If You Don’t Have Faith, Then What Do You Believe In?


Recently a Christian asked me, “If you don’t have Faith, then what do you believe in?”
She was earnest, and so I replied earnestly:
               I believe in goodness, for which without there could not be kindness. I believe in lending a helping hand to our fellow homo sapiens, as well as to animal kind. I believe in equality and the active protest of inequality wherever it should rear its ugly head. I believe in peace, freedom, love and the pursuit of happiness. I believe these are the inalienable rights of every person regardless of age, gender, or race.

I believe in human rights, the right for people to choose who they want to love and how they go about expressing that love. I believe in the right for gays to marry and for women to go unveiled. I believe we have the right to take a stand against promoters of dangerous ideologies as well as actively support those ideologies which will enlighten the human race and liberate us from the shackles of antiquated and outmoded belief systems. I believe in diplomacy. I believe in triumphing over cruelty and iniquity, stupidity and ignorance.

I believe in progress, in science, and in the heuristic quest for answers. I believe being erudite trumps being lazy. I believe in patience and in formulating a thought carefully before voicing an opinion. I believe in gaining an educated opinion about somebody else’s cherished beliefs before criticizing it. I believe in a vast expanding universe so magnificent that when put into perspective I am infinitesimally un-important. But I don’t think this is nihilist or defeatist, I find it humbling, even awe-inspiring. I believe not all questions need answers and not all answers require deeply profound inquiries.

I believe in the innate good of humanity, and the struggle to become more than just an animal. I believe we have the capability to transcend out primitive origins. I believe in free thinking. I believe respect must be earned, not doled out because it is simply expected. I believe in striving to better myself and do good. I believe in human solidarity and the eternal struggle against our flawed nature to improve ourselves to the point where pain and suffering are minimal. I believe these things are all achievable, and that with some effort and hard work, we can move towards unheard of echelons of human moral goodness. I believe that all this is true even without the added concept of God.

All these, which I call appreciations, can be understood and achieved without the idea of God.
She then countered with the question, “Well, what are your moral guides then? What are your secular ‘Ten Commandments’? How do you know right from wrong?” Instead of correcting her on the nature of the Ten Commandments (most of which are unethical, let alone erroneous—but that’s a debate for another time) I simply informed that I derive my morality from the accumulative appreciations I have accrued, and that it’s not just one set of beliefs I prescribe to, but an unlimited and never ending sea of ideas, thoughts, principles.  Each of these key appreciations which make up my “belief,” subsequently, compound to form a larger foundation for morality than any holy book could ever provide. And the tools of reason and my moral sense (call it my conscience if you will) help aid me to decipher the wisdom, discerning the excellence from the genuinely rubbish, simultaneously finding merit in the best while disregarding the worst.

Accordingly, by a process of elimination, and proven methods of critical thinking, I allow myself to step back and examine each appreciation in detail finding a common strand of wisdom interwoven into their very fabric, their significance enhance by the awareness of their internal congruity, and with each increasing appreciation their total value and sophistication also increases, as does my benefit from them. For each moral improvement helps me advance morally.

All this sounded fine to her, but she couldn’t quite believe that the myriad of random philosophies floating in my head could come out as anything other than sound bites of sophist opinion. I said I would agree with such a statement, if and only if, I was immoral and an imbecile to begin with, and by my own unfortunate circumstances of being held ransom to my own naïveté, retarded by ignorance, could not find the moral sense enough to unravel the greater mysteries. Only an automaton would be calculating probabilities of the raw data without consideration of the implications regardless of the negative harm it might cause. Nor am I a moral relativist. I believe there is good and there is bad, and what’s more, that we can know the difference. But I am not a cold soulless robot, I reminded her. I am an Atheist, and so too a skeptic, and I could never put my faith into something I knew to be blatantly untrue.

(Note: I do not mean to say I “know for certain” that God does not exist. I think with our current understanding it is impossible to assume God exists or not, and so I remain agnostic on whether such a supreme being exists or could even exist, in which case I  must agree with Albert Einstein who properly stated, “I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him I would be a liar.” However, when a person says I believe in a specific type of God, i.e. the God of Christianity, which is beyond mere personal knowing and becomes an individualized sort of God–reflected in the cultures which first conceived and championed it, I think this sort of man-made God is disprovable and can be invalidated along with the religious claims which like to accompany it.)

Which is to say, I think,  and I know this much, I’m not a cast iron mechanical contraption without a heart. The Tin Man was without a heart, but as it turned out, he had an innate moral sense all along. We don’t need the illusion of God, or some  magical man behind the curtain posing as one, to tell us such things; we can realize them on our own.

I’m a human being, flawed, sure, but whatever else I may be I choose to strive toward goodness, not because I think that it is the ultimate final destination, but because I think that it’s a perfectly fine goal worth achieving simply for all the good it will do us.  And that’s the kind of person I choose to be.

She told me that from her perspective the thing which makes me human—or which gives me my humanity—is the saving grace of God. For her, I suppose, God is that final destination. I offered, give me something worth believing in, and I might agree with you—but as a skeptic I’m not just going to take your word for it. As far as I can tell, I told her, the case seems to be the opposite. We are good for goodness sake, regardless of whether or not God exists at all. She demanded I prove such a proclamation of faith by picking the noblest appreciations I could think of which didn’t have anything to do with her notion of God. And although I knew that whatever I gave her she would inevitably set about trying to reconcile whatever secular advice I told her and connect it back to her devotional convictions, in effect reinterpreting them not according to their own worth, but according to the values she perceived through the lens of her faith, only by coming into contact with the issues first hand could she glimpse my understanding of them. In due course, I came down to three appreciations which mean the most to me personally. They are as follows:
Appreciations for Living a Good Life: Which I Try to Follow
1)      Albert Einstein’s remark: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
2)      Kant’s maxim: “Dare to Know.”
3)      Thomas Paine’s espousal: “My religion is to do good.”
In summary, from these appreciations I derived these three reasonable conclusions: 1) Never lose your sense of wonder, 2) always seek knowledge and the truth, and last but not least, 3) always do good.
Whether or not God is real, these are real appreciations I can live by, and they can enhance my life. There is no reason to suppose any supernatural entity or divine being in order for me to glean these morsels of wisdom or put them into practice. Now multiply these appreciations by a hundred fold, and then apply them in a similar fashion, and every one of us has the capacity, indeed, the capability of living a respectably moral and ethical life without God. At any rate, our conversation continued in depth, neither of us trying to convince the other of their belief’s supremacy, neither of us trying to prove our argument superior, but rather, we respectfully listened to what each other had to say and although we did not change the other person’s mind, we agreed to disagree. In other words, we did get to understand each other’s thinking better. And, I dare say, that’s what counted the most.
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5 comments

  1. Feeno-Good question! I wish more Christians would take the time to ask that same question.I suppose my comment was mainly directed at her implicit statement that God is required to be moral. That God is a source of morality and is saving us, renewing us, pulling us out of sin.I just find such a statement unjustifiable, and so can't be automatically assumed.Mainly, I find fault with the statement precisely because the God of the Christian Bible, YAHWEH is too anthropomorphic to be the divine "loving" entity that modern Christians assume is the FATHER of the Son Jesus Christ. Christians are basically mixing a Jewish God with a more complicated messianic figure head and conflating the two to create a mega-deity. But this takes an incredible claim, that God exists, and makes in unbelievable by saying he's a personal God and we can know this, this, and this about him. I just don't think that's true, for reasons I write about on this blog.http://advocatusatheist.blogspot.com/2009/10/why-i-am-not-christian-part-1-redaction.htmlBasically, when Christians look at other people's faith, and find it unconvincing, the thing which is happening is that they are using their cultural world views to inform them on how to think about "other people's religions." For example, you probably feel that Mormonism is pretty absurd, right? It's so recent of an invention that we can see it's development from the ground up, we can see the origin of the twice-baked claims of Joseph Smith, we can see all the folly and fallible practices such as polygamy and baptizing the dead, we can see how it lacks sufficient archeological or historical support for its sweeping claims, we can see exactly how the Christian theology was tampered with, with modern science and astronomy we know there is no planet Kolob or functioning magic underwear, we can see how Brigham Young took the religion and made it more Fundamentalist, we can see ever little event which came together to form contemporary Mormonism. And although it's a good model for family living it's certainly not without its flaws. There are still Fundamentalist sects suppressing women and allowing child rape as a sacred act, and certainly, all of this is stained with the finger prints of man. Because you can trace every little detail back to a man-made origin which lacks in support for its metaphysical claims, you can be reasonable sure that Mormonism is not what it claims to be. In fact, in light of modern advances in science and full archeological support, you can be almost certain that Mormonism's spiritual and metaphysical claims have all been dismantled and invalidated.Christianity is exactly the same. The difference is, most Christians don't ever take the time to investigate the origins of their faith closely enough to learn all the little details they readily know with other religions. Maintaining the faith require reconciling the problems and errors, not confronting them as one would with an outsider's religion. It's what John W. Loftus calls "The Outsider Test for Faith," because if you apply the same methods and tools of critical thinking you use when looking at someone else's religion on your own, suspending your devotional beliefs just long enough to look objectively at what those beliefs entail, chances are you'll come to see you religion differently.Does it mean you've lost faith? Heavens no, but it means you've gained a valuable new perspective on what Christianity is about, and not just what you think it is about.

  2. ***As for the existence of a supreme being of some kind, some divine entity that we would call God, I remain agnostic. I really don't know whether such a being exists or even could exist.My Atheism is with regard to the Christian concept of God, which when studied thoroughly, seems to me to be no more plausible than the magic underwear of Mormonism. This doesn't mean that people can't find meaning in such belief systems, but the claim that faith is superior, because one particular faith's God is real, is not a sustainable or easily verifiable claim. But it is rather easy, with some mental gymnastics, make unverifiable and so safeguard it from scrutiny. Theologians do this by saying God is outside of all space and time, and so it would be impossible for atheists to prove or disprove it. It doesn't help them prove their statement that God exists any, it simply safeguards their belief in his existence, and postpones the inevitable.In fact, most religious beliefs, I think you'll find, and their origins can be studied as a cultural and social phenomenon. My constant research of Christianity has yielded some startling, eye opening, and shocking answers–which ultimately helped me reformulate, re-approach, and rethink what I thought I knew. With the added information and facts I had accrued I was able to readjust my understanding of it to fit with the reality of the situation.So obviously pretending it wasn't so, in light of what I now knew, that the brute hard facts couldn't possibly be mistaken, ignoring them would have been a sure sign of denial. I decided to keep hold of some intellectual integrity by remaining honest, as I just couldn't bring myself to be so disillusioned as to dismiss all the evidence, and I kept investigating my faith in the hopes that my Christianity would be justifiable. But ever so gradually it got more and more difficult to maintain it, and eventually I had built up an mountain of information, facts and figures which just didn't allow for vagaries of perception. Christianity, I had concluded, was unjustifiable according to what Christians profess to believe and how they go about practicing it. In fact, one of the things which, for me, proves the God of Christianity is not all saving is that Christians would be moving towards new spheres of spiritual and moral superiority if it were true. They would be taken up out of sin, whereas those stuck in the swampy muck of sin with no real hope of salvation (unless they bought into the scheme of the institution) should be degenerating and getting worse. But this we do not find. In fact, we find Christians on average act badly and misbehave just as much as their fellow primates, and well, this is a huge indicator that they're mistaken about the nature of their God and of their faith. When I realized this as a Christian, I took a year to specifically think about this issue, always looking for reasons why this would be so, because when I was a Christian I just knew it couldn't be. God wouldn't have allowed it if he existed, the Bible said the opposite, and so being the curious person I was I wouldn't be satisfied until I got to the bottom of it all.My investigation lead me not to doubt, but to realize that my beliefs were unfounded, and so I had to rethink everything I thought I knew… this lead me to the rational conclusion of atheism, because Atheism gives me no cognitive dissidence, and for reasons I talk about in various blogs. This is partially why I chose to start this blog–in the hope of informing others about Atheism and keeping an ongoing discourse.So my response to the Christian girl is one of "darn near" certainty. If God, any god, exists… we can be pretty sure it's not the God of Christianity. Or at least, it's so highly improbable as the odds would probably come out to be 0… which they do… when you try and calculate it mathematically.(See Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier's books "The Improbability of God" and "The Impossibility of God" for further philosophical and mathematical considerations)

  3. Feeno- I posted your comments, and then an hour later they were gone. I have no idea where they went. I didn't delete them or anything, so if you want to reply again, or say something else feel free! This tech stuff sometimes glitches out.

  4. T VickWhat is up? Last night we were going out for pizza and I asked everybody what time it was in Japan, somehow my daughter knew? (Tokyo time). Anyways I am pretty inempt on the computer and have delivered many messages that have never reached its target? So I understand fully well when things get deleted etc.I have read many "decoversion" stories. Including Mr. Loftus'. I like John very much, I consider him a friend. He can decide for himself about me. I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife. really good people, I bought and read his book, he signed it for me and then gave me another book that he signed. We spent a little time together and I plan on more visits. Possibly around the holidays? I usually don't like telling people that because it shouldn't make a difference on what we believe and 2nd I don't want to step on John's toes. (not that he'd really care).I have also talked with an ex-pastor turned Atheist who I met on John's blog, who has since given his life back to Christ.I also have at least listened and or read about those deconversion stories from people like Dan, Marcus,Chuck,Bruce and Anthony, who happens to be a home boy of mine.(we both from the 'Nati). And one of my favorite people who is a young man named Jeff from Canada who I have basically followed his entire deconversion story. I tell you all that as a follow up response from my blog. And that yes, I have tried to put myself in there shoes and looked at all this stuff from an outsiders point of view. For now tho, I'd like to look at your story and try to explain at least one thing you mention as to why you struggled with Christianity. That is "Why are Christians still as big as assholes as non believers"?To be continued…

  5. …. so you mentioned how Scripture points to the fact that we Christians should be more moral etc. Well once again you are right, I know of many, but let's look at a few and see what is really up? 1 John 3:6-9. If you read this it sure sounds as if your right, but my interpretation (for whatever that's worth, if anything) is this "God sees me as a believer through Christ, he no longer sees my sin. Rom.7:23-25. The last verse from Paul says "…so with the mind I serve the law of God, but with my flesh the law of sin.Did you know one of the things that Believers will be awarded for is how they controlled their old nature? So he must know we aint gonna be perfect. 2Peter 1:9 is talking about Christians, these people are Christians, however they don't possess these other things. What are these other things, the things that are mentioned in verses 4-8.Even when we think we've made it the Lord let's us know we never will. Our goal should be -to be like Christ, as a Christian I'm being perfected but don't forget 1 John 1:8 " if we say we have no sin, we decieve ourselves and the truth is not in us.I'm headin' out the door for some H.S. football playoffs, and will check in later.Thanks. feeno

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