I get email: what do atheist believe in?

This one comes from Gilbrand the Mighty (name changed to keep the sender anonymous).


I attended your lecture at UNLV last night and enjoyed it.  I should have asked this question but I didn’t (chalk it up to a phobia for public speaking)

As an atheist, the question I get the most the most from theists after declaring my disbelief in a deity is “Well, what DO you believe in then? You have to believe in SOMETHING.”
My response is usually something like “I believe in humanity. I believe in a wondrous universe it which I am lucky to have been born.  I simply don’t believe in things that there is little or no evidence for.”
Unfortunately they don’t find this response too convincing. Any thoughts?

-Gilbrand the Mighty, Vanquisher of Evil

Thanks for the email, Gilbrand.

As for what atheists believe in, my response is usually “I’d put my stamp of approval on 90% of the things on wikipedia.”  If I have to go into more detail I’ll usually say something like…

I believe that cell phones work.  I believe that you’d suffocate if you spent too much time underwater.  I believe that when humankind faces a problem, it has always been our own ingenuity that has gotten us out of it.  When we were sick, prayer didn’t work so we invented medicine.  When our prayers for food went unanswered, we learned how to farm and hunt better.  When we wanted to see the stars, we conceived the schematics for a telescope that were nowhere in the bible.  In short, I believe in humanity.  I also believe in trees.  I can touch them, see them, smell them.  God gave me none of this evidence for himself, so he clearly prioritizes my belief in trees over my belief in him.

I also believe the universe is consistent, and so do you.  If I burn my hand on a stove, I won’t put my hand on the stove again because the universe is consistent (neither will you).  I leave my house by the front door every day rather than my second story bedroom window, because the universe is consistent, and the odds of gravity not behaving consistently are as close to nil as the laws of physics will allow.  You do the same.  The only difference between us is that I carry this to its logical conclusion: people don’t rise from the dead, and there is not enough surface tension in liquid water for a grown man to walk on it.  You can pick one: either the universe is consistent or Christianity is true.  Of course, you’ve already chosen…you just choose to jettison the world in favor of some old stories.  You call this noble, I call it as dismal a failure as the person who burns his hand on the stove more than once.

Keep on ‘em, Gilbrand.  Keep vanquishing evil.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Art Vandelay

    That’s a great response but what I notice is that there’s always a follow-up question…

    “Yeah, but you HAVE to believe in something greater than yourself. How can you think there’s nothing out there greater than you?”

    This question is posed of course to make it look like I’m severely lacking in humility. My response is simply that I don’t require a belief in something greater than me because I don’t believe there’s anything less than me. If I thought the universe was specifically designed for me, I’d probably need something to keep my humility in check too.

    • Joey K.

      Very well put. I’ve tried out the same sort of argument and I am always told that we are better than animals because we have computers, bridges, blah blah blah. That’s all fine and dandy, but they seem to ignore the fact that the animals seem to get along just fine without those things. Then there are the really smart animals. I am, of course, talking about pets. They have found a way to have their every need taken care of free of charge, plus they get to walk around naked as well.

      • Jasper

        My response to that is usually along the lines of pointing out that the only real difference is our ability to talk and communicate complex ideas. That leads to advanced oral education, and we eventually encode those ideas onto paper, and our overall knowledge accumulates, instead of having to re-invent the wheel, generation after generation. Eventually, a select few of us monkeys know enough to make a cell phone.

        The other 99.99% of us are incapable of anything like that. Like any animal, we can be trained to use a computer or cell phone. Sure, we have bridges. We go over them – amazing!

    • Compuholic

      you HAVE to believe in something greater than yourself

      I have never gotten this before but I would ask them to specify what they mean by “greater” because I suspect they are playing word games. That should settle it:

      If greater means: “physically bigger”, sure there are lots of things who are physically bigger than me. If it means “more intelligent”: Sure, there are lots of people smarter than me. If they are talking about species in general then no, I don’t have to believe that there is anything greater than us. There might be other planets where there is more intelligent life (in the human sense). But since we have no evidence of it, I don’t have to believe in it.

      And do so for whatever they bring up for their meaning of “greater”.

      • Jasper

        And you know that if you disagree that you have to believe in something “greater” than yourself, it’s because you worship yourself as a god.

    • invivoMark

      That’s an easy one to answer.

      I’m a person. There are whole cities, whole regions, whole societies of people out there, any one of them far greater than I will ever be, simply because they are all composed of many amazing people.

      I’m not as great as a city. But I get to be a part of one. I get to contribute to the greatness of something far greater than myself.

    • David Hart

      Here’s a handy reply:
      I believe that humanity is greater than the sum of its parts, but it is composed of nothing but ordinary humans.

      • Art Vandelay

        Well they certainly don’t think it’s other humans that are greater than them. Quite the contrary in most cases.

    • iknklast

      I believe in the universe. Although I’ve gained some weight lately, it’s still much bigger than myself. Isn’t the universe enough? What more could you need?

    • B-Lar

      My response is always “Why does there HAVE to be something greater” and similarly, “why does there HAVE to be a meaning/purpose to life”.

      If they answer, it will almost certainly be “… well, it just does.” at which point I mentally chant “that which can be asserted without eveidence can be dismissed without evidence”, and respond with a chuckling “you havent thought about this very hard have you.”

      You might get some pity as having a life without meaning, but I usually fend that off with the unsinkable assertion that reality is better than anything. If reality is hard, uncaring and cold, thats OK. Its not always like that, but it is always real.

      • Art Vandelay

        Right and even if I did accept the premise that I have to believe in something greater than myself…I still don’t. It always comes back to this idea that they think belief is a choice. I can say I believe in something greater than myself, but it doesn’t make it true.

      • Kodie

        Meaning to what or whom? That is something I do not really understand. Most people mean something to someone. I get sometimes that life can be dreary and pointless. You get a job that feels dreary and pointless and what comes at the end. Money. You spend the money on things you need and want and report back to work, that defines all of your worth to other people. Then there is a lot of social pressure and criticism – there’s something wrong with you, you fucked up, nobody will hire you, you’re lazy, you’re letting down your family, etc, if you don’t even have even that much going for you. Isn’t that weird that you’re supposed to say, well, these assholes have just made my tough situation worse and shamed me, please though, I mean something to god, at least!

        How strange that we’re supposed to put up with other people if that’s the only reason that you mean something to an invisible deity, and only to an invisible deity, because you are a person and not a moth or a sloth or a tomato. Seriously, look at a plant or animal and ask out loud (or in your mind, if you’re outside by yourself), “why are you here? What gives your life meaning?” They were born from seeds at a coincidental time to the person asking and the universe does not have an answer. People can be brutal except your family, except when they are too, and when you have nothing left, look beyond them to your imaginary friend. How strange that adults cannot comprehend meaning without god. They supposedly understand meaning – they love and feel loved, they would be missed from their community, they are grateful for people who mean something to them also. Why do we have funerals for people at all if god supplies all the meaning that we have? Why do people bother, religiously, to acknowledge the meaning to them of the person who has died, if there is no meaning in life without god. Is it too harsh to be reminded that you live and die like a flower, with meaning to cause delight in someone at some time so that you only die someday?

    • Tobias27

      I always answer that question with I believe in us.

      I know that there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, but I am an educator because I believe that humans can get better. If we can just keep from making our species extinct, we can accomplish all kinds of amazing things. It’s an evolutionarily slow process, but I can see incremental evidence for its existence. Evolve Faster Goddammit !!

  • Kim

    Art, that’s usually the follow-up question/ accusation I get, too. I actually am quick to point out that I do believe in something greater than myself, and it’s precisely the humility of accepting my *very* small part of the universe as we (in our present limited capacity) know it that makes it impossible for me to accept evidence-deficient assertions of a human-centric universe, or bold claims to knowledge of the form and will of a supernatural all-powerful, all-knowing *master* of such a human-centric universe whose favor may be earned by my sycophancy, if, by dumb luck of birth or choice, I’m worshipping the *right* deity in the *right* way.

    • Art Vandelay

      That’s a beautiful response, Kim. I’m guessing it returns a lot of blank stares?

      • Kim

        Some, yes. ;-) Perhaps even more frustrating, though, are the times when I manage to articulate this in a way that gets through, but I end up getting a response more or less amounting to, “Wow, I never thought of it like that before; that actually makes a lot of sense if I think about it, but I’m prefer not to, because I’m uncomfortable having my preconceptions challenged.”

        • Kim

          *I prefer, not “I’m prefer” (typing too fast, sorry)

        • Art Vandelay

          “That’s a great point now excuse me while I go wash it from my memory forever.”

        • invivoMark

          I get that too! So disappointing!

    • unbound

      I agree with this sentiment. It reminds me of the great ending to the best comic strip I ever read. http://cabcalvinandhobbes.tripod.com/images/ch_last.gif

  • vini

    I was just having this discussion a couple of days ago with a (New Age type) believer. It’s always amusing that merely pointing out that there is such an option of simply not believing in anything supernatural sort of surprises them.

  • http://anthrozine.com Cubist

    I think a good answer to “how can you think there’s nothing out there greater than you?” is “Define ‘greater’. I definitely believe there are things out there which are taller than me, smarter than me, better-informed than me, have more political power than me, and so on. So… what’s your point?”
    Apart from that, the Digital Cuttlefish has a pretty good answer: http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2011/04/13/what-do-atheists-believe/

  • AJ

    I believe I’ll have another drink. (Wait, did I read these posts out of order?)

    You could always ask the theist to define what they mean by “believe”. Theists seem to have a rather loose definition of the word sometimes so they can use it however they want.

    • John Horstman

      Yes, this too. Equivocation is a time-honored method of mediating cognitive dissonance.

  • L. Poe

    Here would be my response:
    What do you mean by that? What do I believe that replaces the Bible for Christians? Well, first off, I believe that science is and will continue to give us answers to how the universe was formed, what it is comprised of, and the rules that exists by. As for my morals and ethics, I largely follow humanism, as most atheists do, whether they know it or not, which means my morality is driven largely by the desire to find solutions to problems that diminish human suffering, both in the short and long term, using our natural tools of empathy and rationality. I also believe this is what humanity has always done, and the most innocent of religions are simply misinformed strategies of doing just that.

  • baal

    I like to point people to Edward Tarte actually or even mention JT’s blog as examples of atheists who have full and meaningful lives and have them more or less on display. I also point out with the inevitable follow up that I don’t believe in any supernatural whatever including magic, aliens and ‘the force.’ Every now and then they try to trip me up by asking if I like movies or TV shows. Then the answer is, “no, I like shows and stories often have made up facts in them. Plays are great too.”

  • Kodie

    Do I believe in supernatural justice, you mean? Obedience to some invisible authority? No. I live on a planet, and I guess it has an unusual atmosphere, and I like it. It is wise to be cautious if not obedient of some of its features, for example, lightning and fire and riptides and germs. I believe in some things “greater” than me, things I have to watch out for, but they aren’t coming after me. From 93 million miles away, the sun can burn my skin, so I wear sunblock. From 93 million miles away, the sun helps lettuce to grow, and beans, and without it I will die of hunger. It’s not doing it on purpose. When it rains, I wear a raincoat, and I use my windshield wipers so I don’t crash into another car or a pole or a pedestrian. I don’t say “why do I have to” and be careless because I think I have god-like powers; I know I do, which makes it important to be careful with those powers. Why is it raining? It does that on my planet. We’re just here figuring out ways to stay dry, and failing that, it sometimes makes a romantic backdrop. How clever we are.

    To give credit to god is to take people for granted for taking care of your life and your needs and with your safety in mind – people who drive, people whose job it is to put electricity in your house, people who fix roofs, people who invent smarter phones, people who taught you how to eat with a fork without stabbing yourself in the eye, for a few examples. Instead of saying grace to god for your dinner, thank whoever picked it and whoever packed it, whoever drove it to your store, and whoever put it on the shelf and whoever invented oven ranges, and whoever washed the dishes (was that you? Thank yourself and whoever cleaned your water before piping it to your faucet). Thanking god at the table before your dish is to put on the appearance of being grateful, but you missed the chance to thank the actual parties responsible. We’re all in this together, we depend on so many people working together to make our lives comfortable at all, and that’s greater than alone. There is no one greater than me, they are all greater than me.

  • articulett

    I tell them that I probably believe in pretty much the same things they do except for the invisible people, immeasurable forces and supernatural thingies.

    I believe that real things should be distinguishable from imaginary things via scientific testing. (If skeptics consider it “woo”– I probably don’t believe in it, but should sufficient evidence surface, I would change my mind… but it would have to be REAL evidence– the kind scientists are interested in testing to find out more.)

    I think the real reason theists ask this particular question is because they want to do a “tit for tat” thing in their mind the way they do for people with conflicting faiths: “I won’t question your supernatural beliefs if you don’t question mine.”

  • H.H.

    I am an atheist because the ideal upon which I place the most value is truth. It’s that simple.

  • SB

    Tell them you believe in Santa Claus. If they say that he doesn’t exist, ask them to prove it.

  • ben porter

    Freedom the right to live my life the way that i want to as long as i dont hurt others. And the ability to do so without being looked down upon and persucuted by somone who admits their belief is blind, but still claims they are holding the truth while placing themselves in a position of moral athority with threats of totrutre real or after we die