Dreaming of Hell

Question from Huzur:
Hello. I’m a twenty five years old male. I don’t believe in god anymore. Not until 15 at least. However sometimes my mind scares me, such as going to hell for eternity. So my question is: Do other atheists also ever get any christian themed nightmares?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t, but many atheists who were raised as Christians certainly do. Here’s a bunch of them talking about it.

I can honestly say that I don’t remember ever dreaming of Hell or the equivalent. I consider myself lucky that my old Catholic primary school and church were light on the fire and brimstone, and my separation from them was not charged with emotion. While I believed, I was very serious about sin and punishment, but now I just get the odd pang of unexplained guilt.

Depending on the severity of your religious upbringing, the fear you suffered as a child may qualify as clinically defined psychological trauma, and you could now be suffering post-traumatic stress. You don’t need to have been to Vietnam to get this, anything which scares or horrifies a person enough can trigger it. Regardless, if the nightmares and the fear keep up you might want to try counselling.

Richard Dawkins talks about this kind of thing a lot. He goes so far as to label scaring kids with hellfire as child abuse, and suggests that it can in some cases be worse than sexual abuse. That sounds extreme, but there is some terrible indoctrination out there (Nate Phelps, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church, has a harrowing story) and some very mild and ineffectual sexual abuse (Dawkins himself was fondled by a priest as a child, and merely thought it was “yucky”). His detractors have claimed that he wants to have children removed from religious parents, but of course he’s never suggested anything like this.

Although your experience is not universal, you are far from alone. Take comfort in that, and in the fact that it can get better over time. Maybe you could use some help, maybe you’re fine, but I really feel for you.

“Come back here and think, dammit!”

Question from Devilush:
Why is i when I try to discuss Atheism with a theist,they always seem to run away in one way or another?Whenever their faith is challenged with science and logic they run from the conversation…do they know they are full of **** and can’t handle it so they would rather not even hear it,do they really have no will of their own and have to cling to the idea that they are watched over by a invisible incompetent father figure who does not give a ****?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s because you’re not talking to the right theists.

Sure, there are those who want to stay clear of anything which might make them question their faith, possibly because their faith demonises doubt itself, because they have a rule about arguing over religion and politics, because they don’t want to argue with you in general or simply because they don’t like having to defend their deepest convictions at short notice. That’s their choice.

Take it from me, though, there are plenty of believers out there who will happily engage you. Many of these amateur apologists write to Ask the Atheist treating it as a game of Stump the Atheist. (That’s fine by us, it makes for some of the most interesting exchanges.)

If you want to meet these people outside of the internet, they’re not too hard to find because they’re supposed to make it their business to reach out to non-believers. They’re at markets and festivals handing out pamphlets with meeting times and places. Your local Alpha course is run by one, and will probably have several more along for support. (Check out the journal of an atheist who stuck out the whole eleven weeks.)

Generally, though, keep in mind that not everyone wants to talk about this stuff at any given time. If someone proselytises around you and then won’t listen to your response, you’re justified in calling them out for being unwilling to take what they dish out. Just as non-believers are entitled to deny preachers their attention, some people just won’t want to hear about religion from you either. Don’t take it personally, and don’t judge them too quickly.

Theism: mental illness?

(New: audio version!)
Question from Devilush:
Do you agree with the studies that have been done stating that theism is similar to mental illness?

Answer by SmartLX:
I can’t actually find the studies you’re talking about. The Rational Response Squad talked about “curing the world from the mind disorder known as theism,” but they backed that up with their own arguments as opposed to actual studies. If you know of any, comment and link to them.

Theism is compared to mental illness (usually by atheists) because it involves believing in entities and events for which there is no physical evidence, scant documentation and no known natural explanation, which means it can be and has been called a delusion. The thing is, being deluded about something (which simply means misled) isn’t the same as being clinically delusional.

The big difference, for me, is that we get religion primarily from external sources. People are told what gods or equivalent beings supposedly exist, and by and large they accept the core dogma as is. There’s no particular mental illness that causes this to happen; it’s just believing what you’re told. A real mental case, on the other hand, invents as much incredible information as he or she adopts.

That brings me to an important distinction: I don’t think theism is a mental illness per se, but there are mentally ill theists out there. Further, there are many mentally ill people whose deranged thought processes are centred around religion, from those who think they’re Jesus to those who see demons everywhere to those who hear God telling them to kill people. Sure, some of these folks might actually be telling the truth, but since many contradict each other (there are several self-proclaimed Jesuses about, for instance) some of them must be wrong.

There’s plenty of criticism to level at theism based simply on the idea that it’s most likely wrong, it has no unique benefits and it’s potentially very dangerous. Questioning the sanity of all its adherents is no way to convince them of anything, and it seems to be a step too far anyway.

The “Special” Saviour

Question from Meg:
So why don’t you believe in God? I’ve always found that with most real atheists there is an actual reason rather than just a lack of interest.

And also,
In previous discussions I’ve noticed that there has apparently been other stories of saviours with twelve disciples etc. I have never heard of these parallels, so I can’t say whether or not they are true but I do know one thing for sure. Not one of these could forgive sins. Does this not mark Jesus as special?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s certainly not a lack of interest. Religion as a whole is not only interesting but fascinating. It is rather a lack of evidence or convincing arguments. At a certain point enough time had passed since my early indoctrination into Catholicism that the emotional connection had faded, so I was able to look at it with no strong bias, as a real agnostic. As I did I realised I didn’t buy into it at all anymore, and had not replaced it with any other faith, and was therefore an atheist.

While it’s been established that the individual features of Jesus’ story are all fairly common in mythology, Jesus does apparently represent a unique combination. For instance, while many gods have spent time in human form and many gods forgive sins, I know of no other story in which the earthly avatar himself was personally responsible for forgiving sins. Here is a list of other crucified saviours, and the reasons for several have to do with sin, but none of them appear to be quite the same.

I suppose you could call Jesus special based on that, but it would mean that all comparable figures are also special in their own ways. They’re all unique combinations, because they’re all at least slightly different. The Hindu god Indra, for instance, is probably the only one who had to get wasted on the liquid essence of another god (Soma) before fighting a serpent to get Earth’s water back.

Ultimately, even without devaluing the word “special” like this, the idea that Jesus was special among religious figures does not in itself support the idea that he was really a god, or rose from the dead.

A Grain of Truth?

Question from Casey:
In a previous question about the birth of Christianity the answer detailed the many links between the story of Jesus and other ‘myths’. It was then suggested that the story of Jesus was stolen. My question, however is that if so many other ‘myths’ exist that are so similar doesn’t that imply that there is more truth to Jesus’s life as even non Christians are stating His story? All ‘myths’ tend to have a basis in truth. Just something to think about.

God Bless.

Answer by SmartLX:
The myth of centaurs has a basis in truth. The basis is that people have ridden horses for thousands of years, but not everyone has. Some tribes and races unfamiliar with horses, when seeing them ridden for the first time, have failed to immediately realise that the human riders were separate from their mounts, and identified the two as a single creature until they became familiar with the utility of horses.

The point is, just because you can easily see where the myth came from doesn’t mean that there was ever a real horse-man hybrid. Not even P.T. Barnum tried to fool anybody with that one, and he once exhibited a carefully crafted mermaid.

In the story of Jesus we see claims which have been repeated throughout history at the foundation of different religions, and this is the likely basis for the similarity of those claims. In what’s now known as the early-to-middle first century, there was definitely a group of people trying to convince everyone that their now-absent leader not only spoke for God but was God. They went about it in the usual manner of people in their position: they told a story which was amazing and yet satisfyingly well-aligned with prophecies and symbolic numbers (and I use “well-aligned” deliberately, given the possible Zodiac connections).

The fact that others had tried this before says little or nothing positive about the veracity of the claims about Jesus. It just tells us that his chroniclers might have been reassured by historical precedent that people would believe them.

Answer by Andrea:
The fact that the myth of the sun god Horus preceded the tales of Buddha, Christna, Jesus, etc. by about one to two thousand years shows that the latter myths all stemmed from one source.
The main reason the Christ mythology still survives today is because Christians had the luxury of slaughtering the opposition,e.g. the Crusades.

I don’t know that it is true that all myths tend to have a basis in truth. I have yet to see a jolly guy dressed in red drop presents down my chimney, for example.

Of course, you’re entitled to believe whatever you choose to believe — provided it doesn’t hurt anyone else or you don’t try to shove your beliefs down the throats of others. If your beliefs make you feel better, I’m all for it.

Thank you for your question.

Familiarity with Scripture

Question from Casey:
Ever read the Bible or any other religious doctrine?

Answer by SmartLX:
Growing up as a Christian, and attending Catholic primary school for many years, I became quite familiar with the Bible. We mainly dealt with the most well-known parts of it: Genesis, Exodus, the four Gospels and so on. I was never devout enough to try to read the thing recreationally (except for one attempt, from which I was soon distracted) but I think I was exposed to a great deal of it. Nowadays, I use Bible Gateway and other online copies of the text to look up passages as and when they become relevant to questions from the site, or my own curiosity. To be frank, the more I read the less I like or believe it.

As for other religious texts, like the Quran, the Book of Mormon or the Talmud, I mostly know their contents from quotes. I do of course make sure a scripture really says what I think it says before I attempt to describe its position on an issue or event. If you think I’ve misrepresented something in the Bible (going by your following question, Casey, it’s clear that you’re a Christian), let me know.

Jake and Andrea will add their experiences with religious texts, if they’re around.

Tackling Testimony

Question from Michael:
Hello I was wondering what your thoughts on this conversion story. I am an atheist, and for some reason this one is a headscratcher for me. I on a whim in a effort to appease a family member of mine and to be open minded watched the Its a new day Christian show. And they had a Muslim who converted to christianity and I first I thought big whoop, and then he got into his story and I honestly don’t have a really good reply for what he is claiming he did. Some of it is to me, obvious woo woo on par with things like being abducted by aliens, but some of it is well beyond my abilities at explaining things.

The closet thing I found in his own words to what he said on the tv show was these links


Another thing that was said on the show was that he went to Bangladesh and healed people in the name of Jesus and if he didn’t heal them he would have been killed by the people there. I at first thought of Peter Popoff and Benny Hinn and later people like Kathlyn Kulman. But still I would like to know what you guys think.


Answer by SmartLX:
I found his testimony on YouTube, where he says most of what you describe.

While it’s nice to be able to explain stories like Javid’s, and I’ll try to help with this, you are not obligated to explain away every story you’re told. Javid’s testimony is entirely unsupported except by appeals to Javid’s own character, and Javid makes money from people who believe it. If some evidence showed up, then there’d really be something to explain.

As you say, there’s plenty of woo in the account of his textbook “religious experience” in prison. The bulk of it, even if it’s true from his perspective, consists of him alone in his cell speaking to Jesus, a Muslim demon and primarily himself for weeks on end. It honestly sounds like a prolonged psychotic episode.

Notice that the “djinn” appears to him exactly as described in Islam, but Jesus’ words and behaviour match his Christian depiction perfectly. A New Testament demon or a Muslim version of Jesus might have been a surprise, but to Javid the two characters were as if ripped straight from two mutually exclusive texts. It’s like a comic book one-shot crossover where Superman fights a T-800 Terminator. (That happened, actually.)

The one other mortal in the story is the man who amazingly knew to give him a Bible – after he asked for one, possibly loudly enough that word got out into the prison population that a Good Book might calm the fanatic. As for the language aspect, firstly the man now speaks English so he learned it at some point, probably in prison since there was English reading material there, and secondly it wasn’t his first Bible so he might have projected it (probably badly) from memory.

The story of faith healing on pain of death (which isn’t in the linked video) does not give me pause even if he really was in that situation. Faith healers are extraordinarily effective in a way; while there’s no sign of any real healing, the sheer faith they generate is incredible. After a concert-scale faith healing by Oral Roberts or Benny Hinn, the genuinely sick and desperate people in the audience will go away unhealed, brokenhearted (or just plain broke) but convinced that a few people up the front received miracles. If Americans, Britons and Australians can be taken in by these performances, why should the Bangladeshi be any different? The ones with the guns just had to think someone was healed.

It’s worth pointing out to whoever pointed you to Javid’s story that Javid himself doesn’t expect anyone to be directly converted by his testimony. (Here’s the moment in Part 2 when he says just that. He challenges people to pray instead.) It’s funny, in light of this, that It’s a New Day had him on for this very purpose. (Hear the hosts talk about it in the promo.) Just spreading the Word doesn’t make it stick.

The Bible, and Pascal’s Wager, in that order

Question from Quentina:
What problems have you found with the Bible?

And what if God is real and you’re wrong?

Answer by SmartLX:
The basic problem with the Bible is that it was written between 3000 and 1900 years ago by a varied group of authors, some of whom had read the others’ work but most of whom never knew each other, and who by today’s standards were woefully uneducated. Furthermore, while there’s plenty of evidence outside the Bible that people believed the stories soon after they were written, there’s little to no evidence that the central events therein (especially the supernatural events) actually happened.

If you want to get into specifics, the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible is a great start. Yes, since it was created others have devoted themselves to reconciling every single criticism it levels at the Bible, and links to some of the responses are in the SAB itself. The majority of those reconciliations, however, rely on a single interpretation of the text being the right one, and in each case there’s little support for that particular interpretation – other than that it’s the one that makes the Bible correct, which is an argument from consequences.

If I’m wrong, it doesn’t make any given believer right. If I’m wrong and God is real, God might still not be the one you think He is (assuming you believe in God), or behave as you think He does, or want from us what you think He does. In fact, if there’s a god, there are so many possible gods that the chances of your god being the real one are so very small that you’re almost certain to be worshipping a false god. You may be punished by the real god when you die, depending on how jealous he or she is.

If on the other hand you can demonstrate, or otherwise provide evidence or a logical argument, not only that there is a real god but that your god is the real one, you don’t need to rhetorically make atheists wonder whether they’re wrong; you can actually persuade them that they are wrong and you’re right. The fact that you haven’t simply attempted this straight away suggests that you know you don’t actually have such evidence or arguments. If you do have something, lay it on the table.

Undoing Brainwashing

Question from Scott:
A bit about myself first.
I’ve been an atheist for a short time now, about a year now, to be honest i don’t even really call myself an atheist, as i am not really worried about belonging to a “group” or religion, it’s just Christians ask me If you don’t belong to a group you must lead an empty existence. So just to keep them quiet i just answer atheist, as it’s the closest group l would belong to.

I used to be Christian, but i also think very scientifically, but for some reason l never really questioned that religion, even though l always had a gut feeling something was very wrong, but l never questioned it. Until one day i took a step back and realized i was just part of a brainwashed group of people, so l left that religion, started asking questions, i didn’t get any answers, only riddles and only more questions.

My question is, since religion has been around a very long time and has been drilled into our brains since birth, even though i’ve left the religion, the religion has yet to leave me, how do we undo all those years of brain washing and lies?? I still find myself thinking like a Christian, don’t get me wrong, i’m still a nice person, very friendly, i wouldn’t hurt a fly (and that’s not because of Christianity, it was that’s how l was brought up) i just find my Christian brain washing is still holding me back from being a better person.

Sorry for the long email.

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Scott,
Thank you for your email. It’s an important question, since one of the basic instincts of human nature is the tendency to form groups.

I was brought up in a Mennonite type of sect, and it took me quite a long time to overcome the Christian brainwashing I was subjected to even after I decided I was an atheist (high school). My advice is to question everything that automatically pops into your mind in that Christian vein since much of thinking is habitual, which means it may be a knee-jerk reaction rather than reality. This particularly applies to Christianity, since there is no evidence of a Jesus, 12 disciples or most of the stories of the stories found in the Bible. What the evidence does show is that the Christian mythology was “plagiarized” from earlier religions, Horus (the Krst), Buddha, Krishna (Christ-na), Prometheus… many comparative mythologists and historical scholars say these “saviors” of the history found in the Middle East and Europe have hundreds of similarities in common with that of the Christ story, one of the later religions. Most of them had 12 disciples as well, and walked on water, healed the sick including lepers, preached “the truth,” came from above to “save” mankind, featured a talking serpent, were born of a virgin on Dec. 25, dying in April only to be resurrected three days later.

One reason religions are so successful is not that they hold “the truth,” which each of them hold claim to, but the feeling of community that they provide. Fortunately, there are at least 20 different groups of atheists, and all you have to do is choose one that best fits your needs or views. Try running an internet search on each of the following secular groups and take a look at their mission statements (many will have such groups in your area):

atheists, agnostics, brights, empiricists, freethinkers, materialists, naturalists, objectivists, rationalists, secular humanists, scientific humanists, skeptics and Zen Buddhists.

You didn’t say where you live, but Meetup.com also has a plethora of different secular groups that may hold meet-ups in your area.

You sound like a very caring, intellectual person. There are so many ways you can help. You may also want to check out my website, PresentsForThePlanet.org. I don’t accept cash, but do furnish information on helping to fix this planet, which seems to be messed up in so many ways.

Best to you and thank you again for your email.


Evidence and Proof

Question from Pachomius aka yrreg:
What is your concept of evidence and proof?

Please give five examples of evidence as of proof.

By stating what five things are evidenced by what evidence.

And what five things are proved by what proof.

I understand there is a difference between evidence and proof, of course they are connected.

Answer by SmartLX:
As he’s written elsewhere, Pachomius here basically wants an atheist’s definitions of evidence and proof so that he can reference them as he attempts to prove the existence of God, pre-empting anticipated objections by the atheists he’s trying to convince. Those atheists are regulars on the James Randi Educational Foundation forum, so his work’s cut out for him. (Hiya JREF.) Besides, no other atheist is obliged to accept my definitions, so the best he can really do is pre-empt definition-based objections by me personally.

That said, I’ll give him an answer, because I’d like to see what he has to offer. In my concept, evidence and proof are indeed connected, but here’s the difference between them:
Evidence for a claim is an object, event or argument which makes the claim more likely to be true.
Proof of a claim is an object, event or argument which makes the claim certain to be true.

Therefore proof is the ultimate evidence, but evidence is not necessarily proof.

Here are five examples of evidence that would at least make me re-evaluate the probability of a claim:

– A man’s unique dental imprint on a woman’s arm would be evidence that he bit her.
– Markers appearing in the middle of the second pair of human chromosomes, which normally only appear on the ends of chromosomes, are evidence that our (ape) ancestors had one more chromosome pair at one stage, and two of them later fused together.
– A man’s amputated arm growing back seconds after he bathed in the shrine at Lourdes would be evidence for the shrine’s advertised healing properties.
– A prophecy in the Bible which predicted the day and time of three 21st century earthquakes, which then actually happened, would be evidence that its author had some prior knowledge.
– An increase in the number of Christians worldwide which coincided with a similar decrease in the number of atheists would be evidence that non-believers were converting to Christianity in large numbers. (The reality is that Christianity today mostly increases through reproduction or, in some populations unaccustomed to missionaries, at the expense of more established religions.)

Proof is a lot harder to come by. As absolutes, proofs may only exist in pure mathematics, and even then they rely on axioms which are questioned by some philosophers. Each of the following five examples, however, would be good enough for me in its own context that I would unreservedly accept the given claim:

– Seeing a gaping wound in my leg after an accident, but not feeling any pain after several hours, would be proof that I had lost the feeling in that leg. (The wait would be necessary to make sure I wasn’t simply in shock.)
– If a positive integer is divided by every positive integer between 1 and itself (non-inclusive) and none of the results are integers, that proves the integer is a prime number.
– As JBS Haldane famously said, the discovery of fossilised rabbits from the Precambrian era would prove that there was a serious flaw in the theory of evolution, given that rabbits are thought to have evolved well after the Cambrian era.
– If when we first arrived on Saturn’s moon Titan we found that a stick figure ten kilometres tall had been burnt into the surface by a laser, it would prove that intelligent life had been there before us.
– If there’s an afterlife, its existence is proved to everyone after they die through their own continued existence. (Of course, this is no help to the living.)

In the end, if people think they can establish the existence of God I don’t care whether they call their material evidence or proof. I judge it on its own merits.