Ouija Ouija Woo Woo

Question from Dominic:
Athiests talk so much about the existence/non-existence of God but how about evil? Have any of you played the Ouija board lately? I’d like you to take that silly little test and then tell me if you believe in a power of darkness. And, if so, than if God is gone is our world then ruled by evil?

Answer by SmartLX:
A great test for immediately afterwards is to use a Ouija board blindfolded. The ideomotor phenomenon is quite sufficient to explain how people who are not aware of guiding the pointer over the board are nevertheless directing it mechanically and quite precisely, because when they can no longer see the board the pointer immediately goes astray. The spirits by themselves are blind, it would seem, and the apparatus behaves exactly as if they weren’t there. You’re left with a pattern on a plank of wood that’s probably copyrighted by Parker Brothers.

The apparent effectiveness of a Ouija board when used as intended is therefore not good evidence for the existence of ethereal spirits, much less evil spirits and much, much less a god to balance them out. Even if you did know evil was real, this by itself as an argument for the existence of a good god would only be an appeal to consequences. Evil is real, so…what? You hope there’s a God or we’re all screwed?

The Preacher’s Wife

Question from Jeannette:
Hello. In short, I have been thinking a lot about the logic of atheism and find myself resonating with the ideas. I have made religious searches before, always theistic. But in atheism I seem to get the questions answered that I have had all along.

So, the problem is that I am married to a Baptist preacher who told me, the last time I was “searching”, that he would divorce me for going outside of Christianity. But when I went back to the faith he didn’t.

I really don’t want a divorce. But if I told him about my atheistic leanings he would no doubt feel that he needs to protect the children from me. Maybe he would bring up divorce again.

So it seems like keeping my thoughts to myself is the best way to do this. But it kind of feels like a lie. I don’t mind keeping the truth to myself. But I feel like my husband would feel betrayed and like I didn’t really love him, if, say I told him several years down the road.

But I have two small children and I don’t feel like a divorce is a good thing.

Any thoughts?

Answer by SmartLX:
Sounds pretty simple, though tragic: if your husband has threatened to end the marriage if you cease to be a Christian and you take him at his word, you must lie about your beliefs to stay in the marriage. Not knowing which country you’re in I don’t know how divorce and custody laws would treat the two of you given that he has stated his intent to shield your children from your influence, but it’s an ugly battle in any environment and I’m sure you want to avoid it if possible.

The part about taking him at his word is important though. Would he really shut you out immediately if you admitted you were struggling in your faith? He’s a preacher, he’s supposed to be qualified to help people in your situation. If you said you wouldn’t try to deconvert your children or anyone in his congregation, and that you would continue to attend services, surely the two of you could engage in some kind of ongoing dialogue wherein you tell him exactly what your concerns are, instead of simply giving him the vague and frightening idea that you might suddenly turn heathen and corrupt everything around you.

That sounds a bit silly, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that atheism can be really scary to someone like your husband. Its very existence flies in the face of Scripture as interpreted by some. (Specifically, Romans 1:18 and onwards appears to say that God has shown evidence of Himself to everyone, therefore everyone supposedly believes deep down.) He likely has a rough but extremely negative idea of what atheists are like in general (i.e. a prejudice), and he’ll probably need some time to get used to the idea that your inability to justify continued belief in God doesn’t make you evil or dangerous. He just needs to see things from your point of view, and for that to happen the two of you will need to talk. After that I can’t say what will happen, but at least you’ll have treated each other like adults.

However you decide to approach him, or not, good luck and all the best to your whole family.

Oh, Hell

Question from Jeannette:
Hell-o. So, if you have any information or proof on why Hell couldn’t exist could you share it with me? I have been a Christian my whole life and now I am really seeing the logic of atheism.

My husband is a Baptist minister. So this is difficult. But my main issue is that I would like to put the issue of whether or not there is a Hell to rest.

The only reason I would teach my children about Christianity is because I am terrified of them possibly going to hell. So I feel like the most compassionate thing for me to do is to research this and hopefully find that there is no hell and share it with them when the time is right.


Answer by SmartLX:
You’re taking the hardest route by looking for proof that Hell doesn’t exist, just like those looking for proof that God doesn’t exist. It’s impossible to do without exhausting possibilities you could only test if you were omniscient yourself. If you establish that Hell can’t exist physically for some reason related to thermodynamics, for example, theologians (both professional and armchair) will insist that it exists outside of the physical, or in a different physical realm where the rules are different. When all that is “known” about a place is merely asserted, the assertions can easily change to get around any objections.

Fortunately the burden is not really on you to prove it doesn’t exist, because there’s no evidence that it does exist. It’s merely a claim by several different religions (which each describe its qualities, and importantly the criteria for being sent there, very differently) which is supported only by mentions in Scripture. Even that isn’t conclusive – some theologians argue that the Bible doesn’t establish it at all. Here’s an article with the major Bible-based reasons to dispute the existence of Hell, which even if they’re not conclusive to believers at least demonstrate that it’s not simply a believers-versus-heathens issue.

Regarding you personally, there’s not much to worry about if you’re seeing that atheism has a point. Hell, as described by Christianity, exists directly because of God, and if God isn’t looking likely then neither is Hell.

That said, if you think there’s a possibility of you or the people you love going to Hell, I know it’s terrifying. This terror is such that it sticks with people long after their belief in God, Hell or anything related has faded. (I call it “faithdrawal”.) But even if there is a Hell there’s no point frantically trying to stay out of it because there’s no way to do so with any confidence. If you follow any specific Christian denomination (e.g. Baptism) then there are dozens of others that think you’re going to Hell for not following theirs. If you’re Christian at all, the Muslims think you’re going to Hell, and vice versa. And if you’re atheist, of course, then there are people of most faiths who think you’re Hell-bound regardless of the life you’ve led. In that situation though, taking up any religion is less likely to get you condemned by the “right” religion than saved by it, just because there are so many and you’re so unlikely to pick the true one (if any).

Your children are going to hear about Hell from your husband or his congregation, no question. If they comprehend it and they believe it then they will be frightened by it, no question. If you so much as tell them once that you disbelieve, or even doubt, then it will no longer be a certainty in their minds. My father’s an atheist and he told me so a grand total of twice, and was quiet the rest of the time while my mother talked as if God was beyond doubt. The fact that someone I respected disagreed with the doctrine was all it took for me to realise there was something to investigate. The sooner your children see Hell as an academic argument, the less they’ll be impacted on an emotional level. (If you don’t want to reveal your own disbelief because of your husband, maybe mention someone else you know who doubts it.)

If they do end up taking it to heart, at least it’s a trauma they’ll share with millions of others. Like the fear of death, it lessens after the initial shock of discovery until it’s hardly thought of at all. You really have to obsess over something like that to maintain that horrible initial feeling. So if you can’t combat it directly, just distract as best you can and let them get back to being kids.

“Did they Die for a Lie?” And Other Appeals to Character

Question from Jamie:
I have a question about two types of evidence that Christians use to prove the Bible. What do you (and maybe most atheists?) think of Saul of Tarsus’ conversion and the historical record of at least 3 of the apostles being martyred for their beliefs as being any kind of proof that Christianity is true? They say that it is very unlikely that people would have died for a lie and Paul had no reason to suddenly convert. I’m not asking as a Christian but as kind of a skeptic.

Answer by SmartLX:
Doesn’t matter who you ask as, I’ll answer it the same way.

Christian-persecutor Saul had no reason to suddenly convert to super-Christian Paul that we know of, but that’s not the same as having no reason to do it. There are plenty of reasons you can imagine; guilt is an obvious one, but it could simply have been a very persuasive proselytising Christian. If Saul had any earthly reason to switch but didn’t want to admit to it, the story of Jesus appearing to him on the road to Damascus was a great alternative that his new fellow worshipers would happily accept.

Perhaps something really did happen to him which he mistook for a divine experience. He’d never seen Jesus in life, so any man might have sufficed. The temporary blindness he reported could even be a sign of a stroke, so there are plausible ways in which his judgement could have been impaired.

The point is that supporting one’s claim by saying or implying there are no alternatives is a very weak argument unless one can actually establish that there are no possible alternatives. Otherwise you’re claiming that if you don’t know of a possibility, there is no such possibility. This is an argument from ignorance, the logical fallacy I most often see in arguments for the existence of God.

The argument about the apostles’ sacrifice is similar: that they had no reason to “die for a lie”. As you can see from the linked YouTube search, this is a major talking point for Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and other prominent apologists. Again, the short response is that there are plenty of potential reasons. Maybe they believed the lie, or they thought the lie was worthwhile to advance the teachings of Jesus. Maybe the lie was a good short-term measure to keep them from being lynched by their own followers; not counting Judas an apostle was first killed eleven years after Jesus died, which isn’t bad considering. Maybe reports of their martyrdom are greatly exaggerated.

There are Christians who won’t tolerate a bad word about these arguments appealing to the integrity of the earliest disciples. Whenever I address one here, a long thread of comments follows where each of the hypothetical alternatives I’ve presented is attacked in great detail. It’s pointless because the alternatives aren’t limited to what I personally can imagine, but it shows that this topic genuinely and reliably strikes a nerve. That makes me think that behind the chaff of myriad apologetics Christians are taught and simply repeat, this is one idea that they actually use to reassure themselves that they’re right.

A Message Baked Into Pi?

Question from Anthony:
Suppose that the human race somehow received a direct revelation from God. There are many ways in which this might happen, but let’s go with the method that Carl Sagan used in his novel Contact, which was later made into a movie starring Jodie Foster. (This aspect of the novel never made it into the film.) In the book, we are told that, from the earliest days of our universe, advanced extraterrestrial civilizations throughout our galaxy have discovered that, if you calculate certain irrational numbers (like pi, e, the square root of 2, etc.) far enough out, you’ll find messages. Of course, for that to be the case, the messages would have to be from “God.” In the book, we aren’t told which number or numbers contains the messages, or what the messages actually are, but let’s just say that it’s pi and that one message explains the nature of God. Decades from now, human quantum computers calculate pi far enough out to reveal God’s message. It’s presented in such a manner that, knowing mathematics and the laws of science, it can be interpreted by any civilization.

Roughly translated, the message is: “I am the Source of All Things. I am the Alpha and Omega. I created this universe as an act of will, for reasons only I can understand. I designed it such that, after billions of years, you would come into existence, too. Welcome to my universe, my children. You have no doubt been wondering about me. Why did I create the universe? What is its purpose? What is my nature? I will tell you now, but there are a few things that you must understand first. Infinities are impossible. No actual existing thing can be infinite or eternal in nature. It is like dividing by zero; it makes no sense. I am older, wiser, and more powerful than you can imagine. Functionally, eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent as viewed from your subjective perspective. In absolute terms, though, I am none of these things. Additionally, although I am the Source of All That Is, the creator of this universe, I am not un-caused myself. I created this universe, and it created me. We created each other. In short, I am the Creator of All That Is. I am, as far as you are concerned, eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent. I exist outside of time and space. However, I am supernatural only in the sense that none of you can comprehend the nature of my powers or the essence of my Being. I can bend or break the laws of nature which are familiar to you, having created them, but there are Greater Laws which I Myself must obey. You do not yet understand these laws. Having made my nature clear to you, I have only one thing to tell you. There exists one simple equation which defines and shapes the entire universe. That equation is: 6 x 7 = 42. End of message.”

OKAY: Here’s my question. Do you think that Christians, Jews, and Muslims would be cool with this. Would they accept this PROVEN God, as He presents himself, or would they reject “all this pi mumbo-jumbo” and stick with their traditional worldview and beliefs. Or… would they now define themselves as atheists?

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, that exact message IS encoded in pi – and e, and the square root of 2, and every other irrational number. This is because not only do these numbers never end, but they never loop back to the start, so no matter what code you pick, that message will eventually be spelled out in it if you calculate the number to enough decimal places. This fact is meaningless because literally every possible message is encoded in the same numbers. It’s like looking up at the Milky Way and visualising shapes using only a few of the countless stars; there’s practically no end to the possibilities, but no shape is significant.

Anyway, if a message from the Creator really was buried in mathematics, there’s enough anti-intellectualism around that plenty of believers would doubt the academics who found the message on sheer principle. But let’s say the message was written across the sky worldwide, appearing to each person in his or her own language, so that none could deny it. Belief in a god would cease to be worth discussing once everyone accepted that it was real; it would be like believing in dogs, or believing in paper.

Atheism would become absurd, except in the sense that it would be possible to define the Creator as something other than a god. The debate would turn to pure theology; a real godlike entity would be the subject to study and discuss, because discerning its wishes and intentions would be of utmost importance. People of many faiths, particularly monotheistic faiths (since only one Creator had revealed itself), would certainly do their best to fit what we knew about the Creator into their existing ideas about God, with varying degrees of success. Even of those who abandoned their old beliefs because of the new information, many would retain strong connections to the cultures centred on their religions. (Today’s ‘secular Jews’ demonstrate this in the present day by keeping that identity while rejecting the idea of God.)

Since I don’t think it’s likely a god or comparable entity exists, I don’t think the above scenario is likely either. But if it happened, it would be a very exciting time to be alive.

The Virginal Consensus

Question from Kaitlyn:
I need some help with a question that is really confusing me. I just watched a video regarding Jesus in the Bible. It said that Matthew and Luke wrote about how Jesus was born, his miracles, and his resurrection. It also was said that they may have not known each other. How were they able to write about the same thing, for example that Jesus came from a virgin? Even though they don’t have the exact same story, how could they both all of a sudden think he came from a virgin? I am an atheist, but I question all theories because I would rather be 100 percent about everything before completely crashing it down. This question is one I can’t find myself to answer on my own, and is really making me question what to believe. Please, some help would be awesome! Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s quite a lot going on here. Your question touches on several different issues of Biblical authorship, so I’ll address them separately.

If the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke were in fact written by the apostles Matthew and Luke who knew and followed Jesus, then of course they knew each other and could collaborate on their accounts. As you probably know, though, these gospels were written years or even decades after the given timeframe of Jesus’ crucifixion, and very possibly by other people.

Though the authors might not have known each other, they could have had access to the same accounts from earlier on. As it happens, a popular hypothesis is that the authors of Matthew and Luke shared two principal sources, which explains much of the overlap: the Gospel according to Mark, and an as-yet-undiscovered and therefore hypothetical second document known as the Q source. To summarise, there are credible alternative explanations for the claims made by Matthew and Luke ‘independently’ to the false dilemma of pure coincidence or divine advice.

When the Book of Isaiah, which contains the prophecy relating to the Messiah’s birth, was translated from Hebrew to Greek, the word almah regarding the mother was translated to parthenos. The easiest way to explain the significance of this is that the equivalent of the word maiden, which might mean ‘virgin’ in some circumstances but otherwise just means ‘young woman’, was changed to the word virgin and all ambiguity was eliminated. (The literal Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ is betulah, which wasn’t used.) The Greek translation was made around 200 BC(E) and was therefore available to all the authors of the Gospels if they did basic research. Even if the above hypothesis is wrong and ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ had no common direct sources for the life of Jesus, they both knew that the Messiah’s life had damn well better match the centuries-old prophecy’s call for a virgin mother.

Do you admire any Christians?

JimmyC asks….

There are many negative stereotypes about Christians. And, unfortunately many of those stereotypes prove to be true. Are there any Christians in your past or present that you admire and feel are misrepresented by the stereotypes? Thanks

Great question Jimmy and very original. We haven’t had that one here yet. Thanks.

There are many people who are christian that I admire. They range from my friends and family to politicians. What makes a person admirable to me isn’t what faith or political side they swing towards, it’s how they treat other people. I don’t care what a persons faith or lack of faith is as long as they lend a hand to someone who needs one. Christianity teaches that “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8 KJB) but few Christians actually practice this, which in turn creates the stereotype you’re referring to.

Jimmy Carter is a great example to me of a devout christian who practices charity. Instead of sitting on his ass after his presidency, he went out and built homes. He helped feed the hungry. He works toward improving the conditions of those that society has brushed aside. He also believes in the separation of church and state. If more Christians, hell, if more people of faith were like him, atheists wouldn’t have as much of a problem with them.


Is Faith Crazy?

Question from Alfredo:
The “What is an Atheist?” video did a terrific job of explaining the terms “atheist,” “agnostic,” and “theist,” pointing out that it is possible to be an atheist-agnostic. Logically, if one can be an atheist-agnostic, one can also be a theist-agnostic, but the video made no mention at all of theist-agnostics. (Logically, it should even be possible to be an atheist-gnostic in the same way that one can “know” that super-position, quantum-entanglement, and quantum tunnelling are real phenomenon, but be unable to (really) believe that the universe works this way in one’s gut.)

At one point in the video, Jake addressed the popular notion that an agnostic falls somewhere between an atheist and a theist. He used the analogy of being a little pregnant to convey the idea that believing and not believing at the same time seems a bit muddled. I’m inclined to think that the reason that most people think of an “agnostic” as being half-way between a theist and an atheist is that popular culture often muddles “belief” and “knowledge.”

A theist believes in God, but also KNOWS that there is a God. An atheist doesn’t believe in God and (as many understand the term), KNOWS that there is no God. Therefore, an “agnostic” is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but doesn’t know FOR SURE, the way that an “atheist” does.

My question addresses the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, and how it contrasts with the DISBELIEF-AGNOSTICISM of the “weak atheist” and the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong atheist.” (I’m posing this question within the context of the full-broad issue of whether or not there is a god or gods– not the narrower, and much easier to answer, question of whether or not the Islamic-Judeo-Christian God exists.)

Even Richard Dawkins defines himself as an atheist-agnostic with regard to the full-broad question of whether or not any sort of god or gods exists. I’m going to tentatively assume that we all agree that the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong” atheist is just as absurd as the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, as long as we aren’t talking about profoundly anthropomorphic, logically self-contradictory entities.

Belief and faith are intimately interconnected, but there are two kinds of faith. There’s conventional religious faith, in which one defines one’s belief to be knowledge– to be fact– either because one wants it to be fact really, really badly and thinks this justifies defining it as fact, or because one is incapable of distinguishing between belief and fact. Then there’s secular faith– the faith that one has in one’s children, in one’s country, or in the human race. If my daughter has cancer and I say that I have faith that she’ll be okay, I’m actively and willfully marginalizing the thought that she may die in my mind, but I’m not denying the possibility. I also have some rational justification for believing that she’ll be okay, otherwise my secular “faith” is actually nothing more than hope. Secular faith is more than hope, but less than knowledge.

So, here’s my question in a nutshell: If we can differentiate between agnosticism and atheism, why can’t we differentiate between faith and psychosis? Why can’t we make a distinction, conceptually and verbally, between a religious person who believes and has faith, but is agnostic with regard to the existence of god– in the same way that Richard Dawkins disbelieves and lacks faith, but is agnostic with regard to the existence of God? Why, in other words, is being a theist synonymous with being batsh*t crazy?

Answer by SmartLX:
Being a theist, from the perspective of an atheist, is simply synonymous with being wrong, or at least likely to be wrong. There’s no need to lump crazy in with it at the conceptual level. Of course it is sometimes accompanied by some level of crazy, but so is atheism or any other position. I wrote about this once before, and I’m still happy with my earlier piece.

A rational mind can accommodate an irrational faith if it has a “rational justification” which is flawed, and does not see the flaws. Rational is not the same as infallible, and no one expects us to be right about everything, only to try to be.

Otherwise, the “rational mind” can simply be somewhat irrational with regard to the object of faith, not accepting its flaws, and mostly rational the rest of the time. A parent with a deathly ill child might be like this. Some degree of irrationality is intrinsic to our nature as instinctive, emotional beings. It’s why we should try to be rational when we can, to compensate for the other times.