What do I believe?

What does an atheist believe? In the latest Faith Column Sue Blackmore sets out her philosophy

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

What is my faith? Delighted to be asked to write for The Faith Column I have been asking myself that question for days, and getting into deep philosophical conundrums.

My first reaction is “none”. I am an atheist who has no faith in God, gods, or any religious doctrines. If faith is defined as “firm belief without proof” or “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence” then I try to avoid it. I don’t wish to believe in things just because someone, or some book, tells me they are true. I want evidence, reason, self-consistency, or some other good reason.

I said I’m an atheist. But this is problematic. I’m not an “Atheist” who wants to join an Atheist’s Society or club together with fellow atheists to worship a non-God. I’m just an atheist by default because I don’t believe in God, Russell’s teapot in the sky, the Flying Spaghetti Monster (bless his all-powerful noodly appendages) or any religious dogma. This is not like membership of some alternative to religious belief: it’s a freedom from the necessity of belief.

You could also say that I’m a humanist. Indeed I support the British Humanist Association. But really this only means that, like approximately 17 million other people in Britain I turn to science rather than religion to explain the world and to make moral and ethical decisions.

You could also say that I am a naturalist. Indeed I support the Center for Naturalism. But this only means that I hold a world view that accounts for human existence, will, consciousness and choice without recourse to supernatural forces or other worlds.

This sums up the difference between religious believers and those of no faith. I can be all these things without conflict. One cannot be both a Christian and a Hindu or a Buddhist and a Muslim – at least not without committing heresy in one of them. Once you step outside of faith there is no heresy.

So there I am – happily living a faithless and godless life. Why then the “philosophical conundrums”?
Because I realise that I must still take many things on faith and it is interesting to ponder what they are. A partial list would include the following: The existence of an outside world; that the world has consistent laws or principles; that doing experiments is worthwhile; that other people who do the same experiments will get similar results.

I could go on, but it might be more instructive to hear from other scientists and thinkers. Every year Edge's World Question Center asks many of the world’s top scientists and philosophers a new question.

The 2005 question was: 'What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?'.

Richard Dawkins’s answer was that “all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection”; Ian McEwan’s was that “no part of my consciousness will survive my death"; Dan Dennett’s that “acquiring a human language is a necessary prerequisite for consciousness”; and Martin Rees that “intelligent life … has the potential to spread through the galaxy and beyond”. He adds that this belief is “a substitute for religious belief, and I hope it's true.”

Like almost all the others in the Edge community, and indeed most scientists worldwide, he has no religious faith. Delving deeply into science and philosophy rarely leaves faith intact, but replaces it with the realisation that science has to make assumptions, or start with some things taken on faith, but these are always up for grabs – open to throwing out if the evidence proves them wrong. This is the difference between religion and science.

My own answer to the question was “It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will.” But that’s a topic for another time. I will end for now with something I said, on the spur of the moment, for a podcast interview, but which probably sums up my view as well as anything: “We live in a pointless universe. We are here for no reason at all. There isn’t a soul. There isn’t a spirit, and we’re not going to live forever.”

Sue Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol