Before I start, I’d like to discuss a bit of semantics. I typically try to use the terms “believe”, “think”, and “know” to indicate varying levels of certainty. Obviously, “know” is the highest level, where I have no reasonable doubt. “Think” is in between, indicating that I’m fairly sure I could back up whatever I’m saying, but maybe would have to look for sources, and accept that I might be wrong. That leaves “believe” as indicating the lowest level of certainty, where I don’t have sources at all, accept that I could just as easily be wrong, and am completely willing to change my mind if someone else seems more certain or has evidence to back them up. This system of mine is useful to me, and I think some of my friends, but not necessarily beyond that. Specifically, the word “know” is problematic, because, philosophically speaking, it is impossible to know anything beyond “I exist”. For this article, I will be using “believe” to mean, essentially, “accept without conclusive evidence”.
What do you believe?
This is almost the first question anyone gets on saying they are an atheist, usually right before or after “But where do you get your morals???” I have an answer along the lines of “I believe people should help each other because there isn’t a god there to do it for them!” which basically answers both of those questions. However, today I’d like to focus on something a bit different than answering the question, which is simply, why do people ask this at all?
Why do people act as though everyone must believe in something?
Of course, in the strictest sense, we all believe various things, especially mundane things. If my mother says she made a skirt, I believe her, because I’ve seen her make clothes and that is totally something humans in general do. I don’t need to see the thing she made or the evidence that she made it, because her word is enough. Of course she could be lying and my belief could be therefore mistaken, but that would be out of character for her so I feel secure in that belief. I believe my boyfriend when he says the work of looking for a job is stressful almost to the point of impossibility, and that is much more of a belief, because I don’t experience that same stress the way I can (and do) experience the joy of crafting, at least not to the extent he claims he does. I trust that he is being honest with me, and if I didn’t have that trust, I would not be with him still, but it is a greater level of trust in this case than the other. After all, I’ve only known him a few years, and I’ve been watching my mom make clothes all my life. Even more of a belief would be to accept that someone I know won the lottery, at least until I saw them quit their job and buy a fancy house. Still more of a belief would be to accept that I will not die by being struck by a vehicle while walking. This is a completely unfounded belief with no evidence behind it, but it is still not entirely unreasonable (as long as I don’t use it to play in traffic thinking I’ll be invulnerable) because most people don’t die by being hit by a car as a pedestrian. Another completely unfounded belief would be to accept that there is an undetectable teapot circling Mars, and that belief would be entirely unreasonable, because we don’t have any evidence that such teapots even exist. As I hope I’ve shown by these examples, unfounded beliefs aren’t necessarily unreasonable. They only become unreasonable if either the object of the belief is unreasonable (like the teapot), or the belief is not just unfounded by misfounded. A misfounded belief would be one where we have evidence to the contrary, such as believing the universe is 6,000 years old when we can see stars billions of light years away. I, and I hope you, try to avoid unreasonable beliefs, and I also try to avoid unfounded beliefs.
But this, surely, is not the sort of answer people are looking for when they ask “what do you believe?”
Instead, what seems to me to be behind that question is more like, “What is your source of hope? What helps you get through the day? What crutch do you lean on to survive? Why are you alive?” These questions are, to me, entirely unrelated to my atheism. This probably seems odd to many people – and even seems a little odd to me, honestly – because they were entirely related to and answered by my religion when I was a theist. If that wasn’t entirely true, it was still what I told myself: I thought Jesus helped keep me going, that at least the greater part of my purpose in life was to go to Heaven and live with God. That is the hope I would at least claim sustained me if asked.
But now, I really don’t have answers to those questions. “What is your source of hope?” I don’t know that I have one, especially not an external one. I have many hopes, but they all seem personal and mostly fairly petty (I hope the boyfriend gets a job and eventually is financially supporting me instead of the other way around, for instance). “What helps you get through the day?” I don’t have a good answer, and I definitely don’t have a consistent answer. Probably the most accurate thing is that it is easier to live than die; even days where I just spend the day in bed due to depression eventually pass and life just doesn’t seem as bad the next day most of the time (and those days really aren’t that common and typically aren’t full days). Some days, I have a lot to do at work, and the day goes by quickly as I figure out a challenging programming problem. Some days, I’m just waiting to go home and cuddle with my boyfriend. Some days, I really just want to play with our pets. Some days, I spend all evening reading or crafting or playing a game or doing maths on Khan Academy. None of that is consistent. “What crutch do you lean on to survive?” I really don’t know that I have one. Again, it’s easier to live than to die, and when I have a moment of weakness, I can usually find a friend or family member to turn to for help. At least, I could if I looked. “Why are you alive?” Because my parents had sex. I’m not here for any other reason, and I don’t have a greater purpose to my life. I only have the goals I set for myself.
What’s more, I don’t see why anyone should have to have answers to all of those questions that are any grander than the ones I’ve given. I don’t understand the importance placed on them.
“What do you believe?” As little as possible. I want all of my conclusions to be well-founded, and I value evidence far above intuition.