Happy, not Clappy

Aimee blogged, asking what benefits her atheism has over religious faith.

I wrote a response, which grew into a small essay, which I thought worth posting.

"Sometimes i still wonder though, whether i am really any better off now as a non-believer than i was as a believer."

I think it depends exactly what you mean by atheism. To me, there seem to be three common senses, which often get mixed up in people's heads - including atheistic heads:

1) Not believing in a cosmic tyrant - who sees all, knows all, and judges all according to some arbitrary (and inconsistent) moral code.

2) Not believing in anything supernatural or incredible - ghosts, reincarnation, telepathy, the illuminati, shapeshifting alien lizards, time travel etc. At least, until some decent evidence comes along, in which case they're no longer fantasy.

3) Believing that, if a problem is genuine and actually has a solution, whether it's theoretical or practucal, empirical or moral, reason can find it, given sufficient evidence and opportunity.

The third position is a kind of faith, and might be identified with humanism.

Specifically, it's faith based (inductively) on good but not perfect evidence - as opposed to faith based on no evidence, or weak evidence, or actually opposing the evidence. I wrote a lot of paragraphs about different kinds of faith, which I'll spare you.

It obviously can't be proven that every possible real problem is rationally soluble, but given the vast evidence, it's inductively very likely.

You're asking what benefits atheism has. I'd turn it around and ask what harm religion does.

An atheist in the first sense is free to live without the fear of an invisible abusive parent in the sky. They live without cosmic Stockholm syndrome.

The real world is a scary enough place, without inventing invincible demonic versions of real cultural barriers. Atheism here doesn't exactly make you happy, but it does make you less sad, and less scared.

An atheist in the second sense is a skeptic, or a rationalist - someone who's cautious about what they believe, and so isn't easy to fool or con. Again, skeptics don't always make great decisions, but they make fewer foolish ones.

GK Chesterton made a famous remark that ceasing to believe in god left one open to any other belief. It's quite possible to be an atheist in my first sense, but a gullible believer in my second.

I think the third position is, by definition, rationalism - in the broad, lower case sense, as opposed to the continental philosophy sense.

It may indeed not provide the pleasant fuzzy sensations of an imaginary friend, but as soon as you're required to make a practical decision, it's a lot more reliable.

Finally, there are plenty of sources of spiritual nourishment that don't involve irrational belief, so the unbeliever is left far from starving. Music, literature, film and theater are I find quite sufficient, and come with fewer strings attached. And let's not forget friendship, love and indeed sex.

So in short: Atheism doesn't make you happy, but it does make you sensible, and there's plenty of other things to make you happy.

1 comment:

  1. Although I identify myself as a 'believer', I am much more comfortable with atheists and agnostics.

    It is sad that spirituality has been co-opted by religion. As you pointed out, truly spiritual things like art, music and nature have absolutely nothing to do with dogma.