Can atheism make us better people in life?

Ever since the heart attack I’ve been asked, from time to time, if it changed my religious views, a couple of people have even hit me with Pascal’s Wager. It’s mostly from friends and family, and they mean well. But of course that hasn’t changed and it’s doubtful it ever will. I’ve been trying to come up with a polite and honest response. So far that’s been a waste of time. But I have an explanation that you, dear skeptical readers, may find familiar and compelling.

I love Christmas, I like everything about it. The build up between Thanksgiving and the end of the year, the decorative lights, the time off, the general spirit of happiness that takes over the workplace. I like the days off from work, back when I was a stock broker any day the market was closed was a giant stress reliever. I like the sappy golden oldie stop animation specials on TV and the songs. When I was a kid I loved getting presents, a love that hasn’t left me completely as an adult! As an adult I love buying presents for the people in my life, especially surprising them with something truly special.

One year I spent an entire month selling my wife on the idea that we’re broke, that I’d made a trading error at work (Back when I was a Wall Street guy) and it would cost me almost our entire month’s pay. I told her we’d have to take it easy this year, no extravagant gifts (And like the trooper she was, she accepted it without a qualm), and that maybe we could take advantage of January sales to make up for it when I got that check. I knew she had her eye set on a nice trench coat that came in iridescent greenish black, it brought out her eyes like sparkling emeralds. She even fantasized about a type of purse called a Doone & Burke (?) that fit with it perfectly. Maybe next year I told her several times and apologized.

So when we went over to my parents’ house to celebrate on Christmas morning, near the end of the unwrapping session I casually handed her a box wrapped in nondescript brown paper and told her it was from Santa. It was the purse, and as soon as she opened it and recognized it, right when her eyes lit up, my niece came be-bopping down the stairs as prearranged, twirling and strutting like a fashion model, wearing the new coat. Boy, did I ever hit a home run with that one! I’ll never forget it.

My favorite part of the whole holiday is the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when everything shuts down, even if you have to work there’s a wonderful sense of not taking things too seriously. But my favorite part of Christmas is giving someone something special and really surprising them like I did that year with the coat and purse.

Point being, I love Christmas, everything about it, I look forward to it all year and I’m sad to see it go.

But I don’t believe in Santa Claus. There is no chance I will ever believe in Santa. It’s not that I don’t like Santa, or that I choose not to believe in him. I couldn’t sincerely believe in Santa Claus if there were a million dollars riding on it. The only way I could say I believe in Santa would be by telling a big fat lie. That’s how it is for me with other supernatural beings. It’s not that I don’t want to believe in an al merciful loving super being that grants immortal life in a paradise, who wouldn’t want that? It’s that I couldn’t if I wanted to.

Having a heart attack didn’t change that. And as for people who ask, ‘aren’t you afraid of dying’ then? Well sure, I have the usual fight or flight physiology, same as anyone else. If I’m cut open and bleeding I’ll feel pain and fear, if a car almost hits me I’ll get a flash of adrenaline. But as far as the dying part itself, being dead … the best I can explain it is, I think dying will be like before I was born; no pain, no strife, nothing to fear. And thinking that has just never been a problem for me.

It does change how I act now though, for the better in my view. For those of us who don’t believe in an afterlife, this is it, this is our time. If we atheists have someone in our lives we want to express love for, we know we have to do it now, lavish it, drown them in it. If there is unfinished business, someone we have wronged or hurt, we know we have to make those amends while we are alive, there will be no second chance at the Pearly Gates. And we know how precious life truly is, that we must enjoy it while we’re here, and do our best to help those we care for enjoy their time, too.

I don’t think that necessarily makes us better people in life, the number of asshole atheist I’ve met grows daily. But living as we do, courageously, knowing we are under sentence of permanent death, that sure doesn’t make us worse than those who do believe in an afterlife


  1. embraceyourinnercrone says

    It can make you a better or more thoughtful person.But just being an atheist doesn’t necessarily mean one IS a better person. What I mean is it can make you appreciate what you have because this is what we get. My example would be my mom in law died suddenly right after thanksgiving. Many of her kids and grandkids are atheists or agnostic. We talked a lot about how her death made us more committed to trying to take care of each other try to make our communities brtter and appreciate what we have in each other NOW. I hope that made sense.

  2. left0ver1under says

    Does being an atheist make one better? No, but being religious can certainly make someone worse.

    Being an atheist means not having excuses – no “pray and be forgiven” nonsense, no “but I’m a good ______” as if religion somehow makes people better or exempts them from civil behaviour. When you’re an atheist, you’re responsible for your own actions, which makes (or should make) people think more carefully about their words and actions.

    Life for an atheist is a one-way ride, no second chances. It makes living life to the fullest all the more important. The majority of atheists I know would rather make good use of the time, whether bettering their own lives or the lives of others.

  3. says

    “Ever since the heart attack I’ve been asked, from time to time, if it changed my religious views”

    Perhaps this is nitpicking but I wonder why you or anyone else thinks people who are not religious have “religious views”.

    “It’s not that I don’t want to believe in an all merciful loving super being that grants immortal life in a paradise, who wouldn’t want that? It’s that I couldn’t if I wanted to.”

    I wouldn’t want that. Sounds like eternal boredom. It’s a fantasy for cowards.

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