As an atheist, there are a lot of times I get asked the same questions over and over. It’s a privilege to be asked, and I try to remember that every time I answer, even though the answer has been given over and over and over again. It’s a privilege because it means someone wants to engage with me, they want to hear me. So I do the only respectfully thing I can, which is give the most honest answer as directly as possible.
- Do you really not believe in God?
- Aren’t you sad, not believing in God?
- Did you ever believe in God?
- But you do have faith. You have faith in your wife, faith in science, faith your car will start in the morning… Right?
- If you don’t believe, fine, but why do have to challenge the personal faith of others?
- Okay, but when was the last time someone was killed in the name of Jesus Christ?
- But what about all the evidence?
- But how can you have morals, how can you have laws, without a lawgiver?
- Okay, but can you disprove God?
- Why do you hate God?
- Why are atheists always so smug?
- Why do atheists always have to be so offensive?
- Do you have religious friends? If so, do you think they’re immoral for being theists?
- Why shouldn’t I be free to deny service to people based on religious beliefs?
- Shouldn’t you give your children all the options, let them decide for themselves?
- If there were a Christian God, what would you tell him when you die?
- Wouldn’t you rather error on the side of caution when it comes to belief?
Yep, really. Having been a believer, I know it’s hard to accept that someone can truly not believe. Having been on both sides, I know it seems as-if there must be a motive, as-if the only reason to say you don’t believe is anger at God, to get attention, or as a form of masochism. I can say honestly, I’ve no doubt that God is a myth. And that’s not as far a stretch as you might think. A Hindu child might ask you “Do you really think Vishnu isn’t real?”. You casually dismiss thousands of gods, from Quetzalcoatl (he was Aztec) to the Egyptian, Roman, Norse, Greek… god’s whom people gave their lives for (and killed for, I’m sorry to say). I suspect you dismiss the vast majority of them without a second thought. I just took the same critical eye I applied to Hinduism, Islam, and Viking traditions, and applied it to Christianity.[back]
Yeah, sometimes. I certainly don’t speak for all atheists here; Christopher Hitchens was thankful that there wasn’t a god. I love his work, but I think the fact he was glad that heaven and hell were just fairy tales shows a stunning lack of imagination on his part. I’d rather there was a god, a life beyond death, a balancing force against injustice. But wanting something to be true has no real bearing on the reality of it. I can’t make reality. Now if belief had no downside, then I’d chose to believe. But I think it’s wrong, the way every single Abrahamic religion treats people (like women–half the human population right there–, gays, and each other). It’s immoral to choose belief, to the suffering of others, simply for my own comfort and sense of security. Now, a number of atheists really, truly are fine without God. Me? I miss the senses comfort, confidence, and righteous empowerment.[back]
A god, yes. I was raised loosely Protestant, but rebelled heavily against the teachings of Sunday school (worship was under the Baptist Minister Rev. Peter Gomes of Harvard University’s Memorial Church, whom I deeply respected). I found the scriptures to be nothing more than fairy-tails (most children do. They see through it, and I find that belief has to be browbeaten into them). I lost a great deal of respect for the institution of adulthood when I realized many adults believed. I was a strong deist in my youth, even proselytized the interconnectedness of all people to a higher purpose and power, and I felt that I could commune with this power. But observing the mutually exclusivity of so many faiths, observing the deep commitment of people with opposing views which rested, ultimately, on issues of faith, made belief difficult. 9/11 was a wake-up call for me. Say what you will of the hijackers, those men had unshakable faith. I realized I could no longer take anything on faith. It didn’t happen overnight, it took years, but finally I realized I’ve got no reason to believe. God has never spoken to me, so all I have is the word of other people, priests, ministers, and their books (which they tell me were written by god, but that’s their opinion. Certainly the books are fallible, and they are 2,000 years old). I saw no evidence for God, and if there were one, certainly no evidence Jerry Falwell, Pope Benedict, Rabbi Eckstein, Thomas S. Monson, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, or anybody else a direct line to Him or knows what He wants. Most religions combine those claims, but even if Falwell could convince me of God, doesn’t mean Falwell can speak for Him. [back]
I have absolutely no faith in my wife whatsoever… I mean that as a joke, but in all honesty, it’s true. I have knowledge in my wife. I have experience. Can you imagine, marrying on faith? You meet your wife and say “you look nice, I have faith you’re the woman for me, let’s get hitched!” Most people with that kind of faith regret it, fast. We dated, I’ve observed and tested our relationship. I have evidence in the qualities of my wife, evidence my car will start, evidence in science. It’s tested, observed, and studied. To argue that someone has “faith” in science requires staggering ignorance of the difference between faith, reason, and evidence, and how they’re connected. Science isn’t perfect, but through it we’ve learned more about the natural world in the last 300 years than faith divined in the 10,000 years before that. I think that should mean something. If you can keep your “faith” in spite of that, you’re not engaging in self reflection, and that gets people hurt, or killed. You can learn more about the faith argument here. [back]
I have to admit, this question always surprises me. If you honestly put yourself in the shoes of an atheist, I think the a reason or two might present itself. Certainly most of us, if we saw a man who actually held slaves, would feel obligated to oppose him, even if he used religion to defend it. All the Abrahamic religions relegate women to second (a “cherished” second, but second none the less) class status. Homosexuals are, at best, shamed and ridiculed–sometimes to the point of suicide. If you believe religion to be false, I think we can all agree you’d be moral obligated to protest. I oppose theism because I believe that it must, a priori, repress people. The day the theist stops trying to tell people who they can love, who they can have sex with and in what position, whether or not they can use condoms to protect against disease and poverty, what books they can read, who they can marry… the day theisim stops doing that is the day I stop opposing theism; but that’s also the day theists stop being theists, and become deists. It is theism I oppose, which must by definition command people how to live on the authority of an invisible father figure who has apparently empowered some people to speak/interpret 2,000 year antidotes on his behalf. You can find out more about these distinctions here. [back]
Well, the last time somebody died for Christianity can be measured with an egg timer. For killing, my standby for this is George W. Bush. An estimated 300,000 people died in the Iraq war. Did he do that in the name of Christianity? Well he told the Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath and President Mahmoud Abbas that God told him to invade Iraq. He told French president Jacques Chirac the same thing (added that we were in the end times, and that “Grog and Magog [are] at work” in the middle east. Chirac had to consult a theologian to find out what the hell that meant, and was flabbergasted when it was explained to him). Bush told Bob Woodward that he had done “the lords will” by invading. So…. that’s a biggie. Iraq wasn’t behind 9/11, didn’t harbor terrorists, wasn’t committing genocide or mass slaughter (unlike Rwanda and Darfur)… And there can be no doubt that the Catholic prohibition on condoms kills people every day (they preach abstinence only in missions in Africa. So this, a church that can’t keep its priests from raping children, expects a man infected with aids to not have sex with his wife?). The best tool against the spread of AIDS, poverty, and starvation is the condom, but the church has deliberately (and successfully) kept that information from the people who need it most. The 1994 Rwandan genocide of 800,000 Tutsis was directed by Anglican and Catholic Bishops. The 2014 Ugandan law aimed at making homosexuality punishable by death (since blunted to life in prison, but seen as a warrant to kill homosexuals) came about as a direct result of proselytization by American fundamentalist evangelicals (among them Pastor Scott Lively, now on trial for of crimes against humanity). Fortunately, the bombings and killing of children in Ireland by Protestants and Catholics has subsided, but it’s not so far in the past that you can say Christianity hasn’t had its share of religious violence. And the defense I always hear to this is the same: “They’re not real Christians”, but they think they are, and the only arguments their wrong are either faith based (you’ve got the wrong god) or rational (which a theologian can’t make without opening himself to the same line of reasoning). The position that Christianity spreads ignorance, denial of science, homophobia, and repression of women to the point of causing real, measurable suffering and needless death is an eminently defensible position. [back]
Well, it really depends on what you call evidence. When I first went to colleges, I used the work of James Randi to pretend I was psychic; I had meant to do it for a whole semester, but my following got so devout, it wasn’t ethical–had to come clean after two weeks. Marjo Gortner, the Pentecostal preacher, documented how he faked it all, from talking in tongues, to the “miracles” he performed every night. The Hindi guru Sathya Sai Baba has performed thousands of miracles, including resurrection, in front of thousands of witnesses who you can ask about it–they are alive today; I’ve never found a Christian who bothers giving him a second look (they’re incredulous. I mean resurrection? In modern times? Really? Somehow there Christians know better. But just a few witnesses in a 2,000-year-old tome written form oral stories, pulled apart and cobbled together by people who wanted to convert you, kings with political agendas, people no less prone to exaggeration than any of us, and suddenly I’m unreasonable for not finding it credible?). Most Christians find Mormonism and Scientology to be obvious frauds, but “look at the evidence”. I can’t prove any miracles to be a hoax, but I do find it suspicious that they only occur when they can’t be documented, and in ways which a competent con man could reasonably fake (And if, in this modern age of YouTube and the internet, Sai Baba can convince a million people he’s God, imagine what his techniques can do before illiterate, superstitious, bronze age Jews who were already looking for someone to fill the role of Messiah). What I like about science is that it has rigid definitions for what they call “evidence”, it has to be documented, peer reviewed, and replicatable. And while it’s not perfect, it’s gotten more right, increased our understanding of the world, improved out knowledge more in the last 300 years, than religion did in the 10,000 years before it. Artificial Insulin has saved more lives than prayer. It just has, it’s just a fact. I call that evidence. [back]
Morality is innate, it’s in all of us. The golden rule can be understood by every five-year-old without needing to invoke a higher authority. All social species, wolves, monkeys, dolphins, whales–all have clan like behavior, and rules for membership within social groups (and they excommunicate those who don’t follow the rules). It’s part of evolution, without it we’d not have become the dominant species on the planet. Most species on the planet are capable of compassion, even of reciprocity (mice will help other wounded mice eat). But don’t believe me; look at the children of atheists who somehow restrain their “natural” urges to rape and kill everything in sight. They want to please their parents to partake in society. We don’t need a higher power to explain or defend it. You can read more here. [back]
The atheist can’t disprove God, that’s true, but the theist can’t disprove Apollo, or Thor, or Poseidon either. That you can’t disprove something isn’t evidence for it. Bertrand Russel highlighted this by saying that he had placed a teapot in orbit around the sun, between us and Mars, and dared anyone to disprove him. No matter how hard someone tries, there’s an easy post-hoc defense (Can’t see it with a telescope? That’s because it’s too small. Even the Hubble can’t find it? Well it’s painted black. Can’t find a gravity field for it? Russel put a anti-gravitron-inator-majigi on it–see, that just proves how smart he was!). This kind of post-hoc explanations aren’t evidence, but it’s all I see in theism; layer upon layer of complex post-hoc answers to account for why, as we learn more about how the universe works, it simply doesn’t square with religion. And if you’re going to demand that other people live by “God’s” rules, whatever they may be, it’s actually not up to me to disprove God and your connection to him, but rather for you to prove it (even the most devout theist would demand “proof” if someone tried to make them live under the rules of the “wrong” god). A brief essay on the topic can be found here. [back]
A number of people seem to think that the notion of “God” is so self evident and obvious that the only reason to not believe is because you’re mad at Him. But is this true? Are you mad at Thor, is that why you don’t believe in him? Are you mad at prophets like Joseph Smith and Muhammad? You must be mad at Allah, that’s why you don’t follow the Koran! Did Vishnu kill you’re dog, is that why you’re not Hindi? This is an intellectually dishonest question, like “do you still beat your wife”, where the anwser to the ultimate issue is baked into the question. [back]
I’m afraid there is some truth to this objection. Christopher Hitchens is the definition of the smug atheist, and a number of atheists I’ve met hold nothing but contempt—not just for religion, but for the people practicing it. Frankly, Hitchens is one of my favorites, he’s the guilty pleasure that you know you shouldn’t indulge in. But I none-the-less do believe that, over time, the better argument generally wins, and I believe I have the better argument. Smugness, condensation, these things don’t make me or my argument stronger, in fact they make it weaker. If I want to affect change, I need to do it openly and honestly, and giving the other side dignity and respect. And that respect means listening honestly to the other side, answering honestly when asked uncomfortable questions or ones to which I have no answer, and remembering I’m talking to a human being, having an open mind. That’s why, as much as I love Hitchens, I know that the most change is probably affected by people like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennit. But if you’re not an atheist, you may never have seen the flip side to that coin. A lot of theists I debate with can be pretty smug too, almost as much as the atheist. The question “Why do you hate God” is actually a rather smug one, denying my autonomy, suggesting that no rational human being could possibly not believe, not only in god, but in your God, and any claim to disbelief must be irrational. “I’ll pray for you” is the last line most theists give me before ending the conversation and walking off… What could be more smug than that? Certainly the theist doesn’t say it for the benefit of the atheist, he doesn’t care if you pray for him or not; it’s said by the theist as a dig, to assert his or her righteous indignation and moral superiority over the atheist (if you really would pray for the atheist, why tell him but to be smug?). [back]
Well, I’m sorry to say there’s truth to the charge. I’m not proud of it. Some atheists truly enjoy taunting and bullying theists. But it’s hardly exclusive to atheists–a lot of people do it. I must say too that I’ve seen some theists say some terrible things about (and to) homosexuals, and end many conversation with indignation and a righteous “I’ll pray for you!” But I find that many of the discussions are established in such a way that you can not engage without being offensive. Christians are so used to deferential treatment in this country, that challenging the status-quo becomes an aggression. As he lay dying of cancer, Christopher Hitchens noted that people would come up to him and say “you know, it’s not too late, you can still be saved,” and try to convert him. In our culture it’s practically considered rude not to do it. But imagine, he said, if atheists did the same thing; if they went around to hospitals, telling the dying “you know, you don’t have to live your last days a slave to fairy tales and myths. You can still die a free man”. It’s find for theists, (presumably concerned for my soul), to tell me I’m going to hell if I don’t listen to them, but to suggest that there is no god is truly offensive. And you can be framed in such a way that you must be uncourteous or prove a theist’s point (when someone, genuinely concerned for the health of my sick child, tells me they’re praying for me, I say “Thank You”. I say it for the same reason I do when I get plaid socks for Christmas, because it’s really the thought that counts. But half the time I get a smug, knowing smile back that says “See, now that you’re in trouble, you believe!” I must either say “Fuck off” and be truly, unnecessarily rude, or I can “prove” I secretly believe in God. Like deflecting unwanted advances from a paramour, theists often dare you to be rude to them. I can not say I’ve not seen my fair share of genuinely offensive behavior from atheists, and when I see it, I step in. But theists are often no better, and the deck is stacked against questioning the validity of peoples beliefs. [back]
I have religious friends. One of my best friends is a Greek Orthodox Priest, and most of the rest are Jewish. When you understand the nature of these denominations, you’ll see why we can get along—while I’ve some theistic objections to Judaism, they don’t proselytize, and they don’t try to force their laws on other people (with, I’m sorry to say, Palestine the exception. Security is a real issue for Israel, I know that. But the biggest problem is which god promised what land to whom. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, by a Jew, for giving away God’s land. If you take God out of it, we’d have had an equitable two state solution and an end to the utterly inhuman violence in the region decades ago). While I suspect that my Orthodox friend would like to see me join the orthodoxy, he always tries to be respectful of my beliefs, and I try to be of his. If a theist can be friends with a man damned to hell for apostasy, certainly I can be friends with someone who beliefs oppresses minorities. We look for the good in each-other, and let the rest play out. [back]
You should. I disagree with most of my liberal brothers and sisters on this issue. If you’re a public official you work for everybody, and you must apply the law, you’re not free to claim a religious objection to issuing marriage certificates—if you can’t follow your oath of office, get another job. But if you’re a private citizen, and you want to deny gays, blacks, Jews, from your restaurant… I’m sorry to say it, but I think you should be able to. I don’t think you should be able to outlaw bigotry. I recognize that without these laws, the civil rights movement would be a fraction of where it is, so in some extreme cases, maybe we really need them. But in the free market place of ideas, I don’t think bigotry can compete. Telling people that they have to serve minorities that they don’t want to breeds resentment, and strengthens their resolve, it drives them underground. It’s why we let the KKK spew their garbage. I like people with signs saying “we don’t serve Jews”, because then I know who the jerk in the room is, I know who to boycott. Boy scouts can deny gays, and so can Chick Filet. If the theist can’t tell me who I can and can’t marry, I can’t tell him who he can and can’t serve. [back]
Yes, of course. But is that really what most theists do? Do most Christians include alternate views, like the Hindu god Hanuman, when they teach their children values? Do they offer atheism as a legitimate choice to their children? It certainly hasn’t been my experience of theists. Indeed, I suspect if you presented all the major religions of the world, past and present (after all, you can’t disprove Anubis), impartially, most children wouldn’t believe any of them. When I explained the golden rule to my daughters, it clicked, they got it, made perfect sense (they need to be reminded to apply it sometimes, but they get and understand the concept, it’s intuitive). Explaining Abraham and Isaac to them? That’s a lot harder (heck, I’ve had no shortage of people dying to explain it to me. None of them agree, and none of the explanations have been satisfactory). It seems to me that most children understand principals like the golden rule, but rebel against theistic teachings, they naturally question them. These children are then indoctrinated, browbeaten into submission, forced to take it on “faith”. If theists actually let children think and question, decide for themselves, didn’t press “faith” onto them, we’d have a country of atheists. So when an unctuous theist, fearing for my child’s immortal soul, says “I think children are really smart, and you should give them all the options” I can say, “I do. Do you?” [back]
Well, Steven Fry had the most audacious answer I’ve seen (I’m told that the interviewer, Gay Byrne, needed several months of therapy after the interview. I’m sorry, but his look is priceless). But for me? Well, I’d apologize, clearly I screwed up. Presumably god would know I was sorry, I wouldn’t have to tell him, but I’d do it anyway. I wouldn’t defend myself, though, I think it would be a waste of breath, both because he knows my defense, and because I acted with the best of intentions. He constructed me in such a way that I could not see evidence, and would not believe without it. I can’t understand making your creation one way, then punishing it for being as you made it, but… At any rate I’m comforted by the fact that this is the least likely scenario. The most likely scenario is that we don’t have consciousness or free will (it’s an illusion) and when we die, that’s it. A very close second is that whatever happens to us after death is so infinitely different than what we know now it’s silly to even bother thinking about it (take the difference in understanding of the universe between an ant and you, multiply that by orders of magnitude upon magnitude, and you’re still probably not approaching how different the afterlife would be from this one). If there’s an all-powerful god, that he’s as mundane as the Christian bible would have him, would be utterly mind boggling (though admittedly probably not my first concern upon meeting him). [back]
Well, that supposes that you know which side is the cautious one. I’m a white male, so admittedly I make out like a bandit in Christianity, but it’s not so good for other people. I mean, should I really subjugate women (and Christianity does this, make no mistake. They’re second class citizens), a whole half of the human species, so that I don’t go to hell? That’s quite opposite my moral intuition; in fact I think it’s immoral and selfish, if I’m to be honest. What’s more, is there a single religion in the world, from the human sacrificing Aztecs, to ISIS and Mormonism, that cant’–indeed doesn’t–make the exact same argument? I mean, a true Islamist will offer you the chance to spare yourself hell by converting to Allah… Would you accept? I mean we’re back to the original argument–there are tens of thousands of sects of different religions… which god is the right one? This is actually Pascals Wager, and it strikes me as an inherently immoral, false, and self defeating argument. [back]