I recently had a conversation with a friend that I hadn’t seen since my de-conversion. We had gone to the same church for a while and had played together on the worship team several times. He was genuinely curious about my experience and we had a great discussion.
One of the questions he asked me was this:
“For me, Jesus is the standard; the goal that I strive for – to try my best to live according to his teachings and his example. As an atheist, what standards do you live by?”
I thought this was a good question, and I’ve decided to expand on the answer I gave him here.
It’s a common misconception that you have to believe in God and/or be religious to have any sort of standards of living. This is empirically false. Everyone, no matter what their lifestyle, faith, or background lives by some ethos – the disposition, character, or fundamental values particular to a person. Put another way, it is the spirit which motivates our ideas and customs. James Fowler used the word “faith” in the same way. He described faith as a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life. More verb than noun, faith is the dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guide one’s life.
For myself, and likely many other non-believers, I live according to the following principals:
Greg Graffin in his book Anarchy Evolution, describes naturalism in the following way:
“From a philosophical perspective, naturalists believe that the physical universe is the universe. In other words, there is no supernatural entities or forces acting in nature, because there is no empirical evidence for anything beyond or outside of nature. Naturalists posit that the universe is made up of only four things: space, time, matter, and energy – that’s it. Naturalism can provide the foundation for building a coherent and consistent worldview on which we can base decisions. In fact, I would contend, it is the only perspective that can secure both our happiness as individuals and survival as a species.”
Naturalism leaves supernatural entities and forces where they belong – in folklore, mythology, legends, and tails. There is no scientific ground for the belief in spirits, angels, demons, vampires, witches, faeries, ghosts, or gods. Nor is there any evidence for such thing as telepathy, ESP, astrology, miracles, intercessory prayer, faith healing, resurrections, or telekinesis. Naturalism disregards any beliefs or entities that necessitate defying the laws of the natural universe.
This isn’t to say that science has it all figured out or that there is no mystery, far from it. There is plenty of mystery left in the universe and much that science has yet to discover, however we can be reasonably certain that any new discoveries will still fall in line with the natural laws and order of the universe.
Naturalism also hold the position that all life on this planet is connected. We, as humans, depend on nature for our survival, so it is paramount that we do everything we can to take care of this planet. This includes sustainable living, promotion of alternative energies, fighting climate change, sustainable agriculture, and the fair and ethical treatment of animals.
For myself, this means growing my own garden, supporting local farmers who raise livestock ethically, a zero-waste lifestyle, and volunteering for a local animal rescue.
Humanism is an outlook, or system of thought, attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.
Those things that make life better for humans, both collectively and individually, should be sought after. While those things which cause harm to humanity, should be eliminated. This means standing against such things as sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, bigotry, abuse, and discrimination.
Key to be a good humanists is understanding and having empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The video below aptly describes empathy and why it’s so important:
Empathy is a far better standard of morality than any religion – empathy seeks the good and understanding off all people, not just those who belong to one’s particular tribe. And unlike sacred texts, empathy is timeless and universal. To quote Graffin again, “The capacity for empathy enables us to organize our societies in a beneficial way. Because we can see at least some aspects of our selves in one another, we can derive ways of acting that are good for us and for society as a whole. But in order for this to occur, we have to be open to accepting other people’s experiences as equally valid to our own. This is simply impossible if prescriptive codes are too strictly enforced, particularly if these codes are underlain by the unverifiable “truths” of the supernatural realm. Empathy is the best basis for human ethics that we have. It provides a solid foundation for strong personal relationships and a productive society.”
“Only those willing to submit to submit themselves to the rigorous constraints of scientific methodology and to the canons of scientific evidence should presume to have a say in the guidance of human affairs. Just as freedom of opinion makes no sense in astronomy or physics, it is similarly inappropriate in a the social sciences.” – Auguste Compte
In this age of information it can often be difficult to determine what is real and what is not; do distinguish fact from fiction. No longer are people simply forming different opinions, but they are forming different realities as well. Large amounts of resources are being dumped into perpetuating false ideas, pseudosciences, myths, and unrealistic ideologies. With all this information floating around, how can anyone come to a solid understanding of the world?
All humans have the unfortunate quality of being able to be deceived. We have all been wrong about something at sometime. Just because something feels true to us doesn’t mean that it is. With this in mind, it is important to think critically about matters and have some sort of “filter” through which we can run information through to verify it’s accuracy. This filter is science.
Science is the most accurate and reliable source of information any method, system, or paradigm has offered thus far. The use of the scientific method – the collecting of measurable, empirical evidence in an experiment related to a hypothesis, the results aiming to support or contradict a theory – is the most reliable means of deciphering fact from fiction. In fact, science is currently the only way that we can understand and learn about the natural world.
It’s worth noting that “science” includes many different disciplines – history, archaeology, linguistics, psychology, sociology, etc. Yet, all of these, to a greater of lesser degree, still use methods of science: verifiable, tested, and generally agreed-upon results of empirical study.
For skeptics like myself, the need for empirical evidence is paramount. That which can’t be demonstrated through tested, demonstrable, and falsifiable means should be either disregarded, or put aside for later review when more information becomes available. Notice that I said “put aside” – not outright dismissed. This is an important difference that comes up a lot in conversations with believers. As an example, I can’t say with absolute certainty that there isn’t a God – there simply isn’t any evidence to demonstrate that there is one. Until such evidence is presented, I will put this idea “on the shelf”, but will remain open to the possibility. The same principle would apply to extraterrestrial life, Bigfoot, conspiracy theories, etc.
Finally, any good skeptic, critical thinker, or scientists must always be open and willing to accept; the possibility that they could be wrong. This can be difficult, as most of us avoid thinking that we are wrong. Most people feel that if they are wrong about something then their is something wrong with them. Kathryn Schulz does a great TED talk on this subject that is well worth the watch. She points out that it is important for people to be open and OK with the idea that we can be wrong and probably are wrong about a great many things. But, trusting too much on the feeling of being right can actually be a harmful and dangerous thing. This is what leads to fundamentalism, nationalism, wars, genocides, toxic religions, and many other atrocities. If you can be comfortable with the idea that you might be wrong, you are able to think more critically and are more open to new information and ideas.
I often hear creationists criticize science by saying that science has been wrong in the past. They’re right, but the critical difference between science and religion is that science changes as new information is obtained. To quote comedian Tim Minchin, “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.” In fact, being wrong is one of the fundamental elements of the scientific method, and the methodology of science is equally important in every-day life. In his excellent article in Scientific America titled, “The Key to Science (and Life) Is Being Wrong”, Steven Ross Pomeroy writes,
A good scientist must be willing to be wrong. Such an inclination is liberating, for it allows him or her to investigate potential answers — however unlikely they may be — to the difficult questions inspired by this vast, wondrous universe. Not only that, a willingness to be wrong frees a scientist to pursue any avenue opened by evidence, even if that evidence doesn’t support his or her original hunch.
This principle is one that I live by in my own life, as do many other skeptics and freethinkers. It’s amazing; once who’ve gone through a major transition of realizing that you’ve been wrong about a great many things, such as a de-conversion experience, it becomes very easy to accept the possibility that you can be wrong about other things. Having faced the cognitive dissonance head on and struggled through it for years, admitting to yourself and others that you were wrong seems rather simple.
I hope this has been informative and helpful. Thanks to my friend, Joel, for inspiring me to think about this more deeply. I would like to hear from other “nones” what principles they live by. What other ethos’ do you hold? Please leave your comments below. Thanks for reading.