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?

Truth vs Comfort

While considering the beliefs of eccentrics like Garvan in his post “Right Not To Think“, yunshui recently questioned whether it would be morally right in every case to change the minds of those who believe falsehoods.

Most, like Garvan, have entwined religion so inextricably into their psyche that no amount of evidence or argument will ever convince them of their fallacy, but if one could unravel and break the faith-wire wrapped around their minds, would that be a kind thing to do?

To my mind, whether helping to de-convert someone is moral or not depends on the consequences of de-conversion for him and others. I think we can only guess at what they might be. If it was guaranteed to make him a happier and more tolerant person (as it does many people), then I’d say yes, of course.

But what extreme measures would be required to convert a devout and apparently deranged believer? Thoroughly educating them about the irrationality of their beliefs? Surrounding them by a community of non-believers? Isolating them from any religious influence? I suspect that in many cases a person’s beliefs are so deeply ingrained that the methods required to change their minds would be so extreme as to be immoral in themselves, never mind what the outcome might be.

Then again perhaps yunshui is thinking more along the lines of a thought-experiment. What if Garvan had grown up in a friendly, supportive and non-religious environment. What if he’d never heard of Jesus? What kind of person would he be? Again, I think we can only speculate.

It seems intuitively true that the world would be a better place if everyone believed only what was true. False beliefs lead people to bad decisions. That is why we should care about what people believe. But perhaps there are cases where delusions are helpful or at least have some beneficial effects. The superstitious rituals carried out by people in risky situations, such as gathering honey while dangling from a cliff, can make them feel safe when they’re not. That can have advantages and disadvantages.

One argument is to let people believe whatever makes them happy and not to challenge it. For instance, if they really need to go deep sea fishing in a small wooden boat or hunt wilderbeast so that their family can eat, then they might as well be made to feel comfortable while taking such huge risks. On the other hand, someone who has performed a meaningless ritual may be recklessly emboldened by the thought that they’ve done something useful to protect themselves. Far better that they are cautious and forced to look for practical ways to minimise the risk. For a start they could look at the weather before setting off.

But getting back to religious beliefs, in the majority of cases I see no reason not to question and challenge apparently false beliefs. Indeed, I think we all have a responsibility to work out what is true and to educate others as best we can.

However, in cases of religious mania (or at least extreme eccentricity) the results could be unpredictable and possibly detrimental. As yunshui points out, psychologists have considered this question already.

Many delusional patients actually need their strange beliefs in order to function, so removing the framework of their worldview can be unproductive and even dangerous.

So was Colonel Jessep right when he said, “You can’t handle the truth!”?  Those who’ve changed their minds in favour of atheism often report feelings of freedom and happiness as a result. However, de-conversion can be a traumatic process, even for those on a fairly even keel.

For those with a delusion related to mental illness the answer is more complicated and as a layperson I’d defer to the opinions of the psychologists involved.