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.

Will we ever “win”?

Question from Jenna:
I am an atheist too and I’m 11 so will atheism ever be the dominant religion? I hope so and #youdontchoosetobegay.

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheism isn’t a religion, first off, though there’s been some debate about that. It’s simply a position on the likelihood of gods. Different atheists take that position and do entirely different things with it, finding purpose and guidance in all kinds of places.

As for whether there will ever be more atheists than anyone else, it’s already the case in some places. Wikipedia has a list of countries by irreligion, where you can see the percentage of people who identified as atheist (or “not religious” in some cases). The number is above 50% for several countries surveyed, which means the atheists have the majority. One example not currently influenced by Communism (which opposes religion for reasons other than lack of evidence) is Japan, and another is the Czech Republic. Religion is in decline nearly everywhere else, which is why Christians for instance are always praying for a “revival”. Looks like this decline will continue going forward.

Definitely with you on #youdontchoosetobegay. It’s sad that anyone’s treatment of gay people is contingent on whether or not they chose it, but while this is so the right answer needs to be spread.

No god or probably no god?

Question from Mark:
Claiming that there is no god is a universal negative. So, my question is, do most atheists flat-out claim that there is definitely no god, or is it more often than not an “it’s not probable” argument?

Answer by SmartLX:
No, not most atheists. Some atheists, sure, but not the majority and not the most prominent atheists, and not me. Even Richard Dawkins, when he created a scale of 1 to 7 from total belief to total disbelief, rated himself a 6.9 to leave room for some possibility.

Certainty in the absence of gods is called gnostic atheism. Gnosis is a knowledge of the spiritual, so gnostic atheism is just knowing that there’s nothing there. The obvious question for a gnostic atheist, as you imply, is how can one know such a thing? For me there’s no good answer to this, though that doesn’t imply by itself that positive belief in a god is justified.

Why so aggressive?

Question from Julain:
I have found myself more Gnostic than anything, and I want to ask about a few things.
Why are atheists so aggressive and nitpicky? All of the staunch atheists I’ve met have to make a point about how right they are, then start asking about how their god is real, a dumb question really. So, back to the question, what makes atheists so self-righteous and dogmatic?

The other question I have is simple: Why are staunch atheists so scornful of religion? I, personally, am 100% for meeting up and reminding people to love their fellow man/not tear out neighbor john’s esophagus. You get so dogmatic, so evangelical, as a group, all about something that can not be proven by science. It is not a simple thing we can find, it is transcendent. It was said that “God is dead” for a number of reasons, one of them being that he is no longer objectively provable. On the flipside, we can not disprove him either. I am not saying to believe one way or another. The entire argument is meaningless, though, and that is the important thing- that these people get some kind of sensual, almost erotic joy in a small, meaningless victory that has not changed the world around them.

Why is atheism uniting as a movement? I feel that such a move could be dangerous to the ideas ‘defended’ by it. Skepticism is not going to be found in a large group, that is when you start becoming a unified force instead, with unified ideas. That is the opposite of skepticism.

My final question is why you guys talk about “science” like it is a bible. The thing that keeps this amorphous, shifting mass of ideas moving is the constant search for understanding, knowing that we can always be wrong. Many things are not such. Evolution? Definite, real, we have proof. Red Queen hypothesis? Plausible view of evolution, really more like frame of reference. Those are directly observable. However, then you start getting to physics and cosmology, or almost anything that involves space. In general, we know almost nothing. The average person just flaunts ‘the big bang’ while only knowing the basic framework from wikipedia or a textbook. In the end, we know so little, it is best to reserve judgement.

I say with confidence that I know little, and that I know not what lies beyond the pale of death. Past that? Absolutely nothing.

Answer by SmartLX:
If what you’ve said is true then it’s not true about all the staunch atheists you’ve met, it’s just true about all the staunch atheists who’ve announced themselves to you. Like any group of people, atheists have some among them who can’t entertain the possibility that they might be wrong or allow others to differ in peace, and this can make them abrasive when on the subject. Others, like my father for one, mention it once every few years if at all, and avoid all discussion of it with believers because they know it can cause an argument. In short, you can be a dick about anything and that includes atheism, but when atheists aren’t being dicks you might not even identify them. Engaging people constructively on an emotionally charged subject like faith when you think it’s all unjustified is bloody hard, especially in person.

Many atheists are also anti-theistic, or opposed to religious belief in general, for three reasons. Firstly, it does appear to be misguided to atheists or at least likely to be wrong, and it’s usually in everyone’s interest for people to live their lives according to what’s actually true. Secondly, religious belief can cause great harm in some circumstances (the regular news stories about parents failing to pray away their children’s illnesses are a ready example) while its mental and social benefits can come from other sources instead, so the cost-benefit analysis goes badly for it. Finally, widespread belief makes non-believers a minority, and sometimes a persecuted minority depending on where they are. (I’m not going to Bangladesh in a hurry.)

Many atheists united behind a fresh movement around 2006 for these same reasons, when a group of books on the subject came out together and acted as a catalyst. (New Atheism was a terrible name for it, but there it is.) I disagree that skepticism can’t function in large groups, because if the people question each other then every idea must prove itself. Managing a large group of atheists has been compared to herding cats, so they’re an ideal demographic to put this into practice.

It is indeed folly to dogmatise science, so we simply try not to. If evidence for something is in place, we act and speak with confidence in its reality. If not then we reserve judgement, and that should include the possibility of a god or its influence. But not knowing for sure does not mean all possibilities have equal probabilities, and the concept of a god is so far beyond anything we’ve observed that positing it as an explanation for anything does not make for a useful hypothesis, or an appealing one unless you’re desperate for a simple answer. It raises more questions than it answers anyway.

The Effects of Radical Atheism

Question from SL:
Why do atheists always insist that radical theists will kill at worst but radical atheists will only criticize or make videos? I met Eastern Europeans and Tibetans who will say that is an outright lie. Atheist Soviet Union and atheist China did more than make videos. Why do atheists insist on saying that only theistic societies oppressed people when clearly the 20th century proved that atheist societies were not much better. Please do not tell me they were not truly atheist, Marx and Leninist writers clearly state that atheism was a central core to Marxism. I am not trying to be argumentative but, I only met a handful of honest atheists who say that bad mass murdering oppressors can be theist and atheist. Why is that?

Answer by SmartLX:
The distinction you describe is not the correct one to make for just the reasons you describe. Yes, communist regimes (and related ideologies, in case any you mention aren’t considered fully communist) are officially and proudly atheist, and have committed atrocities. The difference is that atheism does not drive them to these things.

Communist regimes do the horrible things they do to spread and maintain Communism, not atheism. They enforce atheism for the same reason. In his famous “opiate of the masses” passage, Marx wrote that religion needed to be removed to deprive people of its comfort, so that they would feel their pain and drive societal change. Atheism to communists is a tool, a means to an end. The likelihood of the existence of gods, or any other intellectual consideration of religious faith, is irrelevant. Additionally, national communism in practice tends to become a pseudo-religion itself (North Koreans actually pray to the deceased Kim tyrants, for instance) and thus religion is suppressed as a direct rival to it.

There’s never been a government regime determined to remove the oppression of religion without putting something similar in its place, and to build a free society based on the ideals of atheist figures like Voltaire or Thomas Paine. (Secular, pluralist systems are a different approach again.) There has never been a large enough concentration of atheists in a place with enough religious oppression to bring it about. If it ever happens, we’ll be able to compare its conduct with that of the world’s theocracies. Right now there’s really no basis for comparison at all.

As for independent radicals, there might well be some atheist loose cannons out there and we should consider their stated goals as available, but you’ve only provided examples related to communism. Know of anything else? Stick it in the comments.

Now You’re Thinking With A Bunch of Atoms

Question from Jeff:
I’m sort of in a searching phase of life where I really don’t know what to believe. I recently heard a compelling argument for the existence of god and want to get some input. The argument goes like this:

If there is no god and the world is just an accident, if everything about people, including what they think and feel, is just the chance combination of molecules and is explained in terms of chemistry and physical laws, why be rational? On the basis of atheism, weeds grow because they are weeds (laws of physics) and minds just do whatever they do. People act like they are free to think about different kinds of ideas and then choose the best one. On the basis of atheism, that’s impossible. Our minds are just a bunch of atoms vibrating and will do whatever they have been programmed to do. If there is no god and the physical world is all there is, there is no logical basis for logic. But people, including atheists, do trust reason and logic even though they have no reason to assume that it works.

Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
Minds, or brains to be more specific, indeed do what is dictated by their physical structure combined with the electrical signals travelling through them, so you could say that they do what they’re programmed to do. The thing is, they are programmed to think. They have the necessary complexity to store something as abstract as an idea, among other information, and they apply ideas to the world around them. This leads them to make choices based on the information available to them, and act upon those choices. This can be called a person’s will. Its ultimately deterministic nature in the absence of supernatural influences (like a soul) leads many to stop short of calling it free will, but it’s will all the same.

We have plenty of reason to assume that reason and logic work, because we live in a world where reason and logic regularly help us make predictions about the world that turn out to be correct. It’s not a matter of philosophy, it’s simply a lifetime of observing the practical power of understanding the logical workings of an apparently consistent universe. We don’t know why it’s that way (and many religious people jump on that fact to make an argument from ignorance in favour of gods – back to this in a moment), but we learn that it is so and we use it to our advantage. That’s what learning is, really. If the world weren’t consistent we couldn’t learn anything.

The argument you heard is rather close to the transcendental argument for God (TAG) and ultimately has the same problem: to establish a god as the source of logic in its premise it has to assert that there’s no other possibility, when there’s merely no other KNOWN source. In fact the possibilities are endless, but the simplest one is that logic has no source and has always been in place, much like God is supposed to have been. The other important thing about the TAG, in my experience, is that its persuasive power is not targeted where you think it is. It almost never convinces non-believers, but it very often convinces believers that their belief is justified when they might be in doubt. It is primarily a tool for reassurance, not conversion. The same may be true of all apologetics at this point, but TAG more than most.

Something to prove, but what?

Question from Darian:
What would be defined as legitimate proof of god(s) within the accepted community of atheists? And, is there any proper scientific research being done to find said proof? Another way to word, what would be the atheist definition of god(s)?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some argument about this within the atheist community (for example between biologist bloggers PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne) so I don’t think there’s a definitive answer I can give you. Some atheists name grand gestures (say, huge letters in the sky) as evidence they would accept, and some think even that kind of thing would be insufficient.

The more general attitude is that if evidence for an entity which might qualify as a god presented itself, there would be two questions to answer: whether the evidence was valid, and if so what kind of presence was actually indicated. The resulting investigation would make as few assumptions as possible, which might be difficult given the subject, to get as close to the facts as possible.

Religious apologetics, and the idea that a god might be demonstrated by an argument alone, are considered differently. Each of the prospective arguments that aims to do this makes its own presumptions and inferences about the qualities of the supposed god. If an apologetic argument were established and accepted as valid and sound, thereby unambiguously confirming the existence of a god, what that argument said about the god would implicitly be accepted too.

Since the ontology of a hypothetical god (i.e. what it is) isn’t settled, there isn’t a lot of scientific research of any kind being done to discover evidence for it. If scientists knew what to look for, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get a grant or sponsorship with the help of religious politicians, philanthropists or venture capitalists. As it is, scientists are exploring the universe as best they can to find whatever happens to be there, and evidence for a god might turn up under a microscope or millions of light years away when they least expected it.

On the other hand plenty of work is being done to establish the existence of a god (usually a specific god) by those who want there to be one, though a lot of it doesn’t qualify as research, let alone scientific, because it doesn’t uncover anything new. A famous example is that expeditions have set out to find Noah’s Ark, and some claim to have found it (in several different places). The much more common approach, though, is simply finding new ways to interpret existing biological, paleontological and geological data in order to support the idea.

Causes and Rationality

Question from Jon:
At most, we all choose what is rational in believing or being convinced about something. While searching for answers, I have stumbled upon studying atheism as a choice for my belief but a find it highly irrational. Firstly, atheism appeals that believe in a god/cause/deity is highly irrational because there is no objective evidence to back-it up. But when I analyze it in terms of pure rationality (because the counter option can’t also be validated), I stumble upon choosing between

A) the universe is just a brute fact, nothing caused it to exist, its here because it is here
Or
B) the universe is caused into existence by an agent/cause/god (in my case I don’t define the cause)

And option A which is (correct me if I’m wrong) the heart of Atheism is highly irrational, because so far, inferred from the existence of humanity, humans discovered things or events to be caused by “something” and yet option A completely contradicts it. I believe science breaks apart when something is just assumed as a brute fact. If I have inconsistencies in my analysis, please enlighten me. How does atheism become rational with these arguments taken into hand?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheism takes no position on the universe’s origin or lack thereof, except to say that it’s unlikely at best that a god was responsible because belief in a god’s mere existence (let alone agency) isn’t justified. Option B is fine for a lot of atheists because if there was a cause, it doesn’t have to have been anything like a god. It could be the quantum foam, or another universe in an infinite series, or any number of phenomena we haven’t even thought of.

That said, option A is counter-intuitive but it’s not as absurd as it sounds. If the universe is as eternal as many gods are supposed to be, then it doesn’t need a beginning, and it’s simpler to just suppose that the universe has this quality than to inject a hypothetical separate entity. More significantly, though, everything we’ve ever seen come into existence is made of existing material. Human beings are made of elements found all around us on this planet, and fueled by energy largely traceable back to the Sun. Thoughts and ideas come together in networks of neurons in our heads, powered by electrical energy. Most every building is made from things harvested from, or grown in, the earth. If, by contrast, the universe came to existence out of what could be defined as nothing, it wasn’t like anything we’ve ever seen occur and therefore we have no authority to declare that there must have been a cause. Following on from that, there’s no reason to suppose the existence of a god just for the lack of alternative explanations, and if as you say there’s no objective evidence for gods then there’s no reason to believe in them at all. Thus atheism has a rational basis at least to some extent.

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.

Atheism: Endgame

Question from Brian:
Although I am an atheist, I believe that religion serves a very important purpose in our capitalist society. Most of us live, almost like slaves, being controlled by our employers. It gives meaning to those who otherwise cannot find meaning in their lives. For example the idea that a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, allows someone who is poor, which most Americans are, to believe that while this life may suck, the next life they will find some sort of better life. So Christianity serves an important role in appeasing the masses. Now, what is the endgame for atheism? How will a capitalist society continue to sustain itself, when the masses have no hope, and fail to develop some sort of coping mechanism? Let’s face it, the vast majority of the people are biologically and intellectually incapable of surviving in the harsh capitalist system, which is why they turn to religion and the supernatural. Knowing science or understanding the physical world doesn’t help them in a practical sense. It will only make them more miserable. What’s wrong with a little delusion? Isn’t the most rational thing for people to do is try to live a life as happy as they can?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think that modern religion is very good at serving the purpose you ascribe to it, or that the absence of religion would leave the kind of hole in the collective psyche that you and Karl Marx think it would. (That’s not a general insinuation; he wrote something similar in his “opiate of the masses” piece. He wanted to remove the drug so that people would feel their pain and do something about it.)

Yes, Christianity and other religions have traditionally reassured the poor and warned the rich, and if you’re cynical you might think this was to channel money from both groups to the religions themselves. This message has by now been utterly corrupted by “prosperity gospel” and other such doctrines, and religions are brazenly taking congregants for everything they have. This isn’t universal, of course, but religion as a whole appears to be actively making people poorer on average through the way it’s preached. Throw right-wing politics into the mix and religion becomes a way to make the poor vote against their own interests and further enrich the super-rich at their own expense. Religion can make people happy, but so can alcohol, and the cost can be too great – and I’ve only gone into the financial aspect here. The real problem with a delusion is usually what’s happening in the real world at the same time.

I’m sure many people do find meaning in their lives solely through religion, but this is not because there is nothing else. Religion encourages believers to focus their lives on it, and to draw meaning from it alone, so they seldom even look for alternatives. When one is first divested of belief in a god, the threat often looms that one’s whole world will collapse (try searching the site for my term “faithdrawal”) before the realisation comes that the accompanying beliefs that everything depends on the god are also wrong. I honestly think your opinion that the majority can’t survive without religion is terribly patronising toward the majority. If you’re doing it, why can’t they? What makes you biologically and intellectually superior to so many?

You ask about the endgame for atheism, but atheism need not be the first move. There is an inverse correlation between average happiness and the religiosity of a country, as this infographic explains. The happiest countries by a number of standards are those where relatively few people consider religion important at all. This not only flies in the face of your implication that capitalist society would collapse without religion, but it also suggests a way forward for atheists: simply work to improve your society and make people happier, and religion will fade.

To answer your question directly, the endgame or the ideal for atheism from my perspective is universal voluntary abandonment of religion and religious faith as harmful and ultimately useless. Ideally all benefits of religion are replaced by other sources which don’t come with the same drawbacks. People congregate but are not told what to think, they donate to charities which do good work without an agenda, they find personal meaning in the world around them and work to improve it without arguing to a standstill over the meanings. It’ll be hard to achieve, and as you suggest it will require the world to be a nicer place to live in, but that right there is something we can work towards.