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.


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.

You Don’t Have to Know to Not Think So

Question from Neil:
Why do atheists mostly dismiss the existence of an intelligent creator of any kind?

I see no firm evidence of any god being especially the Old Testament one, he doesn’t seem to be aware the Earth moves among many other things!
But I accept the possibility that one could exist and may have caused the Big Bang.

Until we discover what did cause the Big Bang it seems arrogant to dismiss the possibility.

Athiests are accused of being arrogant (mainly by arrogant religious people). I wonder if they’re right or are most atheists really agnostics?

Answer by SmartLX:
It all depends, heavily, on the atheist.

Like you I acknowledge the possibility, however remote, that there is or was a creator god or equivalent entity. To know for a fact that there wasn’t one would take more information than the human race as access to at the moment. I’m still an atheist because I don’t think or believe that there was a creator, but I accept that there’s a chance I’m wrong simply because I don’t know. That makes me an agnostic atheist, same as Dawkins, same as Dennett and same as many other prominent atheists who spell out their positions in public. I think most or at least a lot of atheists are agnostic but statistics on that are hard to come by.

Those who claim to know there’s no god are gnostic atheists and when I discuss gods with them, like you I ask them how they think they know.

The Universe Itself Keeps On Expanding, And Expanding…

Question from Andreas:
I know, this may have already been answered, but this piece of information so far successfully hid from my search for knowledge. This is why I’d like to ask a physicist
— Lawrence Krauss — these two questions regarding space and time.

Question 1:
First, as I get it, since Einstein there is no universal time, but a space-time. (Newton was so much easier to grasp for a simple human mind.) Means, space and time are tied together, influence each other and got into existence at the same time which was the big bang. Am I right so far?
Thus space started to exist and to expand since then, as did time — start to exist, that is.

So here comes my first question, because I don’t understand a “what was before” question I sometimes read or am asked (mostly by religious people). I don’t claim to understand Einstein, and I assume only a dozen people on Earth fully do — so maybe I got it all wrong, which is why I have to get this answered.
Is it true that there was no time before the big bang? If so, why are people asking themselves, how and when and why the big bang took place? It cannot be answered (well, the how can be answered to an extent) when there was no time in existence before, so there was no “before the big bang”… or what did I get wrong here?
And the implications? Am I right about shaking my head if people ask the “but what was before” question?!?

Question 2:
Another issue I have with time is distance, the speed of light and our view into the universe. Due to the limitation of the speed of light, we look backwards in time when we look into the universe and see distant galaxies. So we see the past. The farther away a star/galaxy is, the older the image we see. So how do we know if it’s still there? How do we know if a galaxy very far out, in a distant past, isn’t long gone and its stars exploded in nova and supernova explosions? And how far can we look back? I once read that the farthest out we can see is the actual time of the plasma that was “shortly” after the big bang… and we cannot see past that. And that we can see residual “background noise.” If that is true, how can we have a current picture of the universe? Isn’t everything we think about it an extrapolation of a past situation—the only thing that we can see, but we have to calculate how it might have developed since then to now in order to have a full understanding of the universe in its present state?

Isn’t it therefore impossible to have a clear picture of the universe, its number of galaxies, its size etc.? It could be no more than a wild guess, like “yes, we see the images, but we cannot put it together in one map of the current (state of the) universe…”

Those were my two questions.
I am really looking forward to seeing them answered by someone who actually understands what he’s saying, and can even do the calculations (e.g. the time+distance thing), as this gives me headaches for a year or two now, and I just couldn’t find it anywhere else… yet.

The biggest thanks in advance!

Answer by SmartLX:
With the disclaimer that I am absolutely not Lawrence Krauss, I’m happy to help.

Question 1:
There are multiple cosmological models with some kind of Big Bang, and there is a form of time “before” it in some of them. When considering the multiverse hypothesis in particular, you have to consider the possibility that before our system of space-time began others might already have been running. (“Before” in this context relates to causality; if something in another system of space-time caused ours to emerge, you can think of the cause coming before the effect.) If indeed there was no time before the Big Bang, though, then the “before” question is indeed inapplicable, and our ideas of cause and effect have a hard time applying as well.

To summarise in the context of the religiously-charged “what was before” question, we don’t know whether there was a before, if there was a before there didn’t have to be a god in it, and if there wasn’t a before then the Cosmological Argument is nonsensical. The Argument from Contingency is a version that attempts to get around the time-based limitations, but it still has most of the same flaws.

Question 2:
Statistically speaking, we know many stars we can see are long “dead”. Our sun has a total lifespan of about ten billion years, and the larger a star is the sooner it burns out. The best telescopes can pick up images from several billion light years away, and some of the far-out stars are hundreds or thousands of times bigger than the Sun. Even one billion light years out, time will be up for a significant percentage of them since they’ve had to last another billion years since they radiated the light we’re seeing.

So of course our picture of the universe is incomplete. We live in a fortunate time, cosmologically speaking, because the expansion of the universe hasn’t progressed to the point where all galaxies are out of sight of each other, or else we might not know there are other galaxies at all. As it is, we are constantly revising our estimates (and estimates they certainly are) about the contents of the universe based on the information we can gather. Right now the estimate for the proportion of stars with planets around them is rocketing upward as we find evidence of more and more extra-solar planets. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything.

I think you misunderstand one significant thing. Our model of the present universe is not an extrapolation from an assumption of the Big Bang; rather our concept of the Big Bang itself is largely an extrapolation from the current state and movement of the universe. Put simply, everything is rushing away from everything else (unless held together by local gravity) so in the past everything was closer, further in the past everything was even closer than that…and at some point beforehand everything was together, and the physicists worked from there. We try to model the current universe based as much as possible on real observations of its present state, rather than extrapolating from an extrapolation – though sometimes we do resort to that.

Feel free to pick up on any of these points in a comment if you think it could be clearer.

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.