I still have beliefs, do you?
It’s a familiar accusation that arises when religious people interact with atheists and agnostics: “You don’t believe in anything. How can life even matter to you? It must be horribly depressing to believe in nothing!”
The sentiment is inaccurate, but it’s not hard to understand. Strictly defined, a-theism is simply non-belief in god(s); a-gnosticism is not knowing whether there’s a god, or admitting that the question can’t be answered. There’s even a new memoir out by an atheist called (you guessed it), Nothing.
When I first shed 30 years of evangelical Christianity, I felt great relief and freedom in the realization that atheism was simply an absence of belief. After all, I’d spent my entire life reciting theological creeds, signing church mission statements and listening to authority figures and holy texts tell me what was – and wasn’t – approved for my belief. I wore myself out trying to reconcile church teachings with my often-contradictory gut instincts and personal observations; and trying to reconcile one group’s absolute teaching with another that also claimed to be “the only right way” to believe.
It was liberating to put all that behind me.
But just because I no longer hold supernatural beliefs of any kind, that doesn’t mean I “believe in nothing.” It’s just that now, I get to evaluate and define my beliefs for myself, something I’ve been working on recently.
I must admit, I’m much more careful now about deciding what I believe – and what I don’t. For the time being, I don’t belong to any humanist organizations that could provide me with a framework of positive beliefs: Swallowing an entire belief system when I was a child, and then struggling to live within that system as I matured, didn’t serve me well. So perhaps I’m gun-shy about joining any group. That may change eventually.
I also strive to hold my beliefs loosely, and I’m open to scrapping some and picking up others over time. Indeed I welcome such changes, as I hope they would provide evidence of my continued growth as a person.
It seems to me that, if we are to encourage more people to let go of their intellectual and emotional clinging to religion and superstition and tradition, we need to present them with some positive alternatives. Pushing them out into a moral void, or telling them to “follow the scientific method,” might work for some, but those options are unattractive, amorphous and frightening to many people.
So … what DO I believe? Here are a few thoughts, but this is by no means a comprehensive list:
I believe in logic and reason, tempered by compassion and humility. I believe that skepticism and the scientific method are the best means we have for evaluating claims of all kinds. I believe in the power of love and mercy, the transformative nature of education and the ability of art to unite us by illuminating our shared humanity. I believe that, without any need for supernatural origins or governance, “life will out.” I believe in progress and the power of the human mind to continue solving problems and deciphering the mysteries of the universe. I believe in optimism and the potential for every human being to choose good over evil.
Far from showing me to be cynical, depressed or angry, these beliefs probably expose me as an utter Pollyanna! I know that I have a much more positive worldview now than I did as a theist, when I was convinced that humanity was corrupt, people were evil and the world was “all going to burn” – and not a moment too soon!
What about you? If you no longer hold religious beliefs, what do you believe and how did you decide what you believe? Have you joined any secular groups that hold principles of belief? If you are still a religious believer, do your personal beliefs sometimes differ from established doctrine?