The Story So Far

ATA was created in 2006 for the Rational Response Squad, famous for the Blasphemy Challenge and their Nightline debate with Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. In 2009 we archived the original site and moved to a new platform, which is where we are today.

I’m here to answer any questions or challenges you might have for atheists in general, along with site founder Jake. We’ve been around long enough already that it’s worth checking whether your question has already been answered, but we’re happy to tread old ground for new readers.

Welcome to Ask the Atheist. Ask away.

Edit: A couple of things if you’re new. Comments are fully moderated and your first post must be approved, so give it time to appear. If a new contribution is reliant enough on an existing answer, especially a recent one, it will go under that answer as a comment. It’s no judgement on you or your writing, we just like to keep discussions in one piece.


Grandma Sees Dead People

Question from Deco:
Ok, so I don’t know if this is really an “ability”, but my grandmother prides herself on having this sort of ESP where she can apparently detect the death of a person while it is taking place. I was skeptical of it, and I asked her a bit about it. She told me that at least 50 times in her life, she has had this sensation or feeling when someone dies. It has come to her in the form of dreams where she will have a dream about a person and being with them in heaven or some form of afterlife, and then she will wake up, and find out at the time of her dream that the person really did die. She has also had what I assume are hypnogogic hallucinations where she will see a person’s face in what she assumes is in the form of a ghost, and then see the devil’s face, and then later find out the person died. One of the weirdest examples is the time that her cousin died. She had a dream of him coming to her and saying that he had drowned. The next day, she found out that he did in fact drown. She has had these dreams with religious imagery, e.g. sometimes she claims Jesus tells her these messages, sometimes it’s family, seeing devils, angels, etc.

I guess my question is, put aside the fact that these claims sound too good to be true, let’s say if she could prove it, would that constitute proof of souls of the passed on communicating with her? Or, could there be another explanation for it that doesn’t require a supernatural component? Perhaps our brains have a method of picking this stuff up that we are not aware of, and her brain interprets the info in a certain way which causes her to dream with a religious background? Or could it be a combination of an active mind, (constantly thinking of people close to her and worrying about them) so sometimes when she has these sensations they are true? Maybe with this she counts the hits, ignores the misses?

Being an Orthodox Christian, I would like nothing more than for this to be true, but I am asking for an atheist perspective here, which is why I am posting it to an atheist community. I have asked many Orthodox Christians and received their opinions, now I want yours. My grandfather says that he has also seen my grandmother get these hits a lot, and he is very surprised by it, but he himself says he doesn’t think it points to the supernatural, even though he admits he cannot explain it. I guess I’m just curious. I don’t want you guys to just dismiss it as “lying” or “fake”, I mean, you can think it is a lie or fake, but I am asking kind of for fun, let’s just assume for a second that this ability were as true as I am claiming, what would you say? Would you then suddenly believe in afterlife and a spiritual realm, or would you still say “I don’t know, but I can’t conclude it is really anything supernatural”?

Answer by SmartLX:
My first question would be, on any of these 50+ occasions, did your grandmother tell anyone else (e.g. your grandfather) that she’d had one of these experiences before checking to confirm? Ideally, did she name the person or give a description before receiving any information from the outside world? (Someone’s always dying somewhere.) This is what would show that she wasn’t just claiming these after the fact.

That’s the all-important skepticism out of the way, and you’ve done a good job of this too by bringing up two possible sources of confirmation bias. So, let’s play with your enormous “if”. If she really were being informed through visions alone of the deaths of particular people, I’d be satisfied that something supernatural was going on, because visions can’t do that via natural means except by pure coincidence. They don’t convey information from outside the person’s senses, they can only work with what the senses are receiving and whatever the brain conjures up for itself, from memory and imagination.

The question would be by what specific supernatural means she was getting it (assuming someone wasn’t in her bedroom subconsciously feeding her the info). Interaction with the souls of the dying/dead would be one possibility, but not the only one. Someone living could be using conscious or unconscious telepathy to send her images of the newly dead. She could be psychic herself, and able to see the faces of those about to die, slightly before or after the time of death, but without help from their souls.

One specific point against the soul hypothesis is that the visions apparently aren’t consistent in their depiction of the afterlife. They could all be different aspects of the same afterlife system, or they could just be contradictory flights of fancy accompanying the real information regarding the identity or appearance of the deceased.

You’ve realised for yourself the difficulty a religious person would face when discussing even a confirmed supernatural effect: actually claiming credit for it on behalf of the “right” supernatural entities from your model of the spiritual world, as opposed to the countless others people believe in, plus the ones no one has thought of yet. Atheists would be challenged if something like this were proved beyond doubt, but in most cases the first thing to go would not be their atheism but rather their materialism. But then, there are already plenty of non-materialist atheists who do believe in ghosts, souls, psychics and so on, because they have a spiritual model in mind that does not include any gods. I’m not one of them, but they’ve written in before.

A Passively Ominous Screed

Question from “once an atheist”:
I have to be very careful what I say because the comments I get from the atheists might backfire and I wouldn’t want them to get in trouble. Call it karma, luck, repercussions, god, it always happens when someone tries to touch me with their unbelief, or harm me with their insults. I was once an agnostic atheist like my parents were before in a 30 second span of time, they were changed forever. It’s amazing to me how many people with exceptional IQs cannot establish the truth in their lives. The smarter you get, the more of a fool you become in God’s eyes. It’s in the rule book that almost everyone knows. I believe the Dead Sea Scrolls might have been embellished by people who wrote them. I could be wrong. The rule book of life (KJV Bible) is supposed to be used to uplift people not make them hate and tremble at the sound of the word god for he is love. Don’t believe it? Jesus says he would rather have mercy than sacrifice. I have seen so many people condemn other people because they wont do exactly what the rule book says. And now I could condemn atheists and agnostics if I wanted to but I’ll just meditate more and learn to love all humans because karma or god really doesn’t need me to judge or convince others, he’ll do it all himself just like he did it to my folks. I wasn’t proselytizing them. I prefer to think with my heart instead of my head now.

“In the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word WAS GOD” and the word became FLESH and dwelt among us”

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s hard to address this, since there’s not a formal question or challenge, so I’ll just pick up on a few points.
– Your warning that any attack on you will be met with divine retribution will not frighten or dissuade any non-believer. Kids have to believe there’s a boogeyman before the threat of it can be used to make them eat their vegetables.
– Christianity has a long history of anti-intellectualism, concurrent with a long history of claims of intellectual superiority. You’re clearly on the “smart is bad” side.
– Jesus may have wanted mercy, but the God of the Bible wants fear. That’s why “God-fearing” is a compliment.
– I’m sorry for your loss, whatever happened to your parents, but their atheism probably didn’t make it happen. It just fits your story to say it did.

Shawn Weed’s Adventures Through the Noose

Question from Kamil:
Hello there, thanks for answering all my questions thus far. I keep worrying about hell, and this testimony hasn’t helped, by Shawn Weed. His video can be found on YouTube, and he seems so genuine. He cries in his video, and I can’t imagine how someone could hallucinate absolute knowledge ex: he wants to know the demon’s height, and knows automatically it is 13 feet tall. Then, he claims he saw such a beautiful angel, again, how could he hallucinate that?
Here is his story, as his video is very long winded, but in the video, he tears up a lot.

Here are the details about Shawn:

-Was in the marine corps. Had a choice to chill with other broke comrades, go to Disney Land in CA w/ comrades, or Vegas w/ comrades. Lacking funds so he chilled with three others.
-One dude wants to take a picture of him in a noose.
-One other dude sneaks up and while in the noose actually gets Shawn Weed in the noose and it tightens.
-Loses consciousness and eventually dies; his soul leaves his body.
-Describes his soul as himself exactly except he is not physical. Shawn tried to enter his body while he was dead, sort of like matching a the last puzzle piece into the last spot. Didn’t work.
-Ends up in a dark parallel plane that extended forever. Complete darkness. He described it as a “darkness you can feel” and the only light was the dim glow of his own soul or essence. There was a ceiling that he could touch but no walls or doors. Just a never ending chasm dividing Heaven and Hell basically.
-(^^^) He would later describe that place as the doorstep of Hell.
-A demon grabbed him by the shoulders and he describes the demon and the pain he went through.
-Demon: 13 feet high, either blackish red skin or redish black skin, fingers as thick as a wine bottle length little more than a ruler per finger, width of hand was like 8-10 inches, says it’s a fair guess when he estimates the demon weighed 3,000 to 4,000 pounds, built like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime just ripped, grotesque face that scared him terribly (not afraid of no man on the planet will fight anyone no matter how big, etc. but only looked for one second with absolute horror and turned away), the demon was strong and in complete control; there was no fighting this thing.
-Pain: As the demon grabbed him by the shoulder, his legs popped and were kicking up and down rapidly kind of like when you twiddle your index and middle finger up and down quickly, pain in the spiritual is all around according to him meaning if you get pain in your ear you’ll feel it all through your soul all the way down to your feet. He described the pain as electrical current that didn’t stop, he could feel the pain everywhere whereas a cut finger will hurt near the finger an not much further…There are no pain receptors the pain of that finger would flow throughout the entire spirit/soul.

-Sees a light and his hand, almost instinctual, reached for this light that grabbed his hand and it was Archangel Michael. He described him as the most handsome man and the most beautiful woman but shaped like a man. Strong, “not bodybuilder muscle popping out strong but trainer strong” and claims he was definitely there to fight. He says he had the most perfect blue eyes, like flawless perfect blue eyes as if the blue sky were taken and put into his eyes.
-Michael says it is not yet his time, and while the demon still had a strong grip on his shoulder, Michael basically hit the demon like a palm to the neck sort of strike and this demon went flying back like a cartoon bent in half mid-air (hands touching toes) sort of way.
-Michael points a direction and Shawn follows, instantly back in his body alive.

***He claimed that once he knew the demon was taking him from the doorstep of Hell to the actual fire and brimstone part of Hell he kept repeating it in his head like “I’m going to Hell” “He’s taking me to Hell” over and over. Said it was mortal doom basically. And he described the hope he had in him sort of ooze out of him after that realization and he became numb and every bit of energy and will to live was gone drained from his soul.***

He said he was an average guy. Never murdered, stole, etc. Did some drinking and drugs nothing excessive just your average guy. Claims that there are good people in Hell, people who would call themselves Christians. His belief is that God doesn’t want average he wants full devotion and the people who follow Christ and God one foot in one foot out end up in Hell. Full devotion to the best of your ability is what God requires. That was the part that blew me away, to think that good people would be allowed to burn eternally for being lukewarm, spit out into Hell.

Answer by SmartLX:
Found it here.

Weed doesn’t have to be lying to be wrong. His experience can have been entirely real to him and yet not involve any supernatural beings. This is the nature of dreams, hallucinations, and false memories.

Whatever really happened, the more he tells this story the more he reinforces it in his own mind (especially with his emotions engaged), until he may believe it entirely when once he didn’t. All kinds of new and specific details can creep in that way too and become canon, so to speak. This could include not only the height of the demon but his memory of how quickly he knew it, so it actually is possible to fabricate a memory of having certain knowledge. Imagining a beautiful angel is pretty straightforward if you believe in angels.

Much of the story is consistent with him having fabricated the whole thing, consciously or not. It reflects his existing beliefs and even special interests. Besides the obvious Christian imagery, bodybuilder Weed portrays the entities involved as distinct beefcake body types. The bit about spitting out lukewarm people paraphrases Revelations 3:16, and reflects many other Bible verses telling Christians to be active in their faith. (Some evangelicals call it being “on fire for Jesus”.)

Let’s not forget that there isn’t even any obvious support for the non-supernatural parts of the story. We have only Weed’s word that he was in the noose in the first place, let alone accidentally strangled until clinically dead with three close friends present. For this story to be taken as evidence of anything, surely it should be the first pre-requisite to establish that he even had an opportunity to experience the afterlife.

Take note anytime you take “I can’t imagine how” as evidence for something. This is acceptance of an argument from ignorance, unconsciously made to yourself. It may well convince you at the time but it has no right to.

Comprehending Nothing Without God

Question from Topher:
First time asking here, so I have a lot of questions, and I apologize in advance…

[snip – SmartLX]


Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve moved your questions into my section for easy reading, without editing them. The answers will be the quick-and-dirty ones because we’ve covered them many times before. Search the site for keywords like “origins” for a lot more material.

How often do atheists doubt that God doesn’t exist?
Depends entirely on the atheist. Some never do, some occasionally do, some actively wish a particular God existed but can’t bring themselves to believe. I am fairly confident that there are no gods based on the conspicuous lack of good evidence, but I recognise it’s not intellectually defensible to be certain.

Do atheists believe nothing is self-existing?
Depends on the atheist but none of us have experienced true nothing, we’ve always been surrounded by something. It’s very hard to speculate on the nature of nothing when it’s never been observed.

If nothing is self-existing, why is there something?
If there was once nothing and now there’s something, it’s because “nothing” was unstable. Matter and antimatter can emerge from a space where neither previously existed, balancing each other out by keeping the net matter/energy at zero. That’s the best hypothesis so far, if a something-from-nothing scenario is considered.

Doesn’t anything require something?
Not based on the above phenomenon. Apart from that though, we are in no position to say what is required to create matter and energy because everything we see consists of matter and energy that has existed since the Big Bang, merely converting from one form to another over time. Perhaps it has been like that forever, even before the Big Bang.

At the very least the natural laws are self-existent, right?
We have no idea what they are contingent upon, if anything. If there are multiple universes the natural laws for each might be completely different. Every universal value we think of as constant might suddenly vary by 50% next week, for reasons we wouldn’t have time to discern before we were destroyed by the resulting cosmic upheaval.

If there was no time or space pre- Big Bang, how or why were there natural laws if there were?
Continuing the thought just above, perhaps there weren’t, and what you think of as natural laws are dependent entirely on (or emergent from) the presence of time, space, energy and matter.

Scripture gives you simple answers to questions like these, or at least gives you the confidence to assert certain answers. You have no assurance that your answers are correct except the insistences of the text itself and your fellow believers, so while you do not need to consider them further you are merely rolling their uncertainty into the all-encompassing assertion that God took care of everything. Atheists simply admit they don’t know, and are content from day to day with not knowing because as long as we don’t believe in creator gods the only alternative for us is self-deception.

Muslim Exorcism as Medicine

Question from Morrisozio:
Demon possession exists and it occurs. No doubt. There were and there are lots of people (personally known to me) who are ill, and blood used to come from ears and noses. Doctors were never able to cure these so called hidden diseases. They always stated they didn’t find anything. Everything seemed fine. While these poor patients keep suffering. However, when they have been religiously healed, all problems disappeared, since the demons inside were forced to leave. One of these healing was even done in hospital, without the permission of any doctors. Can you imagine that? The medical science has been challenged!!!

Some psychologists say that unknown powers exist which control human minds, which are beyond our comprehension.

In addition, Arab exorcists, since they are already rich, do healing for free. In fact exorcism is also used as something acceptable in these Muslim Sharia countries.

Could you give any reply? Please a proper reply, even short one is okay, but don’t reply with words like “coincidence”, “lucky”. How come that these type of physical and mental problems can be cured by religious healers or TRUE exorcists (not the fake ones) and not by physicians?

Thank you.

Answer by SmartLX:
I have only your word for any of this, so it’s not much to go on and it’s not very powerful as testimony given the extreme claims.

I find it hard to believe, first of all, that doctors were of the opinion that patients bleeding from the nose and ears without physical injury “seemed fine”. If a physical injury was present, on the other hand, everything might well be fine afterwards with or without an exorcism. But discussing the details is not very useful without specifics in the claim.

Generally speaking, a miraculous cure needs three things to be effective as evidence for a miracle:
1. evidence that the illness was present in the first place,
2. evidence that the illness is now gone, and
3. a consensus that no conventional medical treatment that was also given to the patient/victim could have treated the illness effectively.
In my experience, the one most often missing from these claims is #1.

I have no doubt that Islamic exorcism or ruqya is popular and encouraged in countries with self-proclaimed Sharia law, even if it performs no better than a placebo. Muslims are subject to fear campaigns trying to convince them that Western medicine aims to poison or defile them, and choosing Islamic spiritual treatments is touted as a way to demonstrate one’s faith and also support fellow Muslims financially.

Cornering the Market, Continued: The NDE Niche

Question from Kamil:
After emailing back and forth with a near death experience expert, I got a figure that from the NDEs he collects, about 13% of NDEs that people have include seeing Jesus. There are not too many Islamic NDEs, but there is yet to be one where a person encounters Muhammad. There are a few Hindu NDEs which differ from Christian ones, but again, almost no mention of Krishna. Would you say 13% of NDEs seeing Jesus would give Jesus more of a chance of being real than the other deities? I have heard that Islamic people may be quiet on encounters with Muhammad as it may be seen as taboo to mention a Muhammad encounter. however, I have seen testimonies of people dreaming about Muhammad and mentioning it, so I’m not quite sure how “taboo” it would be. My question is, if there was never a single NDE of Muhammad but NDEs with Jesus, does this mean Christianity has a better chance of being true? Also, I have seen forums on this topic, and no one can seem to figure out why Muhammad never shows up in NDEs. I do know that Christians on the web will proudly point this out and say “We see Jesus, others don’t see their deities, so we are correct!”. I would like to know an atheistic standpoint on this.

Answer by SmartLX:
I concur on two points. All the research done so far has failed to come up with a statistically significant amount of NDE claims involving Muhammad, and as shown here some Christians do point out Jesus’ supposed monopoly on NDE appearances as support for the reality of his divinity.

Firstly, at 13% of all NDE claims it’s not much of a monopoly. Jesus is not a part of the vast majority of NDE claims even by Christians. Even if it’s really Jesus, he’s not making good use of his omnipresence. But more importantly, when all appearances by Jesus in all claims made so far aren’t enough to convince non-believers due to the lack of good evidence any given claim provides, it means little to point out that other religions do not have the same claims. “Oh, your rivals don’t have this same support that isn’t any kind of support anyway? Well whoop-de-do.”

A more likely reason for the discrepancy than the occasional genuine presence of Jesus, expanding on what I wrote here and here, is that this form of NDE is an almost exclusively Christian cultural meme at this point in time. People are aware of prior claims, so if they have an experience that gives them even a fuzzy feeling of a divine presence (often attributable to medical effects) they will subconsciously shape the memory to fit the expectation. And of course if they’re making it up entirely they will custom-tool it to the memetic specifications.

Now if a recognisable Jesus appeared to someone who had never heard of Jesus, that would be something. But it would also be nearly impossible to prove after the fact, as I’m sure we’ll explore if anyone has a claim like that to share.

The Least Verifiable NDE Claim Yet

Question from Ned:
Does this psychic woman prove Jesus?


Answer by SmartLX:

If anything in this story were true, it would be amazing, but there’s no evidence that it is, so that doesn’t begin to approach the criteria of proof that Jesus is alive and curing people. There are no names in the story, not the author, not the doctor, and not the “psychic” woman, so there’s absolutely no way to find out whether any of it happened. Like another recent account the hospital is named – the Veteran Affairs Medical Center – but firstly this may or may not be the one in Portland, Oregon, and secondly hospitals are not forthcoming to the general public on the details of their ex-patients. Just because Forrest Gump went to the White House, which is a real building, does not mean Forrest Gump was a real person.

As it stands, there’s just nothing here.

Another Christian Worldview Class Begins

Questions from Juvencio:
What is revealed about human purpose in Genesis 1-3?

How might these questions about human nature, purpose, and flourishing be answered by those holding a pantheistic or atheistic worldview?

Answer by SmartLX:
These are questions from the Christian Worldview course which call for an atheist perspective, and many come here because they aren’t otherwise aware of an atheist they can talk to about these things. We’ve covered a lot of what’s required here (covers human nature and purpose) and here (covers flourishing and human nature according to Genesis). In fact at this point I think ATA counts as a proper cheat sheet, so take care your classmates aren’t bringing in the same answers.

Nasir Siddiki, Jesus, and Shingles

Question from Spivak:
I would love to know your impression of this video, do you believe it?


Answer by SmartLX:
For those who don’t feel like watching, Nasir Siddiki claims that he called out to Allah and Muhammad for help as he was dying of an extreme case of facial shingles combined with chicken pox. Jesus answered instead, he got better, and after 90 minutes in the shower his blisters were all gone and he doesn’t have a mark on him. (To save you a search, shingles leave scars and bad shingles leave bigger scars.)

That’s a straight-up medical miracle, for which there is no evidence presented but his own testimony. He does name the hospital, Toronto General, so this would be on record there if anyone has the ability to check, but doctor-patient confidentiality probably makes that difficult. I do note that the only appearance by his doctor is via the guy playing him in the re-enactment.

To establish an impossible cure there has to have been evidence that the illness existed, and was as severe as described, in the first place. Here’s a relevant story I don’t get to tell often: a Native American healer named Bobby Runningfox once touched my friend’s abdomen and announced that he had cured a small cancer. It had not been detected before his act, and whether he was genuine or not one would not expect to detect it afterwards. So as far as anyone can say, he touched my friend and did nothing.

The other similar claim that comes to mind is the minor character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who accuses a suspected witch: “She turned me into a newt!…I got better.”

There’s another interesting angle on Siddiki which has nothing to do with the medical aspect, brought up by this video. A Muslim has gone through another video where Siddiki tells the same story, and attempted to debunk the claim that Siddiki was actually a Muslim before the event. This responder does the same with many such “ex-Muslim” videos, and frankly appears to be reaching in some parts, but perhaps someone more familiar with Islam can say if there’s anything to it.

Cornering the Market on Divine Visions

Question from Spivak:
I had a question regarding proof of Jesus. People always say the bible or the quran are not reliable proof of Jesus or his existence. My question is, what about all the personal testimonies people have of seeing Jesus. There are many people who make claims that they met Jesus, or Jesus helped them in a particular time. More specifically, I have read and watched accounts of Muslims, Hindus, etc who say they had a problem for ex: they were about to die, they called out to Allah or Krishna, and wouldn’t get an answer. Yet, when they call out to Jesus, they see light, and he comes and saves them. He also tells them bible versus which they later confirm exist. There are healing testimonies, dreams, near death experiences, somehow, it seems no other deity really comes up in these kinds of potentially supernatural experiences other than Jesus. Does this mean Jesus is the most likely deity to exist?

Video examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PExVfzRsKU

there are many more examples where that came from. There don’t seem to be testimonies of other faiths meeting other deities. Does this seem convincing for Jesus?

Answer by SmartLX:
We’ve often covered the implications of claimed personal experiences of the divine, and how they have little reason to mean anything to anyone who doesn’t already believe. Here I’ll focus on the supposed imbalance between claims of visits by Jesus and claims of other deities. There are a few potential and very likely reasons for this imbalance besides Jesus being the only real godlike entity that makes house calls.

The most obvious reason is the media sources available in the Western world and the English language, both of which have an immense Christian majority. Accounts of Jesus are written out, recorded, published and distributed because there’s guaranteed to be an audience for them. This is helped along by the engines that rely on people’s faith being continually reassured: televangelism and Christian Right political advocacy to name two.

The religion with the next most adherents worldwide, though with nowhere near the amount of English-language media profile, is Islam. It’s not surprising that there are no stories of visits by Allah, because it’s a matter of doctrine (see here for instance) that we’re not capable of comprehending or withstanding Allah’s presence while alive. As for Muhammad, Muslims take it practically for granted that he can appear in dreams (they have to take care that it’s not their Devil “Shaytaan” in disguise) so it’s no big deal when he does and they’re not so driven to proclaim it to the world.
That leaves Hinduism as the only other religion with more than 500 million followers, and it’s got even less profile in the West. From what I can gather it happens plenty for Hindus as well; many yogis, gurus, monks and priests have their own stories about how Ganesha or Hanuman appeared to them, but only their own congregations hear the tales.

That’s probably the big takeaway from this topic: only Christianity has the infrastructure in place to widely proclaim everything that happens to anyone as a miracle and a vindication. By and large people of other religions just rejoice and get on with it.