Sometimes we’re the only atheists to ask.

Question from Cody:
a) What does it mean to be human?
b) What happens after death?
c) Elaborate on who Jesus Christ is according to your worldview.
d) How does your worldview deal with the concepts of evil and suffering in the world?

These are 4 questions that have come up in my class. The goal is to get the answers for each question for a Christian and atheistic view.

Any help is appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re not the first person who’s asked for help fulfilling an academic requirement to get an atheist’s perspective on philosophical and traditionally theological matters. We did a big piece here specifically to address the questions in a college course called Christian Worldview. I find it interesting how many people are under the impression that they don’t know any atheists. While in some cases perhaps it’s true, in many cases I bet people know more atheists than they think.

Anyway, to the questions. I’ll give my own views, but I’ll also explain where there is any major disagreement among atheists in general.

a) The human being, or Homo sapiens, is a species to which we all belong. Because our physical and neurological makeup is so similar as members of a species, we have a great deal in common. With very few exceptions, we feel great empathy for each other, and at least some empathy for other life on Earth. Systems of law, ethics and morality have come about not just so we can protect ourselves, but so we can help others in society and achieve justice for all. Of course it doesn’t always work out like that, but we make adjustments and improvements as we go.

b) All known evidence indicates that all behaviour which defines life, humanity and identity is driven by the physical brain and the electrical signals going through it, and not an additional ethereal “soul”. (Consider that physical brain damage can alter or destroy any part of a person’s identity, up to complete brain-death which is equivalent to true death.) When a person dies, the electrical signals stop and the structure of the brain is effectively destroyed in a matter of minutes. Therefore, by all indications there is no longer a person after death for anything to happen to.

c) It’s more a case of who Jesus Christ was, as atheists do not accept that he came back from the dead. And it’s too much to accept Jesus Christ without challenging it, as I understand “Christ” in context means “the anointed one of God” and we don’t believe that God exists, let alone that Jesus of Nazareth had any special relationship with him (that is, more than any Christian claims to have a “relationship” with God). Anyway, there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life since everything we have was written after his death, but on balance I’m prepared to accept that there probably was an itinerant Jewish preacher (or several) on whom the Biblical stories of Jesus were based. Beyond that, not a single event in his life can be established conclusively, let alone his miracles or his resurrection, as historians writing afterwards may have been simply repeating the claims of early Christians. Some atheists don’t think there was any real Jesus and it was all a myth, but this is currently a minority view even among atheists and those who hold it are derided as “Jesus mythers”.

d) Evil is an abstract concept and atheists have all sorts of opinions about it; I try not to label anything absolutely good or evil, only beneficial or harmful to specific people, creatures or causes. Suffering on the other hand is obviously real, and I want to minimise it whenever possible. As for why suffering exists, I don’t have to try to explain it in the presence of a loving god who ought to be preventing it. It occurs simply because people get hurt, deliberately or accidentally by other people, and naturally by the world around them.

That about covers everything. Let me know if you want to drill into any of these topics further, but do search the site first because they’re all pretty popular.

Your Ups And Downs, Your Highs And Your Lows

Question from Marianna:
If you do not believe in a higher power, how do you explain joy & suffering and the source of each?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you’ve ever owned or even looked after a dog, you know joy and suffering aren’t unique to human beings. Animals feel much of the emotion we do, but with far less subtlety and of course they can’t articulate it as well. If emotion is a gift, it was given to an entire extended family of creatures – of which we are very obviously a part.

If on the other hand emotion was not bestowed on us from on high, then positive and negative emotional states have persisted and developed over time and generations because they have some benefit to us, or are related to some other beneficial trait. It’s easy to see how emotion can help people survive and procreate: for instance, being in love gives great joy to both partners and helps them stay together, suffering teaches us not to do the things that make us suffer and our innate empathy drives us to create joy and alleviate suffering in others. Aside from all that, emotion may simply be a natural consequence of a certain level of basic intelligence, the benefits of which are myriad. It certainly requires a certain minimum intellect; while a mouse or a chimpanzee can be clearly emotional, it’s beyond the capability of an ant or a brine shrimp.

You could put just about anything into the form, “Without God, how do you explain _____?” and even if there weren’t over a century of scientific research providing just such an explanation, it would be easier to answer than explaining God Himself, having assumed His existence for the sake of argument. Using a completely unknown (hypothetical) entity to explain something else does not ultimately help one’s understanding, because it doesn’t tell you how one causes the other.

Evil, Suffering, Injustice and Jaywalking

Question from Vicky:
Hello,
I cannot seem to find any credible sources where atheists define evil or at least how they view evil, injustice, and suffering. What is their solution to evil, suffering, and injustice?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists don’t define evil as being against a god’s laws or wishes, because they live and think as if there are no gods. Most atheists define evil in terms of more specific concepts like suffering, injustice and other harmful effects an action or attitude may have. Some atheists don’t think there’s really such a thing as evil, but that doesn’t stop them from wanting to combat suffering and injustice.

Suffering is an uncontroversial idea, because we all know what it looks like. Physical pain, mental anguish and financial hardship are easy to see in the world if we go looking for them. Our common empathy with all human beings (and other animals too) drives most of us to end and prevent suffering wherever we find it. (By “us” I mean everyone, not just atheists.) Any reasons we give for doing this tend to be rationalisations after the fact.

Injustice depends of course on the concept of justice, which can be far more widely interpreted than suffering. We all have an acute sense of reciprocity inherited from our social ancestors, and tend to react strongly when one party is clearly getting less out of a deal than another, especially if we’re in that party.

The solution to any of the above depends on the situation. There’s no all-purpose secular balm for humanity’s ills, or we would have cured them long ago. We just have to get stuck in and solve each problem practically.