“The existence of spirits doesn’t automatically mean that there’s a god. There are religions out there with many various lesser spirits and no centralised deity.”

Question from Ron:
i have seen quite a few “spirit” beings (not good ones). i have checked online and many many other random people have had seen the same beings as me..doesnt it mean the spirit world exists? if all these people in diffent walks in life happen to see the same weird beings it must be more than a fluke
if the spirit world exists then god must exist

trust i would be very happy to hear “i am just hallucinating” for no apparent reason

If you are hallucinating or otherwise “seeing things”, and others have seen the same as you, then there might be something you and the other witnesses have in common which has made you see similar things – light conditions, medical conditions, etc. Not to say you’re necessarily impaired, but you never know.

Without details I can’t make very educated guesses about what you saw, and others reading this can’t tell whether their experiences might be the same. Therefore, feel free to comment and describe the apparitions and the circumstances in as much depth as you like. That will allow us out here to do the same research you did, and compare your story to those of others.

The existence of spirits doesn’t automatically mean that there’s a god. There are religions out there with many various lesser spirits and no central deity.


Ask from the Past: What makes science and history more true than religion?

“Once you stop looking for absolute certainty, you start to judge these things on their actual merit.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions was found in the approval queue. I’m answering them here in Ask from the Past, and this is the last one.)

Question from Nym:

I was recently in a debate against something on the topic of religion (namely, Christianity) vs science. I was debating for the scientific side. It was going well, but then he brought up a couple of questions that I didn’t know how to respond to.

1. What makes science so accurate?

Here, he was explaining to me how science is “proven wrong a lot more than Christianity is.” He brings up the example where he claims that the Bible says the world is spherical (he says the word used in Hebrew means “spherical”), whereas science didn’t prove this until much later. He later goes on to say that since science is proven wrong so many times, how can we accept it as truth? I explain that we can’t completely prove anything, but then he says why we should accept science over religion if it is sometimes wrong. His final statement regarding this part of the debate is “[One] should spend less time arguing why religion is wrong and more time arguing why science is accurate.” The one thing I did not want to fall back on is the word “faith.” I mean we can reproduce experiments and get similar results, but how do we know that this is really the true nature behind what we are observing? The scientific method does exist so that it can adjust when something is proven wrong, but we can’t really be certain when we’ve reached the pinnacle of truth.

2. Is believing in history not the same as believing in religion?

I brought up how Jesus’ existence is disputable, using the 40 year gap between his supposed death and the story of Saul of Tarsus; how there was no historical account of Jesus in that gap of time. He rebuttals, “They were all persecuted.” I couldn’t respond to this one. Any more explanations I could use would be very helpful.

Something else he said included “How can you believe anything in history over the Bible?” I see where he was getting at. For example, how can we prove that Napoleon existed? History says that he did, but what can do to prove that? We may have historical accounts of people who were supposedly there during that period, but how do know if those are reliable; at least, any more reliable than accounts in the Bible? We can’t really prove anything other than what we observe, and even then, who’s to say that our eyes don’t deceive us?

Thank you very much for reading.

A lot of apologists think of using the “historical” Jesus and Biblical ties to modern science as bringing out the big guns. They’re tough to rebut if you don’t have the answers on you, especially if you’re not familiar with the Bible quotes they use.

I’ll tackle the spherical earth claim first: the passage is most likely Isaiah 40:22 which says, “He sits upon the circle of the earth…” The Hebrew word in the original text that translates to “circle” is gh, which unsurprisingly means “circle”. It’s rwd that means “sphere”. (I got that from a bible study site, mind you.) If this is what your opponent was referring to, he was wrong. The author of the Book of Isaiah (whether Isaiah or not) might have been referring to a flat earth, or the circle of the horizon as visible from a high place, or any number of things.

It’s true, scientific information is found to be false all the time. That information which replaces it is nearly always more accurate. Furthermore, it’s usually found to be false in small ways; that the Earth is 100 million years older or younger than was estimated last time, for example. That’s hardly a reason to chuck it all out and say it’s 6000 years old instead of over four billion.

While I’m on the age of the Earth, it’s been found to be billions of years old in many different ways. Whenever anything on the planet is dated to more than ten thousand years ago, a doctrine of Christianity (among others) is proven wrong again. Every generation that goes by without Jesus returning is a further contradiction of his supposed prediction that he’d be back within just one, unless he meant something out of the ordinary by “generation”. Christianity at least rivals science when it comes to being wrong.

Absolute truth is probably unattainable as long as the absolutes of the universe (if any) are unknown to us, but we can try to get closer all the time. Long before we reach that point, we reach a point where even if our underlying hypotheses are wrong, they approximate the truth closely enough to be useful. When science reaches that point, it’s able to make concrete predictions which can then be tested. This is one major area where it deviates from the Bible: what predictions can that be used to make which can be tested in the near future, as opposed to interpreting it in hindsight to match events which have already happened (much, much easier, and not just with the Bible)?

Getting on to Jesus, the authors of the New Testament were likely persecuted even after they’d written and distributed it. What I find more interesting is that they would have been very old when they did, as 25-30 years was the life expectancy at the time, or if later people wrote it then it was all second-hand.

While we can never be absolutely certain of history, a bit like science, evidence accumulates which can give us a great deal of confidence in it. Here’s a sample of what we have of Napoleon that we lack for Jesus:
– Consistent likenesses, from life-size statues to portraits for which he posed in person to coins which were minted and used during his lifetime.
– Writings by the man himself, starting from a manuscript he wrote at 17 and ending very shortly before his death in exile.
– First-hand accounts by hundreds of people, all of them undisputed real people, of personal dealings with him and his appearances before hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens, written within days of the events…rather than accounts mostly written in the third person by a handful of authors so disputed as to be effectively anonymous, of his appearances before hundreds, most of whom were illiterate (the literacy rate in first century Israel/Palestine was about 3%), written years or decades later.

Once you stop looking for absolute certainty, you start to judge these things on their actual merit. One can be far, far more confident in a historical Napoleon than a historical Jesus. It worries me that this was not plain to your opponent.


Can an atheist be spiritual?

“Visualising spirits, or spiritual energy, can be tremendously helpful in some circumstances (martial arts, for instance, or meditation) even if you don’t accept for a second that there’s anything really there.”

Question from Ace:
I attend my local Unitarian Universalist church, engage in or observe other people’s ceremonies and Celebrations and once a week I have my own ‘Ritual’ Day where I might light some candles, Incense and Sage to set the mood, Meditate, Read, Dance, Drum, Garden, Do Yoga and engage in many other Practices that would help me to feel re-connected to myself and able to go back out into life the next day…
I do not believe in any God or gods of ANY Kind-Not The Universe, Not Nature, Not God is within or God is love, I also do not believe in the supernatural-No Ghosts or Angels, Magick or Prayer, I am not superstitious as far as I know..I have tried to ignore and deny these needs and desires to be involved in these Rituals and Celebrations and I have even explored different traditions such as Buddhism, Pantheism, Paganism and Though each of them can be Atheistic I dont find them to be a complete fit and they still have beliefs and practices that are outside of common sense and logic for me…Help!

I think you answer your own question, by being a very spiritual atheist. The rituals and activities you mention all have documented benefits for the human body and/or mind, and do not require supernatural assistance to be useful or pleasurable.

Visualising spirits, or spiritual energy, can be tremendously helpful in some circumstances (martial arts, for instance, or meditation) even if you don’t accept for a second that there’s anything really there. This is what a lot of people think of as spirituality.

Get on Google and read some articles by Sam Harris. He’s one of the four major “New Atheists”, but he takes from Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies a great deal of instruction in spirituality. He actually catches a great deal of guff for it from other atheists, but I don’t think he’s actually contradicting himself.


Welcome to ATA, the new and the old!

“The more questions we receive, the more active the site is. It’s just that simple.”

This is Ask the Atheist, fueled entirely by your curiosity. The more questions we receive, the more active the site is. It’s just that simple.

We’re happy to announce that the Rational Response Squad have restored the old version of the site in archive form, right here. Some of the content has already been reproduced on the new site, but now it’s all back for good. Enjoy.


Telekinesis and the Laws of Science

“Many people believe in spiritual energies which are too nebulous to fit common definitions of gods, and yet have the ability to affect physical things in the ways you describe.”

Question from Joel:
I spent 5 years outside of the United States within the last decade, and I had the opportunity to travel all over the world. I used the time to define myself and what I believe in. I have close friends and colleagues that claim Atheism, but there are bridges that I just cannot cross. Although I have questioned my beliefs time and time again. In some third world nations I have come across people who can move things. Some seem to only have the power to move things on flat surfaces, where others could literally suspend things in air. They say their talents come from spiritual worship. My question to you would be, can there be a spiritual world and no God?

No need for the capital A, as I often say. If it’s theism instead of Theism, it’s atheism instead of Atheism.

To answer your question directly, just about anything’s possible. Many people believe in spiritual energies which are too nebulous to fit common definitions of gods, and yet have the ability to affect physical things in the ways you describe.
– Take for instance the Chinese concept of qi (pronounced chee, sometimes written as chi or ki). Some believers in qi think it comes from gods or godlike beings, but not all the believers do.
– Another instance is karma.
– The most famous such concept in contemporary fiction is probably the Force.

So according to many belief systems, the people you met could be mistaken about the source of their powers, if in fact they’re real. The reality of their abilities is where I would focus my attention: how could we prove or debunk these apparent acts of telekinesis? There might be a reason why they’re done in remote parts of the world, away from scrutiny.


Reading the Bible to Kids

“There’s a common joke along the lines of declaring the Bible to be the single greatest advertisement for atheism.”

Question from Rick:
I was listening to a podcast a few days ago when the host made a comment about parents who read the bible to their kids. He made a good point when he said that he would love to tell the parents to let him read the bible and pick his own verses to read to the kids. Its funny because people who “read” the bible, don’t really read it at all. They just jump around from chapter to chapter. I would love to see a parents face as you explain Sodom and Gomorrah. And what goes on in gen. 38. What do you think?

There’s a common joke along the lines of declaring the Bible to be the single greatest advertisement for atheism. I don’t know about that, because there are ways to spin even the Old Testament’s most violent stories in God’s favour. This is regularly done in the name of Biblical exegesis. How a given kid will interpret these stories is anyone’s guess.

The podcaster’s point is a fun way to upturn the idea of reading the Bible to kids, but we both know it’s not going to happen that way. Parents read the Bible to their kids so that their kids will believe in God. They choose whichever parts of it they think will achieve that. Maybe it’s to make them behave, maybe it’s the ultimate goal in itself, but either way the Bible achieves its original goal and the kids are indoctrinated.


Disrespectful Friend

“It’s ultimately God himself who’s supposed to do the converting, and the prescribed way for mortal Christians to help is to keep Him in your face.”

Question from Rick:
I have a friend who is a christian. He is aware that I am an atheist, and do not believe in god/gods or anything like that. But when we talk he always seems to slip a bible reference in there. And I don’t mean scriptures. For example, we’ll be having a conversation about women (as most guys do) and he will always say something like, “well that’s how they are, its right there in the bible, you know what I mean?” And I always respond like “I hear you talking, but you know I don’t believe that.” And that starts a whole argument about who’s right or wrong. I like him as a person, but dislike him as a christian. Any thoughts on how to handle the situation?

It’s hard to go on the words alone. The way in which he says such things would tell us a great deal more. He might simply not consider your atheism before referring to the Bible as if you’re about to agree with him, implying that he’s inconsiderate or simply a bit self-absorbed. (Perhaps he doesn’t have many atheist friends.) Or, perhaps he has you pegged and he says things like that to draw you into a religious discussion, which apparently works like a charm.

I tend to suspect the latter, in the absence of context. Christians are told to spread the capital-W Word whenever possible, and very little emphasis is placed on making it stick. The idea is that the more a man simply thinks about God, even in terms of denial, the more likely he is to come around. It’s ultimately God himself who’s supposed to do the converting, and the prescribed way for mortal Christians to help is to keep Him in your face.

Back to your friend…if you don’t like to hear about the Bible, someone like this isn’t going to lay off if you don’t straight up ask him to. If you do ask, and he carries on, maybe you’ll know more about why. Or you could just ask why.

Keep us posted, Rick. Anyone else have friends like this?


The Ten Kingdoms

“Even prophecies that appear vindicated and legitimate need not be the result of genuine prescience, for a variety of possible reasons.”

Question from Ebony:
I’ve recently come to my senses and become an atheist. I have been puzzled by one thing in the Bible. The 10 kingdoms of the Roman Empire that were predicted. I can’t find any evidence that the book was written after this time. There has to be a reasonable explaination. Please help me.

See my piece on prophecies. Even prophecies that appear vindicated and legitimate need not be the result of genuine prescience, for a variety of possible reasons.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, it didn’t instantly shatter into exactly ten pieces, each with its own king ready to roll. First it split into the Eastern and Western Empires, then the Visigoths and other invaders stripped away one country after another until Constantinople was sacked and there was nothing left.

If you think about it, it was inevitable that there would be ten kingdoms at some point. Starting with one whole thing and ending with the dozens of modern nations which were geographically within the Empire at its peak, the number of independent states and/or the number of monarchs must have been ten somewhere in between. (You sound as if you know which specific kingdoms they are; care to fill us in?)

The empire having already split into ten kingdoms is only one interpretation the faithful seriously consider. Some anticipate that the former Empire will ultimately become ten kingdoms, united by the Antichrist, not long before the end of the world. In this form it joins the many endtime prophecies which people argue are beginning to come true, in this case by pointing to volatile political situations in Europe.

Therefore, in the context of my earlier piece this one may be a case of 1. High Probability of Success, 2. Still Unknown and/or 4. Shoehorned.


Coming Out

“It’s really very similar to telling one’s parents that one is gay; nobody really knows how homophobic they are until they’re confronted with real homosexuality.”

Question from George:
How should i tell my parents i am an atheist? They’re not religious but they believe. Help please.

You know your parents better than I do, but you’re probably better off than the many young atheists out there who are living with extremely religious parents. Over at Ask the AtheistS, many have told their stories and asked for advice. Some of them are afraid of being disowned, sent to evangelical camps or otherwise severely punished. Advising these people is always difficult; sometimes it seems like the only good option is to wait for adulthood and independence.

Your probably don’t have as much to fear from your folks, though they might still get upset. Faith comes to the forefront of any believer’s mind when it’s threatened. It’s really very similar to telling one’s parents that one is gay; nobody really knows how homophobic they are until they’re confronted with real homosexuality.

If it’s important for you to be truthful with them, there’s no substitute for coming right out and saying it. Be prepared to answer any questions they come back with. You may immediately get the chance to dispel any misconceptions of atheism they might have.

Two other things you might have to deal with:
– They’re not religious and they’ve never had to convert anyone before. If they try their hand at apologetics to win you back, they might not be very good at it. The arguments or questions they use could offend you, or else sound really stupid. That’s when you need to be at your most patient and understanding, and talk them through things.
– Beyond being upset with you, they may be upset with themselves for giving you the kind of upbringing that could produce an atheist. In this case you need to reassure them that they’ve simply raised a boy who knows how to think things through and draw your own conclusions, which will serve you well in life. It’s just that you’ve come to a different conclusion to theirs.

Good luck, and if you go through with it, let us know how it goes. If anyone else has a story of their own “coming out” moment, comment and share it here.


Reactions to Conversations with God

“The responsible thing to do, and in a way the brave thing to do, is to teach children to think critically.”

Question from Jeff:
I got the following message from a kind, caring, ignorant xian:


“If you have children or grandchildren , work with children at church , or you have neighborhood children whose parents you know , please take note of the information below and pass it along to others. Schools are distributing this
Book to children through the Scholastic Book Club.

“The name of the book is Conversations with God.. James Dobson talked about this book twice this week. It is devastating. Parents , churches and Christian schools need to be aware of it. Please pass this information on to
Church/e-mail addresses , Parents , Grandparents , Aunts , Uncles , Cousins , friends.

“Please pay special attention not only to what your kids watch on TV , in movie theaters , on the Internet , and the music they listen to , but also be alert regarding the books they read.

“Two particular books are , Conversations with God and Conversations with God for Teens , written by Neale D. Walsch. They sound harmless enough by their titles alone. The books have been on the New York Times best sellers list for a number of weeks , and they make truth of the statement , “Don’t judge a book by its cover or title.”

“The author purports to answer various questions asked by kids using the “voice of God”. However , the “answers” that he gives are not Bible-based and go against the very infallible word of God. For instance (and I paraphrase) ,
When a girl asks the question “Why am I a lesbian?” His answer is that she was ‘born that way’ because of genetics (just as you were born right-handed , with brown eyes , etc.). Then he tells her to go out and “celebrate” her differences.

“Another girl poses the question “I am living with my boyfriend. My parents say that I should marry him because I am living in sin. Should I marry him?”

“His reply is , “Who are you sinning against? Not me , because you have done nothing wrong.”

“Another question asks about God’s forgiveness of sin. His reply “I do not forgive anyone because there is nothing to forgive. There is no such thing as right or wrong and that is what I have been trying to tell everyone , do not judge people. People have chosen to judge one another and this is wrong , because the rule is “‘judge not lest ye be judged.”

“Not only are these books the false doctrine of the devil , but in some instances quote (in error) the Word of God.

“And the list goes on. These books (and others like it) are being sold to schoolchildren through (The Scholastic Book Club) , and we need to be aware of what is being fed to our children.

“The children of our nation are under attack. So I pray that you be sober and vigilant about teaching your children the Word of God , and guarding their exposure to worldly mediums , because our adversary , the devil , roams about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). We know that lions usually hunt for the slowest , weakest and YOUNGEST of its prey.
Pass this on to every Believer you know.. And , if you are in doubt , check out the books yourself.”

It seems to me that these folks have a clear purpose to indoctrinate children into their way of thinking. Is there any counter to this kind of vile filth? These outmoded ideas (faiths) seem to want to keep women in their place, keep minorities on the ragged edge of society, and perpetuate their particular brand of bigotry far into the future by foisting it upon the young. Is there any way to stop this kind of thing? Is there something I could get involved in to help?

Not having read the book, I wonder whether the passages from it are directly quoted or misleadingly paraphrased. (“There is no such thing as right and wrong” is not something I’ve heard from a Christian before.) If the latter is the case, one response might be to write the author and publisher and let them know of a dishonest campaign against the book, in which case they can take their own measures.

This message will only be acted upon by people who already agree with the sentiments of the boy crying wolf, and in all likelihood already try to shield the children in their care from anything which conflicts with their accepted dogma. Therefore whether it reaches its targets won’t make a lot of difference to people’s lives by itself.

It is of course a symptom of larger problem, the widespread childhood indoctrination you talk about. Especially in these days of rising secularism, the religious often latch onto the most effective way of propagating their religions: instill them in those without much capacity to question them.

We all share the responsibility of teaching the children around us, and preparing them for life. Counter-indoctrination (of which Conversations with God sounds like a good example) isn’t the answer to those who abuse this responsibility for their own religious (or political, or social) ends. Firstly it’s little better than the zealots’ practices, and secondly why would you produce people who share your position only superficially and can’t properly explain why?

The responsible thing to do, and in a way the brave thing to do, is to teach children to think critically. Not to reject anything that’s said to them, mind you, but to consider things before they accept them. It’s brave because if they take it on board, it means they’ll question you as well as others, and you’ll have to defend your own positions. If you think yours are more defensible than those which you oppose, it’s something you need to do.

How to teach children to think critically is a different pickle for everyone. I don’t know what your background is or what access you have to children, and whose children they are. It could be something as simple as recommending that they read certain books, or as unobtrusive as discussing everyday problems around them, or as straightforward as sending them to Camp Quest.

Let us know if there’s anything you work out you can do to help kids think for themselves. Anybody else is welcome to comment with suggestions, too. You might inspire each other.

What do I do, personally? I write for a site where those who are nursing their first real doubts about religion OR atheism often come to sort things out. I try to nurture independent thought as soon as it emerges.