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.

Hey, That’s Our Holiday!

Question from Marilyn:
Why do Atheists celebrate Christian holidays?

Answer by SmartLX:
By and large, we don’t. Take a look at this list: atheists don’t celebrate Lent, Pentecost, The Assumption of Mary, Christ the King, All Souls’ Day, All Saints’ Day or over 20 others. And that’s without considering the individual saints’ days that occupy literally every day on the calendar.

You are of course referring to Christmas, Halloween (All Hallows Eve) and possibly Easter. There are two main responses to this.

1. In most Western countries, Christmas and Easter have state-designated vacation periods including at least one public holiday each, often several. These are holdovers from attempts by governments to emphasise their religiosity in eras gone by. Atheists in these countries get these holidays too, whether they value the reasons behind them or not, so they usually just enjoy them as time off work.

2. Atheists do often actively celebrate Christmas and Halloween, and in some cases Easter. This is because these holidays have developed cherished traditions that have almost nothing to do with their religious origins: the gift-giving, the novelty costumes, the chocolate eggs and so on. To support these traditions an encyclopedia of secular mythology has sprung up around each, not believed at all by anyone over a certain age but still enjoyed as a shared seasonal game. Santa brings the presents in December, the Easter Bunny brings the eggs in March/April, and all manner of monsters break loose in October. That’s all fun no matter what you believe.

I do hope that no one reading this thinks the honest answer to Marilyn’s question is, “because atheists secretly believe in Christianity”, but I know for a fact that many do think so. Some people just won’t live with the thought that there are others who disagree with them about an important thing.

Psychology 20 Questionnaire

Question from :
I’m currently taking Psychology 20 in school and would like to ask you a few questions about atheism for a project on spirituality if you have the time. The questions are:

1. How does your faith or understanding of the world shape your worldview?
2. How do you justify your actions (good and bad) for your belief system?
3.What gives you meaning and purpose?
4.What are ways you express yourself and why?
5. How do you view the idea of the soul and/or the afterlife?

Hoping for a quick response and thank you for taking the time to answer.

Answer by SmartLX:
Not my quickest response ever, but not bad. Here we go.

1. My view of the world is that it’s shaped and influenced by natural forces, which are powerful but undirected and certainly not worth pleading with. I’m acutely aware that many do not feel this way, so I see what appears to be a great deal of effort wasted because it’s spent trying to please gods that I don’t think are there.

2. I care for myself, and as a social animal I care for the people around me. My awareness of the world beyond my immediate surroundings extends that expression of care to all the people of the world, generally speaking. I justify my actions in terms of the benefit and harm they do to myself and other people, not necessarily in that order, with a view to maximising benefit and minimising harm. The exact meanings of those two quantities I often re-evaluate based on the situation, so that I’m not thinking in a way that doesn’t apply to the circumstances at hand.

3. I choose what my purposes are. From personal achievements to the welfare of selected others (that is, not all purposes are selfish), I devote myself to realising those things I want to bring to fruition. This gives my life meaning to me, and to many others, though not to everyone. This is enough, because whether my life matters to all strangers is not something I worry about.

4. I speak, I write, I sing, I draw, I work, I dance, I play, I struggle, I love. I do these things because I can.

5. The soul does not appear to exist, because identity and consciousness are products of the brain and are damaged or destroyed when the brain is. After the death of the brain there is nothing left of a person to experience any kind of afterlife.

More Than a Feeling? Not Even a Feeling

Question from Dylan:
As an Atheist, do you have that feeling/thought deep down that tells you there has to be a God? I was an Atheist for my whole life and fought with the idea of god, even though I felt it was right. I couldn’t bring myself to believe because I didn’t have cold hard evidence right in front of me and obviously didn’t want to waste my life on something that may be false. Long story short I found faith during some hard times, I accepted Jesus and have never felt the same.

I just wanted to say that if you do have that feeling deep down that God is real, give it a chance. From one human to another, faith has changed my life entirely and after stumbling upon your site I felt compelled to share this with you. Sorry if you’ve already completely made up your mind, I just thought I’d give it a shot. Just keep in mind that sometimes the heart knows best.

Enjoy your Sunday and take care mate.

Answer by SmartLX:
I didn’t have that feeling even when I was a Christian. I just accepted what I was told and assumed God was real right up until I realised that some people didn’t believe, and some of the theology (though I hadn’t learned the term) didn’t really make sense to me. This led to a minor crisis of faith at age 11 and I just stopped thinking about it all. A couple of times I reassured myself that certain coincidences were God at work, but they were just so trivial and the argument felt hollow, so I dropped it again. Finally I took stock as an adult and realised my belief had faded entirely, and the world made more sense without a god than with. My heart did not object, and I felt no disappointment. Rather, I felt freed.

Faith does change lives, I wouldn’t dispute that. It even changes some lives for the better overall, though of course it has its drawbacks from a secular perspective. But it’s not the only thing that can effect that sort of positive change, and the change does not depend on the god actually being real because it may simply be all you, with a new attitude. But it’s all good, do what you’re compelled to do.

Help With Your Homework

Question from Sheena:
Hello, I’m currently studying Year 10. I would like to ask you a few questions with my Religion major assignment. If it’s okay.

Here are the questions:
1. What is your name?
2. What is the reason you became an Atheist?

Hoping for your immediate response.

Answer by SmartLX:
Sure it’s okay Sheena, but wow, that’s all they told you to ask? But then I suppose “why” is the only question that’s really on one’s mind when faced with a person whose position is so different from one’s own.

1. My name’s Alex, and you can give them any surname you want and they’ll accept it. Alex is a very common given name. Or be honest and say you asked a public blogger, this site will prove you right and they’ll understand my unwillingness to throw my whole name around.

2. I was a self-professed Christian until about the age of 11-12, when I was suddenly shocked by the fact that I didn’t have an answer to the Problem of Evil: why evil exists in the world if there’s a God who’s all-powerful, all-knowing and absolutely good. (Years later I didn’t just find one answer but far too many different ones; it became clear that no one really knows. But that was after the fact.) It was too hard to think about and I had teen things to focus on, and I moved from a Catholic primary school to a secular high school, so I didn’t consider religion seriously for almost 15 years. Without the constant reinforcement from within and without I barely prayed, I only went to church for Easter and Christmas and zoned out both times, and I only read the Bible when tracking down quotes (like the speech from Pulp Fiction).

Then in 2006 I read about Richard Dawkins and New Atheism, when journalists were all writing their first articles on the subject. Without reading any of Dawkins’ work or knowing any of his contemporaries’ talking points, I suddenly asked myself whether I still believed in God. It turned out that I didn’t, my simple opinion was that His existence no longer seemed likely. I was by definition an atheist. You should note that this is when I realised I was an atheist – the point when I became one could have been any time in the preceding years.

I recognised that this was a pretty big turnaround, so THEN I started digging into the meat of the debate to see if I was missing something. I searched the Web for the best arguments in favour of God, or any other god. Every one of them was plainly flawed (as I’ve chronicled in my Great Big Arguments series). There were certainly plenty of people willing to defend the arguments, but their defenses just weren’t convincing. I hadn’t known of this general weakness in the “apologetic” as a Christian boy, but it didn’t matter because I didn’t even know the arguments, I had merely accepted what I was told. I’d only known atheists existed because my father is one, and he only ever told me on two occasions.

So there you have it. I’m an atheist because I took a break from religion long enough to lose my emotional connections to it, and when I returned to the subject it was easier to see that faith was not intellectually justified. If the right justification finally came along it would be a different story, but I’m still waiting. In the meantime I live my life as if there is no god, and from that perspective much to do with religion appears pretty rotten.

An Early Ticket To The Afterlife

Question from Douglas:
Do people who commit suicide go to heaven? Just watched the movie “The Discovery” on Netflix.

Answer by SmartLX:
Obviously The Discovery is a science fiction story, not a documentary, but like all good sci-fi it’s intended to provoke people to think about the real world and where we’re headed. Besides, (MILD SPOILERS) where they go in the movie isn’t exactly heaven so it doesn’t inform this question much.

I don’t think people who commit suicide go to heaven, because I don’t think there’s an afterlife, let alone a heaven, for anyone to go to. The identity is destroyed with the shutdown of the brain and it no longer exists to go anywhere.

Regardless, I’m against people committing suicide in most cases because of its straightforward consequences in this world: your own life ends with no possible chance of improving your circumstances or anyone else’s, and lasting anguish can be inflicted on those you leave behind.

I say “most cases” because I’m also in favour of voluntary euthanasia or assisted/accompanied suicide, when a person has reached a measured conclusion that continuing to live is too painful to justify any potential benefits. Organisations like Dignitas do a good job of making the decision and the action carefully considered, rational, compassionate processes with a minimum of drama.

I’m aware of course that religious approaches to this question are very different. If taking life is a sin, then suicide gives one no time to absolve or atone for the sin of taking one’s own life, so the shortcut to heaven is barred. This has a practical religious purpose in both the religious and secular view. For the religious, suicide prevents one from serving the mysterious purpose one’s deity has for one. For anyone on the outside looking in, it’s a simple way of preventing belief in an ideal afterlife from sending a religion’s followers to an early grave and depopulating the religion.

The exception which gives a religious rationale for suicide is sacrifice. If you get something important done by putting yourself in harm’s way, this might very well be your holy purpose, whether to be a martyr who gathers support or to take a lot of unbelievers with you. So really, there are religious reasons both to die and not to die and you can twist it any way you want, which is dangerous.

What About Judaism?

Question from :
Shalom all, I see that you focus on many religions, but haven’t seen anything on Judaism. I wonder what your opinion might be on it, and, if to someone, if the be Torah divine. To me it is, but I’d like to hear any arguments against it, not that I may refute or debate it, but just to “see” what the other side has to offer.

Answer by SmartLX:
There are indeed only a few articles that involve Judaism, simply because not many people writing in identify as Jewish or ask about specifically Jewish topics.

Very little of my perspective on Judaism is unique to Judaism. It’s a theistic religion, reliant on claims of the existence of an interventionist creator god which I don’t think are justified. Nearly all of the Great Big Arguments for gods that I’ve covered can be used to argue for your god just as well as any other, and they have no additional merit when applied to yours.

My perspective on the Torah, as an ex-Christian, is that it’s a subset of the books in the Bible and specifically the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Many of the discussions I’ve had on the divinity and inerrancy of the Bible can be applied to these five books. To approach them from scratch, I don’t think they’re divine because I don’t think there’s a real god to bestow divinity on anything. To argue in the other direction for the existence of the god based on certain discernible qualities of the books is to argue that such qualities are impossible without the influence of a god, which I don’t think is the case.

If you’re looking for specific challenges to the material in the Torah, I’ve occasionally touched on Exodus, and all the stuff on evolution and cosmology has some bearing on Genesis.

A Target of Fundamentalism

Question from Anonymous:
I’m an agnostic-atheist, my mother is insanely Christian. When I came out to her, she became enraged, shunned me and damned me to hell. I told her “Well, Mom, this is your opinion and this is my opinion, I’m still going to have morality.”
I was forced to go to church, I was forced to not read Richard Dawkins and she denied that I read up anything on science or discovery.
They performed exorcisms on me. I get very bad claustrophobia and all of these religious people came up on me, surrounded me and it caused a panic-attack.
My mother kept hitting me (literally) in the face with the Bible, kept hitting me with other things, in front of the church, and they cheered and yelled “Amen! Yes Lord! Get the heathen saved!” I have bruises and I’m severely depressed.
I began to get tired of her hitting me with the Bible to I took it out of her hands, ripped it and through it out of the window. Guess what happened next? They called me the immoral blasphemous one for taking a book and throwing it out the window. Apparently beating is completely moral, but oh, throwing the holy book and not physically harming anyone is absolutely horrendous.
I understand that believing in a deity is a comforting feeling, especially when one lost a loved one, in a vulnerable situation and so on.
I don’t fight people if they believe for those reasons, because I’m an understanding person.
I just think “a religion” is just “an opinion without facts”. It’s unprovable because we cannot scientifically test for a God or deity.
I respect religion, it must be a comforting feeling to believe in a God or deity, and that your passed loved ones are in a place where you’ll see them again.
But, why is it that religion divides people? Why does it turn regular people into a herd of malevolent brainwashed zombies and cause families to be ruined?
A lady who is close to my mother says that her daughter converted to Judaism in order to marry her Jewish fiancé. This lady tells her daughter “You cannot marry a Jewish man because he only resides on the Old Testament, and his people murdered Jesus.” You can see why the daughter hasn’t spoken to the mother in quite a long time. Now her daughter is happily married and the lady is still witnessing and talking bad about the Jews and so on.
Guess what? Another one of mother’s close friend’s son came out as gay. They did the same to him as they did me. They beat him, exorcised him and so on. Now, he’s a happily married man to his husband and they adopted three children, he hasn’t talked to his parents in five years.
My question is, is after so much division, why can’t these mothers realize? Including my mom? Why can’t they self-judge? Why are they like this? Is this a mental condition of theirs? This happens all of the time in her church! Some Liberal-minded kids who do their own research break away from these chains. Either from the religion, or just that particular church (and go to a more liberal church, which I completely respect). So why can’t fundamentalists look at themselves? Why can’t they say “Oh my cult-like way of worshipping a deity is causing my kids to run away, maybe I should re-evaluate what I’m doing.” Why do they not do that?

Answer by SmartLX:
First of all, if you have been physically and psychologically abused by your mother and her congregation and your story can be believed, you do have legal recourse to make it stop, although it may unfortunately be a difficult path itself. Get some alone time with a phone and have some exploratory chats with the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-422-4453) and the The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). Worst case, they give you nothing and you hang up. (Now that I’ve said that, I am very sorry it took me a week to respond to you.)

Anyway, there are several factors at work here. The simplest factor to understand is the doctrines these people take as literal gospel. God is real, Heaven and Hell are real, the only way to reach Heaven and avoid Hell is to accept God through Jesus. If you’re not accepting Jesus you are headed for Hell and eternal torment, and Satan is working through you. No amount of earthly suffering can match eternity in Hell, so any amount of suffering inflicted upon you in order to free you from the demonic influence is worthwhile and will be more than balanced out by eternity in Heaven.

The next factor is hinted at by a word you used, “herd”. It’s all about peer pressure. According to the group, whether stated explicitly or not, if you don’t accept Jesus your mother is suffering an ongoing failure as a parent and as a Christian. As long as she is your guardian, she is bound to do everything she can to “save you”, and the received wisdom is that various kinds of abuse can work towards this end. Once victims of this effort leave home and start their independent lives, as those you mention have done, the parents are entitled to wash their hands of them in the Biblical (Pontius Pilate) sense and shrug off all responsibility, so it’s rare that they will pursue the matter.

Finally there’s the sunk-cost, cognitive-dissonance, look-themselves-in-the-face factor. As soon as your mother began to preach to you years ago she established a firmly defined position, and if she compromised it in any way she might have seemed like a liar, a hypocrite or a fool. At this point after all the effort and abuse, If your mother were to accept that everything she put you through was wrong, then she put you through it all for nothing and she might see herself as a monster. She might already fear that this is true on some level. Her easiest path mentally is to maintain the belief, at any cost to her or to you, that it’s all true and she had to beat and terrify her child. The longer it goes on, the more important to maintain that justification, because her alternate self-image in the event that it all collapses gets more twisted and cruel, like the picture of Dorian Gray. (If this ever does happen it will essentially be an identity crisis, and she will need your help and forgiveness very badly.)

To summarise, fundamentalists often do not look at themselves in a realistic light because they must not. It’s against the laws they live by, their communities would abandon or turn on them, and they would be immersed in a whole new kind of guilt. It’s easy to judge them from the outside, and I’m not saying don’t, but do consider the precarious position they’re in, socially and psychologically. In your case, consider all this after you’ve done what’s necessary to protect yourself. Good luck, keep us posted in the comments if you like.