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.


We’re Looking for a Few Good Mutations

Question from Nick:
How do you refute the argument that it is mathematically impossible for “good” mutations to occur and that evolution is mathematically impossible, and thus not a real theory, but a pseudoscience?

Short answer by SmartLX:
With evidence.

Okay, longer answer by SmartLX:
The idea that beneficial mutations are “mathematically” impossible is based on easily addressed misunderstandings of the process. The fact that the idea is so widely held by creationists despite being so easily addressed speaks to a common reluctance among their number to accept simple facts, if those facts are inconvenient.

A very simple counter to the claim is the fact that most individual mutations can potentially be reversed in subsequent generations. This is an observed and well-known phenomenon straightforwardly called reverse mutation. The list of reversible mutations includes many that would be regarded as “bad” or detrimental to survival and procreation. The reverse of these mutations would by definition be “good”, so there’s no barrier to this whatsoever.

The other effective counter is the set of beneficial mutations that have been observed. You can look them up on Google, or follow up on the short list given here. Most famously, the Lenski E.coli experiment tightly controlled an isolated population of E.coli and documented its acquisition, via repeatable mutation, of the ability to metabolise (eat) the citrate in its environment. The bacteria couldn’t do it, then they could. Creationists did everything they could to discredit this and failed pretty badly. We had our own little argument over it in the comments here (search the page for keyword “Lenski”).

Trying to Cross Off a Couple of NDE Explanations

Question from Mirek:
Here are some arguments against current scientific ideas about Near Death Experiences:

First, Lack of Oxygen to the brain:
Hogan: Lack of oxygen causes stupor without memories of the experience. People experiencing NDEs report enhanced consciousness not stupor and they remember their NDE. “Dr. Fred Schoonmaker, a cardiologist from Denver, had by 1979 carried out investigations of over 2,000 patients who had suffered cardiac arrests, many of whom reported NDEs. His findings showed that NDEs occurred when there was no deprivation of oxygen.” The primary features of acceleration-induced hypoxia, however, are myoclonic convulsions (rhythmic jerking of the limbs), impaired memory for events just prior to the onset of unconsciousness, tingling in the extremities and around the mouth, confusion and disorientation upon awakening, and paralysis, symptoms that do not occur in association with NDEs. Moreover, contrary to NDEs, the visual images Whinnery reported frequently included living people, but never deceased people; and no life review or accurate out-of-body perceptions have been reported in acceleration-induced loss of consciousness.

Parnia raises another problem: When oxygen levels decrease markedly, patients whose lungs or hearts do not work properly experience an “acute confusional state,” during which they are highly confused and agitated and have little or no memory recall. In stark contrast, during NDEs people experience lucid consciousness, well-structured thought processes, and clear reasoning.

Next: Brain activity
NDEs cannot be caused by brain activity during CPR because CPR patients report confusion and amnesia while NDErs report lucid experiences. NDEs often begin before CPR is administered and the quality of consciousness and the pattern of events in NDEs does not change once CPR is started. Also, if consciousness in NDEs is caused by CPR, the patients should remember the pain of compressions and cracked ribs that sometimes occur during CPR, but NDErs do not feel the pain from CPR.

Finally, according to a Neurosurgeon named Greenfield: “”It’s very unlikely that a hypoperfused brain (someone with no blood flow to the brain), with no evidence of electrical activity could generate NDEs. Human studies as well as animal studies have typically shown very little brain perfusion (blood flow) or glucose utilization when the EEG is flat. There are deep brain areas involved in generating memories that might still operate at some very reduced level during cardiac arrest, but of course any subcortically generated activity can’t be brought to consciousness without at least one functioning cerebral hemisphere. So even if there were some way that NDEs were generated during the hypoxic state (while the brain is shut off from oxygen), you would not experience them until reperfusion (blood flow) allowed you to dream them or wake up and talk about them.”

What do atheists have to say about these arguments for an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
The main problem with both of these arguments has been mentioned several times before in previous ATA pieces.

The dream or other experience interpreted as the NDE does not need to occur during the time when the subject is literally near death. If there is a period during which the brain is incapable of synthesising and retaining such an experience – and the person survives to tell the tale – then there is a period of descent from consciousness through normal unconsciousness to the disabled state beforehand, and afterwards a recovery “up” through the same levels. If a dream occurs either side of the interval wherein it’s impossible, there’s no way for the subject to know that it didn’t happen right in the middle. If the event is traumatic enough, the experience could even occur as a dream in a period of sleep after consciousness is regained, and be confused as one that occurred before then.

Arguments based on the clarity and lucidity of an NDE are not very strong, incidentally. As soon as someone begins to think they’ve had one, they start telling the story over and over, to themselves and to anyone else who will listen. Doing that to any experience will soon solidify the memory of it into a repeatable narrative which seems clearer every time you tell it, because you’re reinforcing it (and probably subconsciously altering it) after the fact.

Take a step back, Mirek, and look at what you’re actually trying to do with this latest attempt. You’re regurgitating supposed rebuttals to two – of many – natural explanations for NDE claims. Even if they shut down these explanations, all the rest would still be left. Even if these were presently the only explanations available, that would leave NDEs unexplained, not proven. To think that your belief is certain truth in the absence of known alternatives, as opposed to possible alternatives, is an argument from ignorance, which is an official logical fallacy and invalid in the eyes of anyone who knows about logical fallacies. That’s most atheists of the activist, apostate, academic or “New” variety, and pretty much everyone who reads this site. So your ideal outcome for this argument won’t convince anybody and, thanks to reality, it’s miles away from that anyway. Try to think about what you can actually achieve with the next one.

The Problems With NDE Claims – Comprehensive

Question from Miguel:
Often times, NDEs [near death experiences] sound quite compelling, and some OBEs [out of body experiences] sound very compelling. The thing is that they are anecdotes, and so far, no one has fully demonstrated that they are real. An objective measure would be to place targets in hospital rooms and see if patients during their OBEs can have them. People who believe in OBEs will always say, “well the brain was dead, it couldn’t have picked up information, and it sure as hell couldn’t have generated a whole classic realer than real NDE”. A few things that don’t make sense though about NDEs are:
1) How does a soul which is not supposed to be physical pick up light and sound, but also go through walls and ceilings? What would be the point of a creator giving us ears or eyes if we could see and hear with souls? There has also been an inconsistency in OBEs. For example, the vast majority of people say they float through objects, while Howard Storm (atheist who became a reverend after his NDE) claimed he was walking, and could feel the cold floor during his OBE, which is inconsistent.
2) NDEs can happen when a person is nowhere near death, there are cases of them occurring when someone jumped off of a bridge or when someone got into a near car accident.
3) Rarely, but sometimes, there are documented inconsistencies during the NDE. For example, very rarely, but once in a while, people will have NDEs with live relatives, or they will have NDEs telling them things about the future that don’t end up taking place.
4) Evidence of the brain when it gets damaged seems to suggest that souls don’t exist.

Now here is my question. In recent years and even months, many people who research NDEs will take cases like a person having an NDE when they aren’t anywhere near death and say “well, the fact that this person who jumped off a bridge had an NDE when they weren’t near death proves that hypoxia or lack of oxygen cannot be the cause for NDEs. Then they say that the recent rat experiment where a doctor took rats near death and saw their brain activity spike is not relevant because when someone who is not near death has these, their brain would not have these spikes, yet they have NDEs. They also interview NDErs who also tried ketamine and DMT and claim that the drugs are no where near as “real” as the near death experiences were. Then they claim there is no evidence that the brain releases DMT. Then finally, we have neurosurgeons like Eben Alexander and Peter Fenwick who criticize neurosurgeons against NDEs and will always use the “but the brain can’t create that kind of imagery in those situations” argument, and that studies show that most cardiac arrest patients who had NDEs didn’t in fact have less oxygen in their brains than normal. Would you say that even if it was true that the oxygen, hypoxia, anoxia, and ketamine/DMT explanations were not true, that it would mean NDEs are? It seems like they don’t make sense if you look at them on their own, but there doesn’t seem to be a sufficient scientific explanation for them at the moment. Would you still think they were not real, even if all the current science explanations failed?

Answer by SmartLX:
We’re talking about an argument from ignorance here, Miguel. Even the best case is still a logical fallacy.

The reason you’re supposed to accept these claims that peoples’ souls left their bodies and had independent experiences is that there is supposedly no other way that what happened could have happened. This is flatly contradicted as long there are other potential explanations, because there are other ways it could have happened. Even if all these other explanations are eliminated (and as you say, many try their hardest to do just this), the most they can honestly say is there there is no other known way it could have happened. This does not complete a proof by elimination because it leaves room for explanations that haven’t occurred to us yet.

To summarise all this very simply, there is a BIG difference between an event being unexplained and an event being proven supernatural.

Gonna Find Out Who’s Illuminati or Nice

Question from Janiece:
I’m an atheist and I am very curious as to what others think of The “Illuminati” and their so-called devil worship. Everything I’ve researched regarding this group always leads to Satanism. To my understanding, these folks have knowledge that they wish to keep secret and have themselves created these religions to misguide people. Yet they use symbols and have practices that mirror the rituals of Satanic cults. Anybody?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m happy with my succinct summary of the Illuminati here in 2012, so I’ll just recycle that passage:

“The Illuminati were a real organisation formed in Bavaria (now part of Germany) in 1776 and forcibly disbanded and outlawed in 1785. That’s nine years in the whole of history where we can point to a single thing they actually did. Despite what’s in Angels & Demons, there hasn’t been a single confirmed act by anyone working on behalf of the Illuminati in hundreds of years. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but if they do they’re now so secret that they might as well not exist. As far as anyone knows, we have nothing to fear from them.”

Everything you’ve read to suggest that they’re practicing anything at all today is unsubstantiated, but I invite you to comment with your sources for people to peruse.

You may have your last statement backwards, incidentally. Churches have a long history of portraying pagan symbols, rituals and other practices as demonic: pentagrams, spell-casting, sacrifices and so forth. If you’ve learned of rituals that people are actually carrying out, it may be that public (and your own) perception of Satanism has been crafted to mirror these rituals in order to reinforce prejudices.

Near Death Experiences – An Opposite Angle

Question from Mirek:
I looked at more cultural differences between NDEs. Much of these differences are in contrast with current research, which claims that all NDEs are the same with the same features, the only differences that exist are interpretation. Ex: Person A may see a light and interpret that light as Jesus while person B may see a light and interpret it is Allah.

Earlier research from the 80s and 90s was taken from countries like Thailand, India, Japan, China, Zambia, etc. What I find curious is that in these non-Western NDEs with the exception of China and Japan, there seem to be little to no Out of body experiences reported, and no light at the end of a tunnel. Judgement takes place, and seeing deceased relatives are common among Eastern and Western NDEs. Why though, if NDEs are biological in origin, do we not see OBEs and lights in India to the same extent. In a study of 55 in India, only 1 had an OBE, and in the west, we always hear of OBEs. Shouldn’t a dying brain also produce OBEs in India, or shouldn’t deprivation of oxygen to the eye also cause a bright light in India?

Does this give the soul idea a stronger case?

Answer by SmartLX:
In an earlier question you imply that the similarities between NDEs makes them more likely to be real, and now (after throwing the extended contents of an NDE-friendly website at the wall in the interim) you imply that the differences between NDEs make them more likely to be real. You seem like you’ll try anything. Why so dogged?

Regardless, I’ll take the new question at face value, and start by referring to my answer to another earlier question not by you. Different religions have different ideas of what an NDE should be, and even whether they should happen. In places where the bright light and other elements of an apparent NDE we would see as typical do not fit the majority religion’s narrative of what a soul might experience, even if they happen they won’t generally be interpreted as an NDE at all and thus they won’t be reported as such. Other experiences, for example dreams or hallucinations of one’s ancestors, will be interpreted as NDEs instead while any bright lights are dismissed as irrelevant physical effects. So the prevailing mythology not only changes what is experienced by influencing the subconscious, but it changes the filter of what existing experiences will be taken as part of the supposed phenomenon. Thus, look far enough afield and you’ll find variety.

All About Buddhism

Question from Vitor:
Good evening, how are you? My name is Vitor and I am only a seeker of knowledge, I can not stand to see people self-deceiving but I can do nothing. The apex of my disappointment are pseudosciences and promoters of insanities and follies.

I would like to discuss some matters with you. For there are not many who can discuss these subjects in search of skeptical knowledge, without traps of thought and cognition, and self-delusional beliefs coming from mysticisms, esoterisms, religions, pseudosciences and other nonsense.

Like any other human being, I have doubts that I would like to discuss with someone. Maybe I may be bothering you and I’m sorry, maybe you can not always argue with me but whenever I can I’ll be grateful.
Below are some things that both bother me.
If it is not uncomfortable, may I discuss various matters with you?

1. What you think about Buddhist cosmology?
2. The silly idea for suffering in Buddhism ?
3. About Nirvana in Buddhism?
4. Reincarnation, what do you think?

Answer by SmartLX:
1. Buddhist cosmology holds that the universe consists of a large number of different planes, each corresponding to a different mental state. There is no evidence for the other planes, let alone the idea that they are at all connected to the thoughts in human brains. Separately, the cyclical model of the universe very gradually fading between existence and nothingness does not match any hypothetical cyclical cosmologies that would work within the laws of physics (e.g. a Big Bang / Big Crunch cycle).

2/3. The “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism hold that suffering can be eliminated by freeing oneself from desire. Achieving this is by definition reaching a state of Nirvana, and in fact you become a buddha yourself if you manage it. This is an incredibly unrealistic goal for a living human being. The list of people who have even claimed to achieve it is very short, and it includes people like Jim Jones. (Incidentally, another part of the enlightenment of Nirvana is being free from ideas, which is in stark contrast to the principles of the Age of Enlightenment.)

4. Reincarnation, like the doctrines of many other religions, requires the existence of a soul independent of the body which maintains a person’s identity after death, in this case to insert into a subsequent body. There’s no evidence of identity surviving the death of the brain in any form.

The Targets of Atheists

Question from Frank:
Why do atheists always talk about how Christians are fake, but never mention Islam as a really fake religion?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists have all the same reasons to deny and oppose Islam as they do Christianity, but they will naturally challenge religion in the form in which it appears in their own community.

The atheists you have the opportunity to read or listen to mostly live in countries with a Christian majority, or at least where the majority of religious people are Christian. Christianity is therefore the religion with the greatest impact on their daily lives, and the religion whose apologetic is the most prominent in the arena of debate. Therefore they most often inspired, provoked and otherwise motivated to discuss and criticise Christianity. In Muslim countries, it’s different.

There is also the fact that in many countries devout Muslims have threatened (and often succeeded, say in Bangladesh) to persecute and even kill critics of Islam. Though unfortunate, it is perfectly reasonable for people to withhold their criticisms of Islam if they believe their safety to be at risk.

The important thing to remember is that most the criticisms of Christianity apply just as well to any other faith, including Islam. The core supernatural claims at the heart of the scripture are unsupported by available evidence. Believers who gain political power in numbers invariably attempt to legislate in favour of their religion, and in particular to enforce religious morality upon non-adherents. People spend vast amounts of time, effort and money doing things which have no purpose except to please an invisible entity for an intangible reward, supposedly withheld until after death.

You Don’t Have to Know to Not Think So

Question from Neil:
Why do atheists mostly dismiss the existence of an intelligent creator of any kind?

I see no firm evidence of any god being especially the Old Testament one, he doesn’t seem to be aware the Earth moves among many other things!
But I accept the possibility that one could exist and may have caused the Big Bang.

Until we discover what did cause the Big Bang it seems arrogant to dismiss the possibility.

Athiests are accused of being arrogant (mainly by arrogant religious people). I wonder if they’re right or are most atheists really agnostics?

Answer by SmartLX:
It all depends, heavily, on the atheist.

Like you I acknowledge the possibility, however remote, that there is or was a creator god or equivalent entity. To know for a fact that there wasn’t one would take more information than the human race as access to at the moment. I’m still an atheist because I don’t think or believe that there was a creator, but I accept that there’s a chance I’m wrong simply because I don’t know. That makes me an agnostic atheist, same as Dawkins, same as Dennett and same as many other prominent atheists who spell out their positions in public. I think most or at least a lot of atheists are agnostic but statistics on that are hard to come by.

Those who claim to know there’s no god are gnostic atheists and when I discuss gods with them, like you I ask them how they think they know.

The Universe Itself Keeps On Expanding, And Expanding…

Question from Andreas:
I know, this may have already been answered, but this piece of information so far successfully hid from my search for knowledge. This is why I’d like to ask a physicist
— Lawrence Krauss — these two questions regarding space and time.

Question 1:
First, as I get it, since Einstein there is no universal time, but a space-time. (Newton was so much easier to grasp for a simple human mind.) Means, space and time are tied together, influence each other and got into existence at the same time which was the big bang. Am I right so far?
Thus space started to exist and to expand since then, as did time — start to exist, that is.

So here comes my first question, because I don’t understand a “what was before” question I sometimes read or am asked (mostly by religious people). I don’t claim to understand Einstein, and I assume only a dozen people on Earth fully do — so maybe I got it all wrong, which is why I have to get this answered.
Is it true that there was no time before the big bang? If so, why are people asking themselves, how and when and why the big bang took place? It cannot be answered (well, the how can be answered to an extent) when there was no time in existence before, so there was no “before the big bang”… or what did I get wrong here?
And the implications? Am I right about shaking my head if people ask the “but what was before” question?!?

Question 2:
Another issue I have with time is distance, the speed of light and our view into the universe. Due to the limitation of the speed of light, we look backwards in time when we look into the universe and see distant galaxies. So we see the past. The farther away a star/galaxy is, the older the image we see. So how do we know if it’s still there? How do we know if a galaxy very far out, in a distant past, isn’t long gone and its stars exploded in nova and supernova explosions? And how far can we look back? I once read that the farthest out we can see is the actual time of the plasma that was “shortly” after the big bang… and we cannot see past that. And that we can see residual “background noise.” If that is true, how can we have a current picture of the universe? Isn’t everything we think about it an extrapolation of a past situation—the only thing that we can see, but we have to calculate how it might have developed since then to now in order to have a full understanding of the universe in its present state?

Isn’t it therefore impossible to have a clear picture of the universe, its number of galaxies, its size etc.? It could be no more than a wild guess, like “yes, we see the images, but we cannot put it together in one map of the current (state of the) universe…”

Those were my two questions.
I am really looking forward to seeing them answered by someone who actually understands what he’s saying, and can even do the calculations (e.g. the time+distance thing), as this gives me headaches for a year or two now, and I just couldn’t find it anywhere else… yet.

The biggest thanks in advance!

Answer by SmartLX:
With the disclaimer that I am absolutely not Lawrence Krauss, I’m happy to help.

Question 1:
There are multiple cosmological models with some kind of Big Bang, and there is a form of time “before” it in some of them. When considering the multiverse hypothesis in particular, you have to consider the possibility that before our system of space-time began others might already have been running. (“Before” in this context relates to causality; if something in another system of space-time caused ours to emerge, you can think of the cause coming before the effect.) If indeed there was no time before the Big Bang, though, then the “before” question is indeed inapplicable, and our ideas of cause and effect have a hard time applying as well.

To summarise in the context of the religiously-charged “what was before” question, we don’t know whether there was a before, if there was a before there didn’t have to be a god in it, and if there wasn’t a before then the Cosmological Argument is nonsensical. The Argument from Contingency is a version that attempts to get around the time-based limitations, but it still has most of the same flaws.

Question 2:
Statistically speaking, we know many stars we can see are long “dead”. Our sun has a total lifespan of about ten billion years, and the larger a star is the sooner it burns out. The best telescopes can pick up images from several billion light years away, and some of the far-out stars are hundreds or thousands of times bigger than the Sun. Even one billion light years out, time will be up for a significant percentage of them since they’ve had to last another billion years since they radiated the light we’re seeing.

So of course our picture of the universe is incomplete. We live in a fortunate time, cosmologically speaking, because the expansion of the universe hasn’t progressed to the point where all galaxies are out of sight of each other, or else we might not know there are other galaxies at all. As it is, we are constantly revising our estimates (and estimates they certainly are) about the contents of the universe based on the information we can gather. Right now the estimate for the proportion of stars with planets around them is rocketing upward as we find evidence of more and more extra-solar planets. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything.

I think you misunderstand one significant thing. Our model of the present universe is not an extrapolation from an assumption of the Big Bang; rather our concept of the Big Bang itself is largely an extrapolation from the current state and movement of the universe. Put simply, everything is rushing away from everything else (unless held together by local gravity) so in the past everything was closer, further in the past everything was even closer than that…and at some point beforehand everything was together, and the physicists worked from there. We try to model the current universe based as much as possible on real observations of its present state, rather than extrapolating from an extrapolation – though sometimes we do resort to that.

Feel free to pick up on any of these points in a comment if you think it could be clearer.

A Moment in Hell

Question from Mirek:
There seems to be many hellish NDEs with the same imagery:

A person sees absolute darkness, hears people suffering, feels sadness, coldness, emptiness, then calls out to God or Jesus, and a white light, or God’s hand appears and takes them out.

Here is an example from George Foreman:


Another example is a pastor who was electrocuted when he was an atheist, and saw the same thing, called out to God, was pulled out.

Do these similarities give hell more credence?

Answer by SmartLX:
Not really. The main reason is that multiple genuine NDEs aren’t the only explanation for the similarity regarded by many as plausible. There are two other major factors likely to contribute.

One, the standard NDE story is by now traditional and very well-known. If someone who’s at least familiar with it has an ordinary dream or hallucination during a life-threatening situation, it is likely to follow the same pattern as it’s what the victim expects on some level. If there is no memory or a fragmented memory of the period, the existence of this very specific expectation for the experience can shape a memory over time until it fits very well. And if someone just makes up an NDE story, they will deliberately follow the pattern to match the expectation of their audience.

Two, people going through the physical and mental states associated with near or temporary “death” are likely to have similar physiological reasons to experience certain things, even if they’re not fully understood. The white light in the distance, for instance, is consistent with temporary tunnel vision caused by lack of blood or oxygen to the eyes, growing brighter when the supply returns. Scientific American went into this six years ago.

I can take another approach to your question. Supposed visits to Hell, or samples of what you feel in Hell (coldness, emptiness, etc.) are potent emotional appeals but they don’t make much sense in most Christian theologies. God isn’t supposed to literally pull souls out of Hell, and certainly not after only a few moments. Your judgement happens, then either you stay in Hell forever or you never even see it. If on the other hand God is only showing you a vision of Hell instead of actually dangling you in there, He could supposedly do that at any time, not just when you’re at death’s door.