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.


A Moment in Hell

Question from Mirek:
There seems to be many hellish NDEs with the same imagery:

A person sees absolute darkness, hears people suffering, feels sadness, coldness, emptiness, then calls out to God or Jesus, and a white light, or God’s hand appears and takes them out.

Here is an example from George Foreman:


Another example is a pastor who was electrocuted when he was an atheist, and saw the same thing, called out to God, was pulled out.

Do these similarities give hell more credence?

Answer by SmartLX:
Not really. The main reason is that multiple genuine NDEs aren’t the only explanation for the similarity regarded by many as plausible. There are two other major factors likely to contribute.

One, the standard NDE story is by now traditional and very well-known. If someone who’s at least familiar with it has an ordinary dream or hallucination during a life-threatening situation, it is likely to follow the same pattern as it’s what the victim expects on some level. If there is no memory or a fragmented memory of the period, the existence of this very specific expectation for the experience can shape a memory over time until it fits very well. And if someone just makes up an NDE story, they will deliberately follow the pattern to match the expectation of their audience.

Two, people going through the physical and mental states associated with near or temporary “death” are likely to have similar physiological reasons to experience certain things, even if they’re not fully understood. The white light in the distance, for instance, is consistent with temporary tunnel vision caused by lack of blood or oxygen to the eyes, growing brighter when the supply returns. Scientific American went into this six years ago.

I can take another approach to your question. Supposed visits to Hell, or samples of what you feel in Hell (coldness, emptiness, etc.) are potent emotional appeals but they don’t make much sense in most Christian theologies. God isn’t supposed to literally pull souls out of Hell, and certainly not after only a few moments. Your judgement happens, then either you stay in Hell forever or you never even see it. If on the other hand God is only showing you a vision of Hell instead of actually dangling you in there, He could supposedly do that at any time, not just when you’re at death’s door.

Being a teen is hard. Sometimes just being is hard.

Question from Anonymous:
Hi, I’m a six on the Dawkins scale, I’m lesbian, I’m 15 and I have religious fundamentalist parents. I am forced to go to church, my parents always force me to do things I don’t want to do. My mom tells me that when I grow up and get married to a woman, she will object to it, and I will be disowned. Currently I’m going to be a junior in high school, and this past year I took the SAT for fun (something a nerd would do, I know, I know). I turned out to score 2300 on the SAT. When I showed my mom the results she quickly dismissed it, and said the following:
“Are you sure you scored that much? Are you sure that a lesbian who is also a heathen can be that smart? You know what, you begged Satan for that score didn’t you?”
She also says I pray to Satan for my weight loss (in the past year and a half I lost 90 lbs after being diagnosed with PCOS). My mother is still waddling around at a hundred lbs overweight. I just got five pounds to lose. She says “God told me to diet using (starchy) soups and (overly drenched in ranch) salads!” She turns around at me and says, “You little devil worshipper! That’s why you have that damn PCOS!”

Recently, she got diagnosed with type two diabetes.

My question is, is why does my mom do this? Why does she deny my SAT score, deny my realistic weightloss, and yet she is nowhere in life? Why? I never went into arguments with my mom about the existence of an upper phenomena. I just say “Well, we have a difference of opinions, Mom. I respect yours though I don’t agree with it. And let’s just agree to disagree.”

In her reply: “Its not an opinion, it’s fact, it’s proven in the Bible!”

Now, most of my friends are Christians, and we just never eat into the debate of religion or spirituality.

So why does my mom?

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, that’s all pretty awful, and I feel for you. It’s not fun when you’re fundamentally and irreconcilably at odds with your parents while still officially in their care. I regularly hear from people in such circumstances, and it’s never a happy description. I’m reassured by your academic aptitude and your taking the initiative to test yourself; your circumstances aren’t seriously interfering with your ability to learn and to focus, and that will get you far along whatever path you choose to take in life. (On a side note, my wife has PCOS and I know that’s not much fun either, but there are treatments.)

Think of your mother’s worldview (which is probably even more simplified internally than the doctrine which was initially preached to her). In that view, God is the source of all goodness, all strength and all ability, and not only are all things possible with Him but nothing good is possible without Him. Prayer is a prerequisite for literally everything, because humans are worthless and hopeless without their Lord. There may be some sexism in there too, adding the idea that a woman needs both God and a man to function.

And then there’s you. Smart, capable, independent and getting steadily healthier and more confident despite a chronic condition, while consciously denying God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit and having sworn off men for good. If she were to accept that at face value she would have to admit that there is a flaw somewhere in her worldview since it does not reflect reality, and examine the principles upon which she bases her whole life. Some of those principles are held as sacred by her congregation, so she feels a threat to her place in the community as well as her own identity. (How the congregation would actually react to some doubt on her part depends on the type of church, so you’d know better than me.)

So what does she do? She clings to the idea that you’re managing without God with help from the one entity with any power to challenge God. People have attributed abilities they did not understand to Satan for centuries, which for instance has led to many people being burned as witches. The devil is like a bucket into which Christians can throw anything they don’t comprehend rather than leave their comfort zone…and some will throw in a lit match too. It’s a simple coping mechanism that not every Christian uses but is nevertheless available to every Christian. Your mother seems quite fond of using it, sadly.

Some of your friends might possibly indulge in this behind your back, depending on how devout they are and how old-fashioned their theology, but they have the luxury of not thinking about you when you’re not around them for long periods of time. You’re a big part of your mother’s life on the other hand, so you’re there as a constant challenge to her worldview that she feels she needs to combat for her own peace of mind. That’s why she’s the one who accuses you openly.

Based on what I’ve written so far, I’m inclined to think that your mother will be less hard on you after you move out some years from now. It will give her long breaks from having to internally justify her dependence on God in the face of your independence, so there won’t be that constant struggle that reignites when she sees you, and she’ll be able to just see her daughter again. This is purely a guess on my part, but I think one of my better-made guesses. And to address one thing specifically, it’s one thing to be revolted by the very idea of a same-sex partner, and another entirely to get to know the actual person. The mother of my best friend referred to my friend’s girlfriend as “it” from afar for a long time before finally building a relationship with her.

In the meantime, the onus is not on you to hide who you are and how you live for your mother’s sake. She needs to come to terms with the woman her daughter has become. That’s hard for many parents, but the focal point of religion will figure heavily in her process and you both may suffer for it. Be patient with her, answer any honest questions she has, engage whenever you feel it’s right to. Don’t feel you’re alone, like-minded company can be found locally and globally if you know where to look. These are your particular challenges in growing up – everyone gets some – and I think you’re as well-equipped as any to handle them.

Islam and Science Again

Question from :
The Quran has verses about the Big Bang, the formation of the embryo, the speed of light and other scientific facts. How do I explain to a Muslim that these Quranic verses are incorrect or that Quran is incorrect? When I discuss such matters with Muslims, the discussion becomes dead as both the sides have their explanations but are not convincing enough. Any help would be really appreciated. I watch your show online from time to time, some callers give very stupid arguments but all in all great work guys. Keep it up 🙂

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, we’re not affiliated with any show. Ask The Atheist with Tom Leykis isn’t us. You might instead be talking about The Atheist Experience, which I love but is not us either.

Anyway, the claims of divine scientific foreknowledge always rely on specific interpretations of passages in the Quran, so the question is whether these interpretations are justified, and the problem with discussing it with Muslims is that the answer to this question is extremely subjective. What’s not so subjective is whether it is convincing to non-believers; no matter how obvious the argument seems to Muslims, they can’t claim that it’s persuading people who don’t already believe. The propaganda is all one-way from devout Muslims, not testimonials from new converts. Therefore if they care about more than just feeling smug and reassuring their fellow Muslims (and they may not), they need to address what you find weak about this type of argument.

For excellent analysis of particular claims, check out TheIslamMiracle on YouTube. There’s a video for each one.

Package Deal: NDE (claim) + Miracle Cure (claim)

Question from Halil:
Do you think this proves miracles?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you’re going to give me nothing but a link, Halil, I will respond in kind with a nice in-depth thread on the Skeptics Society forum dedicated to this particular claim. Many, many problems with it. Respond to the criticisms from the other page if you want to advocate this as a miracle.

A Dump From Skeptiko

Question from Mirek:
for a long time, people have thought that Near Death Experiences are just a result of the brain, I have found some recent cold hard facts which may prove it is in fact a soul at work:

Here is a really good one which totally debunks the oxygen theory:

Dr. Long has done so much research which shows that a lack of oxygen only causes confused hallucinations, while NDEs make sense, and are not only fragments of memory. There are also tons of verified out of body experiences, which took place while a person’s brain had no measurable activity. People have been able to travel far distances, hear conversations, and explain exactly what happened while they were out, only later to be verified. Skeptics, how would you respond to all these lines of proof that it cannot be a brain?
1) doctors have debunked oxygen/hypoxia theory
2) drugs also cause weird hallucinations
3) Dr. Long’s recorded out of body experiences which took place in operating rooms came back with 97.5% accuracy
4) Dr. Penny Sartori has tested people who have never been in a hospital setting, asking them to guess what procedures may go on, and they all fail, yet these NDErs can report everything with close to 100% accuracy
5) There are no cultural differences, and all NDEs are very very similar

How could anyone think they are not the spirit leaving the body? So many have been verified, some people even report floating to other rooms and hearing exact conversations.

Skeptics, enlighten me.

Answer by SmartLX:
The conversation on Jeffrey Long, and the NDE material on Skeptiko in general, is already in progress here and here. The hypoxia issue is specifically addressed in the latter so it’s worth checking out what’s already here.

The crux of the issue is that these experiences have not been verified, only supported by their claimants with assertions and occasionally circumstantial evidence. If they had been verified, there would be no serious doubt that they were really NDEs. The evidence presented is good enough for the faithful, and they think this constitutes verification, but it can’t be that subjective.

If this is the best apologetics Islam has to offer…

Question from Abu (“Muslim until death”, as he wrote in the name field):
I always feel pity for the stubbornness (to believe in Allah/God/Elohim/Ubangiji) of/by Atheists.

Thus I have a lot of questions to harden your brain (and if Allah wills for you goodness; you may take heed).

1) First of all: Why do you deny the existence of Allah [the Almighty God] ?

2) Second of all: Do you go with your life (here I purposely mean) for breathing, able to motionize, able to so likes of ?

3) Third of all: Do you think that everything goes freely by its power of nature ?

4) Fourth of all: If you think that Allah doesn’t exist, how all things came to existence ?

5) Fifth of last: I do argue to prepare for yourselves the last destination, there is a world to come after this, don’t let yourself be loser in Hereafter.

Bye !

Answer by SmartLX:
Interesting idea for you while I’m answering these: if none of the preaching has any effect on me, does that mean Allah wills me to reject him? The Bible talks about God hardening people’s hearts so that they’ll reject him; maybe some people just aren’t meant to be saved.

1) I deny that Allah exists (or at least I say that it seems very unlikely) because I do not believe that Allah exists, and I have decided to be honest about it. Even a genuine lack of belief is difficult for some believers to accept. Sorry folks, but there are people who truly disagree with you.

2) This one was honestly difficult to interpret, so tell me if I’m on the wrong track. I don’t think I need help to breathe, move and so on because there are mechanisms in my body which make these things happen for me. Even if Allah is real he doesn’t necessarily have to run everything manually.

3) I think everything obeys natural laws, only some of which we understand well enough to predict behaviour. An interventionist god like Allah would influence our lives by violating these laws, and I don’t think there’s good evidence that this is happening.

4) I don’t know how everything came to exist. To say that this lack of knowledge supports an assertion that a being with an equally mysterious origin must exist is an argument from ignorance. (It’s no accident that this is the most common hyperlink on this site besides the one for my Twitter.)

5) This is not a question.

Molecules Say The Darnedest Things

Question from ‘name’:
My question is, really, why would an atheist care to talk or explain his ‘atheism’, if we are just molecules and will vanish one day?

Answer by SmartLX:
Because all matter is atoms and molecules. Molecules differ from atoms in that they are more complex, being made up of multiple atom types (elements) and thus able to act and interact in a potentially unlimited number of ways. To the point, enough molecules of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen (and traces of many other elements) can form a brain, an organic computer which can in principle do the following:
– Understand the general concept of a god.
– Make a judgement that it’s unlikely or impossible that such a thing exists.
– Make a further judgement that belief in a god is ultimately harmful, or at least that lack of belief is preferable, based primarily on empathy for other beings with brains.
– Formulate arguments against the concept and find ways to spread them.

Even if you think God created the brain, you have to admit it’s capable of doing all this. Which of course means God created atheists, which is something Christians must explain for themselves.

Might Be Talking To The Wrong Guy

Question from Jesse:
Where did the gravity come from Mr Hawkins? I’m just curious.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m going to assume this is a question to Stephen Hawking by proxy. It’s the right question as it turns out, as Hawking’s position in A Brief History of Time is that gravity essentially caused the universe. As for its own origin, notwithstanding the limitations of language when describing different workings of time, it was always there, just as you might assume God always was.

If you have a problem with this I suggest you read A Brief History of Time, check any articles which might indicate that Hawking has changed his position since 1988, and address any further correspondence to him.

If Questions Came By Instant Messaging, Only Longer

Question from Rachael:
so u think that god is stupid well i have a few words for u i was like that at one time screw god but i learned the hard way that u need to rethink that god is real as real as the sun and the stars how do u think that u made in this earth i know from ur mom but how do u explain the 1st person on earth theres a hell and a heaven and ur going to be in hell if u don’t get ur act right or some day gods gonna strike u dead all those problems u have in your life could be resolved in just going to a church and praying u will find that that will help u

Answer by SmartLX:
Went to church and prayed, rather a lot. Many atheists started out religious simply because of their upbringing. If you believe, you can convince yourself God is talking back to you, but if not there is usually silence and that’s fine.

Regarding the “ur mom” argument, the line of ancestry goes back past the first humans to the first primates, to the first mammals, to the first tetrapods, to the first vertebrates, to the first multi-celled organisms, to the very first life, and at that point if you look practically anywhere on the site right now you’ll see the same argument raging over whether natural abiogenesis is possible. If there’s no god then it happened, no question, and if there is a god it still might have happened, but whether it’s more unlikely than the existence of a god is so subjective it’s an argument not worth having between a believer and a non-believer. Probabilities get us nowhere unless they’re 0 or 1.

If you’re still around, do comment and let us know how you “learned the hard way”.

If Questions Came By Instant Messaging

Question from Rachael:
ok i guess i don’t understand how a person can be atheist i mean how can u go through the world knowing that ur going to hell even if u don’t want to believe it

Answer by SmartLX:
Sorry it took so long to get to these next four, but they were incorrectly submitted in the comments of the question submission page instead of using the form, and I’ve worked through the correct submissions first.

It’s quite simple Rachael. If you actually don’t believe in God, you usually don’t believe there’s a Heaven or a Hell either. Removing the existence of God from your worldview doesn’t just leave a Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole cut out of it. The whole afterlife mythology goes out the window (possibly after a long period of “faithdrawal”), and you’re left with one life to live as best you can. So you do that, often with a great deal less fear.