Questions for atheists

This post is a response to questions posed by a college student (who is not an atheist), which were originally sent to Godless Mom (see the post here: http://godlessmom.com/questions-for-atheists-from-a-college-student-answer-them-yourself/).

Feel free to respond to these questions yourself and leave them in the comments over on her post.

  1. Why are you an atheist?

I’m an atheist because I don’t believe that any gods exist. I don’t believe any gods exist because there is no objective empirical evidence to substantiate such a claim. In addition, we know that humans have invented gods numerous times, so it’s not unlikely that every god that people believe in is fictitious.

  1. Have you ever believed in a higher power?

Yes. I was raised Catholic and remained so until about age 17. I lost faith for a brief time, and then decided to look into other Christian sects and churches. I remained Christian until about age 30.

  1. If so, did something traumatic happen to make you stop believing.

No. My rejection of religion was not the result of any traumatic experience. It was solely the result of evidence and logical argument.

  1. If not, why did you stop believing?

I stopped believing in Christianity because after much time spent debating religion with atheists online and being exposed to other information in books or YouTube videos, for example, I simply understood why the claims of the Bible are irreconcilable with the evidence from science and history. I understood where the Abrahamic religions originated from and also that things like evolution and genetics and cosmology do not comport with the claims of these religions.

  1. What do you think happens to us when we die?

Death is when your brain ceases to live and function. At this point, your consciousness ceases to exist. We have never observed consciousness existing outside of a sufficiently advanced physical brain. Your body decomposes, and you’re just as unaware of things as you were before you were born.

  1. Without believing in a higher power, where do you think we get our morals from?

Morals are always subjective, even when rooted in religious beliefs. Morals are social constructs, and represent the views of a given culture. Many morals are nearly universal, because they derive from the sense of empathy that most humans possess. However, some actions which are considered immoral in one culture are perfectly acceptable in another. It is important to note that morals can be the product of evolution. For example, humans have evolved to be altruistic, because working together and a bit of selflessness can improve the chances of survival vs. the prospect of going it alone or treating others poorly.

  1. Where do you think the universe came from?

If I’m being honest, I don’t know. But, since this is asking my opinion, I think the universe could be eternal. We certainly have evidence which demonstrates that the universe is billions of years old and is expanding and cooling. But there are also things which the Big Bang model can’t account for. New  models are being proposed regularly. The important thing to keep in mind here is that using a god-of-the-gaps argument or appeal to ignorance fallacy to claim that a god must exist because we can’t explain something isn’t logical, and has been wrong numerous times before. It’s also important to note that if you’re going to claim that a god can exist without a cause, but do not extend this possibility to the universe itself, you are invoking a special pleading logical fallacy. Occam’s Razor can be used to determine that the most likely or parsimonious explanation is usually the correct one.

  1. What’s your views on Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens?

As a group, I think that these prominent atheists have played a huge role in the education of people regarding religion, and in the rise of atheism.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant biologist and has done great work in bringing evolutionary concepts to the masses. I did read “The God Delusion” while I was still a Christian, and I distinctly remember laughing and shaking my head at his arguments as I tried to stave off the cognitive dissonance they were bringing on.

Sam Harris makes fantastic arguments against religion and often does so quite eloquently. I was unfamiliar with Harris before becoming an atheist. I have not read any of his books, but have read some of his essays and seen him comment and debate people in videos.

Christopher Hitchens was great because he would just bluntly tell it like it is and demonstrate the sheer absurdity of what religious people claim to be true. I have not yet read any of his books, but again, have seen him debate. I do recall hearing about his death, and still being Christian at the time, sort of being happy about it. I know, that’s terrible. But that’s what religion can do to people. I don’t celebrate when apologists die now. I just try to defeat their arguments before they do.

Now, it would be remiss of me to not address some of the controversial political views that have been expressed by these men at various times. For example, Dawkins has made comments at time which have been called misogynistic or insensitive or Islamophobic. To me, these are largely overstated and come as a result of him trying to express his thoughts using Twitter, which obviously limits how things can be phrased and can lead to misunderstanding. It’s also easy to take individual tweets out of context and see how they look bad.

Harris has been accused of supporting torture and of being Islamophobic, but again, these accusations largely stem from misunderstanding, and Harris has gone to great lengths to clarify his positions on such topics. Harris frequently uses thought experiments to make points, and they get taken out of context. He also is a stickler for semantics, so when he uses the word “spirituality” to describe physiological experiences, he isn’t invoking supernatural causes; however, many atheists or even theists take his use of the term to mean that he is somehow religious or believes in gods or ghosts or spirits.

Since Hitchens has been gone for almost 4 years, he doesn’t get brought up very much. The main criticism I hear about him is that he supported the invasion of Iraq and that he was also Islamophobic, similar to what critics say of Dawkins and Harris. However, I’ve seen video of Hitchens undergoing waterboarding not once, but twice, and he only lasted a couple seconds before condemning it as barbaric.

I think the most important thing to take away here is that atheism is literally one thing – a lack of belief in gods. Anything outside of that – politics included – is nothing more than a correlation. While I do think many of the criticisms of these three men are unwarranted, atheists can definitely be irrational or bigoted or just wrong when it comes to other opinions. It’s understandable that theists are constantly monitoring the comments of these prominent atheist activists to catch them up in some controversy that they can use to denigrate all atheists. However, there are even other atheists, like CJ Werleman, who go out of their way to create straw man arguments and take comments from these men out of context to advance a narrative about “New Atheism” being a cult led by such men, a cult which demands acceptance of their every opinion and wants religion eradicated by force. This I do not understand at all. Of course prominent members of any group or movement should be held to high standards and be accountable for their opinions, and I’ve done so on several occasions with Harris and Dawkins. However, most of the mudslinging is not based on facts.

  1. Do you consider yourself a weak atheist or a strong atheist?

I am a weak atheist, which is synonymous in my mind with “agnostic atheist”, meaning I don’t claim that no gods exist, but I do not believe that any gods exist. I do know that specific god claims can be dismissed based on the evidence or logic involved. My preferred designation is “de facto” atheist, using the Dawkins scale.

  1. How can you prove that God doesn’t exist.

Well, for starters, the burden of proof rests with the person making the claim that a god does exist. Therefore, it’s not my job to disprove a god. Simply rejecting a claim based on a lack of evidence is justified.

That being said, we can definitely look at the claims made about the nature of certain gods and test them. For example, we know that lightning is a natural electrical phenomenon and doesn’t originate from Zeus or Thor. Similarly, we know from genetics that Adam and Eve never existed, and thus, the entire foundation for the Abrahamic religions is destroyed (there’s also a lot of other information we can incorporate to conclude that Yahweh/Jesus Christ don’t exist, but this is just one example).

Personally, I have no issue with deism, the belief that a god or creator exists and made the universe. That’s nothing more than a matter of personal incredulity. I take issue when people claim to know that a god exists, and especially when they start making claims about the nature, will, or desires of a creator which they cannot substantiate.

  1. Do you believe in miracles?

No. A miracle, to me, would be a divine act involving a deity, and since I don’t believe in gods, I don’t believe in miracles by necessity. Again, just because something seems unlikely or cannot be readily explained, that doesn’t mean it was an act of a god. Many purported “miracles” in the past have been explained naturally. Mundane events like the birth of a child are in no way “miraculous”, although they may be awe-inspiring.

  1. Do you have a support group/system?

I’d say so, although I don’t really require one. I’m a married adult, my family is not overly religious or hostile to atheism, and I don’t reside in an area of the country which is dominated by religion. I have, however, become very involved with online atheist communities via social media, and I like to help other atheists who do need support.

  1. Do you try to get others not to believe?

Absolutely, but there’s a caveat: I do not broach the topic first. I rarely discuss religion in a personal setting (face-to-face), simply because it doesn’t often get raised by others or because I don’t want to cause dischord with extended family members. However, I am very active online with my efforts to educate people as to why their religious beliefs are wrong. If people bring up religion on a public forum like Facebook or Twitter, I will respond. After all, I largely owe my own atheism to interactions online with other atheists who demonstrated my logical fallacies and gave me great evidence. To me, the internet has been integral to the rapid increase in atheism, especially in the younger generations. People are no longer stuck in their bubbles of their towns, church, and family. You used to have to seek out information if you were questioning your religious beliefs; now it is freely available and can be presented by anyone you interact with online, even if you aren’t looking for it. I’m an anti-theist (meaning that I consider religion to be harmful), and I certainly will try to change minds.

  1. Do others tend to view you differently when they discover you’re an atheist?

Definitely, at least at first, if they are a religious person themselves. Obviously other atheists don’t view me negatively or differently. Not every religious person views me differently, especially close family or friends, but as far as the general public, no doubt. There are tons of misconceptions and stigmas about atheists that persist in our society. My job is to combat those misconceptions and turn “atheist” into a neutral word. The more atheists who speak up and defy those stereotypes, the better. I think that atheists need to address this in the same way that LGBT folks did with perception of their community.

  1. Do people tend to try to convince you that your views are wrong?

Of course. Again, this isn’t something that happens with friends or family, or typically even people seeking me out on line. But once I get involved in a discussion online, others definitely will try to defend their beliefs, and in turn, try to convince me that I’m wrong. I used to do the same thing as a Christian.

  1. How does your family view your beliefs? Are they supportive?

I didn’t become an atheist until my wife and I were married for over 7 years, so the initial shock was quite jarring for her. The fortunate part is that we did not attend church regularly, and our children were still quite young, so this didn’t really impact our lives that much in the long run. We never prayed at dinner or did Bible studies or anything like that. Our religious beliefs were more private and reserved. My wife came to accept my atheism, although she was also not a huge fan of my activism when it first started. She has become much more accepting of all of this over time. We don’t really discuss religion between ourselves, and I let her teach the kids about Jesus or God, although it isn’t something she does very often. She knows that when they are older, I will get to discuss other options with them.

As far as the rest of my family, it’s not a huge deal. My parents both believe in God, and my mom is probably still Christian-ish. They both were a bit incredulous that I don’t believe in a god at first, but since all 3 of my other siblings are also now atheists, they just accept it.

  1. What are your views on Madalyn O’Hair?

Well, I know that she was the founder of American Atheists, and I know that she ended up being murdered. I’ve seen a couple quotes from her on occasion that I agreed with, and I find American Atheists to be an important advocacy group.

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