attached to it in this country. The terms used to identify one’s religion (Christian, Protestant, Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.) come with some underlying meaning about what that person believes in--mainly how many gods exist, what type of behavior they think is good, and what happens after death. By calling myself an atheist, on the other hand, I’m only answering the first question: I believe there are zero gods. Without any further definition, the connotation associated with “atheist” becomes, for some people, something along the lines of “godless heathen with no sense of morals who is living a life of debauchery and undermining society and also enjoys eating babies.”

First, let me set the record straight: I don’t eat babies. I bet they’re delicious when slathered in barbecue sauce, but I’ve decided to abstain from cannibalism. If that makes me a weirdo, then so be it.

Second, it’s clear that the word “atheist” on its own is not enough to describe a person’s belief system. There are even some nonbelievers who refuse to identify as atheists because it only describes one thing that they don’t believe in: gods. After all, no one identifies themselves by their lack of belief in Santa or leprechauns or bipartisan cooperation--we all know these are myths.

So what other terms do I use to describe my beliefs? For starters, there’s the namesake of this blog: skeptic. Skepticism is essentially the opposite of faith--it stands for not believing in anything without good cause. This stance practically prohibits believing in any deities as the evidence for a god doesn’t stand up to critical thinking. I don’t think that I’m alone among skeptics when I say that I’d be willing to believe in God if He were to provide some compelling evidence of His existence. However, this evidence would have to pass a ton of scrutiny. Logic dictates that all religions are purely man-made, so it would require some really compelling evidence in order to trump all of that logic. Secondhand stories of miracles and other “religious experiences” are not compelling evidence. This is not to say that they are not compelling to the people that have them; it’s just that there’s always a more plausible explanation than “divine intervention” to those who did not have the experience.

For example, a friend of mine told me that one of the reasons she remains a Christian is because she has talked multiple people out of committing suicide and she believes that God gave her the inspiration to do so. I don’t doubt that her experiences were quite powerful. However, it’s still reasonable to question the role of the “hand of God” in these experiences. Were it not for God, would my friend have simply told these suicidal people that she couldn’t help them? I don’t think it’s too likely that she would say, “Look, I know you’re depressed, but I’ve got nothing for you. I could probably give you some words of comfort and motivation for living if I had some supernatural assistance, but, alas, I do not. Tough luck.” Unless she were a complete jerk, I’m pretty sure she’d say some nice things instead. She is a nice person, after all. Is it not a standard reaction for nice people to say nice things when confronted by a suicidal friend? After all, secular people are perfectly capable of providing comfort, and many psychologists (some of whom specialize in suicide prevention) are non-theistic. Further, if you ask God for help and things go well, the natural inclination is to assume that God did, indeed, provide assistance. In addition to confirmation bias (the tendency to overvalue a successful trial), there’s also the placebo effect (when one thinks that they received a beneficial boost even when they did not). So anytime the statement “I couldn’t have done it without God” is made, it should be viewed with a skeptical eye.

While religion is a topic that obviously deserves a heavy dose of skepticism (regardless of what you believe--even if you have strong faith in your god, how do you know it’s the right god?), skeptics apply critical thinking to all aspects of life. I’ll admit that I probably accept much of the contents of Wikipedia a little too easily; however, if I read something that gets the BS meter tingling, I’ll look into it further (and really, Wikipedia is pretty reliable these days due to the level of citations and how invested many people are in maintaining the truth there). If I wake up one morning in November and read somewhere that Hulk Hogan was elected President, I’m eventually going to get around to figuring out that didn’t actually happen...reluctantly. The point is that matters of importance deserve more than blind acceptance of whatever you’re initially told. The evidence, knowledge, and logic all need to add up to believe in something. It’s no coincidence that we so often look to science for answers, for the scientific method requires the use of repeatable, verifiable experiments in an attempt to be completely objective and free of bias.

Skepticism is really just a way of thinking, which doesn’t shed much light on what I believe. “Freethinker” doesn’t say a whole lot more than “skeptic.” It simply means that thoughts and opinions should not be constrained by any kind of dogma (particularly religious). Really, this is just a less controversial way of proclaiming atheism in most cases since “freethinker” hasn’t yet accumulated all the negative baggage of “atheist”.

The most descriptive word to describe what I do believe in is “humanist.” Simply put, humanism is the philosophy that people can be good without a god, although there a number of other beliefs attached to the term. The Humanist Manifesto does a pretty good job of giving a concise yet complete explanation of what humanism stands for, so I’d recommend taking a brief look at that if you’re unfamiliar with humanism. It’s essentially the positive view of atheism.

At the risk of sounding sappy and idealistic, here’s my take on humanism (and life in general): I believe in making the world a better place. I believe in advancing society not only through innovation, but also by gaining more knowledge and exhibiting more empathy. I believe in fair treatment for all. I believe in judging people based on merit. I believe in truth and figuring out what the hell that really is. I believe in operating based on logic. I believe in the Golden Rule. I believe in enjoying life and making the most of it while we’re here. I believe in making life better for everyone.

Of course, it’s not possible to satisfy everything listed above all the time. For example, writing this blog often breaks the Golden Rule and goes against exhibiting empathy as I’m offending some people (including many that I care about strongly). However, I’ve decided to “come out” and write it anyway as I think religion does more harm than good on a global scale and we’d be better off without it, which aligns with my desires to make the world a better place, advance society, discover the truth, and live by logic and reason. Everything is a balancing act.

Finding the proper balance requires some critical thinking and discussion, but luckily I think there’s a lot of common ground to be found between most people regardless of religious affiliations. I’d like to think that, at the very least, everyone wants the world to be a “better” place. People just have differing ideas about what makes life better and how to go about it. The optimistic side of me would like to think that most religious people are down with the majority of the ideals I listed. I know for a fact that many of them are, which is awesome. The vast majority of my friends and family fall into the “moderate” or “liberal” categories of Christianity (which doesn’t necessarily make them moderate or liberal politically, it just means that they’re not religious fundamentalists), and we actually agree on most issues. Many of them are just as mad as I am that religion is getting in the way of having meaningful discussions and making real progress. They realize that society today is incompatible with religious views from 2000 years ago as none of them engage in ritual far as I know. By and large, they even support the separation of church and state.

I wish that more people in this country were like that so that the argument could simply be “good without God” vs. “good with God.” Unfortunately, some people don’t really care about the “good” part of that statement and focus solely on the “God” part. Let’s pretend you’re a conservative Christian. In the name of religion, it’s OK to deny women birth control under health insurance plans because it goes against Catholicism (even though the majority of Catholic women use birth control anyway). It’s OK to strip Planned Parenthood of their funding because they sometimes perform abortions (even though the majority of their work goes toward preventing unwanted pregnancies and preventing STDs). It’s OK to remove useful sex education from schools and teach abstinence-only until marriage instead because God said fornication was bad (even though people more often got married at 13 rather than 30 when sex outside of marriage was originally decried, and teenagers are still having sex anyway...they’re just not doing it safely). It’s OK to criminalize pot because punishing the “sins” of our neighbors has become a noble and accepted way of life (even though it’s not even remotely possible to make a rational argument in favor of outlawing marijuana in the face of facts and reason--a topic which will get its own post at some point where I’ll sift through the massive amounts of data regarding pot). It’s OK to make laws against gay marriage because God said it was bad in the same book where he said trimming beards is bad (even though allowing gay marriage would harm no one and outlawing it does nothing but bring grief to the homosexual community).

This is why religion frustrates the hell out of me. Even if we all want to make the world a better place, religious dogma is too often too inflexible to allow us to even have a discussion about how to do that. I’m not a woman, I’ve never been to Planned Parenthood, I didn’t have sex in high school, I don’t smoke pot, and I’m not gay. I’m an unbiased observer on all those issues, so why do I come down on the opposite side of conservative Christianity on all of them? Because my stances are based on logic and what is best for society. Conservative Christian stances are based on attempting to divine the desires of an omniscient deity from a 2000 year old book (which, of course, involves picking and choosing which rules to follow).

Ultimately, this is the main advantage that humanism has over religiosity--humanists are free to pursue a greater good without the draconic constraints imposed by religion. Humanism’s catchphrase is “good without god,” which is a good start, but I feel like it’s still lacking something. You know, something that succinctly conveys “the probability of any religion being correct is not even statistically significant so please stop pretending that any of it is true because it’s needlessly fucking up society.” Then again, the term “atheist” sort of carries that connotation with it already, so maybe that can be the atheist catchphrase while humanism sticks with the less confrontational “good without god.”

So, yes, I am an atheist, and I proudly identify as such. But, along with many other atheists, I also identify as a humanist, and I strongly believe in what are mostly universal ideals. Not believing in God does not mean that we’re immoral. In fact, I would argue that many humanists are more moral than religious people as we’re not constrained by the dogma of religion that can inspire bigotry and close-minded thinking. Not only is it entirely possible to be good without a god--it’s actually easier.


  1. Kyle, this is by a considerable margin your best post yet.

    I would like to add to your discussion about the supposed horrible things atheists would do if freed from the moral constraint of religion. 1) We do not do these things. For some reason, in many religious minds, the hypothetical about what atheists WOULD or SHOULD do when freed of the constraints of faith outweighs the FACT that we do not behave in any way worse than believers. Quite to the contrary. 2) Might we say that expressing a view of what atheists must be doing without religion actually says more about the religionist's view than the atheist's. Aren't they really saying that THEY would do such things if freed from the chains of their belief system?

    Much of what you describe here is known as the "argument from personal experience." As you note, it remains one of the least compelling arguments in favor of irrational faiths.

    "Freethinker" hasn't taken on the negative connotations of "atheist" because it is vague enough that even believers in ancient books of myths can talk themselves into claiming that mantle.

    Humanism is indeed a strong way to express that in which we believe rather than what we don't.

    I'd offer that the Platinum Rule is a better guideline than the Golden Rule. Your criticisms of organized faith violate either, but hey, fuck 'em.

    Everyone who is good, is good without god.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andy. Unfortunately, neither the Golden nor Platinum rule is perfect, but they give good guidelines, and both require some rationale for breaking them. Another friend of mine made the argument that since I'm a fan of truth and knowledge, even at the expense of my initial point of view, I didn't really break the Golden Rule. I definitely broke the Platinum Rule in some cases, but it's impossible to please everybody all the time.

      I really liked the last line of your comment. I've never heard it phrased that succinctly before, but it's pretty obvious that there are both good and bad people, completely independent of religion.

  2. Humanist. I like it. A term that I was unfamiliar with before reading this post, but that after some research seems to be a great descriptor for myself.

    In all of the discussions we've had on this topic, I've never heard you mention that word. But I know I've tried to explain to you why I was reluctant to call myself an atheist. And I could never manage to say it as eloquently as you have here. I applaud you, and am so happy to have read this. You've given me a peace of mind I had been searching for for quite some time.

    In closing, a quote about religion that I absolutely love and which has resonated with me from the day I first heard it: "Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble." - Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    That is how I seek to live my life.

    1. Glad I could introduce you to humanism! It's a good way to say "I'm not religious, but I'm still a good person." It also provides a good landing spot for people who were brought up as Christians, realized that religion is ridiculous, and still want to hold on to the idea of being a good person.