I get email: what do atheist believe in?

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

Jt,

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.


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