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ATA was created in 2006 for the Rational Response Squad, famous for the Blasphemy Challenge and their Nightline debate with Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. In 2009 we archived the original site and moved to a new platform, which is where we are today.

I’m here to answer any questions or challenges you might have for atheists in general, along with site founder Jake. We’ve been around long enough already that it’s worth checking whether your question has already been answered, but we’re happy to tread old ground for new readers.

Welcome to Ask the Atheist. Ask away.

Edit: A couple of things if you’re new. Comments are fully moderated and your first post must be approved, so give it time to appear. If a new contribution is reliant enough on an existing answer, especially a recent one, it will go under that answer as a comment. It’s no judgement on you or your writing, we just like to keep discussions in one piece.

SmartLX

So Many Saints, So Many Miracles

Question from Jacob:
Hey, So this post won’t be on any specific miracle, but mainly on those of the Saints before they can be canonized. Many of these miracles go through some very careful Investigations by the Vatican. So how does a skeptic explain so many of them?

Answer by SmartLX:
Go and read about some specific saints from post-Biblical times and the miracles attributed to them. I’ll wait.

There’s no good evidence for any of them, but to the Church doesn’t need the evidence to be good. The miracles that supposedly occurred during the saints’ lives are anecdotal, but many of the saints are canonised based on events that occur after their deaths. Amazing medical recoveries after praying to the right figure are probably the most common “miracle” and, as in the case of 19th century saint Francis Xavier Bianchi, the required evidence for even this is mere testimony before Church-appointed “judges”, and not by the doctors but by the patients themselves.

The position of “devil’s advocate” is a real thing in the Church, but its role even at its most active seems to have been to seek clear evidence of hoaxes and signs of a potential saint’s poor character, because being utterly discredited was about the only thing that would stop the rise of a new saint once the process was in motion. The judges could disregard anything that turned up if they chose. And then in 1983 Pope John Paul II changed the role of the position and removed nearly all its power, and the rate of canonisation skyrocketed. Relatively speaking, it’s an open door now.

The sheer number of miracle claims would be more worrying to skeptics if there were any indication that the average quality of the claims were beyond the level that only an already devout Christian would accept. There’s no such indication, so skeptics only pay attention to the few that Christians really push as being incontrovertible. Even those are all eminently controvertible.

Help With Your Homework

Question from Sheena:
Hello, I’m currently studying Year 10. I would like to ask you a few questions with my Religion major assignment. If it’s okay.

Here are the questions:
1. What is your name?
2. What is the reason you became an Atheist?

Hoping for your immediate response.

Answer by SmartLX:
Sure it’s okay Sheena, but wow, that’s all they told you to ask? But then I suppose “why” is the only question that’s really on one’s mind when faced with a person whose position is so different from one’s own.

1. My name’s Alex, and you can give them any surname you want and they’ll accept it. Alex is a very common given name. Or be honest and say you asked a public blogger, this site will prove you right and they’ll understand my unwillingness to throw my whole name around.

2. I was a self-professed Christian until about the age of 11-12, when I was suddenly shocked by the fact that I didn’t have an answer to the Problem of Evil: why evil exists in the world if there’s a God who’s all-powerful, all-knowing and absolutely good. (Years later I didn’t just find one answer but far too many different ones; it became clear that no one really knows. But that was after the fact.) It was too hard to think about and I had teen things to focus on, and I moved from a Catholic primary school to a secular high school, so I didn’t consider religion seriously for almost 15 years. Without the constant reinforcement from within and without I barely prayed, I only went to church for Easter and Christmas and zoned out both times, and I only read the Bible when tracking down quotes (like the speech from Pulp Fiction).

Then in 2006 I read about Richard Dawkins and New Atheism, when journalists were all writing their first articles on the subject. Without reading any of Dawkins’ work or knowing any of his contemporaries’ talking points, I suddenly asked myself whether I still believed in God. It turned out that I didn’t, my simple opinion was that His existence no longer seemed likely. I was by definition an atheist. You should note that this is when I realised I was an atheist – the point when I became one could have been any time in the preceding years.

I recognised that this was a pretty big turnaround, so THEN I started digging into the meat of the debate to see if I was missing something. I searched the Web for the best arguments in favour of God, or any other god. Every one of them was plainly flawed (as I’ve chronicled in my Great Big Arguments series). There were certainly plenty of people willing to defend the arguments, but their defenses just weren’t convincing. I hadn’t known of this general weakness in the “apologetic” as a Christian boy, but it didn’t matter because I didn’t even know the arguments, I had merely accepted what I was told. I’d only known atheists existed because my father is one, and he only ever told me on two occasions.

So there you have it. I’m an atheist because I took a break from religion long enough to lose my emotional connections to it, and when I returned to the subject it was easier to see that faith was not intellectually justified. If the right justification finally came along it would be a different story, but I’m still waiting. In the meantime I live my life as if there is no god, and from that perspective much to do with religion appears pretty rotten.

The Concept of The Blind Watchmaker

Question from James:
Why does Richard Dawkins use the analogy of a “blind watchmaker” to describe natural selection?

Answer by SmartLX:
Straight from Wikipedia:
“In his choice of the title for this book, Dawkins refers to the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology.[1] Paley, writing long before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, held that the complexity of living organisms was evidence of the existence of a divine creator by drawing a parallel with the way in which the existence of a watch compels belief in an intelligent watchmaker. Dawkins, in contrasting the differences between human design and its potential for planning with the workings of natural selection, therefore dubbed evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker.”

Essentially, natural selection clearly does not plan. Paley’s argument is that if a watch suggests the existence of a watchmaker, the supposed appearance of design in living things should suggest the existence of a designer, but on closer inspection life is not as it would have been if designed by an entity with all its faculties intact. The reasons given by Dawkins include vestigial organs and features, inefficient physical arrangements of a body’s components (like the recurrent laryngeal nerve), inefficient solutions to simple problems, easily avoidable susceptibilities to malfunction, disease and death (see here for examples in humans), and needlessly expensive competition between individual organisms. Life functions, sometimes barely, but it could be so much better if someone had actually designed it rather than natural selection procedurally applying the simplest short-term solution to everything.

An Early Ticket To The Afterlife

Question from Douglas:
Do people who commit suicide go to heaven? Just watched the movie “The Discovery” on Netflix.

Answer by SmartLX:
Obviously The Discovery is a science fiction story, not a documentary, but like all good sci-fi it’s intended to provoke people to think about the real world and where we’re headed. Besides, (MILD SPOILERS) where they go in the movie isn’t exactly heaven so it doesn’t inform this question much.

I don’t think people who commit suicide go to heaven, because I don’t think there’s an afterlife, let alone a heaven, for anyone to go to. The identity is destroyed with the shutdown of the brain and it no longer exists to go anywhere.

Regardless, I’m against people committing suicide in most cases because of its straightforward consequences in this world: your own life ends with no possible chance of improving your circumstances or anyone else’s, and lasting anguish can be inflicted on those you leave behind.

I say “most cases” because I’m also in favour of voluntary euthanasia or assisted/accompanied suicide, when a person has reached a measured conclusion that continuing to live is too painful to justify any potential benefits. Organisations like Dignitas do a good job of making the decision and the action carefully considered, rational, compassionate processes with a minimum of drama.

I’m aware of course that religious approaches to this question are very different. If taking life is a sin, then suicide gives one no time to absolve or atone for the sin of taking one’s own life, so the shortcut to heaven is barred. This has a practical religious purpose in both the religious and secular view. For the religious, suicide prevents one from serving the mysterious purpose one’s deity has for one. For anyone on the outside looking in, it’s a simple way of preventing belief in an ideal afterlife from sending a religion’s followers to an early grave and depopulating the religion.

The exception which gives a religious rationale for suicide is sacrifice. If you get something important done by putting yourself in harm’s way, this might very well be your holy purpose, whether to be a martyr who gathers support or to take a lot of unbelievers with you. So really, there are religious reasons both to die and not to die and you can twist it any way you want, which is dangerous.

What About Judaism?

Question from :
Shalom all, I see that you focus on many religions, but haven’t seen anything on Judaism. I wonder what your opinion might be on it, and, if to someone, if the be Torah divine. To me it is, but I’d like to hear any arguments against it, not that I may refute or debate it, but just to “see” what the other side has to offer.

Answer by SmartLX:
There are indeed only a few articles that involve Judaism, simply because not many people writing in identify as Jewish or ask about specifically Jewish topics.

Very little of my perspective on Judaism is unique to Judaism. It’s a theistic religion, reliant on claims of the existence of an interventionist creator god which I don’t think are justified. Nearly all of the Great Big Arguments for gods that I’ve covered can be used to argue for your god just as well as any other, and they have no additional merit when applied to yours.

My perspective on the Torah, as an ex-Christian, is that it’s a subset of the books in the Bible and specifically the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Many of the discussions I’ve had on the divinity and inerrancy of the Bible can be applied to these five books. To approach them from scratch, I don’t think they’re divine because I don’t think there’s a real god to bestow divinity on anything. To argue in the other direction for the existence of the god based on certain discernible qualities of the books is to argue that such qualities are impossible without the influence of a god, which I don’t think is the case.

If you’re looking for specific challenges to the material in the Torah, I’ve occasionally touched on Exodus, and all the stuff on evolution and cosmology has some bearing on Genesis.

Mopping Up After Fátima

Question from Jacob:
Hello, So I think I am finally starting to get over the miracles thing and I would like to thank you Since you played a large role in it. However, there are still 2 things that bother me and that is the fact that war has declined since the end of the cold war, look at the statistics. And that Russia has become largely Christian since then.

Answer by SmartLX:
We’ve discussed these specific points in other articles, but let’s go over them once more.

Full-scale war between nations has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but this doesn’t really indicate that things are more peaceful. All of the world’s superpowers are now nuclear powers, so even if the same animosities have never gone away everyone’s afraid to act upon them on a large scale in case the world is ended. Ongoing conflicts like that between Israel and Palestine bleed thousands of lives without the “war” label ever fully applying. Many warlords have learned the merits of attacking the superpowers without a nation behind them, so that their actions instead fall under the banner of terrorism and it’s almost impossible to fight back effectively. This geopolitical climate does little to fulfill the spirit of the prophecy. And of course at any moment it could explode into an all-out war that dwarfs anything that came before and completely invalidates the prophecy.

The moment the anti-religious regime in Russia collapsed, it created a huge vacuum where the sudden lack of suppression allowed religion to flood into the Motherland. Surprise surprise, the majority religion among white people won out. The prophecy’s guess wasn’t very impressive since it would only matter if the expansionist regime did collapse.

Whence Came Hell?

Question from Vlad:
Hello, I was told that Dante’s Inferno was written well after the 6th century. People say hell stems from there. Why then, did this Pope from the 6th century also report hell in NDEs?
http://www.spiritdaily.org/neardeathgregory.htm

Answer by SmartLX:
“Well after” is certainly correct. Inferno is the first part of Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and was written in the 14th century. That should tip you off to the fact that the concept of Hell does not originally stem from there; it is not nearly that new.

The first known recognisable concepts of a place like Hell come to us from ancient Greek religion, specifically the regions of Hades and Tartarus. The Christian concept is straight out of the New Testament, written mostly in the 1st century but all well before the 6th. Early translations of it use the names Hades and Tartarus, among others, to mean Hell. The major details like fire, torture and eternity are all stated or implied in the NT (here’s a Christian perspective), and even though some have interpreted it differently the basic imagery was widely accepted before long. Inferno merely built upon that which already permeated Western culture.

To bring it all back to your question: someone in the 6th century, let alone the Pope, would have had plenty of hellish nightmare fuel to draw from without the works of Dante. If his claimed experience is similar to modern claims in ways that go beyond Scripture, the similar physiological effects of the events that brought the claimants near death can go a long way toward explaining this.

A Target of Fundamentalism

Question from Anonymous:
I’m an agnostic-atheist, my mother is insanely Christian. When I came out to her, she became enraged, shunned me and damned me to hell. I told her “Well, Mom, this is your opinion and this is my opinion, I’m still going to have morality.”
I was forced to go to church, I was forced to not read Richard Dawkins and she denied that I read up anything on science or discovery.
They performed exorcisms on me. I get very bad claustrophobia and all of these religious people came up on me, surrounded me and it caused a panic-attack.
My mother kept hitting me (literally) in the face with the Bible, kept hitting me with other things, in front of the church, and they cheered and yelled “Amen! Yes Lord! Get the heathen saved!” I have bruises and I’m severely depressed.
I began to get tired of her hitting me with the Bible to I took it out of her hands, ripped it and through it out of the window. Guess what happened next? They called me the immoral blasphemous one for taking a book and throwing it out the window. Apparently beating is completely moral, but oh, throwing the holy book and not physically harming anyone is absolutely horrendous.
I understand that believing in a deity is a comforting feeling, especially when one lost a loved one, in a vulnerable situation and so on.
I don’t fight people if they believe for those reasons, because I’m an understanding person.
I just think “a religion” is just “an opinion without facts”. It’s unprovable because we cannot scientifically test for a God or deity.
I respect religion, it must be a comforting feeling to believe in a God or deity, and that your passed loved ones are in a place where you’ll see them again.
But, why is it that religion divides people? Why does it turn regular people into a herd of malevolent brainwashed zombies and cause families to be ruined?
A lady who is close to my mother says that her daughter converted to Judaism in order to marry her Jewish fiancé. This lady tells her daughter “You cannot marry a Jewish man because he only resides on the Old Testament, and his people murdered Jesus.” You can see why the daughter hasn’t spoken to the mother in quite a long time. Now her daughter is happily married and the lady is still witnessing and talking bad about the Jews and so on.
Guess what? Another one of mother’s close friend’s son came out as gay. They did the same to him as they did me. They beat him, exorcised him and so on. Now, he’s a happily married man to his husband and they adopted three children, he hasn’t talked to his parents in five years.
My question is, is after so much division, why can’t these mothers realize? Including my mom? Why can’t they self-judge? Why are they like this? Is this a mental condition of theirs? This happens all of the time in her church! Some Liberal-minded kids who do their own research break away from these chains. Either from the religion, or just that particular church (and go to a more liberal church, which I completely respect). So why can’t fundamentalists look at themselves? Why can’t they say “Oh my cult-like way of worshipping a deity is causing my kids to run away, maybe I should re-evaluate what I’m doing.” Why do they not do that?

Answer by SmartLX:
First of all, if you have been physically and psychologically abused by your mother and her congregation and your story can be believed, you do have legal recourse to make it stop, although it may unfortunately be a difficult path itself. Get some alone time with a phone and have some exploratory chats with the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-422-4453) and the The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). Worst case, they give you nothing and you hang up. (Now that I’ve said that, I am very sorry it took me a week to respond to you.)

Anyway, there are several factors at work here. The simplest factor to understand is the doctrines these people take as literal gospel. God is real, Heaven and Hell are real, the only way to reach Heaven and avoid Hell is to accept God through Jesus. If you’re not accepting Jesus you are headed for Hell and eternal torment, and Satan is working through you. No amount of earthly suffering can match eternity in Hell, so any amount of suffering inflicted upon you in order to free you from the demonic influence is worthwhile and will be more than balanced out by eternity in Heaven.

The next factor is hinted at by a word you used, “herd”. It’s all about peer pressure. According to the group, whether stated explicitly or not, if you don’t accept Jesus your mother is suffering an ongoing failure as a parent and as a Christian. As long as she is your guardian, she is bound to do everything she can to “save you”, and the received wisdom is that various kinds of abuse can work towards this end. Once victims of this effort leave home and start their independent lives, as those you mention have done, the parents are entitled to wash their hands of them in the Biblical (Pontius Pilate) sense and shrug off all responsibility, so it’s rare that they will pursue the matter.

Finally there’s the sunk-cost, cognitive-dissonance, look-themselves-in-the-face factor. As soon as your mother began to preach to you years ago she established a firmly defined position, and if she compromised it in any way she might have seemed like a liar, a hypocrite or a fool. At this point after all the effort and abuse, If your mother were to accept that everything she put you through was wrong, then she put you through it all for nothing and she might see herself as a monster. She might already fear that this is true on some level. Her easiest path mentally is to maintain the belief, at any cost to her or to you, that it’s all true and she had to beat and terrify her child. The longer it goes on, the more important to maintain that justification, because her alternate self-image in the event that it all collapses gets more twisted and cruel, like the picture of Dorian Gray. (If this ever does happen it will essentially be an identity crisis, and she will need your help and forgiveness very badly.)

To summarise, fundamentalists often do not look at themselves in a realistic light because they must not. It’s against the laws they live by, their communities would abandon or turn on them, and they would be immersed in a whole new kind of guilt. It’s easy to judge them from the outside, and I’m not saying don’t, but do consider the precarious position they’re in, socially and psychologically. In your case, consider all this after you’ve done what’s necessary to protect yourself. Good luck, keep us posted in the comments if you like.

Bryan Melvin: Another Hell Tourist?

Question from Vlad:
Do you believe this man? Apparently people say they knew him and that he is totally genuine. They say they went to school with him and he was a total atheist until this experience, where he wrote books about it and became a pastor, but I have my doubts. I feel he may have lied to make a profit.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmp3UNjeu0k

Answer by SmartLX:
Bryan Melvin certainly made a profit whether or not he believes his own claims. It doesn’t cost much to put out a book with a Christian self-publishing company, and the above video is on sale too.

Atheists do sometimes convert to Christianity and other religions, so there’s really no problem with the idea that Melvin was once an atheist. What’s important is the reasons why people convert, and Melvin’s reason is a personal experience which he really has no way to establish as supernatural as opposed to generated by his own brain at some stage during his cholera episode. If it was real to him, and as intense as it sounds, objective examination of his own state of mind would have gone out of the window very quickly.

Seen One NDE, Seen Them All

Question from Vlad:
Hello, was indoctrinated into Christian faith since birth. I have a hard time when people ask me what I believe. On one hand, I trust evolution, I have had difficulties accepting the Bible. The whole idea that religion is a man made construct with “heaven” and “hell” used as a mechanism for controlling populations makes sense. However, in my church, one of the priests told us that hell has been proven to exist. He sent us an email with a few written accounts of religious people who were decent, but drank and partied, and were therefore not accepting God. They then either claim that they may have died and had what’s known as a Near Death Experience or NDE or even dreams sometimes where they encounter hell.

I found a multitude of videos where people claim to have seen hell in either a dream or an NDE, and what I realized is that all these reports sound consistent:

– falling through a black hole
– hearing screams
-seeing souls suffering
– seeing fire
-meeting demons who often say “we got you now”
– the demons beat people, and look like reptiles
– then the person calls out to Jesus or God, and a light appears
-this light saves them

There are many of these kinds of videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOhOynR9Jxg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=II_3H9O4LSo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmp3UNjeu0k
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwFruS4rpdI

All of these sound so similar.

I wonder how so many people could hallucinate/dream the same thing, especially this last link was a mormon woman who didn’t believe in hell, and had no exposure to it. How did she experience what so many experience?

They seem so consistent. Being raised Christian, I always pictured hell as a place with dark rocks that people stand on, surrounded by lava and fire, being burned, suffering, maybe meeting Satan, etc. I never pictured there being demons who claim “we got you now” and attack people while mocking them. All of my Christian friends I asked didn’t picture this either, so what gives? Why do all these accounts report reptile horned demons?

Any rational thoughts on this?

Answer by SmartLX:
Put “nde” or “near death experience” into the search function above to find a positive wealth of articles, because it’s been a popular subject lately. In particular, this piece addresses your specific question about the similarities between claims. Briefly, there can be very good physical or mental reasons why people experience what they do, and they’re all human beings living in the same society.