Myth: Atheists Believe in Nothing

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Have you ever heard these common reactions to atheism?

You can’t be an atheist. How can you believe in nothing? Everybody believes in something. Maybe you’re an agnostic and you’ll figure it out one day. You’re just going through a stage. Your life must feel so empty and lonely.

I came across a popular objection today in the midst of an online conversation about how it’s more acceptable for atheists to bash religious people and call them names than for a Christian to talk the same way about atheists. Feel free to comment about this as well; I’m curious if you think it’s true in an online context.

Christian: I just think that it’s important that you believe in something bigger than you. God, Allah, the stars in the sky – believe in something so that you don’t feel alone in this world.

Me: Why do you think atheists are lonely?

Christian: Not lonely, but just with the few atheists who have bothered to sit with me & actually talk about it, they have told me that they think that there is nothing. Just people and then nothing. I haven’t done research or anything like that, just going off what I have been told. [My boyfriend’s] best friend is a very loud atheist. He’s very open that he thinks there’s nothing bigger out there and that when we die, there’s just nothing.

Me: Interesting. I agree that after death there is nothing, but I like that. I also believe in bigger things like, you know, the greatness of community, love, humanity, etc. Also the wonder of reality without the supernatural. Why look for something imaginary when you can have the glory of the universe? So there you go—an atheist who isn’t alone, hopeless, nor lacking.

How would you respond?
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March 17, 2011  |  christianity, god, religion

27 Comments


  1. GG,

    I have been thinking about this the last couple of days. Oddly enough, it was triggered by watching the last episode of the TV series, “The Sopranos”. As you may know, the final episode ends abruptly; no ceremony, no farewells. And it leaves one feeling emptiness and not a little disappointment.

    This got me thinking about the seductive power of religion. If life ends as it did in the Sopranos, with nothingness, then the concept of an afterlife and the eschatology of Christianity can seem really hopeful by comparison. Fear of death is really strong, once you’re willing to face it head on. The sadness that comes with contemplating your own end of consciousness can be really weighty.

    How easy and intoxicating to take solace in the concept of eternal life or the return of a redeemer who brings utopia!

    I just can’t bring myself to do it. And, it’s hard for me to imagine that believers willfully deceive themselves so as not to face their fears. Seems the more noble path to me to accept reality despite the sinking emotions. Don’t go whimpering into that good night.

    • That’s much the same thought that brought me out of my latent theism into full atheism… The idea that God and an afterlife was comforting wasn’t a good enough reason to believe it was true.

      Of course atheists believe in plenty of things—love, humanity, kindness, law, the amazing wonder of the natural world. Just not “god”. It seems to me somebody who says things like that doesn’t know much about atheists.

      But then, I can’t remember the last time I really tried to explain my beliefs to a theist… It was probably High School… ;)

    • NotSoMightyGod,

      While reading your comment, I immediately thought to disagree with you regarding “believers willfully (deceiving) themselves so as not to face their fears” but Thyreal beat me to it. People deceive themselves all the time: in bad relationships (I’m talking about relationships with “real” people not imaginary god(s)), in their occupations, financially, concerning health matters, and in many other ways clearly visible in the lives of so many.

      Regarding the christian in this post — my impression is that she(?) has not yet fully considered the implications of her beliefs, nor the reasoning behind the choices non-theists make. I’m curious how a longer conversation with her would turn out.

      From this limited exchange, I don’t think she is fully indoctrinated yet.

      • Refreshing on the thread this morning; what’s coming through is my own prejudice for atheism shining through and coloring from the frustrations I’ve had with family and friends whom I’ve had conversations with and who cling to religion despite it’s obvious flaws and inconsistencies. (That might be the longest single sentence that I’ve ever written.)

        Perhaps those that I’ve entrusted with my atheism are as frustrated with me!

        Thanks for keeping me honest (with myself).

  2. I’ve heard this accusation about atheists believing in nothing, and it annoys me to no end. I think the issue is that, if you believe in God, all good things get connected to God (since he’s supposed to the creator of the universe) and so the assumption is that, without God, a person must believe in nothing. Personally, I think there is plenty to believe in without God, such as goodness, love, helping others, etc. Of course death is scary, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do good during life. Even if it all ends, and no one is there to remember us, it’s enough to know that we were here and that we did everything we could.

    On the issue of whether it is more acceptable for atheists to insult religious people than the other way around, I find it interesting that in a comment thread about this topic, a person ended up accusing atheists of not believing in anything. Really, it depends on which website you go to, whether it’s an atheist website or a religious website. I do think that sometimes, when religious people insult atheists, they think it’s not really an insult, since it’s based on their religious beliefs.

    • I think the issue is that, if you believe in God, all good things get connected to God (since he’s supposed to the creator of the universe) and so the assumption is that, without God, a person must believe in nothing.

      This might just be where the confusion is coming from. If God is the source, root, and definition of everything in the universe, then thinking outside the box would be very difficult. Where do you start? I think it’s helpful to start with science. As I was coming out of Christianity, one of the major catalysts was a greater understanding of how theology differs with scientific theory.

      • I may be misinterpreting or mixing your comments here. If so, my apologies. How did science help you, or maybe rather your understanding of scientific theory?

        I suppose there is, say, scientism which seems to be a philosophy or faith that believes science will develop, explain, or reason all the answers to life’s questions at some point. My issue with that is the statement itself cannot be proven by science. To me, that isn’t any different than Catholicism, protestantism, or whatever. But I may be way off base. This may not be at all what you meant.

  3. Agreed with NotSoMightyGod,
    The issues aren’t what it must feel like… i mean there are so many ways in which the world could be awesomer…
    The question is whether anything like that is true. And fooling yourself into believing something simply because the truth is nasty is just a dumb approach as it allows you to do nothing about the situation.
    Does death suck? You bet.
    Although all of us will with almost certainty die, human age keeps prolonging thanks to advances in science and perhaps in a few hundred years children will learn about the time when people died of old age just from history books.
    But if we close our eyes by a premise of fictional afterlife, noone will ever even attempt achieving something like that.
    Like a person with lung cancer who persuades himself he’s just got a bit of a cough will not get potentially lifesaving chemotherapy.

    So, their whole question is wrong.
    It isn’t “how can you go about life believing in nothing’ but “how can’t you go about life without inventing beliefs to deny the reality”

  4. I’m an atheist and yet I don’t believe that nothing happens after you die. Yes, our consciousness gets annihilated, but when we die, we just simply return what we borrowed from the universe. Not only that, but our own experience and existence is not only unique, but eternal and indestructible. The more I can pass on my experiences onto others to help them grow and gain even more experience in their lives, the more of a lasting impression I make on my own existence.

    I spent almost an eternity not being born, and it never bothered me. I’m going to spend an eternity not being conscious once more, why should it bother me?

    • I spent almost an eternity not being born, and it never bothered me. I’m going to spend an eternity not being conscious once more, why should it bother me?

      Worth repeating :)

  5. Is there anything as empty as “belief”? Yes…Faith. Both are absolute nothings. Why does one need either? Both are vacuuous and completely irrelevent. Atheists are bright enough to recognise the stupidity of belief and faith. To have respect for either is about as useful as farting in a phone booth.

    • I guess I’m confused here. What do you mean by belief/faith, and how does that differ from the many uses of the word belief in the other comments in this thread?

  6. This situation clearly reminds me of when I told my dad I didn’t believe in God anymore. You know, here in Brazil, catholics are majority. And my family is not an exception – especially my grandmother, who goes to church every single Sunday and is a strong believer.

    “So, there’s no one bigger than you. What do you believe in then?”, he asked me. The first answer that came into mind was “fate”. But I was 5 years younger. When I really stopped to think about it, I realized “fate” was something else I should doubt.

    I also noticed I was starting to believe only things that really existed, that has already been proved. Like you said, love, humanity and the wonder of living without the supernatural.

    And about death, there’s nothing for me either. By the way, I constantly catch myself thinking of the time when there’ll be no more thoughts traveling inside my head and silence will be forever. I like silence. And I like even more the fact that there’s not gonna be anything else to worry about when I die. After all, we spend most of our lives worried.

    Christians keep criticizing our ‘nothing’. But they forget to ask themselves where their God came from. They also think we have no feelings. “You’re an atheist, therefore you’re insensitive.” That’s another mith.

    As my first comment, I must say I loved your blog. I’ve been searching websites like this, and yours is one of the few I really enjoyed. For any mistakes, I’m sorry. My English is not perfect. Yet.

    • Welcome! I’m very glad you took the time to give your perspective. Coming from a very religious family is difficult. Has it gotten any easier for you since 5 years ago? Do they accept your point of view more easily?

      • Well, I can talk about it at home – it’s normal -, but my parents always look me with a weird face, like it was some “demon” thing. I guess sometimes they wonder, “where the hell did we go wrong?”, haha.

  7. I agree with what you’ve said. I believe there is nothing after us and I LIKE that. I don’t like the idea of some asshole in the sky judging me and scrutinizing every single action I take and then punishing/rewarding me for all eternity based on some arbitrary rules it came up with. I believe in larger concepts like family and community and humanity. And I work to make what small, insignificant bit of life we do have hear as good as it can be. This concept did bother me for a while though, after I decided I really didn’t buy into the god thing anymore I was left thinking, “Well, if I don’t think there’s a god then is there nothing? Is that it? Just nothing?” It does take some adjusting, especially when you’ve been taught since birth that there’s a sky daddy watching over you and we are the most important things in the universe to this being. This kind of transition should be discussed because I think it’d this transition that religious people focus so much on.

    What helped me realize that it was all ok, being without a higher being watching over me, was actually Carl Sagan. I watched The Cosmos and there’s a part where he talks about how we are all stardust. Stardust studying stardust. (Actually, Carl Sagan played a big part in my coming to terms with my atheism and reigniting my love of space) Then I realized, it was OKAY that there was nothing after this. Even the stars themselves, massive powerful giants that they are, die out and are nothing. Why should we be any different than the stars, right? I find that comforting. It makes me feel at one with the entire universe but at the same time it makes me realize how small and insignificant everything is including myself. But maybe that’s just me. I know that idea scared me to death when I was more religious, and I imagine if you told that to any religious person asking you they’d be just as worried. It’s really a hard topic to really talk about. I talked about this with my mom once and she replied, “So basically you’ve replaced God with stars? Don’t you think it’s weird how these scientists all talk about and revere nature like Christians do God?” When someone is stuck in a worshiping state of mind it’s really hard for them to see reverence and awe as anything other than worship and deism. :\

    • I know I’m late to this thread – catching up with a backlog of blog reading.

      Just wanted to say that whilst Sagan wasn’t my “gateway drug” as such, I view the stardust thing similarly to you.

      There are days (usually when I’m late for work and have something difficult scheduled!) that I think, “what’s it all about?”. We’re insignificant beings scurrying around on a ball of rock. We work to make money for our employer. We exchange our money for boxes of stuff. We struggle against issues such as discrimination, hunger, poverty, crime, greed. For what?

      But then I stop and look at the beautiful tree next to my bus stop. I stare up at the sky and see birds tumble and whirl through the air. I breathe in the scents of flowers. I imagine the vastness of space above our atmosphere and remember that I am the by-product of a supernova! This bit of stardust can gaze back at the stars, can try to make sense of the world around her and can work to make her small bit of the world a slightly better place.

  8. This is a very thoughtful thread. I think this online Christian does what many hyper-religious people do (both on and off-line) – which is set up the one note, straw man athiest.

    Even though I don’t believe in its mythology (or that belief in its mythology is essential for salvation) – I recognize that Christians, like athiests, agnostics, Hindus, etc – are complicated individuals with complicated motivations for who they are and what they do. I wish more people felt that way.

  9. People equate God with goodness, morality, and the meaning of life. Most religions also promote a sense of community and friendship among followers. When you tie all that into your religious beliefs, _of course_ atheists are going appear as if they don’t have anything.

    This is why we need to inform them otherwise. I feel that it is my duty to demonstrate to believers that atheists are not moral-less, dejected, cynical human beings and that life means so much to us. I’d even argue that it means so much more to us. Lead by example :)

  10. I am an atheist and I believe in nothing.

  11. As a Christian I would ask, “You say I also believe in bigger things like, you know, the greatness of community, love, humanity, etc.” What makes these qualities better than any other given Atheism? If all animals including humans developed step by step through evolution (and before this abiogenesis), it seems that our morals & social behaviors are strictly determined by evolution. You want to love and support your fellow human beings, Hitler wanted to advance his “Master Race” by destroying people who were not of this race. Given Atheism, what makes one of these evolutionary paths correct and the other incorrect (or good/evil)?

    To your question, “Why look for something imaginary when you can have the glory of the universe?” I would answer “How did the Universe begin?” There is excellent evidence (given by Dawkins, Hawking, and a host of other Atheistic scientists) pointing to the fact that the Universe(s) began to exist at a finite point in the past, and that it began to exist in a fantastically unlikely way. The fact that the most widely accepted theory is that an infinite number of untestable, unobservable universes came into existence from absolutely nothing for no reason at a finite point in the past, seems to show that the atheist scientist is simply clutching whatever straws he can find.

    • “You want to love and support your fellow human beings, Hitler wanted to advance his “Master Race” by destroying people who were not of this race. Given Atheism, what makes one of these evolutionary paths correct and the other incorrect (or good/evil)? ”

      There is a huge difference between evolution and the systematic murder of human beings.

      In evolution, random genetic mutations are passed to offspring if the animal with the genetic mutation survives long enough to reproduce. Animals without advantageous mutations are less likely to reproduce, which is why certain mutations are more likely to persist within a population. This concept entirely differs from slaughtering people based on whatever attribute (race, sex, religion, etc.) is hated by a group of people.

      Morality is tied to evolution in the sense that we have achieved a level of sentience and sapience so that we can contemplate issues philosophically and reflect on our own behaviors. Also, empathy is not experienced by humans alone. Primates have demonstrated what scientists consider to the be the “building blocks” of moral behavior:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/20/science/20moral.html

      As the article contends, it’s very likely that religion developed as a convenient vehicle for the teaching of moral principles. But that does not mean that atheists are amoral, or that children need to go to church in order to be moral citizens.

      It’s insulting to be paired with mass murderers for the sole reason that atheists’ moral development don’t revolve around religion.

      • Good morning Jenny,

        I am not trying to be insulting to people whose morality does not revolve around a religion. If I am incorrect in my analysis, please tell me how. My understanding is that evolution is primarily natural selection working on unguided mutations. The changes that are preserved will be those that best help an individual’s or a group’s DNA get passed to the next generation. This seems to be the only kind of morality that evolution can support. I am not claiming that evolution cannot be responsible for the development of altruistic feelings for your in-group. I am also not claiming that an atheist cannot be moral (The Bible states that God gave everyone a conscience whether we believe in him or not).

        I am claiming that if natural selection working on unguided mutations and genetic drift are the only means of passing traits from one generation to the next – that if people are simply another form of animal that has developed through this method – there is nothing that gives an individual’s life any real value. When we see a male lion take over a pride and kill the cubs of the previous head of the tribe we do not think of this as evil or murderous. After all, this is a development that has best allowed the species to survive through time. Why do we think it is evil therefore when we see one group of people wipe out another group of people?

        On page 252 of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins states, “It is easy to see why our prehistoric ancestors would have been good to their own in-group but bad – to the point of xenophobia – towards other groups.” Why should we objectively see one of these ideas as good and the other bad? When the American settlers killed millions of Native Americans in their quest for Manifest Destiny, we almost wiped out large groups of humans with different traits… and in the process we got their resources for what we saw as our group (Europeans). Why is this bad? Even Darwin saw the implication of his theory when he named his primary work “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

        Our constitution says that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” Why are these rights unalienable? Because they were given by our creator. If the rights are given by our government, it seems that the government would have the right to take them away. Only if there is an absolute moral law giver can there be an absolute moral law. Without such a law, questions such as “Is genocide acceptable” are determined by the group that wins the war.

  12. There are many times that atheists correctly refrain from using anecdotal evidence in the face of superstition. However, when I hear this question what the religious person is really saying is: How can you live an empty life?

    I will smile and tell them what I find meaningful: my children, my wife, friends, writing comedy, feeling the sun on my face on a chilly day. Superstition does not get in between me and the people and things I care about.

  13. Atheists believe god does not exist. It’s not a fact, thus it’s a belief. Example: You can say aliens don’t exist or do exist, but does that make it true? No. It’s just choosing to believe one way or the other. Now if you are neutral then you are nothing, you believe nothing, you just say ” i don’t ~know~ so i will not choose a side.

  14. “I agree that after death there is nothing, but I like that.”
    Agreed, but you want to be careful with admitting that to a theist. They are annoyingly prone to call you clinically depressed/suicidal if you do. I know, that’s pretty illogical, but what do you expect from religious people to begin with? ;)

  15. I do not understand this idea of atheism. So after death you want to think you disappear into nothiness that’s depressing. Have you never felt helped in your time of need or any time in your life if you had you would know there was a beneficial intelligence in the universe God is as good a term as any as it’s undescibable.

    You can beleif in evolution as well as christianity as they’re are definate unexplainable gaps in evolutionary history. I mean there where so many things that had to happen for humans to exist cosmic wise too and you don’t call that a miracle??

    love, hope, happiness, family are not beleifs they’re human manifestations of life. It’s like saying I beleif in insects existing, it does not make sence as you know they’re there therefore they are not beleifs.

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