What’s The Use?

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.

No god or probably no god?

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

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

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

The Effects of Radical Atheism

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

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

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

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

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

Something to prove, but what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Causes and Rationality

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

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

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

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

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

Atheism: Endgame

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atheism or A-beliefism?

Question from Sarah:
Atheism or A-beliefism? Suppose we take the whole “Existence of God” question out of the religion and atheism debate. What do we have left? I’m inclined to say that we have a group of people who assert that BELIEF in the absence of empirical evidence is a reasonable and valid way of knowing, and a group of people who claim that it isn’t. My sense is that this fundamental difference in epistemology transcends the entire “God” issue. At the deepest level, an “atheist” isn’t someone who doesn’t embrace a belief in God, but simply someone who doesn’t embrace “belief” as a valid way of knowing. My question is, do you agree or disagree with this assertion and why?

Let’s make it a bit more concrete: Recent insights in astrophysics (eg. the Holographic Principle) and in information science suggest that the foundational components of our universe– rather than being tiny chunks of “solid stuff” (atoms)– might be information (bits). (“It from bit.”) If this is true, then we could actually be living in a Matrix-like universe. This could be a naturally-arising information-based universe, or an artificial one created by an intelligent being or beings. Let’s suppose that we do live in a an artificial “Matrix,” created and maintained by an individual Being. Clearly, that Being would not be an infinite, perfect entity like Jehovah or Allah. However, It would be omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal as far as we are concerned, and it would be supernatural, as far as we are concerned, since It transcends the laws of our universe. I don’t think that most atheists would have a problem with the possibility that this God exists, but they would definitely have a problem with accepting Its existence in the absence of evidence. Why, then, all the debate about God’s existence or non-existence? Why not debate about the REAL issue– which, as I see it, is FAITH as a way of knowing.

Answer by SmartLX:
I agree with you in part. An atheist does not accept the existence of a god or the equivalent, usually due to the lack of evidence or even due to perceived evidence of its absence. To such a person, faith is acceptance of a claim in the absence of evidence and is thus invalid by definition. And yes, I’m fine with the possibility of the existence of a number of different types of gods, including the master programmer version you describe, I just think that each is a very remote possibility and there’s no evidence for any of them.

However, advocates of a god’s existence are not so easily categorised. Perhaps they do generally accept faith as a valid reason to accept it, but when actually arguing the point with non-believers many of them go to the trouble of assembling and presenting what they claim to be evidence that their god exists. A large amount of the past material on this site consists of responses to claims of direct evidence, claims that the entire world IS evidence, claims that certain logical arguments serve as evidence, and attempts to shift the burden of evidence onto non-believers.

I don’t think re-framing the debate into a discussion of “ways of knowing” would be productive, or get anywhere at all. Believers already regularly take our evidence requirement at face value and throw “evidence” at us. Those who do not accept that evidence is necessary often ignore claims that it is, and think to themselves that those who demand evidence are misguided. (Indeed, the Bible explicitly warns against putting God to the test, and that’s good enough for many.) If we were to set our shared position such that some other “way of knowing” were the only valid one, the response from believers would likely be, “Very well, here is how the existence of God is absolutely plain in THAT way of knowing.”

No, the issue of whether God exists is the issue in which people are most often invested, rather than secondary epistemological issues, and I think the debate will stay right there because that’s what everyone wants to talk about.

How can you be an atheist if you don’t know everything?

Tommy asks…

An atheist is defined as someone who doesn’t believe there are any gods while an agnostic is someone who says that they don’t know if any gods exist. Simply put an atheist’s claim is an absolute statement that there are no gods while an agnostic is admitting that he doesn’t know, perhaps for lack of evidence he is willing to accept or some other reasons. Therefore, my question is this: Can someone make an absolute claim that is logical, reasonable, and scientifically supported that “there are no gods” without having omniscience? This is a Yes or No question. In order to answer this question you must first begin with Yes or No and then explain your answer. If you do not answer firstly Yes or No then you have not answered the question because the question is, in fact, a yes or no question. If you deny that this is a yes or no question then you’ve failed to understand the question because I am the one asking the question and I require a Yes or No answer. You are perfectly welcome to explain your Yes or No answer, but you must start with Yes or No. If you feel that the entire question is some sort of logical fallacy then your answer to this question is automatically No and then you must explain then why you believe it to be a logical fallacy. The most honest approach to answering my question is to simply answer Yes or No and then explain yourself from there. Otherwise your answer will be viewed as evasive and dishonest.

The problem is Tonny, you are basing your question on a false premise. You assume that a person can’t be both an atheist and an agnostic. I am an atheist/agnostic. I have no (a) belief in gods (theist) because I have no (a) knowledge (gnosis) of any. (knowledge also meaning evidence) This chart will help explain…

Agnostic v Gnostic v Atheist v Theist

 

In other words, I don’t claim that there are no gods. I claim that the current lack of evidence is such that no gods have been proven to exist and it is because of this that I lack a belief in any. What you are looking for are gnostic/atheists. They lack a belief in gods and also claim that they don’t exist. Which, depending on the gnostic/atheist that you talk to can violate your “Well you don’t know everything” argument. So in a sense, I agree with you. Who knows what’s out there in the land of the undiscovered? Maybe there is a god, I don’t know, and I don’t think you do either. No one does. I am open to the possibility within reason.

So there you go Tommy. Asked and answered. I look forward to your response.

Demons and gods and the Big Bang oh my!

Arushi asks…

Okay so I am an atheist and I am 13 yo girl from India !! Yes , India but my mom and dad were quite supportive of my act … I read about different stuff from the Internet and then I read about Stephen hawking and all his books and he says that the universe just blurted out of a Big Bang and he’s an atheist the question is who really created the Big Bang or designed humans . Then why are there so many evidences that God is present ?? And even if there isn’t y r demons present and I can’t stop myself from believing all this after I saw some real exorcism tapes !! What happens to our body when we die coz atheists don’t believe in afterlife ?? Is there a hell or heaven ?? Pls answer my queries I’ll be really grateful to and I could answer them when my frnds inquire me 🙂 I am really interested in science , physics , philosophy , paradoxes but I love knowing about myths , demons and legends so pls help me end my search !! Thank you xx

Thanks for all of the questions.

You’re problem here is that you have a little information but it’s obvious you haven’t actually studied them for yourself. I know from having a teenager and from once being one, that studying isn’t something that you like to do unless you have to (there are exceptions of course). You are probably used to people telling you what to think instead of learning things for yourself. I get that. You’ve got a lot going on with school and friends and family, who has time to learn? However, if you really want to begin to understand the world you live in, you’re going to have to do more then just “read about Stephen Hawking”, you’re going to have to actually read his books, or at the very least, listen to some of his lectures. You see, the internet is full of disinformation. You have to be willing to verify claims by doing a little research. I know that seems like a lot to do, but it is infinitely better then relying on what other people tell you about things. Look at it this way, the more you know and understand about the world around you, the clearer your perspective becomes. You can either choose to live blindly, or choose to try and understand. The choice is yours alone either way.

With that said, I’m going to answer your questions in a short manner and encourage you to go and learn these things for yourself instead of just accepting what I tell you.

First there is no evidence for any gods. Evidence for any claim of existence requires objective, verifiable proof. If someone told you there was a teapot circling Pluto, you wouldn’t believe it unless you had hard evidence for it right? Same thing with gods and demons. What people like to do is point to something that they don’t understand and say “god did that”, instead of actually trying to understand it for themselves. For example, for a long long long time people thought that those who screamed out, and shook on the floor and suffered from seizures were “possessed by demons”, but it wasn’t until science came around that we came to understand what causes seizures. Guess what? Demons weren’t involved.

Let’s take for example the “exorcist tapes” you referred too. What science was done to confirm these were people actually possessed be “demons”? How do you know the film wasn’t edited to make you think the demons were real? Why is the default explanation “demons” instead of just saying “I don’t know why this is happening”? An extraordinary claim like “demons” demands extraordinary evidence to verify it. Where is the verification? The James Randie Foundation offers a million dollars to anyone who can scientifically verify their claims of gods and demons and magic and psychic powers. Many have tried, and not one has ever succeeded. Their claims always fall short when studied in an objective manner. You might want to ask yourself why that is?

The rest of your questions are easy. There is no evidence for an afterlife just like there is no evidence for gods or demons. Don’t take my word for it though. Go learn these things for yourself. Start with learning the scientific method (systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.) and learn to apply it to your questions and ask if the evidence you’ve been given is justifiable. Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.

I know these aren’t the answers that you were looking for, but the direction I’m pointing you in will allow you to learn these things for yourself instead of relying on others to tell you what to believe. Feel free to read through this website. Use the search function. Read, learn, and try to understand. That’s the best advice I can give you.

If you don’t believe in a god, why bother?

Jackie comes to us with this question…

hi, I just wanted to ask you guys that if you guys do not believe in God why bother and created a Blasphemy Challenge? why bother with something that does not exist? For example: If do not believe my husband is cheating on me 100% and to my knowledge there is no evidence that he is cheating on me, but every time he gets home I fight with him accusing him of cheating. That sounds ridiculous. Why fighting for something that inst there. So why the challenge? Maybe because you guys are not 100% sure that there is no God? Or you guys just don’t want to believe in God because you guys do not want to follow God’s instructions? Its ok if you guys dont. God made us with free will. You choose to follow Him or not thats all just simple. Why the hate for something that does not exist? ( that does not exist to guys af course) Hope you guys answer my question. Thank you guys for your time. I look forward to see your email with your thoughts. Best wishes =D. Sincerely, Jackeline P.S God bless you guys.

I see this question on Twitter all of the time and I find it, admittedly, a bit strange. To me, it should be obvious that since atheists don’t believe in gods, we can’t hate them. So why does this question get around so much? Are believers that naive? Do they really think we hate their god, and if so, why do they think that? Is your preacher telling you this? Why is he/she perpetuating a lie? Who keeps saying atheists hate gods? It’s certainly not atheists.

The reason the Blasphemy Challenge was created was for several reasons. First to show Christians that we do not fear their god (because we don’t believe it exists) and to show this lack of fear, what better way then committing what is referred to as “the unforgivable sin” which is to deny the holy spirit. The second reason was to show atheists that there are others just like them who don’t believe, and to feel a sense of unity. It was a great success. Lot’s of people took the challenge, it got publicity in the news, and a broader dialog was created.

Atheists do not hate gods. What we hate is the way religion pushes itself on to others. Take the phrase “One nation under god” in the pledge of allegiance for example. Most Christians today don’t realize that the original pledge never said “under god”. Here’s a video of the cartoon character Porky Pig saying the pledge before it was changed in the 1950’s….

Why was the pledge changed? Because of the great “Communist scare” of the 1950’s. The fear of communists was so strong that pressure was put on the government by religious lobbies and organizations to change the pledge to reflect the differences in our political structure and communism. Never mind that it doesn’t actually reflect the beliefs of all Americans.

I could go on to give you more examples of how religion interferes with personal liberties. Dry counties, decency laws, laws against homosexuals, laws against atheists holding public office, laws against women controlling their reproduction, public displays of religion on government property, forced prayer at schools, laws that withhold the progress of science, Religion can also be abusive by teaching that men have the right to lead women, that the natural desire for sex is wrong and that even touching oneself makes you less then human, and that child abuse is permitted (spare the rod and spoil the child).

For these reasons and more atheists speak out against religion. Atheists in the U.S. want this to be “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” not just the religious.

So no, atheists don’t hate your god. We just don’t want your god belief to be pushed on us. Hope this answer helps.