Question from Samson:
I am studying philosophy and worldview and I’m currently working on an assignment where we are meant to explore this question:
“What is the relationship between humanity and the Divine?”
If you aren’t sure how to answer the particular question outright, I think answering these questions might give me what I’m interested in knowing:
1. Do atheists believe in any gods or supreme beings?
2. Do you believe in the supernatural or paranormal at all? Not just gods, but stuff like ESP, magic, mind reading, ghosts, etc.
3. Does life or humanity have intrinsic value?
3a. If not, is there any way for a human or their life to be “valuable” or have meaning?
Answer by SmartLX:
The main question is easily answered from an atheist perspective: “probably none”. There has to be a Divine for humanity to have any real relationship with it; if there’s not then much of humanity is operating on false assumptions, and any perceived relationship is in their heads.
And now for the rest of the questions, which I’ve numbered above for clarity.
1. Atheists, by definition, do not believe in any gods, and most definitions of a “supreme being” are close enough to a god as makes no difference. For instance, there’s a similarly poor standard of available evidence and logical arguments for a non-divine supreme being, so it fares no better than gods in that respect.
2. Lots of atheists believe in supernatural or paranormal phenomena. For instance I’ve discussed ghosts with many self-proclaimed atheists who believe in them for various reasons. It’s consistent (to some extent at least) for an atheist to believe in such things if they do not necessarily require a god to exist. I personally do not believe in any such things, as far as I’m aware.
3. Look up definitions of value and you will find expressions like “the regard that something is held to deserve” and “one’s judgement of what is important in life” (emphasis mine). Value is subjective by its very nature, because it has to have value to someone. Even its definition as a verb is phrased along the lines of “consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial”, which is again dependent on the one doing the considering. For something to have “intrinsic value” it would need to be of value to the universe as a whole, entirely independent of people. That either means the universe is conscious and values certain things, or it is controlled by an entity such as a god which has its own values. Atheists don’t think either is the case, so there’s no such thing as intrinsic value to us – unless you instead define value in terms of physical quantities. A pint of beer might cost $10 or it might come for free or it might save or end a life, but it will always measure one pint.
3a. The above does not stop us from valuing things, because subjective judgments are still judgments. Life has value to the living, humanity has value to humans, and we’re all living humans so we can happily behave as if they are intrinsically valuable. If there’s no god then you’re not looking for a stamp of approval for your values from the universe at large, only from the people your values may impact or impress.
With that covered, take a step back and consider the nature of question 3a. I don’t know whether you’re repeating it from somewhere, but it could be considered an attempt to have atheists admit a bleak, nihilistic outlook, as the existence of 3a makes it look likely that the answer to 3 is “no” and the answer to “3a” might just be “none”. If this is the author’s motivation, it is an appeal to consequences as it does not say anything about whether atheism is right or justified. Apologies if this is clearly not the author’s intention, but it is exactly the intention of some advocates so I wanted to mention it regardless.
Question from Jerry:
I live in an HOA community of about 100 homes in North Carolina. We have a clubhouse and monthly dinner socials and there is always a spoken Christian prayer before each meal. After going to these for two years I met with the HOA Board to complain about the prayers because they were not inclusive and this is not a religious compound. Their lawyer told them that did not have the authority to tell anyone to pray or not to pray. They sent out the board minutes to the community and instead saying a resident complained about prayers, they mentioned me by name. Because of this is sent out a 17 point rebuttal explaining why I had done this. Interestingly enough I got a lot of hugs and hand shakes for doing this. I tried to bring it up at the annual meeting and was shut down because they had already ruled on the issue. I am at present circulating a petition and so far have 20 homeowner signatures. This must be a HOA issue nationwide. The boards always deal with property management companies. Our property management company suggested that I just leave the room. I replied that I was not going to sit in back of the bus. I did a little research on national property management trade organizations but could not find anything about my issue. Do you have any suggestions.
Answer by SmartLX:
Even if I were American I think I’d be the wrong person to ask about the laws that apply to American homeowner’s associations with respect to religion, or to anything else for that matter. So I’ll say up front, folks, comment to help this guy out and you’ll probably do better than me.
From what I can gather from forums and from simple articles like this one, as a private entity not representing the state in any way a HOA can pretty much do whatever its board wants, as long as it’s within the law generally. Praying in front of you on behalf of the HOA certainly favours a particular religion but the HOA is not required to be impartial as long as your rights are respected, and you are not technically a captive audience.
Those hugs and handshakes are important, though, if only because you know you’re not alone. I’d say the best way to change what the board does is to change what the board wants, and the most straightforward way to do that is to change who’s on the board. Here I’m adrift as I have no idea whether your board simply consists of every homeowner or it’s elected from within that group. If the latter is the case then you could encourage the huggers and handshakers to run next time around, and potentially form a focused minority on the board with the leverage to effect change.
I’ll just bring up one strategy I’ve read about that has gotten fast results in the fight against partisan prayers in other spheres, in case you can find a way to use it. It’s to demand equal time for other views, or just exercise freedom of speech and answer one expression with another. People have used Hindu prayers, prayers to Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, readings from The God Delusion or On The Origin of Species and so on. Once it becomes clear to the Christian majority that minority beliefs and positions will appear on the same stage (sometimes literally) as their own with equal significance, they may decide it’s not worth having a timeslot for prayer at all.
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 Kris:
Background information for my question: I am female atheist (not atheist agnostic, but an atheist who doesn’t believe in any supernatural power or being) who studies human evolution in the Cradle of Humanity in Kenya.
I have noticed many, not all, male atheists seem to aggressively question my atheism. I have never had this issue with other female atheists.
So my question is actually two parts, one for female atheists and the other for general atheists.
So for the female atheists, has anyone else experienced this aggressive questioning of their atheism by fellow atheists?
And why do some male atheists need to question females’ atheism?
Answer by SmartLX:
I regret that there are no female atheists currently “on staff” here, as it’s just me for the moment. Women are more than welcome to answer by comment, and incidentally if anyone male or female would like to be a contributor it won’t hurt to write via the “Ask it here!” form and let me know.
I think the simplest answer to your second question is one word long: sexism. Some atheists think their own atheism is a sign of intelligence and resistance to social pressure. If they also think that women tend to be of lower intelligence and more susceptible to social pressure, they may come to the prejudiced conclusion that few women have the necessary qualities to be real atheists.
If they are sexist to the extent that their own sense of masculinity depends on a perceived superiority to women, they may actively resist the idea of a contemporary female atheist, because a woman who’s an intellectual equal threatens their self-image. The only way to act out this resistance, as silly as it sounds, is to interrogate you and ideally uncover you as a false atheist. One can only guess at what they think your motivations might be; perhaps they suspect you’re trying to sound more intelligent and independent than you really are.
Meanwhile in the real world, of COURSE women can be atheists, of COURSE women can equal or surpass men intellectually, and an inverse statistical correlation between religiosity and intelligence has been shown by several studies (here’s a meta-analysis) but the causal nature of the link has not been established. It’s not surprising that the atheist community isn’t free from sexism as sexism isn’t only caused by religion, but it’s still disheartening when women (and minorities) aren’t welcomed.
Question from Aaron:
Hello! Have you considered if Hell is real?
The Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself warned people of a literal Hell, the lake of fire ultimately, where all those who rejected Him and His shed blood payment on the cross for their sins alone (His death burial and Resurrection), will spend eternal conscious torment, forever. He created Hell as the final eternal torment for the Satan and his fellow fallen angels who rebelled against God. But, human beings are given a free will choice to either trust in Jesus/believe on Him and be forever saved (once saved always saved) or to reject Him and end up burning forever in Hell.
As an atheist have you ever considered the idea that eternal Hell is for real? If the atheist is right, then we all die at the moment of physical death and that is the end of our conscious thought. Nothing wasted nothing gained. But if the Bible is right, and indeed Jesus IS, then the atheist ends up burning in Hell forever. Ignoring the various religions (which are all false and easy to prove false anyhow) and sticking to either atheism or Biblical Christianity, which is the stronger position?
I do not want you to end up in Hell. I want you to be saved and end up in Heaven. And the only way to be saved is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved. All you must do is trust in Jesus Christ alone for eternal life. Faith alone in the shed blood atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ alone period. It is not a life long process like all these religions and cults teach but it is a once for all event in your life. The moment you trust in Jesus you receive Him forever and are forever sealed to Him. “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” Ephesians 4:30.
But to him that worketh not but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly his faith is counted for righteousness.” Romans 4:5.
Much more then being now justified by His blood we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” Romans 5:9
What do you think? I believe in freedom of the individual to believe whatever they want, even if you totally disagree with me. It is your choice my friend.
Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, I have considered the possibility that I’m wrong about Hell, mainly because I’m often asked to. My reaction to that possibility is covered in my piece on Pascal’s Wager. In short, it does not make me want to accept Jesus.
To apply what I wrote directly to what you’ve written:
– You cannot simply ignore the “various religions”. They’re not so easy to prove false if you don’t just rely on the premise that Christianity is true and reason that they contradict Christianity. Even if you could, the gods of the other established religions aren’t the only possible alternatives as there’s an infinite number of gods people haven’t yet described.
– If Christianity has evidence of a kind the other religions don’t, present that evidence as part of a proper argument and don’t bother fearmongering with “what if hell is real?”
Finally, I’m an atheist so you can probably tell which of atheism and “Biblical Christianity” I think is the stronger position. Of the two, Christianity merely makes the greater threats, but the trouble with a boogeyman is that you need to believe in it to be afraid that it’ll get you.
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 Nick:
I’ve done research on many different concepts in religion and philosophy, and have come to the conclusion that we should just call the universe God. To me this makes the most sense. Everything you could say about God can be applied to the universe. It’s everywhere, all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. And it seems to match with science; everything is just quantum foam.
But I’ve tried to talk with other people that call themselves atheists, and they demand to prove that existence even exists with science. One even said they reject philosophy (which I think is one of the foundations of scientific knowledge).
I don’t understand why some atheists are so aggressive when it comes to the idea that the Universe/Multiverse could be God.
Answer by SmartLX:
The concept of everything, or the universe itself, as God is called pantheism. It has been around for a very long time and has found some popularity among people who like to imagine we are all part of God. It’s never served well as a uniting position though, because it sits poorly with either theists or atheists depending on how it’s defined.
The main difference between a materialistic universe and most concepts of God is agency. God has goals, and some amount of influence with which to exert His/Her/Its will on reality in order to achieve those goals. A plain old universe just runs along like a clockwork toy, and whatever happens happens. If (hypothetically) the universe has its own goals and somehow works towards them within itself, then it actually is a theistic god but atheists won’t accept the idea because there’s no good evidence for its agency. If on the other hand the universe is beholden to its own laws and cannot bend or break them to advance a particular cause, then it is at best a deistic god because of the lack of intervention. Some atheists might be okay with calling it that but theists believe their god is capable of more than following the rules to the letter.
Philosophy is impossible to avoid in some form or other. Each of us knows that he or she exists, which implies that there is some kind of reality even if everything we can sense is a lie. Simple logic when applied to the self will get you that far, so it’s not as if philosophy requires special training or education (though education can certainly help).
Apologies for the late reply, I was working overseas. Got a bit of a backlog of ATA questions to cover, which is a positive sign.
Question from Tsahpina:
I am a strong atheist and as such one of those who keeps trying to put reason in believers’ minds. I believe I have never succeeded in anything, except to get unnerved so badly that I now hate them. Yes, hate them.
So, my question to fellow atheists is why bother even talking to to them about their silly uneducated beliefs?
I mean, can any atheist tell me any good reason why I should bother to even consider them as people with reason?
Answer by SmartLX:
Believers are not by definition devoid of reason. Some people probably are, but it’s not true of someone simply because they have an unjustifiable belief. It just means their reasoning is based on incorrect or unsupported premises, they have reasoned incorrectly, or their emotions have overridden or railroaded their reason. The most intelligent of us can be wrong about very important things, and still defend our positions on them very strongly.
You are expecting too much of believers and of yourself if you think they will simply drop their long-held beliefs during one conversation with you. Beliefs are seldom dispelled in an instant; if you’ve heard of true-believer syndrome, you know that they can even be reinforced when the objects of belief are utterly debunked. The most you can realistically hope for in a single exchange is to bring someone to a state of aporia. Simply put, it’s when they respond with (or at least think), “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, and I can’t reconcile it with my position right at this moment. I need to go and think about this some more before we discuss it further.” Their mind will process what was said and realised, and their position will have changed at least a little by the time they want to talk about the subject again – or, they will have found new logic or evidence they didn’t previously have to hand which supposedly supports their position. Either way the discussion will have moved forward.
As for why you should bother discussing beliefs with believers at all, that’s up to you. Many atheists decide that it’s not worthwhile and never do it, or keep it to specific situations. For those who do think it’s worth doing, it’s because it benefits someone. It might benefit the believer to be freed from religious beliefs because the beliefs are doing them harm, or holding them back, or making them unhappy, or putting pressure on their friends and family. It might benefit atheists and those whose beliefs don’t match those of the given believer, because reduced devotion to one dogma can mean less prejudice toward others, and toward a lack of dogma. I do it because I think people would be better off abandoning religion of their own accord, and by and large I restrict my efforts to this site.
Question from Dominic:
How do you deal with senseless suffering–like heartless cruelty imposed on innocent animals? There is such a thing as crush videos where women, mostly in high heels, enjoy crushing small animals on the floor in a gruesome, lengthy process to provide sexual satisfaction for the viewer. Those who produce it say it is allowable because of free speech and also because the dark web has no censorship unlike the surface web. Isn’t it true that without absolutes in the moral area everything is permissible?
Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, I know about crushing videos. There’s room for debate over whether the women who participate enjoy it, or are simply doing what the punters will pay to see as in other kinds of pornography, but animals are tortured and killed regardless.
Just because everything is “permissible” in a high philosophical sense doesn’t mean everything is actually permitted in a practical sense. Cruelty to animals is illegal in most countries and the makers of these videos are prosecuted if caught, for cruelty to animals if not for the videos themselves. No one argues in court that killing the animals for pleasure is fine, only that once the videos are made they’re protected by free speech. They do the killing in ways that make it hard to attribute to anyone. (The “dark web” makes the videos easier to produce and distribute but doesn’t affect their morality, so it’s irrelevant.)
Regarding the free speech aspect, in the United States the videos were outlawed in 1999 after they came to light. The ban was struck down as unconstitutional, but only because it was too broad and mistakenly encompassed all kinds of non-fetish videos involving wildlife and livestock. There was another law in 2010 that did what it could in the circumstances, banning interstate commerce of the videos. The issue was badly handled overall but the government and the courts have done what they thought would protect the animals and punish their tormentors at every stage.
To focus on your main point, if an absolute basis for morals were needed to create an ethical society a secular legal system would be impossible, because the only moral absolutes are those asserted by religions on behalf of their gods, and those are dependent on a shared assumption that the gods not only exist but have the same morals claimed by the religions. Fortunately, it’s possible to have an objective basis for morals and ethics using a more reasonable assumption, such as that the needless suffering of helpless animals should be prevented where possible. This isn’t backed up by any moral imperative baked into the universe (indeed nature completely disregards it and wolves happily eat bunnies) but it has such a near-universal consensus (far more reliable than a simple majority) among humans that those who like to cause or watch the suffering can be justifiably classified as aberrant. We feel quite comfortable calling the videos “wrong” without a hypothetical ethereal lawgiver to tell us we’re right, and while philosophical discussions might poke holes in the word they don’t change how we feel, and importantly how we act.
While it’s beside the point you were making, there’s still that first question of how to emotionally deal with the suffering of animals. It’s not as complex for atheists because we don’t have to wonder why a loving god would allow it. It happens, it’s awful, we feel their pain, we do what we can to prevent it, we give the animals in our lives enjoyment by playing with them, and so on. We accept that some things about the world suck, but not everything, so there’s still joy to be found and good to be done so we look for that. Boom, a high-level work-in-progress guide to living in the real world.
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.