Question from Adrian:
Hi there, I just found this site by googling “understanding atheism”, and it is almost exactly what I’m looking for. I am an atheist, and have always identified myself as such. I’ve never believed in a deity, or any sort of supernatural event, even as a child.
What I have been looking for is a place where atheists and theists can cordially talk about beliefs. More so the beliefs of theists, as atheists don’t have a “belief system”. I wanted to find a place where I could answer questions that theists proposed out of curiousity, not out of anger or out of trying to prove me wrong (not that I mind those questions, I just want people who will actually listen to what I say). I would really like to offer my perspective to others who are willing to listen.
With that said, I would love, like really love, to get a chance to talk to kids between 13 and 25 (I am 25) about atheism and answer any questions they have. The ideal site for me would let me talk to kids who are questioning their beliefs, and do not know how to live without those beliefs, and have questions on how I do it.
Well, I know you know nothing about me, but my question to you is: do you know of a place (website) that I can do this? I’m willing to give a few hours a week to reading and answering questions. Basically I want to do what you are currently doing on this site. Except I would prefer to do it with teens, preteens, and young adults. Please let me know your thoughts.
Some background on myself, whether it is important or not. I have a bachelor’s in computer science, and I currently work as a software engineer in a liberal state in the U.S.. I have no kids, no criminal record, and have never smoked or done any drugs. I’ve had alcohol once in my life. My main passions are fantasy, health, and somewhat secretly, theism/atheism.
Answer by SmartLX:
I was looking for just such a place, and I found it in Ask the Atheist. I commented on some answers, started contributing officially, and eventually took over. It’s cordial (if not exactly neutral), and mostly reactive, driven as it is by visitors’ questions.
This kind of site isn’t quite what you’re after, though. You want to answer a specific type of question from a specific type of questioner, and the material we get here is a real “box of choc’lits”. And we don’t get anything like enough traffic to occupy you for several hours a week, not with me already here. (Feel free to keep commenting though.)
An organisation does exist to advise and help people who have started their journey out of religion and religious faith: Recovering from Religion. It’s a broader offshoot of the Clergy Project, which was set up to help preachers who no longer believe. They have everything from a blog to a forum to local support groups. If you present yourself and state your wish to help young people, I’m sure they can find a use for you.
If you want to try targeting youths on your own, there’s nothing like Facebook. A well-publicised free-for-all discussion there will draw them in from all around. I’m not aware of any existing groups with this particular aim, but it’s easy to search and almost as easy to start a new one.
Wherever you end up, we’ll be happy to link to you. Good luck.
Question from Melisa:
I have a friend from high school who is a wonderful person married to a wonderful man and they are both committed to only adopting children, rather than having their own biological children. They also happen to be Christian.
They recently made a post asking for help in finding a toddler bed ASAP (they have been fostering a lot while they are in the adoption process), my husband and I happily arranged for the bed and some other small items to be delivered.
She was very gracious but many of her friends posted religious things in response, which irked me. Is there a polite way to say, “Hey, please keep your religious comments to yourself, we’re atheist (and aren’t missing a moral compass, btw!)”?
Should I just leave this alone? Or this an opportunity to enlighten?
Answer by SmartLX:
You didn’t say what kind of religious comments they’re making, but chances are they’re either saying God will reward you for what you’ve done or crediting God for your actions, or both.
I know it’s irritating, believe me, but before you speak up in protest consider that they’ve most likely assumed you’re Christian yourself. You did a good thing for a couple of Christians, and that’s supposed to be what good Christians do. (This basic assumption goes beyond anything in scripture; people in any group “look after their own”.) Therefore they think they’re responding to an act of Christian charity, and everything they say is meant to make you feel good. As misguided as their comments are, this is them being nice. Any contrary response at all is liable to make some of them feel as if you’ve bitten their heads off for no good reason. I hate that this happens, but it’s just how it will come across.
You’re right though, this is an opportunity to enlighten. The fact that an atheist is capable of the same charity as a Christian is unfortunately news to many Christians. Now that the deed’s done, all you need to say in order to get that across is that you and your husband are atheists, so you needn’t reject anything explicitly while doing so. Maybe just make the point while also taking their comments in the spirit in which they’re intended: for example, “We’re atheists so I wouldn’t comment on that, but thanks for the good wishes.”
Sadly, the mere existence of atheists is an insult to some Christians, because it says to them that someone out there thinks they’re wrong, and maybe stupid or crazy as well. If you do anything but completely hide your atheism, someone will probably take offence no matter how tactful you are. It’s bound to cost you something socially. It might however be worth it.
Question from Philip:
Is it right to call those who believe they are evolved from apes as Monkey/ape Richard Dawkins or Monkey/ape Christopher Hitchens?
Answer by SmartLX:
Calling them apes is technically correct, as not only are we evolved from apes but we are apes (not monkeys, though – they’re only related to us). I don’t know about “right”; you don’t normally refer to people as Human Joe Smith, or Human Carly Jensen. There’s no reason to add the species to people’s names unless we’re all different species.
Of course, we’re all the same type of creature, whatever it is. If you call those who accept evolutionary theory apes you’re calling yourself one as well. If you believe that you’re of a special race deliberately created in its present form by God then so are they, no matter what they think. So if you think calling “evolutionists” apes is deservedly derogatory, don’t bother because it reflects directly on you.
If on the other hand you think that “evolutionists” really are a different species, and something less than human, you need to back that up with some evidence.
Question from Rhoda:
At the prayer vigil, after the massacre occurred, how would the families be comforted without referring to god and relying on religion for solace?
Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, even if it were completely impossible to console people after a tragedy without using faith and religion, it wouldn’t mean there was any kind of a god. It would suck, but wanting or even needing something to be true doesn’t make it true (unless we make it true ourselves, and as far as we know we can’t bring a god into existence).
Regardless, and fortunately, secular consolation is possible even in terrible events such as the Newtown mass murder. It’s also capable of being more frank and honest; telling people for example that the victims are all in Heaven goes against many people’s ideas of the requirements for admittance into Heaven, and is a guess at best. Any reason one might give why a loving god would allow the massacre in the first place is definitely a guess, and plenty of Americans in the media have been guessing like mad.
Now then, if the families are at a prayer vigil in the first place then they probably will be comforted by religious platitudes, but let’s say they’re at a secular memorial service instead, or just at home after it’s all over. Here’s a start, but certainly not the extent of possible approaches.
– “Your child is no longer afraid or in pain. No one can hurt him/her anymore. It’s over.”
– “The killer is dead. He won’t be able to cause any more bloodshed. We’re all safe from him now.”
– “We will all remember your child, not just because of what happened but because you had a wonderful child who touched us all while he/she was here.”
– “Because of what happened, the politicians might finally do something which stops the long line of mass murders with assault weapons. That’s something we can help to bring about through political activism, so we can play a part in the safety of other innocents.”
– “I’m here if you need me. I can only imagine what you’re going through, but is there anything I can do to help you out, even if it’s just to get you through the day?”
I emphasise that last one because it’s the most important. The process of comforting the recently bereaved doesn’t only consist of giving them a lecture (or sermon). You have to be there for them, to work out what it is they really need from you at any given moment instead of just assuming. They might want to hear comforting words, sure, but they might just need a hug, or a cup of tea, or for someone to look after their families so they can be alone for a while.
Whether you talk about God and the afterlife or not is only important while you’re talking, which is really only a small part of what’s going on. That said, the non-religious do have things to say when they need to.
Question from Lukas:
I have another question. I came a across something odd during a conversation with a believer and I could not find any rational explanation. Maybe you can help and I would be very thankful for that. Here is the question:
Shamans in the areas where it is extreme cold like where Eskimos live have a ritual to become a Shaman where the Shaman must put on himself a very wet clothing and then stay in the cold using only his body temperature to make the wet clothing dry again and if the person succeed he will become a Shaman. Mircea Eliade wrote about this in one of his books the believer told me and I had a look on it. The books name is Dreams and the Sacred(Sorry It my own translation because its in Slovak language). Eliade in the book claims that they can achieve this only using meditation and the power of their own mind.
Its the same way like this guy does it who claims the same thing:
Hof like the Shamans claims that his ability to withstand extreme cold temperatures as being able to “turn his own thermostat up” by using his mind.
If you could answer my question and give me some rational explanation I would be very grateful. Thanks very much for reading this and for the answer.
Also I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Answer by SmartLX:
Merry Christmas to you too. To those who don’t think atheists should say “Christmas”, consider that hardly anyone who uses the names “Tuesday”, “Wednesday”, “Thursday”, “Friday” and “Saturday” believes in the Norse gods Tiw (Týr), Wodan (Odin) and Thor, the Norse goddess Frigg (Frigga) or the Roman god Saturn. I don’t see the harm in letting such names settle into the lexicon, especially since their original meaning (e.g. “Thor’s Day” or “Christ’s Mass”) soon becomes irrelevant.
Anyway, it does appear that with training, at least some people can measurably influence their body temperature using only their minds. Experiments so far have produced encouraging, if not fully conclusive, results. This is not an indication that anything supernatural is going on.
Our body temperature is fixed around a certain level, but it changes on a small scale all the time. It goes up when we eat, when we do physical activity and when we’re sexually aroused or otherwise riled up (hence the expression “hot under the collar”). It’s closely related to the rate of blood flow and metabolism.
Normally these changes are involuntary, but if other involuntary actions like breathing and blinking can also be controlled voluntarily, why not this kind of thing as well? Brain scans of Buddhist monks who can do the cloth-drying thing show multiple physiological changes while they’re in the correct meditative state, which results in increased blood flow and apparently greater body heat.
The supernatural claim related to all this is that the mind is exerting an impossible, supernatural influence on the rest of the body, but the brain is in a perfect position to exert a natural influence to achieve the same results. Influencing the operation of the body is what the brain does all day long, after all. If a monk were able to produce the same physical effects on someone else without inducing the same mental state in the subject, that might be a phenomenon that defied natural explanation, but what we’ve seen so far appears to be a natural mechanism. Pretty awesome, when you think about it, but still within the bounds of naturalism despite what some practitioners believe.
Questions from Hector, in separate emails:
1. Are we just lucky?
Do u believe it was just kind of a fluke thing that the universe, which you believe has always existed, was one that just happened to be such that it would someday become the life existing highly organized one that it is today? Or do you think even the deadest and dumbest of universes would always somehow just eventually end up turning into the live and highly organized one that we have today?
2. Do you give anything higher priority than your self interests? And why?
Is anything more important to you, that is of higher priority to you, than your self interests? If yes, what would that be and why?
And please please, respectfully I ask you to not dodge this question by asking me questions instead or answering the question for nonatheists. They can answer for themselves, thank you. I’m asking strickly about YOU, nobody else. Thank you.
3. Is unselfish love from other(s) something humans feel a need to have?
Can you conceive of being satisfied as a human if you believed that unselfish love from other(s) did not exist and that the best any of us could hope for was for others to treat us kindly only on the condition that we could give them something of value to them? In other words, do you feel unselfish love from other(s) is something humans do long for in order to be completely satisfied?
4.Atheist consensus view of who Jesus was?
Can you tell what is the shared view of most atheists about who they believe Jesus was and who they believe all those closely connected to him (his mother and father and apostles) were? And a second question, do most atheists give serious consideration to the historical question I just asked, I mean just from a historical perspective even if nothing more than that. I’m sure most atheists (assuming they are not historically ignorant) know that historians are in pretty unanimous agreement that he existed, was baptised by John the Baptist and that he was crucified. So assuming that level of education from atheists, I am curious to the concensus views to the above two questions asked. Maybe the consensus view is to just not even ever give any real consideration to those historical questions, I don’t know. You can tell me. Thank you very much.
Answers by SmartLX:
1. It’s a big universe, with a lot of varied chemistry. If life can emerge in one particular way here on Earth from the interaction of chemicals, there are probably many other ways it could emerge on other planets – and indeed in different universes. We don’t know why the properties of the universe are the way they are, but they’re hardly “fine-tuned for life” if life only develops on one precarious world in several light years, and the rest of the universe is empty. As Martin Rees says in Just Six Numbers, the fundamental constants could have been somewhat different and still allowed life anyway. All up, I’d say there was plenty of opportunity, so it’s remarkable that we’re here but not a complete statistical impossibility.
2. The problem with this question is that anything I’m interested in, even if it’s not directly for my benefit, is necessarily a “self-interest” of a sort. It’s always about what I want, even if what I want is for children in Africa not to starve or something like that. Still, this kind of altruistic desire is seen as a positive thing, so I suppose it counts in terms of your question. Here are a few simple examples of why my answer is “yes”:
– I value the safety, health and happiness of my wife far above my own. I love her, so it all comes with the territory.
– I devote time to this site which I could spend doing other things, perhaps making money or pursuing other selfish goals, because I think atheists need there to be more available resources about atheists, more than I think I should have more nice clothes. All the horror stories of prejudice are readily available online.
– I’ve regularly donated blood, which tends to sap one’s energy and at the very least takes a long time to do. Even a stranger’s health is more important to me than whatever I probably would have gone and done that day.
3. I don’t know whether we could get by and be happy solely on the social contract that drives us to behave well towards each other. Fortunately we don’t have to, because unselfish acts of love happen every day. People care about people, for the most part, whether you think this is a God-given property or it’s something which evolved in the social groups of our mammalian ancestors. Love actually is all around.
4. Atheists do generally think Jesus existed, or some itinerant Jewish preacher (or even several) the details of whose life and teachings were used to create the story of Jesus. In fact, atheists who argue that Jesus didn’t exist are often challenged by other atheists, and called “Jesus mythicists” or “Jesus mythers”. Atheists are usually quite comfortable with the existence of a real Jesus, because it doesn’t help the case for any of the supernatural claims about him.
Question from Archer:
Hi I am an agnostic and do support evolution. I know this is just a supposition but since biological beings continue evolving (through vast increments of time) would it make sense to think that far more advanced intelligent beings do exist and that we could actually be related to them?
Answer by SmartLX:
Considering only Earth, it’s unlikely that there’s ever been a species more intelligent than us here, because if so we’d probably have found some trace of them. We’ve had such a profound effect on the ecosystem that the only things that have had more impact are cataclysms like the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs; a species with even more power to affect its surroundings would have been unmistakable in its influence.
Considering the universe as a whole, though, it was already about 10 billion years old when the Earth was formed, and it took another 4.5 billion to produce human beings. Imagine how advanced we could be in one million years, if we survive that long; now, consider that if a species on another planet reached our present level of intelligence and civilisation just one million years ahead of us, out of billions of years so far, they could be at that advanced stage right now. It’s a big universe, so big that it’s probably more likely that the reason we haven’t been contacted by advanced aliens is that they don’t know we’re here and can’t reach us, not that there are no aliens.
I don’t think we’d be related to any advanced aliens that do exist, and here’s why. The study of DNA tells us that all life on Earth has a common ancestor, an extremely simple organism of some kind that lived about 3 to 3.5 billion years ago, so any related aliens had to be the progenitor of that organism. To do that, they had to be capable of interstellar space travel that long ago. An alien race one million years ahead of us is one thing, but 3 billion years is WAY early. The universe’s first stars had to explode to provide the rest of the universe with any chemical elements beyond hydrogen and helium, so it was several billion years before the building blocks of life even existed and were widespread. Earth is probably the product of at least two full star lifecycles since it formed after 10 billion years. That could be why it’s so rich in minerals, metals and exotic compounds. If that’s what it takes to produce life, it might not have been able to start a whole star-generation earlier than it did. It’s not impossible, because some stars burn fast and blow up after only a few million years, but I just think the “factories” had output so much less raw material so long ago.
Question from Chan:
How does chance and random variation create human intelligence with all its “design capabilities”?
If evolution is driven by chance and necessity does it mean that human intelligence is merely an illusion?
Answer by SmartLX:
If evolution were purely a matter of random variations, it wouldn’t produce anything useful. Fortunately for us there’s a second major element, and it’s the one Darwin figured out: natural selection. Out of all the mutations in a given species (and, for instance, each new human has about 120) the ones which are actually useful become the most persistent in future generations, simply because they help their hosts to survive and procreate a little better than their peers.
It’s like dispatching a thousand people to search a ruin for treasure; most of them might find nothing, but when one guy turns up a gold coin more of the people will search in that area. It’s a highly inefficient process, but it can afford to be because evolution has had billions of years and trillions of individual life forms in which to work.
As for human intelligence, it’s a natural extension of the intelligence we see in dogs or apes. Dogs can learn jobs and tricks, and some apes can even make tools so “design capabilities” are not unique to humans. Smarter creatures generally work out ways to survive and outdo their competitors, so for any creature with a brain there’s some upward “selection pressure” on intelligence. After hundreds of millions of years of competing animals, it’s not so surprising that an animal as intelligent as homo sapiens has emerged.
There are some philosophical ideas that everything is an illusion, but intelligence is no more illusive than any other abstract concept of a physical quality, because it has effects in the real world. It can be tested, for example with IQ tests (which test very limited areas of intelligence, but still). There are things only animals of a certain level of intelligence can do, like recognise themselves in a mirror. We have a set of criteria which will allow us to acknowledge when computers achieve artificial intelligence, though these have not yet been met. Anyway, the process that produced intelligence in natural creatures is irrelevant to whether it’s a real thing now. There’s enough evidence that it is.
Question from Chris:
I have a friend who I just found out does not approve of equality for homosexuals, doesn’t believe in the majority of science (mainly evolution and plate tectonics), and also makes really ignorant and pretentious comments about stuff he clearly knows nothing about. I see him everyday, at least twice, and have a raging deisre inside me to say something back to him, what do I do?
Answer by SmartLX:
The obvious answer would be to actually say something back to him. You didn’t say why you haven’t done it already; care to comment and elaborate?
Generally speaking, if you want to challenge someone’s position on something, attack the position and not the person. You say this person is largely ignorant of the things he discusses; well, the simplest antidote to that is education. See how he reacts to a bit of evidence, there’s plenty around. Let us know if you want a bit of guidance in your own research.
I can be much more specific if you are, so go ahead and say what’s going on and what you need. From what you’ve said so far, I doubt your friend would read this site and find your writings. That said, you could even encourage him to write in with his own questions and/or challenges. If you warn us first, we can erase your stuff so he won’t see it. Just let us know how we can help.
Question from Josh:
I am a somewhat new atheist. I recently finished leaving the fold and feel that I am now very much deconverted in this long drawn out process. However, no matter how many books I read about how hell was invented later I still have a small fear of it in the back of my mind. I was wondering if you had a similiar experience or had advice. Also I am feeling very lonely since deconverting it seems as if it gets harder and harder to find secular friends as an atheist. I feel I have to keep this hidden about myself.
Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, Josh. I didn’t invent it, but I did come up with the name. The fears and anxieties instilled in you by your indoctrination (including the fear of Hell) will outlast the core beliefs on which they’re based, possibly by a long time. Such is the nature of psychology and emotion. Be assured, however, that as long as you don’t relapse into the beliefs themselves, you will feel better and less afraid as time goes on. (The opposite happened to me; after not seriously thinking about religion for over a decade, all the associated emotions had faded and no longer supported the beliefs. I mostly base my concept of faithdrawal on what people have told me in their questions.)
You haven’t said where you’re from or where you’re living, but it can certainly be problematic or even downright dangerous to identify yourself as an atheist in some places. That said, there are few places in the world where you’re likely to be entirely alone in your atheism. Think about it: if you feel you have to keep it hidden, other atheists around you probably feel they have to hide it too, including from you. A community sometimes needs a few brave folks to “come out” before the rest will be open about it. I’m not necessarily encouraging you to do this, I’m just acknowledging that it would take courage, and for good reason.
While you’re waiting for the local atheist contingent to hit that “critical mass”, you can look for local groups with “Atheist”, “Humanist”, “Secular” and/or “Freethinker” in the title. If you’re in America, for example, American Atheists and the Secular Student Alliance are all over the place these days. If you’re in Great Britain, look for the British Humanist Association. If you comment and say where you are, even to within a state or equivalent, we might be able to help with this.
Cheer up, it seriously only seems like you’re alone.