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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.

SmartLX

Bryan Melvin: Another Hell Tourist?

Question from Vlad:
Do you believe this man? Apparently people say they knew him and that he is totally genuine. They say they went to school with him and he was a total atheist until this experience, where he wrote books about it and became a pastor, but I have my doubts. I feel he may have lied to make a profit.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmp3UNjeu0k

Answer by SmartLX:
Bryan Melvin certainly made a profit whether or not he believes his own claims. It doesn’t cost much to put out a book with a Christian self-publishing company, and the above video is on sale too.

Atheists do sometimes convert to Christianity and other religions, so there’s really no problem with the idea that Melvin was once an atheist. What’s important is the reasons why people convert, and Melvin’s reason is a personal experience which he really has no way to establish as supernatural as opposed to generated by his own brain at some stage during his cholera episode. If it was real to him, and as intense as it sounds, objective examination of his own state of mind would have gone out of the window very quickly.

Seen One NDE, Seen Them All

Question from Vlad:
Hello, was indoctrinated into Christian faith since birth. I have a hard time when people ask me what I believe. On one hand, I trust evolution, I have had difficulties accepting the Bible. The whole idea that religion is a man made construct with “heaven” and “hell” used as a mechanism for controlling populations makes sense. However, in my church, one of the priests told us that hell has been proven to exist. He sent us an email with a few written accounts of religious people who were decent, but drank and partied, and were therefore not accepting God. They then either claim that they may have died and had what’s known as a Near Death Experience or NDE or even dreams sometimes where they encounter hell.

I found a multitude of videos where people claim to have seen hell in either a dream or an NDE, and what I realized is that all these reports sound consistent:

– falling through a black hole
– hearing screams
-seeing souls suffering
– seeing fire
-meeting demons who often say “we got you now”
– the demons beat people, and look like reptiles
– then the person calls out to Jesus or God, and a light appears
-this light saves them

There are many of these kinds of videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOhOynR9Jxg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=II_3H9O4LSo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmp3UNjeu0k
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwFruS4rpdI

All of these sound so similar.

I wonder how so many people could hallucinate/dream the same thing, especially this last link was a mormon woman who didn’t believe in hell, and had no exposure to it. How did she experience what so many experience?

They seem so consistent. Being raised Christian, I always pictured hell as a place with dark rocks that people stand on, surrounded by lava and fire, being burned, suffering, maybe meeting Satan, etc. I never pictured there being demons who claim “we got you now” and attack people while mocking them. All of my Christian friends I asked didn’t picture this either, so what gives? Why do all these accounts report reptile horned demons?

Any rational thoughts on this?

Answer by SmartLX:
Put “nde” or “near death experience” into the search function above to find a positive wealth of articles, because it’s been a popular subject lately. In particular, this piece addresses your specific question about the similarities between claims. Briefly, there can be very good physical or mental reasons why people experience what they do, and they’re all human beings living in the same society.

NDE Claim: Al Sullivan and the Flapping Doctor

Question from Mirek:
Most convincing NDE of all time. I want skeptic atheist opinions.

I feel that if we do have a soul, this NDE describes it best. Perhaps you all have heard of it. Please give me your input, I want honest opinions about this amazing testimony. It sounds great at the surface, could this prove the existence of a soul?

The Case of Al Sullivan. Bruce Grayson.
Al Sullivan, then a 56-year-old truck driver, almost died on January 18, 1998. A few days earlier he had experienced an irregular heartbeat and was rushed to the hospital for diagnostic testing, during which one of his coronary arteries became blocked. Doctors were forced to administer an emergency quadruple bypass surgery. It was at this time that Sullivan felt himself leave his body. In an account two years later, Sullivan would describe what he came to think of as—and some researchers came to label as—his near-death experience, or NDE:

I began my journey in an upward direction and found myself in a very thick, black, billowy smoke-like atmosphere … I rose to an amphitheater like place … I was able to grasp the wall and look over it into the area the wall was blocking. To my amazement, at the lower left-hand side was, of all things, me. I was laying [sic] on a table covered with light blue sheets and I was cut open so as to expose my chest cavity. It was in this cavity that I was able to see my heart on what appeared to be a small glass table.
This beginning, on its own, is a generic-enough surgery scene. It’s one that anyone with a television has likely seen, in high drama and vivid gore, 20 times over. Whether one has had real life experience witnessing (or undergoing) a surgery or not, the stage is set and familiar. Were this all that Sullivan had remembered, it would not be an especially intriguing account. But there was more.
I was able to see my surgeon, who just moments ago had explained to me what he was going to do during my operation. He appeared to be somewhat perplexed. I thought he was flapping his arms as if trying to fly.
Sullivan goes on—his deceased mother and deceased brother-in-law are there, and so is a tunnel lit in a “golden hue,” and so, too, a pervading general sense of euphoria and peace—but, at the risk of sounding callous, it’s that weird part about the arm flapping that really means something. That’s the part that Sullivan, were he as unconscious as one is surely meant to be during a quadruple bypass surgery, should not have been able to see. That was what Sullivan’s surgeon, Dr. Takata, looked like (as he later admitted) before putting on his gloves. He was in the habit of holding his hands to his chest—to keep himself from touching anything—and giving instructions to his assistants, using his elbows to point at various surgical instrument. Sullivan was clinically dead, eyes taped shut, sheets over him. How could he have seen this?

Answer by SmartLX:
The thing about well-known NDE claims is that there’s inevitably been a lot of discussion. A lot of detail is here and here but very briefly:
– The flapping motion could have occurred when the patient was only under a local anaesthetic, before the general was administered. In other words he could have seen it before he went under. The doctor also can’t confirm that he did it at all during that operation.
– No one admits to explaining the behaviour to the patient before or after the surgery. That’s not confirmation that no one did mention it.
– The operation was a complete success without any major complications. The patient was clinically dead in a sense while the heart was stopped, but no more than during any heart surgery. If that’s all it takes, wouldn’t NDEs be far more common? Heart disease is currently endemic worldwide.
– The claim wasn’t made publicly until two years afterwards, and the surgeons weren’t interviewed until nine years afterwards. That’s a long time to let Sullivan get his story straight.

Generally though, the crux of this argument is the rhetorical question, “How could Sullivan have known about the flapping motion unless he was out-of-body?” You’re supposed to accept that explanation if you personally can’t come up with an alternative. Argument from ignorance, right there. This is the problem with any argument for the supernatural which relies on something remaining unexplained: even if an explanation is never found, it’s fundamentally weak, but potential explanations usually turn up. So keep a close eye out for the word “how”.

We’re Looking for a Few Good Mutations

Question from Nick:
How do you refute the argument that it is mathematically impossible for “good” mutations to occur and that evolution is mathematically impossible, and thus not a real theory, but a pseudoscience?

Short answer by SmartLX:
With evidence.

Okay, longer answer by SmartLX:
The idea that beneficial mutations are “mathematically” impossible is based on easily addressed misunderstandings of the process. The fact that the idea is so widely held by creationists despite being so easily addressed speaks to a common reluctance among their number to accept simple facts, if those facts are inconvenient.

A very simple counter to the claim is the fact that most individual mutations can potentially be reversed in subsequent generations. This is an observed and well-known phenomenon straightforwardly called reverse mutation. The list of reversible mutations includes many that would be regarded as “bad” or detrimental to survival and procreation. The reverse of these mutations would by definition be “good”, so there’s no barrier to this whatsoever.

The other effective counter is the set of beneficial mutations that have been observed. You can look them up on Google, or follow up on the short list given here. Most famously, the Lenski E.coli experiment tightly controlled an isolated population of E.coli and documented its acquisition, via repeatable mutation, of the ability to metabolise (eat) the citrate in its environment. The bacteria couldn’t do it, then they could. Creationists did everything they could to discredit this and failed pretty badly. We had our own little argument over it in the comments here (search the page for keyword “Lenski”).

Trying to Cross Off a Couple of NDE Explanations

Question from Mirek:
Here are some arguments against current scientific ideas about Near Death Experiences:

First, Lack of Oxygen to the brain:
Hogan: Lack of oxygen causes stupor without memories of the experience. People experiencing NDEs report enhanced consciousness not stupor and they remember their NDE. “Dr. Fred Schoonmaker, a cardiologist from Denver, had by 1979 carried out investigations of over 2,000 patients who had suffered cardiac arrests, many of whom reported NDEs. His findings showed that NDEs occurred when there was no deprivation of oxygen.” The primary features of acceleration-induced hypoxia, however, are myoclonic convulsions (rhythmic jerking of the limbs), impaired memory for events just prior to the onset of unconsciousness, tingling in the extremities and around the mouth, confusion and disorientation upon awakening, and paralysis, symptoms that do not occur in association with NDEs. Moreover, contrary to NDEs, the visual images Whinnery reported frequently included living people, but never deceased people; and no life review or accurate out-of-body perceptions have been reported in acceleration-induced loss of consciousness.

Parnia raises another problem: When oxygen levels decrease markedly, patients whose lungs or hearts do not work properly experience an “acute confusional state,” during which they are highly confused and agitated and have little or no memory recall. In stark contrast, during NDEs people experience lucid consciousness, well-structured thought processes, and clear reasoning.

Next: Brain activity
NDEs cannot be caused by brain activity during CPR because CPR patients report confusion and amnesia while NDErs report lucid experiences. NDEs often begin before CPR is administered and the quality of consciousness and the pattern of events in NDEs does not change once CPR is started. Also, if consciousness in NDEs is caused by CPR, the patients should remember the pain of compressions and cracked ribs that sometimes occur during CPR, but NDErs do not feel the pain from CPR.

Finally, according to a Neurosurgeon named Greenfield: “”It’s very unlikely that a hypoperfused brain (someone with no blood flow to the brain), with no evidence of electrical activity could generate NDEs. Human studies as well as animal studies have typically shown very little brain perfusion (blood flow) or glucose utilization when the EEG is flat. There are deep brain areas involved in generating memories that might still operate at some very reduced level during cardiac arrest, but of course any subcortically generated activity can’t be brought to consciousness without at least one functioning cerebral hemisphere. So even if there were some way that NDEs were generated during the hypoxic state (while the brain is shut off from oxygen), you would not experience them until reperfusion (blood flow) allowed you to dream them or wake up and talk about them.”

What do atheists have to say about these arguments for an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
The main problem with both of these arguments has been mentioned several times before in previous ATA pieces.

The dream or other experience interpreted as the NDE does not need to occur during the time when the subject is literally near death. If there is a period during which the brain is incapable of synthesising and retaining such an experience – and the person survives to tell the tale – then there is a period of descent from consciousness through normal unconsciousness to the disabled state beforehand, and afterwards a recovery “up” through the same levels. If a dream occurs either side of the interval wherein it’s impossible, there’s no way for the subject to know that it didn’t happen right in the middle. If the event is traumatic enough, the experience could even occur as a dream in a period of sleep after consciousness is regained, and be confused as one that occurred before then.

Arguments based on the clarity and lucidity of an NDE are not very strong, incidentally. As soon as someone begins to think they’ve had one, they start telling the story over and over, to themselves and to anyone else who will listen. Doing that to any experience will soon solidify the memory of it into a repeatable narrative which seems clearer every time you tell it, because you’re reinforcing it (and probably subconsciously altering it) after the fact.

Take a step back, Mirek, and look at what you’re actually trying to do with this latest attempt. You’re regurgitating supposed rebuttals to two – of many – natural explanations for NDE claims. Even if they shut down these explanations, all the rest would still be left. Even if these were presently the only explanations available, that would leave NDEs unexplained, not proven. To think that your belief is certain truth in the absence of known alternatives, as opposed to possible alternatives, is an argument from ignorance, which is an official logical fallacy and invalid in the eyes of anyone who knows about logical fallacies. That’s most atheists of the activist, apostate, academic or “New” variety, and pretty much everyone who reads this site. So your ideal outcome for this argument won’t convince anybody and, thanks to reality, it’s miles away from that anyway. Try to think about what you can actually achieve with the next one.

The Problems With NDE Claims – Comprehensive

Question from Miguel:
Often times, NDEs [near death experiences] sound quite compelling, and some OBEs [out of body experiences] sound very compelling. The thing is that they are anecdotes, and so far, no one has fully demonstrated that they are real. An objective measure would be to place targets in hospital rooms and see if patients during their OBEs can have them. People who believe in OBEs will always say, “well the brain was dead, it couldn’t have picked up information, and it sure as hell couldn’t have generated a whole classic realer than real NDE”. A few things that don’t make sense though about NDEs are:
1) How does a soul which is not supposed to be physical pick up light and sound, but also go through walls and ceilings? What would be the point of a creator giving us ears or eyes if we could see and hear with souls? There has also been an inconsistency in OBEs. For example, the vast majority of people say they float through objects, while Howard Storm (atheist who became a reverend after his NDE) claimed he was walking, and could feel the cold floor during his OBE, which is inconsistent.
2) NDEs can happen when a person is nowhere near death, there are cases of them occurring when someone jumped off of a bridge or when someone got into a near car accident.
3) Rarely, but sometimes, there are documented inconsistencies during the NDE. For example, very rarely, but once in a while, people will have NDEs with live relatives, or they will have NDEs telling them things about the future that don’t end up taking place.
4) Evidence of the brain when it gets damaged seems to suggest that souls don’t exist.

Now here is my question. In recent years and even months, many people who research NDEs will take cases like a person having an NDE when they aren’t anywhere near death and say “well, the fact that this person who jumped off a bridge had an NDE when they weren’t near death proves that hypoxia or lack of oxygen cannot be the cause for NDEs. Then they say that the recent rat experiment where a doctor took rats near death and saw their brain activity spike is not relevant because when someone who is not near death has these, their brain would not have these spikes, yet they have NDEs. They also interview NDErs who also tried ketamine and DMT and claim that the drugs are no where near as “real” as the near death experiences were. Then they claim there is no evidence that the brain releases DMT. Then finally, we have neurosurgeons like Eben Alexander and Peter Fenwick who criticize neurosurgeons against NDEs and will always use the “but the brain can’t create that kind of imagery in those situations” argument, and that studies show that most cardiac arrest patients who had NDEs didn’t in fact have less oxygen in their brains than normal. Would you say that even if it was true that the oxygen, hypoxia, anoxia, and ketamine/DMT explanations were not true, that it would mean NDEs are? It seems like they don’t make sense if you look at them on their own, but there doesn’t seem to be a sufficient scientific explanation for them at the moment. Would you still think they were not real, even if all the current science explanations failed?

Answer by SmartLX:
We’re talking about an argument from ignorance here, Miguel. Even the best case is still a logical fallacy.

The reason you’re supposed to accept these claims that peoples’ souls left their bodies and had independent experiences is that there is supposedly no other way that what happened could have happened. This is flatly contradicted as long there are other potential explanations, because there are other ways it could have happened. Even if all these other explanations are eliminated (and as you say, many try their hardest to do just this), the most they can honestly say is there there is no other known way it could have happened. This does not complete a proof by elimination because it leaves room for explanations that haven’t occurred to us yet.

To summarise all this very simply, there is a BIG difference between an event being unexplained and an event being proven supernatural.

Gonna Find Out Who’s Illuminati or Nice

Question from Janiece:
I’m an atheist and I am very curious as to what others think of The “Illuminati” and their so-called devil worship. Everything I’ve researched regarding this group always leads to Satanism. To my understanding, these folks have knowledge that they wish to keep secret and have themselves created these religions to misguide people. Yet they use symbols and have practices that mirror the rituals of Satanic cults. Anybody?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m happy with my succinct summary of the Illuminati here in 2012, so I’ll just recycle that passage:

“The Illuminati were a real organisation formed in Bavaria (now part of Germany) in 1776 and forcibly disbanded and outlawed in 1785. That’s nine years in the whole of history where we can point to a single thing they actually did. Despite what’s in Angels & Demons, there hasn’t been a single confirmed act by anyone working on behalf of the Illuminati in hundreds of years. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but if they do they’re now so secret that they might as well not exist. As far as anyone knows, we have nothing to fear from them.”

Everything you’ve read to suggest that they’re practicing anything at all today is unsubstantiated, but I invite you to comment with your sources for people to peruse.

You may have your last statement backwards, incidentally. Churches have a long history of portraying pagan symbols, rituals and other practices as demonic: pentagrams, spell-casting, sacrifices and so forth. If you’ve learned of rituals that people are actually carrying out, it may be that public (and your own) perception of Satanism has been crafted to mirror these rituals in order to reinforce prejudices.

Near Death Experiences – An Opposite Angle

Question from Mirek:
I looked at more cultural differences between NDEs. Much of these differences are in contrast with current research, which claims that all NDEs are the same with the same features, the only differences that exist are interpretation. Ex: Person A may see a light and interpret that light as Jesus while person B may see a light and interpret it is Allah.

Earlier research from the 80s and 90s was taken from countries like Thailand, India, Japan, China, Zambia, etc. What I find curious is that in these non-Western NDEs with the exception of China and Japan, there seem to be little to no Out of body experiences reported, and no light at the end of a tunnel. Judgement takes place, and seeing deceased relatives are common among Eastern and Western NDEs. Why though, if NDEs are biological in origin, do we not see OBEs and lights in India to the same extent. In a study of 55 in India, only 1 had an OBE, and in the west, we always hear of OBEs. Shouldn’t a dying brain also produce OBEs in India, or shouldn’t deprivation of oxygen to the eye also cause a bright light in India?

Does this give the soul idea a stronger case?

Answer by SmartLX:
In an earlier question you imply that the similarities between NDEs makes them more likely to be real, and now (after throwing the extended contents of an NDE-friendly website at the wall in the interim) you imply that the differences between NDEs make them more likely to be real. You seem like you’ll try anything. Why so dogged?

Regardless, I’ll take the new question at face value, and start by referring to my answer to another earlier question not by you. Different religions have different ideas of what an NDE should be, and even whether they should happen. In places where the bright light and other elements of an apparent NDE we would see as typical do not fit the majority religion’s narrative of what a soul might experience, even if they happen they won’t generally be interpreted as an NDE at all and thus they won’t be reported as such. Other experiences, for example dreams or hallucinations of one’s ancestors, will be interpreted as NDEs instead while any bright lights are dismissed as irrelevant physical effects. So the prevailing mythology not only changes what is experienced by influencing the subconscious, but it changes the filter of what existing experiences will be taken as part of the supposed phenomenon. Thus, look far enough afield and you’ll find variety.

All About Buddhism

Question from Vitor:
Good evening, how are you? My name is Vitor and I am only a seeker of knowledge, I can not stand to see people self-deceiving but I can do nothing. The apex of my disappointment are pseudosciences and promoters of insanities and follies.

I would like to discuss some matters with you. For there are not many who can discuss these subjects in search of skeptical knowledge, without traps of thought and cognition, and self-delusional beliefs coming from mysticisms, esoterisms, religions, pseudosciences and other nonsense.

Like any other human being, I have doubts that I would like to discuss with someone. Maybe I may be bothering you and I’m sorry, maybe you can not always argue with me but whenever I can I’ll be grateful.
Below are some things that both bother me.
If it is not uncomfortable, may I discuss various matters with you?

1. What you think about Buddhist cosmology?
2. The silly idea for suffering in Buddhism ?
3. About Nirvana in Buddhism?
4. Reincarnation, what do you think?

Answer by SmartLX:
1. Buddhist cosmology holds that the universe consists of a large number of different planes, each corresponding to a different mental state. There is no evidence for the other planes, let alone the idea that they are at all connected to the thoughts in human brains. Separately, the cyclical model of the universe very gradually fading between existence and nothingness does not match any hypothetical cyclical cosmologies that would work within the laws of physics (e.g. a Big Bang / Big Crunch cycle).

2/3. The “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism hold that suffering can be eliminated by freeing oneself from desire. Achieving this is by definition reaching a state of Nirvana, and in fact you become a buddha yourself if you manage it. This is an incredibly unrealistic goal for a living human being. The list of people who have even claimed to achieve it is very short, and it includes people like Jim Jones. (Incidentally, another part of the enlightenment of Nirvana is being free from ideas, which is in stark contrast to the principles of the Age of Enlightenment.)

4. Reincarnation, like the doctrines of many other religions, requires the existence of a soul independent of the body which maintains a person’s identity after death, in this case to insert into a subsequent body. There’s no evidence of identity surviving the death of the brain in any form.

The Targets of Atheists

Question from Frank:
Why do atheists always talk about how Christians are fake, but never mention Islam as a really fake religion?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists have all the same reasons to deny and oppose Islam as they do Christianity, but they will naturally challenge religion in the form in which it appears in their own community.

The atheists you have the opportunity to read or listen to mostly live in countries with a Christian majority, or at least where the majority of religious people are Christian. Christianity is therefore the religion with the greatest impact on their daily lives, and the religion whose apologetic is the most prominent in the arena of debate. Therefore they most often inspired, provoked and otherwise motivated to discuss and criticise Christianity. In Muslim countries, it’s different.

There is also the fact that in many countries devout Muslims have threatened (and often succeeded, say in Bangladesh) to persecute and even kill critics of Islam. Though unfortunate, it is perfectly reasonable for people to withhold their criticisms of Islam if they believe their safety to be at risk.

The important thing to remember is that most the criticisms of Christianity apply just as well to any other faith, including Islam. The core supernatural claims at the heart of the scripture are unsupported by available evidence. Believers who gain political power in numbers invariably attempt to legislate in favour of their religion, and in particular to enforce religious morality upon non-adherents. People spend vast amounts of time, effort and money doing things which have no purpose except to please an invisible entity for an intangible reward, supposedly withheld until after death.