I travel quite a bit and am often asked about my religious beliefs. I am atheist. I found it hard for some religious (or spiritual) people (whatever religion) to accept the concept of atheism and many would state something like

You necessarily believe in something.

and then ask

What do you believe in?

It is often hard for me to answer this question because

  1. I am not a trained philosopher and I do not fully fathom what the answer could be
  2. Most people I meet during my trips have little knowledge in philosophy and it is therefore hard to explain my thoughts in simple terms (plus, we sometimes don't quite speak the same language).

My thoughts

Justification of beliefs

Of course, I have all sorts of beliefs.

Many of my beliefs are justified by the scientific methods. Many of my beliefs are justified by some other method, eventually generally considered as less convincing method. Some of my beliefs cannot be true or false. For example, I believe that it is bad or unethical for an employer to cut the hands and feet of his/her employee's children because the employee did not work hard enough (I'm looking at you Belgian Congo!). Such beliefs, I think are justified based on my set of ethical values (which themselves are rather unjustified I guess).

Of course, when asking What do you believe in?, the person asking the question will not be satisfied if I list this kind of beliefs.

Essentialism vs existentialism

It is possible that when claiming You necessarily believe in something the asker shows he/she do not accept the idea that someone may not be essentialist.

Of course, being atheist is not synonymous with being existentialist (or nihilist) and being theist is not synonymous with being essentialist but there is still a pretty good correlation (I would suppose) and I would guess that many people asking this question might actually be asking What gives meaning to your life?.

Being an existentialist, I would be fine to just explain that I feel free to put meaning in my life in whatever seems fit to me. I am trying to be happy, eventually to make people happy around me, I like to be amazed by the world and I like dark chocolate (!) but I doubt this will be received as a satisfying answer either and it may sounds like I am not answering a question that may seem simple in appearance.


I am looking for advice on how to simply, yet clearly answer

You necessarily believe in something. What do you believe in?

  • Physicalism or materialism? I.e. the idea that only physical things exist, nothing supernatural/spiritual/immaterial. It's hard for us to help you answer that question since we don't know what you believe but I'd make the guess that since you're an atheist you at least lean towards physicalism. What exactly do you want out of an answer to this question? What does a good answer to this question look like to you?
    – Not_Here
    Jul 30, 2017 at 22:37
  • naturalism? "the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted." it has various types, epistemological, metaphysical... not sure how you get "meaning" from that though.
    – user25714
    Jul 30, 2017 at 23:09
  • 1
    Um. Are you saying you don't know what you believe? If you don't know how are we supposed to know? After all, Buddhism is atheism, and perhaps you believe that. We can't know this.
    – user20253
    Jul 31, 2017 at 10:49
  • Athiesm is characterised by not what they believe, but by what they don't believe, ie thiesm; its why its named as such. Jul 31, 2017 at 12:55
  • 2
    Usually, scientific observation as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Acknowledging this is a belief is somehow difficult, but it is ultimately an axiom for most atheists that cannot be proved and is not open to questioning.
    – user9166
    Jul 31, 2017 at 23:07

10 Answers 10


The conversation you refer to is not an easy one. What is difficult about it is that you have an individual who clearly believes in something (a religious belief), and they're going on the attack. We know they're on the attack because of "You necessarily believe in something." That phrasing pins you in place, whether they intended to or not. (There are other phrasings which are not attacks, such as those that question how you might live without believing in anything, but that's not the scenario stated)

The real question you will want to ask yourself is how much do you want to merely deflect them versus how much you want to challenge them. They went out on a lib, demonstrating that they believe "you must necessarily believe in something," which is a statement that is rather dangerous unless you have precise language. Mixing "necessarily" with layman's speech is a recipe for disaster, no matter the topic. Worse, with their follow up question, "What do you believe in?" They are implicitly assuming that your beliefs can be put into words.

Thus, the smallest deflection you could do is to counter one of these statements. You can challenge the use of "necessarily" with layman's speech, and offer to have a discussion with very clear definitions, but that may require more of a philosophical background on your part. Thus, I'd recommend countering the assumption that your beliefs can be put into words. Language is, after all, a construct of human culture. There are plenty of things our subconscious does that defy words. Also, remember that words can have different meanings to different people, so there's a valid argument to be had that you can have beliefs that you have worded for yourself which mean something else entirely to a religious person.

For a more aggressive deflection, I'd recommend what I mentioned in the comments. State a belief in the Aggripan Trilemma. This is a trilemma which states that all logical arguments must end in one of:

  • An unproven statement (an axiom)
  • Circular logic
  • Infinite recursion (1, 2, skip a few, 99, infinity!)

They wont have any reason to disagree with this, for their beliefs are typically in the form of an axiom (which the trilemma admits). However, the more they push on the trilemma, the more they are going to have to clarify their opinion on what a "belief" actually is. That can be used for further discussion if you like.

More aggressive, one can argue that beliefs are only required if one is certain about things. If you can be comfortable with only being 99.9999999% certain and can act on that level of certainty meaningfully, you can dodge around the need for beliefs. However, this may lead to them poking at those uncertainties and you may be obliged to poke back at theirs.

The most aggressive approach, of course, would be to go on the full on attack, and try to dispel their beliefs. However, I don't recommend this unless the person is really trying to get your goat. It's really hard to dispel someone's beliefs (they tend to believe in them anyway), and it's a good way to not make friends.

Of course, the other approach is to refuse to answer at all. If I feel that my mental state is more calm and confident than theirs, I may try to simply smile and say "I have my thoughts" and leave it there.

The more interesting question, to me, is what do you do about the fact that this question bugs you? It seems like an excellent study piece, if you ask me. What answers to this line of questioning make you comfortable? When we find little things like this, it's often an excellent place to learn a little more about ourselves.


I don't usually use the word believe.

Some things I know, others I don't.

Some things I have a small confidence, others I have much confidence.

What do you call believe? Be 100% confident in something you don't actually know? Wouldn't it be more sensible to have only 99.9% of confidence, in this case?

I think any lay person can understand this.


You have a few options in siding with a meta-ethical theory:

  1. Ethical naturalism
  2. Ethical subjectivism
  3. Ethical non-cognitivism
  4. Error theory.

I believe that is exhaustive, given you are a moral anti-realist about the furniture of the world, though there are many different questions in meta-ethics.

e.g. you may also want to know, given that we do have moral knowledge, the epistemological question of how we have it. You may subscribe to e.g. ethical intuitionism and foundationalism,

You may also want to define your values according to some ethical rather than meta-ethical theory, such as consequentialist utilitarianism. Alternatively, you may think there are no good moral principles at all.

All these questions may overlap in different ways, and be better suited to your "existentialism". None of them, I think, entails any God or anything less than phsyicalist.


As the comments point out, if you're an atheist, then you presumably "believe" in physicalism/materialism/naturalism or some such ism, at least insofar as your remark "justified by the scientific method" is concerned. However, no such observationally-based scientific enterprise has yet accounted for "why there's something rather than nothing". Or in other words, no "theory of everything" yet. So you can't exactly "believe" in any of these ism's, because in all of them "belief" means a demonstrated correspondence between experimental/observational evidence and a theoretical explanatory model. (That's called a "partially interpreted formal system", as elaborated by Max Jammer in his book, The Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics.)

So the most you can believe=guess is that over the course of time, some such model will be forthcoming. But, until it is forthcoming, you must admit you could be wrong. So the only firmly defensible atheist position is that you're an agnostic who's guessing that the overwhelming likelihood is that some experimentally confirmable explanation of "why there's something rather than nothing" will indeed eventually be forthcoming.

Religious people have a much simpler position because "belief" just means faith. Nothing else necessary. And as Joseph Campbell humorously put it (somewhere in his book, The Power of Myth), "If you could prove the existence of God, what would be the value of Faith?"

  • And I’ll tell you what your problem is. You are assuming that an atheist would be interested in your sophistic and insulting arguments. I hate sophism, and I’m not letting anyone insult me, and as a result you will suffer painful real world consequences. The fist is more powerful than your nose.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 13, 2022 at 11:20
  • @gnasher729 ???
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 2, 2023 at 2:05

Here are two possible answers.

First you could say that you believe in a ham sandwich and a glass of beer. I am serious. There is nothing wrong with this answer. After all, all living things need sustenance of some kind, and such sustenance (e.g. food and drink) is as necessary as any God ever was; and, as an added bonus, it is a way of testing whether your interlocutor knows their Rimbaud or not.

Second possible answer:

You could say you are a humanist. "Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely raitional ways of solving human problems." Google dictionary. So there is no divine or supernatural, the focus is on human matters.

If you wanted to you could add that you don't see humankind as lord over the world, but rather you see the human species as potentially being able to live in harmony and with respect for the natural world.

Reference: Rimbaud, Au Cabaret-vert --cinq heures du soir

  • is is the rimbaud reference? i speak zero french
    – user25714
    Jul 31, 2017 at 9:26
  • 1
    At the Green Inn--five in the evening
    – Gordon
    Jul 31, 2017 at 13:40

"I do not believe it is necessary to believe in the existence of a non-material basis of human morality" - though this is expressed in negative terms, it still represents a belief, assuming the atheist has personal grounds for saying this, and is sincere (with himself) in his rationalisation of those grounds, i.e. his process of rationalising those grounds to himself ...

However, we could potentially reformulate the above statement of belief this way, in positive terms: "I believe it is possible for a person to hold that there is a material basis for human morality, without necessarily (i.e. as a matter of course) losing anything substantial from the integrity of his or her ethical point of view"


There is no one answer to this, because atheism is essentially a position of disbelief (in God) so different atheists might answer quite differently. The following all seem like possible legitimate "good faith" responses to a question that is essentially asking how you construct meaning in the absence of faith in a deity:

1) I haven't deeply examined my own beliefs.
2) I believe in people treating each other well.
3) I believe in a Godless universe.
4) I believe in science.
5) I don't find that question meaningful.

Each might well be the response of a different atheist. The first is the answer of someone not philosophically inclined (someone who is "incidentally" atheist), the second is the answer of an ethicist, the third is a committed, philosophical atheist, the fourth person believes that the scientific worldview is a sufficient substitute for a religious one, while the final person rejects the entire search for deeper meaning.

It's worth noting that people probably ask the question because atheism was once a position chiefly taken up by people who had thought about it deeply and come to it as a principled and controversial philosophical stance. Only recently have there been people who are atheist by default.

  • It used to be dangerous to profess atheism and now it is just annoying. Why bother to even worry about such things, right?
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 2, 2023 at 2:00

It is quixotic to expect a layman person to understand. As according to them Atheism and Religious are mutually exclusive, while is not true. You can be religious but simultaneously be an atheist. Example Savarkar,Hinduism. One can be religious way either you are spiritual or utilitarian.

Mathematically there is no correlation b/w atheism and religion.

  • "Ministers do more than lay people."
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 2, 2023 at 2:07

The answer you need to give is very simple - "I believe in everything others believe in, with the exception that I don't believe that there is an omnipotent God that created everything."
In other words, I have the same beliefs as every body else... with a minor exception!

Since it is not my intention to "put words in your mouth," feel free to modify the suggested reply, to your liking.


You sound to me like a agnostic. Why has almost nobody used this word? It is possible to be a passionate agnostic.


The OP asks two questions. The first is in his title "What do atheists believe" and is impossible to answer, as several have pointed out. The conclusion to his text is that he is often told "You necessarily believe in something. What do YOU believe in?" and the question posed by the OP is "How do I answer that?" This is a very good question, and is the one that I will try to address.

From the remarks made earlier in the post, I think that the stranger is a person met fairly casually on travel, perhaps professionally. So the first thing to be decided is whether you actually want to talk with this person. If not, you make your favorite excuse as soon as possible. If you are willing to talk, or if your favorite excuse does not work, will you talk out of politeness, or are you willing to talk seriously? Only the second case is interesting.

I have been in this situation myself, although not often, and it has led to establishing a mutual respect that can help with whatever business you are about. The answer, true in my case, is that I an agnostic who is very interested in belief. It sounds to me very much as if this is the position also taken by the OP, and the first task is to explain that such a stance is indeed possible. It is helpful to discuss the fact that Scottish law allows, reluctantly, a verdict of "not proven", and that a juror might hold passionately that this is the only correct verdict.

Your post contains several examples of what you are sure about and what you are less sure about. Talk about these things. Make it plain that you would like to have answers but feel distrustful of your ability to find them. Express interest in the strangers beliefs, and ask how they were arrived at. Talk about the difficulty of establishing truth. The fact that the stranger has already expressed curiosity promises a very profitable conversation.

  • 1
    Because in his second sentence the person asking said he was an atheist. So agnosticism is a topic for another day.
    – Gordon
    Aug 2, 2017 at 21:13
  • 1
    Btw, I did not tag you with a down vote. It was a simple mistake and these things happen.
    – Gordon
    Aug 2, 2017 at 21:21
  • 1
    @MoziburUllah You did not rectify my downvote because I did not give Philip a downvote. So you "rectified" someone else.
    – Gordon
    Aug 4, 2017 at 15:18
  • 1
    I saw the downvote come up as I was finishing my first post or right after I had finished it, and that is why I added the second post. What is a bit ironic about the whole thing is that I am agnostic myself!
    – Gordon
    Aug 4, 2017 at 15:31
  • 1
    @MoziburUllah thank you for writing back, Mozibur. I appreciate it. Take care.
    – Gordon
    Aug 4, 2017 at 15:45

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