This Is Not A Boys’ Club, Dammit

Question from Kris:
Background information for my question: I am female atheist (not atheist agnostic, but an atheist who doesn’t believe in any supernatural power or being) who studies human evolution in the Cradle of Humanity in Kenya.

I have noticed many, not all, male atheists seem to aggressively question my atheism. I have never had this issue with other female atheists.

So my question is actually two parts, one for female atheists and the other for general atheists.

So for the female atheists, has anyone else experienced this aggressive questioning of their atheism by fellow atheists?

And why do some male atheists need to question females’ atheism?

Answer by SmartLX:
I regret that there are no female atheists currently “on staff” here, as it’s just me for the moment. Women are more than welcome to answer by comment, and incidentally if anyone male or female would like to be a contributor it won’t hurt to write via the “Ask it here!” form and let me know.

I think the simplest answer to your second question is one word long: sexism. Some atheists think their own atheism is a sign of intelligence and resistance to social pressure. If they also think that women tend to be of lower intelligence and more susceptible to social pressure, they may come to the prejudiced conclusion that few women have the necessary qualities to be real atheists.

If they are sexist to the extent that their own sense of masculinity depends on a perceived superiority to women, they may actively resist the idea of a contemporary female atheist, because a woman who’s an intellectual equal threatens their self-image. The only way to act out this resistance, as silly as it sounds, is to interrogate you and ideally uncover you as a false atheist. One can only guess at what they think your motivations might be; perhaps they suspect you’re trying to sound more intelligent and independent than you really are.

Meanwhile in the real world, of COURSE women can be atheists, of COURSE women can equal or surpass men intellectually, and an inverse statistical correlation between religiosity and intelligence has been shown by several studies (here’s a meta-analysis) but the causal nature of the link has not been established. It’s not surprising that the atheist community isn’t free from sexism as sexism isn’t only caused by religion, but it’s still disheartening when women (and minorities) aren’t welcomed.

How The Snake Got Its Venom

Question from Robert:
What would be your reasoning as to how the evolution of venomous snakes could have happened? Obviously, the first snakes did not start off with venom glands in their heads. That means that they were getting along just fine without any venom to kill their prey for hundreds of thousands or millions of years. So why in the world would venom glands evolve inside their heads? That is not ‘natural selection’. Indeed, that is completely unnatural. A creature wants to keep poison out of its body! So why would any creature start to make poison inside its body? That makes no sense at all. And it would potentially be extremely dangerous to that creature.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that such a totally bizarre thing occurred. So now what? You have snakes with venom glands in their heads. How in the heck are the snakes supposed to get the venom into their prey? That would be 100% impossible for snakes to do that without hollowed out, syringe-like, very sharp fangs.

That’s a HUGE problem. That means that snakes which somehow evolved venom glands, would then have to evolve syringe like teeth. And there is absolutely no way that could happen because that would require forethought and planning. And it would totally go against the theory of natural selection. Also, by the time that snakes could have strangely evolved syringe like teeth, their venom glands would have already been naturally phased out because those glands would have been totally useless for an extremely long time. But again, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that this second totally bizarre thing occurred. Now snakes would have had to evolve a structure that would connect the venom gland to the syringe like teeth. How could all of these bizarre things happen accidentally? …. or naturally?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t have to rely on my reasoning, not when Scientific American has a full article on this exact subject and Wikipedia has a good summary sitting right there. What the heck, here’s the National Geographic article too. These are literally the first three results when you Google “evolution of snake venom” so I guess you didn’t start there.

The first snakes actually did start off with venom glands because the glands first evolved in the ancestors of snakes, four-legged burrowing lizards more similar to the Komodo dragon. The proteins in venom share DNA with compounds that do other jobs. One is saliva, which breaks down organic material for digestion. Immune system proteins, which attack foreign elements in the body, are another. One compound that isn’t mentioned is stomach acid, but this is another dangerous substance that is essential to normal bodily function. We need poisons in our bodies to survive, only they’re poisons we’re able to tolerate because of how they’re produced and contained. Venom evolved many times over throughout the animal and plant kingdoms, because it has lots to build off.

As for delivery systems, of which there are many, you don’t need much of a starting point. Toads secrete poison on their skin and let it sit there, because the only animals they want to poison are those who try to eat them, so any number of bodily glands could have switched their purpose. Spitting cobras squirt venom forward, so what if they started by just plain spitting, or to be more specific, gleeking? With this technique, even humans can shoot liquid a long way from the body straight from a gland. A gland with a naturally effective nozzle like this can slowly evolve into either a weapon that can be aimed or a hard retractable tube that can inject, because every little bit closer it mutates to either one of these makes for more effective hunting and defense, and ultimately a better chance of survival.

With the specifics covered, let’s look at the overall nature of your challenge because it is VERY similar to those that have come before. You point to something remarkable and ask how it could have happened, and implicitly assert your own explanation by elimination after assuming no good answer is forthcoming. A textbook argument from ignorance (a harsh name, sorry, but the official one) and thus an informal fallacy, which is a failure of the premise of an argument to support its conclusion. It fails for several reasons: obviously it’s rebutted if an alternative answer is presented, but even if not it relies on the assumption that if you and I can’t think of a way then it’s impossible. We’d have to be gods ourselves for this to be true. I point out this fallacy whenever it comes in because it is the basis of many of the arguments for God, and every creationist argument. As a result, these arguments are only good for reassuring yourself and those who agree with you, because by themselves they have little power to persuade.

Left Christianity, but Hell followed you out?

Question from Chris:
I was raised Christian until I found a Jewish website that explained how the New Testament contradicts the Old. I now describe myself as agnostic, but I’m still afraid that there may be a hell. This is stopping me from living my life and while I doubt that I’ll become a Christian again, I sometimes wonder if there’s any chance the Jewish faith was right.

Is there any way that I might be able to let go of this fear? Maybe some way to make a firm decision on whether or not I should be religious? People have advised me to learn more about religion and the world in general; maybe there’s something specific I should look at?

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is my word for the lingering emotional aftereffects of strong religious belief, chief among them fear and guilt. That fear might stick around for a while even if you stop believing entirely. The more often you can register that your level of fear is unjustified, the quicker it will fade, but probably only by small degrees.

If you think the Jewish version of Hell is the most likely to be real, it certainly doesn’t warrant the same kind of fear as the Christian Hell because it is NOT a place of eternal torment. Read this Jewish article on the subject: their name for it is Gehinnom, and it’s light-heartedly described as a “spiritual washing machine” that prepares your soul for Heaven. It’s closer to the Christian concept of purgatory; while it’s not something to look forward to, there’s a purpose to the suffering and most importantly there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

So that’s what to keep in mind when you’ve got your figurative yarmulke on, but the rest of the time it’s good to read up on conflicting reports of Hell from different religions, and even different denominations of the same one. It’s the strongest sign we have that no one really knows anything about it, or has any authority to tell you what to fear. Not only that, but the reasons a soul is sent to Hell are mutually exclusive between different religions and denominations. Beyond the obvious fact that you can only proclaim one kind of faith which denies all the others, the rules for living are different all round. That means it’s futile to try to behave any particular way in order to avoid Hell because you’re almost certainly doing something wrong. That sounds pessimistic but it can at least free you from micro-managing everything you do, and give you a sense of community as you’re in the same unreliable boat as everyone else.

You can make a decision about how devoutly to keep to the tenets of whatever religion you choose to adhere to, but how religious you are is not really your decision to make. Your level of belief is influenced by what you see, read and hear. You could immerse yourself in religious media and after long enough you might no longer doubt it, or avoid it altogether and slowly forget, but this is artificially reinforcing a bias and does not reflect reality. Regardless, I can tell you that being more religious is very unlikely to make you less afraid of Hell. If you accept its existence and its specific nature as dictated by your religion, your work is cut out for you as you are acutely aware of what you must do, and not do. You’re also surrounded by people who don’t share your faith, aren’t living right and are therefore bound for Hell, emphasising how easy it is to fall short and pay the price.

Better to get on with life, I say. Just be a person in the world, do what you can to be a good one, improve life for others, have your fun when it’s not hurting anyone. Thoughts of the afterlife tend to take a backseat when you live in the now.

“Have you considered…” (spoiler: yes)

Question from Aaron:
Hello! Have you considered if Hell is real?

The Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself warned people of a literal Hell, the lake of fire ultimately, where all those who rejected Him and His shed blood payment on the cross for their sins alone (His death burial and Resurrection), will spend eternal conscious torment, forever. He created Hell as the final eternal torment for the Satan and his fellow fallen angels who rebelled against God. But, human beings are given a free will choice to either trust in Jesus/believe on Him and be forever saved (once saved always saved) or to reject Him and end up burning forever in Hell.

As an atheist have you ever considered the idea that eternal Hell is for real? If the atheist is right, then we all die at the moment of physical death and that is the end of our conscious thought. Nothing wasted nothing gained. But if the Bible is right, and indeed Jesus IS, then the atheist ends up burning in Hell forever. Ignoring the various religions (which are all false and easy to prove false anyhow) and sticking to either atheism or Biblical Christianity, which is the stronger position?

I do not want you to end up in Hell. I want you to be saved and end up in Heaven. And the only way to be saved is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved. All you must do is trust in Jesus Christ alone for eternal life. Faith alone in the shed blood atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ alone period. It is not a life long process like all these religions and cults teach but it is a once for all event in your life. The moment you trust in Jesus you receive Him forever and are forever sealed to Him. “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” Ephesians 4:30.

But to him that worketh not but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly his faith is counted for righteousness.” Romans 4:5.

Much more then being now justified by His blood we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” Romans 5:9

What do you think? I believe in freedom of the individual to believe whatever they want, even if you totally disagree with me. It is your choice my friend.

Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, I have considered the possibility that I’m wrong about Hell, mainly because I’m often asked to. My reaction to that possibility is covered in my piece on Pascal’s Wager. In short, it does not make me want to accept Jesus.

To apply what I wrote directly to what you’ve written:
– You cannot simply ignore the “various religions”. They’re not so easy to prove false if you don’t just rely on the premise that Christianity is true and reason that they contradict Christianity. Even if you could, the gods of the other established religions aren’t the only possible alternatives as there’s an infinite number of gods people haven’t yet described.
– If Christianity has evidence of a kind the other religions don’t, present that evidence as part of a proper argument and don’t bother fearmongering with “what if hell is real?”

Finally, I’m an atheist so you can probably tell which of atheism and “Biblical Christianity” I think is the stronger position. Of the two, Christianity merely makes the greater threats, but the trouble with a boogeyman is that you need to believe in it to be afraid that it’ll get you.

What can Christians do for atheists, and themselves?

Question from Lane:
Reading these essays here on ATA has both strengthened my faith in God and given me a better respect for atheists, by giving me a more comprehensive understanding. The color blue does not look the same to everyone (being subjective, “blue” is a label), but everyone should be encouraged to express what and how they believe.

That said, I have two questions:

1. What things can us Christians do that benefit atheists?
2. What are the disruptive or distracting things that Christians should avoid?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written before that examining one’s own beliefs can lead to either strengthening or abandoning them. I came to this site as a reader (among other sites, religious and otherwise) to see if there was anything in the challenges submitted by Christians that might restore my faith in God, and nothing did. If you’re secure in your faith then good for you.

The number one thing Christians can do for atheists is something a lot of Christians already do, which is to support secularism in government and society. This does not mean the absence of religion but merely the separation of church and state or other authorities, so that no one religion gains power over others or over the irreligious. As an atheist in Australia I’ve got it pretty good (I’m a bit worried about how the school chaplaincy program will eventually intersect with my son’s education), but here as elsewhere the problems atheists have are mostly caused by specific religions exerting their political and/or social power to affect non-adherents in all kinds of ways. A minor example is the endlessly repeated fight over monuments to the Ten Commandments in US courthouses. An extreme one is the unchecked victimisation of atheist and secularist writers in Bangladesh.

Other than supporting secularism, Christians can help atheists and other non-Christians just by learning more about other belief systems, which will prevent a lot of assumptions around the idea that everyone will think or behave like a Christian in certain situations. I’ll come back to this point.

Apart from literally attacking non-believers, which doesn’t happen much in most countries, the most disruptive and distracting thing Christians do is proselytise. I don’t actually hold this against them, because after all many of them believe they are commanded to do so, and even if not then they still think accepting Jesus is the single best thing people can do for themselves. Put more simply, if you think people are wrong about something important then you see changing their minds as helping them out, and that’s fine. But there are absolutely wrong ways to go about it.

One very common approach is to not only utilise but monopolise public speaking platforms and other one-way communication. The market street in my old hometown had a speakers’ stone, where you could talk about anything for 30 minutes. An organised squad of evangelists tag-teamed the stone for hours, every high-traffic day for months. (I hope they eventually changed the rules but it’s more likely that they just removed the stone.) A large percentage of public/community access television airtime is pre-booked by the devout. This approach can bleed into private conversation too, when any opportunity to steer the topic to what God would think is seized upon.

I think it stems from the idea that the Word of the Lord is literally magical, that it has the power to claim souls not merely through persuasion but by serving as a conduit for divine influence. Therefore there’s a lot of effort to spread the Word with speeches, tracts and railroaded small talk, but not much effort to make it stick. They think the Word will do the work for them, and good luck to them.

What I would suggest instead, if your fellow Christians want to engage others on the topic, is to truly engage with people. The spray-and-pray approach of declaiming the spiritual facts as you see them, or handing them out on an A4 sheet folded into a pamphlet, does not give any opportunity for reply and does not therefore put your own ideas up for discussion or challenge. People are far more likely to listen to you if they think you are willing to listen to them too, and that means exposing yourself to ideas that might challenge your faith. It’s a risk that I seriously hope Christians are willing to take, because it’s win-win; if their faith turns out to be unsupportable they can rid themselves of it and look at the world anew (perhaps re-finding faith later), or like you they can become more confident for the experience and also better able to co-exist with non-Christians.

The short and flattering version of all this, Lane, is that many Christians could afford to be more like you. We get a lot of questions from Christians, but most are really flat-out challenges that they think will stump us cold. I much prefer when they genuinely expect and want to read an answer. That’s what engaging means.

Christians, and the Bible, on Gender Roles

Question from Margaret:
Where can I read those whacked out bible studies of the men trying to control the women?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to, so I’ll take two approaches.

If you mean where do people get the idea from the Bible that men should control women, there’s a lot of source material. Here’s an easy list of quotes that are more generally about the man being the head of a household but often specifically about women being subservient. Perhaps some are out of context but the context rarely reverses the meaning entirely; the Bible isn’t known for sarcasm or reverse psychology.

If you’re looking for the skinny on a particular Bible study group or society pushing “Biblical gender roles” you’ll have to be more specific because that kind of thinking is everywhere. Fundamentalists all over (though perhaps not all fundamentalists) reject feminism profoundly (or redefine it out of existence) and reinforce the oldest gender roles to their followers for as long as they’re following. For a mild taste of this attitude toward women, read this article on – I kid you not – biblicalgenderroles.com on what a wife should do about a controlling husband. At least it tells the reader not to put up with physical abuse, but in this day and age it’s amazing what it does tell women to accept. In particular, check the section that starts with, “These behaviors are NOT wrong or controlling for a husband from a Biblical worldview…”

Again, though, if you want an opinion on one group or event you’ve read about, provide some more details in a comment so I can pin it down.

After The End

Question from Salim:
I was wondering if you had ever considered the possibility of humanity wiping out humanity or our planet (or the universe) getting destroyed. So what if this one day happens? Will we await another big bang to restart life?

Answer by SmartLX:
It could happen. It could also have already happened.

If humanity does something stupid or clueless enough it could well wipe out all life on Earth, which is to say all known life in the universe – emphasis on known, because we can’t discount possible alien life out there somewhere. (Immediately this conflicts with fundamentalist Christians, who commonly believe that only God can destroy the world and He promised not to, so we needn’t worry about the environment at all.)

If everything does die, there’s a possibility that the chemicals still present on the planet could be driven by natural movement (wind, waves, tectonic plates, etc.) towards a second abiogenesis event wherein a new form of life emerges. The circumstances would be very different from 3.5 billion years ago, but since we don’t know exactly what happened it’s not unthinkable that it could happen another way, or the same way in a different place.

The outlook for that new, unrelated life would be somewhat grim. Earth was already about a billion years old when life started the first time, and about a billion years from now the aging sun will grow too hot for Earth to be inhabitable. Our successors would have to evolve the necessary intelligence to achieve space travel much, much faster than we did to have a chance of escaping.

Forget starting from scratch on Earth so late in the piece. Subsequent life will have a much better chance if it starts further out in the solar system, say on a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, say Europa. That will give it up to another 4 billion years to achieve interstellar flight before the Sun dies altogether. But then if we’re hypothesising about the best place for life to start elsewhere, the best candidates are almost certainly planets we haven’t discovered around stars we can’t even see (or if we have seen them, we’ve given them names like HR 8799). There are stars whose lifespans or “sequences” are far longer than the Sun’s.

But what if this whole universe is finally a bust, all life dies out and there’s not enough energy left to restart it? If the universe suffers a heat death then nothing further will come of it, and indeed another spontaneous Big Bang or equivalent might be needed for a new universe, and the possibility of new life, to rise. If on the other hand the universe ends in a Big Crunch (looking less likely in the last decade or so) then it might explode outwards again and produce new life by itself.

So yeah, I’ve given it some thought, as do most people who reflect upon modern cosmology. The sheer scale of the things you have to consider can be unsettling to say the least, and that’s before you start on the existential threats we face as a species. People face the subject through humour, through academics, through faith, or not at all. Sometimes it keeps us up at night, but the world can be a scary place at all levels and yet life goes on…for now.

The Pretend Prime Mover

Question from Sue:
Since God is pretend, how did the world come to be?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t know, but there are lots of ideas floating around. We’ve covered it quite a lot here, so try a search or just use this one. Just because the idea of a God explains something doesn’t make it any more likely that there is one.

The History Of The Theories Of The Origin Of Everything

Question from Niki:
Hello Smarty.
The origin of matter? (history of understanding and the latest version)?

Answer by SmartLX:
I found a complete rundown of cosmological models and theories throughout history at the site Physics of the Universe, including religious outlooks and otherwise, so take a look over there.

The overall current scientific view, in a nutshell, is a combination of the last three on the page. There was a Big Bang or comparable event which resulted in all the matter and energy in the universe expanding outward from a tiny point. The matter could have spontaneously emerged from the quantum foam, or come from elsewhere in a larger multiverse, or been recycled from an earlier form of this universe in an endless cycle. Or it could have been created by a god or something. While currently impossible to eliminate, this last possibility is not justifiable as the default position, but that’s how many see it.

On The Beginning And The End Of Life

Question from Tushar:
Just yesterday I watched “Religulous” by Bill Maher who is a noted atheist.
I wanted to ask him some 2 questions but it seems it’s near to impossible to reach him so asking it here supposing it’s an atheist forum.
I have these two questions which if you would please read patiently and answer, I would be grateful to you.

1. He talks about science and if we talk about evolution in a scientific way then the Bible of that would be “Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, where he has
accounted for the process of adaptation behind the creation of diverse species he also has categorized them but my question is that it all started with the first living cell which was composed of non-living chemicals, who blew in the life in it, I mean who gave this congregation of chemicals the sense to feel, also who gave them the idea to adapt, adaptation is mainly to survive, who gave them or what gave them the idea to survive rather than to perish?
I mean carbon, oxygen and other chemicals present in the cell don’t have the thinking ability, If you take an oxygen jar it wont talk back with you or if you drop the jar to break I don’t think it would protest or try for the jar to not break, what made the association of these chemicals to “think” that we have to exist and survive and hence “adapt”?

2. It’s been scientifically proven that the human body works on energy, we eat and the food is digested, energy is churned out of this form at the basic level
probably is called ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) I believe, this energy is the fuel for the human heart to pump blood all through our body and also this energy is needed for the natural movement of the muscles and probably for other purposes related to our survival or for the maintenance of the body that we have. In fact we can convert the energy contained in an ATP molecule to Kcal or joules “A molecule of ATP produces just under 1 x 10^-23 kcal” (source). Now when a person dies if the same amount of energy it needs in a day or to function at a moment, if it is arranged for the similar amount of energy to be supplied externally lets say to the heart, will the person come back from the dead or be alive?

I too am a rational (called cynical) thinker but the more I think about the non-existence of GOD studded with scientific facts and statistics the more my belief increases in HIM.

Answer by SmartLX:
1. The process of abiogenesis, the emergence of life from non-living elements, is not yet understood, but to ask “who blew the life in it” is to assume it was deliberately done by someone before it’s established that it had to be intentional. Carbon and oxygen by themselves won’t do much, but the complex chemical compounds being constantly sloshed around 3.5 billion years ago by the tides, winds and tectonic plates had a lot of time, space and materials to get things done. If the right materials were trapped together in a membrane, it was possible to form a configuration that could use the materials outside to make more of itself, but slightly imperfectly. After that, Darwinian natural selection immediately takes over. If you search this site for “abiogenesis” or related terms you’ll find a few pieces on the subject.

2. A person does not die because the heart stops. A person dies because the brain stops receiving oxygen and the cells and connections within are permanently destroyed. You can restart the heart within a certain period with energy applied in the right manner, and this is exactly the purpose of a defibrillator (or just chest compressions), but if you apply energy to the brain it will not reform the cells and restore the connections that existed previously. That information is lost forever, and trying to zap the brain would probably only speed up the process of degradation. It would be like smashing Michaelangelo’s David and then trying to fix it merely by pouring crushed marble on top of it. The amount of matter or energy is far less important than the precise arrangement of it.