Hey, That’s Our Holiday!

Question from Marilyn:
Why do Atheists celebrate Christian holidays?

Answer by SmartLX:
By and large, we don’t. Take a look at this list: atheists don’t celebrate Lent, Pentecost, The Assumption of Mary, Christ the King, All Souls’ Day, All Saints’ Day or over 20 others. And that’s without considering the individual saints’ days that occupy literally every day on the calendar.

You are of course referring to Christmas, Halloween (All Hallows Eve) and possibly Easter. There are two main responses to this.

1. In most Western countries, Christmas and Easter have state-designated vacation periods including at least one public holiday each, often several. These are holdovers from attempts by governments to emphasise their religiosity in eras gone by. Atheists in these countries get these holidays too, whether they value the reasons behind them or not, so they usually just enjoy them as time off work.

2. Atheists do often actively celebrate Christmas and Halloween, and in some cases Easter. This is because these holidays have developed cherished traditions that have almost nothing to do with their religious origins: the gift-giving, the novelty costumes, the chocolate eggs and so on. To support these traditions an encyclopedia of secular mythology has sprung up around each, not believed at all by anyone over a certain age but still enjoyed as a shared seasonal game. Santa brings the presents in December, the Easter Bunny brings the eggs in March/April, and all manner of monsters break loose in October. That’s all fun no matter what you believe.

I do hope that no one reading this thinks the honest answer to Marilyn’s question is, “because atheists secretly believe in Christianity”, but I know for a fact that many do think so. Some people just won’t live with the thought that there are others who disagree with them about an important thing.

Psychology 20 Questionnaire

Question from :
I’m currently taking Psychology 20 in school and would like to ask you a few questions about atheism for a project on spirituality if you have the time. The questions are:

1. How does your faith or understanding of the world shape your worldview?
2. How do you justify your actions (good and bad) for your belief system?
3.What gives you meaning and purpose?
4.What are ways you express yourself and why?
5. How do you view the idea of the soul and/or the afterlife?

Hoping for a quick response and thank you for taking the time to answer.

Answer by SmartLX:
Not my quickest response ever, but not bad. Here we go.

1. My view of the world is that it’s shaped and influenced by natural forces, which are powerful but undirected and certainly not worth pleading with. I’m acutely aware that many do not feel this way, so I see what appears to be a great deal of effort wasted because it’s spent trying to please gods that I don’t think are there.

2. I care for myself, and as a social animal I care for the people around me. My awareness of the world beyond my immediate surroundings extends that expression of care to all the people of the world, generally speaking. I justify my actions in terms of the benefit and harm they do to myself and other people, not necessarily in that order, with a view to maximising benefit and minimising harm. The exact meanings of those two quantities I often re-evaluate based on the situation, so that I’m not thinking in a way that doesn’t apply to the circumstances at hand.

3. I choose what my purposes are. From personal achievements to the welfare of selected others (that is, not all purposes are selfish), I devote myself to realising those things I want to bring to fruition. This gives my life meaning to me, and to many others, though not to everyone. This is enough, because whether my life matters to all strangers is not something I worry about.

4. I speak, I write, I sing, I draw, I work, I dance, I play, I struggle, I love. I do these things because I can.

5. The soul does not appear to exist, because identity and consciousness are products of the brain and are damaged or destroyed when the brain is. After the death of the brain there is nothing left of a person to experience any kind of afterlife.

The Face Of Jesus

Question from Vlad:
Last night I got together with a few friends, and we were talking about how in Islam for example, there is very little imagery (if any) of the prophet Muhammad or Isa (Jesus) but how in Christianity, there are numerous depictions and drawings of Jesus. One thing I found curious was that many of the so-called visions people have of Jesus in dreams, or even according to some individuals “in real life” generally cater to the images they were brought up to believe. A Christian living in Texas, for example, who believes he or she encountered Jesus, is likely to describe him as having long dark hair, pretty light skin, a thin build, etc. However, I brought this up during our conversation, and one of my friends (who is very religious) told me that Jesus did actually look like the way he is depicted in photos. I know quite a few people on here may not even believe Jesus ever existed, but assuming he did, I would have thought that he would have likely looked less “European”. My friend told me that recently, a cloth with Jesus’s face on it was discovered apparently where he was buried, and there are documentaries about this. Apparently carbon dating was done to prove that this cloth existed around his time. He said the only thing they could not verify was Jesus’s skin colour, but that it is actually known what his physical structure looked like. I’m not sure if any of you are familiar with these recent claims, but I would like to know, what would your opinion be on this? Does this give these visions any more credence?

Answer by SmartLX:
Islam, or the widely practiced version of it, expressly forbids depictions of Muhammad. That was the whole basis of the furore surrounding the Danish cartoons depicting him, and the resulting attack on the publication in which they appeared. That’s why there are so few images of him. As for Jesus in the Muslim tradition, he’s only a relatively minor figure in that mythology, and not being able to depict Muhammad makes it difficult to express images of any of the other figures regardless.

The “cloth with Jesus’s face on it” was the Shroud of Turin, which I’ve covered before. Its whereabouts have only been traced definitively back to the 14th to 15th century, and the majority of carbon dating tests done on it so far place its origin around that time. The Christian image of Jesus had mostly been standardised by the 6th century, so if the shroud is a fake then it creators were already working from the image we’re familiar with from so many paintings.

There are claims that those tests were invalid because they were supposedly done on newer patches of cloth, but even the strongest advocates of the shroud’s authenticity can only point to a test which indicates a date range that includes the time of Jesus, but also includes the year 1000 BC and the year AD 1700. In other words it’s useless.

Coming back to your question about people’s visions of Jesus matching the image on the shroud, they also match the accepted image of Jesus from all the art. Even if the shroud is genuine, the supposed visions would only be amazing just for matching the shroud if the shroud were the only surviving source of that type of depiction of Jesus. To sustain the claim, a Christian would have to go on to claim that every famous artist who painted that kind of face for him had a similar vision, because otherwise the face comes to people’s minds for other reasons than that Jesus has paid them all a visit.

More Than a Feeling? Not Even a Feeling

Question from Dylan:
As an Atheist, do you have that feeling/thought deep down that tells you there has to be a God? I was an Atheist for my whole life and fought with the idea of god, even though I felt it was right. I couldn’t bring myself to believe because I didn’t have cold hard evidence right in front of me and obviously didn’t want to waste my life on something that may be false. Long story short I found faith during some hard times, I accepted Jesus and have never felt the same.

I just wanted to say that if you do have that feeling deep down that God is real, give it a chance. From one human to another, faith has changed my life entirely and after stumbling upon your site I felt compelled to share this with you. Sorry if you’ve already completely made up your mind, I just thought I’d give it a shot. Just keep in mind that sometimes the heart knows best.

Enjoy your Sunday and take care mate.

Answer by SmartLX:
I didn’t have that feeling even when I was a Christian. I just accepted what I was told and assumed God was real right up until I realised that some people didn’t believe, and some of the theology (though I hadn’t learned the term) didn’t really make sense to me. This led to a minor crisis of faith at age 11 and I just stopped thinking about it all. A couple of times I reassured myself that certain coincidences were God at work, but they were just so trivial and the argument felt hollow, so I dropped it again. Finally I took stock as an adult and realised my belief had faded entirely, and the world made more sense without a god than with. My heart did not object, and I felt no disappointment. Rather, I felt freed.

Faith does change lives, I wouldn’t dispute that. It even changes some lives for the better overall, though of course it has its drawbacks from a secular perspective. But it’s not the only thing that can effect that sort of positive change, and the change does not depend on the god actually being real because it may simply be all you, with a new attitude. But it’s all good, do what you’re compelled to do.

So Many Saints, So Many Miracles

Question from Jacob:
Hey, So this post won’t be on any specific miracle, but mainly on those of the Saints before they can be canonized. Many of these miracles go through some very careful Investigations by the Vatican. So how does a skeptic explain so many of them?

Answer by SmartLX:
Go and read about some specific saints from post-Biblical times and the miracles attributed to them. I’ll wait.

There’s no good evidence for any of them, but to the Church doesn’t need the evidence to be good. The miracles that supposedly occurred during the saints’ lives are anecdotal, but many of the saints are canonised based on events that occur after their deaths. Amazing medical recoveries after praying to the right figure are probably the most common “miracle” and, as in the case of 19th century saint Francis Xavier Bianchi, the required evidence for even this is mere testimony before Church-appointed “judges”, and not by the doctors but by the patients themselves.

The position of “devil’s advocate” is a real thing in the Church, but its role even at its most active seems to have been to seek clear evidence of hoaxes and signs of a potential saint’s poor character, because being utterly discredited was about the only thing that would stop the rise of a new saint once the process was in motion. The judges could disregard anything that turned up if they chose. And then in 1983 Pope John Paul II changed the role of the position and removed nearly all its power, and the rate of canonisation skyrocketed. Relatively speaking, it’s an open door now.

The sheer number of miracle claims would be more worrying to skeptics if there were any indication that the average quality of the claims were beyond the level that only an already devout Christian would accept. There’s no such indication, so skeptics only pay attention to the few that Christians really push as being incontrovertible. Even those are all eminently controvertible.

Help With Your Homework

Question from Sheena:
Hello, I’m currently studying Year 10. I would like to ask you a few questions with my Religion major assignment. If it’s okay.

Here are the questions:
1. What is your name?
2. What is the reason you became an Atheist?

Hoping for your immediate response.

Answer by SmartLX:
Sure it’s okay Sheena, but wow, that’s all they told you to ask? But then I suppose “why” is the only question that’s really on one’s mind when faced with a person whose position is so different from one’s own.

1. My name’s Alex, and you can give them any surname you want and they’ll accept it. Alex is a very common given name. Or be honest and say you asked a public blogger, this site will prove you right and they’ll understand my unwillingness to throw my whole name around.

2. I was a self-professed Christian until about the age of 11-12, when I was suddenly shocked by the fact that I didn’t have an answer to the Problem of Evil: why evil exists in the world if there’s a God who’s all-powerful, all-knowing and absolutely good. (Years later I didn’t just find one answer but far too many different ones; it became clear that no one really knows. But that was after the fact.) It was too hard to think about and I had teen things to focus on, and I moved from a Catholic primary school to a secular high school, so I didn’t consider religion seriously for almost 15 years. Without the constant reinforcement from within and without I barely prayed, I only went to church for Easter and Christmas and zoned out both times, and I only read the Bible when tracking down quotes (like the speech from Pulp Fiction).

Then in 2006 I read about Richard Dawkins and New Atheism, when journalists were all writing their first articles on the subject. Without reading any of Dawkins’ work or knowing any of his contemporaries’ talking points, I suddenly asked myself whether I still believed in God. It turned out that I didn’t, my simple opinion was that His existence no longer seemed likely. I was by definition an atheist. You should note that this is when I realised I was an atheist – the point when I became one could have been any time in the preceding years.

I recognised that this was a pretty big turnaround, so THEN I started digging into the meat of the debate to see if I was missing something. I searched the Web for the best arguments in favour of God, or any other god. Every one of them was plainly flawed (as I’ve chronicled in my Great Big Arguments series). There were certainly plenty of people willing to defend the arguments, but their defenses just weren’t convincing. I hadn’t known of this general weakness in the “apologetic” as a Christian boy, but it didn’t matter because I didn’t even know the arguments, I had merely accepted what I was told. I’d only known atheists existed because my father is one, and he only ever told me on two occasions.

So there you have it. I’m an atheist because I took a break from religion long enough to lose my emotional connections to it, and when I returned to the subject it was easier to see that faith was not intellectually justified. If the right justification finally came along it would be a different story, but I’m still waiting. In the meantime I live my life as if there is no god, and from that perspective much to do with religion appears pretty rotten.

The Concept of The Blind Watchmaker

Question from James:
Why does Richard Dawkins use the analogy of a “blind watchmaker” to describe natural selection?

Answer by SmartLX:
Straight from Wikipedia:
“In his choice of the title for this book, Dawkins refers to the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology.[1] Paley, writing long before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, held that the complexity of living organisms was evidence of the existence of a divine creator by drawing a parallel with the way in which the existence of a watch compels belief in an intelligent watchmaker. Dawkins, in contrasting the differences between human design and its potential for planning with the workings of natural selection, therefore dubbed evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker.”

Essentially, natural selection clearly does not plan. Paley’s argument is that if a watch suggests the existence of a watchmaker, the supposed appearance of design in living things should suggest the existence of a designer, but on closer inspection life is not as it would have been if designed by an entity with all its faculties intact. The reasons given by Dawkins include vestigial organs and features, inefficient physical arrangements of a body’s components (like the recurrent laryngeal nerve), inefficient solutions to simple problems, easily avoidable susceptibilities to malfunction, disease and death (see here for examples in humans), and needlessly expensive competition between individual organisms. Life functions, sometimes barely, but it could be so much better if someone had actually designed it rather than natural selection procedurally applying the simplest short-term solution to everything.

An Early Ticket To The Afterlife

Question from Douglas:
Do people who commit suicide go to heaven? Just watched the movie “The Discovery” on Netflix.

Answer by SmartLX:
Obviously The Discovery is a science fiction story, not a documentary, but like all good sci-fi it’s intended to provoke people to think about the real world and where we’re headed. Besides, (MILD SPOILERS) where they go in the movie isn’t exactly heaven so it doesn’t inform this question much.

I don’t think people who commit suicide go to heaven, because I don’t think there’s an afterlife, let alone a heaven, for anyone to go to. The identity is destroyed with the shutdown of the brain and it no longer exists to go anywhere.

Regardless, I’m against people committing suicide in most cases because of its straightforward consequences in this world: your own life ends with no possible chance of improving your circumstances or anyone else’s, and lasting anguish can be inflicted on those you leave behind.

I say “most cases” because I’m also in favour of voluntary euthanasia or assisted/accompanied suicide, when a person has reached a measured conclusion that continuing to live is too painful to justify any potential benefits. Organisations like Dignitas do a good job of making the decision and the action carefully considered, rational, compassionate processes with a minimum of drama.

I’m aware of course that religious approaches to this question are very different. If taking life is a sin, then suicide gives one no time to absolve or atone for the sin of taking one’s own life, so the shortcut to heaven is barred. This has a practical religious purpose in both the religious and secular view. For the religious, suicide prevents one from serving the mysterious purpose one’s deity has for one. For anyone on the outside looking in, it’s a simple way of preventing belief in an ideal afterlife from sending a religion’s followers to an early grave and depopulating the religion.

The exception which gives a religious rationale for suicide is sacrifice. If you get something important done by putting yourself in harm’s way, this might very well be your holy purpose, whether to be a martyr who gathers support or to take a lot of unbelievers with you. So really, there are religious reasons both to die and not to die and you can twist it any way you want, which is dangerous.

What About Judaism?

Question from :
Shalom all, I see that you focus on many religions, but haven’t seen anything on Judaism. I wonder what your opinion might be on it, and, if to someone, if the be Torah divine. To me it is, but I’d like to hear any arguments against it, not that I may refute or debate it, but just to “see” what the other side has to offer.

Answer by SmartLX:
There are indeed only a few articles that involve Judaism, simply because not many people writing in identify as Jewish or ask about specifically Jewish topics.

Very little of my perspective on Judaism is unique to Judaism. It’s a theistic religion, reliant on claims of the existence of an interventionist creator god which I don’t think are justified. Nearly all of the Great Big Arguments for gods that I’ve covered can be used to argue for your god just as well as any other, and they have no additional merit when applied to yours.

My perspective on the Torah, as an ex-Christian, is that it’s a subset of the books in the Bible and specifically the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Many of the discussions I’ve had on the divinity and inerrancy of the Bible can be applied to these five books. To approach them from scratch, I don’t think they’re divine because I don’t think there’s a real god to bestow divinity on anything. To argue in the other direction for the existence of the god based on certain discernible qualities of the books is to argue that such qualities are impossible without the influence of a god, which I don’t think is the case.

If you’re looking for specific challenges to the material in the Torah, I’ve occasionally touched on Exodus, and all the stuff on evolution and cosmology has some bearing on Genesis.

Mopping Up After Fátima

Question from Jacob:
Hello, So I think I am finally starting to get over the miracles thing and I would like to thank you Since you played a large role in it. However, there are still 2 things that bother me and that is the fact that war has declined since the end of the cold war, look at the statistics. And that Russia has become largely Christian since then.

Answer by SmartLX:
We’ve discussed these specific points in other articles, but let’s go over them once more.

Full-scale war between nations has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but this doesn’t really indicate that things are more peaceful. All of the world’s superpowers are now nuclear powers, so even if the same animosities have never gone away everyone’s afraid to act upon them on a large scale in case the world is ended. Ongoing conflicts like that between Israel and Palestine bleed thousands of lives without the “war” label ever fully applying. Many warlords have learned the merits of attacking the superpowers without a nation behind them, so that their actions instead fall under the banner of terrorism and it’s almost impossible to fight back effectively. This geopolitical climate does little to fulfill the spirit of the prophecy. And of course at any moment it could explode into an all-out war that dwarfs anything that came before and completely invalidates the prophecy.

The moment the anti-religious regime in Russia collapsed, it created a huge vacuum where the sudden lack of suppression allowed religion to flood into the Motherland. Surprise surprise, the majority religion among white people won out. The prophecy’s guess wasn’t very impressive since it would only matter if the expansionist regime did collapse.