Heaven’s Cold Comfort

Question from Tsahpina:
If the religious really believe there is an afterlife and/or paradise, for those who believe in such, why do they cry when someone dear to them dies and why are they afraid of their own death?
I do not mean this as rhetorical question, but since Ivery much doubt any religious person is capable to answer this sincerely, then let it be, for such religious people, rhetorical only. but i would like a real reason, if there might be one, like, they are leaving their dear ones or a dear one is leaving them, but then, they are going to their loved ones who had already died and the ones that remain here will sooner or later join them. so, why not rejoice for the going to paradise, big deal, i mean.

Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is that an afterlife doesn’t make everything about death okay even if it’s real.

We’ll leave aside the idea that some believers don’t really believe we go to Heaven or nurse serious doubts. if you don’t really accept the doctrine then of course it won’t help you when you’re faced with death, so that’s that. We’ll consider the case for people who really do believe instead.

No matter what happens after death, the person is gone from this life and this world. In an undeniable sense the person is separated from us and lost to us. If you love the person, this is a great loss which you will mourn no matter where you think the person is going, because you’ll never see or talk to them again for the rest of your life. If you knew someone you loved was going to live quite comfortably but not contact you in any way for several decades, would it make it perfectly all right that you’d see them again afterwards? Of course not, while it might provide some consolation it would still be a huge wrench in the here and now. Likewise, if you’re the one going away, you wouldn’t see anyone you knew potentially for years.

The Christian afterlife, similarly to many others, is a double-edged sword. You find out right at the beginning whether you will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell, and there is no assurance to be had before that point. You just have to follow the rules as laid out by your particular denomination, and hope you got them right AND they’re the right rules. Sins are remembered even if you’ve forgotten them, so you doubt your own mind. All men and women are sinners by nature and tainted with Original Sin, so you keep your fingers crossed that you’ve cleaned it all off with your piety and prostration and didn’t miss a spot. It’s truly nerve-wracking, even if you think you’ll be okay in the end. And if someone else is dying, you have no way of knowing whether they’ve confessed every sin, performed every rite, crossed every T and dotted every i.

So if someone is fearful and sorrowful of death I don’t doubt the steadfastness of their beliefs. I feel great pity that their beliefs aren’t helping as much as they were probably led to believe they would.

What’s The Use?

Question from Tsahpina:
I am a strong atheist and as such one of those who keeps trying to put reason in believers’ minds. I believe I have never succeeded in anything, except to get unnerved so badly that I now hate them. Yes, hate them.

So, my question to fellow atheists is why bother even talking to to them about their silly uneducated beliefs?

I mean, can any atheist tell me any good reason why I should bother to even consider them as people with reason?

Answer by SmartLX:
Believers are not by definition devoid of reason. Some people probably are, but it’s not true of someone simply because they have an unjustifiable belief. It just means their reasoning is based on incorrect or unsupported premises, they have reasoned incorrectly, or their emotions have overridden or railroaded their reason. The most intelligent of us can be wrong about very important things, and still defend our positions on them very strongly.

You are expecting too much of believers and of yourself if you think they will simply drop their long-held beliefs during one conversation with you. Beliefs are seldom dispelled in an instant; if you’ve heard of true-believer syndrome, you know that they can even be reinforced when the objects of belief are utterly debunked. The most you can realistically hope for in a single exchange is to bring someone to a state of aporia. Simply put, it’s when they respond with (or at least think), “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, and I can’t reconcile it with my position right at this moment. I need to go and think about this some more before we discuss it further.” Their mind will process what was said and realised, and their position will have changed at least a little by the time they want to talk about the subject again – or, they will have found new logic or evidence they didn’t previously have to hand which supposedly supports their position. Either way the discussion will have moved forward.

As for why you should bother discussing beliefs with believers at all, that’s up to you. Many atheists decide that it’s not worthwhile and never do it, or keep it to specific situations. For those who do think it’s worth doing, it’s because it benefits someone. It might benefit the believer to be freed from religious beliefs because the beliefs are doing them harm, or holding them back, or making them unhappy, or putting pressure on their friends and family. It might benefit atheists and those whose beliefs don’t match those of the given believer, because reduced devotion to one dogma can mean less prejudice toward others, and toward a lack of dogma. I do it because I think people would be better off abandoning religion of their own accord, and by and large I restrict my efforts to this site.

An Informal Audience with Jesus

Question from Joe:
I am a believer. However I have a really hard time with most churches and Christians. I agree on 99.9% of the points people like deGrasse Tyson, Dawkins and Hitchens make. Subjects like physics, astronomy, math, biology, etc. seem to answer more and more questions that Christianity used to simply answer with “God” before and I’m totally fine with that. In fact I love it. I do not understand why it is so hard for some to accept science and faith as not competing.
My struggle with being a Christian that dislikes most Christian “stuff” has never really bothered me though since I do not base my belief in theories about a bearded man sitting on a cloud, if god can make a really heavy rock, what caused the Big Bang, etc. but rather personal revelations and spirituality. I thought I’d tell you this to let you know where I’m coming from and maybe it will have an impact on your answer.

Let’s just play with the thought that Heaven does exist. And you die one day (hopefully of old age after a long happy life) and your soul(?) gets transported to the gates of heaven and POFF! There is Jesus himself and he tells you; “Hello, you did not really recognise me during your life. For the fun of it, I’ll let you ask me three questions about anything.” What happens afterwards is not really relevant, but if you think it is, please elaborate.

What would you ask Jesus? Would you like four questions? That’s fine.

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think where you’re “coming from” will change my answer much, but thanks for sharing.

Sure, it’s possible (likely is another matter) that I’m wrong and Jesus will meet me at the gates of Heaven. That’s already outside of the commonly held belief that it’s Saint Peter who mans the gates, so let’s also suppose that Jesus is willing to indulge the curiosity of an atheist using all the knowledge of God. Given all that, what an opportunity!

I’m sure that by the end of my life there would be certain things related to me personally that I’d want to know (like what happened to some hypothetical friend who vanished, for example) but for the benefit of others I’ll keep to questions about subjects of general interest. Maybe by the end of my life I’d have different philosophical priorities as well, but if it were me as I am now and I didn’t think too hard about it, here’s how it might go.

Question 1: What’s the plan, man? Is humanity serving some function for you, why do you need us for it when you’re omnipotent, and how’s it going so far?

Question 2: Why is there evil? You must know all about the attempts at theodicy over thousands of years, so I don’t need to lay it out for you. What’s the deal?

Question 3: How did the universe begin, if it had a beginning? If you caused it, what did you actually do and to what? Has its structure and nature since the start been entirely emergent or have you needed to intervene in cosmically large ways to get whatever you needed out of it?

Question 4 (if Jesus allows it): How about you yourself? How much of the Gospels is accurate regarding your life, death and resurrection? Why’d you make it all happen in that particular time and place, and only once? Why at all, for that matter?

The Preacher’s Wife

Question from Jeannette:
Hello. In short, I have been thinking a lot about the logic of atheism and find myself resonating with the ideas. I have made religious searches before, always theistic. But in atheism I seem to get the questions answered that I have had all along.

So, the problem is that I am married to a Baptist preacher who told me, the last time I was “searching”, that he would divorce me for going outside of Christianity. But when I went back to the faith he didn’t.

I really don’t want a divorce. But if I told him about my atheistic leanings he would no doubt feel that he needs to protect the children from me. Maybe he would bring up divorce again.

So it seems like keeping my thoughts to myself is the best way to do this. But it kind of feels like a lie. I don’t mind keeping the truth to myself. But I feel like my husband would feel betrayed and like I didn’t really love him, if, say I told him several years down the road.

But I have two small children and I don’t feel like a divorce is a good thing.

Any thoughts?

Answer by SmartLX:
Sounds pretty simple, though tragic: if your husband has threatened to end the marriage if you cease to be a Christian and you take him at his word, you must lie about your beliefs to stay in the marriage. Not knowing which country you’re in I don’t know how divorce and custody laws would treat the two of you given that he has stated his intent to shield your children from your influence, but it’s an ugly battle in any environment and I’m sure you want to avoid it if possible.

The part about taking him at his word is important though. Would he really shut you out immediately if you admitted you were struggling in your faith? He’s a preacher, he’s supposed to be qualified to help people in your situation. If you said you wouldn’t try to deconvert your children or anyone in his congregation, and that you would continue to attend services, surely the two of you could engage in some kind of ongoing dialogue wherein you tell him exactly what your concerns are, instead of simply giving him the vague and frightening idea that you might suddenly turn heathen and corrupt everything around you.

That sounds a bit silly, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that atheism can be really scary to someone like your husband. Its very existence flies in the face of Scripture as interpreted by some. (Specifically, Romans 1:18 and onwards appears to say that God has shown evidence of Himself to everyone, therefore everyone supposedly believes deep down.) He likely has a rough but extremely negative idea of what atheists are like in general (i.e. a prejudice), and he’ll probably need some time to get used to the idea that your inability to justify continued belief in God doesn’t make you evil or dangerous. He just needs to see things from your point of view, and for that to happen the two of you will need to talk. After that I can’t say what will happen, but at least you’ll have treated each other like adults.

However you decide to approach him, or not, good luck and all the best to your whole family.

Oh, Hell

Question from Jeannette:
Hell-o. So, if you have any information or proof on why Hell couldn’t exist could you share it with me? I have been a Christian my whole life and now I am really seeing the logic of atheism.

My husband is a Baptist minister. So this is difficult. But my main issue is that I would like to put the issue of whether or not there is a Hell to rest.

The only reason I would teach my children about Christianity is because I am terrified of them possibly going to hell. So I feel like the most compassionate thing for me to do is to research this and hopefully find that there is no hell and share it with them when the time is right.

Thanks!

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re taking the hardest route by looking for proof that Hell doesn’t exist, just like those looking for proof that God doesn’t exist. It’s impossible to do without exhausting possibilities you could only test if you were omniscient yourself. If you establish that Hell can’t exist physically for some reason related to thermodynamics, for example, theologians (both professional and armchair) will insist that it exists outside of the physical, or in a different physical realm where the rules are different. When all that is “known” about a place is merely asserted, the assertions can easily change to get around any objections.

Fortunately the burden is not really on you to prove it doesn’t exist, because there’s no evidence that it does exist. It’s merely a claim by several different religions (which each describe its qualities, and importantly the criteria for being sent there, very differently) which is supported only by mentions in Scripture. Even that isn’t conclusive – some theologians argue that the Bible doesn’t establish it at all. Here’s an article with the major Bible-based reasons to dispute the existence of Hell, which even if they’re not conclusive to believers at least demonstrate that it’s not simply a believers-versus-heathens issue.

Regarding you personally, there’s not much to worry about if you’re seeing that atheism has a point. Hell, as described by Christianity, exists directly because of God, and if God isn’t looking likely then neither is Hell.

That said, if you think there’s a possibility of you or the people you love going to Hell, I know it’s terrifying. This terror is such that it sticks with people long after their belief in God, Hell or anything related has faded. (I call it “faithdrawal”.) But even if there is a Hell there’s no point frantically trying to stay out of it because there’s no way to do so with any confidence. If you follow any specific Christian denomination (e.g. Baptism) then there are dozens of others that think you’re going to Hell for not following theirs. If you’re Christian at all, the Muslims think you’re going to Hell, and vice versa. And if you’re atheist, of course, then there are people of most faiths who think you’re Hell-bound regardless of the life you’ve led. In that situation though, taking up any religion is less likely to get you condemned by the “right” religion than saved by it, just because there are so many and you’re so unlikely to pick the true one (if any).

Your children are going to hear about Hell from your husband or his congregation, no question. If they comprehend it and they believe it then they will be frightened by it, no question. If you so much as tell them once that you disbelieve, or even doubt, then it will no longer be a certainty in their minds. My father’s an atheist and he told me so a grand total of twice, and was quiet the rest of the time while my mother talked as if God was beyond doubt. The fact that someone I respected disagreed with the doctrine was all it took for me to realise there was something to investigate. The sooner your children see Hell as an academic argument, the less they’ll be impacted on an emotional level. (If you don’t want to reveal your own disbelief because of your husband, maybe mention someone else you know who doubts it.)

If they do end up taking it to heart, at least it’s a trauma they’ll share with millions of others. Like the fear of death, it lessens after the initial shock of discovery until it’s hardly thought of at all. You really have to obsess over something like that to maintain that horrible initial feeling. So if you can’t combat it directly, just distract as best you can and let them get back to being kids.

Will we ever “win”?

Question from Jenna:
I am an atheist too and I’m 11 so will atheism ever be the dominant religion? I hope so and #youdontchoosetobegay.

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheism isn’t a religion, first off, though there’s been some debate about that. It’s simply a position on the likelihood of gods. Different atheists take that position and do entirely different things with it, finding purpose and guidance in all kinds of places.

As for whether there will ever be more atheists than anyone else, it’s already the case in some places. Wikipedia has a list of countries by irreligion, where you can see the percentage of people who identified as atheist (or “not religious” in some cases). The number is above 50% for several countries surveyed, which means the atheists have the majority. One example not currently influenced by Communism (which opposes religion for reasons other than lack of evidence) is Japan, and another is the Czech Republic. Religion is in decline nearly everywhere else, which is why Christians for instance are always praying for a “revival”. Looks like this decline will continue going forward.

Definitely with you on #youdontchoosetobegay. It’s sad that anyone’s treatment of gay people is contingent on whether or not they chose it, but while this is so the right answer needs to be spread.

No god or probably no god?

Question from Mark:
Claiming that there is no god is a universal negative. So, my question is, do most atheists flat-out claim that there is definitely no god, or is it more often than not an “it’s not probable” argument?

Answer by SmartLX:
No, not most atheists. Some atheists, sure, but not the majority and not the most prominent atheists, and not me. Even Richard Dawkins, when he created a scale of 1 to 7 from total belief to total disbelief, rated himself a 6.9 to leave room for some possibility.

Certainty in the absence of gods is called gnostic atheism. Gnosis is a knowledge of the spiritual, so gnostic atheism is just knowing that there’s nothing there. The obvious question for a gnostic atheist, as you imply, is how can one know such a thing? For me there’s no good answer to this, though that doesn’t imply by itself that positive belief in a god is justified.

“Did they Die for a Lie?” And Other Appeals to Character


Question from Jamie:
I have a question about two types of evidence that Christians use to prove the Bible. What do you (and maybe most atheists?) think of Saul of Tarsus’ conversion and the historical record of at least 3 of the apostles being martyred for their beliefs as being any kind of proof that Christianity is true? They say that it is very unlikely that people would have died for a lie and Paul had no reason to suddenly convert. I’m not asking as a Christian but as kind of a skeptic.

Answer by SmartLX:
Doesn’t matter who you ask as, I’ll answer it the same way.

Christian-persecutor Saul had no reason to suddenly convert to super-Christian Paul that we know of, but that’s not the same as having no reason to do it. There are plenty of reasons you can imagine; guilt is an obvious one, but it could simply have been a very persuasive proselytising Christian. If Saul had any earthly reason to switch but didn’t want to admit to it, the story of Jesus appearing to him on the road to Damascus was a great alternative that his new fellow worshipers would happily accept.

Perhaps something really did happen to him which he mistook for a divine experience. He’d never seen Jesus in life, so any man might have sufficed. The temporary blindness he reported could even be a sign of a stroke, so there are plausible ways in which his judgement could have been impaired.

The point is that supporting one’s claim by saying or implying there are no alternatives is a very weak argument unless one can actually establish that there are no possible alternatives. Otherwise you’re claiming that if you don’t know of a possibility, there is no such possibility. This is an argument from ignorance, the logical fallacy I most often see in arguments for the existence of God.

The argument about the apostles’ sacrifice is similar: that they had no reason to “die for a lie”. As you can see from the linked YouTube search, this is a major talking point for Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and other prominent apologists. Again, the short response is that there are plenty of potential reasons. Maybe they believed the lie, or they thought the lie was worthwhile to advance the teachings of Jesus. Maybe the lie was a good short-term measure to keep them from being lynched by their own followers; not counting Judas an apostle was first killed eleven years after Jesus died, which isn’t bad considering. Maybe reports of their martyrdom are greatly exaggerated.

There are Christians who won’t tolerate a bad word about these arguments appealing to the integrity of the earliest disciples. Whenever I address one here, a long thread of comments follows where each of the hypothetical alternatives I’ve presented is attacked in great detail. It’s pointless because the alternatives aren’t limited to what I personally can imagine, but it shows that this topic genuinely and reliably strikes a nerve. That makes me think that behind the chaff of myriad apologetics Christians are taught and simply repeat, this is one idea that they actually use to reassure themselves that they’re right.

Why so aggressive?

Question from Julain:
I have found myself more Gnostic than anything, and I want to ask about a few things.
Why are atheists so aggressive and nitpicky? All of the staunch atheists I’ve met have to make a point about how right they are, then start asking about how their god is real, a dumb question really. So, back to the question, what makes atheists so self-righteous and dogmatic?

The other question I have is simple: Why are staunch atheists so scornful of religion? I, personally, am 100% for meeting up and reminding people to love their fellow man/not tear out neighbor john’s esophagus. You get so dogmatic, so evangelical, as a group, all about something that can not be proven by science. It is not a simple thing we can find, it is transcendent. It was said that “God is dead” for a number of reasons, one of them being that he is no longer objectively provable. On the flipside, we can not disprove him either. I am not saying to believe one way or another. The entire argument is meaningless, though, and that is the important thing- that these people get some kind of sensual, almost erotic joy in a small, meaningless victory that has not changed the world around them.

Why is atheism uniting as a movement? I feel that such a move could be dangerous to the ideas ‘defended’ by it. Skepticism is not going to be found in a large group, that is when you start becoming a unified force instead, with unified ideas. That is the opposite of skepticism.

My final question is why you guys talk about “science” like it is a bible. The thing that keeps this amorphous, shifting mass of ideas moving is the constant search for understanding, knowing that we can always be wrong. Many things are not such. Evolution? Definite, real, we have proof. Red Queen hypothesis? Plausible view of evolution, really more like frame of reference. Those are directly observable. However, then you start getting to physics and cosmology, or almost anything that involves space. In general, we know almost nothing. The average person just flaunts ‘the big bang’ while only knowing the basic framework from wikipedia or a textbook. In the end, we know so little, it is best to reserve judgement.

I say with confidence that I know little, and that I know not what lies beyond the pale of death. Past that? Absolutely nothing.

Answer by SmartLX:
If what you’ve said is true then it’s not true about all the staunch atheists you’ve met, it’s just true about all the staunch atheists who’ve announced themselves to you. Like any group of people, atheists have some among them who can’t entertain the possibility that they might be wrong or allow others to differ in peace, and this can make them abrasive when on the subject. Others, like my father for one, mention it once every few years if at all, and avoid all discussion of it with believers because they know it can cause an argument. In short, you can be a dick about anything and that includes atheism, but when atheists aren’t being dicks you might not even identify them. Engaging people constructively on an emotionally charged subject like faith when you think it’s all unjustified is bloody hard, especially in person.

Many atheists are also anti-theistic, or opposed to religious belief in general, for three reasons. Firstly, it does appear to be misguided to atheists or at least likely to be wrong, and it’s usually in everyone’s interest for people to live their lives according to what’s actually true. Secondly, religious belief can cause great harm in some circumstances (the regular news stories about parents failing to pray away their children’s illnesses are a ready example) while its mental and social benefits can come from other sources instead, so the cost-benefit analysis goes badly for it. Finally, widespread belief makes non-believers a minority, and sometimes a persecuted minority depending on where they are. (I’m not going to Bangladesh in a hurry.)

Many atheists united behind a fresh movement around 2006 for these same reasons, when a group of books on the subject came out together and acted as a catalyst. (New Atheism was a terrible name for it, but there it is.) I disagree that skepticism can’t function in large groups, because if the people question each other then every idea must prove itself. Managing a large group of atheists has been compared to herding cats, so they’re an ideal demographic to put this into practice.

It is indeed folly to dogmatise science, so we simply try not to. If evidence for something is in place, we act and speak with confidence in its reality. If not then we reserve judgement, and that should include the possibility of a god or its influence. But not knowing for sure does not mean all possibilities have equal probabilities, and the concept of a god is so far beyond anything we’ve observed that positing it as an explanation for anything does not make for a useful hypothesis, or an appealing one unless you’re desperate for a simple answer. It raises more questions than it answers anyway.

Karma

Question from Emily:
I was wondering what an atheist stance on karma would be. I’m not a big believer in faith or the supernatural. However, I am becoming a Buddhist and I just wanted some educated thoughts on the subject matter. I couldn’t really find my answer on the web. One thing I have noticed over the past few years is that things like karma tend to happen. For example, someone drove me out of a dorm because she didn’t like my tolerant view of homosexuality (Christian College). This year, she was driven out of the school because of financial problems. I keep noticing that situations where one “gets what they deserve” just tend to happen. The way they harmed others is the way that they were harmed in return. My question is, could karma be real? Is it possible that it is a factual law of the universe? I’m not inquiring if there is a god in the sky zapping bad people, I’m just wondering if there could be an unseen cause and effect to our actions/ energy. Thanks!

Answer by SmartLX:
Like the gods people believe in, karma certainly could be real, and some things can be interpreted as results of its influence. It’s just difficult or impossible to establish beyond doubt that it’s really true.

The “as you sow, so shall you reap” kind of karma in particular is easy to perceive in the world around us whether or not the universe is actually “keeping score”. We have an innate sense of fairness from our long history as a social animal, so we acutely sense when someone has done enough good or bad deeds to be due some repayment and we remember well if it happens. If it doesn’t, we just hope or assume it will come in the future. That’s confirmation bias for you.

What really muddies the waters in the case of karma is that our behaviour has many kinds of worldly effects which can cause the same kind of future events that karma would. Someone who tends towards violence is more likely to be injured, killed or arrested as a result of a conflict they either started or chose not to avoid. People who are conspicuously generous will inspire generosity in others, towards themselves in particular (the end of It’s a Wonderful Life being a fictional but believable example). A supernatural balancing force is not necessary for people to frequently receive the same treatment they give out.

The existence of karma can be detrimental to assume in some situations. If someone is suffering, then to assume that the suffering is the result of karma is to blame the victim to some extent. If everyone gets what they deserve, there must be some reason they deserve to suffer. Coupled with the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, it can create a very cold and unjustified attitude towards people born physically or mentally disabled in Buddhist countries. The attitude is, “That person must have done something awful in a past life to be brought back like this.” Buddhist scripture does not direct its followers thus to my knowledge, but it’s an unfortunately common interpretation.