Life Without Superstition

It is a common misperception, promoted and sustained by religious leaders, that atheism has nothing good or positive to offer the seeker. Nothing could be further from the truth. It will be one of the major purposes of this weblog, and more specifically of this category, the Garden, to explode that myth, and there is no better time to start than now. To counter this oft-held misperception, here follow some of the benefits of atheism:

Atheism quenches the fear of Hell. As an atheist, you do not have to believe that you are a worthless sinner or poison yourself with guilt every waking moment; nor do you have to fear that your actions may offend the arbitrary standards of a looming cosmic tyrant or condemn you to an afterlife of eternal pain. In place of this impossible and irrational standard, atheism offers a rational morality based on conscience, where it is up to us to take responsibility for our own actions, to refrain from causing harm if possible and make amends if we cannot. To an atheist, morality is grounded in human needs and human concerns, not the inscrutable whims of a higher power, and is within our power to live up to if we diligently practice virtue.

Atheism banishes the fever of religious hatred. As an atheist, there is no longer any reason to view those who disagree with you as the enemies of God, fit only for conversion or destruction; these people become human beings again with their own point of view, with the potential present for understanding and compromise. To an atheist, there is no martyrs’ afterlife inspiring suicidal acts of terrorism, no violence can be justified by claiming God’s will, and no war is ever holy. Instead, it is our task to overcome the things that divide us and bring about peace.

Atheism offers the happiness of intellectual freedom. As an atheist, no one tells you how or what to think; you have the freedom to make up your own mind, to use your own judgment, and to come to decisions because they are your decisions and not because an ancient text or an anointed priesthood tells you so. You are free to study and learn wherever the inquiring mind takes you, with no field off-limits and no theory too dangerous to examine. Most of all, you are free to doubt. To an atheist, no belief is sacred, no tradition inviolable, and no bit of knowledge beyond questioning. In the eyes of religion, asking certain questions is blasphemy, but an atheist has no gods to offend, only the truth, and the truth cannot be blasphemed.

Atheism offers the exhilaration of choosing your own purpose. As an atheist, you are not a pawn in a cosmic game, trudging through life toward a predetermined end; you can throw away the chains of holy writ and set your own course, steer your own path. To an atheist, life is not a prescripted morality play or an exercise of a god’s whim, but a wide-open horizon, gloriously real and significant. Whatever makes your life meaningful and gives you happiness and contentment is your right to choose, so long as you respect others’ right to do the same.

Atheism offers a deeper appreciation for and wonder of life and the cosmos. As an atheist, your vision is not clouded by elaborate mythologies that, regardless of their literary merit, offer no insight into the way the universe really works. You are free to use the most powerful and the only effective tool for uncovering the truth humans have ever invented, science, and to accept its conclusions without reservation that they may contradict some time-eroded dogma. To an atheist, the universe can be viewed as it truly is, an awesome, intricate and majestic thing arising from the interaction of a few simple and beautiful natural laws that we can discover.

Atheism imbues our actions with true significance. As an atheist, you have the assurance of knowing that your accomplishments are neither unimportant trifles nor mere imperfect replicas of ideas in the mind of God, but are real, important, and entirely your own. When you discover or create something new, you are the first person to have ever done so, and your achievements genuinely matter because they are done in the only and therefore the most important world that there is. Since there is no afterlife where justice will finally be done, there is all the more reason to work to see that it is done now, to ease the suffering of those in pain and fill all people’s lives with happiness and love. To an atheist, this world is our home, for we have no other, and that gives us the greatest incentive to care for it, protect it and improve it for us and for our descendants.

Atheism gives confidence that you are on the side of right. As an atheist, there is no longer any justification to limit people’s freedom, to stifle their speech, to control their thoughts, to enslave their lives, to enrich yourself at their expense, to oppose the growth of true understanding, or to focus your efforts on some other world which we know not of, rather than this one where our hands and our efforts are needed. Religious groups around the world are behind these sins and many more, but atheists can oppose them unequivocally with no reservations that they might be contravening God’s will by doing so. To an atheist, life has the satisfaction of knowing that you stand for the right values, the ones that will bring humanity the most happiness in the long run, and the ones that focus on things that are true and verifiable, which are the only important things.

New on the Guardian: The Peaceful Side of Atheism
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Archi Medez

    Atheism does free one from the negative aspects of a theistic religion. But as I read your article, I was thinking “Does atheism really give us those goodies?”
    If atheism is simply (a) lack of a belief in god(s), and/or (b) a very highly confident belief that god(s) as proposed thus far do not or cannot exist, then do all of the other goodies necessarily follow?

    Isn’t the concept of atheism being overextended here? Simply not believing in god(s) does not necessarily lead to moral thinking, science, aesthetic appreciation/feeling, etc. Rather, the belief in the tenets of a religion can get in the way, compromise each of the above goodies. Atheism removes the erroneous assumptions, gets that junk out of the way, so to speak, so that moral thinking, scientific research, and so on, can develop according to ethical and scientific standards, etc.

    Also, it seems that agnosticism, deism, and pantheism could each also provide just about as much freedom from religious dogma as atheism. (What does atheism have that those other options don’t?)

    Re: Science as the only effective means of uncovering truth. I guess that depends on how broadly one defines science. Do we include mathematics? Logic? Common sense experience (i.e., day-to-day living and learning)? Or do we define it more restrictively as that which uses, involves, or was produced by the scientific method? Science tells us what, where, when, how, and to some extent why. But science does not tell us the way it should be; for that we need value judgements. Are value judgements a form of truth? Is morality a form of truth? And what about artistic truths, i.e., knowledge or insights gained through making or appreciating art?

  • Archi Medez

    few more points…

    1. Is spirituality (or something like it) possible for atheists? Many religious people seem to assume that it is not.

    2. Excessive faith in non-religious ideologies can also lead to many of the same or similar problems as per religious ones.

    3. Your above discussion seems to focus on the discovery side of knowledge, but what about the usage side? That is, once beliefs and assumptions are established in our minds, we use them, and for various reasons may not modify them to keep up with new information. Does atheism give us the capacity to be less certain, less dogmatic? Or, rather, does this capacity to use knowledge flexibly and adjust to changes arise from critical thinking skills that both religious and non-religious people have?

  • BlackWizardMagus

    First off, really, agnosticism doesn’t exist; it’s an adjective that describes HOW a/theism, not a choice in itself. It merely means “I’m not sure”. You can say “I believe in God but I don’t KNOW he exists”, being an agnostic theist, or say “I don’t believe in God, but it’s not a proven fact” and be an agnostic atheist.

    Yeah, political beliefs or other non-religious aspects can be just as bad. But those are countered in their own way. But you are right in that atheism doesn’t give anything except if you count as “giving” those things lost by dropping theism, like hell or something to that extent.

    Science IS the only method of uncovering truth, it’s just that not all science is in a lab. Common sense uses scientific method, doesn’t it? You, perhaps not even conciously, take a situation, use data and observations, and test it. Now, of course, usually we think of common sense as a past thing, aka, you are just drawing off of past confirmations, but it’s still science. Logic is not a method of deriving knowledge. Plato’s geocentric solar system with everything in perfect circles was the most “logical” choice. It means little. It is merely a way to utilize knowledge, and the only one that is scientifically shown to work (aka, it comes out with the most results). Values and morals are the same. Adam, in describing universal unilateralism (I think, been a while), describes a scientific basis for morality. You CAN have morals without it, aka, religion, but that’s the point. And artistic truths…yeah, don’t exist. There’s no such thing as an artistic truth. I think Picasso is a nutjob and his paintings a waste of space, but it’s an accepted truth that they are masterpieces. Other applications of anything that might be called artistic truths are essentially the same; entirely subjective.

    But I argue too forcefully, perhaps. I see your point, of course, and it’s true; there is nothing that says all atheists are like this, or that a deconversion into it will automatically make you think clearer. But it certainly removes a major obstacle. Atheism merely…raises the potential for these phonomenon to occur within people.

  • Ebonmuse

    I see your point, of course, and it’s true; there is nothing that says all atheists are like this, or that a deconversion into it will automatically make you think clearer. But it certainly removes a major obstacle. Atheism merely…raises the potential for these phonomenon to occur within people.

    I think this sums it up best.

    Granted, atheism as the bare philosophical position of lack of god-belief does not necessarily entail all these positive things. I suppose a person could, theoretically speaking, become an atheist and then adopt a dogmatic philosophy that is exactly the same as their previous religion in all aspects except that it does not include belief in a god.

    However, I had in mind something more general – atheism as part of a full worldview, rather than as a single isolated position. The question is, if one adopts such a worldview, what is the most likely form it will take? In other words, given that a person has decided to become an atheist, what are the most rational or natural beliefs to choose that go along with that position? And it’s my experience that, when a person deconverts and clears out all the theistic debris previously clouding their vision, they very often do adopt a worldview similar to the one described in my post. I could, though I’m sure I don’t need to, cite a great many deconversion stories whose one unifying theme is the sense of pure relief and happiness experienced by people throwing off their theistic beliefs. My intent was to propose an explanation for that phenomenon by showing how atheism has the potential to give rise to a whole host of empowering and beneficial beliefs. Some types of religious belief may offer some of these benefits as well, and that’s fine; it wasn’t my intention to argue here that all theism is uniformly bad, only that atheism can be a lot more positive than many theists give it credit for.

  • Archi Medez

    Black Magic,

    Regarding the definition(s) of agnosticism, here is a good link (below). Some agnostics consider themselves atheists, others don’t. Some agnostics take a strong agnostic position that issues such as the existence of God can neither be confirmed nor denied (i.e., they are certain that the question is unanswerable), while others take an uncertain stance on the issue of God’s existence and remain open to evidence. . One may question whether agnosticism is a coherent, sound position. I don’t believe it is. I think the evidence in favour of atheism (against the alternative hypothesis of theism) is far too strong. Anyways, people do hold the view, and even an erroneous concept is still a concept.

    The trouble in communicating about these ideas is that concepts are, in many respects, fuzzy sets. Different concepts can contain overlapping elements. You will see from the above link that some agnostics consider themselves atheists.

    The same issue arises when we talk about truth, science, etc. Is everyday common-sense learning science? It contains elements that overlap with those used in science: Observation, deduction, induction, hypothesis formation (if informal), exploration/testing, conclusions, even some mathematics (even if only very rough estimation). But the key differences between what is normally called science and what is called “common sense” is that science uses certain formal and rigorous metholodologies, and generally requires a much higher level of confidence before arriving at conclusions. Common sense is based on individual anecdotal experience, as well as on various cultural myths about what is true (e.g., have chicken soup and this will cure a cold). Common sense alone often does allow one to answer empirical questions with a significant degree of certainty of accuracy. Also, common sense is subject to all kinds of limitations, biases, and extraneous influences that can affect outcomes, how the outcomes are measured, and so on. My concept of science, I guess, puts a high degree of weight on the use of the scientific method (this includes not just methodology but also theorizing in relation to phenomena that are at least in principle testable or can be checked against other facts). The main justification for making a distinction between a science proper and empiricism more generally is that all kinds of empirical claims are being made all the time, but it would be terribly impractical (and misleading) to refer to all of these as “scientific.”

    Superstition (mentioned in this article’s title) can indeed arise from empiricism applied without certain checks in place. For example, superstitions arise often when an agent (could be a person or an intelligent animal) observes a pair of events and concludes that the events are connected causally. There are also a lot of superstitions that arise in everyday life due to an inadequate or primitive level of understanding of the underlying mechanisms of how things work. (E.g., many people will answer “yes” when asked if they know how a toilet works, but most cannot give a correct explanation of how it works; i.e., they don’t know how it works).

    Regarding art, when I said artistic truths, I meant something different than mere convention as to whether it was “true” (conventionally accepted does not mean true) that so-and-so was a great artist. I am uncomfortable with calling the aesthetic information conveyed by art as “truth,” but this is a phrase that has been bandied about. What I was getting at is that art can convey information about human experience. Shakespeare, for example, was an excellent amateur psychologist; he had an excellent understanding of human relationships and could convey enduring, recurring themes in this realm of experience. When Shakespeare wrote “For nothing is good or bad but only thinking makes it so,” he was conveying an idea which in some sense we can see as true; in other words, we can get his point and see the truth of it, even though literally it is probably an overstatement. Likewise, Picasso’s Guernica conveys the subjective sense of horror in response to the destruction of war. This is a different kind of information that science (in its present form at this point in our history) cannot provide. Should the word truth be used for that? I’m not sure. But people do use it in that sense.

    However, there is a crude way in which art can capture truth and that is in realistic depictions, maps, various graphical and logographical representations, etc. Likewise, a non-fiction writer or a reporter is said to write a true story if it is accurate with the verifyable facts. This is closer to the conventional sense of truth in that accurate representation or correct representation of general themes or trends constitute an important element of truth (i.e., accuracy, correspondence between what is real and what is represented). Simple depiction and description can be true, but it is not science. It is an art.

    Regarding morality, I disagree. Morality is based to a great extent on notions of harm, and true morality requires the capacity for empathy. Morality is based in the human nervous system (and probably in those of many other related species). It is a first-person subjective experience. It can be studied, through systematic psychological methods, but this does not mean that morality is reduceable to scientific descriptions. Science cannot tell us what we ought to do; rather, science is used (hopefully) as a source of information in helping us make moral decisions. For example, scientific knowledge of the state of a developing embryo-fetus’ neurological capacities will have an impact on where we decide to draw the line in determining when an abortion can be perfomed ethically. Making ethical decisions requires evaluating, among other things, the total amount of potential good versus the total amount of potential harm due to an action. Scientifically speaking, there is no reason why we should live another day, or why we should not launch all our nuclear weapons at once and annihilate ourselves, everyone else, and the entire planet. Science doesn’t tell us what we should do. Science doesn’t tell us why this should matter. Rather, we have pain and pleasure, fear, happiness, curiosity, intentions, etc., and a desire to live (which has been selected over hundreds of millions of years of evolution), and these various emotions, subjective tendencies, and motivations, all play a significant role in moral thinking. Reason and science, in the realm of moral thinking, are used in a way that is subservient to our emotions, feelings, motivations, and intentions.

    Regarding value, again, we are dealing with concepts that overlap each other. Some elements of value are not morality. For example, I value my friends an family. I love them. That is a true statement. I value simple things like the taste of a perfectly ripe mango, or a well-composed argument, or a ground-breaking scientific study. These are true statements. I value the experience of doing science, or art, or going on a hiking adventure, etc., but you are saying morality and value is the same? What is “moral” about any of these things which I value? Is it moral to feel that Picasso is a worse artist than Rembrandt? No. It is a value judgement, but has almost no basis in morality. (To make this point even clearer, suppose you were shown a series of landscape photos and were asked simply “Which one do you like best?” That’s an aesthetic value judgement). I may say it is immoral to destroy a Picasso painting, because the painting as a cultural artifact has value for many people and causes them no harm, but his does not mean value is morality. This does not mean the concepts of morality and value are mutually exclusive; it means that there are important differences between them even though there may be some overlapping elements between them.

    Finally, to return to science, mathematics, and logic, these are overlapping concepts. Science involves both but has more than both (e.g., it has empiricism, systematic methods, creative theorizing, insight, etc.). But mathematical truths exist, and the scientific method is not needed to establish them. They are formal. This doesn’t mean mathematics is completely divorced from empiricism. But it would be ludicrous to suggest that science is needed to establish the truth that 2+2=4. That’s a mathematic truth. Second, logical truths can be established without science. For example, if we know that all men are mortal, we know that any particular man is mortal. This is basic categorical deduction. One can also say “all pigs can fly. Porky is a pig. Therefore porky can fly.” Empirically, this is nonsense, but in terms of formal logic, it is valid. The basic format of this argument is one (of many) used in science, but again, science is not the same thing as logical deduction (or, for that matter, induction).

    The point of my above comments about truth can be summarized as “There is more than one form of truth; truth is not merely scientific truth.”

  • Archi Medez


    Re: atheism as part of a full world view. Yes, I see atheism as a by-product of a general empirical, scientific, moralistic, aesthetic view of life, plus application of a skeptical attitude toward received opinion. I see atheism (or positions close to it) as a mere side-effect of the practice of sound thinking.

  • vjack

    Very strange that I haven’t run across your blog until seeing your post on CoG. It doesn’t look like you have listed your blog on yet, so I encourage you to do so:

    I’m also adding you to my blogroll over at Atheist Revolution. Keep up the good blogging!

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Archi; being so late, I figured I wouldn’t post a response, in case you don’t see it. I typed one up and mistakenly erased it, as is my bad habit and luck. If you want to hear what I have to say, let me know, but I didn’t want to post in case you never checked the older entries.

  • Bill Johnston

    What about David Hume’s position that all decisions are base in emotion and irrationality regardless of belief or unbelief?

  • schemanista

    I suppose a person could, theoretically speaking, become an atheist and then adopt a dogmatic philosophy that is exactly the same as their previous religion in all aspects except that it does not include belief in a god.

    [cough] Objectivism [cough]

  • Alex Weaver

    What about David Hume’s position that all decisions are base in emotion and irrationality regardless of belief or unbelief?

    What about it?

  • Petrucio

    What about David Hume’s position that all decisions are base in emotion and irrationality regardless of belief or unbelief?

    Read Advice to a Christian and then tell me his decision was based on emotion and not in belief.