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.

Bringing God to the Homeowners

Question from Jerry:
I live in an HOA community of about 100 homes in North Carolina. We have a clubhouse and monthly dinner socials and there is always a spoken Christian prayer before each meal. After going to these for two years I met with the HOA Board to complain about the prayers because they were not inclusive and this is not a religious compound. Their lawyer told them that did not have the authority to tell anyone to pray or not to pray. They sent out the board minutes to the community and instead saying a resident complained about prayers, they mentioned me by name. Because of this is sent out a 17 point rebuttal explaining why I had done this. Interestingly enough I got a lot of hugs and hand shakes for doing this. I tried to bring it up at the annual meeting and was shut down because they had already ruled on the issue. I am at present circulating a petition and so far have 20 homeowner signatures. This must be a HOA issue nationwide. The boards always deal with property management companies. Our property management company suggested that I just leave the room. I replied that I was not going to sit in back of the bus. I did a little research on national property management trade organizations but could not find anything about my issue. Do you have any suggestions.

Answer by SmartLX:
Even if I were American I think I’d be the wrong person to ask about the laws that apply to American homeowner’s associations with respect to religion, or to anything else for that matter. So I’ll say up front, folks, comment to help this guy out and you’ll probably do better than me.

From what I can gather from forums and from simple articles like this one, as a private entity not representing the state in any way a HOA can pretty much do whatever its board wants, as long as it’s within the law generally. Praying in front of you on behalf of the HOA certainly favours a particular religion but the HOA is not required to be impartial as long as your rights are respected, and you are not technically a captive audience.

Those hugs and handshakes are important, though, if only because you know you’re not alone. I’d say the best way to change what the board does is to change what the board wants, and the most straightforward way to do that is to change who’s on the board. Here I’m adrift as I have no idea whether your board simply consists of every homeowner or it’s elected from within that group. If the latter is the case then you could encourage the huggers and handshakers to run next time around, and potentially form a focused minority on the board with the leverage to effect change.

I’ll just bring up one strategy I’ve read about that has gotten fast results in the fight against partisan prayers in other spheres, in case you can find a way to use it. It’s to demand equal time for other views, or just exercise freedom of speech and answer one expression with another. People have used Hindu prayers, prayers to Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, readings from The God Delusion or On The Origin of Species and so on. Once it becomes clear to the Christian majority that minority beliefs and positions will appear on the same stage (sometimes literally) as their own with equal significance, they may decide it’s not worth having a timeslot for prayer at all.

Some Of The Smart People Are Wrong Too

Question from Rodermac:
I was at some site immediately prior to this. Some questionnaire for atheists – no help at all really. Nice to be somewhere I don’t have to be afraid. Tried to believe in something, seemed to be a somewhat key ingredient in a fellowship i’d joined. Started reading the Bible that had been placed in my room by the Gideons. I guess I never recovered from that exposure. How can it be that so many people, oodles of them smarter than me, conceive that a faith based on this concept of a deity could be a good one?

Answer by SmartLX:
If that deity is real, then faith in it isn’t just good, it’s essential. It’s the only thing which just might save your soul. The fact that this strikes many as a horrible state of affairs is irrelevant if it’s the truth.

If you truly believe it, you are emotionally and often socially driven to use the full force of your intellect to do several things, consciously and subconsciously. You regularly reassure yourself that it’s true in all kinds of ways, which protects you from losing your precious faith and staves off some of the inevitable nagging doubt. You look for opportunities to share your faith with others, either by reinforcing their existing faith or by converting them outright, which you believe is a gift to them and reflects well on you. You try to have God’s will be done on earth, living by (and possibly holding others to) the commands you believe He has given. And through it all you convince yourself that it’s a good thing, for the sake of your own happiness.

When you’ve been doing all of this for years, deliberately examining your beliefs to see whether they hold up sounds like a very dangerous proposition. You risk invalidating all the work you’ve done for the Lord, you’re disobeying direct orders not to question Him, and even if you’re right then you have to accept that you’ve spent all that time before on a fool’s errand and your worldview crumbles around you. It might actually be harder for some very intelligent people to do this as they’ve built better defenses in terms of apologetics, that is, they have more to unlearn. It’s all very well to say you want to know the truth, but sometimes it can seem like if the truth is a certain thing then it’s not worth knowing.

I’m not saying the process is hard in order to congratulate myself for going through it and coming out the other side as an atheist. My journey was very easy compared to most, because I simply let it all lie for more than a decade while I worked on other things. When I eventually came back to reconsider it, my emotional and social connections to Christianity were all but severed; my love of God and fear of Hell had been neglected, and I only went to church with the family at Christmas and occasionally Easter, so the congregation barely knew me. The New Atheist books by the “Four Horsemen” were just coming out, and I was able to consider arguments from both sides quite coldly (this site is one of the places I went looking for where the “fight” was happening). One side won.

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.

“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.