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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

Hope Is A Plentiful Thing

Question from Jun:
This may be similar to a question already asked about dealing with adversity, but I feel it is sufficiently different to stand on its own: How does an atheist overcome thoughts of despair, of giving up, even suicide, when things look hopeless? Christians turn to passages in Scripture or to prayer. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you very much.

Answer by SmartLX:
That’s okay, I think Jake answered the last one about this so I haven’t had a go in a while.

Look at it this way: what does God provide that gives you hope and a reason to go on? Whatever the answer, atheists get it from somewhere else because since they don’t believe in God they don’t believe God is the only source of these things. That can be hard to comprehend for people who think God IS the only source, which is why this question crops up regularly, but without a central theist belief a lot of secondary theist assumptions which you might not even realise you make suddenly go out the window.

Purpose, for example, can come from almost anywhere because people choose their own purpose. Even those who believe in God admit they don’t know what God’s larger plan is or how they personally figure into it, so they make their own choices about how best to serve Him. Not thinking that one has a divine purpose isn’t much worse than not knowing what one’s supposed divine purpose is, and allows more freedom in the choice because it can go entirely outside the realm of religion. Many social and political activists choose what cause to support in direct opposition to the mainstream religious dictates of the day, some because they don’t think the deity is real and some because they think the deity actually disagrees with the religion. Whatever is most important to you in life can become your purpose if you throw yourself into it. And if it ceases to be fulfilling or worthwhile, you can spin on a dime and pursue something else.

To tackle the other major point, people looking for a reason not to commit suicide need not only a purpose but a reason to think there is good to be found in the world. The point is worth hammering that if God doesn’t exist, God isn’t the only source of good in the world because there IS good in the world regardless. However you define “good” it’s happening out there somewhere, you just need to look for it. There’s no denying that terrible things happen all the time, but even in the middle of tragedy some of the greatest deeds are found. The Reverend Fred (aka Mr) Rogers often said as his mother said to him that whenever something awful was happening one should look for the people helping.

Another thing atheists see differently is that they think this life is the only one we have. Therefore leaving it prematurely gives no chance of a better subsequent life. Happiness can only be found in this life, so the only way to achieve it is to stick it out.

Young Earth Creationism is So 6000 Years Ago

Question from Cameron:
If the snow rings dating have been proven to be wrong (they represent cold and warm days not years) how could I come to believe carbon dating and other dating types. They seem like all a fraud to me. And like saying that the stalagmites in caves formed over millions of years when I could make one in my garage in just a few months.

Answer by SmartLX:
I assume you’re referring to Kent Hovind’s argument regarding the warm-cold layers in snow cores from Greenland. Here’s Hovind’s own spiel on the subject.

There are plenty of rebuttals online if you care to look as Hovind was saying the same thing for years (almost literally the same; he had a script memorised) but to be as brief as possible, once the snow is packed down under enough layers you might get a maximum of one additional warm-cold layer per year, and not very often. Any other fluctuations are mashed together and lost as the layers flatten. Someone digging a couple of hundred feet will see lots of extra layers, and that’s why the deep cores were taken in the first place: to get the good information down where nature has naturally removed much of the “noise”.

The cores are irrelevant to the accuracy of radiometric dating because they were not used to verify the accuracy of radiometric dating. If you wonder about that, actually look up how it’s been tested. If you simply dismiss all old-earth evidence because you think some of it is incorrect and therefore non-creationist scientists aren’t worth listening to, let me introduce you to the genetic fallacy.

Stalactites and stalagmites can form using different materials and in different circumstances, some of which are fast enough to show results in weeks and some of which are slow enough to take millions of years, and geologists know the difference. Even before you consider these structures, the cave they’re in has to form first, and that can take millions of years too. There’s lots more detail here.

Fátima Recap

Question from Jonathan:
So how do you explain events life Fatima where over 70000 people simultaneously saw a miracle as it was foretold by a little girl, check it out if you don’t believe me it’s very well documented. If that’s not enough for you it also made accurate predictions.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve addressed both of these points quite recently: the mass miracle here and the predictions here. If I’ve missed some detail which you think is important, comment in the appropriate article.

In the Face of a Miracle

Question from Markian:
Ok so sometimes people make claims that they saw something that some would file into the “paranormal” or “supernatural” category. Two examples come to mind. 1) a girl wakes up at 2:30 am, sees a transparent image of a girl she hadn’t talked to in 10 yrs. Then she sees the devil’s face, prays to God, the images go away. 2 days later she sees in the newspaper that this exact girl died at 2:30 that night from an accident. Another one actually happened to my parents. They were at a Church event, and they claim that suddenly things turned demonic. One blonde haired lady suddenly had black hair, people were choking, and finally the priest shouted at “demonic spirits” to leave and then everything turned back to normal. Both of these events are anecdotal and I know many would reject these as hearsay. Although you are being rational by doing so, let’s just say for argument’s sake that these events somehow took place, just give them the benefit of the doubt for a second. Would that confirm the supernatural or paranormal? Or would it still be more appropriate to say that we don’t know what caused these events therefore we could never say they are supernatural or paranormal? I personally believe that even if these 2 events are totally real that they don’t necessarily confirm the existence of spirits, gods, supernatural etc. I want your opinions on my opinion. I know many will say these events are bull but I want to know hypothetically if they were real, does that mean supernatural or is it just something currently unknown? People used to think thunderstorms were gods fighting. Others thought lunar eclipse was something to do with gods. Now we know this isn’t true, so could these cases (granted that they actually occurred) be placed into that category?

Answer by SmartLX:
Thanks for getting the basic point about whether the stories are true out of the way for me.

So, say as far as we can tell one of these things really did happen as described and wasn’t essentially made up by the witnesses. The first thing to ask would be whether or not a hoax can be ruled out. Someone could have scared the first girl with a projection of a photo from Facebook and a devil mask, and turned the clock back to allow for several hours of preparation after the news of her death. The church could have had a quick spray of a noxious gas or odour that affected people sharply before dissipating, and if the woman was a plant she could have had a wig. Elaborate in both cases, yes, but if something apparently amazing has really happened, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that someone just went to a lot of trouble. Some of Derren Brown’s shows have put people through some incredible stuff and not told them right away that it was a trick.

So then let’s say it can’t have been a hoax (the kind of evidence for this would have to be pretty convincing), and therefore you can finally say with confidence that something supernatural or paranormal (the definitions are practically the same) has happened. The nature of both events you describe have elements specific to Christian mythology: the antagonist is the devil or the location is a church and, most importantly, invoking God makes everything all right. That does suggest that an otherworldly intelligence is behind it if it can respond to a specific declaration, but there are several possible reasons why it might do so. Maybe it really is Satan and he fears God. Maybe it’s some lesser poltergeist pretending to be Satan, or who fears God regardless – whether God is also real or not. (If humans can fear a God who appears to be non-existent, why can’t a spirit?) Maybe a living human psychic/telekinetic is making it happen, consciously or not. Use your imagination, but the point is that even if the supernatural occurs exactly the way believers expect they may still need to wonder whether they’re being supernaturally had. Lots of them fall for false miracles done in old-fashioned ways as it is, or Peter Popoff would never have got anywhere.

Free Will Hunting

Question from John:
Do atheists have “free will” or is it just everybody else except them?

Answer by SmartLX:
I think we’re all agreed that as a human race the same state of affairs is true for all of us regardless of what we think, so either we all have free will or none of us do.

The reason a lot of atheists reject the idea of free will is that it seems to require a supernatural mechanism within the brain. The actions we take result from the decisions we make, and the decisions we make are determined by the physical state of our brains and the electrical signals within them at the time. To go against all that and avoid the choice which is pre-determined by the external and internal factors beforehand literally requires that the brain go against the laws of physics. Many people who do think we have free will get around this by thinking that the soul influences the brain in such matters, which doesn’t give atheists much confidence that free will is compatible with a materialistic view of the brain. But again, if atheists are wrong then they have a soul like everybody else, and therefore free will.

This scientific perspective on the problem sounds abstract and doesn’t strike people as having any bearing on the decisions they’ve made themselves, so I like to explain it this way instead. We have things that we want and we make decisions and take actions to achieve them – in other words we have will. It’s not free will because it is driven entirely by the things we want, and we can’t decide what to want. The only reason, the ONLY reason we ever act in a way that denies us something we want is because we want something else more. We refuse a delicious cake because we want to lose weight. We don’t pursue romance with someone we desire because we want to avoid rejection, or because we want to preserve an existing relationship. This is not necessarily selfish in the usual sense because what we want most might be for someone else to be happy, or to advance a cause that will benefit a group we’re not in. Nevertheless we are literally slaves to our desires, it’s just a matter of which desire wins out in the moment.

Life, Oh Life, Ooohhh Liiiiife, Oh Life…(doo doo doo doo)

Question from Madnomas:
I just read your response to the question regarding biogenesis. While you gave the only answer you could have, it is severely lacking. To claim that it “is unlikely that the conditions could have been right at least once in the distant past” (paraphrasing) is a gross over reach. If abiogenesis were “not unlikely,” one would presumably be able to predict that the more we learn about the earliest life forms, the less complex these forms would appear, and the more likely the conditions that might be able to generate life would what we’ve found. However, it is exactly the opposite. Even the earliest life is infinitely complex. Not only is life extremely complex but has as its foundation, information. So, as we discover more about early life and the conditions surrounding the early atmosphere, it has only become more improbable, but without mutation and selection to fall back, we have to account for the appearance of information. So instead of casually brush off this extremely potent evidence for a creator, as understandably would for convenience, this is still a monumental challenge for atheism to address. Unfortunately, it’s only becoming more improbable with each new discovery.

Answer by SmartLX:
There is no physical or chemical barrier to an increase in the amount of information on Earth as long as we have the Sun, even before the emergence of life. I’ve explained this briefly here.

The first life was complex but it was less complex than much of modern life, unless you think human beings are no more complex than bacteria. And the Miller-Urey experiment gets a lot of flak but it proved beyond doubt that the introduction of electricity (via lightning) can produce amino acids, so inorganic processes do important work and therefore not all of the complexity had to pop up at once.

Not knowing how something happened is not an argument that it didn’t happen, except for an argument from ignorance. Eliminating every possible method might be evidence for same, but that clearly hasn’t happened as long as there are potentially viable models, and in this case there are lots. And the proposed alternative requires that we assume the presence and participation for an entity not only for which there is no evidence, but about which nothing is agreed upon even hypothetically. It would be much stronger to establish the existence of God without the requirement of faith and then argue that God created life than to support God with apparent creation.

Was Blind, But Now I See

Question from Halil:
Does this experience prove the existence of souls? It is of a woman who was born blind, had a visual NDE, and saw things, including Jesus. There have been studies done which say that the people born blind cannot see in their dreams, but this woman could see in her NDE. What is your opinion about that?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HbtoX3Q5OI

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s true, if people are born blind then their dreams are auditory, tactile and olfactory but not visual. Thing is, if people are born blind then they have no basis on which to recognise sight. This woman has been around sighted people all her life and knows the language of visual imagery, and has chosen to use that language to describe what she experienced, but we have no way of knowing whether what she was actually experiencing was sight regardless of what she says.

One very important thing to remember is that we have documented cases of people who have gained sight for the first time as adults, when lifelong conditions like congenital cataracts are discovered and treated. It’s a downright traumatic experience for many, and universally they spend a long time with no idea what they’re looking at. (There’s a good account by an opthalmologist here.) By contrast the woman in your video immediately knew what she was seeing, ws completely comfortable with processing the visual signals and enjoyed the whole thing. It doesn’t sound like anything we’ve seen in real life, because it’s as if her brain was rewired in an instant to process the new signal perfectly. Sounds miraculous indeed.

Out of Body, Back In 5 Minutes

Question from Halil:
Hello guys, I wanted to thank you so far for answering my questions, all answers are much appreciated and most were very logical and rational, which is what I was looking for.

Today I wanted to ask you guys what you think of out of body experiences or OBEs. I am not exactly sure what to make of it. I have read that G Force pilots sometimes have OBEs while they are in flight simulator, as the brain loses blood, oxygen, and is confused. Therefore, from that it would make the most sense to assume that OBEs are a result of a confused brain, struggling to locate exactly where it is in relation to the body. However, I have noticed that some of these OBEs that you read about, from Dr. Jeffrey Long, from Peter Fenwick, sound a bit complicated. For example, people will report floating to another room and obtaining information that they could not have obtained. My aunt had an OBE where she apparently floating outside the hospital, and saw her son with a cigarette in his mouth. Apparently, that was the first time he ever did it, so it was believed that she could not have known that if it wasn’t for the OBE. Other people claim to have left hospitals, gone to a friend’s house, and confirmed later on that what they saw their friend doing actually occurred. One case was interesting where a guy dreamed that his friend died. She actually got into an accident that day, and he didn’t know. Then she apparently had an OBE where she floated to his house and saw him sleeping.

It is experiences like this that make me wonder. They sound too complex for the brain to make up. What are your opinions?

Answer by SmartLX:
Cases where OBEs or NDEs (near death experiences) are claimed to provide the subject with information that was otherwise inaccessible are never successfully pinned down. The accounts remain mere anecdotes, and the ways they can fall through as evidence are myriad. Take your cousin and his first cigarette: for non-smokers there is no urge whatsoever to go out and have your first cigarette in times of stress That’s an urge only smokers get so I doubt very much that it was his first, despite what he told her. Therefore, if your aunt smelled cigarette smoke on him previously, even subconsciously, that would have been enough to inspire that image.

As for the complexity of what these people see, it’s no more complex than the things that happen in dreams. It’s just people walking around doing real things after all, so it’s all well within the capacity of the human brain to fabricate. The only valid way to claim a supernatural occurrence is to establish that there was absolutely no way that the subject could have known a certain piece of information, and even then there’s the chance that it was a fluke. The fact that all you ever have in these cases is anecdotes, often from the family of the subject, does not make for objectivity. No offence. Get evidence on camera, of an event happening and of someone coming out of an OBE and describing it before anyone has a chance to spoil it, and maybe you can get somewhere with one of these.

Generation Gaps: Advice for an Atheist Granny

Question from Niki:
A very strong atheist granny here.

My son was an atheist before he got caught in the religious net of this backwards, in the backyard of Europe, society and his overly religious wife, or he pretends he has become religious.
He and his wife have two children and the wife is in charge of everything religious. Disgustingly so. He just lets her do whatever she wants to do, for the sake of his peace, or else…

My question is, what will I say when one day one of my grand children asks me why I do not go to church?
I was thinking of ‘I DO NOT LIKE IT IN THERE, TOO DARK,’ or something to this effect. But this can work only until the kids are small.
Have you got any other, better idea, something that will not cause the little one to report to his mum what granny says, but still something which would satisfy me more as an answer near to my the essence. Something like
‘THERE IS NO GOD, THAT’S WHY!!!’

Answer by SmartLX:
You assume, correctly I think, a strong chance that your daughter-in-law will not want your grandchildren exposed to the simple idea that there are people who do not believe in God. She would be right to fear this. It means the difference between never even thinking to question the idea of God and eventually realising that no one has the answers for sure. (I think it’s ultimately responsible for my own deconversion.) They will be exposed in the end of course, but the question is how strongly indoctrinated they will be by then.

Taking your scenario at face value, you could say something like, “I don’t think it’s necessary to go to church.” This is true, but they are free to assume that you mean you don’t think God takes church attendance as seriously as their mother and the church think He does. One variation could be, “I think I’ve gone to church enough already.”

Consider, though, that if the kids register that you’re not going to church it will probably happen at church, or in the car going to or from church, and you won’t be there. In this case they’ll probably ask their parents about you first. So if I were you I would go talk to your son about what he will, and what his wife might, say about you. You’re doing your best to protect the family from a rift, and that’s best handled as a family.

Whatever happens (and do let us know in a comment), good luck.

The NDEs Keep Coming

Question from Halil:
Hello, I wanted to know what atheists think of this testimony, and if it scares them.
http://www.precious-testimonies.com/BornAgain/L-N/LaFondT.htm

Answer by SmartLX:
Not scary if you don’t already believe. When trying to threaten kids about the boogeyman, they have to believe it exists to some extent before they buy into the fear. This does not do a good job of supporting the existence of God, Hell or an afterlife at all.

Here are some but certainly not all of the reasons why not. Folks are free to comment and chip in.

– The guy had taken a variety of hallucinogenic drugs, some of which (e.g. LSD) can have after-effects causing hallucinations years later.
– His solid Catholic upbringing had primed his brain with all the imagery he needed to subconsciously pull together an authentic Christian afterlife experience for himself.
– His cardiologist didn’t understand how he survived, but his cardiologist wasn’t there for the accident and might not have been able to understand where the electricity traveled even if he had. His survival is a mystery, not necessarily a miracle.
– His conversion came at the hands of a travelling evangelist whose day job is to give people amazing conversion experiences, and after what he’d been through he was ripe for it.
– His back pain appeared as mysteriously as it disappeared. It could have been in his head, or a temporary effect of the electric shock on his back muscles, but it’s not as if a well-known chronic condition was miraculously cured. (In a similar vein, I know of an American healer who would lay hands on people and announce that he had cured small tumours, which had never been detected beforehand and obviously didn’t show up afterwards.)
– This page asks for money at the bottom. They’ll say anything, and since the story is a personal account that no one else can contradict they’re free to say anything.