“That’s not just a toughie, it’s the toughie. If there were a reliable method of genuinely dispelling people’s theism, there wouldn’t be many theists left.”
Question from Rohit:
I think atheism is just a consequence of being rational. Logic, good judgement and common sensical thinking will lead one to atheism in my opinion. And I think that theism is an infantile habit that one clings on to – out of a sense of nostalgia, insecurity/fear , doubt or even just plain superstition.
Obviously a lot of people do not like this about me – they call it being ‘opinionated’, ‘not listening to the other side’ etc.
As far as religion and spirituality are concerned I’m sort of a been there, done that, found nothing type. I’ve read the bible, the bhagvatgita, qoran, granth sahib etc etc – I admire pieces of them as works of art (or philosophy). But no more than that. There are verses in each of these that are poetic, sublime. But I cannot for the life of me believe them to be fact. My brain just does not allow it (the curse of being trained as an engineer perhaps).
Someone very very close to me is a theist. I believe she is a borderline theist (bordering on agnosticism) but she is extremely particular about rituals, about me not cussing whenever the god word is raised etc.
She won’t listen to reason, or logic or anything. She’s fine in all other senses, much more practical than me in worldly matters, infact.
How does one push a borderline agnostic into the light of atheism?
What worries me most, the reason I want her to ‘convert’, is that the amount of time one wastes in superstitions and the amount of damage bad beliefs can do is tremendous – I’ve seen it happen in my own life.
Since she just won’t talk to me on this matter, I’ve been thinking of buying some good books on atheism and leaving them around casually – but I don’t know if that will work. Its pretty childish and frustrating – she has a pretty ok IQ (125) … but she just clings on. Maybe I should enroll her into an engineering/ physical science course 🙂
Answer by SmartLX:
That’s not just a toughie, it’s the toughie. If there were a reliable method of genuinely dispelling people’s theism, there wouldn’t be many theists left.
The main problem from your point of view is that losing one’s religion is largely an internal process. You can inspire it or set it off, but you can’t do it all for your friend. She has to realise things for herself.
The question I try to ask believers is why they believe. This bit of information above all will help you with your friend, whether she tells you outright or you find out another way. Once you know what’s supporting her belief, you’ll know what you actually need to address in order to bring her around. Keep in mind that the reason she believes will almost certainly be a combination of intellectual and emotional factors, so you probably won’t come up with an instant pill.
Educating the religious can sometimes have the opposite effect of what you’re expecting and entrench their beliefs further. Many champions of the intelligent design movement are engineers or computer programmers, and they claim to know design when they see it. Generally speaking, if one’s beliefs survive one’s education, one’s education then serves one’s beliefs.
I do agree with your reason for wanting to deconvert your friend. Religion tends to benefit itself far more than its hosts.
“As a public school teacher for over 12 years, as well as a formerly rebellious teen, I can give you a bit of insight on two levels. It’s not a short and simple answer, but it will definitely help you make progress in reconnecting with your sweetie.”
Question from Deanna:
My 12 y/o in the past 12 months has snuck out at least 2X in the middle of the night. Smoked a cigarette in her room and most recently last week skipped school. I am an Agnositc Single Mother who quit smoking over 5 years ago. When I did these kind of things I was in high school and almost never got caught. So either she is not good at covering her tracks or she is doing more than I know. Regardless, what suggestions do you have besides the traditional grounding taking away the phone discipline for an agnostic child. I am trying to teach her to make good decisions and use critical thinking but it doesn’t seem to be working. I live in the South and most of my contacts including family are going to say take her to church. I agree she probably needs more positive influences in her life but church is not a real option for me because I really don’t think that type of teaching will help. Any books on raising kids atheist/agnostic that you know of? What I found in the past always referred back to religion.
Thanks for your help
Answer by Andrea:
As a public school teacher for over 12 years, as well as a formerly rebellious teen, I can give you a bit of insight on two levels. It’s not a short and simple answer, but it will definitely help you make progress in reconnecting with your sweetie.
I was rebellious as a teen mainly because I was angry and also hurt. Why? I’m not sure, maybe it had to do with my parents’ divorce, in part. It was also fun to smoke and be rebellious back in jr. high school. But I think the turbulent feelings apply to a lot of teens simply because studies show there are vast fluctuations in hormonal levels which can impact behavior, so she may be acting out partly because she has so many feelings and she doesn’t know what to do with them all. Critical thinking is great a lot of the time, but it might not help so much at this stage of her life.
However, there are other ways to make good behavior a habit. (See below for some info in that vein.) But regarding the smoking and sneaking out, does your daughter sneak out just to smoke? If so, she’s probably already hooked, in which case you might want to let her smoke in the garage or something just so you can keep an eye on her and she doesn’t get into more trouble. If she’s not already addicted to cigarettes, or just in the beginning stages, it would be good to show her pictures of the lungs of a smoker, as well as a wrinkly face that can come with just 10 years of depriving your skin cells of oxygen. The most effective approach is probably to let her read first-hand accounts of teen role models that think smoking is gross and disgusting, of which there are many these days –fortunately. I remember trying to quit at age 16 and I cried so hard because I couldn’t do it (after proudly smoking my first pack a day at age 12).
Re religious indoctrination: My parents tried sending me to a Catholic school, which didn’t help because not only were the nuns mean, but the crowd was just as bad there. This would make sense, since studies show Catholics and then Protestants and Baptists make up a majority of inmates per capita in federal prison, whereas atheists make up the lowest numbers per capita. Therefore, I would suggest you check out Camp Quest, which is a children’s camp for freethinking families. There are more such camps, the best way to find them is to type in “secular” and “children” and then “camp” and/or “volunteer activities.” Also check out AtheistParents.org.
Other recommendations I have as a teacher practicing “loving discipline,” which helps to make good behavior a habit (which most behaviors are) include the following:
– Make your conversations with her respectful and courteous and listen with genuine attention without sounding critical or judgmental, Heart-to-heart talks may be more fruitful while you’re doing something else like washing the dishes or driving her somewhere in the car.
– Explain your requests. If you tell them why you want something, children accept your requests more readily because they will see you as being fair and reasonable, not arbitrary and capricious and “mean.”
– Ask questions about what kids think they should do instead of giving orders.
– Ask her what you can do to make the two of you closer, or try engaging in a “mother-daughter adventure” every week like hiking or involving one of her hobbies if she is amenable.
– Don’t overlook the importance of physical presence. You can still connect with your kid by being in close proximity while she is doing things such as putting together puzzles, reading books or doing homework.
– Add structure to your home life (as in a regular schedule).
– Studies show kids do better academicaly and socio-emotionally with regular family meals.
– Rather than disciplining through punishment, motivate her into good behavior with an inducement — something so she can work toward a day at a time. A fellow teacher of mine uses raffle tickets she buys at Longs. Her daughter earns a certain number of them for choosing appropriate behavior, and those raffle tickets go toward something she really wants.
– Don’t expect perfection and praise every small step she makes in her behavior.
– You might also go through a depression checklist to see if she suffers from depression.
– Everyone needs to have something to give their life meaning. Find out what her dreams are, and then work together to toward that goal. It may be a dream that you’re not too crazy about (I wanted to be a street musician), but dreams change, sometimes several times a year at that age. So get her into a habit that can add pleasure and meaning to her life. (I ended up spending 8 hours a day playing the flute, which took me away from the “bad crowd.” A couple years later, I showed up on my mom’s doorstep in a business suit with briefcase.)
– Try to use a humorous and playful manner wherever possible. Give her lots of smiles.
There are hundreds of secular organizations for nontheists as well as agnostics across the country, including the South. If you give me a state I can help you find them, or try the suggestions for search engine terms above.
It may seem like your daughter is distant and aloof right now, Deanna, but remember this is only a phase. My mom now is my very best friend and there’s a good chance your daughter will feel the same way about you, in time.
I would love to know how it all works out.
P.S. Some more secular and freethinking parenting advice can be found here.
P.P.S. Unrelated but interesting article: half a million dollars of grant money for secularists.
“I don’t know where you are, but in most countries it’s as illegal to discriminate against atheists in practical ways (e.g. in job interviews) as against people of any religion. The worst you’ll get is a lot of attitude.”
Question from Kevin:
I am agnostic-atheist but barely anyone knows and I would like them to know but there is a price to doing such. Only a few of my family [all who dislike my choice] and my friends [which only a majority dislike my views]
Why should I come out as an atheist openly? It would bring me happiness to express my beliefs and i already have done so with friends, some have not taken it well and have left me for such. Others accepted it and I even converted a Christian to my point of view which I also enjoyed. But I understand there are problems with expressing this openly to everyone in real life (on job applications, social networking sites, job/other discrimination? etc.) I know that some people would hate, dislike, avoid or try to convert me and that would be awkward.
Why should I tell everyone I am an atheist and why should I not? Also do you think I should or should not, what is your opinion?
Answer by SmartLX:
Well, the first thing you did there was give us a good reason to come out as an atheist (your own happiness) and a good reason not to come out (possible discrimination), so that’s a start.
Another reason to come out is that it will encourage other atheists around you to do the same. Some of the people you think may react negatively to your atheism might actually be closeted atheists themselves. Even if they don’t come out all the way, they might at least reveal themselves to you.
Discrimination pretty much covers the negatives all by itself. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, though; I don’t know where you are, but in most countries it’s as illegal to discriminate against atheists in practical ways (e.g. in job interviews) as against people of any religion. The worst you’ll get is a lot of attitude.
One thing though, just because you openly declare yourself an atheist doesn’t mean you have to try and deconvert everyone you know. Maybe you actually want to, but people with any kind of one-track mind don’t tend to do well socially. Just come out, and expect to be accepted, and most of the time you will be…unless you’re an Amish or something.
I’m interested in the Christian you deconverted. Care to write a comment and tell us what happened there?
“This leads me to believe that everyone is a mix of angel or asshole, the ratios are determined by a variety of factors.”
Question from Edward:
First of all I am an atheist as well, but what I can’t figure out is: is a pure human selfish, or generous? I mean some people are asses some are good. My theory is every pure human is actually an evil selfish bastard, but conscience and ego makes most people good. I mean since we don’t have a feeling that bugs us when we do something good, conscience bugs us when we act like an ass. I’d like to know your thoughts about this.
Answer by Andrea:
That’s a really good question, and I recently found out the answer since I’ve been researching evolutionary biology, which also encompasses the science of human behavior.
Apparently, there are genes that guide just about everything, including our behaviors, and compassion, fear, ambiguity, moods, etc., can all be traced to genetics. This is not to say you are a victim of your DNA, but it is to say that you may be geared to behave in a certain way, so that the environment during your formative years can help wire your brain and help produce the chemical processes that activate certain genes. For example, mothers who were distant with their infants were more apt to produce children who lacked impulse control and empathy, since the nurturing from moms that form these connections in the frontal lobe were absent. And the environment theory blends in with my own experience. My mom raised me to be (too) empathetic, so I lose sleep nights or get depressed thinking about marine oil spills or the plight of circus animals.
I think it’s evolutionarily conducive to be selfish, and we’re programmed to be as such — to an extent — but since we are social beings, it’s also conducive to cooperate with one another.
This leads me to believe that everyone is a mix of angel or asshole, the ratios are determined by a variety of factors. And as an atheist, I just try to set a good example so I can represent atheists accurately. Counter to all the negative stereotypes, atheists actually have the lowest peer capita rates of imprisonment as well as divorce. In “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions” (Sociology Compass, 2009), Phil Zuckerman compares the values and beliefs of religious people with those of the secular, and the latter were markedly less prejudiced, anti-Semitic, racist, dogmatic closed-minded and authoritarian. They were are also less supportive of the death penalty, less likely to favor harsh sentencing and the least supportive of torture.
I hope that helps, otherwise, I might lose sleep over my failing to answer your question properly. 😉
“A Christian would immediately ask why you didn’t submit these questions to a Christian website to hear the answers from the horse’s mouth. I simply assume you’re after an external perspective which doesn’t favour one Christian denomination over another, and you’ll certainly get that here.”
Question from Tim and some other guy:
Hey, we are two students at an international school in Hong Kong. We have a project dealing with all the different denominations of Christianity. Would it be possible to answer a few questions regarding the existance of the thousands of denominations? Thank you.
1. What are the basic tenets of Christianity (the inclusive beliefs of all Christianity)?
2. Why is it that Christianity has broken up into countless numbers of denominations?
a. What caused this split?
3. Wouldn’t God want one, universal denomination of Christianity, instead of what it is now, split into thousands of sects?
4. Wouldn’t one inclusive group be more influential and attractive than split factions?
Answer by SmartLX:
A Christian would immediately ask why you didn’t submit these questions to a Christian website to hear the answers from the horse’s mouth. I simply assume you’re after an external perspective which doesn’t favour one Christian denomination over another, and you’ll certainly get that here.
1. All Christians believe that the “God of Abraham” exists, that He created the universe and that He designed human beings deliberately and specifically. They believe that Jesus Christ was God’s son, and/or a human incarnation of God himself, and that after he was crucified he rose from the dead. If you can find a self-proclaimed Christian who doesn’t believe even one element of the above, I can show you a lot of other Christians who wouldn’t regard that person as a Christian.
2. When a religion splits into two denominations, it’s called a schism (pronounced “SKIZZ-um”). People in the same denomination may argue a great deal, but when a particular dispute over religious practice, doctrine or dogma spreads far enough the two factions officially declare each other to be wrong in the eyes of their deity. That moment is when the schism happens, and afterwards the two groups are referred to using different names.
Christianity gets a lot of schisms because its doctrines are so extensive. There’s a mountain of individual points on which people can disagree. Another reason is that there are no real Christian theocracies left, and no denomination is able to force dissenters into line the way the Church once could. People are free to argue for their own interpretations of Scripture, which isn’t helpful when you want to keep two billion people unified.
3/4. If the Christian God exists, He probably would want Christians to unite under a single banner, and Christians of all denominations likely realise this. However, they reason, if the wrong denomination wins out and all Christians embrace the wrong doctrine, then nobody will really be doing God’s will at all. Those of each denomination think they’ve got the right one, and most often decide that Christian unity ultimately isn’t worth abandoning the “true” faith. It’s their way or nothing. Of course, this leaves all Christians at a gigantic impasse.
Brainless atoms form brains, lifeless atoms form life, meaningless synapses form a conscious mind. The simple comes together to form the complex. It happens. We’re proof.
Question from Aravind:
the theory of abiogenisis states that we evolved from non living matter and that atoms are nonliving and that the only reason for which the atoms in our body work together is because of Chemical feedback loops acting so if we are made up of non living matter how is it that I am able to perceive my external environment how am i able to think how is it that I am conscious since i am made up of nonliving matter how is it that i am able to perceive my external environment the very fact that i am able to respond to external factors like gravity electricity ,magnetism is because the atoms in my body perceive them??
the very fact that I am sentient and can perceive my external environment conforms that there is something in me which is not nonliving ??we know that atoms are nonliving simply by the fact that they cannot regroup to form an amputated arm or form an eve of a blind person by simply sensing the combination of atoms from the eye of another living being so if we are able to sense the environment it means that there is some other transcendental property in me which is perceiving the external environment(soul???)
if I was made up of nonliving matter i would simply respond to existing code and chemical feedback loops and be unable to form my own thoughts but that is not the case i can even condition myself to starve myself for long periods of time which means that i am not simply responding to existing codes to enable my survival and reproduce The very fact that I do not function to the basic codes of survival implanted in my dna like a robot responds to existing programs shows that there is something inside me (soul???) that is not nonliving????
if the primordial bacteria which replicated itself was already composed of nonliving randomly combined atoms why did the bacteria replicate itself since it was already dead why would it want to shuffle its genes to evolve in order to adopt to the environment if it was composed of dead matter to begin with it would be meaningless for something which was already dead to evolve and preserve its code if it was already dead???
Answer by SmartLX:
An atom cannot be alive, because life as we define it requires a great deal of interaction between atoms. Living tissue, however, is made up of atoms which by themselves or in small groups would be regarded as non-living. All of the remarkable functions of living tissue, including brains, are performed via chemical (and electrical) interactions between individually non-living atoms. It’s like how a computer does its computations with a bunch of silicon and copper atoms. Nobody thinks that’s impossible.
The first self-replicating organism probably did form through random combinations of components, but if you have hundreds of men and hundreds of women at a party you’d be surprised if at least one couple doesn’t form. Once the organism had formed, it replicated not because it wanted to (it couldn’t want anything) but because that’s what its parts could do. It evolved not because it had any evolutionary goal but because later copies of it were slightly different from each other, and had to compete based on their physical qualities.
Our sentience and consciousness are referred to as “higher brain functions” because that’s exactly what they are. The human brain is a network more complex than the world’s biggest computer (though computers are slowly catching up). It does everything it does by receiving input through our eyes, ears, skin, etc. and processing it with nothing but “grey matter” and tiny electrical sparks.
That works because it does an awful lot of simple processing in a short time. A calculator actually only knows how to add, or did until recently. All its other functions are accomplished by complicated sequences of adding (adding negative numbers to subtract, adding multiple times to multiply, etc.) Likewise, the neural network has the capacity to form complex thoughts out of multitudes of simple processes.
We think about things other than survival for two reasons. Firstly, as other animals demonstrate, you can usually survive on far less brainpower than we have. Secondly, our survival is almost assured in the short term because of the stable society in which we live, so we can indulge in the luxury of applying our minds to other matters. As soon as we feel that our survival or that of our friends or family is directly threatened, however, we won’t even notice how quickly our brains abandon extraneous thoughts and focus fully on survival.
Brainless atoms form brains, lifeless atoms form life, mindless neurons give rise to a conscious mind. The simple comes together to form the complex. It happens. We’re proof.
Incidentally, I would suggest to you that what Terry Pratchett has written on the subject of multiple exclamation marks also applies to question marks.
“The commenter succeeds in ruling out an absolutism in non-theistic morality which shouldn’t be there anyway. That’s not a huge achievement.”
Question from C.L.H.:
I copied the following excerpt from a reader comments section of an online column titled “Is Atheism Livable?”
I was curious if you could respond concerning the the moral scenario described below…
So the actual question is “do moral statements constitute propositions that can be true or false”. The naturalists answer is that they do not, but rather codify behaviors which increase our ability to survive. For example, the statement “it is wrong to kill innocent people” is not an objectively moral statement, but rather stems from the scientific fact that human society crumbles when people can murder others at will, thus making it difficult for us to survive. Morality, to the naturalist, is redefined to mean nothing more than “what we do to survive”. So to use a less ambiguous language, the naturalist is actually saying that “it is a fact that we won’t survive if we allow murder, and because we have an impulse to survive, we should all agree not to murder”. This type of thought cannot be legitimately be called “morality” because it doesn’t contain within itself any actual standard of what is “good” or “right” – just what is preferred by most of us. Typically the naturalist is okay with this.
The theist, on the other hand, is more of a realist about morality – he maintains that the moral statement “it is wrong to kill innocent people” not only has the propositional/scientific factual content the naturalist maintains, but also that it stems from a deeper, transcendent law that is tied into the nature of the universe itself. In other words, killing innocent people is not wrong *merely* because society will collapse otherwise, but because killing people is simply *wrong*.
This type of moral realism is the default. The other completely flies in the face of our intuition about morality. For example, the statement “it is wrong to rape and murder young children” is wrong in all cases (I hope we all agree on that). The naturalist would argue that if we allow people to rape and murder young children at will, society will collapse and we won’t survive.
But one can certainly make up a situation in which this isn’t the case. Put the adult and the child on an island with no hope of rescue, the child is in a vegetative state with no sensation and no hope of waking up, and the adult will simply live out his days until he dies. Obviously should the adult rape and murder the child in this context, no society is damaged, and ultimately his action will have no negative consequence.
The naturalist is then forced to acknowledge that there is nothing immoral (by his definition) about the adults action in this situation. I have met one naturalist in my life who will concede this and affirm that nothing immoral has been done in this situation, and that one person is not something who I would say manages to function well on a day to day basis.
In any case, are any of the naturalists here willing to either
1) acknowledge that such an action is not immoral (if so I apologize but you are sick), or
2) explain why it is immoral using a naturalistic definition of morality (without resorting to something silly like “well he may be rescued later” – the situation is defined as described above)?
As I said, moral realism is the default position based on intuition and the obviousness of our collective everyday human experience. The burden of proof lies heavily on the one who claims that moral propositions don’t constitute true or false propositions. And the fact that a biological/evolutionary basis for moral behavior does not accomplish this task. All this does is affirm that the universe is such that moral behavior promotes life, and therefore affirms that life is good.
Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists have already answered below the comment itself, but here goes.
In answer to (1), the action he describes is not immoral in the absolute sense he’s looking for, according to the usual non-supernatural view, but then nothing is. It’s immoral according to almost any objective basis you care to apply to it, but none of those count in his reckoning.
Thing is, if you go around saying that such a deed is wrong, the only people who would bother to contradict you are those who object to the absolutism in the statement, not people who actually think the deed is right. It doesn’t actually matter in a practical sense whether or not the universe has an inbuilt moral code which says it’s wrong.
Which is good, because even if it did we’ve got no way of knowing what that code is. Holy texts and philosophical works set rules and guidelines we all seem to agree on, but is that necessarily because they’re deliberately and explicitly instilled in all of us before birth? No, it’s probably just because we’re all human, we were all brought up in roughly the same society and we have many of the same values instilled in us by other people. Not all, of course, because we differ widely on thorny issues like abortion. Intuition only takes us so far.
The commenter succeeds in ruling out an absolutism in non-theistic morality which doesn’t rely on absolutism anyway. That’s not a huge achievement.
“As a public school teacher now and having attended both Catholic and public schools, I can tell you there are just as many drugs and druggies floating around Catholic school.”
Question from Aaron:
My wife, who I’d say comes from a more than average religious family, has become more and more involved in religion lately. This includes attending church and listening to Christian bands, things which she had no interest in doing the first 10 years of our marriage. Asked why she is doing it now, she simply tells me it makes her happy. I don’t have any problem with that, besides the fact that I wished she had the same beliefs as me as an Agnostic/Atheist. But coupled with this, our young daughter is now being indoctrinated with these beliefs as we are having her attend a Christian school. We figured this would be the best choice for her overall education since the public schools in the area are far subpar. I try to get her to think about and question the things taught to her about religion and the bible, but I’m finding it difficult.
Answer by Andrea:
It can be heartbreaking when spouses grow apart but it’s also quite normal judging from the US divorce rate, which hovers at around 50%. With regard to your marriage, maybe it’s just a phase your wife is going through. If it’s not a phase, you might want to do a “Ben Franklin” sheet on the situation in the future, and see if the cons override the pros of staying together. I am a firm believer in divorce if one or both of the parties are suffering in the marriage because 1) I see it as a man-made institution created by other people to instill social control, not a “divine bond” as some theists assert; 2) Life is far too short and there are far too many good people out there to be miserable, and you can bet there are quite a few people looking for someone just like you; and 3) The Internet makes dating in mid-life or old age so much easier these days, especially with all the secular sites out there.
Regarding your child, I subscribe to free emails from a number of nontheistic sites, and what I hear more and more about is parents complaining about the indoctrination of their offspring into religion by well-meaning, but misguided, family members. There are a couple of books out there to help you as a freethinking parent in what seems like a world of theists. Try running a search at bn.com for Dale McGowen, I believe his name is, he have two such books out.
I would be careful about keeping my kid in a religious school if I were you. As a public school teacher now and having attended both Catholic and public schools, I can tell you there are just as many drugs and druggies floating around Catholic school. The nuns were also typically mean and nasty, from my experience. Also, in studies dating back at least the last 100 years, Catholics are overrepresented in the prison system, followed closely by people of other Christian denominations, like Protestants. In contrast, atheists, agnostics and those labeling themselves non-religious have the lowest per capita rates of imprisonment. Atheists also have the lowest divorce rates and the highest educational levels. And when it comes to education, you’ll be lucky if the kids even hear the word “evolution,” which no mainstream scientist denies. Unlike the American public and other than finer points, scientists haven’t debated evolution for the last half century. Perhaps this is the reason why a NASA scientist I know, who regularly judges high school science fairs, says the children from the religious schools always have the lowest quality science projects.
In other words, there are many good private schools that are secular. If you worry about your daughter attending a religious school, you might want to check into them.
Good luck to you.
“I honestly think that common understanding of words like “existence” stretches far enough that people with different positions on the existence of something important can discuss and debate it in a way which is at least meaningful to them.”
Question from Cody:
When Christians and atheists argue, they seem to assume they mean the same thing when they say words like “existence,” “being,” “is,” and “truth.”
I find that they usually do not. Some speak from the modernist/rationalist mindset, some from the classical metaphysical mindset, and others from the post-modern, phenomenological POV.
What do you, and other atheists you know, assume as definitions for these seminal terms. What is the arbiter of truth? What is being and existence? Or, more realistically, what are your working assumptions about these things?
I’m afraid without clarity about our basic assumptions, any attempt to real dialogue is doomed. Help a devout Catholic understand atheist fundamental philosophy.
Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think there is any fundamental atheist philosophy, Cody. That’s like asking for the common political views of everyone who isn’t a libertarian. Different people may have come to reject it by different routes.
That’s not to deny that many atheists think about this stuff in similar ways. For many or most atheists, questions of existence are rooted in the material. If something exists as anything more than a manmade abstract concept like love or justice (though of course those can be quite powerful in their own way), then it either has a material presence or some practical effect on something in the world. If something were to exist but have no effect on us, we might be strictly wrong but who cares?
The other assumption I think is near-universal is the idea that existence is universal. If an entity exists, again as anything more than a hypothetical construct, it exists for you as it does for me, and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t exist for anyone. “What’s true for me is true for me” is only meaningful when applied to interpretations of the abstract.
Let’s be explicit here: when atheists and Christians or any other believers clash over words like “existence” and “being”, they’re usually talking about God, or a god. This makes the issue a bit simpler. The Christian God and many others share certain qualities: they watch over us, they are capable of intervening in the natural world and they have complete power over whatever’s left of our personhood (our “souls”) after we die. If a god doesn’t do any of these things, then even if it still “exists” in some sense it might as well not.
I honestly think that common understanding of words like “existence” stretches far enough that people with different positions on the existence of something important can discuss and debate it in a way which is at least meaningful to them.
“What I can do is speak for atheism – as defined by enough atheists, and enough prominent atheists, to make for a working definition.”
Hypothetical question from Effigy2000 on Metafilter, i.e. “So if I were to ask this person a question I’d ask…
…What gives you the right, f*%#-knuckle?”
Answer by SmartLX:
What gives me the right to speak for all atheists everywhere? Nothing. I don’t have that authority. And it’s not just me here either. Perhaps the site’s name suggests such things, but askANatheist.com was taken, as was asktheatheistS.com (to which I also contribute).
What I can do is speak for atheism – as defined by enough atheists, and enough prominent atheists, to make for a working definition. I can speak against arguments for the existence of gods when their flaws are evident. And as in all things, I can bloody well speak for myself.
It’s been helpful, I’m sure, to a great many people over the years. Some don’t have a single self-declared atheist in their lives that they could name, much less ask about atheism. This is how myths about atheism get dispelled in communities where it’s a negligible minority: some brave believer goes looking for a spokesperson. It’s also why the great big arguments don’t go unchallenged as often as they might.
Welcome to the Metafilter community, by the way. Thanks to Paragon, who I’d never heard of, for the link.