What Does Atheism Offer? And: COTW!

In a burst of productivity, I recorded a video today in response to a question DPR Jones asked: What Does Atheism Offer?

Comment o’ the Week after the jump!

Reminder: nominate your favorite comments by logging in, clicking the little arrow next to them, and writing “COTW” somewhere in your response!

It’s been ages since we’ve had a proper COTW, so this week there are tons of winners to be called out!

From Andrés Diplotti:

It’s all a matter of giving things the right spin. If I were a PR company working for cell phone makers, I’d send a press release to news outlets with this title:

“Cell phones effective protection against bees, study finds.”

From Imrryr:

If baseball had more gay sex I might actually consider watching a game, but I’d still hate the Yankees.

From Taut Manboobs, who steps from the shadows to comment on Maria’s Twilight post:

‘I”m Taut Manboobs and I approve of this message.”


From davew, who has a great solution to the race problem:

I think our energies would be much better spent at the root of the problem. I recommend everyone find a willing partner as phenotypically different as possible from yourself and do the horizontal natural selection until even nearby bonobos stand and stare in slack-jawed amazement. We could end the whole concept of race in one generation.

From SloFox, who is working on a new vaccination:

I wish a tiny bit of ignorance could rid one of a whole lot of ignorance.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. The premise behind questions such as “what does atheism” have to offer is that theism gives you something that you can’t get elsewhere, and that atheists should get that from atheism. And that’s, as you point out, a bogus premise. What you get with atheism is choice.

    There’s nothing theism has to offer that you can’t find without it.* But it’s not atheisms ‘job’ to offer these things, atheism’s just about not accepting the irrational limitations of most theisms.

    *for some stuff you might have to hold on to a pinch of blind and unquestioning faith. If you need an absolutely true purpose for human existence for instance.

  2. Can’t get YouTube at work so I’ll have to check out the video when I get home.

    What does atheism have to offer?

    Premarital sex, bacon, birth control, meat on Fridays, true hopelessness (as opposed to false hopes), personal responsibility, consistency, anal and oral sex, vaccines, decreased government debt from elimination of tax exeptions, proper medical care, PORN, alcohol consumption, coveting your neighbor’s wife, manservant, and/or ox, cutting your hair, scary fairies, blood transfusions, women’s rights, cremation, cheeseburgers, freedom from genital mutilation, a slightly greater opportunity for world peace, divorce, reality and PORN (deserves a second mention).

    There’s a lot more than that, but this is a start.

  3. Whenever I or my fiancé try to explain to my future mother-in-law that the universe does not grant wishes and the idea that everyone creates their own reality doesn’t make any sense, she always comes back at us with, “Well, would you rather be happy or be right?!?” As if those were two mutually exclusive concepts.

    I look at atheism as like this:

    I would rather believe that I had $10,000,000 in my bank account. That would be awesome. But my account actually has about $87 in it. My choices are to never look at my balance and feel oh-so-happy because I’m really a millionaire, and then pay the piper later. Or I can accept my limitations, be a little bummed that I can’t get a new TV, and go to the Smithsonian for free. Hey! Would you look at that! I have just accepted a somewhat grim reality, and I’m still happy!

    I actually love the world as it is. I think trying to add a superfluous layer of magic onto it cheapens how wonderful it actually is, like layering makeup and sequins onto an already adorable little girl to turn her into a pageant queen. My atheism (and my skepticism in general) let me see and embrace and love the world and its inhabitants as they are. I was about to add, “not as I wish them to be,” and then I realized that I couldn’t imagine wanting anything to be other than what it is.

    I know a lot of theists (they actually constitute 98% of all the people I know), and some of them are happy and some of them aren’t. I am certainly not less happy than any of them, and I’m happier than most. I love my godless life and my godless family and my godless universe.

    Then again, I never had religion to “give up.” I have always been fascinated by Mythology, and drawn to it, and it has often been a source of great inspiration to me. But I have never been religious. It is my understanding that having once felt that and then letting it go can be traumatic. That’s why Atheist community is really important to some people, as much as some others may mock us “all getting together to talk about how much we don’t believe in god.”

  4. I’m not sure my atheism is a choice. Once I started really looking for some evidence of a god or gods, I found there wasn’t any.
    My brother looks for evidence for a god or gods and sees it all around him.
    His evidence doesn’t look like evidence to me and mine apparently doesn’t sway him.
    So, I think theism vs atheism may be more a matter of how you interpret the environment than a conscious choice.
    Does that make sense or am I off-topic again?

  5. Great video. Says it all (but I’m still going to post).

    I’m not a proselytizing atheist but my lack of religious faith is probably unshakable. Even those who doubt the existence of an objective, absolute Reality shouldn’t be blind to the incredible consistency in established scientific claims. God simply does not and cannot exist within this framework. I disagree with but respect those that believe but behave as if the Spaghetti Monster doesn’t have any relevance to the human condition.

    Skepticism requires embracing the uncertainty that belief in Thor might provide. The wonderful paradox is that by abandoning mysticism as the bridge that spans the gaps of understanding we can better navigate our lives. We have a mechanism for narrowing the gaps and accounting for imperfect information. Uncertainty dressed like Jesus is just as likely to smack us in the nuts when we’re not looking as the naked unknown. In the latter case we’re just not pretending that the unknown goosed us for a good reason or as punishment for something unrelated.

    Atheism offers me freedom and truth: freedom to recognize the unknown as an opportunity to explore and better refine my understanding of the truth. All that without having to partake in boring rituals or rereading the same tiresome cryptic novel or novels over and over again.

  6. I’ve never thought of what it offers. As for Santa Clause I was in the first grade when I figured out there was no such thing. We lived into an apartment, no chimney no Santa. I was well on my way to figuring out there was no God, it didn’t depress me at all. It just meant I had to make the most of my time on Earth.

  7. I think that Danarra has a great point. It doesn’t matter what the benefits or consequences of believing or not believing are. If the evidence is absent and you know it, there is no longer any choice. I have been struggling to explain this very thing to a religious friend and I think this is a clear and simple way to put it that she might accept and understand. Maybe. Thank you Danarra.

  8. Atheism offers nothing to me
    It never has, and it never will

    It doesn’t make me feel good or comfort me
    It isn’t there when I’m sick or ill

    It cant intervene in my times of need
    It cant protect me from hate and lies

    It doesn’t care if I fail or succeed
    It wont wipe the tears from my eyes

    It does nothing when I’ve got nowhere to run
    It wont give me wise words or advice

    It has no teachings for me to learn
    It cant show me whats bad or nice

    Its never inspired or incited anyone
    It wont help me fulfill all my goals

    It wont tell me to stop when I’m enjoying life
    Its never saved one single soul

    It doesn’t take credit for everything I achieve
    It wont make me get down on bended knee

    It doesn’t demand that I have to believe
    It wont torture me for eternity

    It wont teach me to hate or despise others
    It cant tell me whats right or wrong

    It wont tell anybody they cant be lovers
    Its told no one that they don’t belong

    It wont make me think that life is worth living
    It has nothing to offer me – that’s true

    But the reason atheism offers me nothing
    Is because I’ve never asked it to

    Atheism offers nothing because it doesn’t need to
    Religion promises everything because you want it to

    You don’t need a religion or to have faith
    You just want it because you need to feel safe

    I want to feel reality and nothing more
    atheism offers me everything that religion had stolen before

    -Richard Coughlan

  9. @SloFox:

    I was thinking something similar while watching this video. I think a lot of people find atheism ‘offers’ freedom.

    you aren’t beholden to follow the archaic and fuzzy rules of some being who you have to please in some ill defined way.

    your life is yours, no one else’s.

    however as stated, its not something you can really choose. just like you cant choose to think rationally or critically.

  10. Oh, I know this one! Atheism allows for reactive perception rather than proactive perception. Atheists look at data, theists find information.

    Theism trains people to to see the world with conditions – you can only act on information if your God sees it that way, too. Atheism offers the ability to unconditionally accept the universe as it is around on you. Thus, atheism allows one to open their eyes.

  11. You asked the question (paraphrased), “Is there an atheist who feels worse after becoming an atheist? Or regrets their choice?”

    My personal responses are, to the first question, “Yes, absolutely, I feel worse,” and, to the second question, “No, I do not regret my choice.”

    I’ve never been sure how to resolve the difference here. You know that token argument that anti-atheists use, the one about lack of meaning becoming lack of happiness and eventually lack of morals? I’d be exhibit numero uno for their case. The utter lack of true MEANING is exactly what has made me feel pretty completely awful for a good while now, but I know it’s the right belief structure. I haven’t dropped my moral altruism, nor has my mental fortitude suffered as a result of the change. But it’s true that I am much less happy now.

    (For the record, I wasn’t theistic before my transition. I never really have the whole issue thought and for the most part was agnostic. Then I went over the hill to atheism.)

    It’s basically come down to, “Well, there’s no meaning in anything, so it’s equally meaningless and meaningful to be happy or sad. They are equal.” Which makes everything so… gray…

    This borders on Nihilism, I think. And that’s just useless. So I guess it’s time to resolve the difference.

    (Wish we had more videos like this around!)

  12. It makes no sense to ask what atheism has to offer as it asks for nothing. Atheism doesn’t demand that you be thankful to some supreme being, that you follow any particular dogma, that you eat (or refuse to eat) any particular food on any particular day or that you engage in (or refuse to engage in or condemn others for engaging in) any particular behavior.

    That’s because atheism isn’t a religion but the absence of one.

    Asking what not doing something has to offer makes no sense since it also doesn’t require anything. If you want me to engage in some activity, the right question to ask is not what not engaging in it has to offer but what engaging in it will do for me.

    What does not vaccinating have to offer? Nothing!
    What does vaccinating have to offer? Protection from disease.
    Great, sign me up!

    What does atheism have to offer? Sweet fuck-all.
    What does religion have to offer me? Submission to some deity, possible diet restrictions, condemnation of other groups, maybe a bit of genital mutilation.
    Neh, I think I’ll pass, thank you very much.

  13. Some thoughts not in the above… being a non-believer:

    — offers me a finite timeline. With no afterlife every second counts.

    — offers me a higher sense of responsibility to care for others, especially the weak, because there is no magical higher power that is going to do it.

    — offers me deep a responsibility to find the Truth, to trust science; especially regarding the future of the planet and its people. (The a-holes that preach a rapture and second coming are the same people that don’t mind trashing the planet- they’re convinced it will all be okay).

    That’s just three. I could go on for hours.

  14. @Danarra: “So, I think theism vs atheism may be more a matter of how you interpret the environment than a conscious choice.”

    Yeah, think this is often overlooked by people on both sides. Isn’t one of the criticisms of Pascal’s Wager that professing belief just in case is not the same as believing? So simply wanting to believe isn’t enough – opening your mind to let god in (or out) won’t work if you already have and found that nothing appears to want to come in (or leave). I think people continue to use the language of choice because they dislike the implication that they are not in total control of their own minds.

  15. @fatsplenda: I had basically the same experience January of last year, despite the fact that I was never truly a believer. By the time I was old enough to grasp the god concept, I was either never fully convinced or was so lazy with it that it never really affected anything in my life. I didn’t really call myself an atheist until mid-2008, but to be honest I can’t say I’ve ever been a big-B believer.

    What set off my sense of meaninglessness was the fact that I couldn’t be with somebody I was in love with. I was feeling immense pain, and I wondered what the point was. I thought love was a cruel joke in a pitiless universe and hated that I had to be subjected to it. I was depressed severely for an entire month. Thankfully I got out of it. So what helped?

    I realized that I didn’t need a reason to give something meaning on my own terms. There is so much in this world to appreciate that there really doesn’t need to be any reason for it. I don’t need any ultimate meaning to enjoy a good book or to laugh my ass off or sip a nice glass of brandy with friends or give to charity. You get meaning from whatever you give meaning to. Happiness and sadness are not equal because these are tangible emotions you feel, and one sure as hell feels better than the other.

    This is your life; take the reins and don’t feel the need to apologize for choosing what’s important to you.

  16. @Flametest – hope it helps!

    @Shadow of A Doubt – I agree. Realizing you’re not in total control scares people in general, including me. But it does appear to be the truth about some stuff.

    Also, the chocolate chip cookie god does sound appealing. Is it above or below the FSM in rank?

  17. @murdats: I hear what you’re saying but I think you’re only partially correct. Atheism is ‘more’ of a choice because it often requires us to change the way we think about the world. We’re not born with a belief in Allah but we do inerently interpret natural phenomena within a framework of agency {see much of Michael Shermer’s work, et al.} Our higher executive functions also tend to lead us astray from logical analytical thinking (yes, you can be illogically analytical). This is one of my favorite studies on the subject:

    Atheism is not as hard a choice as skepticism in general (IMHO). Granted many religious people need to keep reaffirming their beliefs just as skeptics should keep reevaluating theirs. The skeptic/atheist, however, chooses evidence over experience.

    Once that choice is made instead of constraining belief according to dogama you constrain belief according to evidence and logic. That’s much more liberating because you can freely maneuver through and manage uncertainty rather than adhering to an arbitrary set of rules and beliefs.

    Now I have a headache. Maybe God’s trying to get me to stop thinking.

  18. @deus_otiosus: Much appreciated.

    That is the same line of thought that I’m using to logically defeat this absurd notion that atheism actually DOES something to me, which by definition is can’t do anything to me. There is a tangible difference between what we call good and what we call bad, and one feels good and one feels bad, and whether or not there is a meaning to it all, only one of them is something we should want.


  19. I have been thinking about this since watching the video, and I have come to a conclusion. Atheism doesn’t offer anything. Atheism, in my opinion, is the natural byproduct of looking at our world/universe with uncompromising rationality.

  20. @fatsplenda: @deus_otiosus: I guess Atheism doesn’t equal nihilism to me because I feel like leaving gods out of the equation gives you a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. I feel like looking at even our limited knowledge of how the universe works and its history is SO much more rich and interesting and awe-inspiring than the idea that some magic man snapped his fingers and everything just happened. Same goes for the diversity of life on this planet, and the human mind… just everything.

    Plus I don’t see how living just to get to heaven really counts as anything I would call a “purpose.” The concept is too vague and meaningless. What is heaven? Where is it? What does it mean to live for “eternity”? I am not trying to mock or provoke anyone when I say I have never understood the supposed sense of meaning or purpose people say that religion gives them that they are or would be missing without it. It has never made any sense to me. It is meaningful to me to try to improve the human race, to make the world a better place for my son and my nieces and nephews and your kids (if you have them)…and so on. I like thinking that they will go on without me, that they may go to Mars or farther, that they may do amazing things I can’t even imagine. It doesn’t matter that I won’t be here to see it. It still gives me the motivation to get out and fight things that are bigger than me, like anti-vaxxers, and reiki and homeopathy, and homophobia and sexism, and all kinds of irrationality. I guess other people are my meaning and purpose, and that’s satisfying to me.

    And maybe that’s not your meaning. That’s OK! One of the things that Atheism does give you is the freedom to figure it out for yourself. There’s no divine mandate. No law carved in stone. No blasphemous thoughts. You get to discover for yourself what gives your life purpose, and there are no wrong answers. Maybe the search itself is your purpose. Wouldn’t that be fun?

  21. @deus_otiosus: Yes! I realized in retrospect that my post looked like I was trying to refute you in some way. Actually, I just liked what you said and was trying to shoehorn my way into your conversation. I am very tired and discourteous.

  22. Yeah Atheism does not really offer anything as it is simply the absence of something else.

    Atheism is not an replacement for any kind of belief.
    There are philosophical world-views that can cover a similar area, but nothing that all atheists adhere to.

  23. @Patrick D.: You get to sleep in on Sundays? I haven’t done that in like forever. Seems like I am up at 6am every Sunday, even sometimes earlier. Granted, it is either get up that freaking early or try to run 6-8 miles in the blazing heat and mugginess that have been the Michigan summer so far. Ah well

  24. The only thing atheism has to offer is the ability to think and act without the insane, arbitrary restrictions of religious dogma.

    That’s a big plus, though.

  25. Hmm… I didn’t get to sleep in. Had to get up at 11AM. Grrrrr. OTOH, my friends are throwing a birthday brunch for me. WooT!

  26. @Garbledina: Something you said in there just tipped me off to something wonderful, I think.

    I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but I feel something stirring in my brain. I need to crunch the numbers, so to speak, and see how it comes out first. I can’t pinpoint the idea or the sentence, but it’s there…

    Will post back if the results are useful to me.

  27. @Agranulocytosis:

    No. If you believe some kind of obscure abstract god created the universe, you are less likely to actively seek out a real explanation. Deism does close your mind, just not as much as theism.

  28. @Garbledina: @fatsplenda:

    I hope there isn’t a character limit.

    (For the record, I agree with the idea that “atheism doesn’t equal nihilism.” It’s only one-way logic: if you’re nihilist, you’re also atheist, but if you’re atheist, you’re not necessarily nihilist. It’s the equivalent to saying, in the world of mathematics, that it is “necessary but not sufficient.”)

    To me, it seems like Garbledina danced around the topic a bit. Or, at least, she didn’t hit the nail on the head for me. But almost immediately, something after that first paragraph tipped me off to an idea. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a bit, then I forged an idea. This idea might be my way out of nihilism.

    I have to back up a bit. The concept of nihilism has been so prevalent in my belief system simply because I can’t defeat it. The problem with it is that you can’t defeat it by nit-picking it to death. I am fully capable of nit-picking things to death — I’m an engineer and a skeptic! For example, with something like religion, although there are many arguments that in and of themselves are game changers and conversation enders, you really can nit-pick it to death with the little things and win the argument. Nihilism is much stronger: any argument I tried to bring up to refute it seemed to carry some strength and seemed to reduce the concept of Nihilism to something tangible and, really, fucking absurd, but then all I had to do was press the reset button, to re-assert Nihilism. And then the argument was over. And I would lose over and over again because of this cycle. Just re-assert it, and it will win. If you want to beat Nihilism, you have to attack it at its CORE. You have to flip the thing on its head.

    As I seem to have convinced myself within the last two days, there seems to be a nice, big, gaping hole in Nihilism, or at least in my form of it. It was the fact that there was a possibility for meaning, room for meaning, a place in which to put meaning, and the universe simply didn’t. It felt awfult to know that there was a place to put something good but to where the good would never go anyways. This is what kept me up at night and terrified me in the morning.

    Something about Gargledina’s post, though, tipped me off to a slightly different way of thinking about this problem. You see, like just about everything, “meaning” is just a human construct, an arbitrary label. “Meaning” does not exist, not as far as we atheists can tell.

    This way of saying it doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head yet, though. As I interpret it directly, it still allows for “meaning” to exist and just never be fulfilled. The key is to enforce the idea a little more strongly: “Meaning” isn’t possible. It doesn’t just not appear where it can, it doesn’t exist in the first place. It’s not that there’s a vacuum that fails to fill itself with meaning — which makes things so depressing — it’s that there’s no vacuum in the first place, there’s no place to speak of. It’s like, what was “space” before the universe began? It was nothing. It wasn’t even a concept.

    Now that we can speak of “meaning” as being a nonexistent entity, we can be much less depressed about it all. The arbitrarity of it all allows us to do whatever we want and not be depressed about it. If there’s no possibility of “a lack of meaning,” then there’s… not a possibility of it. We can shed the notion of Nihilism because this attacks its very underpinnings.

    Furthermore, I’ve always argued against the Celestial Teapot arguments that you “can’t DISprove it.” Nihilism rests on this concept by saying, “Well you can’t prove that things have meaning.” I hate that kind of argument. It’s almost like the “either-or” fallacy. So why haven’t I considered this argument for Nihilism to be equally absurd? Really, why haven’t I?

    The only problem I can see so far is that this could be a slippery slope. If I regard “meaning” as a simple human construct and am able to shed off its inherent problems, could I start doing that with everything else? And if I do, does that bring me right back to a depressing paradigm?

    (Whether or not this is was Garbledina was getting at, and not to mention something that atheists around the world have also realized and I am just another one on the bandwago, is irrelevant. She set me off down this path, and it’s a path where I might find light at the end of the tunnel. Cheers to that, Garbledina.)

    I’ll remember the name “Rebecca Watson” for a while now. :)

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