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The Story So Far

ATA was created in 2006 for the Rational Response Squad, famous for the Blasphemy Challenge and their Nightline debate with Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. In 2009 we archived the original site and moved to a new platform, which is where we are today.

I’m here to answer any questions or challenges you might have for atheists in general, along with site founder Jake. We’ve been around long enough already that it’s worth checking whether your question has already been answered, but we’re happy to tread old ground for new readers.

Welcome to Ask the Atheist. Ask away.

Edit: A couple of things if you’re new. Comments are fully moderated and your first post must be approved, so give it time to appear. If a new contribution is reliant enough on an existing answer, especially a recent one, it will go under that answer as a comment. It’s no judgement on you or your writing, we just like to keep discussions in one piece.

SmartLX

The Pretend Prime Mover

Question from Sue:
Since God is pretend, how did the world come to be?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t know, but there are lots of ideas floating around. We’ve covered it quite a lot here, so try a search or just use this one. Just because the idea of a God explains something doesn’t make it any more likely that there is one.

The History Of The Theories Of The Origin Of Everything

Question from Niki:
Hello Smarty.
The origin of matter? (history of understanding and the latest version)?

Answer by SmartLX:
I found a complete rundown of cosmological models and theories throughout history at the site Physics of the Universe, including religious outlooks and otherwise, so take a look over there.

The overall current scientific view, in a nutshell, is a combination of the last three on the page. There was a Big Bang or comparable event which resulted in all the matter and energy in the universe expanding outward from a tiny point. The matter could have spontaneously emerged from the quantum foam, or come from elsewhere in a larger multiverse, or been recycled from an earlier form of this universe in an endless cycle. Or it could have been created by a god or something. While currently impossible to eliminate, this last possibility is not justifiable as the default position, but that’s how many see it.

On The Beginning And The End Of Life

Question from Tushar:
Just yesterday I watched “Religulous” by Bill Maher who is a noted atheist.
I wanted to ask him some 2 questions but it seems it’s near to impossible to reach him so asking it here supposing it’s an atheist forum.
I have these two questions which if you would please read patiently and answer, I would be grateful to you.

1. He talks about science and if we talk about evolution in a scientific way then the Bible of that would be “Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, where he has
accounted for the process of adaptation behind the creation of diverse species he also has categorized them but my question is that it all started with the first living cell which was composed of non-living chemicals, who blew in the life in it, I mean who gave this congregation of chemicals the sense to feel, also who gave them the idea to adapt, adaptation is mainly to survive, who gave them or what gave them the idea to survive rather than to perish?
I mean carbon, oxygen and other chemicals present in the cell don’t have the thinking ability, If you take an oxygen jar it wont talk back with you or if you drop the jar to break I don’t think it would protest or try for the jar to not break, what made the association of these chemicals to “think” that we have to exist and survive and hence “adapt”?

2. It’s been scientifically proven that the human body works on energy, we eat and the food is digested, energy is churned out of this form at the basic level
probably is called ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) I believe, this energy is the fuel for the human heart to pump blood all through our body and also this energy is needed for the natural movement of the muscles and probably for other purposes related to our survival or for the maintenance of the body that we have. In fact we can convert the energy contained in an ATP molecule to Kcal or joules “A molecule of ATP produces just under 1 x 10^-23 kcal” (source). Now when a person dies if the same amount of energy it needs in a day or to function at a moment, if it is arranged for the similar amount of energy to be supplied externally lets say to the heart, will the person come back from the dead or be alive?

I too am a rational (called cynical) thinker but the more I think about the non-existence of GOD studded with scientific facts and statistics the more my belief increases in HIM.

Answer by SmartLX:
1. The process of abiogenesis, the emergence of life from non-living elements, is not yet understood, but to ask “who blew the life in it” is to assume it was deliberately done by someone before it’s established that it had to be intentional. Carbon and oxygen by themselves won’t do much, but the complex chemical compounds being constantly sloshed around 3.5 billion years ago by the tides, winds and tectonic plates had a lot of time, space and materials to get things done. If the right materials were trapped together in a membrane, it was possible to form a configuration that could use the materials outside to make more of itself, but slightly imperfectly. After that, Darwinian natural selection immediately takes over. If you search this site for “abiogenesis” or related terms you’ll find a few pieces on the subject.

2. A person does not die because the heart stops. A person dies because the brain stops receiving oxygen and the cells and connections within are permanently destroyed. You can restart the heart within a certain period with energy applied in the right manner, and this is exactly the purpose of a defibrillator (or just chest compressions), but if you apply energy to the brain it will not reform the cells and restore the connections that existed previously. That information is lost forever, and trying to zap the brain would probably only speed up the process of degradation. It would be like smashing Michaelangelo’s David and then trying to fix it merely by pouring crushed marble on top of it. The amount of matter or energy is far less important than the precise arrangement of it.

Have you heard the one about the stone tablets?

Question from Margaret:
What is the story where the atheists get slaughtered with the Christians and something about Moses coming down and breaking the tablets. Could you recap the whole thing in atheist language for me? and maybe tell me the verses?

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, the tablet part at least is easy to pin down. It’s part of the story of the Exodus, and the tablets are broken in Exodus 32:19. Moses leads his people to Mount Sinai and goes up by himself to receive the Ten Commandments from God on stone tablets. He takes so long that by the time he gets back some of the others are worshiping a golden calf they’ve made. Moses is so mad he breaks the tablets, and orders the calf reduced to powder that is mixed with water for the idolaters to drink as punishment. God hammers the point home afterwards by hitting them with a plague. Eventually Moses re-inscribes the Commandments on some new tablets.

The other part is harder to identify, because there may be no self-identifying atheists in the Bible at all. All the non-Christian characters worship someone else. Atheism was at least known to the authors, or they wouldn’t have written things like, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.” People could refer to others as atheists for not believing in their god or gods, and indeed the early Romans saw Christians that way because they didn’t believe in Jupiter and his pantheon. But I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue. If you know any more details on that story please put them in a comment, and maybe we can find what you’re referring to together.

From Archaeology to Apes

Question from Kristi:
What is R. Dawkins’ view on Biblical archaeology? Scientists use fossils as artifacts, dinosaur bones, etc., yet when archaeologists find relief carvings of the Hebrews being taken into captivity by the Assyrians? Manfred Bietak has uncovered Semitic people’s remains dating back to time of the Famine around 1880 B.C, which would align with the information in the Jewish records and with the Biblical records of Genesis. Should not any artifact be considered scientific?

If we evolved from a complex organism such as the egg first then later to simpler organism such as the chicken, why are we not evolving anymore unless we are evolving into robots? Do you foresee the human race as fading out and becoming intelligent machines? We were once apes so would it be too much to believe we will re-evolve to something else?

Answer by SmartLX:
Richard Dawkins doesn’t seem to have made a public statement about Biblical archaeology as a whole, except to say there is no good evidence for any of the supernatural claims in the Bible, archaeological or otherwise. Evidence for non-supernatural elements of the Biblical narrative are another matter. There is plenty of evidence for the Assyrian captivity as you say. There were Israeli tribes about, no doubt, and they did leave their mark, but nothing in the archaeological record points to direct intervention by a deity with the interests of the Hebrews specifically at heart. Just because not everything in the Bible is untrue doesn’t mean the important bits for today’s believers are true.

Present-day human evolution is much like evolution at any other stage: so slow that any given generation doesn’t notice any major differences. We may be in the process of evolving into a very different form of organic life, but the process would take millions of years at least and research into the changes over the last few decades won’t give us much insight into that far future. Any transition to a machine or part-machine race is likely to be the result of deliberate self-alteration as a species, not Darwinian evolution.

Incidentally we are still apes. Leaving evolution and genetics aside completely, we meet the physical criteria to be classified as a “great ape”. Here’s a museum article.

I Am He As You Are He

Question from Nick:
I’ve done research on many different concepts in religion and philosophy, and have come to the conclusion that we should just call the universe God. To me this makes the most sense. Everything you could say about God can be applied to the universe. It’s everywhere, all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. And it seems to match with science; everything is just quantum foam.

But I’ve tried to talk with other people that call themselves atheists, and they demand to prove that existence even exists with science. One even said they reject philosophy (which I think is one of the foundations of scientific knowledge).

I don’t understand why some atheists are so aggressive when it comes to the idea that the Universe/Multiverse could be God.

Answer by SmartLX:
The concept of everything, or the universe itself, as God is called pantheism. It has been around for a very long time and has found some popularity among people who like to imagine we are all part of God. It’s never served well as a uniting position though, because it sits poorly with either theists or atheists depending on how it’s defined.

The main difference between a materialistic universe and most concepts of God is agency. God has goals, and some amount of influence with which to exert His/Her/Its will on reality in order to achieve those goals. A plain old universe just runs along like a clockwork toy, and whatever happens happens. If (hypothetically) the universe has its own goals and somehow works towards them within itself, then it actually is a theistic god but atheists won’t accept the idea because there’s no good evidence for its agency. If on the other hand the universe is beholden to its own laws and cannot bend or break them to advance a particular cause, then it is at best a deistic god because of the lack of intervention. Some atheists might be okay with calling it that but theists believe their god is capable of more than following the rules to the letter.

Philosophy is impossible to avoid in some form or other. Each of us knows that he or she exists, which implies that there is some kind of reality even if everything we can sense is a lie. Simple logic when applied to the self will get you that far, so it’s not as if philosophy requires special training or education (though education can certainly help).

Apologies for the late reply, I was working overseas. Got a bit of a backlog of ATA questions to cover, which is a positive sign.

Mind = Full

Question from Tsahpina:
Hey SmartLX, and the other smarters, what do you think of Buddhism, which, as far as I know, says that when there is pain in your life, you just get away from it mentally, and you are OK. I would say this is bullshit. You?

Answer by SmartLX:
“Get away from it” isn’t an appropriate description of the Buddhist approach to pain. I’d say it’s more a case of compartmentalising it.

Here are two pieces by advocates of the approach; this one by a Buddhist is easy to read and this one by a humanist goes into more depth. The core principle is “mindfulness”, being fully aware of everything that’s happening in your body and mind. That means accepting physical and mental pain as well, but “taking it as read” in a way: yes, there is pain, and now let’s take in everything else and enjoy life. This shift in focus means, in principle, that pain does not have to equal suffering and is possible to live with.

I honestly don’t see a problem with this. It doesn’t rely on anything supernatural, it only suggests a different way of thinking about the inescapable reality that there’s always pain of some kind. A lot of Buddhist practices actually find favour with atheists and humanists precisely because they don’t require the supernatural or even belief itself, only mental effort. Buddhism does have its supernatural claims and dark aspects, but besides a religion it’s an expansive body of work that frequently does its best to be practical.

As for whether it actually works, there has been a lot of research with largely optimistic results, and if you just Google it you’ll be swimming in anecdotes. People aren’t claiming their pain is gone, only that they can bear it better and enjoy life more. Good on them, I say. It’s okay if a healing effect is purely psychological if the malady is too.

Heaven’s Cold Comfort

Question from Tsahpina:
If the religious really believe there is an afterlife and/or paradise, for those who believe in such, why do they cry when someone dear to them dies and why are they afraid of their own death?
I do not mean this as rhetorical question, but since Ivery much doubt any religious person is capable to answer this sincerely, then let it be, for such religious people, rhetorical only. but i would like a real reason, if there might be one, like, they are leaving their dear ones or a dear one is leaving them, but then, they are going to their loved ones who had already died and the ones that remain here will sooner or later join them. so, why not rejoice for the going to paradise, big deal, i mean.

Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is that an afterlife doesn’t make everything about death okay even if it’s real.

We’ll leave aside the idea that some believers don’t really believe we go to Heaven or nurse serious doubts. if you don’t really accept the doctrine then of course it won’t help you when you’re faced with death, so that’s that. We’ll consider the case for people who really do believe instead.

No matter what happens after death, the person is gone from this life and this world. In an undeniable sense the person is separated from us and lost to us. If you love the person, this is a great loss which you will mourn no matter where you think the person is going, because you’ll never see or talk to them again for the rest of your life. If you knew someone you loved was going to live quite comfortably but not contact you in any way for several decades, would it make it perfectly all right that you’d see them again afterwards? Of course not, while it might provide some consolation it would still be a huge wrench in the here and now. Likewise, if you’re the one going away, you wouldn’t see anyone you knew potentially for years.

The Christian afterlife, similarly to many others, is a double-edged sword. You find out right at the beginning whether you will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell, and there is no assurance to be had before that point. You just have to follow the rules as laid out by your particular denomination, and hope you got them right AND they’re the right rules. Sins are remembered even if you’ve forgotten them, so you doubt your own mind. All men and women are sinners by nature and tainted with Original Sin, so you keep your fingers crossed that you’ve cleaned it all off with your piety and prostration and didn’t miss a spot. It’s truly nerve-wracking, even if you think you’ll be okay in the end. And if someone else is dying, you have no way of knowing whether they’ve confessed every sin, performed every rite, crossed every T and dotted every i.

So if someone is fearful and sorrowful of death I don’t doubt the steadfastness of their beliefs. I feel great pity that their beliefs aren’t helping as much as they were probably led to believe they would.

What’s The Use?

Question from Tsahpina:
I am a strong atheist and as such one of those who keeps trying to put reason in believers’ minds. I believe I have never succeeded in anything, except to get unnerved so badly that I now hate them. Yes, hate them.

So, my question to fellow atheists is why bother even talking to to them about their silly uneducated beliefs?

I mean, can any atheist tell me any good reason why I should bother to even consider them as people with reason?

Answer by SmartLX:
Believers are not by definition devoid of reason. Some people probably are, but it’s not true of someone simply because they have an unjustifiable belief. It just means their reasoning is based on incorrect or unsupported premises, they have reasoned incorrectly, or their emotions have overridden or railroaded their reason. The most intelligent of us can be wrong about very important things, and still defend our positions on them very strongly.

You are expecting too much of believers and of yourself if you think they will simply drop their long-held beliefs during one conversation with you. Beliefs are seldom dispelled in an instant; if you’ve heard of true-believer syndrome, you know that they can even be reinforced when the objects of belief are utterly debunked. The most you can realistically hope for in a single exchange is to bring someone to a state of aporia. Simply put, it’s when they respond with (or at least think), “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, and I can’t reconcile it with my position right at this moment. I need to go and think about this some more before we discuss it further.” Their mind will process what was said and realised, and their position will have changed at least a little by the time they want to talk about the subject again – or, they will have found new logic or evidence they didn’t previously have to hand which supposedly supports their position. Either way the discussion will have moved forward.

As for why you should bother discussing beliefs with believers at all, that’s up to you. Many atheists decide that it’s not worthwhile and never do it, or keep it to specific situations. For those who do think it’s worth doing, it’s because it benefits someone. It might benefit the believer to be freed from religious beliefs because the beliefs are doing them harm, or holding them back, or making them unhappy, or putting pressure on their friends and family. It might benefit atheists and those whose beliefs don’t match those of the given believer, because reduced devotion to one dogma can mean less prejudice toward others, and toward a lack of dogma. I do it because I think people would be better off abandoning religion of their own accord, and by and large I restrict my efforts to this site.

Ouija Ouija Woo Woo

Question from Dominic:
Athiests talk so much about the existence/non-existence of God but how about evil? Have any of you played the Ouija board lately? I’d like you to take that silly little test and then tell me if you believe in a power of darkness. And, if so, than if God is gone is our world then ruled by evil?

Answer by SmartLX:
A great test for immediately afterwards is to use a Ouija board blindfolded. The ideomotor phenomenon is quite sufficient to explain how people who are not aware of guiding the pointer over the board are nevertheless directing it mechanically and quite precisely, because when they can no longer see the board the pointer immediately goes astray. The spirits by themselves are blind, it would seem, and the apparatus behaves exactly as if they weren’t there. You’re left with a pattern on a plank of wood that’s probably copyrighted by Parker Brothers.

The apparent effectiveness of a Ouija board when used as intended is therefore not good evidence for the existence of ethereal spirits, much less evil spirits and much, much less a god to balance them out. Even if you did know evil was real, this by itself as an argument for the existence of a good god would only be an appeal to consequences. Evil is real, so…what? You hope there’s a God or we’re all screwed?