As a skeptic and atheist I am often asked, “What do you believe in?” The ending preposition implies something more than what factual claims are to be believed, such as evolution, quantum physics, or the big bang. What is suggested by the question is what values does one believe in or hold to, especially without belief in God and religion. Here is my answer.
I believe in the Principle of Freedom: All people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.
I believe in civil liberties, civil rights, and the freedoms guaranteed in the United States Constitution, including and especially freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to assemble peacefully, freedom to petition grievances, freedom to worship (or not), freedom of the press, freedom of reproductive choice, freedom to bear arms, etc.
I believe in the sanctity of private property, the rule of law, and equal treatment under the law.
I believe in free will, free choice, moral culpability, and personal responsibility.
I believe in truth seeking and truth telling.
I believe in trust and trustworthiness.
I believe in fairness and reciprocity.
I believe in love, marriage, and fidelity.
I believe in family, friendship, and community.
I believe in honor, loyalty, and commitment to family, friends, and community members.
I believe in forgiveness when it is genuinely asked for or offered.
I believe in kindness, generosity, and charity, especially voluntary aid to others in need.
I believe in science as the best method ever devised for understanding how the world works.
I believe in reason and logic and rationality as cognitive tools for answering questions, solving problems, and devising solutions to life’s many problems and quandaries.
I believe in technological growth, cultural advancement, and moral progress.
I believe in the almost illimitable capacity of human creativity and inventiveness for our species to flourish into the far future on this planet and others.
Ad astra per aspera!
So, if you are ever asked by a believer what you believe in, offer your own list along these lines of values that you honor, and then ask, “Why, what do you believe in? Do you not honor these values?”
The impetus for essay, which I penned on a plane to Los Angeles on October 15, 2010, was that I was asked this very question the night before during the Q&A after a talk I delivered before a sizable audience at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, sponsored by CASH (Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists), supported by several other Minnesota atheist and humanist groups, and attended as well by many believers. The woman who made the inquiry explained that as an atheist she is often asked this question in a tone implying that atheists cannot or do not believe in anything.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but such is the delimiting effect of religious belief and the myth that without God anything goes. Quite the contrary. Without God, values matter more here and now than they ever could in any projected afterlife proscenium where the moral play is finally enacted.
P.S. The final line above translates as: To the stars with difficulty. The phrase originated with the Roman poet Seneca the Younger and was made famous on a plaque honoring the Apollo 1 astronauts who perished in a fire on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.