Questions Submitted by Readers
What is the difference between an Atheist and an Agnostic?
Suppose you are posed with the following question: “Do you believe in the existence of god.”
If you answer with anything other than, “Yes,” then you are an atheist.
Atheism is simply the lack of theism- a- (without) -theism (belief in god). It is not necessarily the assertion that no god exists. It has to do with the difference between what you believe and what you think you can prove. For any particular god that you can imagine, a “theist” is one who has a belief in that god. An “atheist” is one who does not have a belief in the god. A “gnostic” is one who believes that the god can be proved to exist, and an “agnostic” is one who believes that the god cannot be proved to exist. Notice that the terms “atheist” and “agnostic”, are not mutually exclusive. You could be an agnostic atheist, meaning you don’t think one can prove the existence or nonexistence of gods, but you don’t believe in one without further proof.
Many people assume that atheists believe that gods can be proved not to exist, but this isn’t strictly true and there is no word to describe this. You could call such a person an “untheist”, perhaps. Or, you could just call such a person a “gnostic atheist”, one who doesn’t believe in a god and thinks that his non-belief can be proved.
So there are four possible ways one could be:
1. Agnostic-Theist: believes god exists, but it can’t be proved
2. Gnostic-Theist: believes it can be proved that gods exist
3. Agnostic-Atheist: does not believe god exists, but it can’t be proved
4. Gnostic- Atheist: believes it can be proved that god does not exist
Case 3 is sometimes referred to as “weak atheism” and case 4 is sometimes referred to as “strong atheism”. Only strong atheism positively asserts that there are no gods.
What horrible experience made you stop believing in god?
The assumption here is that belief in god is the default belief, and that something must happen in order for a person to disbelieve.
If one stops to think about this question, it becomes obvious how ridiculous it really is. Would you ask someone what bad experience caused them to stop believing in Santa Clause?
I cannot imagine a scenario where a bad experience would cause one to stop believing in god. Bad experiences may cause one to be mad or resentful toward god, but that is entirely different than not believing in his existence. Most nonbelievers come from a religious background, simply because at least 80% of this county believes in a god. Most nonbelievers come to a state of disbelief after careful examination of the claims and evidence for religion, and conclude that the evidence is not sufficient (or is entirely absent) to support the claims put forth by religion.
The average nonbeliever is arguably more familiar with various holy books than the average person of that particular faith. In fact, many nonbelievers (who were formerly Christian) cite the Bible, with all of its inaccuracies and contradictions, as the main reason they began to doubt Christianity in the first place.
What do you think happens to you when you die?
Most nonbelievers don’t believe in any sort of reincarnation, afterlife, heaven, hell, or the soul. We simply do not believe that the evidence supports such an outlandish belief.
Mark Twain put it well when he said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
Many nonbelievers would say that the mind is what the brain does. We can be made to have emotions or thoughts through direct electrical stimulation to the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is a physiological process of plaque accumulation in the brain that disrupts its function, changing the individual’s personality, and eventually leading to death. Patients who suffer strokes or have head trauma sometimes lose memories, or can have a dramatic change in personality. Patients have reported loss of interest in activities that they once loved, and increased interest in activities that they were previously indifferent towards.
All of this evidence indicates that what we think and feel is a process that is controlled solely by the brain organ. I have no reason to believe that once my brain has decomposed that any part of me, or my “spirit” or consciousness, will survive.
Aren’t you afraid that you’ll go to hell?
Obviously, nonbelievers don’t believe hell exists, so we are not afraid of going there.
Should we be afraid of the fiery hells of Christianity/Islam or the Icy hells of the Norse religions. Are you afraid of going to the Christian hell or the Muslim hell? Are you afraid of being reincarnated as a snake?
How does one decide which fictional afterlife one should be concerned with? Does one evaluate which faith has the worst hell, and then worship that god just to avoid that potential fate? Clearly they cannot all exist. So how does one objectively discern which is the most likely?
Therein lies the problem, since there is no compelling reason that any religion is more true than any other, it is prudent to disregard them all. As someone once observed- All religions cannot be right, but they can all be wrong. This question leads into Pascal’s Wager, which will be covered elsewhere in the FAQ.
What is Pascal’s Wager?
Pascal’s Wager (or Pascal’s Gambit) is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should “wager” as though God exists, because so living has potentially everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose. (from [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal’s_Wager]Wikipedia[/url])
This “wager” assumes that there are only two choices- belief in god which is rewarded and disbelief in god which is not rewarded. In fact, there are an infinite number of choices.
First, assuming there is a god, which do you choose to place your bet on? There are 33,820 different denominations of Christianity alone, and that’s just one religion. There have been hundreds of thousands of different gods worshiped through history, clearly they can’t all be right. Also, the wager makes the argument that belief alone is necessary.
Many religions state that god considers beliefs AND behavior when doling out rewards in the afterlife, so clearly more than belief is probably necessary. And who’s to say that god is not simply some sort of trickster who only rewards those who disbelieve in the clear absence of evidence?
This wager also makes the assumption that belief is subject to the will, which it is not. One does not [i]choose [/i]to believe in something. If I told you today that there is no god, and that you could achieve an eternal happiness if you chose to believe me and denounce god- could you choose to believe me even if you wanted to? Belief is a state of mind one comes to when one is convinced of a given claim. It is not something that can be chosen at will.
Suppose I tell you this story: I was visited last night by a transcendent alien species who told me that they would shortly invade the earth and destroy mankind. However, they would rescue me from death and give me an eternal body if I would do a small favor for them- every day at 2pm I must cut an orange in half and throw it away, as a way to show my appreciation to this race of beings. And anyone who also does this will get the same deal on the day of the invasion. Should you do it? Isn’t the payoff worth the meager cost of oranges? You may not believe me, but is it worth the risk?
Pascal’s wager is one of the most idiotic arguments ever put forth for belief in god, unfortunately it is one of the most commonly arguments presented by theists.
If there is no god and you don’t have a soul or eternal life after death, doesn’t that make this life meaningless?
Not in the least.
In fact, as with most other things in life, if it is limited in quantity, it has more value. For me personally, I began to enjoy life a great deal more when I deconverted from Christianity and became an atheist. I came to realize that one day, everyone I loved would cease to exist, and that I would also cease to exist. This knowledge made me realize how truly precious life is, and has caused me to enjoy every moment I have to the fullest.
The assertion that life is only worth living if it lasts forever is rather silly once one examines it for a moment. Does this hold up to any other thing that can be conceived of? Movie theaters seem to be staying in business, despite all of their customers being fully aware that the movie that they are about to see will not last for an eternity. We all know the film will come to an end, but does that diminish our enjoyment of the film while it lasts? In fact, could there be any movie, no matter how good, that one would even desire to watch for eternity?
Many atheists would say the same thing for an eternal afterlife. For some, the thought of an eternal existence even in heaven would be a sort of torture. Part of the reason for this is that eternity is an unfathomably long time, during which it would almost be impossible to not get bored to tears. To get an idea of eternity, ponder the total existence of the universe, over 13 billion years, and your eternal afterlife would just be getting started. Woody Allen had a quote that addressed this rather nicely, ”
Eternity is really long, especially near the end.”
What is your source of truth and morality?
A question I was e-mailed to me recently:
“After the debate on Sunday, I asked Dan Barker where he gets his truth, if not from the Bible or from fallible humans. His response was that there is no absolute truth. Does the La Crosse Area Freethought Society take that position as well? Dan Barker also mentioned that atheists are moral people. I would like to know which system of morality is followed by most atheists, and how you choose one.”
Thank you for your e-mail. The LCAFS does not take a “stand” on issues like that, as we leave those questions to be determined by each individual. That’s one of the benefits of being a Freethought society.
I can, however, answer your questions on my own behalf. I would agree with Dan that there is no absolute truth, at least in the sense that I think you mean. I think that Dan demonstrated, as many authors and scholars before him have, that the bible is unreliable. It is full of historical inaccuracies, scientific inaccuracies, absurdities, immorality, contradictions, and the like. It is most certainly not the inspired word of an omniscient and omnipotent being, and such is immediately obvious to any objective observer.
Humans are fallible, as you mentioned, and there are answers to many questions that we may never discern. However the use of the scientific method and reason-based thinking are the best tools at our disposal to learning what truth is.
On the topic of morality, I suppose most atheists would ascribe to a humanistic morality, if you were to force them to identify it with a label. What would Christians say is their “system for morality”? Would that source be the bible? If it is, than most civilized people should be quite afraid of any individual who bases his or her morality on a book which so frequently celebrates genocide and capital punishment for offenses such as adultery, picking up sticks on the Sabbath, witchcraft, not worshiping the right god, disobedient children, being a non-virgin wife at the time of marriage, homosexuality, etc.
Certainly most Christians don’t think that capital punishment is a just penalty for these ‘crimes’, why then to they profess to glean their sense of morality from a book that prescribes such ridiculous sentences?
In actuality, I glean my sense of morality from the same place that everyone else does:
I learned it.
I learned what is right and wrong by growing up in a civilized society and by having these virtues instilled in me by my parents. I follow the advice, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them,” which had been uttered by philosophers long before it was written in the bible.
I do not need a book to tell me not to take something that does not belong to me. I simply have to ask myself, “How would I feel if people took things that belonged to me?”
I don’t need a book to tell me not to kill someone. I just reflect on the fact that I enjoy my life, and would not want someone to end my life. Therefore, I do not want to take someone else’s life.
Anyone who suggests that we were morally lost before Moses brought down the 10 commandments, sells themselves short. All one has to do to see that one does not need god to be moral is to look at most of Europe. Many countries (Norway, Sweden, Japan, etc) have very high percentages of nonbelievers, yet these societies have not descended into chaos.
Also, look at the National Academy of Sciences, the most elite body of scientists in existence. Its members are over 90% atheist, and yet they somehow manage to avoid a life filled with rape, torture, and larceny. Also, when looking at the demographics of the prison population, atheists are hugely underrepresented when compared to other major religions.
I hope I have answered your questions, feel free to send any more you may have my way.
What are some common questions and problems that atheists have with Christianity?
I recently received an e-mail from a fundamentalist Christian who asked me the following question:
I am writing a paper and am wondering what some of the common questions/arguments atheists aim toward Christians?
Here was my response:
With regard to your first question, I’m not aware of many questions that atheists have for Christians. I have found that most atheists are far more knowledgeable about the bible than the vast majority of Christians are. In fact, most of us used to be Christians previously, but we realized that our beliefs were not supported by evidence, and that there are too many problems with the bible to just take it on faith. In my case, I was a very devout Christian (Lutheran) for the first 20 years of my life, and only at that point did I start to lose my faith.
On your second question, here are just a few of the arguments/objections atheists have with Christianity:
Is infinite torture for finite crimes moral? I contend that this is absolutely immoral as one component of a moral punishment for a crime is that it has to be proportional. You don’t give the death penalty to a kid for swearing in public. That would not be justice. Yet this is exactly the sort of thing the bible is based on- that if you don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus you will be condemned to eternal torture in a lake of fire. Even Hitler’s victims had an end to their misery, yet with god, there is no reprieve.
In Christianity, belief is more important than action. Even though Christians love to say, “Faith without works is dead,” they are forced to concede that no matter how terrible of a life a person leads, if they accept Jesus as their lord and savior and repent of their sins on their death bed, they get their golden ticket into heaven, all is forgiven. That is, unless they blaspheme the holy spirit. Those people are just toast, but child rapists and murderers- just find Jesus and you’re fine.
Is vicarious redemption moral? If god truly did write morality on the hearts of all people (as it says in Romans), then why do we generally find this practice, otherwise known as scapegoating, reprehensible? Would you allow an innocent man to be tortured and killed for crimes you committed? I would not, and I reject that offering. If I have committed crimes, I stand ready to be held accountable. I will not let an innocent suffer on my behalf.
Christians often say Jesus was sacrificed for the sins of mankind, or he died for our sins. This is not the case. He was not sacrificed, and he did not die, because (if we are to believe the bible) he came back to life and is still alive for eternity. That is not a sacrifice. Something is a sacrifice by virtue of the fact that it STAYS gone. At most, god loaned his son to us for 30 years or so, before he got him back. Also, if you offered me the same deal that Jesus got, I’d take it, too. I bet most people would. “So you’re telling me that I get tortured and then killed, and I go to hell for a day and a half, but then I get to come back to life and be an omnipotent, eternal god? Where do I sign up?”
Can god really be said to love us if he is willing to toss us into hell (a place he created) if we question the divinity of his son, who supposedly lived 2000 years ago and left behind so little evidence that his very existence (let alone divinity) is questionable?
The whole concept of the Trinity is a logical contradiction- it is logically impossible for something to be itself and its own son at the same time, yet this is supposedly the case with god and Jesus. It is also impossible for someone to be wholly god and wholly human at the same time, since some attributes of both are mutually exclusive.
It is unjust for god to require me to believe on some really shoddy evidence, that was left 2000 years ago. I have never seen nor felt anything to believe that the supernatural really exists. However, according to the bible, there were tons of people who got the privilege of witnessing god’s power. The freed Jewish slaves were lead by a column of clouds during the day, and a column of fire by night. They were fed mana from the heavens, and witnessed the plagues of Egypt. Jesus performed miracles for all to see. Even Thomas was allowed to feel the holes in his hands once he was resurrected. Moses got a burning bush, and Saul got a vision. All these people were given very good reason to believe (supposedly), yet I am required to believe the same thing, but without any of the evidence. The evidence that I am left with is the same evidence that every other religion has, and there is nothing about the bible to set it apart. It looks exactly as one would expect it to look if it were written by a group of middle eastern desert nomads.
Why is there so much suffering in the world that is not man made (i.e. diseased, natural disasters, etc)? Did god design the Glyptapanteles wasp to lay its eggs inside caterpillars, so that its young could eat their way out when they hatch? (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14053-zombie-caterpillars-controlled-by-voodoo-wasps.html) If DNA and RNA are information (and thus had to be created by god, according to ID proponents), then did god design HIV, Ebola, small pox, polio, etc? Did he design the parasites that eat out the eyes of young innocent children and leave them blind? There is an awful lot of suffering in the world that can’t be blamed on sin and free will.
Is original sin a moral concept? Is it moral to hold the crimes of an ancestor over the heads of their descendants?
Why is it that, for the most part, Christian parents raise Christian children, Muslim parents raise Muslim children, etc. Isn’t it obvious that the main reason you are a Christian is that you were raised in a Christian household and were taught the bible was the truth and the word of god? If you were raised in Iran you would almost certainly be telling me that the Koran is the word of god.
There is a great documentary on PBS called “God on Trial”. You can watch it by following these links: http://midwestatheist.blogspot.com/2009/02/god-on-trial-pbs.html. The best one (in my opinion) is the Fourth link (if you don’t want to watch the whole movie) (http://wejew.com/media/3091/God_On_Trial_Complete_Film_44/) The film is about Jews in a concentration camp who put god on trial for his crimes against them and against humanity.
How do Christians condemn the actions of parents who drown their children in the bathtub to save them from Satan, or cut their infants arms off because they believed god told them to do so? How are these individuals different than Abraham and what he did to Isaac?
If Jesus does return, how will you know him when he does? Others have claimed to be him, by what criteria to you say they are not in fact Jesus? Will you require some sort of evidence of your messiah before you believe his divinity? If so, how are you and I any different on that day?
Lastly, here is a quote I am fond of that you may want to consider: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” -Stephen Roberts
Hopefully that gives you a starting place with a few points to consider. Feel free to keep in touch with any further questions.
Why do nonbelievers quote the Bible if they don’t believe god exists?
Why does a group like the FFRF interpret God’s word if they do not believe He exists? For instance, the FFRF quotes Matthew 6:5-13 in order to interpret Jesus’ words as a condemnation of public prayer. Nevermind my opinion that it is a misinterpretation on behalf of FFRF, why are they quoting a Jesus they believe did not exist? It seems contradictory to bolster a viewpoint with what you believe to be a non-existent source.
Here’s why the FFRF (and myself) use quotes from the bible to prove our point when talking to Christians- it’s not because WE think it is an authoritative book, but rather the person we are trying to have a conversation with DOES. For instance, it makes no sense for Christians to quote the bible to atheists (although they do this all of the time) because atheists don’t hold this book to have any sort of authority. It would be like me quoting the Quran to you and saying- “The Quran says dogs are filthy, so you shouldn’t own them.” You don’t hold the Quran in any authority, so why should you care what the Quran says on the subject of dogs?
However, it makes a lot of sense to look at a book that a person does hold in authority and try to find a common ground, a bridge, or a way to reach that person by making them look at their own text, and reevaluate what it says on a subject. Because, while I may not think that the bible necessarily has any authority, a Christian does. And if I think that prayer before a government meeting is not a good idea in a secular, pluralistic society (for reasons that have nothing to do with the bible), and I want to try to convince a Christian that I am right, I will try to use reason first and tell them all of the reasons that I think that it is not a good idea. But when reason fails, I think it is a perfectly valid strategy to show them in their own holy book passages that also back up my position. You and I may disagree about the interpretation, but I know there are plenty of clergy that agree with the FFRF’s interpretation of the verse in Matthew. So, until god wants to come down and clear the issue up, I guess we will have to continue to debate who is right and who is wrong.
Hopefully that clears it up a little bit.