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.

Looking For That 100%

Question from Josie:
Hello this is a college student who is pretty much confused. I do have a fact in mind God doesn’t exist. But, the other part of me doesn’t. Is there any steps to pretty much make me fully sure he doesn’t exist. My mind 85% tells me he isn’t real but some odd reason my mind won’t agree with it. Any suggestion?

Answer by SmartLX:
No one said you had to be sure. I’m not. 85% confidence in God’s absence isn’t bad at all really.

You can’t prove a negative, as they say. To be 100% confident there’s no god you’d need the knowledge of a god yourself, to be aware of all the possible ways a god could influence the universe and know that they’re not happening. If you’re being realistic you have to accept some uncertainty, even if you think the concept of a god doesn’t make sense. (There might conceivably be a way it does make sense that you haven’t learned yet.) But if your opinion is that there isn’t a god because you lack positive belief that there is one, that’s as good as most atheists have it.

So what do you do with that uncertainty, the perceived 15% chance (or whatever you estimate) that there’s a god of some kind? Not much really. You keep an open mind and consider any evidence or arguments for gods that you’re exposed to, if you have the time. But do you behave as if there’s a god, just in case? That’s what people who cite Pascal’s Wager would suggest, because even if there’s no god there’s no harm done, right? Unfortunately if there’s a god it might not be the one you think it is, or demand from its worshipers what you think it does, so praying on the off chance might just piss it off. Not worth the trouble, I say. Better just to try to be a good person, which any god worth worshiping would respect but more importantly is its own reward.

Clinging to Afterlife

Question from Lee:
I just want to ask what do you guys think about the afterlife (after you die), because that’s the only thing that’s keeping me believing in God but I don’t pray to God because why would I pray to someone who is powerful enough to create a world of peace but instead make a chaotic world that’s forcing us to do sins.

Answer by SmartLX:
An afterlife requires a soul, or something similar which lets a person’s identity and personality survive the death of the body and brain. There’s no good evidence for souls, so atheists usually don’t believe there’s any kind of afterlife. From the perspective of someone who dies, the world doesn’t fade to eternal darkness and silence because that’s still a kind of afterlife; there stops being a person who can experience anything, or who anything can happen to. Some atheists do believe in the existence of souls, an afterlife and even ghosts, but this isn’t due to their atheism. They just believe for some reason that souls can exist without a god.

Whether or not you want there to be afterlife is not a good reason to believe or disbelieve in gods, because if one of two possible truths is preferable that doesn’t make it more likely. Thinking so regardless is an appeal to consequences. If you don’t believe in God but you’re not happy about it, you’re still an atheist, you’re just not happy about being an atheist and you should try to make your peace with it.

Why Fight the Young Earth?

Question from Jerry:
I very often hear about if the Earth is ~6000 – ~10.000 years old or if it is billions years old.

But I don’t understand how this is an argument, just because in the Bible it says God created the heavens and the earth and all live on the Earth in 6 days.
So.. if Adam would do scientific research on the universe and the planet, would the planet look like its only a couple of days old?
I can’t imagine how that would look like, because scientifically, a 6 day year old planet would look nothing like a planet, more a ball of lava.

So If God created the Earth to be habitable, it would HAVE to be a billion year old planet, there is no other choice. So of course the planet looks old, even if it’s created just a second ago.

So many atheists use the evidence for an old Earth as an argument against Creation. I don’t see how it has any argumentative value though.
I’m wondering what an atheist’s response to this is.

Thank you ever so much 🙂

Answer by SmartLX:
Young Earth creationists (YECs) do say that God created the Earth more or less the way it is, without working through the lava-world phase over millions of years. As you say, there’s strong evidence for an old Earth (geological, astronomical, radiometric, etc.), so a young Earth would have been created with all that evidence essentially falsified. This is the problem though, because why would God go to so much trouble to deceive us into thinking it was so old? Especially if we’re supposed to take the roughly six thousand year history of the world in the Bible seriously?

Of course the problem with any anti-religious argument that goes, “Why/how would God do this?” is that it’s possible to assert as gospel (sometimes literally) any answer which explains it away. The Earth looks old because God’s testing our faith, for example. Thus faith is insulated from any attempts to make their beliefs sound silly, and plot holes in scripture can be ironed out.

The main point of this particular battleground is that young Earth creationism follows on from Biblical literalism. The Bible says the world was created in six days, and that there have only been a small number of generations of humans since then, so that’s the way it was. There’s no good reason to believe it except if you want or need the Book of Genesis to be literal. Outspoken YECs try to convince nonbelievers that the world is young so that they will accept that God created it, because supposedly nothing else could explain a young Earth. Even if they fail, they often succeed in reassuring other Biblical literalists.

To give their position a respectable veneer, in order to appeal to nonbelievers and impress believers, YECs need to make it look like it has secular scientific support, which means presenting scientific arguments that the Earth is young. The proper use of the real evidence that the Earth is old, rather than to jump straight to advocating atheism, is to simply counter these arguments by YECs, and the evidence does so very easily. Thus there is no intact evidence for a young Earth, YECs are reduced to claiming God made the world look old, the young Earth becomes a mere assertion and it cannot serve as a solid premise for arguments for the existence of the God of Abraham. Thus you can believe in a young Earth if you want but it won’t get you anywhere with those who don’t already agree with you.

A Relationship with the Divine

Question from Samson:
I am studying philosophy and worldview and I’m currently working on an assignment where we are meant to explore this question:
“What is the relationship between humanity and the Divine?”

If you aren’t sure how to answer the particular question outright, I think answering these questions might give me what I’m interested in knowing:

1. Do atheists believe in any gods or supreme beings?
2. Do you believe in the supernatural or paranormal at all? Not just gods, but stuff like ESP, magic, mind reading, ghosts, etc.
3. Does life or humanity have intrinsic value?
3a. If not, is there any way for a human or their life to be “valuable” or have meaning?

Answer by SmartLX:
The main question is easily answered from an atheist perspective: “probably none”. There has to be a Divine for humanity to have any real relationship with it; if there’s not then much of humanity is operating on false assumptions, and any perceived relationship is in their heads.

And now for the rest of the questions, which I’ve numbered above for clarity.

1. Atheists, by definition, do not believe in any gods, and most definitions of a “supreme being” are close enough to a god as makes no difference. For instance, there’s a similarly poor standard of available evidence and logical arguments for a non-divine supreme being, so it fares no better than gods in that respect.

2. Lots of atheists believe in supernatural or paranormal phenomena. For instance I’ve discussed ghosts with many self-proclaimed atheists who believe in them for various reasons. It’s consistent (to some extent at least) for an atheist to believe in such things if they do not necessarily require a god to exist. I personally do not believe in any such things, as far as I’m aware.

3. Look up definitions of value and you will find expressions like “the regard that something is held to deserve” and “one’s judgement of what is important in life” (emphasis mine). Value is subjective by its very nature, because it has to have value to someone. Even its definition as a verb is phrased along the lines of “consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial”, which is again dependent on the one doing the considering. For something to have “intrinsic value” it would need to be of value to the universe as a whole, entirely independent of people. That either means the universe is conscious and values certain things, or it is controlled by an entity such as a god which has its own values. Atheists don’t think either is the case, so there’s no such thing as intrinsic value to us – unless you instead define value in terms of physical quantities. A pint of beer might cost $10 or it might come for free or it might save or end a life, but it will always measure one pint.

3a. The above does not stop us from valuing things, because subjective judgments are still judgments. Life has value to the living, humanity has value to humans, and we’re all living humans so we can happily behave as if they are intrinsically valuable. If there’s no god then you’re not looking for a stamp of approval for your values from the universe at large, only from the people your values may impact or impress.

With that covered, take a step back and consider the nature of question 3a. I don’t know whether you’re repeating it from somewhere, but it could be considered an attempt to have atheists admit a bleak, nihilistic outlook, as the existence of 3a makes it look likely that the answer to 3 is “no” and the answer to “3a” might just be “none”. If this is the author’s motivation, it is an appeal to consequences as it does not say anything about whether atheism is right or justified. Apologies if this is clearly not the author’s intention, but it is exactly the intention of some advocates so I wanted to mention it regardless.