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?

Ignostic igtheists or weak atheists – what’s in a name?

I noticed recently that a friend’s online profile showed “Ignostic” to describe his religious beliefs. I hadn’t heard of this before, so I asked him about it. Joe responded that he’d not done much reading into the subject, but it seemed to sum up his objections to religion.

Put simply, my main reason for taking the ignostic position is that defining what it is you are blathering on about is simply a matter of intellectual honesty…It’s all very well to use words […] in a loose manner in which the listener can get the gist of what you are saying…

I suppose I like the socratian nature of it though: the idea to ask the question “What do you mean by God?” rather than to proscribe an answer to it.

Which is pretty much the informal definition of Ignosticism. It turns out that “ignostic” is a somewhat new term and Wikipedia marks it as a neologism – not yet in common usage or dictionaries.

As far as Wikiedia is concerned, Ignosticism is the same as Igtheism. I have heard of igtheism before – a local humanist explained it as, “Ignorance of existence of god(s), so we might as well act as if they don’t exist.”

The question is, do we need these new terms? The beliefs held by Ignostics and Igtheists seem to be adequately covered by the varieties of atheism and agnosticism. Even within those flavours of belief there is some overlap.

For example, Apathetic Agnosticism states that the existence of a supreme being is both unknown and unknowable and that any such being does not appear to take enough interest in the world to intervene and is therefore irrelevant. This is quite similar to strong agnosticism, or the humourously characterized “militant agnosticism” – “I don’t know and neither do you!”

All of this isn’t very far from the position of most atheists – that of weak atheism. My take on weak atheism is,

“Due to lack of evidence, I don’t believe that there are any gods. I think it is possible that such evidence may exist, but it seems very unlikely.”

Atheism is often misunderstood to mean “Strong atheism” – “There are definitely no gods”. A strong atheist couldn’t actually search everywhere inside and outside the universe to eliminate the possibility of all possible kinds of gods. So almost all atheists are, in practice weak atheists. An atheist may say, “There is no God”, but they will be talking about a specific kind of God and most will also tell you that they’d be willing to change their beliefs if given appropriate evidence.

So if you’re a igtheistic agnostic weak atheist ignostic, what should you write in the tiny box on survey forms? To those who ask you, what response should you give without sounding like a geeky bookworm?

I think it depends on your situation and what you’re trying to achieve.

If you’re talking to a group of bigoted fundamentalists who see atheists as the worst kind of sinners and a scourge to society you may wish to say “agnostic” for a quiet life, or dodge the question entirely. On the other hand, if these people already know you as a decent, moral person, then admitting your are an atheist might force them to reconsider their prejudices. Obviously it depends on how deeply those opinions are ingrained and how well they know you. Certainly prejudices have never been reduced by separating people with different views or lifestyles.

Going for a term like “Ignostic” that most people are unfamiliar with carries less baggage and potential for prejudice. It might also require an explanation allowing your to discuss your beliefs in more detail.

Personally, I tend to answer “humanist”. I know humanism has more to do with lifestyle than belief or disbelief in any deity, but I like that it is a simple and practical answer that tells you more about me than my scepticism about deities.