On Purpose, After the Fact (my bad)

Question from Yui:
Hello, this topic I searched but seem to find no direct answer.

What is the purpose/meaning of life for a person who the supreme law is reason? How can we rationally explain life as a human species? If we can, what is our objective purpose as a whole?

Answer by SmartLX:
I just covered purpose yesterday here, but you did write this two days ago. Do check the previous answer, but here I’ll apply my perspective to the specifics of your wording.

To someone who values reason and doesn’t think an intelligent supreme being handed out any laws governing human behaviour, a human being is a product of what has happened before rather than a means to any predetermined end. Without a prescribed purpose one is free to choose one’s own, and that can vary greatly depending on the person but many come out roughly the same based on our shared human desires and empathy for other humans. That about covers it. If you don’t like that a prime universal goal like “please your god” is not replaced with something similarly monolithic, consider that your preferences for the nature of reality do not affect reality itself beyond your own actions.

The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled

Question from Jared:
First of all I want to apologize if this has been asked before. Unless it’s just my browser, there doesn’t seem to be a search function at the top right of the page as mentioned. (I didn’t see a “devil” or “Satan” tag so I guess it might not have been asked.)

Someone I know has an argument that goes as follows (more or less): “The devil’s ultimate goal is to get people to believe that he and God don’t exist and if you are an atheist, you’re playing into his trap”. How can you rationally respond to that?

Answer by SmartLX:
This is not an argument for God, it is an assertion. Specifically it’s an attempted rationalisation of the very existence of atheism in a universe with an all-powerful god who wants everyone to believe in it and is nevertheless failing to achieve this. The rational response to it is to call it out as an assertion and ask for evidence, not only of the existence of God and the devil but of the devil’s specific intentions. How does your acquaintance know any of this?

The alternative, which you might or might not bring up, is that the ultimate goal of churches is to get people to believe that God and the devil do exist, because new believers bring publicity, money and social and political clout, and if you’re a Christian you’re playing into their trap.

This had not been asked before, but there’s at least some material on Satan here, this piece for example. The search function should appear as a grey magnifying glass in the top right hand corner. If you see it, give it a click. The tags in the tag cloud are not the only ones in use, just the most common ones. If all else fails, Google “ask the atheist” in quotes, and outside the quotes put in your keywords. That’s what I do to find my own stuff sometimes.

On Purpose

Question from Niki:
Hi there again, I have been reading the abiogenesis part of the site and there came into my attention the question of MEANING OF LIFE, ITS PURPOSE, without god.

I am aware of the fact that the religious folks think that if this is all there is, material life and then death once and for all, for good, then there is no meaning of life. I knew you would disagree and so do I.

I have been thinking about this, for a long time, after I had read a book titled PLEASURE, I don’t remember the name of the author that says we are tubes that get born, eat and die, so why then live, and the author says because there is pleasure in life, with which I agree, as the meaning of life and apart from our instinct that keeps us not want to die, thou life can be unbearable for some, I came to my understanding of meaning of life without god and having only this one life, agreeing with the author.

I would compare our life once and for all, with an excursion you have won at lottery or any other way, to which you will go once and that’s it. Never again. So our life would be an excursion from nothingness to life and death would be the return from this pleasant excursion back to ordinary not so nice life or not at all.

So in my view our life is coming from nothing, living, and then going back to nothing, but i have no problem of ‘lack’ of meaning of life, not more than i would have in going to the nice excursion once in my lifetime.

So, according to the thinking of the religious folks that there is no purpose and meaning in life, if it is all there is, once for good and then death, then no one would go to this once in a life time dream excursion, because it will be only once and then never again. And you know it in advance.

Yet you go on such trips once in a lifetime because they are NICE.

And so is life. NICE.

But, what about life which is not nice?

Well, in that case there is HOPE that one day life will be nice. if even that proves wrong and unlikely, due to the insurmountable obstacles, as is ill health or invalidity of one’s body, or other, even worse circumstances of one’s life, then there is the INSTINCT OF SURVIVAL, that had evolved in all living beings over millions of years of existence.

If however one is so unhappy, suicide is not so uncommon and i don’t think it happens in only psychologically ill people. It happens when life is unbearable for whatever reason…

I have a comparison for that one too, the instinct of survival. it is actually the physical ‘want’ of a UNION to stay so. So, what is it that keeps it whole, what keeps all the cells or our organisms together. I am not talking about the ‘glue’ that there is in between of our cells, but about the psychological so to say glue, so, my answer may sound and it probably is, naive.

Something like the COHESION force. because death, with its consequence of the union of cells that once was a body of a living organism, being that now that there is no more of metabolism keeping it going and striving to STAY TOGETHER AND ALIVE, SOMETHING WE CALL SURVIVAL, the forces of ADHESION come about, helped by other organisms that dissolve the body by eating it or otherwise, but if there are no bacteria nor worms there, the body will dissolve anyway, but in much longer time, so, after a time the ex-union of cells that was once our body, is reduced to a heap of minerals in the casket, sometimes not even that, because the worms and germs have eaten us almost all, together with our organic matter and minerals. Only bones will remain because no living organism eats raw calcium that are our bones.

What do you think of this as the answer to the question of

MEANING AND PURPOSE OF LIFE FOR ATHEISTS?

If you have answered this in another discussion, please refer me to it. I tried to find an article titled meaning or purpose of life, but there is nothing. You don’t have a list of articles in alphabetic order here, nor grouped otherwise, I suppose you thought about it but found it inconvenient or time consuming and/or expensive, because you would need a programmer, or maybe not, I am not sure what they do.

Thanks !!!

Answer by SmartLX:
We talk about meaning and purpose in life all the time here. Just put the word ‘purpose’ into the top right search field and you’ll get seven pages of headings, like this.

The basic answer has two parts. Firstly, religious people don’t know the purpose of their lives either, even if they think there is one. Gods are not keen on sharing their plans, and believers may accept literally anything that happens as part of the plan. The second part is that atheists choose their own purpose in life, since they don’t expect there to be a divinely conferred purpose, known or unknown. If life loses all purpose and joy, suicide may occur, but this is true of everyone. Religiosity is negatively correlated with suicide rate in general, but this may be simply because major religions threaten eternal punishment for suicide, rather than giving additional hope to life.

The survival instinct is mostly mental, but elements of it are built into our entire nervous system as reflex actions. Your hand will snatch itself away from a hot stove before the sensation of heat or pain gets from your fingers to your brain. It’s easy to explain from an evolutionary perspective: a greater will to survive results in a greater survival rate in general, and is therefore passed down to more offspring. A species of animal uninterested in surviving or procreating wouldn’t last long, in any era.

Grandma Sees Dead People

Question from Deco:
Ok, so I don’t know if this is really an “ability”, but my grandmother prides herself on having this sort of ESP where she can apparently detect the death of a person while it is taking place. I was skeptical of it, and I asked her a bit about it. She told me that at least 50 times in her life, she has had this sensation or feeling when someone dies. It has come to her in the form of dreams where she will have a dream about a person and being with them in heaven or some form of afterlife, and then she will wake up, and find out at the time of her dream that the person really did die. She has also had what I assume are hypnogogic hallucinations where she will see a person’s face in what she assumes is in the form of a ghost, and then see the devil’s face, and then later find out the person died. One of the weirdest examples is the time that her cousin died. She had a dream of him coming to her and saying that he had drowned. The next day, she found out that he did in fact drown. She has had these dreams with religious imagery, e.g. sometimes she claims Jesus tells her these messages, sometimes it’s family, seeing devils, angels, etc.

I guess my question is, put aside the fact that these claims sound too good to be true, let’s say if she could prove it, would that constitute proof of souls of the passed on communicating with her? Or, could there be another explanation for it that doesn’t require a supernatural component? Perhaps our brains have a method of picking this stuff up that we are not aware of, and her brain interprets the info in a certain way which causes her to dream with a religious background? Or could it be a combination of an active mind, (constantly thinking of people close to her and worrying about them) so sometimes when she has these sensations they are true? Maybe with this she counts the hits, ignores the misses?

Being an Orthodox Christian, I would like nothing more than for this to be true, but I am asking for an atheist perspective here, which is why I am posting it to an atheist community. I have asked many Orthodox Christians and received their opinions, now I want yours. My grandfather says that he has also seen my grandmother get these hits a lot, and he is very surprised by it, but he himself says he doesn’t think it points to the supernatural, even though he admits he cannot explain it. I guess I’m just curious. I don’t want you guys to just dismiss it as “lying” or “fake”, I mean, you can think it is a lie or fake, but I am asking kind of for fun, let’s just assume for a second that this ability were as true as I am claiming, what would you say? Would you then suddenly believe in afterlife and a spiritual realm, or would you still say “I don’t know, but I can’t conclude it is really anything supernatural”?

Answer by SmartLX:
My first question would be, on any of these 50+ occasions, did your grandmother tell anyone else (e.g. your grandfather) that she’d had one of these experiences before checking to confirm? Ideally, did she name the person or give a description before receiving any information from the outside world? (Someone’s always dying somewhere.) This is what would show that she wasn’t just claiming these after the fact.

That’s the all-important skepticism out of the way, and you’ve done a good job of this too by bringing up two possible sources of confirmation bias. So, let’s play with your enormous “if”. If she really were being informed through visions alone of the deaths of particular people, I’d be satisfied that something supernatural was going on, because visions can’t do that via natural means except by pure coincidence. They don’t convey information from outside the person’s senses, they can only work with what the senses are receiving and whatever the brain conjures up for itself, from memory and imagination.

The question would be by what specific supernatural means she was getting it (assuming someone wasn’t in her bedroom subconsciously feeding her the info). Interaction with the souls of the dying/dead would be one possibility, but not the only one. Someone living could be using conscious or unconscious telepathy to send her images of the newly dead. She could be psychic herself, and able to see the faces of those about to die, slightly before or after the time of death, but without help from their souls.

One specific point against the soul hypothesis is that the visions apparently aren’t consistent in their depiction of the afterlife. They could all be different aspects of the same afterlife system, or they could just be contradictory flights of fancy accompanying the real information regarding the identity or appearance of the deceased.

You’ve realised for yourself the difficulty a religious person would face when discussing even a confirmed supernatural effect: actually claiming credit for it on behalf of the “right” supernatural entities from your model of the spiritual world, as opposed to the countless others people believe in, plus the ones no one has thought of yet. Atheists would be challenged if something like this were proved beyond doubt, but in most cases the first thing to go would not be their atheism but rather their materialism. But then, there are already plenty of non-materialist atheists who do believe in ghosts, souls, psychics and so on, because they have a spiritual model in mind that does not include any gods. I’m not one of them, but they’ve written in before.

Sometimes a Question Reads as One Long Snarl

Question from “Progress. Forward.”:
Are you a communist? Atheism is an indirect, cowardly assault on the Constitution. Your overlords think they can eliminate God-given Rights by destroying God with a pathetic religion for low testosterone, limp wrist pussies.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m not a communist. Communism dictates atheism because it declares religion “the opiate of the masses,” a drug to keep them from feeling the pain of their oppression and overcoming it. It’s a means to an end and theology doesn’t enter into it. (And once communism gets going, it usually functions as a pseudo-religion itself.) I’m an atheist simply because I don’t believe in gods. I run a site about it rather than keeping it to myself because I think people would be better off without their faith in gods, on balance.

I’m not an American either (I assume you are), so I have very little stake in your Constitution. I do know God is not mentioned in it, nor in the Bill of Rights – only in the Declaration of Independence. Your rights as an American citizen are not dependent on the existence of a god, even though most of the founding fathers apparently believed in one. They wrote those rights into secular law, and thus human beings endowed each other with enforceable rights regardless of what they believe.

Atheism is not a religion. It is instead a rejection of the position of belief in any god. No commandments spring from this rejection, nor an origin story for the world. Atheists must look outside of religion for their guidance and core values, and fortunately secular philosophy is a rich field.

As for the “low testosterone” part, I probably prove this in your mind just by not attacking you in kind. It seems an insult for its own sake, being entirely divorced from the subject matter. I hope it made you feel better.

From Morality to Politics in 17 Words

Question from Ted:
Why do atheists have now morals and why do they vote for a crooks like Hillery Clintons ?

Answer by SmartLX:
I normally apply some proofreading to questions, but the density of mistakes in such a short question was so remarkable that I’ve preserved it as-is.

Atheists have morals, they just don’t get them from the Bible. Actually, some of them do, because many moral statements in the Bible are perfectly sensible even if the God taking credit for them isn’t real. Besides that there are all kinds of philosophical bases for a system of ethics, and people not tied to a particular scripture are free to use any or all of them.

According to the Pew Research Center the religiously unaffiliated (which includes but is not limited to atheists) voted for Clinton over Trump 68 to 28. That said, the Hispanic Catholic vote was within one percentage point of that, Jews voted even more strongly for Clinton and the other faiths combined went very much the same way. Trump appears to have appealed to white Christians and almost no one else. It’s hard to convince people who don’t believe in the Christian God that Trump is His chosen candidate, and even if you do believe but you’re in a minority it’s hard to accept that God would choose such a flagrant enabler of bigotry.

Why Atheists Don’t Worship Jesus, Because Apparently Some People Want to Know

Question from Son of David:
Hello, why don’t you have a personal relationship with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? The Son of God. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. – John 3:16

Answer by SmartLX:
Because I’m an atheist.

All right, let’s try that again with a bit more detail. Because…

I don’t believe that Jesus is in any sense alive or capable of having a personal relationship with anyone at this point. I don’t believe a god exists, you see. Following on from that, If Jesus lived then he lived right around two thousand years ago, and I don’t believe he was the son of a nonexistent god. When he died, I don’t believe he was resurrected or that he had a soul, so based on that nothing remains of him now but some as-yet-undiscovered/unidentified human remains, plus a very popular tale. To have a one-sided relationship with half a skull and a story does not strike me as beneficial for either party, me or Jesus.

Your question combined with the core Biblical claim is of the form, “Why have you not reacted to this situation in the obviously necessary way?” It’s simply because I don’t think the situation is as you claim. I do not accept the supernatural claims of the Bible, so Bible-based assertions mean nothing to me. So what do you do when they don’t work on people, I wonder?

Atheism Before Darwin

Question from Amanda:
Where did atheists believe humans came from before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution existed?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some information on this here. There were theories of what would come to be called evolution long before Darwin, though none that fit the evidence nearly so well. Among some biologists there were inklings of the basic concept of common descent, for instance the idea that humans and apes were related, but without the strength of Darwinian theory this opinion was highly controversial and one risked one’s reputation by airing it.

So for the lay atheist minority worldwide, our best answer to your question was that they just didn’t know. Since they didn’t think a god existed, let alone created humanity, they reasoned that there must have been a natural mechanism to allow modern life forms to develop some time after the birth of the planet. With what they knew then, they were unable to take it any further.

This basically meant that evolution in that period was in the same position abiogenesis (the initial emergence of simple life from non-life) is in now. No mechanism was clear despite various conjectures, but if a god didn’t seem likely to you then this inspired confidence that a mechanism existed and might eventually be found. Darwin came through for his field, but we’re still waiting for “the Darwin of abiogenesis”. While we wait (and while some of us work at it), we have to content ourselves with not knowing, because to demand an answer when information is lacking is to open ourselves to a wrong answer.

Worldview Analysis: An Analysis

Question from Jerry:
I was recently debating a good friend of mine and asked him to justify Christianity or show evidence that it is the one one true religion. He claims that it is the only religion that demonstrates itself to be the best possible logical and rational choice based on worldview analysis. Worldview analysis is a tool to sift through the basics of each and all religions without having to take years of comparative religion courses or study to separate the religion which has the best chance of being true, based on the evidence. I’m researching a rebuttal to his strong argument by reading up on Naturalism, Structuralism and the ideas of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, as I believe my friends’ attempt to compare Poetic (Metaphorical) Truth with Physical or Natural Truth to be flawed. I was wondering how many different approaches there are to counter his position?

Answer by SmartLX:
Worldview analysis is a tool for evaluating a community’s values, priorities and outlook, developed by a scientist who’s a Christian but appears to use this tool for secular purposes. The version that’s applied to try and rank religions is either unrelated or a major bastardisation. Here’s an example where you answer a bunch of questions from the perspective of a given religion’s doctrine, and compare the answers to your own values.

If your friend is throwing around terms like “poetic truth” as a serious rival to empirical fact (likely “physical/natural truth” in his terminology), the criteria on which he rates different worldviews are going to be worthless to many. He also recognises that religions need to commandeer and redirect the meaning of the word “truth” to have a decent chance of being established as “true” themselves.

I think the most important thing is for you to distinguish at any given time which of two questions is being asked: what worldview best reflects reality, or what worldview is best or nicest to have. I think your friend’s system will drive the discussion towards the latter whenever it can, because the latter legitimately does not require evidence. Christianity may be a beneficial worldview for one’s physical and mental wellbeing in a number of scenarios regardless of whether it’s true, the following two most obviously:

– If Christianity is the majority religion, and especially if non-Christians are looked down upon or actively persecuted. It sucks to be in any victimised minority.
– If the tenets of Christianity match your own values very closely, in other words if Christianity gets a very high score when you do the questionnaire above. To believe that the universe as a whole reflects your own outlook can be a big boost to the ego.

If your friend is arguing along these lines, he’s answering your question by attempting to justify Christianity as a lifestyle choice, not verify its supernatural claims. And even if his reasoning on this is rock-solid and you eventually realise it would be better for you to be Christian, it’s only going to get you so far. You could live as a Christian, worship, donate, evangelise and all the rest of it, but if nothing has actually convinced you that God is real and Jesus is his still-living son then you would be a false Christian. And hey, maybe he’s okay with that, but I don’t think I would be if I were a believer.

I See Demons!

Question from Alexia:
I would like to know if atheists ever have moments of fear over the idea that they could potentially be wrong, and that there is a nasty afterlife waiting for them? I, as an agnostic theist, do. I feel that if I were to stop believing (the idea has crossed my mind) that I may regret it.

I have had dreams before of seeing hell, and my grandfather had a Near Death Experience where he saw hell and was tortured by evil creatures. I have noticed that in many dreams, near death experiences, and so called revelations, people often report seeing demonic creatures in this so called hell. I would like to get the perspective of atheists. Why is it that if Christians are raised to expect Satan in hell that they never report seeing Satan in these visions, but they commonly report multiple strange beings or creatures attacking them and enjoying it? I read a book from the 1980s about Near Death Experiences by Raymond Moody, and even he says in his research that negative experiencers often report demonic creatures from interviews conducted early on in Near Death research.

What might be the reason for why many of these visions people have involve evil creatures, when the bible says nothing about that? People from the early 1900s have been giving consistent reports with people today in 2017. What would you say, percentage wise, are the odds that a literal hell exists, given the consistency of so many peoples’ “visions” and “revelations” of hell? Is there really going to be multiple reptile looking creatures who enjoy peoples’ misery and torture them forever, swearing at them, taunting them, or is there something else at play here?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists do get these moments of fear, but not usually forever. For those like myself who had faith and lost it, the fear of God’s wrath often outlives the belief even though it’s irrational to be afraid of something you no longer believe in. (It’s part of the phenomenon I call “faithdrawal”.) This is to be expected, since emotions can easily defy rationality. I personally avoided this completely by hardly thinking about religion at all for over a decade before realising I was an atheist; my emotional attachment to God and faith had faded away so it didn’t try to reassert itself.

In previous articles like this one I’ve answered the general argument based on the similarity between people’s visions of the afterlife, so read through the link and also just search the site for ‘nde’ to find more on the subject. Here I’ll address the particular question about Satan and lesser demons in Hell. Most Christians get most of their mental images of Hell not from the Bible but from other media, everything from Dante’s Inferno to Constantine to The Simpsons, and sadistic torturer demons have been a fixture in this material for centuries. While you can imagine individual demons looking and behaving any way you like without challenging your theology much, Satan is a major figure on whose appearance the subconscious might be uncomfortable taking a firm position. Thus Satan conveniently does not put in an appearance for people who are just passing through.

And then there are the Christians who do report seeing Satan, which doesn’t really help any argument based on this not happening.