February 10, 2007

Then What Do You Believe?

believe sign

Religious believers often have questions when encountering an atheist. I realize this can be annoying at times, but I'd encourage you to view religious believers with questions as a good thing. While some are little more than tactics pushed by their pastors aimed at converting us, others do seem to be sincere attempts to understand how someone could possibly not believe in their preferred god. This is an opportunity we probably shouldn't squander.

Many of the questions I'm used to hearing from Christians reflect a lack of scientific knowledge (e.g., "Then how did we get here?" or "Then why are there still monkeys?"), a lack of moral development (e.g., "If there is no god, why should we be good?"), or just a lack of imagination (e.g., "Then what do you worship?"). Setting those aside, there is at least one question I think atheists should be eager to receive and willing to provide meaningful answers: Then what do you believe?

A Christian who recognizes that atheism refers only to the lack of theistic belief and not to some broad agenda, philosophy, or alternative religion, sometimes asks an excellent question: "I understand that you do not accept the existence of any gods, but I'm curious about what you do believe." I hate to see atheists angrily dismiss this question as irrelevant, provoking, or as a desperate attempt to set up some sort of apologetics trap that will soon be sprung on the unsuspecting atheist because it is not necessarily any of these things. It might even represent a genuine attempt to understand atheism or the worldview of the particular atheist being questioned.

As we consider this question, one critical disclaimer must be offered at the outset. Because atheism has no doctrine, set of core values, or even shared vision of the world, no honest atheist is likely to have much to say about what other atheists believe, at least not on the basis of their atheism. Since atheism implies nothing besides a lack of theistic belief, one must expect tremendous diversity in the beliefs of atheists. For example, I have met atheists who believe in ghosts. All atheists necessarily share is that we do not believe in gods. This may be difficult for some Christians to grasp because they have at least some shared doctrine (i.e., some things one probably has to believe in order to reasonably call oneself a Christian); however, most Christians are aware that many evangelical fundamentalist Christians have a rather narrow perspective on this. Thus, there is plenty of disagreement, even among Christians.

To understand the importance of the question we are considering, imagine that you encounter someone who informs you that he does not believe in fairies. Regardless of what you think about fairies, this person has told you very little about what he or she does believe. Such is the case with atheists. Those of us who think it is important to provide religious believers with an alternative worldview are going to need to offer something beyond atheism.

To do my part, I am going to use this post as a springboard to mention some of what I believe that has little, if anything, to do with atheism. That way, anyone wanting to know what besides atheism composes my worldview will find it here. I expect it will change over time because what I believe tends to change over time. With that in mind, here are a few things I might note if I were to try to explain what I believe to a religious believer: