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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

Near Death Experiences – does Christianity “win”?

Question from Kustav:
I was wondering something with regards to Near Death Experiences.

Why is it that I can find numerous NDEs where the experience entails Jesus, but I cannot find any NDEs where a Muslim for example meets Muhammad, or a Hindu meets Krishna. I have however, read stories of Atheists, Jews, Muslims, and even Hindus meeting Jesus. I was wondering, even hypothetically, if it was true that no NDEs of Muhammad exist within the Muslim world, with all the NDEs documented with Jesus, does this give Christianity more merit or truth value? What is your opinion?

Answer by SmartLX:
Hindu NDE claims are actually quite common, as researchers in India have found and documented here. In contrast, see number 8 on this list for the Muslim perspective on NDEs. In short, Muslims have scriptural reasons to think they wouldn’t be conscious of any NDE they had, they also have scriptural reasons not to talk about any NDEs they do have, and yet a few Muslims still claim to have had them.

So your main question is indeed a hypothetical one, but I’m fine with that so here we go. For NDEs to be any support at all for the existence of a particular deity the veracity of the NDEs themselves would have to be established, and this has never been done. Past that hurdle, for the majority of NDEs being of one type to support the existence of that afterlife and that god, one would have to eliminate other possible reasons for the disparity, and that’s rather difficult. Islam has reasons built in for being light on NDEs as I mentioned, but the main issue is that NDEs are a cultural meme which is reinforced as it becomes more common. If a Christian has an NDE it fits very well with the theology and there’s an army of people ready to believe it without ever asking for evidence, which only encourages more claims. (Do you have any idea how much money Heaven Is for Real made?) Christianity may simply be ahead of the social curve on the topic.

Genesis, Flourishing and Other Course Questions

Question from Jordan:
How might an Atheist answer these questions regarding human nature, purpose and flourishing…what does it mean for humans to flourish, how do they achieve spiritual, emotional and mental well-being? What are the consequences of the Fall of human nature (Gen 3)? What is revealed of human nature (from Gen 1-2)?

Answer by SmartLX:
I answered the first part in a comment because someone asked the same question from the same Christian Worldview course, but I’ll cover it again. My other piece has a lot of material you might also find useful.

To flourish is to grow or develop in a healthy way. Physically, mentally and emotionally that means having the resources you need along with something which provides a challenge. Food, exercise, study, work, art, interpersonal relationships, meditation/reflection…it all has a role to play. To a Christian the essential resource is God, and without a relationship with Him a human cannot flourish properly. I think there is no God and yet lots of people happily flourish in all kinds of ways, so what they need in order to flourish would seem to be other things.

Genesis 3 is where Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge, their eyes are opened (figuratively, as they aren’t actually blind before that point), and God curses the living daylights out of them both. The message is that humans would have been better off knowing only what God chose to tell them, not because the other knowledge is inherently harmful but because God is incredibly tough on disobedience. Human nature didn’t change after they ate because it wasn’t perfect before they ate – Eve wanted the fruit before she ate it. They just suddenly knew more, and their circumstances changed because of the curses they received and life got harder in lots of little ways (e.g. labour pains, arbitrary enmity between people, farming difficulties).

Humans don’t show up until the end of Genesis 1, and Genesis 2 doesn’t say anything about Adam’s nature except that God decides he needs an Eve. From the above, even Genesis 3 says far more about God’s nature than human nature. But now’s as good a time as any to say that by the nature of evolution, geology, physics, etc. there’s no way the story of Adam and Eve was real and I’m interpreting a work of fiction here. That said, a parable can say a great deal about human nature, I just don’t think this one does.

Speak Truth To Power

Question from Danielle:
I am about to partake a debate for our school. Right now, I am currently doing bunch of research but I feel like there’s more to know especially that I still have a lot of questions and even though I’ve already asked some people, I still couldn’t get it because most answers are just too surfaced and somehow shallow or biased.
Anyways, our debate is all about the current events in our country, Philippines. Right now we are facing issues about our government and how our new president is somehow violating human rights to the eyes of others especially to some religious groups headed by bishops and priests. Right now, both teams are on the verge of disrespecting both parties.

*CONSIDER THESE, our president’s administration; WAR ON DRUGS is actually doing great; its actually making a difference and sense, and somehow making the country better. If the WAR ON DRUGS is stopped, there are theories that everything will be back to what it was before, in a state of corruption and manipulation.

*WAR ON DRUGS- Operation capture drug syndicates, pushers, users.
*EXTRA JUDICIAL KILLING

Are the church’s criticism and warnings against our president beneficial for all? Should religion stay out of it?
And can you explain, religion and politics? Or what makes them different from each other that these two must not interfere.

Faith vs Politics/Science/Reason

Your response would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
I was in Manila last year for work, and I do know how much weight the voice of a high-up Catholic carries among the population. From the perspective of an irreligious person like me, just because an opinion is given by a religious person or organisation doesn’t make it wrong. Furthermore, in a country with freedom of speech religious figures should have the freedom to give their opinions on current events just like anyone else. In this case, if the Philippines’ war on drugs is leading the government to work outside the law, to the extent of assassinations and essentially murders, I hope that Catholic authority figures are not the only ones speaking out. Indeed it seems that the opposition to the violence has some numbers to it.

More generally, the issue between religion and politics is that when religions gain political power (either directly in a theocratic sense or through the election of zealous representatives) they almost invariably legislate in their own favour, at the expense of anyone who is not an adherent to the specific dogma of those in power. This was for instance demonstrated in the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, where an Islamic Republic was established and a strict form of law based on sharia was imposed on the entire population.

This is why many countries maintain a “wall of separation” between church and state. Laws cannot be made favouring one religion over another or religion in general over lack of religion. Relevant to your upcoming debate, religious organisations cannot endorse political candidates and still maintain their religious tax-exempt status. So while religious figures speaking out against the war on drugs is acceptable, if the same people were to call for Duterte himself to be ousted it would be a step too far in terms of church-state separation. Apparently calls like this have happened in the Philippines before, so I applaud the restraint of the Church after the departure of Marcos and Estrada.

Miracles for the Masses

Question from Daniel:
Hi. I wanted to know if there is any mass revelation/miracle in The Vedas (i.e Miracles that were performed in front of many people)?

Answer by SmartLX:
I was a Christian once but I was never a Hindu, and never discussed religion with my few Hindu friends in school. Right off the bat I invite any Hindus reading this to comment right away and set us straight.

From what I can gather after some brief research is that the Vedas are not written as a history or a narrative like most books of the Bible are. The four Vedas mostly consist of hymns to the various gods (most intended to be heard in song rather than read), descriptions of rituals, and discussion of philosophy. There are bits of history woven into it all concerning the people from whom the texts emerged, but if they were ever intended to be taken as literal accounts of major events, Hindus tend not to take that view nowadays.

Your question is often used to advance an argument for the truth of Judaism, sometimes known as the Sinai argument, which claims that the supposedly uniquely mass-spectated nature of the miracles in the Torah supports their veracity. Christians sometimes argue along the same lines based on the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to five hundred people.

I’ll leave it to followers of other religions to make their own claims of mass revelations, but the basic problem with all of these stories is the same: accounts of witnesses are not witnesses. Each of these stories is still just one account, with only one source to believe or disbelieve regarding the number of people present. Contrast it with a big event happening in the middle of a city today; tweets and Facebook posts from hundreds of sources or more can flood the web, arguing over details but collectively leaving no doubt that something major went down. An account is an account even if it contains emojis.

Quick Questions for a Project

Question from Mercadez:
Hello, I am doing this host-a-conversation project for my religions class. I was wondering if you would answer the following questions…
1. Why do you not believe in God(s)?
2. Who do you think created the world, specifically things science cannot explain?
3. What exactly do you believe in? Like, do you believe in karma?
4. Do you believe in an after-life?
Thank you in advance.

Answer by SmartLX:
Search for some keywords and you’ll find plenty of material on each of these. For the benefit of your project, though, I’ll answer them all concisely in one place.

1. Because I stopped thinking about God seriously for over a decade. When I did come back to the subject my emotional attachment to the concept had faded and I was able to see clearly that the arguments and supposed evidence for the existence of a god are far from sufficient to justify believing in one. There’s a good chance that if I’d kept regularly going to church I might not have seen that.

2. We don’t know what science cannot explain, only what it hasn’t explained yet. I don’t know whether the world was created at all, so it’s premature to wonder who did so. Perhaps it has always existed in some form, like God is supposed to have done. Perhaps its emergence was quite spontaneous, as quantum mechanics are often observed to be. The options are far broader than the false dilemma of either God or something-just-like-God-but-not-God.

3. I do not believe in any guiding entity or energy in the universe, no gods, spirits or mystical energies or forces. Of course the universe has energy but it does not have a will of its own. I believe all kinds of things but they’re all quite plausible or workable in an entirely non-supernatural world, such as that empathy with people of all types will make for a better world, or that pineapple can in some cases improve a pizza.

4. I don’t believe that one’s identity can survive the death and subsequent rapid disintegration of the brain. After you die there is no you for anything to happen to, so nothing is experienced after death.

Seeking the Source of Hell

Question from Jakob:
Hello, I am back again. So my fear of hell has came back a little, just a little. So anyway do you know of any good books on the origin of hell and similar Christian mythology?

Answer by SmartLX:
Hell’s a little bit specific for a whole book. There is The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner, which is mostly focused on changing visual depictions of it. All I could immediately find besides that were essays by the devout like this one, podcasts like this one, and of course the mostly neutral fact dump on Wikipedia. If anyone has a good read to share, feel free to comment. (Yes, thank you, we know about the Bible.)

Books on Christian mythology are plentiful, but mostly focused on the Christ story and its parallels in earlier pagan mythology.

I think it might be just as useful for you to read about all the different concepts of the afterlife throughout history to see how plain it is that no living person knows what happens, good or bad. That means no one has the authority to threaten you with, or warn you about, any kind of hell – unless you hear it directly from the other side somehow. Listen out if you like, but don’t get your hopes up.

Possible technical issue, content returns shortly…

Question from Patti:
I wondered how to cite your website? Hyperlinks don’t take me to your site! ­čÖü

Answer by SmartLX:
That’s the first I’ve heard of it. Some hyperlinks do work, I’m notified when people use them to come here. See Ask The AtheistS for an example: in my response there’s a hyperlink in the words “other site”.

If that one doesn’t work for you, you might have some kind of domain restriction at your end. If it does work, comment and point me to a link that isn’t working so I can help find out what’s up. Thanks very much.

Hollywood Hokum

Question from Jakob:
Hello, I am back with more questions and stuff particularly about the portrayal of the supernatural in the mainstream media, for example Hollywood ghost or demon movies like The Exorcist. Another thing that followed some of these are curses or strange phenomena surrounding them, like in the case of The Omen some of the cast during production died. and one guy supposedly crashed near a sign in the Netherlands that said Ommen 6,66. Upon further investigation that turned out to be an exaggerated claim although, he did crash in the area but not near the sign. also not surprisingly after movies like the exorcist came out more people reported demonic signs. it would seem that Hollywood would do everything in their power to make people believe this baloney. Nevertheless there is a large pseudo-acceptance of these things. Now recently some guy on The Thinking Atheist posted something about a sun miracle. i would appreciate it if you could help me debunk or explain these things.

Answer by SmartLX:
The supernatural is very, very common in Hollywood fiction. If it’s a movie where ghosts are real, or magic is taught in school, or demons are literally clawing to the surface from underground, then we accept it and view the rest of the movie in that context. IF ghosts were plainly real, we think to ourselves, how would these people behave? How would the world be different? Between our own imaginations and where the movie actually goes with the concept, we can arrive at a rough understanding of this hypothetical state of affairs, and ponder and discuss it for a long time afterwards. (For instance, at some point nearly everyone reading this has probably talked through the physics and practicality of a lightsaber while not watching a Star Wars movie.)

It’s a fun mental exercise to imagine alternative realities and contrast them with ours, and fiction helps us do this by inspiring concepts of alternative realities. If people believe these supernatural phenomena are real simply because they’ve seen them in a movie, then we consider them to have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction, and generally encourage them to get it straight or get help. Stories surrounding movies, like the idea of The Omen being cursed, do tend to be exaggerated as you say, and skeptics have made a meal of that one in particular. Here’s one discussion. Hollywood publicists do nothing to stifle or correct the stories because they’re happy with anything that gets people talking about a movie, which means more ticket sales.

As for the “sun miracle” at F├ítima, I did a piece on that one a short time ago at your request, so I hope you got to read it.

Church and Community, City and Country

Question from Ghevi:
Hi, I’m 20 years old from a small town of Italy, so maybe the arguments that I will write here will be a little nonsense for someone that lives in a big city or in another country.
I don’t wanna argue by a “logical” position on God etc., as i think that is pretty obvious how religions were “made” by men reflecting values of a certain region. I don’t wanna say that religion wasn’t necessary either, for the development of art, geometry, architecture etc (I’m not educated on this, is just a “guess” based on what I learned in school).

So my question is about the future in an atheist reality, as I think new generations are rejecting religion. The fact is that celebrations like funerals, weddings etc. bring people together that normally are just on their own, my parents for example go to funerals of someone of my town even if they were not very connected, but as respect and for staying near the family that lost the person. Even on Sunday, going to church celebration is a way to see people you never see during the week. I have to admit the town feels very “alive” on Sunday, people then go to the bars, and it’s kinda nice.

So as you can see, I don’t argue about god, I think the celebration itself and what you say, repeat, read is just something very far away and disconnected from today’s problems (well, gospel celebration instead is funny I guess). I’m not saying that it could be a bad thing either, if we remove religion from society and create a “hole” we will replace it with something else to connect more as a “community”, but maybe for those who live in cities this is just nonsense and it’s not needed. Sorry for the messy question, I just wanna know your thoughts on this point of view.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m a lifelong city boy but I do see what you’re getting at, mainly because I think having some kind of community is terribly important for most human beings. In a small town you’re more likely to be surrounded by more of the same people each day or each week, whatever you do with yourself. A community builds up around whatever it is you all do together, and if you’re churchgoers then religion becomes a big part of the weekly rituals. It’s a practice tailor-made for building a routine because it demands weekly action, and practically takes attendance as if it’s a classroom. If you miss church, someone notices.

If church went away, there would be nothing else with an arbitrarily fixed schedule that everyone could participate in, except perhaps for a regular sporting event. That’s the main thing that strikes me about this issue: religion’s efforts to be ubiquitous are not matched by anything in the secular world, so a community without religion (or pseudo-religious worship of the state, a sport, some charismatic figure, etc.) has to bond over more things and smaller things. It’s worth the effort in my opinion, because if you can get the community of a church congregation without the church that’s win-win.

In a big city, generally speaking, though your life intersects with more people the group you interact with regularly (by choice) tends to be smaller. Church can be a part of this more intimate, insular community, but it’s easier for some other pursuit to be the central excuse to get together. If you all drink beer and play video games once a week, that might mean you see each other more than you see anyone else socially. Maybe that’s all you’ll need, or all you can manage with the free time you have.

O Fátima

Question from Jakob:
I have a question about the supposed Sun miracle at F├ítima. 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 F├ítima, 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.