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?

Us and them

Social group of elephantsIt seems that for many believers part of the appeal of their religion is the community and sense of belonging that it offers. Although this is rarely cited as a reason for sticking with their beliefs, I suspect it has a strong subconscious effect. The desire to belong is natural for humans as it is for all social mammals. Communal living may even have affected the way our brains evolved. When the group offers sharing of food, protection from predators and the opportunity to mate, survival may depend on staying in the group and avoiding social rejection.

The problem is that this kind of thinking leads people to consider some people to be insiders and others outsiders. That makes sense in a tribal society, but in the modern world we have a responsibility to treat everyone with respect. In the view of ethics advanced by Peter Singer, people decide who to treat morally based on whether that person falls within their moral circle. In a modern world we should be looking to expand that circle to include all of humanity (Singer also argues persuasively that we should also include animals in our moral circle).

I think religion can often get in the way of this. I’m not trying to characterise religious people as misanthropes when it comes to outsiders, many are very friendly. I’m sure many believers would also tell you that their religion itself encourages them to be friendly to all people. However, there’s plenty of behaviour common to religious groups which is anything but friendly to outsiders.

Diane Wilson made it clear in her book that the Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly separate people into those within the society and those outside it. This usually involves certain tactics. Although these things are more common in cult-like religions, they can be found in watered-down versions in almost any faith.

Firstly, the stigmatisation of outsiders. This, along with a strong discouragement to associate with them, allows unfair stereotypes to go unchallenged. Those outside the religious group are often said to be unfortunates or that they will suffer some terrible fate, such as a literal hell.

Secondly, conformity. Certain patterns of speech and behaviour are encouraged, through shared rituals or varying degrees of social pressure. Unusual and unnecessary rules also help to define correct behaviour and separate the “ins” from the “outs”. In some cases membership of the religious organisation is considered more important than any aspect of the individual. This was a popular theme amongst the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ , as Diane Wilson reports from a JW sermon:

Bucket of waterThrust your fist into a bucket of water, then pull your fist out. Look into the bucket. The size of the hole that is left in the water is what you’re worth.

To moderate believers this sounds extreme, but there are few religions which celebrate individuality and all have rules of behaviour that define those who are members and those who are not.

I suspect in the case of cults and some newer religions, this is a conscious effort to keep members under the influence of the religion and its leaders. Perhaps in smaller religious groups which differ from the surrounding culture, this is necessary to maintain group cohesion.

Going off on a bit of a tangent, it struck me today that a similar thing can occur with fans of football (soccer) teams, or indeed any sports team fans. Certainly they seem to treat fans of rival teams differently to those of their own team. Similarities have already been drawn between football and religion.

Polish football fans

So what else do religions and football teams have in common? My pet theory concerns the way people choose them. By which I mean they don’t. Well, not consciously. Not like you might choose a new car or house. There’s no weighing up of a team’s odds at being promoted to the next division, no examination of their track record, or the scruples (or not) of the manager.

So in an argument with another fan over which team is more deserving of support, there’s no objective basis on which to justify their decision. No team has a perfect track record, the vast majority are not at the top of division one and in any case, such arguments are after-the-fact justifications – that wasn’t how they chose the team in the first place.

Fans are most likely to choose a team based on which team is supported by those around them – their family, friends, community. Or perhaps the team belonging to the town in which they grew up, which may amount to the same thing in many cases.

Sound familiar?

I think it’s very similar with religion. It seems the reason religious debates ultimately boil down to “Faith”, “Personal experience” or “Agreeing to disagree” is because there is no rational objective basis on which to chose one over another. Interestingly, Swiss theologian Karl Barth said something similar:

“Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.”

I’d go further and suggest that a religious belief cannot even argue with another religious belief. At least no more than one football fan can tell another they’ve chosen to support the wrong team.