Psychology 20 Questionnaire

Question from :
I’m currently taking Psychology 20 in school and would like to ask you a few questions about atheism for a project on spirituality if you have the time. The questions are:

1. How does your faith or understanding of the world shape your worldview?
2. How do you justify your actions (good and bad) for your belief system?
3.What gives you meaning and purpose?
4.What are ways you express yourself and why?
5. How do you view the idea of the soul and/or the afterlife?

Hoping for a quick response and thank you for taking the time to answer.

Answer by SmartLX:
Not my quickest response ever, but not bad. Here we go.

1. My view of the world is that it’s shaped and influenced by natural forces, which are powerful but undirected and certainly not worth pleading with. I’m acutely aware that many do not feel this way, so I see what appears to be a great deal of effort wasted because it’s spent trying to please gods that I don’t think are there.

2. I care for myself, and as a social animal I care for the people around me. My awareness of the world beyond my immediate surroundings extends that expression of care to all the people of the world, generally speaking. I justify my actions in terms of the benefit and harm they do to myself and other people, not necessarily in that order, with a view to maximising benefit and minimising harm. The exact meanings of those two quantities I often re-evaluate based on the situation, so that I’m not thinking in a way that doesn’t apply to the circumstances at hand.

3. I choose what my purposes are. From personal achievements to the welfare of selected others (that is, not all purposes are selfish), I devote myself to realising those things I want to bring to fruition. This gives my life meaning to me, and to many others, though not to everyone. This is enough, because whether my life matters to all strangers is not something I worry about.

4. I speak, I write, I sing, I draw, I work, I dance, I play, I struggle, I love. I do these things because I can.

5. The soul does not appear to exist, because identity and consciousness are products of the brain and are damaged or destroyed when the brain is. After the death of the brain there is nothing left of a person to experience any kind of afterlife.

Hope Is A Plentiful Thing

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.

Short, but not so simple…

Questions from Avi in bold, answers by SmartLX following each one:

Short and simple answers to these questions, having a hard time to answer, voices tend to question my thoughts into confusion. Please don’t waste time, answer it objectively and simple.
Thank you.

I’d bloody well better do short and simple answers, because some of these questions touch on such huge subjects I could take hours to answer them properly.

– Why is there a large growth of Christians in Philosophy, People like Alvin Platinga, Richard Swinburne, John Lennox, William A. Dembski, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William L. Craig, Tim O’Connor?
There have always been a huge number of Christian apologists, compared to any other type. There are a large number of newly publicised apologists now because there’s money in it. These guys sell books, tickets to seminars and other appearances, subscriptions to their regular publications…and some get huge donations from politicians for tacitly endorsing them.

– Are they stupid and delusional, must we force them out of education?
No Christian is necessarily stupid or clinically delusional. They are simply very likely to be wrong, and whenever this can be established with confidence the incorrect teachings should be kept out of the relevant parts of school curricula, for instance biology.

Is it possible to reduce a mental event into a physical events?
Are they interchangeable?
M=P
P=M

In the naturalistic, materialistic view, a mental effect is a physical effect as the brain is a physical part of the human body, but not all physical effects are mental effects because some of them have nothing to do with the cognitive areas of the brain.

– Can we only define pain as C fibres?
Pain is a signal that travels from parts of the body to the brain, and the reaction that signal creates. C fibres are merely the conduit for the signal.

– Can we as individuals have privileged access to other individuals?
If that’s the way things are arranged, sure. There’s a sci-fi convention coming up in Australia where you can pay through the nose for a small amount of quality time with William Shatner and Richard Dean Anderson. Try getting in for an autograph if you haven’t got a ticket.

– Can reality only be known through the 5 senses?
There are way more than five senses, but anyway, reality may not be known even through the senses. Some idea of reality can only be inferred from the information we receive through our senses, whether we experience things directly or we analyse evidence of past or remote events, but it might all be wrong. We can only amass enough information to reach a certain level of confidence in our opinion of what’s really going on around us. To declare any more surety than that is to delude oneself, which we all commonly do.

– Why is ID allowed in the scientific community in China, why is it free there?
Negligible copyright enforcement has a lot to do with it; English-language books advancing ID and denouncing evolution can be freely translated, copied and sold for a buck, but really I’ve got no evidence that ID is regarded in China’s scientific community any better than in America’s. Some scientists like Professor Paul K. Chien are advocating it there, just like Michael Behe does in the US, but is there any indication that it’s catching on?

– Is it ok to be a Christian? Why are Christians delusional?
As I said, Christians are likely to be wrong in my opinion, and there’s nothing wrong with being wrong except that you have an opportunity to correct yourself. Maybe they were raised with the idea, or they fell for some complicated apologetics, or they had some personal experience which they ascribed to the divine, but every believer has some reason to believe. The question in each case is whether it’s a good reason.

– Do we have to kill Christians in the very end in order to have a free, peaceful and open society?
Even if the existence of Christians absolutely precluded the existence of freedom and peace, killing them wouldn’t be the only answer; they could be persuaded that Christianity is false, for example. So without even discussing whether Christianity is compatible with freedom and peace, the answer to your question is no.

– If nihilism is true in the very end, where did value, and purpose come from? Should we force Christians into nihilism?
We humans place value on things and people ourselves, and we decide what our purpose is. Christians do the same, ultimately, but they attribute their values and perceived purposes to their God long after the fact. There’s no real motivation to force Christians into another philosophy, firstly because it’s almost impossible to change someone’s philosophy by force and secondly because just being Christian isn’t doing the majority of Christians (or everyone else) much harm. It’s the actions of Christians that occasionally do harm, and these should be addressed first.

– Why do I exist, Why am I here, Why do children have value? Why do I love? < Scientific view point
You exist because your parents had sex. There is a line of causality stretching from the fact of your existence to as far back as we can reasonably look into history. The ultimate prime reason for your existence may be the same as everyone else’s, or the line might go back forever. We don’t know. You love because your brain is equipped to form that kind of attachment to other people and living things, and that has a lot to do with why people give children the high value they have in today’s society.

– Do we force our mind into atheism and nihilism?
I certainly didn’t. I didn’t decide to be an atheist at all, I realised I was one already after not seriously thinking about it for more than a decade. You really don’t have to force it.

So, go chew on that lot.

Death And What Probably Doesn’t Come Next

Question from Sarah:
We all have to go somewhere or will happen to us when we die. If you do not think or believe in God or heaven where do you think you will go or what will happen to you when you die?

Question from Jessie:
What are you living for if nothing happens after you die?

Question from Rachel:
I know you don’t acknowledge a God, but do you believe that we have a soul or that there is some sort of afterlife?

Question from Emily:
What do you believe will happen to your soul after you die? Christians believe that we have a purpose beyond death and that our souls will be in heaven. If you’re not going anywhere but the ground what comfort can you or your family find in death?

Question from Elizabeth:
Where do you think that you’ll go after you die?

Question from Brooke:
What makes you think that God doesn`t exist, and if he doesn`t what comes next? What is there to live for?

Question from Heather:
I know you do not believe in heaven or hell, but where do you believe your soul goes after you die?

Answer by SmartLX:
Looking again at this sudden deluge of questions, I notice they all arrived within ten minutes of each other, so I reckon the questioners are in a group somewhere. Welcome to you all, and I’ll get to everyone before too long.

I’ve answered the main thrust of the above questions once before in Death: Just Curious, but as I’ve said I’m happy to retread old ground for newcomers. (Brooke, for the first part of your question, see the post immediately before this one.)

An afterlife would require something of a person’s identity, mind, memory and so forth to persist after death. All evidence indicates that these things operate entirely within the physical brain, which is completely irreparable mere minutes after it loses its supply of oxygen from the bloodstream. Even while people live, physical damage to the brain can rob them of their memories, drastically change their personalities or turn them into complete “vegetables”. A “person” does not appear to be a separate entity from the tissue and bio-electrical activity in his or her head, as suggested by the concept of a soul, so there’s no good reason to believe in souls.

That said, I have heard from a few atheists who believe in an afterlife and even in ghosts (as you can see here, on the old archive). This is not a contradiction as their explanations do not require the existence of gods; they tend to focus more around energy. I say to them just what I say to others: present the evidence.

I’ve just said that there’s no good reason to believe in souls. A not-terribly-good reason to believe in them would be that if they don’t exist, there is no comfort to take from death or nothing to live for. Even if both were true (and I’ll get to them presently), you would be reasoning that souls are real because it would be better if they were real. This is wishful thinking, and it has no power to determine what really is or isn’t. Formally, it’s known as an appeal to consequences and is recognised as a logical fallacy. More simply put, it just doesn’t follow. Fortunately, things aren’t quite so bleak.

Death is always a loss to the living. There can however be different sources of comfort in death, even tragic death, for those left behind. For those who willingly sacrificed themselves for noble causes, such as the lives of others, we can celebrate their bravery and selflessness even as we mourn. For those who led full lives, we can reflect on their legacies. For those who died with important work unfinished, we can take up a cause in their names. Most obviously, the deceased will no longer suffer whatever pain and anguish led up to their deaths, so at the very least there’s that. If horrible people die, people we wish had been punished more for their misdeeds, at least they can’t hurt anyone anymore.

As for why we would want to live if there’s no life after this, why wouldn’t we want to make the most of the one life we know we have? I’m sure you value this life too; Heaven is meant to be all that and a bag of chips, but are you all constantly wishing and hoping that any moment a car would kill you instantly and send you straight there (indicating that God’s plan had finished with you)? I doubt it. We all have things we want to do before we die – romance, kids, careers, travel, charity, art – and the possible existence of a subsequent (but likely very different) life doesn’t change that. Even the religious are in the dark about their gods’ supposed plans, so apart from doing their bit to propagate their religions, they choose their own purposes in life as well. Atheists just leave out the religious bits.

No Afterlife, No Purpose?

Question from Josh:
Do you have a purpose in your life without there being a possible god? If so what is it and what good is it without an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
Andrea wrote about purpose in a previous answer, but I don’t think I’ve had my chance yet.

First, I’ve never said there can’t possibly be a god. There might be one, there’s just been no substantive evidence for one so far so if anything it’s too early to believe it.

Anyway, there’s an underlying assumption in your question that the only purpose in life for anyone who does believe in a god and an afterlife is to please the god and achieve the best available afterlife. I doubt this very much, because there have got to be non-atheists out there who do great works out of genuine altruism and not just to win points with the big boss. One’s desire to help one’s friends or family could actually trump one’s own hopes of heaven; if a friend was determined to commit suicide, as a last resort one might murder him first, endangering one’s own soul to save that of one’s friend. For another example, a good man might steal to feed his family, and not be at all sorry that he has done so despite having sinned, because his children can eat.

I’m trying to demonstrate that even for believers, their purpose in life is a personal choice. It’s the same for non-believers but, since they don’t think they have an afterlife to prepare for, it doesn’t factor into their options.

Believers often take for granted the idea that they will be able to savour their rewards forever, and are horrified by the idea that they might not. Well, if that’s the way things are, then tough. Whatever we achieve in life, we may have a few good years to enjoy it, and we can be content in the thought that it will persist after we’ve died, but then that’ll be it for us.

It’s in this spirit that many non-believers take up the popular pursuits of happiness, helping others and making the world a better place. Since we only accept the existence of one finite life and one world to live in, our priorities tend towards that life and that world. Those who are more self-centred will concentrate on their own lives, while those with more empathy are more likely to go out into the world and work to improve others’ lives. My own purpose, like most, is a mixture of the two.

That Little Flame That Lights A Fire Under Your Ass

Question from Steve:
I would consider myself an agnostic theist with no ties to any organized religion. However Atheism confuses me for its inability to acknowledge the flaws of a lack of purpose. If everything and anything you or any being ever does is without purpose, even the potential for the existence of life is illogical. Unless you are willing to admit that we do not “exist” at all, which obviously we do ( and there is alot of testable evidence that we do) then you cannot deny that purpose is a requirement of existence.

If everything ends in utter and complete annihilation then why even attempt to live life or reproduce? Or see a movie or debate with me about non existence. In the end it doesn’t matter and you never existed in the first place…. ergo atheism is incorrect because you never existed in order to prove its’ existence.

BTW I am certainly NOT a christian. I really really hate when atheists automatically assume some who objects is a damn bible thumper, whom quite frankly annoy me more than atheists.

Answer by Andrea:
Hello,

Thank you for your question. I think a mistake many agnostics and non-atheists make is to assume we atheists have a lack of purpose.

But for me, that’s anything but the case. Who is to say that one needs to have an existence eternally, such as a heaven or hell, which many religions promise? Why should the lack of an afterlife make this life purposeless?

I think when you know there’s nothing but this life, then you begin to treasure each moment. I also like to do something to improve the world every day. Makes me feel like I’m doing my part. It beats worrying if you’re going to be roasting for eternity.

If you live in the US, the National Atheist Party works to push through progressive goals to help the poor, the environment, children’s education and women’s rights, if you’re interested in finding purpose, this organization might be something for you.

Thank you for your thoughtful question.

Cloudy With A 15% Chance of God

Question from Anonymous:
To whoever receives this message,

I was raised from birth as a Muslim, but as I began to study science, the stories that are told- such as Noah’s ark, Jesus, Moses etc.- seemed, well, improbable. I’m on the verge of becoming an atheist but there’s a couple of questions which I can’t seem to answer using scientific thought, I am after all only a second year university student. I feel as if I can’t just quit my religion without being at least 98% certain that there is most likely no God (I understand God can’t be entirely disproven, much in the same case the flying spaghetti monster can’t be either 😛 ). I’m hoping you’re able to.

The first is:

1. How could the universe begin if there was no creator that has been around since the beginning of time?
– Because if you can deny the creator, you can’t deny that at the very least energy would have had to have been around and had to have existed since the beginning of everything, and in this case:

Would energy be God? Can energy be God? Does this mean energy cares about what human beings do?

2. Life ceases to make sense, there is no drive, does this mean there is no point in life ultimately?
-I understand from an evolutionary perspective it is imperative we believe there is a reason to live. Humans are very reliant on being self centered and believing that everything must be about them. But I don’t like the idea of everything- this temporary struggle- to be about nothing.

3. Can you explain in terms of evolution how a new sexually producing species can be formed- in the sense that once the mutation occurs to cause a change in the species inside of a member of a population, how a male and a female version of the same different ‘evolved’ species (that has become reproductively isolated) is able to ‘come about’ at the same time in order to allow a continuation of this new, evolved species?
^ If I’ve explained that right, this is really dependent on chance and perhaps increases the likelihood of a God-like influence on the construction of a new species.

At the moment I’m at a 60-85% sure point that God doesn’t exist– it varies depending on the day, as I’m sure you would understand if you have been brought up on another faith, it is rather hard to get rid of that part of you which stubbornly doesn’t want to change no matter what the facts are.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I truly appreciate it. Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve never known anyone with such a specific threshold for the probability of the existence or non-existence of a god (other than those futilely seeking certainty). Perhaps we should all be as demanding of reality, and employ this brand of aggressive curiosity.

Anyway, let’s see if we can help you out.

1. It’s possible that the universe has always been around in some form, just as the creator god is assumed to have been. Indeed, it’s the simplest inference from the commonly understood law of conservation, which states that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. According to that, matter exists now, therefore it always has, and the Big Bang was just one event in an ongoing timeline. No creator is necessary in this case. As for the matter/energy which may always have existed, we have no reason to suppose that it’s anything like a god itself – that it answers prayers, or cares about humans at all.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the universe really did emerge from nothing, because quantum physics strongly infer that what we think of as “nothing” is highly unstable and generates new particles all the time. If you want to research this scenario, read A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss. (If you instead interpret this to mean that the “nothing” is really something, that changes little because it’s still an unintelligent object which renders a creator god unnecessary.)

2. You may not like the idea that we have no divinely bestowed purpose, but how does your personal taste for an idea (or anyone else’s) affect whether it’s true or false? The universe does not owe us comfort.

Evolution has endowed us with a strong survival instinct, yes, but it is not the only reason we have for existing. We give ourselves plenty of other reasons: science, art, the pursuit of happiness, the care of other creatures, each other and so on.

Any divine purpose which has ever been proposed appears to have actually been invented by humans anyway, so I think it’s better to be honest about it. Other theists maintain the vague belief that God has a purpose for them, but they’re not meant to know what it is. What’s the point of that, besides generating an unsupported sense of self-importance?

3. New species do not evolve as individuals, but as populations. The shared genome changes very, very slowly over hundreds or thousands of generations, and beneficial mutations spread across the group through new offspring. Both genders come along for the ride; gender is determined by a single chromosome, and the rest of the DNA is pretty much identical. Once the population has become different enough on average to qualify as a different species than it was before, there are plenty of new males and females around.

Happy new year to you too.

What is my question?

Question from Michael:
Ever since puberty I have suffered from very heavy and constant depression. Having grown up with being nearly deaf, gay and somewhere between agnostic and atheist, I haven’t had a lot to fall back on in the way of faith, god and other such crutches, nor have I had many folks to speak candidly with. I don’t think I’m in search of a reason in the sense that others may be. I believe we are largely products of our society and upbringing (except where free thought and opinion manages to take us thru alternate routes) and subject to the firing of neurons and chemicals in our brains and little else. While some things about my life may suck a great deal, I find that when chemicals are on one side of the scale (be it nice weather, antidepressants, or other chemicals, legal or not–caffeine or alcohol for me) such things don’t bother me and I carry on with life, trying to be a good person, having fun and helping others…because that’s what I want out of life. But when chemicals are on the other side of the scale, I despise my body for its imperfect conditions (hearing and various other physical and mental issues), hate the general zombie-ness, close-mindedness and stupidity of society (tho I know I am far from perfect) and can hardly stand all of the wrongs and frustrations of the world and see little point of continuing on. Three things have kept me from ending my life….1) The sadness it would bring to my friends and family 2) The idea that killing myself could in the end be a terrible mistake (its a big decision to make and one that can not be undone, mind you) 3) My logic. I can tell myself that the feelings i am feeling are not normal….they are real feelings, but not necessarily a good indicator oh how things in my life are going. I remind myself that “all of this” is subjective…and tomorrow my outlook on life may be different.

Never the less I feel that some day my strength will wear away and I will have had all I can stand. The pain of being alive will overtake the three things that hold me to this world. It is also my belief that if one isn’t enjoying the party, one has the right to leave.

I feel as if I am waiting for my epiphany. Tonight I have learned of the Angelic quote “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do” It struck a chord and raises in me some curiosity and am giving things in that area some thought. My main question is…..”what is my question?”

Am I looking for reason? I don’t think so. If nothing really matters, then should I care when things don’t go the way I’d like them to? Perhaps if I quit wanting things, maybe I wouldn’t be so disappointed when I don’t get them? Should I go against the grain or with the grain? Is it worth it to fight for what I want, or just enjoy life and quit giving a crap about so many things? I guess my real question is, what do you guys think about such things?

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, folks, in case anyone gets the wrong idea about the “Angelic quote”, it’s from the TV show Angel and it was either written or approved by Joss Whedon, a confirmed atheist.

It doesn’t matter if “nothing really matters” in some absolute, ethereal sense, because we have no way to determine whether it does and it seems to have no measurable effect on us. The important point is that there are things that matter to us. They can be anything from justice to freedom to love to a completed set of baseball cards, but the things that drive us are defined and decided upon by us and us alone. Some people claim to have a “higher purpose”, one handed down from divine authority, but the words of these nebulous authorities can be traced back to humans and human institutions such as churches.

Quite simply, you sound like you don’t know your purpose in life, and I think that’s your question. You’re certainly not alone there; many are waiting for inspiration to strike and for their future course to become clear. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t.

To go looking for it, go out and do stuff. Start with the obvious: you’re a deaf gay atheist (or near enough). Go meet other hearing-impaired, LGBT and/or non-religious people and see whether their causes (equality being the obvious one) appeal to you. Join clubs, read the news, try hobbies, whatever. What you’re doing now hasn’t given you ideas, so reach farther afield. It could be something as vague and all-encompassing as improving the world.

It need not just be one thing, by the way. My day-to-day purpose is to help my friends, family, co-workers and clients, to be good to my wife, to man this “post” for atheism and to experience different fantasies through art and fiction (though not all at once). Some of the goals involved in that lot are more long-term than others, and some are so far off I haven’t even thought of them today. Not too ambitious really, but it gets me out of bed.

Best of luck. Let us know how you do.

Why Do We Die?

Question from Casey:
How do you comprehend death? How do manage to remain sane knowing that someone has been ripped from your lives for what you believe to be no reason?

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Casey,

I don’t see death as being “no reason.” As a science buff/journalist, I see it more as the natural order of things, as far as old age goes (please see the law of entropy).

If death is due to sickness or murder (not that I can speak from experience in latter case), I find it much more comforting to think of it as being a random event that we have no control over, rather than some capricious god who chose to “off” someone “just because.”

My dear grandmother passed away from old age and she often told me she was afraid of dying alone. There was not much I could do, since my life is not in Europe, but what I did do was visit for the summers and write a postcard to her every 1-2 weeks. I think it helped.

Often we say to ourselves, we’ll do this and that with this person sometime. But in my case, I did what I could then, and when she passed away I felt awful and missed her very much, but it made me feel so much better that I did what I could while she was alive.
And that’s all you can do.

I’m not sure what your situation is with respect to this question, but please accept my sympathies if they are warranted, and I’m so sorry there’s probably nothing I can say that time won’t eventually take care of.

Best to you,
Andrea

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s always a reason why people die. There may not be any purpose to it, but there’s always a reason: they were old, or they were murdered, or there was an accident, or their immune system failed them. When we ask why someone has died, this kind of answer is always available to some extent. Furthermore, this kind of answer is often useful in the prevention of other deaths, for example by catching the killer, fencing off the cliff edge or preventing the disease.

To my mind, knowing that there’s no purpose to a loved one’s death is no worse that believing there is a purpose but having no idea what it is, and no hope of ever knowing. The suffering and death of a good person is hard to explain in a world with an all-powerful, benevolent guardian watching over us (though that doesn’t stop people from explaining it…in many different ways), but it’s really very easy to explain in a world with no such being: it happened because of this and this, and it’s sad that the person is gone but they left their mark on the world.

If you imagine that atheists are completely at a loss when confronted with death then you imagine that our worldviews are simply the Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole in it. (This is becoming a catchphrase with me.) It sounds obvious but it’s worth specifically considering that when one doesn’t believe in a god, one also doesn’t believe that meaning and purpose in life depend entirely on a god. Therefore the common existential challenge of comprehending death, while certainly a challenge (see this earlier question), does not automatically shatter an atheist.

If a recent death affecting your life is the reason you asked this question, I sympathise along with Andrea.

The Basics

“You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially.”

Question from Matthew:
I don’t have any friends who claim to be atheist and I simply like to understand the position better. If you have any other input in addition to these questions I would appreciate it. Thanks.
1. Do you believe that a personal God exists? Why or why not?

2. Do you believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate? Why or why not?

3. What is the purpose of human existence?

4. How do you know what is right and wrong?

5. What happens to a person at death?

Answer:
I assume you know the answers to some of those, but I appreciate that you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially. If you want more detail, comment and ask for it, and/or better yet read through some older questions.

1. An atheist does not believe that any god exists, let alone a personal capital-G God. The reason is generally lack of evidence or convincing arguments supporting the existence of such a god, and that’s the case with me. Check out The Great Big Arguments #1-#6, consisting of most of the early pieces on this new site, to see why the well-known arguments you might be in the habit of using have not proved convincing.

2. If one does not believe in gods, why would one believe despite this that Jesus was the incarnation of a specific god?

Leaving the basic position of atheism aside, the claim that Jesus was God does not stand on its own merit. The New Testament was written by people who all wanted people to believe it, whether or not it was true. The prophecies supposedly fulfilled by Jesus were available to his chroniclers, making them candidates for #5. Made to Order (in my terminology) on the list of explanations that must be considered besides the false dilemma of pure chance and true prescience. Surviving extra-Biblical documentation of Jesus, for instance that passage by Josephus, has its own issues.

3. Since the human race developed on its own and needed no creator, there was no external purpose for its emergence. The reason for the existence of humans is that life arose on a planet saturated with its building blocks, and then competed with itself over billions of years. During this demanding competition, more and more complex forms became the standard until we were the next evolutionary step.

If you mean to ask why we bother to keep existing now, it’s because we want to. There isn’t much of an alternative that we know of. As for giving purpose to individual human lives, humans can do that themselves.

4. From many different sources – the law, historical precedent, varying philosophies (including religious ones) formulated over the centuries, common sense, simple concepts such as fairness and the minimisation of harm, etc. – we have built a very good picture of what is right and wrong to humans. Obviously we don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on most things.

Any of the above sources could be wrong, and any could be challenged, but they’re there and each one tends to be consistent. The alternative is to appeal to an absolute morality, one independent of humans, which may not even exist and simply cannot be tested. I don’t need the whole universe to agree with me that what I do is right, but if most of the human race agrees based on real concepts that can be reasoned through, then I literally have a reasonable basis for my actions.

5. At death, a person ceases to exist. The person’s condition is often described using that rare and fascinating antonym of “existence”, namely “oblivion”. What happens to a person after death is therefore not worth considering, because after death there is no longer a person for anything to happen to. There is only a body. We have one life. Good thing it’s an interesting life.

Chew on that lot and speak up if you’d like to explore anything.

SmartLX