Saturday, February 12, 2011

What do I believe in?

"Atheists don't believe in anything."

"Atheists believe that life has no meaning."

"Atheists have no values."

I'm an atheist. The word atheist literally means "one who does not believe in God." And that is quite accurate; I do not believe in God. But I also find the word to be unsatisfactory. I may not believe in God, but there are many things that I do believe in, and those things have a much more profound impact on my life than the mere fact that I don't believe in God, souls, or afterlife.

What do I believe?

I believe in truth. I'm not entirely certain that humans can ever reach certain truth, because our limited faculties of knowledge and perception can be, and often are, mistaken and deceived. Science is always changing, because what we know is always changing. But really, this is the strength of science-- that it changes in accordance with the known facts. You can't say that about religion. Religion claims to know truths about the universe a priori, and it refuses to alter itself.

Have you ever respected someone less because they admitted that they were wrong?

The search for truth is not for the weak of mind or the faint of heart. If you really want to find the truth, then no belief must be too sacred to challenge. If you don't challenge your beliefs, how can you know that they are true?

I believe in integrity. Atheists are often accused of arrogance. In my case, becoming an atheist was easily the most humbling thing that I have experienced. I had to come to terms with the non-existence of god, the soul, or an afterlife. I had to let go of my self-centered beliefs in my eternal nature and eventual apotheosis. And I had to admit that I was wrong. It was the hardest thing that I ever did. Why would anyone want to believe that when the people you love die, they're gone for good and you'll never see them again? Why would anyone want to believe that humanity is nothing special, that the universe does not revolve around the earth? An honest person does not believe something out of choice. An honest person follows where the facts, evidence, and logic lead. Even if it leads into the seeming abyss of atheism, my integrity demands that I follow.

I believe in individual initiative. Perhaps the most apparently depressing aspect of atheism is the fact that it implies a lack of inherent meaning to human existence. There is no God in heaven observing your actions, totting up the good and the bad like some kind of divine cosmic banker. There is no afterlife where you will be judged for your actions. And there is no prescribed meaning to your life.

This was shattering to me. I was like a child presented with a sheet of blank paper after becoming accustomed to coloring books. There was no plan for me to follow; there were no lines for me to color in. I had to make my life my own instead of painting by the numbers of religion. My life is now mine, and I create its meaning myself.

I believe in beauty. My appreciation of beautiful things has greatly increased since I gave up religion. In the ubiquitous words of Douglas Adams, "isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it?"

As a theist, I believed that the world existed only to be exploited. God had created all things for the use of humanity. Animals were not full beings. The earth's resources existed only for my use. Now, I see myself as no different from the rest of the world. I have no more "soul" than an animal does. A cat's, dog's, or dolphin's pain is no less distressing than my own. I believe that I have a responsibility to treat other living things well, because they are really not all that different from me.

I believe in love. The problem of evil in the world is vexing. Why do innocent people suffer? Because the world itself is amoral. There is no god, benevolent or otherwise. No god is going to help a starving child or a captive woman. If these people are to be relieved of their suffering, then I and people like me must do it. And I believe that I should do this, not out of any desire for eternal reward, but because I am genuinely distressed by the suffering of others. Do I need any more motive than that?

My lack of belief in gods does not mean that I don't believe in anything. On the contrary, I find that I am a better person because of my atheism. I judge not-- not because I fear the judgment of God, but because I have no reason to judge. If I can help even one person, then I am glad-- not because I desire a great reward in heaven, but because I genuinely care for the rest of humanity.

I am an atheist, but that does not define me. I am not defined by what I am not, but by what I am.

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