“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too.” - Douglas Adams
I’m an atheist. I’d like to tell you why. Most of the arguments for being an atheist point to how it is more scientific or probable. I’m sure you’ve heard those before, so I’m not going to touch them. Instead, I’d like to focus on the reasons atheism can lead to a greater quality of life.
That said, I’m not here to convert anyone, just expose people to different ideas. I’m not on a crusade against religion. I’ve read many different books on various world religions. Even if I disagree with some of the founding points, the exposure to those ideas improved my philosophy towards life.
Common Arguments Against Atheism
I’d like to start by giving my rebuttal to many of the common arguments against atheism. I’m not even going to touch the circular logic of going to Hell or blasphemy. But here are some of the supposedly sensible objections to denying the existence of a god:
Morality doesn’t need to come from the threat of divine punishment. Religion can do much good, but it can be twisted to do evil as well. I believe ethics come from society. It comes from the basic principles of respecting the rights of others, service and altruism. You don’t need a god to explain morality anymore than you need Zeus to explain lightning bolts.
Another common objection is that in not believing in a god, you believe death creates infinite nothingness. I don’t have space to fully explain different theories on the life and death, but this doesn’t need to be so. Atheism only suggests that death is a current unknown.
Scott Adams suggested another possibility in his book God’s Debris. Your consciousness is based on a pattern stored on neurons in your brain. If this is the case, dying would simply pause the pattern and it would resume sometime in the future. With no delay being seen from the observer this would essentially mean you couldn’t experience death.
I’m not arguing that this theory is the way reality works, just that atheism isn’t surrendering to a nihilistic view of life. Instead, it is opening yourself to many different possibilities.
This is an argument I’ve never quite understood. It basically goes that if you don’t believe in God, isn’t life meaningless? I think this is a rather weak argument since it assumes that meaning can’t be self-determined. It also assumes that without an invisible spirit watching you, life doesn’t have a purpose.
I pick a meaning for my life and I believe it is just as satisfying without conjuring a notion of a god. I believe a god can actually become a distraction from meaning since it causes you to focus on a divine overlord instead of what really matters – the other people and beings you share the world with.
Atheism for a Greater Quality of Life
Aside from being an atheist, I’m also a vegetarian. Beyond putting myself in two self-selected minorities, many of the arguments I’ve seen against vegetarianism are similar to those against atheism. A common cited reason people I know don’t want to eat meat is because they enjoy it too much. They don’t want to sacrifice.
This is hard to explain until you’ve tried both sides, but I don’t see avoiding meat as a sacrifice. Instead I see it as an opportunity to live a healthier life, reducing my chances of many chronic diseases and giving me more energy to do what I love. I also see it as removing the environmental and ethical discomfort in supporting an industry with questionable practices.
Similarly, I think a lot of believers don’t rationally believe in a god. But they don’t want to sacrifice the comforting notion that a being greater than themselves is watching down on them and helping them out.
But in focusing on that one benefit, you miss on the potential benefits of not believing in a deity:
- Freedom – The mental freedom to explore your world, learn and challenge your own assumptions. Instead of rejecting evidence that doesn’t fit your notion of a god, you can embrace everything with curiosity.
- Self-Reliance – Temporarily focusing on a god may keep you happy, but what about the long-term? Instead of expecting divine intervention to let everything work out, I focus on my own abilities and reasoning to improve my experience of life.
- Beauty – I believe beauty lies in the unknown. It lies in the things you can’t explain. That is what atheism really means. Instead of resorting to weak explanations of a deity creating the world, you see all the beautiful aspects of nature you currently don’t understand. Why tarnish evidence that the universe is larger and more magnificent than we ever realized by placing an invisible man in front of it?
Pantheism and Rational Spirituality
So far my arguments have been against the traditional notion of a god. That is an invisible, all-powerful being that not only created the universe but also, through conscious force, interrupts the rules of nature, that he himself created, to perform miracles for the benefit of one planet amidst billions of billions of stars.
The alternative to that doesn’t need to be a cold, hyper-rational, if-I-don’t-see-it-it-doesn’t-exist mindset. Pantheism (or as Richard Dawkins refers to it as “sexed up atheism”) is another choice.
Pantheism literally means “God is all.” It is the belief that the universe itself is god. That nature, humanity, science and truth are the reflection of god. In the most basic sense, this isn’t any different from atheism or science. But while atheism emphasizes what the atheist doesn’t believe in, pantheism presents the alternative.
I’m a follower of rational spirituality. Although it may sound like an oxymoron, rational spirituality means that truth, and your understanding of the world, enhance your appreciation of it. Instead of supplementing an unemotional scientific perspective with superstition, you find the emotional beauty in science and reason.
Read a book on evolutionary biology or quantum physics and it you soon realize how mind-blowingly amazing the universe actually is. The wonders of the New Testament, in my opinion, pale in comparison to how evolution works, the possibilities of string theory or quantum entanglement.
Appealing to a Higher Motive
God can serve a purpose in causing us to aspire towards something greater. But I don’t believe a theistic god is the only (or even the best) possibility here either.
Even beyond just appreciating nature and the world for beauty, you need an ideal to strive towards. A motivation that gives your life purpose and your broader actions meaning. An answer to the question, “What does it all mean?”
Finding your higher ideal is an incredibly personal task. It is a task that can’t be delegated or avoided by reading a holy book. I can’t tell you what your higher ideal should be. All I can show you is what mine is.
My higher motive is based on three separate principles:
- Truth - Complete understanding is the first part of my higher ideal. This means that there is intrinsic purpose in seeking the truth. And that faith or any suspension of the rational mind I possess is an inherent evil towards this goal. I don’t believe a lie at the most basic level can ever be superior to what reality actually is.
- Service – The second aspect of my higher ideal is service and morality. This means that there is intrinsic purpose in serving the greatest good and respecting the rights of others. Any act that harms the greatest good or infringes on the personal rights of another conscious being is inherently evil.
- Challenge - The final aspect of my higher ideal is that the pursuit of both truth and service is supposed to be challenging. Pain and struggle are not goals in themselves, but moving through challenges has intrinsic meaning if it moves you to greater truth and service. This means that no matter what happens to myself, there is a meaning in it if I choose to find it.
The two elements of rational spirituality and appealing to a higher motive do a far more elegant job of fulfilling me than adopting a specific religion and worshiping a god. Better yet, my beliefs are self-correcting. By placing the highest emphasis on truth, I am always willing to change my beliefs if evidence shows them to have errors.
Should You Become an Atheist?
I didn’t write this article to convert you. I fully expect not to have converted anyone who was already set in their beliefs. But just as I read religious and spiritual books to enhance my philosophy, hopefully this could do the same for you.
Further Reading for Atheism, Rational Spirituality and Higher Motives
- The God Delusion
- Letter to a Christian Nation
- God is Not Great
- The End of Faith
- The Blind Watchmaker
Spirituality and Philosophy:
- Buddhism Plain and Simple
- Tao Te Ching
- The Bhagavad Gita
- God’s Debris
- The Courage the Live Consciously (article)