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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.

SmartLX

She’s a Beauty, Low Mileage and Only One Curse!

Question from Bubsy:
Are we actually cursed? Hear me out:

Last year, our car got hit 5 times while it was parked! I could see this happening once or even twice, but 5 times????

This year our car got dinged twice in parking lots, many many oil repairs, yesterday a person driving next to us made a lane change and swiped us, then today a stone hit our car, and broke the windshield. We just cannot catch a break. All our religious friends say it is a curse.

Answer by SmartLX:
Your religious friends would do well to check whether there is even such a thing as a curse of the right kind in their doctrines. They do exist in Christianity for instance, being powered by the devil so to speak, but simply accepting Jesus is protection enough that you can never be affected. (See here.) So if you’re religious yourself you can answer the question of whether it even CAN be a curse in your worldview.

If you’re getting hit a lot while parked, there are all kinds of obvious questions about where you park, how big your car is, your own driving skills, etc. Similar practical considerations can significantly affect the probabilities of all your other misfortunes. The recurring oil issue for example is down to the condition of your car and the competence (and ethics) of your regular mechanic. All up you’ve mentioned a total of nine events over two years (not counting the oil thing) which could of course be explained by pure bad luck, or some bad luck combined with poor general attitudes to driving in your area.

From a statistical perspective, someone who serves as an outlier (i.e. getting “favoured” way more than the average) is always going to wonder whether something special is going on, but in the vast population of motorists there are almost certain to be some outliers at any given time. (What are the chances that no one in the whole country will be super unlucky?) The chances of winning the lottery are incredibly slim, but there’s regularly a jackpot winner from somewhere (though they really come up against the odds when it comes to winning a second time).

My advice is simply to continue to drive and park with care, and if no one is actually out there gunning for you, you’ll eventually tend towards the average rate of car-damaging events, whatever that is. I tried to look it up but there aren’t many statistics outside of fatal accidents.

The Exodus: I Now Call To The Stand…EVERYBODY!

Question from Avi:
Could 3 million ppl be wrong?

Judaism unlike other religions makes the claim that exodus was witnessed by the entire Jewish ppl.
In the case of Jesus walking on water, there weren’t all that many witnesses and it is therefore hard to be certain of its validity. But exodus was witnessed by 3 million ppl.
How do atheists explain this?

Answer by SmartLX:
The point I make when discussing 1 Corinthians 15, which says 500 people supposedly saw the resurrected Jesus, is that an account of X number of witnesses is not the same as that many witness accounts. The Torah says 600,000 adult males saw the Exodus and the total figure of 3 million was estimated in the 1st century CE based on that. This is not 3 million or even 600,000 claims but rather the claim of just one writer in the 5th or 6th century BCE, regarding a supposed event in the 13th century BCE (best guess so far, among those that think it happened at all). That’s 700-800 years on, in a culture which did the vast majority of its storytelling and record-keeping via word of mouth – proudly so, as they celebrate with events like the Passover Seder.

This vast distance between the event and the documentation does not speak well for the authenticity of the event, especially in the absence of any other substantial evidence for it, and even several factors actively contradicting parts of it. More details here.

Steve Taylor on NDEs as Trips

Question from Uriad:
LX, I want to know if this sways your beliefs on afterlife.
https://www.google.ca/amp/s/www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/out-the-darkness/201810/near-death-experiences-and-dmt%3famp

Answer by SmartLX:
Why would it sway my beliefs?

What we have here is Steve Taylor the psychologist and NDE advocate rejecting the conclusions drawn by a group of psychedelic researchers (from their study, not the psychologist’s, and he doesn’t even link to it) on whether a specific psychedelic, DMT, gives experiences akin to near death experiences and therefore a psychedelic state might actually be a part of that experience when it happens. So it’s an attempt to eliminate one possible (partial) natural explanation for NDEs, in between plugs for Taylor’s book on spiritual “science”. This would only advance the case for supernatural NDEs significantly if it were the only possible natural explanation, which we can’t say that it is.

Even within the scope of what this piece is trying to do, it doesn’t get far. It argues that DMT has not been found to occur in the human body in large enough quantities to have this effect; the researchers do not suggest this, but rather that any psychedelic chemical (check the list) might work similarly. It differentiates between NDEs and deliberate psychedelic experiences on the basis of their after-effects, without even trying to separate the effects of the dream/hallucination from the life-altering consequences of almost dying, regardless of the experience at the time.

So you tell me, why would this sway any skeptic as opposed to merely reassuring believers?

The Reach of Original Sin

Question from Tim:
LX, I’m interested in your thoughts about something:

I’ve been thinking about crime and punishment lately for separate reasons from religion, but a related religious connotation entered my mind recently that I think needs exploring, and I’d like your thoughts on it.

As it relates to Christianity (and many other religions as well in some form or another) humanity has to suffer on planet Earth because a god was disobeyed by a young couple in a garden. The price of their disobedience was that they became “fallen”. Different definitions of what exactly that means abound, but the basic premise is that they went from a perfect state to the current state of existence that all humans currently find themselves in. That existence is definitely less that perfect, and involves all manner of things like sickness, disease, pain, suffering, heartbreak, bad luck, etc. If you are really unlucky you might have been born Jewish and killed in the holocaust, or born gay and thrown off a high rise in Iran. But no one escapes the wrath of this god, everyone has some kind of bad thing befall them from time to time.

And all of it is due to, from we are told, a couple of young people eating a piece of fruit off of a forbidden tree.

So I can’t help but wonder, in the midst of all this suffering throughout the history of humanity, how much longer people who had nothing to do with the decision of Adam and Eve will be made to pay for the choice of those two back in the day. In other words, when will the punishment fit the “crime”?

Answer by SmartLX:
Ah, the good old Problem of Evil. Trying to wrap my head around the continued existence of evil in a world with an all-powerful, all-knowing and entirely good deity is a major reason for my atheism. I didn’t simply renounce my faith because of the apparent conflict, though; the complexity of the problem caused my tween self to give up thinking about religion at all, and I had other things to focus on. This self-enforced sabbatical from theology went on for enough years that my emotional connections to faith faded completely. When I finally did come back to the subject, faith did not appear justified on an intellectual level, so there was nothing left to support it.

The story of Adam and Eve attempts to shift the responsibility for everything that’s wrong with our lives from God to the imperfect nature of humanity. Though you and I didn’t eat the apple, we’re marked with Original Sin as a result of the act itself, just so that God sees a reminder in all of us. Also, it could be reasoned (within the hypothesis of an actual Adam and Eve) that we’re of the same race as Adam so we are similarly flawed, and therefore liable to do something just as bad. God sees into people’s hearts, we’re told, so uncommitted crimes still count against us.

In a separate discussion over whether an eternity in Hell is justified for any possible sin, one Christian defense of God’s “policy” was that offending an infinitely powerful entity like God carries a punishment proportional to the entity, not the crime, and the punishment is therefore infinite. Whether or not this bit of logic is pure assertion, a Christian might apply this to Adam: as a finite being Adam could not absorb an infinite punishment, so it had to be extended to his descendants ad infinitum.

Speaking practically, Christianity will never allow humanity a clean slate. A large part of its pull is the idea that we all have work to do in order to redeem ourselves, and a relationship with Jesus is the only way to get that done. The threat of Hell is always there, even if Hell is seldom or never mentioned.

Mary in the Sun

Question from Jacob:
Hey, a friend showed me this video. I’d like to know what you think. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvyUnmBjxm8&feature=youtu.be&t=113

Answer by SmartLX:
Looks fascinating, whatever it is.

It’s a pity this footage is the best we have. It was in 2011 but that’s still well into the age of smartphones. The shape that appears within the sun varies in its prominence, and at times seems to move slightly relative to other objects. I’m not inclined to think the video itself is a complete hoax, as the reactions of those present seem genuine enough. Without really knowing what the image actually looked like in detail, we can say very little about its source, so there’s no telling whether it was naturally or deliberately generated somehow.

The conclusion the local Roman Catholics (majority religion of the southern Ivory Coast) immediately drew was that it was an apparition of the Virgin Mary. People from another area might have interpreted it very differently, as the impression one gets is merely of a robed, hooded figure. Regardless of who it resembled, given that this was seven years ago widespread belief does not seem to have been significantly influenced by it, so as a hypothetical, literal sign from God it does appear to have failed in whatever large-scale goal it had.

Quite apart from everything else, I hope no one’s vision was damaged by staring directly at the centre of the sun for as long as the image appeared.

Lotta Stories ‘Bout Jesus, Ain’t There?

Question from Kole:
Hello, I have seen testimonies lately, about people meeting Jesus. A few are: Nasir Siddiki, (former Muslim who had really bad shingles and claimed Jesus saved him)

Afshin Javid (former Muslim who claims Jesus spoke to him in a jail cell)

A story of a former Muslim woman who claims she had gall stones so bad she was in the hospital, she was in so much pain, she called out to Jesus, he appeared, cured her. Then when the doctors came later, she had no gall stones, everyone was baffled

Many NDEs where a person has a hellish experience, they call out to Jesus, he suddenly transports them into a positive place.

The thing is, there are many examples of people claiming to have interacted with Jesus, and many claims state that when they call to him, a bright light appears right away. One man said he was in hell and when he started to say Jesus, before he could finish the light appeared. Afshin and Nassir, plus the former Muslim woman all describe a bright light appearing right away, after they call out to him, and they can talk to him, he helps them. There was even a few NDEs I came across where Muslims say they were in hell, or in a life threatening situation called out to Allah, no response. Then they tried “Jesus” and suddenly a light appeared and rescued them. Does this to you prove that Jesus is the correct way to go? Does this prove Jesus to you? If you were to google it I assure you that you would find similar stories. I just don’t get how this can be.

Answer by SmartLX:
As you can see I’ve added a couple of links above to where I’ve already addressed the claims of some of the people you mentioned. The woman, Amy Ghazal, is new to me but it’s similar to other tales we’ve had here, Siddiki’s in particular. Like what’s come before, we have only her word and not her hospital records.

In any case, it’s been on record since 1979 (see this article in the NMA’s journal) that gallstones can in some cases spontaneously dissolve or disperse. This is exactly why Ghazal was scanned again before surgery; the surgeon already knew he should double-check on the day, and while he would have been surprised to see the gallstones gone he would not have thought it a miracle. That was all down to her.

You hear so many of these conversion stories because there is a way for you to hear them, and it’s hard to miss. The 700 Club disseminated Ghazal’s story, and Javid was trumpeted by It’s a New Day. Christians eat up stories like this, it feeds directly into the “one lost sheep” mentality of redeeming those on the outer. That’s why televangelists and other preachers seek the stories out and parade them before you.

People convert the other way, of course, and it can be an equally intense experience; I daresay you’ll find some fascinating stories on this list. You just won’t hear about it on Western public access TV.

NDEs and Anaesthesia Awareness

Question from Uriadka:
“Dr. Jeffrey Long: The key thing is to know a few of the consistently seen elements of near-death experience that are the strongest evidence for their reality. For example, when you’re under general anesthesia, it should be impossible to have a lucidic organized remembrance at that time. In fact, under anesthesia, you’re typically so far under, with general anesthesia they often have to breathe for you. I mean you’re literally, brain shut down to the level of the brain stem and at that point in time some people have a cardiac arrest, their hearts stop, and of course, that’s very well documented. They monitor people very carefully that are having general anesthesia.

So, I have dozens and dozens of near-death experiences that occurred under general anesthesia and at this time, it should be, if you will, doubly impossible to have a conscious remembrance, and yet they do have near-death experiences at this time, and they’re typical near-death experiences. They have the same elements and appear to have them in the same orders as near-death experiences occurring under all other circumstances. In fact, a critical survey question I asked was what their level of consciousness and alertness during the experience was.

Well, even under general anesthetics, under those powerful chemicals to produce sedation, if they had a near-death experience under general anesthesia, their level of consciousness and alertness was identical to near-death experiences occurring under all other circumstances.

There’s absolutely no way the skeptics can explain that away, it’s impossible.”

Let’s go even further: statistically, 1 in 10,000 people have anesthesia awareness. Yet in his study, he had 23 cases out of 2000 patients. They were lucid, had none of the terrible side effects most people have during AA. I think this may prove it.

Answer by SmartLX:
Anaesthesia awareness is a separate phenomenon from NDEs, with one very important difference.

For whatever reason – dosage, faulty equipment, body chemistry – the anaesthetic fails and the patient is not entirely unconscious throughout the whole procedure. This is of course a nightmare come true, as depending on the level of consciousness the patient can experience the sounds, smells and/or excruciating pain of surgery before they’re even able to open their eyes or move a muscle. But the whole reason it’s so scary is that you are unambiguously experiencing real things as they happen, which means it’s easy to determine when it occurred in retrospect even if you give no sign for the duration.

An experience interpreted as an NDE, on the other hand, can occur at any point between the initial loss of consciousness and when consciousness is ultimately regained. If the experience involves elements of the afterlife, there’s no way to place it based on earthly events. If there’s an out-of-body experience where the patient witnesses an event in the room, assuming the events are guessed right the NDE is simply assumed to have occurred at that point, but as you say there’s a period during which there’s not enough brain activity for any such experience. There is always a period before then, and a period after then, where the brain is in an intermediate state that allows dreams and hallucinations.

I made this basic point the last time you brought up this quote by Long, earlier this month. I did not propose that the episodes were happening during periods of anaesthesia awareness, because they really don’t have to. The brain has a pretty wild time dealing with general anaesthetic or any kind of forced unconsciousness at the best of times, and whenever it is active enough to paint an internal scene at the start or end, it will probably do so.

NDEs: The View From The Other Side

Question from Ruslana:
Hello!

I just browsed some of the recent questions/answers, and I wanted to kind of post a rebuttal to the individuals who claim that folks like Tsakiris, Long, and others are potentially proving NDEs. I would also like to know if you, SmartLX, agree with me, or not.

I myself am not aware of all the protocols being put in place for the “studies” that apparently “debunk” the current scientific theories of NDEs put in place. However, like you, SmartLX, have said– there is a huge argument from ignorance here. Sure these men are able to win debates against scientists who do not study NDEs on a regular basis, they can pull these “facts” of oxygen theory, hypoxia theory being debunked out of their debate hats. Once these “facts” are laid out, the skeptics they are debating do not have the liberty to pull out their phones, and check whether or not these studies cited are credible. I guess that is the fault of the skeptics to some extent, as they should be ready for these kinds of rebuttals. However, even if it were true that NDEs occur at the strangest times, and the non-skeptic side is correct that skeptics have incorrect explanations for the causes of NDEs, so what? Let’s give our opponents the benefit of the doubt here and cross off every single theory that we think could cause NDEs. That would at best get them half way to being correct. However, at the end of the day, we still cannot say that the cause of these NDEs is what they interpret them to be– a spirit leaving the body, only to return. Remember, there are still a whole lot of unanswered questions the skeptics are entitled to ask as well such as:
– why do NDEs contradict each other with their underlying messages? Tsakiris debated McCormack on this very topic, comparing McCormack, a man who claims he visited hell, and the NDE of another individual, who claims he or she was told that hell does not exist during his/her NDE. It cannot be that both are right. Therefore, one of them is right, or both are wrong. How can we determine who is correct, assuming one of them is?
– why does the order of NDEs, and the content within change from person to person? One person may have an OBE, followed by meeting a bright light, while another may have no OBE, but see a bright light and have psychic visions. People who believe in NDEs may argue that each soul is unique, and therefore requires a different teaching, hence why different people see different things. However, that seems like a large assumption given what we know
– some NDEs do have living people in them
– not one OBE has been verified under strict protocols. I remember reading some of the OBEs found in popular literature have been enhanced, embellished, or made up completely. An example is a blind individual who claimed they could see their doctor wearing two different coloured socks.
– why do we need brains if we have these amazing souls that can see, hear, and think more clearly than our “lousy” brains?
– why is it possible to have NDEs when we are not even “close” to death?
– NDEs are just that as well- Near Death, regardless of what hopeful people say, the NDEr did not die!

I admit there are things we cannot explain, and I am not saying NDEs are not real, but when these NDErs and people advocating for a non-materialist universe think that supposedly “debunking” our current theories on the causes of NDEs is equivalent to proving that we have souls capable of leaving the body and returning with information, they need to have a reality check. The fact is that the concept of “souls” or an “afterlife” is not particularly high on the totem pole of importance for science right now. If these individuals are so confident, then I look forward to seeing studies which actually prove that Thomas was able to tell the future from his experience, or that Jenny was really able to travel halfway across the world, and report what was going on while she was really “dead”. This would still obviously hold some subjectivity to it, but it would be a start.
My current answer to the cause of NDEs is: I don’t know –
however, I am not going to start pulling answers out of my butt.

Answer by SmartLX:
Quite right on the whole.
– Eliminating all available natural explanations merely leaves NDEs unexplained, not proven to be any kind of supernatural or divine.
– The matter cannot be settled in any kind of debate, for the reason you give: all kinds of claims can be made, but not fully researched and responded to in the time allotted. (Creationists also take advantage of this, hence the name of the “Gish gallop” technique of spewing out a huge number of claims exactly when there’s no time to address them all.)
– NDEs vary because people vary, and the doctrines the stories are required to support also vary. One story is intended to instill fear of Hell, another to reassure against the idea of Hell.
– Of course OBEs have not been verified under strict conditions, or else they’d be an accepted phenomenon. That is literally all it would take. To be fair, to engineer an NDE or crisis-related OBE in suitably strict conditions would probably require unethical conduct by any medical personnel involved. Think Flatliners.

Second-Hand NDEs

Question from Remy:
Dr. Peter Fenwick, British neurophysiologist, noted in many cases, that other people in the room of the dying person ALSO see LIGHT coming in from an unknown source. People who know the dying person and lives a thousand miles away, will have a dream of that person telling them they’re leaving now and not to worry, they’re fine and feeling wonderful. The person wakes up and calls the relatives only to be told…”Yes, he passed on a short time ago.” Some, like actress Susan Lucci, actually saw her grandmother or aunt (I can’t remember) appear in her room in a Light and tell her she is moving on….she called and was told the woman had died in the night about the same time as her encounter….so many accounts…

This happened to me, happens to many, how can so many people detect death?

Answer by SmartLX:
I couldn’t pin down any of these stories in short order, even the Susan Lucci claim, but I have heard claims of this phenomenon before. It can be explained pretty well by considering two factors together. Firstly, predictable timing: in most or all of these stories, the deceased was old or seriously ill and the death was not exactly a surprise, though of course the exact date of death was not known beforehand. Such a person is often on the minds of their loved ones as the morbid suspense builds, and will often find their way into dreams. Secondly, confirmation bias: if you have an experience like this and it’s on the wrong day, or features the wrong person, you’d hardly tell anyone even within your family. The only ones we hear about are the ones where the timing happens to be good.

You didn’t actually mention that the experiences are dreams, though I’ve read some described as such. As for waking experiences of soul lights and visions of the dead, these are purely anecdotal, exclusively told in retrospect and attributed to people whose loved ones are dying, which doesn’t put them in the most stable of mental states.

Regarding Fenwick, a scientist who appeared in his documentary on NDEs tore it to pieces afterwards. Others have criticised his assumptions and unwillingness to consider natural explanations. Like many NDE advocates in the scientific community, his main strength appears to be reassuring those who already believe.

The Ghost’s Leg Still Hurts?

Question from Remy:
Lately one of my friend’s friends died of cancer and left three kids behind.

I had a dream where I was watching a performance of my daughter in school and next to me was standing this lady. It was weird for me to see her there, because we weren’t close friends and saw each other only a couple of times. I knew, even in my dream, that she is not with us anymore. But she did look so vibrant, so healthy and happy, I asked her what she is doing here and she said that she came to look at her daughter’s performance as well. So I asked how is she doing? She just said that she is perfect, only her left leg bothering her when she sleeps, then I asked:
– does God exist?
and she answered:
– Yes. But the life on Earth is not the way we think it is.
and then she left the building.

I called my friend and asked for the phone number of the husband of this lady.
I wanted to tell him that his wife is happy and loves them even after her death and when I mentioned about the left leg, he started to cry, and told me that she had very painful metastases on her LEFT LEG and I didn’t know that!

I think that is a proof of another dimension which we mistakenly call Afterlife.

Answer by SmartLX:
One possibility here is false ignorance. You knew this woman was dead, which means you would probably have heard something of the story of her illness, through either local news or the school community. It’s very possible that you knew but had mostly forgotten about the issue with her leg, allowing your subconscious to draw on it.

Another option is that you had a very wide “target” to hit. She had metastases in the correct leg, but where else? Stage 4 cancer (the stage where it starts to travel around the body) can settle literally anywhere, and the colonies in her leg are probably not the ones that killed her. There may have been a great many sources of pain around her body which you could have named and gotten the same reaction from her widower.

Possibilities like these, and of course the possibility of a sheer lucky guess, prevent the kind of argument from elimination that would allow anyone to establish this as a true proof of communication with the deceased (provided of course that your story is true in the first place). It looks convincing to you, but the idea that it was either pure coincidence or a true visitation is a false dilemma, because something else might be going on.