Skeptic Con

April 14, 2009

Believing in Something Greater Than Yourself

Filed under: Atheism,humanism — skepticcon @ 4:06 pm
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A common gripe about atheism (or existentialism, or better yet, simply a lack of belief in any higher power) is that it inevitably leads to egocentric self-indulgence.  The Christian cliche goes something like this: You have to believe in something greater than yourself, or everything is just about you, and your whole life becomes a selfish, hedonistic mire.

First let me state the obvious: Even if this were true, it doesn’t mean there’s actually anything greater out there.  This is one of the infamous Chrisitan arguments for why their belief might be useful – but it doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true.

Now, the point is that if one believes there is nothing greater than oneself, it will lead to selfish – presumably even rapacious – behavior.  I don’t consider this a very viable argument, since it presupposes something: That because nothing is greater than you, everyone else must be less than you.  But isn’t it just as reasonable to say that although you believe nothing is greater than you, you still believe everyone else is equal to you in value?  Thus, you would have no logical reason to harm them, deny them aid, or victimize them.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that this notion is correct and lack of belief in something greater makes you a selfish jerk.  Then the question becomes, why must that “something greater” be supernatural?  Why does it have to be a god, or the notion of karma, or whatever?  To give an easy example, it’s quite possible to hold a simple moral precept up as “greater” than yourself, such as the notion that everyone’s life and happiness has just as much value as yours does.  However great a moral precept might be (and plenty of them have certainly proven their value to humanity), it doesn’t mean that it’s supernatural in origin.

I can’t speak for other atheists and doubters out there, but for me, the “something greater” is the easy part: It’s called life.  Life is bigger than you, because it’s not just about you.  It’s about the people you touch and the people who touch you.  It’s about the way you interact with your fellow human beings, and the happiness you enjoy together.  We don’t have to believe in any supernatural notion of love, forgiveness, or greatness; we can believe in the love, forgiveness, and greatness that our fellow human beings are capable of, and we can aspire to be capable of the same.

That’s definitely something greater than myself and worthy of my conviction – and it doesn’t require any ghosts, goblins, or genuflection.


  1. I’ve heard this argument before as well, and even though I’m a Christian, I tend to disagree that atheism leads to self indulgence. I think our morals (i.e. Western morals) dictate a lot more than most people think. I’ve met people of all faiths in the US who generally have the same morals, and I’ve met Christians in other countries who don’t. Now I can argue that religion was the basis for morals, but that’s a different post.

    Comment by Kyle — April 15, 2009 @ 5:41 am | Reply

  2. Great post. I share this sense of ‘life’ as a greater being. Indeed, I’d perhaps go as far to suggest that it’s this sense of worldly ‘life’ that is misinterpreted by religions to be a sense of an otherworldly ‘god’.

    In response to the comment above, if there is to be a debate on religion forming the basis of morality, I’d argue fiercely that it’s just as likely that many felt that our human sense of ‘morality’ (as we now understand it) needed organising and explaining, and that this lead to the laws and codes of conduct that underpin religion. In other words, human morality and notions of right and wrong came before religion.

    Comment by jenglo — April 19, 2009 @ 12:10 pm | Reply

  3. I feel the same about my moral distributions. Although I believe in no god, I believe that life and the world are more important than me. I think that I should do good things because it makes my life AND others happier and better. Trying to label myself (although stupid, it just makes the explanation of my religious views quicker) has been a flip flop sort of go about. First I was atheist, then I was agnostic (it just hasn’t been proved to me yet!) but currently I would describe myself as a Pantheist. I believe that the universe and every thing and every one in it is that higher power collectively. I don’t need to believe in a god when I believe in the universe.

    Comment by Rose — April 20, 2009 @ 6:21 am | Reply

  4. As long as you believe in something, that’s all that really matters. It can be an idea, a concept, yourself, God, Universe, Spirit, Love, Life, Tao, whatever. It doesn’t matter. And God never has to be the Christian, Catholic, Judaism, etc. version for anyone to believe in Him. Man gave God His name as God has no name. That is a label humans gave Him and that label has been misunderstood, misguided, and does not reflect the true nature of who or what God is. God is whomever you believe God to be. Remove the labels and decide for yourself. Remember whatever you believe makes it true for you and becomes your reality.

    Comment by Believer — July 27, 2010 @ 4:49 pm | Reply

  5. I believe there is something greater than me but im not sure if its a “god”. One thing i have to argue about though is that, because your christian dose not mean your selfish. On the other hand i can see were you are coming from.

    Comment by Michael — May 30, 2012 @ 7:45 pm | Reply

  6. This earth is a cruel place, then to say on top of that “you’re here by accident” just adds to it. I believe. It’s a personal belief (connection). I’m not going to say I know and can prove it. You can’t disprove or prove what you don’t know. I think part of the challenge here is to deal with the science that shows your fixed ways. Even so, to exist at all is unbelievable. The signs are everywhere, whether you choose to acknowledge them or not is your choice.

    You will be challenged in this life and you will be shown reasons for why it shouldn’t exist at all. I am competitive by nature, I refuse to believe life came to be by accident and will fight that thought whenever it may present itself. I believe, just like gravity, this world wants to bring me down and it will eventually. While I am here, I’m going to fight the things that try to bring me down. I will lose and so will you. Not good news at all, so let’s enjoy it as best as possible and believe in working for a honest tomorrow.

    Comment by Anthony — November 4, 2012 @ 6:09 am | Reply

  7. Not every Christian is like that, it’s the people not the religion. It’s like saying every Muslim wants to bomb our country. I think you’re in the wrong making a conclusion about a religion from stereotypes made by people. Not every Christian is judgemental FYI. But an argument that I have is that if you don’t believe in a “higher power” then why are you doing these acts of kindness? I mean yes you are doing good for another person, but isn’t it because it makes you feel good? And if it does, then is it not for personal gain and therefore selfish? This is something I don’t understand. I’m not saying that every atheist is selfish because inheritly by nature, everyone is selfish to some point whether you are Christian Muslim Buddhist Atheist Jewish Hindi or otherwise, and if you don’t believe that I’m sorry but you’re lying to yourself.

    Comment by Amber — May 6, 2013 @ 5:29 pm | Reply

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