“If only she weren’t Christian…”

Question from Fiak:
We’ve been best friends for so long. While there’s no evidence (yet) that she’s going to want to date me, I feel she is contemplating doing that. The only problem is that I’m atheist and she’s Christian. I’m just confused. Please help me convert her. There’s about 7 more years till I totally lose her to some Christian. I feel she’s mine tho. Help please!

Answer by SmartLX:
I feel you presume too much about “her” in general, but I’ll concentrate on the religion part.

I’ve been with a Christian woman for almost ten years, and married to her for seven. Trust me when I say the difference in beliefs is not a deal-breaker. Each of us is also the product of an atheist-Christian couple, and beliefs vary among our siblings as well. Those of us in the extended family who are atheists got that way either because they were never indoctrinated or by a slow, natural fading of belief in the absence of reinforcement. Like in any group of people with two disparate positions among them, harmony is better served by not focusing on our differences. My wife and I each hope the other will “come around” in time, but it’s not a big enough part of either of our lives that we feel the need to force the issue.

What you’ll have noticed in the above description is that there were no major de-conversion events to speak of in the family. (One branch loudly denounced Christianity after one of its number was jilted by a hypocritical evangelical, but I suspect their actual beliefs didn’t shift much.) If I were you I wouldn’t try to make an atheist of “her” within a set timeframe as it’s really not reliably done.

Here’s how I would approach the issue directly if I did decide to try: I would ask the question, “Why do you believe in God?” Once I had the answer, I would work with her to answer the question, “Is that a good reason?” Maybe she has structured arguments that you can look up on this site or elsewhere, maybe she had a “road to Damascus” moment years ago you can examine, maybe she’s never really thought about it and will have to get back to you. Either way, it’s likely to be a conversation carried out in pieces over several days or weeks, especially since if you’re not careful it will be seen as an attack on an integral part of her identity and she won’t be keen to continue. (I did start along this path with my wife, but I sensed how defensive she was becoming and I let it be.) Remember to be totally open about your own position if she asks the same of you.

When it’s over and you’ve made your point, the belief may persist even if she’s unable to argue back, because beliefs are not beholden to reason. Only months or years later might it sink in that something’s not secure about them. On ATA I may argue specific points forcefully but I recognise that people are very unlikely to comment the next day thanking me for ridding them of their faith; that’s just not how it works.

Looking For That 100%

Question from Josie:
Hello this is a college student who is pretty much confused. I do have a fact in mind God doesn’t exist. But, the other part of me doesn’t. Is there any steps to pretty much make me fully sure he doesn’t exist. My mind 85% tells me he isn’t real but some odd reason my mind won’t agree with it. Any suggestion?

Answer by SmartLX:
No one said you had to be sure. I’m not. 85% confidence in God’s absence isn’t bad at all really.

You can’t prove a negative, as they say. To be 100% confident there’s no god you’d need the knowledge of a god yourself, to be aware of all the possible ways a god could influence the universe and know that they’re not happening. If you’re being realistic you have to accept some uncertainty, even if you think the concept of a god doesn’t make sense. (There might conceivably be a way it does make sense that you haven’t learned yet.) But if your opinion is that there isn’t a god because you lack positive belief that there is one, that’s as good as most atheists have it.

So what do you do with that uncertainty, the perceived 15% chance (or whatever you estimate) that there’s a god of some kind? Not much really. You keep an open mind and consider any evidence or arguments for gods that you’re exposed to, if you have the time. But do you behave as if there’s a god, just in case? That’s what people who cite Pascal’s Wager would suggest, because even if there’s no god there’s no harm done, right? Unfortunately if there’s a god it might not be the one you think it is, or demand from its worshipers what you think it does, so praying on the off chance might just piss it off. Not worth the trouble, I say. Better just to try to be a good person, which any god worth worshiping would respect but more importantly is its own reward.

Heaven’s Cold Comfort

Question from Tsahpina:
If the religious really believe there is an afterlife and/or paradise, for those who believe in such, why do they cry when someone dear to them dies and why are they afraid of their own death?
I do not mean this as rhetorical question, but since Ivery much doubt any religious person is capable to answer this sincerely, then let it be, for such religious people, rhetorical only. but i would like a real reason, if there might be one, like, they are leaving their dear ones or a dear one is leaving them, but then, they are going to their loved ones who had already died and the ones that remain here will sooner or later join them. so, why not rejoice for the going to paradise, big deal, i mean.

Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is that an afterlife doesn’t make everything about death okay even if it’s real.

We’ll leave aside the idea that some believers don’t really believe we go to Heaven or nurse serious doubts. if you don’t really accept the doctrine then of course it won’t help you when you’re faced with death, so that’s that. We’ll consider the case for people who really do believe instead.

No matter what happens after death, the person is gone from this life and this world. In an undeniable sense the person is separated from us and lost to us. If you love the person, this is a great loss which you will mourn no matter where you think the person is going, because you’ll never see or talk to them again for the rest of your life. If you knew someone you loved was going to live quite comfortably but not contact you in any way for several decades, would it make it perfectly all right that you’d see them again afterwards? Of course not, while it might provide some consolation it would still be a huge wrench in the here and now. Likewise, if you’re the one going away, you wouldn’t see anyone you knew potentially for years.

The Christian afterlife, similarly to many others, is a double-edged sword. You find out right at the beginning whether you will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell, and there is no assurance to be had before that point. You just have to follow the rules as laid out by your particular denomination, and hope you got them right AND they’re the right rules. Sins are remembered even if you’ve forgotten them, so you doubt your own mind. All men and women are sinners by nature and tainted with Original Sin, so you keep your fingers crossed that you’ve cleaned it all off with your piety and prostration and didn’t miss a spot. It’s truly nerve-wracking, even if you think you’ll be okay in the end. And if someone else is dying, you have no way of knowing whether they’ve confessed every sin, performed every rite, crossed every T and dotted every i.

So if someone is fearful and sorrowful of death I don’t doubt the steadfastness of their beliefs. I feel great pity that their beliefs aren’t helping as much as they were probably led to believe they would.

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.

Wired for God?

Question from Dave:
I’m new to this site so forgive me if I’m asking something that has already been asked. I am of the opinion that religion is genetically programmed into humans from birth. I have a number of reasons for believing this and I’m wondering if this is a topic already covered and if so how do I find it?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think we’ve covered it here yet, so thanks for asking.

Religion per se is not likely “programmed” into humans, but some of our instincts do make it very easy for religion to take root. When we’re young we instinctively keep close to our parents and other adult guardians, follow them, keep them in sight, and importantly trust what they say. This is definitely a good thing because it’s how we learn to look before crossing the road and to keep away from fire, but the content of the message is irrelevant to its impact. If we’re told from a young age by every adult we know that God is watching, we believe it before we have the critical thinking skills to decide whether it’s likely to be true. Once that happens, the belief persists even after the critical thinking starts because God becomes a premise in our thinking rather than a conclusion; it’s simply assumed. It can be very hard for a person in this position to even accept that the assumption can be challenged.

Another way our wiring is very inviting to religious faith is the concept of agency. From the caveman days onward, it’s been important to us to know whether what we see has a deliberate purpose to it. If a patch of long grass isn’t moving like all the rest, there might be a tiger in it. If there are carved rocks and tools on the ground, other humans are nearby and you’re on their turf. Unfortunately this is very easy to mis-apply to phenomena we don’t understand, like the orbit of the moon for cavemen or quantum mechanics for us. We tend to assume that everything with any ordered action to it at all has some agency behind it, and when we know humans can’t be behind it we imagine a sort of uber-human, which is how gods are generally visualised. Learning about science helps to dispel ideas like this, as we discover the natural causes of things that otherwise seem designed.

So while there probably isn’t a God gene or a God lobe, the brain is very well positioned to believe in such things, and religions have taken full advantage to their great benefit.

An Atheist Wary of Foxholes

Question from Michael:
I was raised a Bible Church Christian since birth, but can remember questioning my faith and details about it from a relatively young age. I gave my religion “the old college try” throughout college and young adulthood until my thirties when I finally could no longer justify my belief in something for which I saw no evidence. I have lived as an atheist since that time. However, I often feel that if my life were ever in danger (e.g. I was held at gunpoint) I would break down and pray to God to save me.
I’ve heard of this phenomenon before – “There are no atheists in foxholes!”

My question: Does this mean that I’m not really an atheist? Am I really a believer that is just trying to convince himself that he’s an atheist, but when push comes to shove, his true beliefs are exposed? Or am I the atheist that I believe myself to be, but when confronted with a life threatening situation, I revert to my childhood teachings as a safety net? Your insight would be appreciated. Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
You won’t know until you’re tested, but even if it does happen it may not mean much.

Firstly, there most definitely and literally are atheists in foxholes, as you’ll hear from members of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and similar organisations. There are soldiers who go on active duty, risk their lives, survive by the skin of their teeth, and recall no point during their ordeals when they reached out to a deity they didn’t think they believed in. (A far more accurate statement is that there are no chaplains in foxholes – military keepers of the faith are only dragged into combat in the most dire situations.)

That’s not to say that people who’ve lost their faith never try to pick it up again in tough times. This may have nothing to do with actual belief; as you suggest, when there is no comfort to be found, people think back to times when they felt safe and protected, and many remember the prayers and churches of their youth. Afterwards, they may wonder what the heck they were thinking. Some recent apostates may even pray, or shout for God and Jesus, out of sheer habit.

What you appeal to in your darkest moments is not necessarily what you really believe, it’s just what your brain latches onto when you can’t think straight. It’s no wonder that some non-believers fall back on their early ideas of God as a companion and protector, before they remember that there’s likely no God.

As You Were, So Shall You Be

Question from Alex:
Once you believed in religion. Then you understood that they are telling you fairytales. You became a so-called atheist. When you look back now, you say: How stupid was I! Can’t you imagine that one day you will look back at your actual state – and say the same?

Answer by SmartLX:
I wasn’t stupid to believe, and neither does anyone else deserve to be called stupid solely for having religious faith, because you don’t have to be stupid to be wrong.

In my case I was raised a Catholic, lived in a majority Christian environment and never really had any reason to question the core beliefs. Once I did eventually start to question them, they didn’t last long. In the absence of external evidence one way or the other, careful examination of one’s own beliefs can cause them to change – and for some they may be strengthened instead.

I can imagine myself believing in a god in the future. Maybe I’ll have some traumatic experience and rationalise it in religious terms while still badly affected, possibly thinking my sanity and my will to live are contingent on the existence of a god. Maybe I’ll have a religious experience under the influence of a drug, a medical condition or sleep paralysis, and think I’ve seen Jesus. Maybe I’ll fall in with a crowd of Christians and talk so much theology with them that I forget I’m taking God’s existence as read for discussion’s sake. Or maybe God will change my heart directly, like He’s supposed to.

There are tons of reasons why I might change my mind later, but hardly any of them need me to be wrong right now. The undeniable possibility that I will one day believe in God again does not make God any more likely to be real. It just means that it’s difficult to stay entirely rational for one’s whole life, even about important things like this.

Belief and Choice

Question from Apostate:
Hi there,

I have seen this statement, “belief is not a choice,” in several atheist documents. I have never seen it well supported. For instance I once saw an atheist state they were unable to believe they could fly and then flap their arms to demonstrate that they are unable to fly. That supports the belief that they can not fly by flapping their arms but says nothing of their ability to find an environment where our arms could provide enough lift.

From my perspective, while I’ll agree there are some beliefs that must be held if we want to refrain from delusion, such as my belief that you are reading this, other beliefs seem quite malleable and within conscious control, like my belief that I will have everything I need to meet any challenge I face or the decision to look upon an event as positive instead of negative.

What do you mean when you say, “We can not choose our beliefs” and why do you feel that way? To me it seems to be an abdication of personal responsibility for the list of things you consider to be true.

Answer by SmartLX:
The statement “belief is not a choice” (a variant of which I used here) may be more absolute than is justified, especially given varying definitions of “belief”. Nevertheless it applies very well to the most likely subject of those “atheist documents”, namely belief in gods.

I would actually go further and say that for the most part, opinion is not a choice. Whether to take action based on belief or opinion is a choice, whether to state your true beliefs and opinions is a choice, but the ultimate position of your mind on an issue is usually not.

When one is presented with evidence for a given proposition, one either accepts it or doesn’t. This is a subconscious process (as evidenced by several studies where people’s brains were scanned while they made quick decisions, and their own thoughts beat them by several seconds). One may consciously decide to openly accept the evidence or else pretend to reject it, but this has nothing to do with what one really believes.

Your atheist who couldn’t believe he could fly was assuming that conditions such as gravity, atmosphere and the size and shape of his arms would stay roughly as they really were. If the question were changed to, “Do you believe you could fly, given your choice of environment and any imaginable conditions?” the same person would probably give an answer like, “Yes, if I could really change anything at all about the world.” Importantly, this person would not suddenly choose to believe, he or she would believe. The altered conditions would provoke a different judgement of the possibility of the act, about which the atheist would merely choose whether to be honest.

The second example you raise is essentially optimism, a belief that the future will turn out favourably. You might think of this as a deliberate belief, but what of all the pessimists who wish they could be optimistic but can’t manage it? It seems to be either a predisposition or an ongoing opinion based on one’s circumstances.

That brings us to the general exception to all of this: the case where one convinces oneself of something. It does happen, and in fact an entire industry has been built around your example alone; think how many books and seminars there are on how to think positive and become optimistic. Actually turning 180 degrees on an issue without any changes to the evidence or arguments one way or another (and emotion can have a great effect on what we perceive in this area) requires one to manually affect one’s own subconscious thought processes. This can be achieved through self-hypnosis, or affirmations, or forms of brainwashing, or all three, and the results are not often permanent. The important thing here is that for most of what we think and believe, we don’t do any of this to ourselves. Our beliefs and opinions are therefore nearly all the natural conclusions of our brains, and our choices are based on them rather than causing them. I do not regard these conclusions as deliberate decisions.

Applying all of this to the debate between atheism and theism, whether one accepts or rejects the assertion that a god exists is down to how one’s brain reacts to the evidence presented. This includes simply being told there’s a god, which children in particular will often accept as good enough and later reinforce.

The resulting theological question is why a god would punish people for not truly believing in Him if it’s not their choice, and especially if He has the power to show Himself. Believing in and yet denying a god is a conscious action which might legitimately earn punishment if the god is real (and many believers do think “atheists” secretly believe), but simply not believing is nothing of the sort.

Atheism and Agnosticism

“I consider myself an agnostic atheist.”

Question from Pat:
Can someone be both an atheist and an agnostic?

Yes. I consider myself an agnostic atheist.

An agnostic lacks gnosis, or knowledge of the divine (if any). He or she does not know whether there are any gods. Some agnostics go one step further and think it is impossible to know this.

An atheist lacks belief in any gods. An agnostic, who does not know, may not believe either and therefore be an atheist too. That’s my current position.

On the other hand an agnostic may believe in spite of not knowing, and therefore be an agnostic theist. Most religious folks who don’t claim personal experiences of their gods are in this category.

The only atheists who aren’t agnostics are those who think they know that there are no gods. This is a step further than “strong atheists”, who positively believe there are no gods but don’t claim to know for sure.

Most of the time, however, atheism co-exists with agnosticism.