Molecules Say The Darnedest Things

Question from ‘name’:
My question is, really, why would an atheist care to talk or explain his ‘atheism’, if we are just molecules and will vanish one day?

Answer by SmartLX:
Because all matter is atoms and molecules. Molecules differ from atoms in that they are more complex, being made up of multiple atom types (elements) and thus able to act and interact in a potentially unlimited number of ways. To the point, enough molecules of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen (and traces of many other elements) can form a brain, an organic computer which can in principle do the following:
– Understand the general concept of a god.
– Make a judgement that it’s unlikely or impossible that such a thing exists.
– Make a further judgement that belief in a god is ultimately harmful, or at least that lack of belief is preferable, based primarily on empathy for other beings with brains.
– Formulate arguments against the concept and find ways to spread them.

Even if you think God created the brain, you have to admit it’s capable of doing all this. Which of course means God created atheists, which is something Christians must explain for themselves.

If Questions Came By Instant Messaging

Question from Rachael:
ok i guess i don’t understand how a person can be atheist i mean how can u go through the world knowing that ur going to hell even if u don’t want to believe it

Answer by SmartLX:
Sorry it took so long to get to these next four, but they were incorrectly submitted in the comments of the question submission page instead of using the form, and I’ve worked through the correct submissions first.

It’s quite simple Rachael. If you actually don’t believe in God, you usually don’t believe there’s a Heaven or a Hell either. Removing the existence of God from your worldview doesn’t just leave a Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole cut out of it. The whole afterlife mythology goes out the window (possibly after a long period of “faithdrawal”), and you’re left with one life to live as best you can. So you do that, often with a great deal less fear.

Hope Is A Plentiful Thing

Question from Jun:
This may be similar to a question already asked about dealing with adversity, but I feel it is sufficiently different to stand on its own: How does an atheist overcome thoughts of despair, of giving up, even suicide, when things look hopeless? Christians turn to passages in Scripture or to prayer. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you very much.

Answer by SmartLX:
That’s okay, I think Jake answered the last one about this so I haven’t had a go in a while.

Look at it this way: what does God provide that gives you hope and a reason to go on? Whatever the answer, atheists get it from somewhere else because since they don’t believe in God they don’t believe God is the only source of these things. That can be hard to comprehend for people who think God IS the only source, which is why this question crops up regularly, but without a central theist belief a lot of secondary theist assumptions which you might not even realise you make suddenly go out the window.

Purpose, for example, can come from almost anywhere because people choose their own purpose. Even those who believe in God admit they don’t know what God’s larger plan is or how they personally figure into it, so they make their own choices about how best to serve Him. Not thinking that one has a divine purpose isn’t much worse than not knowing what one’s supposed divine purpose is, and allows more freedom in the choice because it can go entirely outside the realm of religion. Many social and political activists choose what cause to support in direct opposition to the mainstream religious dictates of the day, some because they don’t think the deity is real and some because they think the deity actually disagrees with the religion. Whatever is most important to you in life can become your purpose if you throw yourself into it. And if it ceases to be fulfilling or worthwhile, you can spin on a dime and pursue something else.

To tackle the other major point, people looking for a reason not to commit suicide need not only a purpose but a reason to think there is good to be found in the world. The point is worth hammering that if God doesn’t exist, God isn’t the only source of good in the world because there IS good in the world regardless. However you define “good” it’s happening out there somewhere, you just need to look for it. There’s no denying that terrible things happen all the time, but even in the middle of tragedy some of the greatest deeds are found. The Reverend Fred (aka Mr) Rogers often said as his mother said to him that whenever something awful was happening one should look for the people helping.

Another thing atheists see differently is that they think this life is the only one we have. Therefore leaving it prematurely gives no chance of a better subsequent life. Happiness can only be found in this life, so the only way to achieve it is to stick it out.

Generation Gaps: Advice for an Atheist Granny

Question from Niki:
A very strong atheist granny here.

My son was an atheist before he got caught in the religious net of this backwards, in the backyard of Europe, society and his overly religious wife, or he pretends he has become religious.
He and his wife have two children and the wife is in charge of everything religious. Disgustingly so. He just lets her do whatever she wants to do, for the sake of his peace, or else…

My question is, what will I say when one day one of my grand children asks me why I do not go to church?
I was thinking of ‘I DO NOT LIKE IT IN THERE, TOO DARK,’ or something to this effect. But this can work only until the kids are small.
Have you got any other, better idea, something that will not cause the little one to report to his mum what granny says, but still something which would satisfy me more as an answer near to my the essence. Something like
‘THERE IS NO GOD, THAT’S WHY!!!’

Answer by SmartLX:
You assume, correctly I think, a strong chance that your daughter-in-law will not want your grandchildren exposed to the simple idea that there are people who do not believe in God. She would be right to fear this. It means the difference between never even thinking to question the idea of God and eventually realising that no one has the answers for sure. (I think it’s ultimately responsible for my own deconversion.) They will be exposed in the end of course, but the question is how strongly indoctrinated they will be by then.

Taking your scenario at face value, you could say something like, “I don’t think it’s necessary to go to church.” This is true, but they are free to assume that you mean you don’t think God takes church attendance as seriously as their mother and the church think He does. One variation could be, “I think I’ve gone to church enough already.”

Consider, though, that if the kids register that you’re not going to church it will probably happen at church, or in the car going to or from church, and you won’t be there. In this case they’ll probably ask their parents about you first. So if I were you I would go talk to your son about what he will, and what his wife might, say about you. You’re doing your best to protect the family from a rift, and that’s best handled as a family.

Whatever happens (and do let us know in a comment), good luck.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

Material for a Paper on Atheism

Question from Cherish:
Hi, I am doing a research paper on atheism and was wondering if I could ask you some questions so that I can get an atheist’s view on it.

1. First off I would like to ask you a little bit about yourself, age now and age you were when you first became an atheist.
2. What things do you support that a religion such as Christianity would not?
3. Do you have any sort of belief other than atheism?
4. And also, why is it that you find the big bang theory more believable than thinking someone of greater power created it?

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Cherish. The answers to most or all of these are probably available in my other writings, so feel free to search for some keywords, but I’m happy to recap it all. I’ve added numbers to your questions above for easy reference.

1. 36 now, 26-27 when I realised I was an atheist. It was probably a few years earlier that my belief faded and I actually became an atheist but I was too preoccupied with other things to notice. The media attention for “New Atheism” made me think about it again.

2. I support secularism in government and society, which some Christians do and others do not. I support legal marriage between any two consenting adults (this is still a battlefield here in Australia), which some Christians do and others do not. I support reproductive rights for women such as abortion and surrogacy, which again some Christians do and others do not. In all three cases, the reason why people do not support these things is almost invariably their religion and the “values” their religious upbringings have instilled.

3. I believe all sorts of things. I believe hard work pays off better with planning, I believe Colin Baker wasn’t as bad in Doctor Who in the 1980s as people make out, I believe I left a bag of toiletries in York on my way to Edinburgh. I don’t believe in anything supernatural though, so nothing like ghosts or ESP or astrology.

4. There’s evidence that the Big Bang happened, whatever caused it or whether or not it needed a cause. There’s no available substantive evidence for the kind of “greater power” that could deliberately trigger the birth of a universe, so to entertain the idea of this happening you basically have to make up this entity and ascribe arbitrary qualities to it, and to the universe. And there’s something I’ve tweeted before: whatever constraints you apply to the universe in order to necessitate God, you immediately have to break in order to allow God.

Cherish, I’d appreciate it very much if you could comment and tell us what kind of course or other academic pursuit this research paper is for. I like to know who’s doing this kind of work.