You’ve heard the question.
If you don’t believe in God, then what do you believe in?
The implication here is, of course, that if you can’t live for something beyond yourself—namely, a god—then your life can’t be all that worth living. It’s small and insignificant and certainly less than satisfying. So you better believe in something beyond yourself.
But it’s a fair question: Can you believe in something beyond yourself if you’re not even a “believer” anyway?
See, the hand-in-hand assumption often bound up within such a question is found if you transform the question into a statement.
If you don’t believe in God, then you don’t believe in anything.
In fact, I came across this very perspective (or dare I say, accusation!) earlier just this week. A newer friend came up to me when it was just the two of us and asked a couple of questions that, most likely, are some of the same questions you’ve also been asked more than simply once or twice.
So, she said, you really don’t believe in God, huh?
Like, at all??
Like, you don’t believe in any god whatsoever???
My response: Nope. I know it sounds crazy, but I really don’t.
[Insert my friendly smile.]
And then she said it. You know, the question that really wasn’t a question.
The non-question question.
So you don’t believe in ANYTHING, huh?
From there and without hesitation she went on to tell me how sad she felt for me, sad that I was clearly unable to feel the most exciting parts of life. She said that when she looks out to the world around her, she sees such a big and mysterious existence filled with overwhelming awe and divine energy. That there is such incredible fulfillment to be found in connection beyond the self. And that if I don’t even believe that divine energy and mystery and connection exists, then I must just be so alone and, well, sad.
Just thinking of it clearly made her sad.
She then talked more of her own belief-system, a more-or-less undefined spirituality akin to a California Buddhism.
Where do you think, she continued, all that energy goes when you die?
—No, not the energy that breaks down into the earth with the rest of your body. The inner divine energy that isn’t scientifically measurable?
Now I’ll tell you this. We had a great conversation, we really did. But rather than simply telling you how I addressed her concerns, let me ask YOU:
How would YOU have answered her?
Might there be a better way than simply debating the existence of divine energy?
Would you have considered sharing more about what
you as a “nonbeliever” DO believe in?
And what DO you believe in anyway?
Not sure how to answer? Well, guess what, you’re not alone. It seems we in the secular community, as non-supernaturalists, often pride ourselves on being anti-belief—in anything!
For this reason, I’ve got for you today A How-to-Answer Guide for nonbelievers who still have much to believe in!
ONE: Be Honest.
Okay, so the truth is that some of you skeptical motherfuckers are halfway convinced that I’m trying to ploy you into saying you believe in something you don’t. Or that I’m trying to set up a smoke ‘n mirrors campaign to make supernaturalists think you believe in something you don’t. Or that I’m just generally playing semantic games, looking for loopholes to covertly slip you into greater favor among the divinity-seeking majority.
But this just simply is not the case.
That’s why the first step here—the first principle, the first rule—is to simply be honest. There’s neither room nor need for any bullshit here. If by the end of this how-to-answer guide, you honestly can’t think of anything worth believing in, please don’t make something up on my account. This is not an ask I’m asking of you.
That said, You DO Believe in Something. I’m certain that you believe in a good many things. My aim is to help you unpack some of those good many things, so that you may share those good many things with others in conversation. So that humanity’s many segments may be bridged and humanity itself might be bettered.
TWO: Remember That Words are Flexible.
Language is flexible, and words take on different meanings in various contexts. And sometimes without even realizing it, people confuse or conflate two different meanings of a word in the same conversation. And this happens a lot when people talk about beliefs.
Yes, as nonbelievers, we tend to focus on the kind of belief that references whether or not certain supernatural entities exist. And since we don’t believe in those supernatural entities, we therefore identify ourselves as “nonbelievers.”
Now, if we’re only talking about the existence of said supernatural entities, then yes, nonbelievers we most-truthfully and ever-enthusiastically remain.
But consider the wide scope of the word belief, as defined by the epic magnificence of elementary school homework assignments everywhere, Merriam-Webster.
“(1) a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” Sample beliefs are provided: those in God, democracy, and the idea that a table was an antique.
“(2) something that is accepted, considered to be true, or held as an opinion.” These are explained to include any tenet or body of tenets held as truth or opinion by religious groups, political groups, or any other groups.
“(3) conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence.” Here our friend Webster only sites one example of this kind of belief, “belief in the validity of scientific statements.”
I’d like you to notice something. Notice that the common element running through all three of these proposed categories of belief is NOT the existence of gods.
Rather, the real common element is confidence or conviction in stuff. Sometimes the stuff is a person or thing. Sometimes the stuff is an idea or a value. But it’s the confidence in that stuff that seems to set it apart as a type of belief.
And here I too have to take care not to conflate the diverse nature of how the word “belief” is used, but confidence in something—be it trust in a person, commitment to an ideal, or confidence in a body of evidence—seems much more foundational to the concept of “belief” than anything else.
Sometimes such confidence is due to scientific evidence. Sometimes it’s in spite of it. But it’s all confidence. It’s all belief.
Conviction that a god exists is merely one kind of belief. But there are many more.
Saying you believe in gun control or marriage equality or the separation of church and state says nothing about whether gods or goddesses exist. Saying you believe in honesty or compassion or the need for good communication says nothing about your position on divine energy. Rather these beliefs DO say something about your convictions, about what you stand for, about what you think is important.
As Harvard University’s Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein says in Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, “It’s time to recognize that nonbelievers are believers too.” Epstein goes on to flesh that out on behalf of many secularists by elaborating, “We believe in Humanism.”
So now the question pivots to YOU.
What do YOU believe in?
THREE: Consider Your Impassioned Convictions.
Take a moment—or even more than a few moments—to consider your convictions.
What excites you? What concerns do you really care about? In your home and in the world? What kinds of things do you think are important for the betterment of human life and satisfaction?
Think about it this way. If you were Your Own Personal Company or Brand, what would be heralded as your corporate values? If I were to visit your life’s “company website” and click on the Core Values page, what would I find bullet-pointed there?
Honestly, your values and convictions could include anything from personal liberty to social responsibility, from second amendment rights to animal rights, from the accessibility of quality education to that of good recreational Mary Jane. It could be even be competitive sports, slapstick comedy, or vintage collectables. Your values are the convictions that you truly believe in, that which you take a stand behind and fight for.
The next time you’re challenged on your lack of belief in a god, consider a few notable examples of what you could say you do believe in.
I believe in humanity. I really do. In other words, I believe we are our own greatest hope for the future. If we’re not fighting for and standing up on behalf of humanity, then what’s the point in even standing at all. With a global landscape of increasing environmental hostility and international threats, the tide of challenges to our very existence seems to expand every year or so, but I believe our best chance for both surviving and then thriving is found in simply investing in and maximizing our very own human potential.
I believe in community. Human evolution has built us for relationship and for group interaction. We’re stronger this way, healthier this way, and experience greater joy this way.
I believe in progress. In fact, as I often say, Humanism is the big-picture betterment of a thriving humanity. Hard to achieve that without progress. I believe we can always get a little better and that we actually do get better when we work a little harder and a little more intentionally—especially when we do it together in community.
I believe in dialogue. There’s much to disagree on these days. And we have all our little camps to collect ourselves in and organize for and against. If we’re not careful we’ll let all our little differences and diverse markings set us in such great opposition against one another that human progress itself can cease or even reverse. Dialogue is one of the answers. We must never fear real conversation with those of different and diverse perspectives. Only then can we begin to work out our differences and progress in spite of them.
I believe in joy. I believe that even when surrounded by all the bullshit of life and politics, there is still much to enjoy and take delight in. I believe the pursuit of pleasure and awe and personal fulfillment is part of the progressive human experience. Both individually and in community.
SCIENCE, SOCIAL JUSTICE, COMPASSION, COMPETITION, CAPITALISM, ART, ANYTHING!
Keep the list pouring. There are no limits. What do you believe in? We don’t all have to have cookie-cutter replica beliefs, values, and convictions. The key is to find what you’re passionate about and use those passions to enhance both your life and the lives of those around you.
FOUR: Show Your Humanity.
Maybe “belief” is the word you prefer to use when talking about your convictions and values. But most likely it’s not. Most likely, if you’re a non-supernaturalist, the word belief will always make you a bit uncomfortable.
And that’s okay.
But if other people want to use this word to describe how fully-developed humans care about something beyond themselves, we have an opportunity to seize this word and use it to highlight how we also care for things beyond ourselves—even as non-supernaturalists.
This is your opportunity to take a moment intended to diminish your humanity and flip it around to further highlight your humanity instead. You’re in essence saying:
Sure, I might not believe in gods, but that doesn’t make me a less human. WHAT I REALLY VALUE is things like compassion, social justice, making sure everyone has a warm meal in their belly at the start of each day.
This is our opportunity to bicker a little less about the whether or not gods exist and to look for common ground instead. To build bridges instead of walls. And to maybe even inspire The Other Side more fully in the process.
If you and I truly want to be humanist, this is one way to do it. To focus on what unites humanity over what tears it down.
I love what Joss Whedon, the Hollywood writer and director of such legendary productions as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers, has to say about this stuff. Now I’ll be honest, as a non-supernaturalist, it’s still kind of hard to read this quote. He takes this a step further and reclaims the word faith as well.
Here’s what he says:
“Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in God means believing absolutely in something, with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof, to the contrary. We are the true believers.” (Harvard Memorial Church; April 10, 2009)
Faith in God is belief with no proof whatsoever. But faith in Humanity is belief with a huge amount of proof.
If I live in a world where I have to put my faith in something—in context, putting my trust in something, I’ll put it in humanity any day of the week. And in so doing I’m putting my trust—or faith—into something observable over something that’s not.
Call Me a Believer!
So now what? Well, now we begin to put this How-to-Answer Guide into action.
What will you say the next time someone accuses you of living a sad life since you “believe in nothing”? Will you be able to articulate what you do believe in, despite the gods that you don’t? What will you say?
The truth is that there is so much around us that is worth living for. No joke, this world is filled with difficult, detestable, and depressing things, to be sure! But it’s also filled with beauty, wonder, and hope. Articulating our humanist beliefs gives us the opportunity to shine a little light on that which brings light to the world around us. This is not to say we ignore the plight and injustice of the world, but it is to identify drivers that keep us motivated in the process, calling all people—regardless of their personal thoughts on supernaturalism—to join us in the onward push. The push to make this world more connected, more compassionate, more [insert your most impassioned conviction here].
And that, I would say, is truly something worth believing in.
REFLECT AND REFRESH—
I invite you to take some time to sit down and think this through. Look back over the examples of humanistic beliefs listed above. What do you agree with? What don’t you? What are you impassioned about?
And how have your beliefs changed and evolved over time? Take time to refresh your personal company’s list of values.
JOURNEY AND JOURNAL—
You may find that this isn’t an exercise so easily completed in one sitting. Commit to sectioning out some time each week to really wrestling with this a bit further. Maybe block off time to, say, go for an hour walk each Sunday where you let your thoughts meander on such issues or where you journal for ten minutes each morning, just getting it all out on paper.
Take a moment to share a few of your impassioned convictions below. Share your “personal company values.” What do you believe in? Or how else would you respond when told you must have a sad life without anything to believe in?
Great conversations ahead. Thanks for being part of this evolving community, everyone!
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