What Does Atheism Offer That Belief In God Can’t?

in-person_questionIt seems that atheism is puzzling to believers. Demian Farnworth recently interviewed Hemant Mehta and in the following comments asked him,

What does atheism offer that belief in God can’t?

I certainly admire the approach of asking non-believers what they think, rather than guessing. Many of us lose track of the number of times we’ve been accused of only being atheists so we can act immorally or “do what we like“.

So what is so great about atheism?

Certainly there are genuine benefits to being an atheist. They’re not just obvious things like being able to cut your hair when you want, or getting a lie in on Sundays. Plenty of writers have already listed some more important advantages. Here’s a selection that I particularly liked.

From Adam Lee:

Being an atheist means you’re free to form your own opinions, rather than having your outlook colored by a belief system that tells you what you should think.

Being an atheist means you don’t have to think of yourself as a sinful wretch who can never do anything right.

From Dave Hitt:

Atheism, by itself, frees up a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted in worship… It provides great freedom and at the same time great responsibility – while I can now do things without worrying if they’ll annoy some nasty sky-daddy, I also know that the results of my actions are my responsibility – I can’t blame it on “sin.”

The wrong kind of question

The benefits of atheism – what it offers – seem rather irrelevant. Likewise if it causes inconveniences to non-believers, that shouldn’t affect a person’s willingness to call themselves an atheist. The important thing is whether or not it is correct. Again, other people have already said some great things about the advantages of atheism.

On atheism.about.com Austin Cline says,

This is rather an odd question — shouldn’t the primary concern be with whether or not any gods really do exist? Shouldn’t the truth of this question be the focus of our attention, and not any personal advantage or disadvantage which we might get by taking one position or the other?

On asktheatheists.com, logicel asks,

Christians are atheistic towards all gods except theirs; atheists just go one god further. Why not also pose the question of what are the advantages of Christians not believing in other god(s)?

While Erik_PK’s answer I could not have put better myself.

I think this is a strange question, as it implies that religious belief is a bit like buying a new car – you look at the available accessories, compare gas mileage, and then figure out which one works best for you. Each person has their own idea of what’s important to them, so there are lots of opinions on what’s best.

But matters of existence are questions of fact rather than questions of opinion. They are not decided by what we would like to be true, but rather by what is true…

clogsDemian’s question makes me wonder how he and other believers think. Did they choose their belief based on what it offers? Did they “shop around” for a belief-system with the most benefits – a nice bunch of people, a reasonable moral code, plenty of religious holidays and a pleasant-sounding afterlife?

None of those things should matter. To be honest if I found a religion that provided sufficient evidence that it was true, I’d believe it. I wouldn’t care if it required me to wear wooden shoes, eat only vegetables and walk on all fours every Tuesday. Conversely, if a set of beliefs are false, then it doesn’t matter how many virgins believers could spend eternity with.

I’ve generally given believers the benefit of the doubt and assumed that they genuinely think their belief-system is correct. Certain questions from believers however, make me wonder if I’ve been right about that. For example, when a believer tried to convince me to join their religion by seriously suggesting Pascal’s Wager, I do wonder if it was the evidence or the fear of going to hell that convinced them. When asked for their reasons for believing, several believers have told me, “I find it comforting”. I’ve no doubt many believers genuinely think they’ve got it right, but suggesting “comfort” as a reason to believe suggests that veracity is a secondary concern.

Apart from the quotes above I’m speaking for myself here. Simply put, all atheism “offers” me is that it’s true. No doubt many believers feel the same about their beliefs. Atheism seems to me to be the only reasonable position. I don’t need it to offer me anything else, I have the rest of my life for that – my family, friends, sports, nature, humanism, sometimes even my job – offer me things to make life interesting. I see atheism more as a simple fact of life, like the sky being blue or the Earth being round.

I’d love to hear what others think about this, believers and non-believers. How important are the benefits your beliefs bring or claim to bring? How much does it matter to you whether what you believe is true?

65 thoughts on “What Does Atheism Offer That Belief In God Can’t?

  1. worship and glorification of the father will be taking place at that time but it will not be anyone’s sole purpose as you say. we don’t spend twetny four hours a day doing here it on earth – there’s no reason to beleive that it will happen around the clock on the new earth.

    Hmm…I’m curious… so what else do you think christians will be doing on the ‘new earth’?

  2. Although I agree with you in the sense of your position, I’d also like to contend that belief in a ‘higher power’ structuring reality (which is more accurately what the God concept represents, regardless of how different religions put their personal spin on it) isn’t always as ignorant as the dogmopiate religion fed to the masses. Kierkegaard’s Christianity, Ibn Al-Arabi’s Islam or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s Judaism had an element of depth and piercing, reasonable insight into the process of nature as much as today’s Dawkins, Dennett or Harris. Just as a believer falls back onto their subjective experience of this higher power with experiential objective proof an atheist falls back onto the subjective experience of ‘objective reality’ and its experimental ‘physical’ proof which we’ve found to be made up of energy, mostly empty space and quantum mechanical physical absurdities anyways.

    Terence McKenna has a humorous spiel on one of the major assumptions behind mainstream science:

    Every model of the universe has a hard swallow, a place where the argument cannot hide the fact that something is slightly fishy about it… the hard swallow built into science is this business about the Big Bang. This is the notion that the universe, for no reason, sprang from nothing, in a single instant. Before we dissect this, notice that this is the limit test for credulity. Whether you believe this or not, notice it is not possible to conceive of something more unlikely, or less likely to be believed. It is the limit case for unlikelihood, that the universe springs from nothing in a single instant for no reason. It makes no sense. It is no different from saying,”God said let there be light.” The philosophizers of science are saying give us one free miracle, and we will roll from that point forward from the birth of time to the crack of doom!

    I think intelligent design is attempting to justify itself by the very obvious fact that coordinated complexity seems to be the name of nature’s game and natural selection is attempting to justify itself by the very obvious fact that it took longer than 6,000 years for us to get where we are (which we notice seems to get faster and faster built upon previously attained levels of complexity). There has to be some sort of middle-ground where the discussion can move into more exciting territory like holographic theory, the fractal nature of reality and the evolution of consciousness that science and religion can probably both agree on and have insight into.

    I don’t know why I strayed there, but the good ‘ole unquestionably reasonable atheist VS unquestioning believer babble is a little old hat.

  3. I could go on for hours about what atheism can give you, but it would never live up to the standard set by Richard Feynman in “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” from BBC’s Horizons: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/horizon/broadband/archive/feynman/index.shtml

    That being said, I’ll at this. Among many, many other things, atheism provides much greater comfort and sanity when a loved one dies. Imagine your child has died. Can you imagine a worse tragedy? You hold within you a part of that child. He (or she) has only had a few experiences of the world and most of them were with you. If anybody ever wants to know much about his life, they can only find out through you. There is no other being anywhere that knows what you know about him or has experienced what you experienced of him. Nobody can bypass that by experiencing him in an afterlife. You, and you alone, hold that part of his existence. When you die, you will take that part of him with you to the grave, as if he was buried with you for eternity. That is precious. This is something only an atheist can experience. Religion cannot give this to you. It can only take it away.

  4. I am an atheist but that doesn’t define me. Atheism isn’t a belief system. I am a secular humanist, a rationalist, a parent, a husband, a son, a brother, a friend, and an educated professional. Those are the things that define me. I don’t give my lack of belief in the Christian god any more thought than i give my lack of belief in Thor or Zeus or Ra.

  5. Concerning which religion a person chooses, most just go with the one that they were taught when they were kids. And then they defend it as if they made a choice. But there are some that have changed their religion later in life. These people, although they might not have gone all the way to rejecting religion, have at least made a thoughtful choice. I have more respect for these people than for the ones with unchanged, and unexamined, religious beliefs.

  6. Who benefits from believing? Is it the person who is the believer? Is it the Church? Is it the religion? This question has always run threw my mind. While growing up i sat in church listening to the priest, wondering if what he was saying was from what God had told him to say. I asked him one day after church that question. His reply was that all of what he said every week was from what he had read in the Bible. His understanding from what the Bible has written in it. Most of the time when he was speaking from the Bible i had a different understanding of what was written. I then asked him why do you only speak of your understanding and make it rhetorical? Why not leave it an open question and let the congregation ask themselves? He replied that God did not want the people to believe what they wanted to believe but to believe what he said. That is a main reason i became an atheist. I believe that people should be free to believe what they want, and if they don’t, they will not be punished for that.

  7. temaskian,

    Meaning has a different meaning from purpose.

    they do have different definitions, yes, but they are bound together in their meanings. you can’t define the ideas of far or close without first understanding the concept of distance and distance would be meaningless if values such as far and close can’t be assigned to it. purpose denotes meaning and meaning points to purpose. you cannot have one without the other. even if you believe (illogically) purpose exists apart from a creator – you haven’t stated why you believe that or what that purpose might be. i can insistently state that a dog’s tail is actually a leg but that doesn’t make it so.

    You mean the ONLY thing that makes your life more valuable than that of a dog’s is that you have the concept of a creator-god whereas a dog doesn’t?

    i can’t help but notice that you didn’t give an answer to my question. to answer your question, though, without a creator i could only say that my life was more valuable which is very convenient since the dog can’t dispute me. if the scriptures hold true, however, then its obvious that god holds man’s life as the most loved and most valued of his creations – placing man’s seat of glory and honor even above the angelic host.

    So the problem here is not that objects or humans have no purpose, it’s just that according to YOU they have no purpose

    no, its according to the logic. if life was unintended, undirected, if it just happened – it is, as i (and many atheists) have stated before, an accident. it was not caused to happen – it was not purposeful. you can deny that logic if you like but i believe that you already earlier conceded it.

    Exactly, that’s what you believe

    yes, belief in part by natural revelation and in part by faith.

    Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that one day they will completely cease to exist.

    actually, i would say that many more people would be uncomfortable with the idea of giving an account of their lives to a completely holy, just, and omniscient god that gave them their life to begin with. the idea of oblivion would be comforting in comparison.

    Hmm…I’m curious… so what else do you think christians will be doing on the ‘new earth’?

    that would be a pretty exhaustive and extensive list – i would, however, be pleased to discuss it with you – we just have to narrow it a bit. is there a specific topic pertaining to that subject you would like to talk about?

  8. What does not believing in dancing unicorns offer that belief in dancing unicorns can’t?

  9. Here’s how I see it:

    Atheism gives me the power to say: “Once there was no me, now there is a me, soon there will be no me again. The Universe doesn’t care. I’m comfortable with that.” Then I live in such a way that my morals are determined by what’s beneficial to the human race. In a way, this is actually humanism, but I’m agnostic anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

    In fact, even it were objectively shown to me that there is a God and I’ll have to answer for myself postmortem, I’d still take this view. What God could blame me for using the brain I was given to logically conclude from all evidence that His existence is questionable, and then try to live in the best manner possible without thought of my own reward?

  10. Penguin Pete,

    What God could blame me for using the brain I was given to logically conclude from all evidence that His existence is questionable, and then try to live in the best manner possible without thought of my own reward?

    The Christian one. LOL.

  11. Jason,

    All things ‘have a purpose’. The purpose of a penguin is to catch fish for itself and its family and that has nothing to do with God.

    if the scriptures hold true, however, then its obvious that god holds man’s life as the most loved and most valued of his creations – placing man’s seat of glory and honor even above the angelic host.


    actually, i would say that many more people would be uncomfortable with the idea of giving an account of their lives to a completely holy, just, and omniscient god… the idea of oblivion would be comforting in comparison.

    I agree. Problem is, most Christians only think of the bliss of heaven without thinking too much about the judgement part. Or rather, fortunately for them. It allows them to live more happily. What is your opinion regarding judgement before such a god? How do you think you will fare?

    Regarding what you think you will be doing in heaven, what does the bible say? I only remember the parts where it said you will be singing praises to God eternally. Or something to that effect. And that’s only logical, since there will be no more problems to attend to. Are there some passages in the bible that says otherwise?

  12. Wow, very long (but interesting) thread! I know it died a while ago but just thought I should say that..

    On Jason’s idea that if there is no God then we should all be nihilistic – why is that not the case? I’m an atheist, so is my partner, so are most of my friends, and yet we all seem to be very considerate and moral people. We don’t mug old ladies, we don’t cheat on our partners, we don’t maim small furry animals just for fun and we don’t indoctrinate our children into believing in ridiculous stories with the promise of eternal damnation if they don’t do what we say (oops, I mean what “He” says).

    But I guess having morality without religion is a different topic so maybe I shouldn’t have brought that up here :oP

    I think Penguin Pete has hit the nail on the head there. Since there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of God it makes logical sense to live your life the best you can, assuming “He” doesn’t exist. If it turns out we were wrong and face his judgement after death? I’m sure any merciful God would be very accepting that his children were using their “god-given” big brains and living the best life they could. After all, if he was that bothered, wouldn’t he have provided more evidence for his existence? It wouldn’t take much, just a big booming voice announcement across the whole world, would take just seconds out of his busy schedule… (what exactly is he doing now anyway?)… Oops, I think I’ve strayed into the “diminshment of god” argument!

  13. It is interesting to see what is so interesting about being an Atheist. I agree with you that we should be interesting in what is true, and not just what we would like to do. Not every Christian wants to go to church every Sunday and many don’t. Not everybody wants to go to work either. I am much more interested in what is true as well. However, it is important to consider what will happen after you die. I mean, you might have a cushy life here, but is death really the end all? I would just advise you to make 100% that there isn’t a God because if there is, you might have to answer to him. And if there isn’t a God, then what is the point? I would be pretty disappointed to find out that there isn’t a God because that means that this life is pointless. You might think that Christians like to have an excuse for their sin, but actually Christianity allows the forgiveness of sin. People who have committed crimes or other sins against other people would feel guilty and it won’t matter if you are an Atheist or not. At least with Christianity, you can ask for forgiveness from God and God will forgive you. That is the one benefit of being a believer.

  14. One more thing, there is evidence for the existance of God. Have you looked around lately? Have you looked at the wonders of the world? Have you looked at the complexity of life?

    There is so much evidence for God that some people are so blinded to even see it.

  15. Greg,

    And if there isn’t a God, then what is the point? I would be pretty disappointed to find out that there isn’t a God because that means that this life is pointless.

    It’s very interesting that you say you’re interested in what is true, then go on to make an emotional appeal like this. Instead of presenting some evidence that there is a god, you remind people of how much you’d like for there to be a god. How worrying death would be without a god. This is not looking at what is true and supported by evidence, it’s looking at what you’d like to be true.

    I think that speaks volumes about the Christian case for god’s existence.