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.Β 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.


Angel On My Truck

Question from Kamil:

Some people (the people who took this image) are convinced it is a real angel, while others say it was likely just a moth on the lens of the camera. Logically, I guess we cannot conclude it is an angel, as we don’t know what it is, what the cause of the image is, etc. There are a million things it could be, and just because we don’t have an explanation doesn’t give us the right to say it is one. I am not sure if these people saw this light in real life as they took the picture, or if it just ended up in the picture later, but the moth theory would make more logical sense or something around those lines. CNN got a Priest on the news who apparently died in a car accident, came back, talked about a visit to heaven, etc and he says he believes it is an angel, but from a non biased source, the answer would likely be very different.

Answer by SmartLX:
If you can’t conclude that it’s an angel, I hope you don’t think that I can. We don’t have a definite explanation but there’s at least one potential explanation in the article (a moth) and while we can’t say for certain that was it, it makes no sense to leap to a supernatural explanation that’s never been established.

The article is explicit that no one saw the phenomenon in person; the two photos were taken automatically by a motion sensor security camera. This creates a new situation where there’s a claim of an angel sighting with no real witnesses at all. It doesn’t help its case, even compared to other claims like this.

It’s really a shame there wasn’t video as well. Then again, if there was video and it made it clear that there was a moth fluttering in front of the camera, its owners wouldn’t have sent that to the news networks.

We Finally Tackle The Sunrise/Sunset Question You’ve Seen on Posters

Question from Brianna:
How do you look at a sunset and not believe that there is something out there greater than you?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s plenty out there which is greater than me on many levels, and a lot of it comes to the fore in a sunset. The wealth of physics at work in the spectacle of a sunset does not diminish its beauty, nor obviously fail to account for it.

– The Sun itself is bigger than we can fathom even if we know the numbers, and provides nearly all the energy we’ve ever seen used.
– The atmosphere between us and the Sun is comprised of a huge amount of different chemicals (some more than others) each of which has an effect on the colours we perceive in the sky. Even scientists in the relevant field have a hell of a time explaining all the different factors, as Cliff Stoll once wrote.
– A decent-sized cloud in the sky has millions of gallons of water in it, again calculable but more than is comprehensible. Its precise effects on the sunbeams that pass through it could fill a book if you went into detail.
– Our eyes and brains not only register all this, but find subjective beauty in it. The processes that led to this being possible, not least evolution, have toiled for billions of years to get us to this level.

A good word to sum up all of this is sublime. This literally means a sense of something larger or greater than oneself, and atheists have plenty of opportunities to feel this living in the world we share with believers. The big difference is the absence of the assumption, even unconscious, that something greater than humans in any sense must have been designed or otherwise deliberately brought about by an intelligent entity, and this indeed makes all the difference.

When you believe in a god, you see amazing things and automatically connect them to the god; when you don’t, that doesn’t really happen and everything does not look like a self-evident monument to any god. It’s largely a difference in perception based on preconceptions; in short, non-believers don’t see the world the way believers do precisely because of their lack of belief. So (and here’s your takeaway, Brianna) to convert someone you need to instill some belief before pointing out the sunset.

I Asked For Questions, And I Received

Question from Rachel:
1. What is it like to be an atheist? How does it feel?
2. What is it like to celebrate holidays like Easter?
3. What is your favorite color?

Answer by SmartLX:
1. Atheism provokes a few different feelings at different times. Remembering my former Catholicism, it’s a relief to no longer worry about Hell, or else a god working against my aims in life. In a group of mostly (nominally) religious people, which is most groups, it can feel isolating, especially given the possibility that being open about your atheism will immediately turn some people against you. Considering the population at large, I feel a great concern that not only are the majority very likely to be wrong about their gods, but that some of their efforts to please those gods are wasted – or actively harming people.

2. Widely observed, traditionally religious holidays like Easter usually have secular components that anyone can enjoy. Easter has the bunny and the chocolate, Christmas has Santa and the general urge towards parties and togetherness, Halloween has the whole spooky angle and so forth. I make the most of these aspects, and of course the vacation time if applicable, and don’t begrudge the religious their observances.

3. Green, with deep blue a close second. I try not to read into it.

The Turin Tests

Question from Bubsy (submitted in 3 parts):
William Guy gave an outstanding presentation, and while he gave many decent points for proof of the shroud, these six were the best (in my opinion)

1) Joseph Kohlberg, a geologist, actually studied some of the remnants of the shroud and found limestone. Later, it was found that this limestone was common in Israeli tombs, but not just any Israeli tombs, Jerusalem tombs. Therefore, if it was not real, how could the shroud have some remnants from Jerusalem tombs?

2) Guy researched crucifixion history, and found that while the Persians invented it, the Romans perfected it. It can be seen in the shroud itself that there were thorns in this individual’s head, which was never used before in Roman or Persian killings, therefore, it strongly hints it was actually Jesus

3) The shroud accurately depicts the nails going through the wrists of the individual for crucifixion. In many middle aged drawings, Jesus is depicted as having the nails go through hands, and this is scientifically impossible. Therefore, it couldn’t have been a forgery

4) the shroud was measured in cubic units, something they didn’t do in the middle ages, but did in ancient Palestine or Israel

5) plants and pollen examined on it were found to also be native to Palestine/Israel

6) the blood examined on the shroud had some chemical compounds in it that a person’s blood would have under extreme stress, which is what Jesus would have gone through, and a forgery would not have had that.

therefore, it has to be Jesus, how can it not be? The thorns, the Jerusalem limestones, the blood, the plants/pollen

How does it feel to know it is true lads?

…hello again,
did some further research on the Shroud of Turin, and William Guy made an outstanding documentary about the it. He gives proofs for its authenticity, or at least that it wasn’t a forgery including:

he said that crucifiction was invented by persians and perfected by romans. He said at that time, no one wore those thorns on their heads other than Jesus, therefore it proves it was him, and that it couldn’t have been a forgery as real blood was used which had some chemical balance demonstrating the person was suffering. He said a forger wouldn’t have put blood into the shroud, and he said pollen was found there that is native to ancient palestine. The most recent carbon dating seemed to suggest it was from a time period from about 1000 years BC to 1000 years after, so the timeframe could be right.

He also said that one geologist actually studied the shroud and found remnants of tomb stone on it. He tested it, and found that it matched with Jerusalem lime stone in tombs, not even limestone in other parts of Israel.

These seems really hard to refute.

…Did more research and found a link between the Sudarium of Oviedo and the Shroud.

There have been connections with the two including: both have same blood types, both have the same plant and pollen remnants, if you do a face overlay, both faces are equivalent. Blood is found in the same places. Therefore, it seems it was used on the same individual. I just think this proves Jesus existed, and if he didn’t rise from the dead, how could all of these people have reported seeing him? It seems like this may prove Christianity.

Answer by SmartLX:
Sorry for the delay Bubsy, I’ve been sick among other things.

First set of points first, assuming for the sake of argument that the analyses by two theologians (one of which happened to be a geologist) were carried out scientifically:

1) Even if the limestone residue is really proven to be unique to Jerusalem, the shroud can be from Jerusalem and yet not genuine if it was made as a fake in Jerusalem, as were a great many false relics. (For instance there are about 30 “holy” cross nails floating around, so at least 27 must be fake.)

2) Thorns in the head would be an essential element of a fraudulent Jesus shroud. If you had the real shroud of a crucifixion victim to begin with, that’s exactly the detail you’d add to make it look like Jesus.

3) Sadly, there were plenty of people in the Middle Ages who knew exactly what happens when you drive nails through people’s hands. Even if not, that would leave it as a possible forgery from the age when crucifixion still occurred.

4) If the shroud is a round number of cubic units (do you mean cubits?) long, that doesn’t mean it was measured in those units. It may have been longer until it frayed or shrank, or another measurement type may sync up at that length. It’s not like there are marks on it like a ruler.

5) Again, if it was forged in Jerusalem with the other relics, no problem.

6) There’s a long way between the Shroud belonging to a real execution victim and the Shroud belonging to Jesus Christ. A real shroud from a random victim, as I’ve been implying, is the perfect base material for a Jesus shroud.

The documentary covers much of the same material. The farthest all of it gets you is that it may well be the genuine shroud of a man who died horribly in Iron Age Israel, and quite possibly the same man the Sudarium was used on.

Even if it’s Jesus, though, this is no evidence for the resurrection or even his supposed disappearance from the tomb. I think you realise this, because right at the end you switch to an argument about witnesses of the risen Jesus. As I’ve written before, the number of Biblical first-hand accounts of Jesus between the crucifixion and ascension is very small, and the bulk of the supposed many who saw him is accounted for in one line of 1 Corinthians regarding an appearance to 500 people. Accounts of witnesses are not accounts by witnesses.

A Pentalogy of Past Lives

Question from Jaak:
I found this interesting video on youtube, with children recalling supposed past lives. They seem genuine, do you think this demonstrates that reincarnation exists?


Answer by SmartLX:
If everything in these stories were true, it would be a choice between the reality of reincarnation (at least in a few cases) or extreme coincidences between deceased people’s lives and the imaginations of children. That “if” is a huge one, and it’s the main barrier to these stories being credible evidence for reincarnation.

The meat of each of these stories is things a child has casually said to the parents, which seem unexplainable at first but then are found to match details of someone’s old life. These initial statements are never recorded, because why would parents record every word their kids say? Equally important is that the interrogation that immediately follows is never recorded, so if the parents asked leading questions that essentially fed the kid the necessary information (deliberately or not), no one can prove it. Once the parents start writing and speaking publicly about the child’s “recollections”, the child is caught in a feedback loop where repeated tellings of the story shape and reinforce the memory itself, until any fabricated parts of it seem as real as the rest. Any authors, paranormal researchers, religious figures, etc. who latch onto the story only amplify this cycle of reinforcement. Short of someone in the family admitting a total hoax, these stories never really get smaller, and not a shred of evidence is needed; only a bit of research into the life of a dead person.

Ultimately, if a kid apparently identifies as a former person then jumping to an actual reincarnation as the reason would require a pre-existing belief in reincarnation, psychologically speaking. If that’s not already there, it’s a huge shift in one’s worldview just to explain some unexplained stories that have no bearing on one’s own life. All other possibilities would have to be completely ruled out, and it’s hard to eliminate coincidence, pure or partial fabrication, and the child being led by the nose or otherwise fed details.

They Poked at the Shroud Again

Question from Bubsy:
I suggest you watch this video, which is a summary video that shows all the relevant articles from 2009 upwards instead of going to the articles one by one. It’s faster and easier. [2018 UPDATE! SHROUD OF TURIN REVEALS SECRETS | STRANGE END TIMES SIGNS (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBycQZug8Fo) Within it at the 3:25 minute marker it has information on: The ultraviolet light necessary to do so “exceeds the maximum number release from all ultra-violet light sources available today” and It would require “pulses having durations shorter than one-forthy-billionth of a second, and intensities on the order of several billion watts” ***********

Back to my point: * The evidence they have found is that the image is no oil painting and it is caused by light in the UVB range at burst of several million micro seconds and energy release of everal billion kilowatts. * Science has literally confirmed it is a crucified man and that the image has been produced by no natural light but a light that is several billion kw of energy and bursts of light as short as a millionth of a second. * It was highly superficial but strong enough to cause an imprint. * Christian imagines what Jesus looks like and this comes indirectly from the Shroud image that was responsible for most of the early portraits of Jesus from 300 A.D. Therefore: Since our greatest minds can not conceive of how the image was made except by supernatural means, perhaps logic dictates the Shroud is physical evidence of a supernatural event – the resurrection of Jesus.

Answer by SmartLX:
This article by MSNBC puts this claim into perspective very well. The finding of the recent study is that if the image on the Shroud was created by UV light (as per one existing hypothesis) then it had to be the unearthly burst you describe, which is an extreme hypothetical circumstance which merely debunks the idea that it was faked with this specific method. The researchers separately argue against the idea that it was painted. It might instead have simply been an actual shroud for someone’s dead body, from anywhere and any point in a wide timespan.

My favourite part of the article is where lead researcher Paolo di Lazzaro had to email the journalist to say, “Sadly, we have seen many claims spread in the Web made by journalist/bloggers that discuss the content of a paper they never read.” I think the same applies to YouTube preachers.

Hell: Pope vs Doctrine

Question from RM:
What the hell … No hell ?? πŸ™‚

I came across this interesting article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201803/smile-there-is-no-hell-even-the-pope-says-so
As an atheist it’s amusing to me and it’s obvious that religion (in this case, Christianity) is trying to align with modern times.
Some theists who comment on this website are, however, moving in the opposite direction.
So to the theists (although this is still ask-the-atheist) – why do you think the pope’s decided there’s no hell? Will he go to hell for this blasphemy?
Do tell. I’m eager to hear the rationalizations πŸ™‚

Answer by SmartLX:
Few of the regulars are Catholics and therefore few may put any stock in what the Pope says, let alone have to defend the doctrine that his word is infallible and therefore accept whatever he says. Even for Catholics the concept of Hell isn’t licked yet; the Vatican has claimed that the interview is a “reconstruction” rather than a transcript, so it’s far from official at this stage.

Still, this was declared as a question for theists for a change, so feel free to comment and hold forth on Hell, the Pope, changes to doctrine over the centuries, or anything you can tie back to this interesting bit of news.

Big Ol’ Bang

Question from Call Me Static:
So, I found this looking for an answer for the Law of Biogenesis (I’m on the younger side) for school and came across this. This interested me and I thought I’d ask a question to you about what you believe with an atheistic point of view.

Do you believe in the Big Bang Theory and if not, what do you believe created the universe? I’m curious to see what you believe on this.

I’m doing this for pleasure, not anything for school. Just thought I’d ask out of simple curiosity.

Answer by SmartLX:
Lucky you, I just revisited the “law” of biogenesis the other day. But hopefully you found the earlier piece referenced therein.

Anyway, I do think the evidence supports the Big Bang, so I accept the theory and I just plain think that it happened. This leaves some pretty big questions, like what existed beforehand and what caused it (if time was, “at the time”, in a state where either question even makes sense) and what it implies for the future of the universe (heat death? Big Crunch?) but that particular moment in cosmic history is looking pretty solid right now.

Back to the Origin of Life

Question from Kenneth:
The answer by Truk regarding the Law of Biogenesis is extremely simplistic. Pasteur is not the only one to come to this conclusion. Many eminent scientists since have tried but failed to disprove it, but have had to admit that spontaneous generation as virtually impossible. The complexity of a cell, the smallest self-replicating unit of life, is so overwhelming that regardless of the amount of time it is impossible. Truk’s answer that we know it happened because life exists, does not speak of science. It speaks of faith! The very thing Creationists are always ridiculed for. The whole of Evolutionary Biology rises or falls on abiogenesis. If you can’t show that to be true, it all collapses like a ‘house of cards’.

Answer by SmartLX:
The question by Truk is here and it may have more comments than any article on this site. Religious and particularly Christian apologists make much of the fact that there isn’t an established scientific theory of abiogenesis like there is for evolution. It’s the answer atheists just don’t have. What they never seem to realise is how little this matters to the god debate.

I’ve addressed Pasteur in the other article, so we’ll speak generally here. Spontaneous generation, which came to be called abiogenesis, need only have happened once to produce all known life. It is evidently unlikely in the present day, because it is not happening all around us. (The existence of established life may have a lot to do with this; see this other article.) In the ancient world 3-4 billion years ago, perhaps it was slightly less unlikely or perhaps it wasn’t, but that you felt you had to include the word “virtually” belies that there’s no way to unambiguously say it was impossible. And if it was possible, it could happen once as a fluke, which would explain why it’s only happened on Earth as far as we can see.

That said, there are detailed and quite old rebuttals to the claim that the formation of the first proteins, enzymes, etc. were impossibly unlikely, which focus on the assertions and assumptions inherent in such claims. See whether that particular link addresses a point or two that you’ve read. Regardless, to argue that it’s impossible because we don’t know how it happened is the standard and ubiquitous argument from ignorance.

We know that before an undefined point in time there was no life, and some time later there was life. If one does not believe in a god to begin with, one does not seriously consider a god as a reason for the emergence of that life, though one cannot rule it out entirely. All possible natural mechanisms of abiogenesis would need to be ruled out before a designer could be established by elimination, and that includes mechanisms not yet thought of so you won’t get far there. Science may give one confidence that a theory of abiogenesis will emerge, but even if it doesn’t in our lifetime it remains nothing more than an unanswered question, with a hard but present road to possibly finding the answer.

Finally, even if abiogenesis didn’t happen and life was deliberately created, that may have been the last point the creator intervened. Evolutionary biology needs nothing more than an imperfect self-replicator, which perhaps a creator provided, to explain the entire diversity of life. Therefore it does not fall like cards or anything else without abiogenesis, but you think it does because you think all of evolutionary biology has been erected solely as a barrier to the certitude of divine creation, and a gap in it represents total failure in that regard. Science does not require that we be as certain of a particular hypothesis as you are of your god in order to compete with that god.

From Infinity To Certainty?

Question from Blake (lost, then recovered – sorry Blake!):
If there is an unlimited number of universes with an unlimited number of possibilities, then would there be a universe in which there doesn’t exist other universes?

Answer by SmartLX:

Unlimited possibilities do not necessarily mean every possibility. The set of multiples of two (2, 4, 6, 8…) has infinite numbers, but no odd numbers because odd numbers are not multiples of two. The question uses the premise that there is an unlimited number of universes, and with that established the infinite universes you are not in are not negated by the one you are in, no matter what kind of universe it is. The basic qualities of the set of universes make a solitary universe impossible.

A similar argument is sometimes used to establish the existence of a god. See the piece that just went up. (That piece is the reason I found your question, due to similar subject matter.)