A Relatively Simple Afterlife Question

Question from Jason:
Besides our energy living on for all eternity (watch 10 Myths About Death at 1:50) is any other afterlife possible? Is any, all (especially regarding Hell) of http://www.evangelicaloutreach.org/ telling the truth? I am Fira777 on YouTube.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written a great deal on the afterlife, because of course many are curious about (or troubled by, or desperate to salvage) the idea. The simple answer to your question is that anything is possible (science does not support an afterlife in any meaningful sense, but the mechanism of the supposed soul may be beyond science if real) but if the Evangelical Outreach page is correct about any of this stuff, it is not because they know for sure. They are relaying their interpretation of the scriptures they accept as the word of God, and they are right or wrong if the text is. “Telling the truth” is subjective based on what one believes; one can be honest and still wrong.

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.

Where Do Bad Folks Go When They Diiiiiiiiiie

Question from Becky:
I was never a big believer in the Christian God but I did read the Bible which showed me nothing but a vengeful God as oppose to one of love. I considered being a deist but hell has latched into my brain and won’t let go. Worst knowing there is fire underneath the earth seems to support hell even more since Jesus said he was going to the heart of the earth I just want to let the fear go since it was a main reason I believed. How do I let this fear go?

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re suffering from what I call faithdrawal, the continued fear of the wrath of God (including banishment to Hell) after belief in God has faded. As the link shows, I’ve discussed it a lot, because you’re not alone in dealing with it. You realise of course that it’s irrational because in a doctrine where God is responsible for the existence of Hell there can be no Hell without a God, but since when was fear rational all the time?

Let’s look more closely at the apparent piece of support you’ve found for the existence of Hell: Matthew 12:40, where Jesus spends three days “in the heart of the earth”. First of all, that might simply have meant he was physically down in his tomb for that long. If instead it is actually a claim that he was in Hell between his crucifixion and his supposed resurrection, I wouldn’t be surprised at the implication that Hell is deep underground. In the same way that it’s easy to imagine Heaven being up in the clouds, the unexplored depths seem like a perfect place for Hell, and may even have been part of the inspiration for the popular image of Hell. People living near volcanoes and elsewhere along fault lines, in Biblical times as in any other, would have seen and documented literal lakes of fire and many varieties of red-hot wrath spewing from fissures in the ground. Miners all over the world would have noticed the increase in temperature in a deep enough cave (though this might often have been caused merely by lack of ventilation). From the science of geology we now know why it happens in great detail, so the God-of-the-gaps has retreated from the subject entirely. Unlike our ancestors, we know the lava isn’t coming from Hell.

To answer your final question directly, It’s not a matter of letting the fear go so much as the fear letting you go. An irrational fear, like a belief, must be reinforced artificially in the absence of evidence, by various means: acts of devotion, new personal discoveries in the source texts (like the “heart of the earth” thing) and so on. If you recognise on the face of it, and continue to actively recognise, that all support for the reality of the danger is unfounded, it won’t kill the fear but it will leave it with no reason to remain. Over time, and without emotional reinforcement, the fear will fade and leave you. Though it’s frustrating to hear, the less you worry about it the faster it will go, so engross yourself in something else for a few weeks or months.

What Would God Actually Write?

Question from Abdulmalik:
I have a question and I wish you to seriously answer me! if we postulated that God exists…and he sent down his word to humanity as a book…what do you expect that book to be like? or how would you test it to be a God’s book?
waiting for your awesome answers…\
my first suggestion that it should has no scientific mistakes…
do you have any other suggestions?!

Answer by SmartLX:
A book literally written by a god would in many ways be like the Bible or the Quran – as they are described by the people who think their gods wrote them. Specifically, they are claimed to be inerrant, internally consistent, full of divine knowledge or prophecies that either come true or are revealed to be true as time goes on, supernaturally beautiful in their prose and with an ability to influence the hearts and minds of readers and listeners that goes beyond anything the words actually say. Thus, people often claim these things about them explicitly as arguments for their divine authorship. As you can see by simply putting ‘bible’ or ‘quran’ in the search field of this site, after a great deal of discussion I’m still of the opinion that these claims are incorrect, unsupported or subjective.

Further speculation about what a real god’s writings would be like doesn’t tend to move the discussion forward, as such speculation can be dismissed outright by anyone who thinks it is unreasonable or doesn’t match their chosen book. But what the heck, I do have one idea on the subject: such a book would be timeless, such that it didn’t seem more and more backward the more society progresses. In the Bible, for instance, a modern reader has to confront references to slavery, incest, subjugation of women and entire ethnic groups, human sacrifice, demonisation of many sexual orientations and so on. A reader in the first century AD would have taken most or all of it for granted. I think a god would find a way to keep a fixed book from suffering the effects of a shifting moral zeitgeist.

“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.

Scripture Outpaces Science Again (Hindu this time)

Question from :
What would be your best argument against someone using the Unpanishads and Quantum Physics as a justification for their belief in God?

Answer by SmartLX:
For those like me who may never have seen the word before, The Unpanishads are the source of a lot of central Hindu concepts. The doctrines behind this particular justification concern the importance of consciousness and awareness to the universe, and the timelessness of certain entities. The argument is that these correspond to the observer effect in quantum mechanics and the general unchanging nature of the fundamental physics of the universe. Here’s an example of an article making this point.

This fits into the general category of a claim of divine foreknowledge. The appropriate category in my article on prophecies and predictions is #4: Shoehorned, because people are taking established science and fitting it to the most relevant parts of a religious text after the fact. No one read the Upanishads and realised as a result that observing individual particles of light would affect how they appeared. Nor does anyone expect to be able to scrutinise the Upanishads now and find new practical details that will advance science any further.

The major complication for someone actually using this as an argument for their particular god is the existence of a huge number of arguments along the same lines using both Christian and Muslim scripture. I’ve covered many of these separately and as a group. A Hindu (or Buddhist or Jainist, since they also use the Unpanishads to a degree) would have to explain why there’s so much similarly accurate-looking material in mutually exclusive texts, or make the effort to debunk everyone else’s claims. Christians in particular have worked to do just that.

“There is NO WAY I could have known that.”

Question from James:
I’ve been a believer since childhood but recently I’ve started to ask myself whether I truly believe in Christianity or not. I find the arguments against it very compelling, but I have seen and heard a few things that I can’t find any explanations, except the work of a God.

First, I’ve met people who supposedly had these visions about others. In those visions they could see details about someone else’s life, like their past, things that no one would have a clue about. For instance I know of a guy who just met a couple and instantly knew, by revelation, theirs names and the names of their relatives and how they got to know each other, all of that full of details so that no one would suspect it wasn’t a real revelation/vision. I know there are a lot of people faking theses things, but I truly believe these folks I know were at least honest in believing they’ve got a gift from the Lord. So I’d like to ask you guys if you can think of any explanations for what I have described. I no longer think that religion makes sense, philosophically speaking, but how can these, “supernatural” things happen? Any thoughts?

Answer by SmartLX:
Leaving aside the charlatans, a lot of people do think they’ve had genuine visions and premonitions. For most people (including me at a younger age) it’s little things, like seeing details of their car before they bought it, or talking as they play cards and drawing a number immediately after saying it, or guessing that someone’s future child will have blonde hair. Some people have more remarkable stories to tell.

Many of these can be explained through coincidences, which happen all the time because the number of possible coincidences on a given day is higher than the probability of any given coincidence is low. Many more stories are simply untrue and spring from imperfect memory, particularly memory-of-memory. If you get fuzzy on how you know something or when you learned it, you might start to remember having used (or simply thought about) that knowledge before the point when you think you acquired it.

If you have one of these stories, in the back of your mind you know people will consider three different possibilities:
1. that you had a moment of genuine clairvoyance for some indiscernible purpose,
2. that you don’t realise that you gained the knowledge some other way, or
3. that you’re just plain lying.

You might believe #1, but you know that if people think #2 or #3 it won’t reflect well on you, and that if either were actually true then you’d think less of yourself. So there’s an obvious pressure to make the story more convincing every time you tell it, and subconsciously people gradually give in to that pressure. The conviction in the voice becomes greater, little details are exaggerated or made more convenient. If the changes are small enough they’re not even remembered as changes, you literally edit your own memory and they’re just the way it always was. Give it enough time (a few months can be enough) and you end up with a profound airtight declaration that you believe absolutely, that no one can verify and that someone would have to impugn your integrity to reject. You end up daring people to doubt you.

I’m saying that these stories should not be taken at face value, no matter how much you trust those who tell them. Everything I’ve described above is part of the reason why anecdotal evidence, the proper term for such stories, is not legally (and especially not scientifically) regarded as similarly reliable to other forms of evidence. People test it if they can, and if they can’t there’s always a cloud over it.

With that point made, let’s suppose your guy’s story is actually 100% accurate and he really learned about the couple by supernatural means. That would tell us nothing beyond the fact that there is a “supernatural” of some kind. It doesn’t support the existence of any god because the world might simply have some inherent psychic energy which your guy momentarily harnessed. It doesn’t speak to any kind of purpose unless something significant occurred as a result of your guy rattling off this bewildered couple’s details to them like a stalker – and any significant result could still be coincidence. And it gives us no insight on how to reproduce the circumstances and actually be psychic instead of just winning some pointless lottery and getting nothing more than a chance to show off.

The View from Outside (your body)

Question from Violeta:
I am currently an agnostic, and I do believe in evolution, the Big Bang, I am a big fan of Richard Dawkins, Laurence Krauss, Hawking, just to name a few atheists. I think that for the most part, science does its job when explaining the universe, and the world in general. However, the concept of Near Death Experiences and Out of Body Experiences causes me to scratch my head. Recently, Dr. Jeffrey Long published a book where he analyzed 1600 cases of NDEs and he claimed that they were all strikingly similar, regardless of cultural differences. For example, many people reported seeing a bright light, feeling a lot of love, meeting deceased relatives, having a life review. I am wondering if you have ever read the Dr. Jeffrey Long book Evidence of the Afterlife? In his book, he even debunks the ideas of the brain hallucinating, and the idea of chemicals being released in the brain to cause these experiences. About 95% of participants thought that these experiences felt more real than real life, and hallucinations cannot feel that real. Also, many claim to see A god, but without a particular title. If 1600 experiences are very similar, would you say that it could mean that these are in fact snapshots of an afterlife? I just don’t know how they can be so consistent, and how they can be so life changing if they are not real.
So, what is your opinion on Out of Body Experiences and Near Death Experiences in general?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve had very long discussions about NDEs in particular (here’s one of the tamer ones) and I remain entirely unconvinced of their authenticity. I haven’t read Jeffrey Long’s work though I’ve read a little about it, but I’ll respond to what you’ve put forward with a set of discrete points rather than mash it all together.

– The specific experiences that commonly form part of a supposed NDE are likely to be images, actions and sensations that the human brain falls back on in times of great mental and physical stress on itself. A light in the distance is a simple image to conjure, the feeling of love may be caused by a flood of adrenaline, endorphins or other hormones released as a coping mechanism, the ancestors may be a result of being preoccupied with thoughts of mortality before losing consciousness.

– The timing of the experiences is impossible to determine after the fact. There may be a period of near-total inactivity during which the brain is unable to render anything like a dream, but there are periods before and after that state (assuming the person eventually comes to) when the brain is unable to be conscious but still active. This is important to remember when reading arguments about what chemicals were present at any given time.

– That the experiences feel real is nothing out of the ordinary for a dream; who hasn’t been surprised at least once when waking up from one? As for more real than real life, this is dubious given that it can only be claimed in retrospect about an experience that the person cannot easily or safely reproduce. That may simply be what a dream or hallucination feels like in that state. One’s memory of the event can also be very clouded, but unfortunately this can cause a person to reconstruct the event in more detail than they remembered at the start, and assimilate certain additions as true memories.

– Stories of accurate observations of the world around the unconscious patient are plentiful but so far impossible to confirm. Most commonly the details of what was happening are not available separately from the subject’s description, or the subject describes something obvious (like doctors talking or parents praying), or it simply turns out to be wrong upon examination. James Randi, the famous skeptic, talks here about an apparent out of body experience which he might very well have believed he had, had certain facts not come to light. If you’d like to comment with a particular case, we can discuss it in detail.

– In Evidence of the Afterlife, more than one featured subject was 3 to 5 years old at the time of the supposed NDE. At this age memories are difficult to describe and all too easy to influence. As with Colton Burpo, the Heaven is for Real kid, if they are asked leading questions by the first people they tell what they saw (often parents, friends or even clergy before the researcher gets there) they will actually shape their experience around them in retrospect. In fiction this is referred to as retcon, but it’s disturbingly easy to apply to real life.

Sex Isn’t Gender Anymore

Question from Claire:
I am a college student taking a Philosophy of Gender class and need to interview people of different religions, including an atheist, on their opinions on sex and gender, and I realized I don’t know any atheists. I was wondering if you would be willing to give your answer to the following questions for me (and allow me to use them in a paper).

1. Please define what you think “biological sex” means. For example, when someone says that “Paul is biologically male” or “Jennifer biologically female,” what do you think that means?

2. What does “gender” mean? Is it different than biological sex or the same? If the same, why do you believe this? If different, how are they different?

3. What would you say is the basis for your answers? For example, science, religion, tradition/upbringing, etc.? Why do you trust that basis?

I realize this is a lot to answer but if you had the time I would really appreciate it and if not I understand. Thank you,

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s not so much to answer. You may use my responses in your paper. So, let’s get to it.

1. “Biological sex” is the sex of your body’s anatomy, including hormones and chromosomes as well as genitals and other obvious features. If someone is biologically male, either he lives as a man and their body suits the role or she feels she’s a woman and may need to explore the possibility of transitioning.

2. Gender is imposed by culture and society. It’s what a man or a woman should be, do, and want. “Biological gender” is sometimes used to mean the same as “biological sex” above, but only because “sex” and “gender” are so often treated as interchangeable when people aren’t thinking about gender issues. “Gender” is not the same as “sex” or “biological sex” because, and this is what blows people’s minds, it has nothing to do with the state of one’s body. This is why people with one sex essentially belong in the other gender, or somewhere in between.

3. As trans people and others in related situations (e.g. intersex, bigender) are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories and be open about their circumstances (including a good friend of mine), it’s becoming increasingly clear that traditional and most or all religious positions on these issues apply very poorly to reality. in these worldviews a person should not grow up as an unhappy man and suddenly begin to flourish as a woman or vice versa because sex is equivalent to gender, but it happens and it gets sillier and sillier to deny it. So I try to keep up with the biological science but I mostly go by academic positions based on large-scale survey data. These are based on what people say about their own situations and what their doctors say about them, but they have sufficient sample sizes and statistical analysis to go beyond the anecdotal. It’s the best kind of source to tell you what’s really going on.