Michael Shermer

The following challenge is from an old friend of mine named Randy Kirk. I knew Randy when I was racing bicycles, and he has since become fairly religious and we have been having some lively debates. Randy has challenged me to tell him the benefits of being an atheist, agnostic, nonbeliever, skeptic, etc. That is, instead of the debate over Pascal's wager, which posits that believing in God offers nothing to lose and everything to gain, what does not believing in God have to offer?

I would like to receive your answers to his challenge and then post them here on e-Skeptic as a type of forum discussion on the above question. (My own answer appears on the final two pages of How We Believe, which I have posted below.) But I would like to know how others answer this question, not just to respond to Randy, but to improve my own answer for myself.

In a related question Randy also asks: "How can the anti-god folks argue that their persuading others away from God, Jesus, and religion is a benefit to them now or in some potential afterlife. All the scientific evidence points to benefits of faith." I think we can consider this a second question, related to but different from the first question.

My answer to Randy's question, from How We Believe: Finding Meaning in a Contingent Universe

I am often asked by believers why I abandoned Christianity and how I found meaning in the apparently meaningless universe presented by science. The implication is that the scientific world-view is an existentially depressing one. Without God, I am bluntly told, what's the point? If this is all there is, there is no use. To the contrary. For me quite the opposite is true. The conjuncture of losing my religion, finding science, and discovering glorious contingency was remarkably empowering and liberating. It gave me a sense of joy and freedom. Freedom to think for myself. Freedom to take responsibility for my own actions. Freedom to construct my own meanings and my own destinies. With the knowledge that this may be all there is, and that I can trigger my own cascading changes, I was free to live life to its fullest.

This is not to say that those who are religious cannot share in these freedoms. But for me, and not just for me, a world absent monsters, ghosts, demons, and gods unfetters the mind to soar to new heights, to think unthinkable thoughts, to imagine the unimaginable, to contemplate infinity and eternity knowing that no one is looking back. The universe takes on a whole new meaning when you know that your place in it was not foreordained, that it was not designed for us, indeed, that it was not designed at all. If we are nothing more than star stuff and bio mass, how special life becomes. If the tape were played again and again without the appearance of our species, how extraordinary becomes our existence, and, correspondingly, how cherished. To share in the sublimity of knowledge generated by other human minds, and perhaps even to make a tiny contribution toward that body of knowledge that will be passed down through the ages, part of the cumulative wisdom of a single species on a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star on the remote edge of a not-so-unusual galaxy, itself a member of a cluster of galaxies millions of light years from nowhere, is sublime beyond words.

Since we are such a visual primate, perhaps images can help capture the feeling. The Hubble Telescope Deep Field photograph in Figure 10-3, revealing as never before the rich density of galaxies in our neck of the universe, is as grand a statement about the sacred as any medieval cathedral. How vast is the cosmos. How contingent is our place. Yet out of this apparent insignificance emerges a glorious contingency--the recognition that we did not have to be, but here we are. In fact, compare this slice of the cosmos to two of the most hallowed and sacrosanct structures on Earth--both medieval in age but on opposite sides of the planet, literally and figuratively: Machu Picchu and Chartres Cathedral. Machu Picchu captures the numina through an interlocking relationship between nature and humanity that generated in me an almost mystical connection across space and time with the ancients that had once lived and loved atop this 8,000-foot precipice. This is the "lost city" in so many ways. When I stood inside Chartres Cathedral with my soul mate, lit candles, and promised each other our eternal love, it was a more sacred moment than any I have experienced. Skeptics and scientists cannot experience the numinous? Nonsense. You do not need a spiritual power to experience the spiritual. You do not need to be mystical to appreciate the mystery. Standing beneath a canopy of galaxies, atop a pillar of reworked stone, or inside a transcept of holy light, my unencumbered soul was free to love without constraint, free to use my senses to enjoy all the pleasures and endure all the pains that come with such love. I was enfranchised for life, emancipated from the bonds of restricting tradition, and unyoked from the rules written for another time in another place for another people. I was now free to try to live up to that exalted moniker--Homo sapiens--wise man.

This article was first published in
Copyright 2002 Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, e-Skeptic magazine (
www.skeptic.com and skepticmag@aol.com).