Grounding Your Atheism

Grounding Your Atheism

Secular Morality Requires a Garage Full of Tools, None Complete and None Without Problems

My deconversion began at age ten or eleven. I was sitting alone in the back of a church, praying to a supposedly caring God to relieve my sufferings, but I received no response. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know what I was talking about—and neither did anyone else. 

I saw fault lines in all my beliefs, from the concept of faith grounded in nothing to the problem of evil in the world. I made a vow then to learn the truth about life, no matter what. If that led me to hell, so be it.

Instinctively, I expected my quest to take years, and I was right. It wasn’t until I was almost forty that I became confident in my beliefs. For too many though, atheism is an end to their quest, when letting go is just the beginning. Atheism is what we don’t believe. 

But what, then, do we believe? Well, I believe Socrates was correct when he said there are only two main questions in life: What is true, and how shall we live? Atheists use expressions like“good without God,” “just be good,” and “no gods, no masters.” 

While their simplicity is nice, these terms are very misleading. They say nothing about how difficult it actually is to find your own definition of morality—and then make your own decisions according to that definition. 

It is distressing to many people that the majority of philosophers today, after a deep search, have found there is no certainty, no absolute moral goal, no absolute meaning in life. All scientific knowledge is tentative, fallible, and probabilistic. 

Like the search for truth, secular morality requires a garage full of tools, none complete and none without problems. Every value we hold has downsides and tradeoffs. 

There is no one-size-fits-all ethical goal for everyone. Humanity has multiple goals, multiple foundations, multiple moral tools. We don’t need certainty to gain knowledge. The world is indeed relative, but it is not arbitrary. 

Also, we don’t need absolute ethical paths and goals to make good, confident decisions. We just need to do the best we can in a messy situation. 

For me, being a humanist means to search for and commit to the highest ideals, our noblest sentiments, our greatest values, and what civilization, and science say matters most. 

Humanism is a blend of the best of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movements say - ing this world is all and enough. 

Most of us, consciously or unconsciously, need a higher vision to lift our hearts, move our society, and push us to higher meanings. Some may find that an integrated story is already with us. Humanism is based on values, not beliefs. 

To name just a few, these values encompass open-minded critical thinking, science, justice, freedom, tolerance, democracy, reason, compassion, human rights, the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and the importance of human flourishing. 

We can’t afford the luxury of merely critiquing religion. We must share our own stories so that others who are contemplating a change will see that a non-religious worldview can support, inspire, and comfort them; that knowledge of science, while tentative, is firmer than blind faith; that focusing on the here-and-now is more meaningful than a focus on otherworldliness; that compassion and responsibility can be balanced with self-interest and freedom. 

Ambiguity doesn’t have to paralyze us, but it does make it crucial that we reflectively consider all our choices. Now is our time because there are more of us than ever, and our population is continually growing. Now is our chance to move society toward reason and the good life. 

Now is the time to rid our society of Dark-Age theocratic and ideological controls. We cannot falter in the face of certain hostility or our own inherent ambivalence; neither can we stand idly by hoping for a secular society to automatically shape itself. 

We must show that a secular worldview need not be nihilistic and that we can build communities that embrace a progressive, ethical worldview of human and global good.


Michael Werner is president of the Humanist Foundation, past president of the American Humanist Association, and a co-founder of SMART recovery, a secular program for addictions. His book, What Can You Believe In If You Don’t Believe in God?, is published by Humanist Press.

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