Question from Lee:
I just want to ask what do you guys think about the afterlife (after you die), because that’s the only thing that’s keeping me believing in God but I don’t pray to God because why would I pray to someone who is powerful enough to create a world of peace but instead make a chaotic world that’s forcing us to do sins.
Answer by SmartLX:
An afterlife requires a soul, or something similar which lets a person’s identity and personality survive the death of the body and brain. There’s no good evidence for souls, so atheists usually don’t believe there’s any kind of afterlife. From the perspective of someone who dies, the world doesn’t fade to eternal darkness and silence because that’s still a kind of afterlife; there stops being a person who can experience anything, or who anything can happen to. Some atheists do believe in the existence of souls, an afterlife and even ghosts, but this isn’t due to their atheism. They just believe for some reason that souls can exist without a god.
Whether or not you want there to be afterlife is not a good reason to believe or disbelieve in gods, because if one of two possible truths is preferable that doesn’t make it more likely. Thinking so regardless is an appeal to consequences. If you don’t believe in God but you’re not happy about it, you’re still an atheist, you’re just not happy about being an atheist and you should try to make your peace with it.
Question from Jerry:
I very often hear about if the Earth is ~6000 – ~10.000 years old or if it is billions years old.
But I don’t understand how this is an argument, just because in the Bible it says God created the heavens and the earth and all live on the Earth in 6 days.
So.. if Adam would do scientific research on the universe and the planet, would the planet look like its only a couple of days old?
I can’t imagine how that would look like, because scientifically, a 6 day year old planet would look nothing like a planet, more a ball of lava.
So If God created the Earth to be habitable, it would HAVE to be a billion year old planet, there is no other choice. So of course the planet looks old, even if it’s created just a second ago.
So many atheists use the evidence for an old Earth as an argument against Creation. I don’t see how it has any argumentative value though.
I’m wondering what an atheist’s response to this is.
Thank you ever so much 🙂
Answer by SmartLX:
Young Earth creationists (YECs) do say that God created the Earth more or less the way it is, without working through the lava-world phase over millions of years. As you say, there’s strong evidence for an old Earth (geological, astronomical, radiometric, etc.), so a young Earth would have been created with all that evidence essentially falsified. This is the problem though, because why would God go to so much trouble to deceive us into thinking it was so old? Especially if we’re supposed to take the roughly six thousand year history of the world in the Bible seriously?
Of course the problem with any anti-religious argument that goes, “Why/how would God do this?” is that it’s possible to assert as gospel (sometimes literally) any answer which explains it away. The Earth looks old because God’s testing our faith, for example. Thus faith is insulated from any attempts to make their beliefs sound silly, and plot holes in scripture can be ironed out.
The main point of this particular battleground is that young Earth creationism follows on from Biblical literalism. The Bible says the world was created in six days, and that there have only been a small number of generations of humans since then, so that’s the way it was. There’s no good reason to believe it except if you want or need the Book of Genesis to be literal. Outspoken YECs try to convince nonbelievers that the world is young so that they will accept that God created it, because supposedly nothing else could explain a young Earth. Even if they fail, they often succeed in reassuring other Biblical literalists.
To give their position a respectable veneer, in order to appeal to nonbelievers and impress believers, YECs need to make it look like it has secular scientific support, which means presenting scientific arguments that the Earth is young. The proper use of the real evidence that the Earth is old, rather than to jump straight to advocating atheism, is to simply counter these arguments by YECs, and the evidence does so very easily. Thus there is no intact evidence for a young Earth, YECs are reduced to claiming God made the world look old, the young Earth becomes a mere assertion and it cannot serve as a solid premise for arguments for the existence of the God of Abraham. Thus you can believe in a young Earth if you want but it won’t get you anywhere with those who don’t already agree with you.
Question from Rodermac:
I was at some site immediately prior to this. Some questionnaire for atheists – no help at all really. Nice to be somewhere I don’t have to be afraid. Tried to believe in something, seemed to be a somewhat key ingredient in a fellowship i’d joined. Started reading the Bible that had been placed in my room by the Gideons. I guess I never recovered from that exposure. How can it be that so many people, oodles of them smarter than me, conceive that a faith based on this concept of a deity could be a good one?
Answer by SmartLX:
If that deity is real, then faith in it isn’t just good, it’s essential. It’s the only thing which just might save your soul. The fact that this strikes many as a horrible state of affairs is irrelevant if it’s the truth.
If you truly believe it, you are emotionally and often socially driven to use the full force of your intellect to do several things, consciously and subconsciously. You regularly reassure yourself that it’s true in all kinds of ways, which protects you from losing your precious faith and staves off some of the inevitable nagging doubt. You look for opportunities to share your faith with others, either by reinforcing their existing faith or by converting them outright, which you believe is a gift to them and reflects well on you. You try to have God’s will be done on earth, living by (and possibly holding others to) the commands you believe He has given. And through it all you convince yourself that it’s a good thing, for the sake of your own happiness.
When you’ve been doing all of this for years, deliberately examining your beliefs to see whether they hold up sounds like a very dangerous proposition. You risk invalidating all the work you’ve done for the Lord, you’re disobeying direct orders not to question Him, and even if you’re right then you have to accept that you’ve spent all that time before on a fool’s errand and your worldview crumbles around you. It might actually be harder for some very intelligent people to do this as they’ve built better defenses in terms of apologetics, that is, they have more to unlearn. It’s all very well to say you want to know the truth, but sometimes it can seem like if the truth is a certain thing then it’s not worth knowing.
I’m not saying the process is hard in order to congratulate myself for going through it and coming out the other side as an atheist. My journey was very easy compared to most, because I simply let it all lie for more than a decade while I worked on other things. When I eventually came back to reconsider it, my emotional and social connections to Christianity were all but severed; my love of God and fear of Hell had been neglected, and I only went to church with the family at Christmas and occasionally Easter, so the congregation barely knew me. The New Atheist books by the “Four Horsemen” were just coming out, and I was able to consider arguments from both sides quite coldly (this site is one of the places I went looking for where the “fight” was happening). One side won.
Question from Chris:
I was raised Christian until I found a Jewish website that explained how the New Testament contradicts the Old. I now describe myself as agnostic, but I’m still afraid that there may be a hell. This is stopping me from living my life and while I doubt that I’ll become a Christian again, I sometimes wonder if there’s any chance the Jewish faith was right.
Is there any way that I might be able to let go of this fear? Maybe some way to make a firm decision on whether or not I should be religious? People have advised me to learn more about religion and the world in general; maybe there’s something specific I should look at?
Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is my word for the lingering emotional aftereffects of strong religious belief, chief among them fear and guilt. That fear might stick around for a while even if you stop believing entirely. The more often you can register that your level of fear is unjustified, the quicker it will fade, but probably only by small degrees.
If you think the Jewish version of Hell is the most likely to be real, it certainly doesn’t warrant the same kind of fear as the Christian Hell because it is NOT a place of eternal torment. Read this Jewish article on the subject: their name for it is Gehinnom, and it’s light-heartedly described as a “spiritual washing machine” that prepares your soul for Heaven. It’s closer to the Christian concept of purgatory; while it’s not something to look forward to, there’s a purpose to the suffering and most importantly there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
So that’s what to keep in mind when you’ve got your figurative yarmulke on, but the rest of the time it’s good to read up on conflicting reports of Hell from different religions, and even different denominations of the same one. It’s the strongest sign we have that no one really knows anything about it, or has any authority to tell you what to fear. Not only that, but the reasons a soul is sent to Hell are mutually exclusive between different religions and denominations. Beyond the obvious fact that you can only proclaim one kind of faith which denies all the others, the rules for living are different all round. That means it’s futile to try to behave any particular way in order to avoid Hell because you’re almost certainly doing something wrong. That sounds pessimistic but it can at least free you from micro-managing everything you do, and give you a sense of community as you’re in the same unreliable boat as everyone else.
You can make a decision about how devoutly to keep to the tenets of whatever religion you choose to adhere to, but how religious you are is not really your decision to make. Your level of belief is influenced by what you see, read and hear. You could immerse yourself in religious media and after long enough you might no longer doubt it, or avoid it altogether and slowly forget, but this is artificially reinforcing a bias and does not reflect reality. Regardless, I can tell you that being more religious is very unlikely to make you less afraid of Hell. If you accept its existence and its specific nature as dictated by your religion, your work is cut out for you as you are acutely aware of what you must do, and not do. You’re also surrounded by people who don’t share your faith, aren’t living right and are therefore bound for Hell, emphasising how easy it is to fall short and pay the price.
Better to get on with life, I say. Just be a person in the world, do what you can to be a good one, improve life for others, have your fun when it’s not hurting anyone. Thoughts of the afterlife tend to take a backseat when you live in the now.
Question from Lane:
Reading these essays here on ATA has both strengthened my faith in God and given me a better respect for atheists, by giving me a more comprehensive understanding. The color blue does not look the same to everyone (being subjective, “blue” is a label), but everyone should be encouraged to express what and how they believe.
That said, I have two questions:
1. What things can us Christians do that benefit atheists?
2. What are the disruptive or distracting things that Christians should avoid?
Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written before that examining one’s own beliefs can lead to either strengthening or abandoning them. I came to this site as a reader (among other sites, religious and otherwise) to see if there was anything in the challenges submitted by Christians that might restore my faith in God, and nothing did. If you’re secure in your faith then good for you.
The number one thing Christians can do for atheists is something a lot of Christians already do, which is to support secularism in government and society. This does not mean the absence of religion but merely the separation of church and state or other authorities, so that no one religion gains power over others or over the irreligious. As an atheist in Australia I’ve got it pretty good (I’m a bit worried about how the school chaplaincy program will eventually intersect with my son’s education), but here as elsewhere the problems atheists have are mostly caused by specific religions exerting their political and/or social power to affect non-adherents in all kinds of ways. A minor example is the endlessly repeated fight over monuments to the Ten Commandments in US courthouses. An extreme one is the unchecked victimisation of atheist and secularist writers in Bangladesh.
Other than supporting secularism, Christians can help atheists and other non-Christians just by learning more about other belief systems, which will prevent a lot of assumptions around the idea that everyone will think or behave like a Christian in certain situations. I’ll come back to this point.
Apart from literally attacking non-believers, which doesn’t happen much in most countries, the most disruptive and distracting thing Christians do is proselytise. I don’t actually hold this against them, because after all many of them believe they are commanded to do so, and even if not then they still think accepting Jesus is the single best thing people can do for themselves. Put more simply, if you think people are wrong about something important then you see changing their minds as helping them out, and that’s fine. But there are absolutely wrong ways to go about it.
One very common approach is to not only utilise but monopolise public speaking platforms and other one-way communication. The market street in my old hometown had a speakers’ stone, where you could talk about anything for 30 minutes. An organised squad of evangelists tag-teamed the stone for hours, every high-traffic day for months. (I hope they eventually changed the rules but it’s more likely that they just removed the stone.) A large percentage of public/community access television airtime is pre-booked by the devout. This approach can bleed into private conversation too, when any opportunity to steer the topic to what God would think is seized upon.
I think it stems from the idea that the Word of the Lord is literally magical, that it has the power to claim souls not merely through persuasion but by serving as a conduit for divine influence. Therefore there’s a lot of effort to spread the Word with speeches, tracts and railroaded small talk, but not much effort to make it stick. They think the Word will do the work for them, and good luck to them.
What I would suggest instead, if your fellow Christians want to engage others on the topic, is to truly engage with people. The spray-and-pray approach of declaiming the spiritual facts as you see them, or handing them out on an A4 sheet folded into a pamphlet, does not give any opportunity for reply and does not therefore put your own ideas up for discussion or challenge. People are far more likely to listen to you if they think you are willing to listen to them too, and that means exposing yourself to ideas that might challenge your faith. It’s a risk that I seriously hope Christians are willing to take, because it’s win-win; if their faith turns out to be unsupportable they can rid themselves of it and look at the world anew (perhaps re-finding faith later), or like you they can become more confident for the experience and also better able to co-exist with non-Christians.
The short and flattering version of all this, Lane, is that many Christians could afford to be more like you. We get a lot of questions from Christians, but most are really flat-out challenges that they think will stump us cold. I much prefer when they genuinely expect and want to read an answer. That’s what engaging means.
Question from Tsahpina:
If the religious really believe there is an afterlife and/or paradise, for those who believe in such, why do they cry when someone dear to them dies and why are they afraid of their own death?
I do not mean this as rhetorical question, but since Ivery much doubt any religious person is capable to answer this sincerely, then let it be, for such religious people, rhetorical only. but i would like a real reason, if there might be one, like, they are leaving their dear ones or a dear one is leaving them, but then, they are going to their loved ones who had already died and the ones that remain here will sooner or later join them. so, why not rejoice for the going to paradise, big deal, i mean.
Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is that an afterlife doesn’t make everything about death okay even if it’s real.
We’ll leave aside the idea that some believers don’t really believe we go to Heaven or nurse serious doubts. if you don’t really accept the doctrine then of course it won’t help you when you’re faced with death, so that’s that. We’ll consider the case for people who really do believe instead.
No matter what happens after death, the person is gone from this life and this world. In an undeniable sense the person is separated from us and lost to us. If you love the person, this is a great loss which you will mourn no matter where you think the person is going, because you’ll never see or talk to them again for the rest of your life. If you knew someone you loved was going to live quite comfortably but not contact you in any way for several decades, would it make it perfectly all right that you’d see them again afterwards? Of course not, while it might provide some consolation it would still be a huge wrench in the here and now. Likewise, if you’re the one going away, you wouldn’t see anyone you knew potentially for years.
The Christian afterlife, similarly to many others, is a double-edged sword. You find out right at the beginning whether you will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell, and there is no assurance to be had before that point. You just have to follow the rules as laid out by your particular denomination, and hope you got them right AND they’re the right rules. Sins are remembered even if you’ve forgotten them, so you doubt your own mind. All men and women are sinners by nature and tainted with Original Sin, so you keep your fingers crossed that you’ve cleaned it all off with your piety and prostration and didn’t miss a spot. It’s truly nerve-wracking, even if you think you’ll be okay in the end. And if someone else is dying, you have no way of knowing whether they’ve confessed every sin, performed every rite, crossed every T and dotted every i.
So if someone is fearful and sorrowful of death I don’t doubt the steadfastness of their beliefs. I feel great pity that their beliefs aren’t helping as much as they were probably led to believe they would.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.