Hizzle Is Fo Rizzle?

Question from Josh:
“A young boy emerges from life-saving surgery with remarkable stories of his visit to heaven.” I don’t buy this for one minute, but some of my religious friends hound me for an explanation. How would you explain this? I tell them it is a shame.

Answer by SmartLX:
It is rather a shame. Thanks to Heaven Is For Real, for the rest of Colton Burpo’s life people may well want to talk to him about something he barely remembers more than anything he achieves afterwards.

What Colton Burpo didn’t already know about what was going on in the real world while he was unconscious, he could have guessed (for instance that his extremely religious parents were praying). If any of the real-world revelations still seem too unlikely, the father and author Todd Burpo admits a period at the beginning of the poor kid’s interrogation when Todd hadn’t thought not to ask leading questions. There’s no telling what he fed Colton.

As for Colton’s descriptions of heaven, he could have picked up any amount of theological geography from his father before the event. Despite this, he recounted a great deal of detail which doesn’t match the Bible at all. Some believers have rejected the whole thing on this basis, but there are many others who simply ignore what Colton got “wrong” even as they proclaim what he got “right”.

There’s a decent critique of the book and the kid’s story here, written by a Christian apologist academic of all people. He’s one of those for whom the “wrong” theology is a dealbreaker. So you see, even many of the faithful aren’t happy with Colton’s testimony.

Approaches to Morality

Question from V:
Well, obviously you reject God.
As such i must assume you reject god-given moralities, and moral rules.
As such i would like to ask what are the moral rules you accept and your rational justification for them.

Thank you.

Answer by SmartLX:
I would say that I reject the idea that a God exists, rather than God himself. Rejecting God directly would require the assumption that there is a God to reject.

I covered the basics of atheist morality in a piece I wrote a few months ago. Read that if you like, but the main point I like to make is that you and I have two choices:
1. The heuristic approach: use the common qualities and shared experience of all (or most) humans to create ethical standards which are applicable in as many situations as possible. Constantly verify that adherence to the standards is beneficial to people, and revise the standards if it isn’t.
2. The absolutist approach: declare that one specific set of rules applies to everything, everywhere, and is supported by the authority of an all-powerful being – despite a complete lack of evidence for that being, or that if the being exists he/she/it actually endorses these rules.

It might be great if we all had a set of absolute, unchallengeable rules that guaranteed a good life and afterlife. It might also be a nightmare, as it is in various theocracies (Iran) and pseudo-theocracies (North Korea), but it would at least give a feeling of security. Unfortunately, until the absolute authority and eternal protective power of a deity is certain, nothing about such a system is truly absolute. Better to work with what we know we have.

Atheist in America

Question from Ellen:

Great site, I found it by coincidence. Are you guys from the US? I’d like to know how it is to live openly as an atheist in your country. If you’re outspoken about it, that is. What do people say? Does anyone exclude you ever? What did your family/friends say when you first told them? You get my point. I’m a big time atheist, but I’m from Sweden so it’s not really a big deal here. I’d just like to know!

Answer by Andrea (rewritten after she got more time to write):
Hi Ellen,

I admire your great country on its wide-spread secularism. Your society is much healthier than ours, which sociologists attribute to your lack of religion and our surplus of religion. (See studies by sociologist Phil Zuckerman for details.)

Anyway, from my experience being a large part of various atheist organizations, I can tell you that I’m not outspoken about it, and many people ask why I don’t believe in a god to which I usually respond, why do you? To me it just doesn’t make sense.

Regarding not being invited to events, most of my friends know I’m an atheist and that hasn’t made a difference with that regard.

I think most people in the US are afraid to admit to their atheism because there is so much superstition in this country and therefore bigotry against atheists. The radical religious right here hold a lot of power since they are politically allied with big corporations and although “non-religious” is the fastest growing group in the US, I think most of us are still afraid to proudly proclaim our atheism. I know I don’t make a big show of it since I work for the son of a minister as well as with many religious folks.

Things are looking up though. We recently formed a National Atheist Party and more and more people are “coming out.”

Thank you for your question. Be thankful for the rationalism in your country.


Ask the Christian, Ask Him Hard

Question from Conor:
I have a very annoying RE teacher. I always ask questions to catch him out but he replies by changing what he previously said. Normally when I ask a christian a question it’s OK because they don’t repeat themselves but he does.

I would like you to send me a couple of question to really catch him out but at the same time he is my teacher so i can’t be rude.

Thanks hope you reply.

Answer by SmartLX:
It sounds like you’d get farther with this guy by taking notes and then quoting his earlier responses when he contradicts them.

Regardless, if you want all-purpose difficult questions for Christians they’re all over the place, so there’s no point repeating them here. Try here, here and here, and if you still need more just google “questions for christians” (without the quotes).

Just consider beforehand whether it’s worth scoring a few rhetorical points against your teacher. The thing about all these questions is that Christian apologists have probably answered every one of them somewhere or other. It seldom matters whether it’s a good answer or even an understandable one; just the fact that there is an answer is enough to reassure many confused Christians that their apologist idols have routed the atheist onslaught, and may actually strengthen their faith in the long run.

There are a few who don’t accept the apologists’ answers and become more skeptical, though. (I was one of these. It meant a lot to me when I was young that there were too many different answers to the Problem of Evil). It ultimately depends on whether you want to deconvert individuals or decrease belief overall, because with this approach you’re more likely to do only the former.

Yoga…inQUIRE! Yoga…inQUIRE!

Question from Jennifer:

I am doing a research paper on Peace Through Yoga and one of my reasons for suggesting yoga as path for achieving peace is that it can be practiced by anyone, of any faith. However, yoga is very much a spiritual practice and before recommending it to everyone I wanted to get an atheist perspective on the practice. I have read a few articles but none have fully answered my questions.

My main question, which may not be easily answered, is whether or not the benefits of yoga can truly be achieved by disregarding all spiritual aspects. I don’t know too very much about atheism so if you could also provide me some insight as to if you believe in any higher power than the individual self whatsoever, be it a collective conscientiousness or mind that would also be very helpful for me.

Thanks so much for your help!

Answer by SmartLX:
Likewise, I don’t know very much about yoga, but to answer your questions I don’t think I need to.

If you completely disregard the spiritual aspects of yoga, you are unlikely to benefit spiritually from it. If on the other hand you consider the spiritual aspects of it as you do it, without actually believing in the supernatural parts, you may very well benefit mentally as you do physically, in a way that could be called spiritual.

The chinese concept of chi (or ki or qi) is applied in quite practical ways to the martial arts of kung fu, tai chi and qi gong. Practitioners may visualise chi energy in and around their bodies, moving as they do, flowing and striking on command. There’s no evidence for the existence or any tangible physical effects of chi (which is a big problem for acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine), but to think this way while performing the movements makes them more satisfying, helps to maintain the precise forms of the techniques and creates a conducive, positive mental state.

There have got to be parallels between this and the Hindu-based spiritual aspects of yoga. Whatever spiritual effects are supposed to result from the physical practice of yoga, simply meditating on these for the duration will probably have measurable results on a person’s mental state, and eventually affect emotional wellbeing. Think of it as a mental aid to relaxation and stress release.

Moving on to the more general question, atheists usually don’t believe in any collective consciousness, because the existence of one would require a level of connection between individual minds that hasn’t yet been achieved. (A colony of ants or bees may behave as if it has a collective consciousness, hence the term “hive mind”, but this is just the outward impression given by thousands of insects following very simple instincts and communicating by scent or movement.)

There are however many entities which can be more powerful than a single human being, for example two human beings working as a plain old team. The more we co-operate, the more amazing things we can build and do. There’s also natural displays of power like earthquakes, tidal waves, evolution and continental drift, which can eclipse or destroy almost anything we build with the scale of their effects. Just because something is more powerful than you doesn’t mean it’s worth worshipping, or even cares if you do, so none of these serve as a substitute god.

P.S. The title is a Street Fighter II joke. I kept hearing Dhalsim in my head as I wrote this.

Belief and Choice

Question from Apostate:
Hi there,

I have seen this statement, “belief is not a choice,” in several atheist documents. I have never seen it well supported. For instance I once saw an atheist state they were unable to believe they could fly and then flap their arms to demonstrate that they are unable to fly. That supports the belief that they can not fly by flapping their arms but says nothing of their ability to find an environment where our arms could provide enough lift.

From my perspective, while I’ll agree there are some beliefs that must be held if we want to refrain from delusion, such as my belief that you are reading this, other beliefs seem quite malleable and within conscious control, like my belief that I will have everything I need to meet any challenge I face or the decision to look upon an event as positive instead of negative.

What do you mean when you say, “We can not choose our beliefs” and why do you feel that way? To me it seems to be an abdication of personal responsibility for the list of things you consider to be true.

Answer by SmartLX:
The statement “belief is not a choice” (a variant of which I used here) may be more absolute than is justified, especially given varying definitions of “belief”. Nevertheless it applies very well to the most likely subject of those “atheist documents”, namely belief in gods.

I would actually go further and say that for the most part, opinion is not a choice. Whether to take action based on belief or opinion is a choice, whether to state your true beliefs and opinions is a choice, but the ultimate position of your mind on an issue is usually not.

When one is presented with evidence for a given proposition, one either accepts it or doesn’t. This is a subconscious process (as evidenced by several studies where people’s brains were scanned while they made quick decisions, and their own thoughts beat them by several seconds). One may consciously decide to openly accept the evidence or else pretend to reject it, but this has nothing to do with what one really believes.

Your atheist who couldn’t believe he could fly was assuming that conditions such as gravity, atmosphere and the size and shape of his arms would stay roughly as they really were. If the question were changed to, “Do you believe you could fly, given your choice of environment and any imaginable conditions?” the same person would probably give an answer like, “Yes, if I could really change anything at all about the world.” Importantly, this person would not suddenly choose to believe, he or she would believe. The altered conditions would provoke a different judgement of the possibility of the act, about which the atheist would merely choose whether to be honest.

The second example you raise is essentially optimism, a belief that the future will turn out favourably. You might think of this as a deliberate belief, but what of all the pessimists who wish they could be optimistic but can’t manage it? It seems to be either a predisposition or an ongoing opinion based on one’s circumstances.

That brings us to the general exception to all of this: the case where one convinces oneself of something. It does happen, and in fact an entire industry has been built around your example alone; think how many books and seminars there are on how to think positive and become optimistic. Actually turning 180 degrees on an issue without any changes to the evidence or arguments one way or another (and emotion can have a great effect on what we perceive in this area) requires one to manually affect one’s own subconscious thought processes. This can be achieved through self-hypnosis, or affirmations, or forms of brainwashing, or all three, and the results are not often permanent. The important thing here is that for most of what we think and believe, we don’t do any of this to ourselves. Our beliefs and opinions are therefore nearly all the natural conclusions of our brains, and our choices are based on them rather than causing them. I do not regard these conclusions as deliberate decisions.

Applying all of this to the debate between atheism and theism, whether one accepts or rejects the assertion that a god exists is down to how one’s brain reacts to the evidence presented. This includes simply being told there’s a god, which children in particular will often accept as good enough and later reinforce.

The resulting theological question is why a god would punish people for not truly believing in Him if it’s not their choice, and especially if He has the power to show Himself. Believing in and yet denying a god is a conscious action which might legitimately earn punishment if the god is real (and many believers do think “atheists” secretly believe), but simply not believing is nothing of the sort.

“I wanna be like you-woo-woo…”

Question from AJ:
Dear atheists,
I would like to be an atheist because it makes sense logically, but I have been raised to have blind faith in a few different belief systems — some mainstream and some non-mainstream.

I have been trying to let go of my beliefs, but I find I am holding onto even the most irrational parts of them.

Even if there is only a 2% or less chance of something being real, I seem to latch onto it anyway unless it has a 0% chance which never happens in science, so I am miserable.

My beliefs don’t make me happy anymore which is why I want to abandon them. But I realized there is something comforting about them that I hadn’t been aware of, and perhaps this is what is holding me back. So I am struggling between my believing and non-believing self.

What do I do with the part of myself who believes so readily the most ridiculous things? And how do I shift the way I find comfort – so that it’s not in supernatural things?

I don’t want to just shut off this part of me who wants comfort and has a big imagination, but I want to find new ways to incorporate it into my new non-belief system.

I have to admit, I’m a sensitive person so I need to find a way to do this gently because I feel like I’m losing something that was once special to me.

I do want to make the change, though, I just don’t know how.

Answer by Andrea:

It’s nice that you want to embrace the scientific over the mystical, and I commend you for that. It takes courage to overcome the indoctrination many of us former Christians have had to undergo since our earliest memories.

I’ve been an atheist since high school and still have pesky supernatural thoughts. For example, my life is so good right now that I feel like things are too good to continue, and so chances are better that my plane will likely crash with my next trip.

Now there’s nothing rational in this belief, since it’s safer to go by plane than by road (in the US, anyway), but I’ve been trained into these thought patterns my whole life by just watching and listening to my father.

What do I do about these thoughts? Just accept them and then let them go. Thought patterns have a tendency to entrench themselves in the brain. Its normal and natural and nothing to be afraid of or annoyed by.

Zen training has really helped me along in this manner. Zen is not a religion, it’s a way of life, and it has taught me to appreciate the now and live a calmer more accepting life of myself and those around me. It’s a way of quieting your mind. I like to call myself a Zen atheist, though I am unfortunately pretty far away from any ideal of Zenhood.

Your heart is in a rational, right (in my opinion) place, and don’t force yourself to be anything, whether atheist or Buddhist or Christian or Pastafarian (Church of the Flying Spaghetti monster). Just do what feels right to you, your gut feelings, and try to find something you like to do — a purpose in your life.

Why I love being an atheist? Because I no longer have to wonder if there is a god, I am 99.999999 etc. sure that there isn’t. This frees my mind up for other questions and thoughts, since I love science and nature and am always trying to think up how to make things better. It is also more comforting, because I found it quite disturbing to believe in a supernatural being that has the power to end suffering yet lets the majority of the world’s people suffer anyway. Regarding working with other atheists, I love doing charity work with people who do good things not in the hopes of gaining entry into heaven or evading hell, but simply because it is the decent thing to do.

You mentioned that you find something comforting in religion. It might be community you need, and if so atheism is the fastest growing ideology in the world and there are atheist groups springing up in many countries. I’m not sure where you live, but check out this page:


It lists groups from all over the world.

I find it wonderful that you are a sensitive person and there’s no reason you need to lose anything. Atheism should make you feel you have gained. I am a firm believer in gut feelings, esp. after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,” and I think your gut feelings are steering you in the right direction. You don’t need to give up things just because they have religious overtones. I have Jesus Christ Superstar CDs for example, and I know the words of every song. Keep your rituals. Send xmas cards and give gifts, you can even call them solstice festivities if you want. Go to Church — what the hell!

Don’t push yourself, and your answer will come to you eventually. Enjoy life in the meantime.

And if things are going too good, be very careful. You never when things will come to a crashing halt.

Just kidding. Best to you and thank you so much for your intelligent question.


Religion, Evolved

Question from Doug:
I was wondering. If evolution is responsible for everything that is, then what was (or is) the evolutionary advantage of belief in a deity?

Answer by SmartLX:
Belief in gods need not have had an evolutionary advantage in order to have resulted from our evolution. It could instead be a by-product of other psychological traits which do have direct advantages.

Two such traits are obvious candidates:
– Human beings see deliberate action (“agency”) everywhere, even sometimes when there is none. It’s a “better safe than sorry” reflex that encouraged our ancestors to avoid tall grass moving oddly rather than take the chance that a carnivorous beast was moving through it. By the same token, people see what Christians call “the hand of God” in all sorts of occurrences, most of which have perfectly good natural explanations (the rest are merely unexplained). Imagining powerful beings controlling all such things was a short leap to make.
– Children can learn from their parents and other guardians, long before they develop the capacity for critical thinking. The benefits of this are obvious; if kids didn’t accept instructions before they were seven or so they’d have a tough time surviving even that long (either in the ancient world of predators and bandits, or in the modern world of hot stoves and busy roads). When supernatural doctrine is taught to children, most of them accept it without question and retain the beliefs all their lives. Thus a religion can sustain itself even if it never recruits a single non-believing adult.

That’s my opinion of the evolutionary reasons for widespread religion. I don’t think it has a significant direct evolutionary benefit, especially since archaeological evidence suggests that we had already evolved to Homo sapiens before the first signs of religion emerged. As long as religion hasn’t literally endangered the human species (and as much death and destruction as it’s caused, it hasn’t been quite that catastrophic so far) its existence wouldn’t have been seriously threatened by natural selection alone.

And Now, The Gnus

Question from S.A. (initials, not the Australian state):
What’s the difference between “atheists” and “new atheists” and “gnu atheists?”

Everybody seems to know this but me!

Answer by SmartLX:
Not a whole lot.

A “new atheist” is an ordinary atheist by any definition of the word, so if anything “new atheists” are a subset of atheists. “Gnu atheists” means the same as “new atheists”; it was coined by a “new atheist” (might have been PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne or Ophelia Benson) to make fun of the original term.

The terms “New Atheist” and “New Atheism” were coined in 2006 (probably by Wired) to refer to the authors of popular books about atheism which had all come out around the same time, and the atheist movement they spearheaded. The most prominent “new atheists” are also referred to as the “Four Horsemen”: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (cheers, Hitch), Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.

The perceived unique feature of “new atheists” is that apart from not believing in gods, they want to dispel the religious beliefs of others and challenge religion’s privileged position in society. There’s nothing new about that – Madalyn Murray O’Hair banished compulsory prayer from US public schools in 1963 – but it hadn’t been a prominent issue for some time. A more correct term for “New Atheism” would be atheist activism.

Of course there are worse adjectives than “new”. Since the modern movement hit the big time in 2006, religious respondents to atheist campaigns have done their utmost to permanently affix other words, and paint us all as “angry atheists”, “arrogant atheists”, “dogmatic atheists”, “fundamentalist atheists”, “radical atheists” or “militant atheists”. That last one, despite being coined jokingly by Dawkins, really irritates me, given that almost any other use of the word “militant” implies violence.

A Moment of Clarity?

Question from Chris:
I’m an atheist and have been all my life but I went to church with my girlfriend who is also an atheist to watch her sister and her husband give a talk at the church her mum and dad run.

But I had a weird moment of clarity were I felt that I was loved and everything was going to be ok. I wasn’t thinking about anything so it wasnt an emotional feeling it just randomly happened, its something I’ve never felt before and it’s made me question my ideas on religion. Got any advice for me??

Answer by SmartLX:
What you had sounds like a textbook “religious experience”, if not an exotic one. No visions of holy figures, no voices in your head, just a sudden good feeling. It may be unexplained, but it’s not inexplicable.

I’m sure your girlfriend’s sister would want you to think God snuck up and hit you with a joygasm. That would be a more credible explanation if similar episodes of “religious ecstasy” weren’t common to churches of every denomination, as well as other religions entirely. If it were really a god handing them out without any further information, wouldn’t he restrict them to members of whichever subgroup was “right”, or at least to his own religion?

You were lucky enough to get yours spontaneously, but people usually have to work for them. Buddhists and members of other Asian religions meditate for years to get closer to the divine, and experience that feeling of peace. In the Philippines people get themselves temporarily crucified to feel closer to Jesus, or to atone for their sins. American televangelists and megachurch pastors tailor their services to create an emotional journey for their audience, culminating in an explosion of joy and praise (sometimes accompanied by fainting, speaking in tongues, faith “healing” and other shenanigans).

So, why did it come so easily to you? My guess is based on one of the only things I know about you: you’ve been an atheist all your life. Perhaps you’ve never been to that kind of enthusiastic, charismatic church before, and never been surrounded by a crowd of people so fixated on the words of someone preaching worship. Never mind the crowd, maybe you’ve just never been subjected to flat-out proselytising as a captive audience member long enough for it to have an emotional impact. If you weren’t concentrating, it could have hit you as if from nowhere. A church service can be a powerful thing, no doubt about it, though probably not for the reasons churchies would like to think.

Whatever caused your “moment of clarity”, it was at least based on something true. You are loved, I’m sure, by your girlfriend and probably by many others. A sense of optimism for the future is justified even if it flows from that alone.