I had a conversation last night with a good friend of mine about beliefs. For those of you who don’t know, I classify myself as a tolerant atheist, not a fundamentalist atheist. I realized during this discussion that over time my views have softened a bit.

My friend Jeff Tripodi actually called me “Brian ‘Cold Uncaring Universe’ Bishop” in college because I was adamant that there was no purpose to life (save the one we give it). It’s amusing when you look back on yourself and realize that only someone so young could be so unflinchingly uncompromising. Given enough time and diversity of experience, I think it’s inevitable (and desirable) that most absolutist positions get moderated. Where I used to be convinced in the ludicrousness of deities of any flavor, I now routinely say things like, “I think it’s highly unlikely.” After all, empiricism only takes you so far.

I’ve also realized more the difficulty in having good dialog about this issue. Most people’s theological belief system is so wrapped up with their personal identity and their other values and beliefs, that a thoughtful consideration of it amounts to an attack on the self.  So when you meet someone who disagrees with you about such a fundamental topic, it’s felt as sharply as an attack on one’s very core.

I don’t know what the solution to this is, I don’t know how to have the discussion and avoid the feeling of fundamental disconnect/incompatibility, but I have become more aware of exactly how hard these issues are for people to discuss rationally.

Which, of course, is what makes them such good discussions.

But an interesting distinction was made in last night’s conversation that I needed to think hard about. During the discussion about “How Does One Form One’s Beliefs” my friend explained that when examining all the potential beliefs she could subscribe to, the choice of NOT believing in anything greater than physics seemed to “close off too many opportunities”, and didn’t “do anything positive” for her.

In economic terms (and I’m paraphrasing here), the return on investment  for atheism seemed to be nil, whereas the potential return from other belief systems (which could allow for things like spirituality, loving and compassionate almight powers, or just the idea that life doesn’t end when you die) seemed to offer so much more.

It was a really intriguing way of thinking about the issue.

It’s probably done sub-consciously by most people. I bet there is a kind of bargain-hunting for ideology in which most people simply choose to go along with what they were raised with because that’s “cheaper”, from the standpoint of investing mental energy in truly doing “comparison shopping” and incurring the costly anxiety that is associated with breaking from the pack.

So, in a way, “value shopping” for your religous ideology is an extremely bold action that requires quite a large investment: before you can decide which beliefs will provide the most value for you, you have to know what your values are. You have to know what’s valuable to you as an individual. And that’s hard work!

My challenge to this slight on the “pragmatic” choice (to follow the lead of science and believe that it is likely that it is indeed all just a bunch of matter and energy), was to suggest that there WAS a return on investment for believing the universe is cold and uncaring, with no meaning, no purpose, no higher power, and nothing beyond our physical existence.

But then I had to think hard about what it was that was good about atheism.

Why exactly do I LIKE the idea that the universe is just physics?

Well, for one, I believe it takes a certain amount of strength to confront the idea that there is no inherent meaning or anything “greater” than ourselves, and accept that, and then make your way in such a world. It takes balls to say, “I think this is all there is, and I’m just going to have to deal.”

Also, and this might be strange from someone claiming to be an atheist, but I’m big on order, and rules. I get upset when people don’t merge neatly on the highways, or at 4-way stop signs, or when people jump queues. And I think this desire for order is a way of controlling the universe.

If you accept that the universe has no inherent value system, or rules, then it becomes our responsibility to MAKE sense of senselessness, to make order out of chaos. And that’s an infinitely more empowered belief system than, say, a universe created by some higher power which we can do nothing other than try to discern Her meaning, sing Her hymns and give Her praise and wear nice clothes while gathered together at pre-arranged times of the week.

Also, I think atheism is very democratic. If we’re all just a bunch of matter, then, everyone is equally alone, equally lost and trying to find their way in a scary and unpredictable world. Equally grappling with questions of mortality and trying to lead an honorable life. Atheism’s new mantra: “Equality baby!”

In the end, no one knows.

And because we don’t know, we all have to do our best to make the choices that will help us get through life the best way for us each as individuals. We are all entitled to our beliefs (even if they’re wrong), and the most powerful thing we can do with our lives is to decide what those beliefs are for ourselves, not have them decided for us by others or by our lazy subconscious.

So what do YOU believe?

Categories: General


Jeff Tripodi · August 21, 2009 at 10:17 pm

I don’t remember calling you that, but it sounds like something I’d say.

Jeff Tripodi · September 3, 2009 at 4:33 am

The more I think about your post, the more I continue to wrestle with the Big Question. I think when people reach a certain age (read: 30), you first start to grapple with mortality. When I was 13, I couldn’t conceive of being this old.

Or maybe you have kids, and you start going in one direction or another. You gravitate toward your own youth, or consider the dilemma of teaching ethical behavior with/without omnipotent consequence; God as Santa, for those who matriculate, the all-knowing knowing if you’ve been bad or good (or else).

Funny thing is, it sounds like you and I have traded sides, where we once traded jabs. I am freshly confounded and aimless in the greater-power realm, while you seem to have — at long last — finally found some peace.

Lindsay Ryan · September 5, 2009 at 4:19 pm

your friend is appealing to Pascal’s Wager (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal's_Wager). for me, there is always a problem with making the choice to believe, because it implies a mental state that can hold up for comparison belief vs non-belief, and the very existence of such a state seems to act against belief. but then – as our president so charmingly put it in his innaugural address – i’m a non-believer.

i do find it interesting that you have left unquestion the conclusion that it becomes our responsibility to make meaning in the absense of deities. this too is a belief-system – the idea that there is a responsibility – and it has its own faith – that there is meaning to be made. not that i disagree, but i think there may be people in the world who are maybe a little less type A…

Ian Ras · June 25, 2010 at 3:53 pm


very interesting observations and thoughts. As a atheist I disagree to the zero return on investment of being a non-believer. You cold have a lot more to invest once you stop pushing your time and money into a religion (no matter which) and that investment could give your life a different focus and enjoyment, than the hope that someday the big flying spaghetti monster will come down and help you and fellow pirates save the world from climate changes.

I do however fully subscribe to the more lean atheist approach as you grow older, though only to the point when religion become organized and people start preaching. THEN I am also an atheist fundamentalist who has very little time to hear about old books with people walking on water / saving virgins or whatever they find funny to claim.

However, we could all be wrong, and end in hell as we did not pray to the right god(s), but there should enough people there to arrange a proper party anyway. Until then, remember to enjoy life, as we only got one of them as far as I know 🙂

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