So I’m sitting here right now, listening to the latest episode of No Religion Required (episode 024 – We Are Joined By Atheism 101 Podcast). Slightly before the 1:28:00 point (where I paused to write this), Miss Ashley brings up the question of what atheists believe.
I paused there because I think it’s a question that a larger number of public atheists need to answer, myself included. We spend so much time knocking down people’s religious beliefs, but comparatively little time offering up our own world views for consideration. I wanted to take a shot at answering this question before I hear everybody’s response on the podcast.
Let me start by getting the obvious disclaimer out of the way: I’m just one guy. I don’t represent all atheists everywhere. There is no single guiding document – no “bible” – that tells us all what to believe.
A lot of atheists – myself included again – say that we believe in science. Scientific evidence found by way of the scientific method. That’s true to some extent. I have looked at animals and seen morphological similarities that I think are best explained by evolution. I have looked at (photos of) rocks and seen different layers of sedimentation, with different animal bones in them. I have looked at the sky and seen the stars and planets (N.B.: The word planet comes from the ancient Greek ‘πλανήτης’, meaning ‘wanderer’ or ‘wandering star’), and have noted the planets’ movements which can most easily be explained in a heliocentric solar system. To the extent that I have been able to personally verify it, science has shown itself to be reliable. This is why I say that I have faith in science. I believe in Lemaître’s primordial atom theory (more commonly called the Big Bang, but I think ‘primordial atom’ sounds more poetic) because that is the most commonly accepted theory among scientists regarding the initial formation of the universe.
More to the point of what Miss Ashley was trying to ask, what do I believe that affects my life and how I live it? Beliefs about the origin of the universe are one thing, beliefs about how we ought to live are different. Atheism alone has nothing to say in this regard: an atheist can be a nihilist, a Nietzschean, or many other things. I was raised as both a humanist and a secular humanist; I list those separately because, though they both use the word ‘humanism’, they are not entirely the same thing. A humanist, in the broadest sense, is one who believes that we have to be as good as we can in this life. As an atheist, I don’t believe in reincarnation or any other kind of afterlife, so naturally I fit this definition of humanism. A more specific concept of humanism includes the betterment of the self through education, and the betterment of others through the seeking of social and economic justice. I save my money not for the sake of having money, but for the sake of using that money in ways that will benefit myself and others. Some of that money pays for my continuing education, some is given to organizations that I think do good in the world, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Secular humanism, I would define as the belief that keeping religion out of politics will benefit us all – that we as a society need to base our decisions not on dogma or superstition but on reason and ethics.
I guess I’ve run out of things to say, so I’m going to end this post. Stay happy, stay free, and don’t forget that you don’t need to believe in God.