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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

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?

Y B Good? or, Columbine Wuz Bad

Question from Dominic:
I was thinking of the Columbine massacre lately as an example…why should Dylan and Eric have been good instead of bad? Even in our daily lives, why should we choose to be good?

Answer by SmartLX:
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are hardly shining examples of why there’s no good reason to be good, what with being not only dead but widely despised and ridiculed because of their terrible act. They may have avoided punishment by killing themselves when they were done, but they destroyed any possibility of improving their lives and being happy ever again. If they had simply not done that, they might well be alive, in their thirties and quite content right now despite all they were going through in their teens. Sadly they couldn’t see that far forward at the time.

A better question than why we should choose to be good is why we do choose to be good, whether or not we believe in gods. It really happens all the time out in the world, so rather than imply despite the evidence that there’s no good reason, we can accept that people are finding reasons which have nothing to do with gods, and think about what they are.

Consequences are the main thing to consider, and not just for oneself. Actions which are selfish and/or pointlessly destructive (a working definition of “bad”) can bring obvious and severe consequences like jail, ostracism or retribution, which people generally want to avoid, but that’s just for the person doing them. As with Columbine, “bad” actions can also profoundly affect the lives of others in negative ways, and people usually want to avoid this too. Not only is it part of the “social contract” we all live with, but our innate empathy ties our mental wellbeing to the plights of others. Put simply, if you’re going to feel bad for someone you’re much less likely to do bad things TO that person.

All this is true for believers in a judgemental god as well. The only difference is that there is one more posthumous consequence to take into account when deciding how to act. There’s no denying that this can be useful for reinforcing good behaviour, but it can backfire in less clear-cut situations because the supposed commands of a god may not line up with what’s altruistic and beneficial to the most people (“good”). Too many people working against the rights of women, ethnic minorities and LGBT groups throughout the world are entirely convinced that they’re doing God’s work.

Crushed by Suffering

Question from Dominic:
How do you deal with senseless suffering–like heartless cruelty imposed on innocent animals? There is such a thing as crush videos where women, mostly in high heels, enjoy crushing small animals on the floor in a gruesome, lengthy process to provide sexual satisfaction for the viewer. Those who produce it say it is allowable because of free speech and also because the dark web has no censorship unlike the surface web. Isn’t it true that without absolutes in the moral area everything is permissible?

Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, I know about crushing videos. There’s room for debate over whether the women who participate enjoy it, or are simply doing what the punters will pay to see as in other kinds of pornography, but animals are tortured and killed regardless.

Just because everything is “permissible” in a high philosophical sense doesn’t mean everything is actually permitted in a practical sense. Cruelty to animals is illegal in most countries and the makers of these videos are prosecuted if caught, for cruelty to animals if not for the videos themselves. No one argues in court that killing the animals for pleasure is fine, only that once the videos are made they’re protected by free speech. They do the killing in ways that make it hard to attribute to anyone. (The “dark web” makes the videos easier to produce and distribute but doesn’t affect their morality, so it’s irrelevant.)

Regarding the free speech aspect, in the United States the videos were outlawed in 1999 after they came to light. The ban was struck down as unconstitutional, but only because it was too broad and mistakenly encompassed all kinds of non-fetish videos involving wildlife and livestock. There was another law in 2010 that did what it could in the circumstances, banning interstate commerce of the videos. The issue was badly handled overall but the government and the courts have done what they thought would protect the animals and punish their tormentors at every stage.

To focus on your main point, if an absolute basis for morals were needed to create an ethical society a secular legal system would be impossible, because the only moral absolutes are those asserted by religions on behalf of their gods, and those are dependent on a shared assumption that the gods not only exist but have the same morals claimed by the religions. Fortunately, it’s possible to have an objective basis for morals and ethics using a more reasonable assumption, such as that the needless suffering of helpless animals should be prevented where possible. This isn’t backed up by any moral imperative baked into the universe (indeed nature completely disregards it and wolves happily eat bunnies) but it has such a near-universal consensus (far more reliable than a simple majority) among humans that those who like to cause or watch the suffering can be justifiably classified as aberrant. We feel quite comfortable calling the videos “wrong” without a hypothetical ethereal lawgiver to tell us we’re right, and while philosophical discussions might poke holes in the word they don’t change how we feel, and importantly how we act.

While it’s beside the point you were making, there’s still that first question of how to emotionally deal with the suffering of animals. It’s not as complex for atheists because we don’t have to wonder why a loving god would allow it. It happens, it’s awful, we feel their pain, we do what we can to prevent it, we give the animals in our lives enjoyment by playing with them, and so on. We accept that some things about the world suck, but not everything, so there’s still joy to be found and good to be done so we look for that. Boom, a high-level work-in-progress guide to living in the real world.

An Informal Audience with Jesus

Question from Joe:
I am a believer. However I have a really hard time with most churches and Christians. I agree on 99.9% of the points people like deGrasse Tyson, Dawkins and Hitchens make. Subjects like physics, astronomy, math, biology, etc. seem to answer more and more questions that Christianity used to simply answer with “God” before and I’m totally fine with that. In fact I love it. I do not understand why it is so hard for some to accept science and faith as not competing.
My struggle with being a Christian that dislikes most Christian “stuff” has never really bothered me though since I do not base my belief in theories about a bearded man sitting on a cloud, if god can make a really heavy rock, what caused the Big Bang, etc. but rather personal revelations and spirituality. I thought I’d tell you this to let you know where I’m coming from and maybe it will have an impact on your answer.

Let’s just play with the thought that Heaven does exist. And you die one day (hopefully of old age after a long happy life) and your soul(?) gets transported to the gates of heaven and POFF! There is Jesus himself and he tells you; “Hello, you did not really recognise me during your life. For the fun of it, I’ll let you ask me three questions about anything.” What happens afterwards is not really relevant, but if you think it is, please elaborate.

What would you ask Jesus? Would you like four questions? That’s fine.

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think where you’re “coming from” will change my answer much, but thanks for sharing.

Sure, it’s possible (likely is another matter) that I’m wrong and Jesus will meet me at the gates of Heaven. That’s already outside of the commonly held belief that it’s Saint Peter who mans the gates, so let’s also suppose that Jesus is willing to indulge the curiosity of an atheist using all the knowledge of God. Given all that, what an opportunity!

I’m sure that by the end of my life there would be certain things related to me personally that I’d want to know (like what happened to some hypothetical friend who vanished, for example) but for the benefit of others I’ll keep to questions about subjects of general interest. Maybe by the end of my life I’d have different philosophical priorities as well, but if it were me as I am now and I didn’t think too hard about it, here’s how it might go.

Question 1: What’s the plan, man? Is humanity serving some function for you, why do you need us for it when you’re omnipotent, and how’s it going so far?

Question 2: Why is there evil? You must know all about the attempts at theodicy over thousands of years, so I don’t need to lay it out for you. What’s the deal?

Question 3: How did the universe begin, if it had a beginning? If you caused it, what did you actually do and to what? Has its structure and nature since the start been entirely emergent or have you needed to intervene in cosmically large ways to get whatever you needed out of it?

Question 4 (if Jesus allows it): How about you yourself? How much of the Gospels is accurate regarding your life, death and resurrection? Why’d you make it all happen in that particular time and place, and only once? Why at all, for that matter?

The Preacher’s Wife

Question from Jeannette:
Hello. In short, I have been thinking a lot about the logic of atheism and find myself resonating with the ideas. I have made religious searches before, always theistic. But in atheism I seem to get the questions answered that I have had all along.

So, the problem is that I am married to a Baptist preacher who told me, the last time I was “searching”, that he would divorce me for going outside of Christianity. But when I went back to the faith he didn’t.

I really don’t want a divorce. But if I told him about my atheistic leanings he would no doubt feel that he needs to protect the children from me. Maybe he would bring up divorce again.

So it seems like keeping my thoughts to myself is the best way to do this. But it kind of feels like a lie. I don’t mind keeping the truth to myself. But I feel like my husband would feel betrayed and like I didn’t really love him, if, say I told him several years down the road.

But I have two small children and I don’t feel like a divorce is a good thing.

Any thoughts?

Answer by SmartLX:
Sounds pretty simple, though tragic: if your husband has threatened to end the marriage if you cease to be a Christian and you take him at his word, you must lie about your beliefs to stay in the marriage. Not knowing which country you’re in I don’t know how divorce and custody laws would treat the two of you given that he has stated his intent to shield your children from your influence, but it’s an ugly battle in any environment and I’m sure you want to avoid it if possible.

The part about taking him at his word is important though. Would he really shut you out immediately if you admitted you were struggling in your faith? He’s a preacher, he’s supposed to be qualified to help people in your situation. If you said you wouldn’t try to deconvert your children or anyone in his congregation, and that you would continue to attend services, surely the two of you could engage in some kind of ongoing dialogue wherein you tell him exactly what your concerns are, instead of simply giving him the vague and frightening idea that you might suddenly turn heathen and corrupt everything around you.

That sounds a bit silly, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that atheism can be really scary to someone like your husband. Its very existence flies in the face of Scripture as interpreted by some. (Specifically, Romans 1:18 and onwards appears to say that God has shown evidence of Himself to everyone, therefore everyone supposedly believes deep down.) He likely has a rough but extremely negative idea of what atheists are like in general (i.e. a prejudice), and he’ll probably need some time to get used to the idea that your inability to justify continued belief in God doesn’t make you evil or dangerous. He just needs to see things from your point of view, and for that to happen the two of you will need to talk. After that I can’t say what will happen, but at least you’ll have treated each other like adults.

However you decide to approach him, or not, good luck and all the best to your whole family.

Oh, Hell

Question from Jeannette:
Hell-o. So, if you have any information or proof on why Hell couldn’t exist could you share it with me? I have been a Christian my whole life and now I am really seeing the logic of atheism.

My husband is a Baptist minister. So this is difficult. But my main issue is that I would like to put the issue of whether or not there is a Hell to rest.

The only reason I would teach my children about Christianity is because I am terrified of them possibly going to hell. So I feel like the most compassionate thing for me to do is to research this and hopefully find that there is no hell and share it with them when the time is right.

Thanks!

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re taking the hardest route by looking for proof that Hell doesn’t exist, just like those looking for proof that God doesn’t exist. It’s impossible to do without exhausting possibilities you could only test if you were omniscient yourself. If you establish that Hell can’t exist physically for some reason related to thermodynamics, for example, theologians (both professional and armchair) will insist that it exists outside of the physical, or in a different physical realm where the rules are different. When all that is “known” about a place is merely asserted, the assertions can easily change to get around any objections.

Fortunately the burden is not really on you to prove it doesn’t exist, because there’s no evidence that it does exist. It’s merely a claim by several different religions (which each describe its qualities, and importantly the criteria for being sent there, very differently) which is supported only by mentions in Scripture. Even that isn’t conclusive – some theologians argue that the Bible doesn’t establish it at all. Here’s an article with the major Bible-based reasons to dispute the existence of Hell, which even if they’re not conclusive to believers at least demonstrate that it’s not simply a believers-versus-heathens issue.

Regarding you personally, there’s not much to worry about if you’re seeing that atheism has a point. Hell, as described by Christianity, exists directly because of God, and if God isn’t looking likely then neither is Hell.

That said, if you think there’s a possibility of you or the people you love going to Hell, I know it’s terrifying. This terror is such that it sticks with people long after their belief in God, Hell or anything related has faded. (I call it “faithdrawal”.) But even if there is a Hell there’s no point frantically trying to stay out of it because there’s no way to do so with any confidence. If you follow any specific Christian denomination (e.g. Baptism) then there are dozens of others that think you’re going to Hell for not following theirs. If you’re Christian at all, the Muslims think you’re going to Hell, and vice versa. And if you’re atheist, of course, then there are people of most faiths who think you’re Hell-bound regardless of the life you’ve led. In that situation though, taking up any religion is less likely to get you condemned by the “right” religion than saved by it, just because there are so many and you’re so unlikely to pick the true one (if any).

Your children are going to hear about Hell from your husband or his congregation, no question. If they comprehend it and they believe it then they will be frightened by it, no question. If you so much as tell them once that you disbelieve, or even doubt, then it will no longer be a certainty in their minds. My father’s an atheist and he told me so a grand total of twice, and was quiet the rest of the time while my mother talked as if God was beyond doubt. The fact that someone I respected disagreed with the doctrine was all it took for me to realise there was something to investigate. The sooner your children see Hell as an academic argument, the less they’ll be impacted on an emotional level. (If you don’t want to reveal your own disbelief because of your husband, maybe mention someone else you know who doubts it.)

If they do end up taking it to heart, at least it’s a trauma they’ll share with millions of others. Like the fear of death, it lessens after the initial shock of discovery until it’s hardly thought of at all. You really have to obsess over something like that to maintain that horrible initial feeling. So if you can’t combat it directly, just distract as best you can and let them get back to being kids.

Will we ever “win”?

Question from Jenna:
I am an atheist too and I’m 11 so will atheism ever be the dominant religion? I hope so and #youdontchoosetobegay.

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheism isn’t a religion, first off, though there’s been some debate about that. It’s simply a position on the likelihood of gods. Different atheists take that position and do entirely different things with it, finding purpose and guidance in all kinds of places.

As for whether there will ever be more atheists than anyone else, it’s already the case in some places. Wikipedia has a list of countries by irreligion, where you can see the percentage of people who identified as atheist (or “not religious” in some cases). The number is above 50% for several countries surveyed, which means the atheists have the majority. One example not currently influenced by Communism (which opposes religion for reasons other than lack of evidence) is Japan, and another is the Czech Republic. Religion is in decline nearly everywhere else, which is why Christians for instance are always praying for a “revival”. Looks like this decline will continue going forward.

Definitely with you on #youdontchoosetobegay. It’s sad that anyone’s treatment of gay people is contingent on whether or not they chose it, but while this is so the right answer needs to be spread.