Question from Jun:
This may be similar to a question already asked about dealing with adversity, but I feel it is sufficiently different to stand on its own: How does an atheist overcome thoughts of despair, of giving up, even suicide, when things look hopeless? Christians turn to passages in Scripture or to prayer. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you very much.
Answer by SmartLX:
That’s okay, I think Jake answered the last one about this so I haven’t had a go in a while.
Look at it this way: what does God provide that gives you hope and a reason to go on? Whatever the answer, atheists get it from somewhere else because since they don’t believe in God they don’t believe God is the only source of these things. That can be hard to comprehend for people who think God IS the only source, which is why this question crops up regularly, but without a central theist belief a lot of secondary theist assumptions which you might not even realise you make suddenly go out the window.
Purpose, for example, can come from almost anywhere because people choose their own purpose. Even those who believe in God admit they don’t know what God’s larger plan is or how they personally figure into it, so they make their own choices about how best to serve Him. Not thinking that one has a divine purpose isn’t much worse than not knowing what one’s supposed divine purpose is, and allows more freedom in the choice because it can go entirely outside the realm of religion. Many social and political activists choose what cause to support in direct opposition to the mainstream religious dictates of the day, some because they don’t think the deity is real and some because they think the deity actually disagrees with the religion. Whatever is most important to you in life can become your purpose if you throw yourself into it. And if it ceases to be fulfilling or worthwhile, you can spin on a dime and pursue something else.
To tackle the other major point, people looking for a reason not to commit suicide need not only a purpose but a reason to think there is good to be found in the world. The point is worth hammering that if God doesn’t exist, God isn’t the only source of good in the world because there IS good in the world regardless. However you define “good” it’s happening out there somewhere, you just need to look for it. There’s no denying that terrible things happen all the time, but even in the middle of tragedy some of the greatest deeds are found. The Reverend Fred (aka Mr) Rogers often said as his mother said to him that whenever something awful was happening one should look for the people helping.
Another thing atheists see differently is that they think this life is the only one we have. Therefore leaving it prematurely gives no chance of a better subsequent life. Happiness can only be found in this life, so the only way to achieve it is to stick it out.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.