Ask from the Past: What Am I?

“Going by the word alone, an atheist (a-theist) is someone without a theistic belief. That includes deists.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from friendlyagnostic:
I go back and forth between deism and straight up agnosticism, so normally I call myself an agnostic deist (not theist). Most of the time I don’t know and I really don’t care (unless religion is in my face), but when I do think there might be a “higher power”, I think of it in deistic terms. theism makes no sense to me. I would never be arrogant enough to say “I know” or that “I can prove” b/c this is impossible. I consider myself a non-theist. however, according to the defintion on rrs’s website, I am considered an atheist too, just b/c I am not a theist. Is everyone who is not a theist an atheist? Am I, even with my deistic leanings? I honestly want to know……thanks

Answer:
A deist is not a theist, that much is clear and easy.

If you think there’s a good chance of a deistic god, but you don’t know, then you’re an agnostic deist. That’s pretty clear too. So we just have to work out what else you could be called at the same time.

An atheist by the everyday definition is someone who doesn’t believe in gods of any sort, even deistic gods. That rules you out.

Going by the word alone, though, an atheist (a-theist) is someone without a theistic belief. That includes deists.

Regardless, I couldn’t comfortably call you an atheist without qualification, because the way people understand the word it includes the position of a-deism.

If you really wanted to nail it to the letter, you could say that you’re an atheist but not an a-deist. If I shared your position, though, I wouldn’t bother. I’d just self-identify as an agnostic deist and not worry about whether I was technically an atheist too.

SmartLX

Ask from the Past: Religion, Family and Children

“Given how hesitant you are to come out of the closet, are you certain you’re the only one in there?”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from Watcher:
I’m a deconverted ex-theist who lives in the Bible Belt. I was raised Southern Baptist and, as far as I know, all of my family is religious. I have young daughters and my mother has approached me saying that she is ‘dissapointed’ that I am not indoctrinating her grandchildren with religion. The main problem is that I have found myself unable to tell her that I am now an “atheist”.

Knowing that she does this out of love, and truly believes that they will go to Hell if I do not take steps to make them accept Jesus as their Saviour I find myself in a quandry. I’m still rather bitter at religion myself and at first thought would rather raise them to question theological claims.

This situation has the potential to create a serious rift in my family. Heck it would have been better if I was just gay. That wouldn’t create near the controversy. But now I don’t know what to do. She would probably go into a mental ward if she knew the truth about me. I work with people that don’t believe in evolution and believe in a young earth. I have no idea where to find advice for my situation where I live.

Answer:
I think you’re dead right about the potential impact of declaring yourself “atheist” in a staunch Southern Baptist family. In some places and communities the word has a really disproportionate stigma.

However, give your mother more credit. That you’re not Bible-thumping your girls and that you probably don’t go to church much will have at least made her realise that you’re not very religious anymore. (I find “not religious” to be a great euphemism for “atheist” if I don’t want a conversation to suddenly be about that.) That you no longer believe might not be such a big shock.

If you capitulated but only at a surface level, you wouldn’t be the first parent teaching your kids family traditions for the sake of their grandparents. You haven’t said how old the girls are, but what if they were in on it, so to speak? What if your stance toward them were like this? “Listen, it’s really important to Grandma that you learn this stuff, and can say it when you’re asked, but whether you believe any of it is up to you.” Even better, if your daughters are going to learn prayers and catechism anyway, why not grab some library books and make a comparative religion class out of it? They might find it fascinating to learn about Zeus and Buddha as well as Jesus.

If you’re not willing to go that far, then you probably will have an unpleasant confrontation or two on your hands. For your daughters’ sake, of course you’ll leave them well out of it until you and your family reach an understanding. Look on the bright side: you might get lucky and find kindred spirits within the family. Given how hesitant you are to come out of the closet, are you certain you’re the only one in there?

Given that this is an Ask from the Past, I hope you get this and it’s still of some use to you, and things have gone well in the meantime.

SmartLX

Ask from the Past: Evolution vs Creation Conundrum

On the “croco-duck”: “Birds evolved from reptiles, all right, but you’re never going to find a fossil that shows a transition between two modern species.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. In Ask from the Past I’ll be working through them.)

Question from Katoi5:
I am in the difficult process of completely renouncing my faith, I’m pretty much an Atheist, but I think I am more of an agnostic. My problem is with Creationists and how they are insisting that there are no transitional form fossils in the fossil record and Evolutionists insisting that there are several.

Since I can’t physically see these fossils for myself I can’t prove to myself once and for all that they are in fact real. Who can I believe? For any Atheist who has seen or knows for a fact these transitional forms exist, please let me know and perhaps tell me where I can find out more about them. If in fact there are transitional forms, then are creationists lying or do they really not know?

Thank-you

Answer:
As Richard Dawkins explains in his new book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, there’d be plenty of evidence even if not a single fossil had been unearthed, let alone obvious transitional forms. As it happens, there are lots of them.

All fossils are transitional in a sense because evolution is an ongoing process. The three most famous fossilised creatures who make great examples are Ambulocetus (literally “walking whale”, a huge sea mammal who hadn’t lost his legs yet), Tiktaalik (partway between a fish and an amphibian reptile) and “Lucy” the Australopithecus afarensis (a primate with an ape-sized brain and an upright gait). In each of these skeletons, both the type of animal it evolved from and the type it would eventually evolve into is startlingly obvious.

It can be difficult to see the fossils in person, for instance because “Lucy” is in Africa where she was found. If you have the resources and the mobility, however, they really do exist and you can go chasing them if you really need to. Otherwise, Google Images can quickly round up photos and drawings of them from all over.

Individual creationists may deny the existence of transitional fossils for any of several reasons:
– They haven’t heard of the famous ones.
– They have heard of the famous ones, but they’re trying to persuade those who haven’t. (Sophistry alert.)
– They maintain a definition of “transitional fossil” which does not match the reality. (Take Ray Comfort’s famous “croco-duck”: half-crocodile, half-duck. Birds evolved from reptiles, all right, but you’re never going to find a fossil that shows a transition between two modern species. There isn’t a straight line of descent between distant cousins.)

While as I said the complete absence of fossils would not harm Darwin’s theory, the well-known transitional forms we do have make the process of evolution just that little bit more visible and comprehensible. That’s anathema to creationists, hence the campaigns of denial.

SmartLX

Can an atheist be spiritual?

“Visualising spirits, or spiritual energy, can be tremendously helpful in some circumstances (martial arts, for instance, or meditation) even if you don’t accept for a second that there’s anything really there.”

Question from Ace:
I attend my local Unitarian Universalist church, engage in or observe other people’s ceremonies and Celebrations and once a week I have my own ‘Ritual’ Day where I might light some candles, Incense and Sage to set the mood, Meditate, Read, Dance, Drum, Garden, Do Yoga and engage in many other Practices that would help me to feel re-connected to myself and able to go back out into life the next day…
Yet…
I do not believe in any God or gods of ANY Kind-Not The Universe, Not Nature, Not God is within or God is love, I also do not believe in the supernatural-No Ghosts or Angels, Magick or Prayer, I am not superstitious as far as I know..I have tried to ignore and deny these needs and desires to be involved in these Rituals and Celebrations and I have even explored different traditions such as Buddhism, Pantheism, Paganism and Though each of them can be Atheistic I dont find them to be a complete fit and they still have beliefs and practices that are outside of common sense and logic for me…Help!

Answer:
I think you answer your own question, by being a very spiritual atheist. The rituals and activities you mention all have documented benefits for the human body and/or mind, and do not require supernatural assistance to be useful or pleasurable.

Visualising spirits, or spiritual energy, can be tremendously helpful in some circumstances (martial arts, for instance, or meditation) even if you don’t accept for a second that there’s anything really there. This is what a lot of people think of as spirituality.

Get on Google and read some articles by Sam Harris. He’s one of the four major “New Atheists”, but he takes from Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies a great deal of instruction in spirituality. He actually catches a great deal of guff for it from other atheists, but I don’t think he’s actually contradicting himself.

SmartLX

Welcome to ATA, the new and the old!

“The more questions we receive, the more active the site is. It’s just that simple.”

This is Ask the Atheist, fueled entirely by your curiosity. The more questions we receive, the more active the site is. It’s just that simple.

We’re happy to announce that the Rational Response Squad have restored the old version of the site in archive form, right here. Some of the content has already been reproduced on the new site, but now it’s all back for good. Enjoy.

SmartLX

Telekinesis and the Laws of Science

“Many people believe in spiritual energies which are too nebulous to fit common definitions of gods, and yet have the ability to affect physical things in the ways you describe.”

Question from Joel:
I spent 5 years outside of the United States within the last decade, and I had the opportunity to travel all over the world. I used the time to define myself and what I believe in. I have close friends and colleagues that claim Atheism, but there are bridges that I just cannot cross. Although I have questioned my beliefs time and time again. In some third world nations I have come across people who can move things. Some seem to only have the power to move things on flat surfaces, where others could literally suspend things in air. They say their talents come from spiritual worship. My question to you would be, can there be a spiritual world and no God?

Answer:
No need for the capital A, as I often say. If it’s theism instead of Theism, it’s atheism instead of Atheism.

To answer your question directly, just about anything’s possible. Many people believe in spiritual energies which are too nebulous to fit common definitions of gods, and yet have the ability to affect physical things in the ways you describe.
– Take for instance the Chinese concept of qi (pronounced chee, sometimes written as chi or ki). Some believers in qi think it comes from gods or godlike beings, but not all the believers do.
– Another instance is karma.
– The most famous such concept in contemporary fiction is probably the Force.

So according to many belief systems, the people you met could be mistaken about the source of their powers, if in fact they’re real. The reality of their abilities is where I would focus my attention: how could we prove or debunk these apparent acts of telekinesis? There might be a reason why they’re done in remote parts of the world, away from scrutiny.

SmartLX

Reading the Bible to Kids

“There’s a common joke along the lines of declaring the Bible to be the single greatest advertisement for atheism.”

Question from Rick:
I was listening to a podcast a few days ago when the host made a comment about parents who read the bible to their kids. He made a good point when he said that he would love to tell the parents to let him read the bible and pick his own verses to read to the kids. Its funny because people who “read” the bible, don’t really read it at all. They just jump around from chapter to chapter. I would love to see a parents face as you explain Sodom and Gomorrah. And what goes on in gen. 38. What do you think?

Answer:
There’s a common joke along the lines of declaring the Bible to be the single greatest advertisement for atheism. I don’t know about that, because there are ways to spin even the Old Testament’s most violent stories in God’s favour. This is regularly done in the name of Biblical exegesis. How a given kid will interpret these stories is anyone’s guess.

The podcaster’s point is a fun way to upturn the idea of reading the Bible to kids, but we both know it’s not going to happen that way. Parents read the Bible to their kids so that their kids will believe in God. They choose whichever parts of it they think will achieve that. Maybe it’s to make them behave, maybe it’s the ultimate goal in itself, but either way the Bible achieves its original goal and the kids are indoctrinated.

SmartLX

Disrespectful Friend

“It’s ultimately God himself who’s supposed to do the converting, and the prescribed way for mortal Christians to help is to keep Him in your face.”

Question from Rick:
I have a friend who is a christian. He is aware that I am an atheist, and do not believe in god/gods or anything like that. But when we talk he always seems to slip a bible reference in there. And I don’t mean scriptures. For example, we’ll be having a conversation about women (as most guys do) and he will always say something like, “well that’s how they are, its right there in the bible, you know what I mean?” And I always respond like “I hear you talking, but you know I don’t believe that.” And that starts a whole argument about who’s right or wrong. I like him as a person, but dislike him as a christian. Any thoughts on how to handle the situation?

Answer:
It’s hard to go on the words alone. The way in which he says such things would tell us a great deal more. He might simply not consider your atheism before referring to the Bible as if you’re about to agree with him, implying that he’s inconsiderate or simply a bit self-absorbed. (Perhaps he doesn’t have many atheist friends.) Or, perhaps he has you pegged and he says things like that to draw you into a religious discussion, which apparently works like a charm.

I tend to suspect the latter, in the absence of context. Christians are told to spread the capital-W Word whenever possible, and very little emphasis is placed on making it stick. The idea is that the more a man simply thinks about God, even in terms of denial, the more likely he is to come around. It’s ultimately God himself who’s supposed to do the converting, and the prescribed way for mortal Christians to help is to keep Him in your face.

Back to your friend…if you don’t like to hear about the Bible, someone like this isn’t going to lay off if you don’t straight up ask him to. If you do ask, and he carries on, maybe you’ll know more about why. Or you could just ask why.

Keep us posted, Rick. Anyone else have friends like this?

SmartLX

The Ten Kingdoms

“Even prophecies that appear vindicated and legitimate need not be the result of genuine prescience, for a variety of possible reasons.”

Question from Ebony:
I’ve recently come to my senses and become an atheist. I have been puzzled by one thing in the Bible. The 10 kingdoms of the Roman Empire that were predicted. I can’t find any evidence that the book was written after this time. There has to be a reasonable explaination. Please help me.

Answer:
See my piece on prophecies. Even prophecies that appear vindicated and legitimate need not be the result of genuine prescience, for a variety of possible reasons.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, it didn’t instantly shatter into exactly ten pieces, each with its own king ready to roll. First it split into the Eastern and Western Empires, then the Visigoths and other invaders stripped away one country after another until Constantinople was sacked and there was nothing left.

If you think about it, it was inevitable that there would be ten kingdoms at some point. Starting with one whole thing and ending with the dozens of modern nations which were geographically within the Empire at its peak, the number of independent states and/or the number of monarchs must have been ten somewhere in between. (You sound as if you know which specific kingdoms they are; care to fill us in?)

The empire having already split into ten kingdoms is only one interpretation the faithful seriously consider. Some anticipate that the former Empire will ultimately become ten kingdoms, united by the Antichrist, not long before the end of the world. In this form it joins the many endtime prophecies which people argue are beginning to come true, in this case by pointing to volatile political situations in Europe.

Therefore, in the context of my earlier piece this one may be a case of 1. High Probability of Success, 2. Still Unknown and/or 4. Shoehorned.

SmartLX

Atheism and the Bible

“If there’s no God, and Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, it doesn’t mean that every single word of the Bible is false.”

Question from Sigurd:
If I belive in science and darwinism and do not belive in any god what so ever.
But I belive the persons in the bible are stories of actual people and their lives.
Am I then an atheist?

Answer:
I think it’s safe to say that you are.

If there’s no God, and Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, it doesn’t mean that every single word of the Bible is false. Some characters are known historical figures: Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Caiaphas and several different Pharaohs. Many events after the Resurrection probably have some truth in them, as they concern the early mortal Christians’ doings and are light on miracles. At the very least the Bible is set in some real places, such as Jerusalem and Memphis (in Egypt, not America).

Not believing in gods is what makes you an atheist. If you’re of the opinion that the Bible is accurate to a lesser extent when it comes to more mundane matters, it makes no difference unless it then convinces you that the Biblical God is real.

SmartLX