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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

O Fátima

Question from Jakob:
I have a question about the supposed Sun miracle at Fátima. An crowd of about 70,000 people saw it; I should note that nobody saw the same thing and thousands saw nothing at all. The Vatican said it’s worthy of belief. Now 70000 people can’t hallucinate at the same time, can they?

Answer by SmartLX:
If thousands saw nothing at all at the so-called Miracle of the Sun that gave rise to the incarnation of the Virgin Mary now known as Our Lady of Fátima, then 70000 people didn’t hallucinate at the same time. It doesn’t mean none of them did.

A multitude of people with beliefs ranging from fervent to non-existent crowded into an empty field with high expectations of something miraculous happening, but no idea what. As soon as exposure, overlong gazing at the sun, rare weather effects like a parhelion (check the Miracle link above for a picture) or pure zealotry drove someone to declare that they saw something strange in the sky, thousands more looked up instead of around them, and were far more prone to have a similar experience. Afterwards, there was much discussion among the lucky subset about what they had seen, which would have resulted in much greater consistency between accounts once they went to write it down. Once stories got out, the crowds got bigger, the expectations were higher and the chances of strange perceptions only went up, until it all peaked on 13 October 1917. The initial stories mentioned the sun, so later you had thousands of poor sods staring right at the thing far longer than they should, which would have played havoc with their eyes.

Several specific explanations have been suggested over the years, but I just look at the circumstances and I think I would have been amazed if no one had had a strange experience. It was a strange thing to do, and to be told to do by three Portuguese preteens.

Atheists and Assets

Question from Fahim:
How do atheists distribute their assets justifiedly? I was brought up in a Muslim family and have learnt the Islamic Assets distribution method. I want to know if atheists have any such methods.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m not familiar at all with the distribution method you refer to, though I’ve now read a bit about the rules attempting to apply Islamic teachings to economics and inheritance in particular. It won’t affect my answer, but if you have a good primer you can link to I’d appreciate seeing it in a comment.

Atheists distribute their assets according to any number of different systems and philosophies, because atheism itself teaches nothing about asset distribution. There’s no rule that says anything like, “There are no gods so give 10% to charity.” Some learn economics and manage their assets for the maximum profit and benefit to all. Some study various philosophies and use that to justify either spreading wealth or hoarding it. Many simply work from their own sense of fairness and honesty, which is easily tested because you get some pretty harsh feedback if you’re seen as unfair or dishonest.

I answer a similar question by Christians all the time; they ask where atheists get their morals. If you’ve been told all your life that one book is the only place you need to look for guidance in any aspect of your life, I realise it can be a strange-sounding idea that there are people who have no such book and yet find direction, meaning and clear intellectual justification for their actions, regarding assets or anything else. Nevertheless, it is another perfectly decent way to live your life. You just have to look a bit farther afield to find solid frameworks to build on.

Akita and the Incorruptibles (if that were a comic book I’d read it)

Question from Jacob:
Hello. Recently I stopped believing to a small degree, probably class 4 or 5 on the Dawkins scale (ATA Note: this indicates neutrality tending towards disbelief), mainly from reading the Old Testament. None of the mainstream Christian arguments are really that great like morality and so forth. But there are 2, well I would not call them arguments, more like paranormal activity. They are incorruptible bodies and the statue of Akita. They are the 2 main things that are still part of my chains of religion. My question is how do you explain them or brush them off at least? I heard atheists had high levels of intelligence.

Answer by SmartLX:
I can save myself some work here because I wrote about the so-called incorruptibles for a similar site: Ask The Atheists. I was SmartLX on that one too, just scroll down a bit. Since I’ve become acquainted with the power of Google Images in the 8+ years that followed, I’ll simply add that the examples available to us today do not exactly look natural or as fresh as a daisy.

As for “Our Lady of Akita”, much is unexplained about the events that brought it to the world’s attention but the most damning factor is the Catholic Church’s own reluctance to hail it as a miracle. See the Wikipedia article: though the local Bishop endorsed it, the Archbishop of Tokyo dismissed it completely in 1990, and then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who would have made the call at that level within the Church, made no call at all. If those with the most to gain from a miracle by the Virgin Mary won’t get behind it, what reason do you have? The Church all but abolished the office of “devil’s advocate” in 1983 so they don’t even actively try to debunk these things anymore, and they still didn’t give this one the rubber stamp.

A Relatively Simple Afterlife Question

Question from Jason:
Besides our energy living on for all eternity (watch 10 Myths About Death at 1:50) is any other afterlife possible? Is any, all (especially regarding Hell) of http://www.evangelicaloutreach.org/ telling the truth? I am Fira777 on YouTube.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written a great deal on the afterlife, because of course many are curious about (or troubled by, or desperate to salvage) the idea. The simple answer to your question is that anything is possible (science does not support an afterlife in any meaningful sense, but the mechanism of the supposed soul may be beyond science if real) but if the Evangelical Outreach page is correct about any of this stuff, it is not because they know for sure. They are relaying their interpretation of the scriptures they accept as the word of God, and they are right or wrong if the text is. “Telling the truth” is subjective based on what one believes; one can be honest and still wrong.

Demons AFTER an exorcism?

Question from Sneroul:
Ok this is gonna be a long post so brace yourself.

I live in South Africa Western cape. The Church here is quite conservative but that’s not the point. i have been indoctrinated but it never really had an effect. Well it did give me somewhat respect for the faith but that is about it. OK to make a long story short I went from liberal Christian to atheist to agnostic then to fundamental and then back to atheist and then agnostic. But I am gonna talk about the events in the last 6 months.

It happened like this: a friend of mine was a pastor who visited me. I was slightly bored so I decided to talk to him about random stuff. It eventually came to religion and I asked him why he decided his career path. And he converted me and I became born again, the feeling is hard to explain but I can’t say if its positive or negative. But that night I felt very strange, like I committed intellectual suicide. I brushed the feeling off… then the trouble started.

I began hearing voices in my head. Some of them good and some bad, it’s hard to explain but there did come out one good thing: one of the voices convinced me to leave a dangerous addiction. BUT I NEVER FELT ALONE. I made a big mistake to talk to some of the clergy and they said that there were demons in me. they decided to do an exorcism which did help at first but in the long term the voices came back worse than before. I started to feel fatigue and was tired and sweaty most of the time. So what happened next? Well I started to read about skeptics and atheism and the more I read the more I feel better, most of the voices are gone and only appear when I ask them. The clergy told me the reason for this is that the demons were successful in turning me away from God. I think they’re wrong so I came here and see if you can explain it.

Answer by SmartLX:
The simplest explanation for voices in your head (regardless of the mental state that is manifesting them so vividly…we’ll get to that) is that they are all you, expressing thoughts of which you are not fully conscious at first. The rational part of you would have been screaming for attention after you declared yourself “born again” in spite of all the issues with faith and religion which you learned about when you first became an atheist. If you had a dangerous addiction, that same rational voice would have been struggling against your compulsion to indulge it. It sounds as if you have externalised part of your own mind, to serve as a separate entity that you can talk to – both to work out difficult issues, and for company.

Some branches of the Church will instead jump straight to the conclusion that you have a case of demons, and propose (or impose) an exorcism. If you come to believe along with them that demons are responsible for your mental issues, an exorcism becomes a literal placebo, and you will feel better. Unfortunately, if the true cause is anything other than demons, the symptoms will return in time, and they may be worse for lack of proper treatment.

Hearing and conversing with inner voices is a known symptom of well-defined mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Between that and your mention of a bout of long-term fatigue, I can’t dismiss the possibility that you have a significant and perhaps serious medical issue. I advise you to see a doctor when possible, for a full check-up and for a referral to a psychiatrist. You will learn more about yourself and what you’re going through than you would from any pastor.

Tonight on Maury: “Suddenly Atheist in a Strict Jewish Family!”

Question from Josh:
Hey Guys,

Firstly, thanks for wasting hours of my time and robbing me of any sort of productivity 🙂

I’m 30 years old and grew up in an ultra-orthodox, Jewish home. While I always had my doubts and skepticism, I did not make the leap to accepting there is no God till the past few months.

My wife is of course religious, and there are a ton of things we gotta work through now. My question to you is: Is there anything redeeming you can find in raising your kids to be religious?

Of course we will make sure they have a great education, and view everyone as equals, but is it morally or ethically wrong to raise your child with the burden of religious dogmas and beliefs you know to be false? (when I write out the question, it kind of answers itself. I guess I’m asking you to throw me a bone.)

Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
Think of it in more general terms: as a parenting team, what do you teach your kids about a subject where you disagree with each other? You hold off on the subject until it’s settled between you, if possible, but if it’s unavoidable then you’re honest about it at an age when you think they’ll understand the truth – “This is what Mum thinks, and this is what Dad thinks.” It’s a perfect introduction to critical thinking, and in the case of religion it often ends up favouring irreligion. I speak from experience, because the discovery of the mere fact of my father’s disbelief drove home to me that I had some investigating to do. There’s a good reason why many dogmatic religions have specific instructions against questioning them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t go ahead and raise them in the Jewish tradition. For many branches of Judaism belief is one of the less important aspects of the Jewish identity, and simply teaching all the rituals, customs, Israeli history and so on will suffice. A “secular Jew” is a common thing, whereas you’d be hard-pressed to find a self-proclaimed “secular Christian”. Maybe it’s different in your family, but you can work with that: “This is what Mum and Grandma think, and it’s very very important to them so make sure you remember it, okay?”

As you can tell, I’m not okay with indoctrinating children into faith at the best of times, let alone when you don’t share that faith. If every voice they trust either tells them a thing is true or says nothing, they may believe it for the rest of their lives, or else have a very hard time shedding it later in life. That said, learning in my teens that my father was an atheist had a huge impact over time, so even if you do stay silent for years it may ultimately be for nothing in your family’s eyes once your real position slips out. Better to be straight with them at the start, and teach them to do what the family requires of them while knowing the truth of the situation.


I’ve got the same situation coming up in a couple of years when my son’s old enough to understand the concept of God, but it won’t be so difficult compared to your situation. My wife’s religious but liberal, and both sides of the family are a patchwork in terms of religiosity, so Junior will be exposed to a variety of viewpoints regardless of what I tell him, and therefore there’s no point pretending I agree with his mother.

Where Do Bad Folks Go When They Diiiiiiiiiie

Question from Becky:
I was never a big believer in the Christian God but I did read the Bible which showed me nothing but a vengeful God as oppose to one of love. I considered being a deist but hell has latched into my brain and won’t let go. Worst knowing there is fire underneath the earth seems to support hell even more since Jesus said he was going to the heart of the earth I just want to let the fear go since it was a main reason I believed. How do I let this fear go?

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re suffering from what I call faithdrawal, the continued fear of the wrath of God (including banishment to Hell) after belief in God has faded. As the link shows, I’ve discussed it a lot, because you’re not alone in dealing with it. You realise of course that it’s irrational because in a doctrine where God is responsible for the existence of Hell there can be no Hell without a God, but since when was fear rational all the time?

Let’s look more closely at the apparent piece of support you’ve found for the existence of Hell: Matthew 12:40, where Jesus spends three days “in the heart of the earth”. First of all, that might simply have meant he was physically down in his tomb for that long. If instead it is actually a claim that he was in Hell between his crucifixion and his supposed resurrection, I wouldn’t be surprised at the implication that Hell is deep underground. In the same way that it’s easy to imagine Heaven being up in the clouds, the unexplored depths seem like a perfect place for Hell, and may even have been part of the inspiration for the popular image of Hell. People living near volcanoes and elsewhere along fault lines, in Biblical times as in any other, would have seen and documented literal lakes of fire and many varieties of red-hot wrath spewing from fissures in the ground. Miners all over the world would have noticed the increase in temperature in a deep enough cave (though this might often have been caused merely by lack of ventilation). From the science of geology we now know why it happens in great detail, so the God-of-the-gaps has retreated from the subject entirely. Unlike our ancestors, we know the lava isn’t coming from Hell.

To answer your final question directly, It’s not a matter of letting the fear go so much as the fear letting you go. An irrational fear, like a belief, must be reinforced artificially in the absence of evidence, by various means: acts of devotion, new personal discoveries in the source texts (like the “heart of the earth” thing) and so on. If you recognise on the face of it, and continue to actively recognise, that all support for the reality of the danger is unfounded, it won’t kill the fear but it will leave it with no reason to remain. Over time, and without emotional reinforcement, the fear will fade and leave you. Though it’s frustrating to hear, the less you worry about it the faster it will go, so engross yourself in something else for a few weeks or months.

What Would God Actually Write?

Question from Abdulmalik:
I have a question and I wish you to seriously answer me! if we postulated that God exists…and he sent down his word to humanity as a book…what do you expect that book to be like? or how would you test it to be a God’s book?
waiting for your awesome answers…\
my first suggestion that it should has no scientific mistakes…
do you have any other suggestions?!

Answer by SmartLX:
A book literally written by a god would in many ways be like the Bible or the Quran – as they are described by the people who think their gods wrote them. Specifically, they are claimed to be inerrant, internally consistent, full of divine knowledge or prophecies that either come true or are revealed to be true as time goes on, supernaturally beautiful in their prose and with an ability to influence the hearts and minds of readers and listeners that goes beyond anything the words actually say. Thus, people often claim these things about them explicitly as arguments for their divine authorship. As you can see by simply putting ‘bible’ or ‘quran’ in the search field of this site, after a great deal of discussion I’m still of the opinion that these claims are incorrect, unsupported or subjective.

Further speculation about what a real god’s writings would be like doesn’t tend to move the discussion forward, as such speculation can be dismissed outright by anyone who thinks it is unreasonable or doesn’t match their chosen book. But what the heck, I do have one idea on the subject: such a book would be timeless, such that it didn’t seem more and more backward the more society progresses. In the Bible, for instance, a modern reader has to confront references to slavery, incest, subjugation of women and entire ethnic groups, human sacrifice, demonisation of many sexual orientations and so on. A reader in the first century AD would have taken most or all of it for granted. I think a god would find a way to keep a fixed book from suffering the effects of a shifting moral zeitgeist.

“If only she weren’t Christian…”

Question from Fiak:
We’ve been best friends for so long. While there’s no evidence (yet) that she’s going to want to date me, I feel she is contemplating doing that. The only problem is that I’m atheist and she’s Christian. I’m just confused. Please help me convert her. There’s about 7 more years till I totally lose her to some Christian. I feel she’s mine tho. Help please!

Answer by SmartLX:
I feel you presume too much about “her” in general, but I’ll concentrate on the religion part.

I’ve been with a Christian woman for almost ten years, and married to her for seven. Trust me when I say the difference in beliefs is not a deal-breaker. Each of us is also the product of an atheist-Christian couple, and beliefs vary among our siblings as well. Those of us in the extended family who are atheists got that way either because they were never indoctrinated or by a slow, natural fading of belief in the absence of reinforcement. Like in any group of people with two disparate positions among them, harmony is better served by not focusing on our differences. My wife and I each hope the other will “come around” in time, but it’s not a big enough part of either of our lives that we feel the need to force the issue.

What you’ll have noticed in the above description is that there were no major de-conversion events to speak of in the family. (One branch loudly denounced Christianity after one of its number was jilted by a hypocritical evangelical, but I suspect their actual beliefs didn’t shift much.) If I were you I wouldn’t try to make an atheist of “her” within a set timeframe as it’s really not reliably done.

Here’s how I would approach the issue directly if I did decide to try: I would ask the question, “Why do you believe in God?” Once I had the answer, I would work with her to answer the question, “Is that a good reason?” Maybe she has structured arguments that you can look up on this site or elsewhere, maybe she had a “road to Damascus” moment years ago you can examine, maybe she’s never really thought about it and will have to get back to you. Either way, it’s likely to be a conversation carried out in pieces over several days or weeks, especially since if you’re not careful it will be seen as an attack on an integral part of her identity and she won’t be keen to continue. (I did start along this path with my wife, but I sensed how defensive she was becoming and I let it be.) Remember to be totally open about your own position if she asks the same of you.

When it’s over and you’ve made your point, the belief may persist even if she’s unable to argue back, because beliefs are not beholden to reason. Only months or years later might it sink in that something’s not secure about them. On ATA I may argue specific points forcefully but I recognise that people are very unlikely to comment the next day thanking me for ridding them of their faith; that’s just not how it works.

Scripture Outpaces Science Again (Hindu this time)

Question from :
What would be your best argument against someone using the Unpanishads and Quantum Physics as a justification for their belief in God?

Answer by SmartLX:
For those like me who may never have seen the word before, The Unpanishads are the source of a lot of central Hindu concepts. The doctrines behind this particular justification concern the importance of consciousness and awareness to the universe, and the timelessness of certain entities. The argument is that these correspond to the observer effect in quantum mechanics and the general unchanging nature of the fundamental physics of the universe. Here’s an example of an article making this point.

This fits into the general category of a claim of divine foreknowledge. The appropriate category in my article on prophecies and predictions is #4: Shoehorned, because people are taking established science and fitting it to the most relevant parts of a religious text after the fact. No one read the Upanishads and realised as a result that observing individual particles of light would affect how they appeared. Nor does anyone expect to be able to scrutinise the Upanishads now and find new practical details that will advance science any further.

The major complication for someone actually using this as an argument for their particular god is the existence of a huge number of arguments along the same lines using both Christian and Muslim scripture. I’ve covered many of these separately and as a group. A Hindu (or Buddhist or Jainist, since they also use the Unpanishads to a degree) would have to explain why there’s so much similarly accurate-looking material in mutually exclusive texts, or make the effort to debunk everyone else’s claims. Christians in particular have worked to do just that.