The Atheist Replies

A couple weeks ago I solicited questions from people who’d like to know how an atheist — or this one, at least — would respond to them. I started out with some based on blog and forum postings I’ve seen, and some people added a few more. I’m now going to tackle them.

A couple of things to establish: I don’t claim to speak for anyone except myself. Please do not use my responses as a guide to “What Atheists think”, but rather as points for such data collection. Also, I’m not looking to argue anyone into a certain point of view — I doubt I could do that even if I wanted to. I’m just trying to provide some real answers. And finally, I’m not trying to be That Guy who always has to make sure everyone around him is aware at all times of his lack of beliefs. So here goes.

How did you become an atheist?

I’m not sure I became one so much as realized I was one. I was raised Roman Catholic, did the whole Baptism, First Communion , and First Confession thing (though never a Second Confession). I went to catechism in preparation for Confirmation and then never went through with it. Confirmation would be me getting up and declaring a belief in the Catholic religion, which I wasn’t sure I had. For several years after that I considered myself to be a Christian, though not necessarily a Catholic. Eventually I dropped to just believing in God, and finally I just realized that no, I really didn’t believe, and I didn’t need to keep trying to fool myself into believing that I did. There was no great moment of revelation or ceremony or doubt-raising event or anything, the fire of my belief went out like any other fire does if it can’t find any fuel.

Why an atheist and not an agnostic?

I’ve often heard people say that they can respect an agnostic but not an atheist, because an agnostic merely says “I don’t know” rather than arrogantly claims doubt. Sometimes I feel the opposite way, that agnostics need to just suck it up, admit what they really think, and close the escape hatch. That’s uncharitable, though.

My lack of belief doesn’t come from doubt. Although I am a skeptic, my skepticism is only related to my atheism, not the cause of it. I disbelieve in Bigfoot in a different way that I disbelieve in God. In the case of the former, I see no compelling evidence of its existence, though I can imagine the possibility of such a thing, remote as it may be. In the case of the latter, I simply see no need for a God. I don’t see a big God-shaped hole in the world. It’s true that I don’t see any evidence for God, but I also don’t see any reason there might be any.

So the short answer is, I call myself an atheist because I don’t believe. Period. I don’t doubt, I don’t wonder, I don’t shrug and think “eh, could be.” I don’t believe. And that makes me an atheist.

How can you be so certain, given how huge the universe is and how little mankind knows about it?

This argument is, of course, bullshit, but that doesn’t keep it from coming up time and again. If this is an argument for God, then it’s an argument for anything. Is there a hippo in your bathtub right now? How can you be so certain, given the hugeness of spacetime and our wee little brains? I doubt you ran to go check your bathtub because, although a scenario can be imagined in which a hippo, unknown to you, was secreted into your bathtub, the probability of such a thing happening is so low as to be not worth worrying about.

There’s a lot out there that we have to discover and learn. There’s likely to be some wild, mind-boggling stuff along the way. But I can’t imagine that any of it is going to suddenly reveal or require an omnipotent super-being hiding in the fringes.

Isn’t it better to believe in God and be wrong than to not believe and be wrong?

Well yeah, but this requires that (a) there be a God and (b) I be able to pretend I believe in him. Since I don’t think this is the case, this is kind of a false option.

This is a version of Pascal’s Wager, which has the same fallacy at its core. For me, though, the bigger problem is, I don’t believe. I can’t pretend I do. If there were a God, he would be the last being in the universe I’d want to try to pull a fast one on. For me, belief isn’t a choice, it’s a statement of fact. I haven’t chosen not to believe, my lack of belief is a statement of my condition. I believe what I do, don’t believe what I don’t, and if it turns out I was wrong later on, then I’ll have to face the consequences, I suppose, but at least I’ll be honest about it.

If you don’t believe in God, why have any morals at all? why not just do whatever you want?

It really spooks me to hear people say this. I have to wonder if they can really see no problem in the actions of murder, rape, theft, etc, in and of themselves. Is really the only reason not to rape someone the fear that God will be mad at you if you do?

What this question really seems to be asking is, if there’s no afterlife, doesn’t that make this life pointless? After all, your actions have no consequences!

This is absurd. If you believe in an afterlife, pretend for a moment you don’t. Now, did Gandhi’s actions have no consequences? Was his life pointless if his soul isn’t somewhere right now? If Mozart is just worm food right now, did he waste his time on Earth?

This seems incredibly self-centered to me, because it seems to be saying that if I am not around then nothing else matters. But everything we do does matter, has some impact on the world, for good or ill. Whether or not there’s a God or an afterlife, our actions have consequences, even if we’re not around to personally experience them. If you ask me why I should care about trying to make a world I’m no longer in a better place, why I should do good things if there’s nothing in it for me, then I might back away from you slowly.

Now, if you’re asking, “How can you call something good or bad?” that’s another story. I think it’s pretty obvious what’s “right” and “wrong” even without Ten Commandments. After all, most societies on Earth, sooner or later, develop certain rules of conduct. These arise out of a need for a stable society. Actions which stabilize the society (working together, helping each other) tend to be regarded as right, where actions that destabilize the society (killing each other, raping each other, burning down houses) tend to be regarded as wrong. You don’t need a God to see this, you just need a desire to see your society thrive and not to be hassled by your neighbor.

How can you say this is all there is?

All? Good grief, there are millions of things out there to see, to do, to eat, to try, to make, to learn, to explore, to create, to enjoy, to ponder, to touch, to love, to improve, to build, to play, to say, to fix, to invent, to study, to puzzle…and that’s not enough? You can look into the microscope or through the telescope, wander the library or the record store, flip through the atlas or the course catalog and think, “Surely there must be something else.”?

Sometimes I feel terrible because there’s so much and I haven’t done whatever it takes to experience as much of it as I can while I can.

I really don’t know how to respond to this. It’s like someone looking at a huge buffet full of every food imaginable and going “Is that it?”

Isn’t the atheist worldview depressing?

This is tough for me to answer because my whole life I’ve suffered from clinical depression. I’ve been depressed through every stage of belief and ultimately it was Celexa, not religion, which brought me peace.

But again, I don’t see why this would automatically be the case. The other place I hear this from is people who feel sorry or me and think my world must be a horrible, unmagical place because I don’t think people can bend spoons with their minds. I think this is a great world — it’s certainly the best one I’ve ever seen. I’d like to make it even better. I do get depressed when others don’t share that view. I think there are a lot of amazing, beautiful, incredible things out there. Hell, I got rapturous over a clever marble-running machine a few posts back.

In fact, I think the evidence that I don’t find this worldview depressing (as both a skeptic and an atheist) is that I am not trying to upgrade it with magic crystals or an afterlife that makes this one drab and useless. I’m happy with what I’ve got and only seek to make it better with things that can actually be done here and now.

Is there anything that could make you choose to believe?

Anarkey wasn’t sure what I meant here, wondering if I left this open ended for some ulterior motive. No, it really just should have been ended with “in God”. I think this answers the question you were getting at, Anarkey, but if not, please let me know.

As I’ve said above, I can’t “choose” to believe. I either do or don’t. Now, if there really is a God who for some reason desired for me to believe in him, then obviously he could make it so. Hasn’t happened yet, but I suppose that doesn’t mean it couldn’t. But we’re back to the hippo in the bathtub. Could a hippo be there? Yes, there’s an infinitesimally small chance of it. And certainly if I walked in and saw said hippo, my worldview would require some rearranging. But I’m not hanging Raid Hippo-B-Gone strips over the tub just in case. I can’t imagine what could happen that would make me believe, but I suppose something could.

And now, your questions.

Lyle: Do you have any kind of spirituality?

I don’t really know what that means. I very much like a lot of Buddhist teachings which, when you jettison a lot of the reincarnation stuff, still contains a pretty nice guide to a mindful life. I believe in what I call “food-fight karma,” which just means that if you’re in a room where people are throwing food, and you start hucking food yourself, the chances of being hit by some are probably gonna go up. Nothing magical or spiritual about it, there’s just more food flying around. Substitute “do good things” for “throw food” and that’s my big piece of enlightenment. But between the atheism and the skepticism, I probably don’t have any kind of spirituality that anyone who does claim to have spirituality would claim I have.

Dan: Do you like waffles?

Of course! I’m an atheist, not a madman!

Jonathan Bartlett: What do you think is the origin of choice? For example, do you think mechanistic explanations are the only one? If so, where and how does choice arise, if at all? If not, what other explanations are available, and how do they fit in?

I’m not sure how the existence or non-existence of God factors into choice, since even those who believe still maintain we’re given free will. I suppose one could argue that without God, “free” will is less free, since we’re at the behest of solely natural explanations for our decisions.

I think we make our decisions based on a myriad of things, not all of which we should. There’s the way we’re wired, of course, but you add on to that with what we’ve learned from experience, what we’ve learned second-hand, our fears, our prejudices, our hopes, our sex drives, our greed, and so forth, and while you’re still dealing with neurons and chemicals, there’s so much going on that it’s tough to predict. (But not impossible, and not always even difficult.)

Most people will argue that dogs don’t really have the level of self-awareness and cognition that we humans do, that they’re largely motivated by instinct. And yet sometimes, when I throw the tug, Beebo will chase it like a thing possessed and sometimes he couldn’t be less interested. It’s probable that this is a result of various instinctive drives competing with each other, along with other desires he currently has, but to me on the outside, it’s a crapshoot.

I don’t know if that addresses the issue at all, sorry.

John M: Do you consider yourself an evangelical Atheist? By that I mean, do you think we should all be Atheists? What are the benefits of Atheism?

In a sense, yeah, I do think it would be great if more people were atheists. But on the other hand, I’d settle for people just acting the way the religion they claim to be tells them to act. While you can commit crimes and start wars and preach hate for any number of idiotic reasons, religion doesn’t have a very good track record in these parts. Would I feel better if we didn’t constantly elect leaders who believe in an apocalypse and rewarding afterlife? Oh, you bet! Would I like it if we could teach science in schools and not have to worry about upsetting someone else’s creation myth? I would. Do I wish that we could decide social policy based on actual people and social needs rather than the sayings of a two thousand year old book regarding the proper use of penises? I do indeed.

But I don’t go around calling Christians “sheep” or wearing black t-shirts designed to challenge your belief or go into religious chatrooms and mock people or anything. I guess I try to do what I think most people try to do; do as best I can, make as good a case as I can when I need to, and hope that my actions and decisions speak for themselves.

And frankly, I don’t think one could be an “evangelical atheist”. Belief — true belief — is beyond reason. Just as I can’t pretend to believe in God, I don’t think someone who does believe can pretend she doesn’t. You either do or you don’t. I can’t imagine what “clever” arguments I could come up with that would change someone’s mind any more than those “atheist witnessing scripts” floating around the internet would change mine. And honestly, there’s no reason your belief is my business unless it’s made my business.

Unknown person (someone left a comment and I accidentally deleted it instead of the comment spam I was aiming at. I’m trying to phrase the question as I remember it, but I don’t remember who asked it or the exact wording, so if it was yours, please re-submit it.): Do you mind if people try and convince you otherwise, knowing their intentions are good?

Actually, yeah. Sorry, I know that’s kind of asshole. But you know, I really don’t think you’ve got the argument I haven’t heard a million times before. I’ve seen a lot of them. And I haven’t reached this point without thinking about it once or twice. So yeah, just as you don’t really want someone trying to get you to become a Muslim, Scientologist, Jew, Hare Krishna, Christian, Pagan, or Atheist, so I don’t want to hear why I need to change my ways as well. I’ll be more than happy to have a discussion, but I don’t need or want converting, thanks. I’ll be polite about it the first time.

I hope that helps folks out. If you have more, or if I didn’t answer you as you would have liked, please feel free to comment on this post. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions!

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13 Responses to The Atheist Replies

  1. Nice read, Dave, and not merely because everything you say resonates with my beliefs. We had similar starts in Catholicism, yet I doubted in my college years, and came back to a belief in a god for quite some time.

    My path into atheism did have a defining moment(s) at its origin though. I’ll spare the details, but after being in a shurch that was more cult-like than god-like, I began questioning things on why this or that was happening, why people were being hurt, etc., and was asked to leave for questioning things. That was a disillusioning eye-opener, and the questioning kept right on going over a long period of time, until I became an athiest. Things like The Red Sea Project, a few Discovery/Hitler Channel specials helped me, as well as Campbell’s Power of Myth, but it was my own decision, and I’m very comfortable with it.

    I find life beautiful, in general, even without religious beliefs. I can respect those with religious beliefs, as long as they are not aggressively in my face about why I don’t share their religious strand they deem as the only real “truth”.

    One thing I hear from non-atheists, not specifically addressed above is “How do you go through life without a (higher) purpose”?

    For me, I don’t need a noble purpose to feel very fulfilled by life. If I am pinned down on this, my response is along the lines of – I strive to leave the world a better place, even if by a small amount, to love and build up my kids and wife to the best of my ability, to enjoy everything as best I can, to learn as much as I can, to mature as best I can (no comments related to my recent postings, please ;), and so on. That alone is more than enough to carry me through life, and feel quite content.

  2. Peter says:

    While I belive that there Is no God (I still do not label myself an “Atheist” as such.) I still think there is a place for the “teachings” in the bible as it gives people the right to choose for themselfs,maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong, it does not matter what matters is if you CHOOSE to belive them or not.

    Choise is a important part of who we are, if we choose to belive in god is immaterial what matters is our actions toward other people and how we came to these desicions wheather fear of a universal entity (be nice to score points for the after life ) or merely because it was either the wrong or right thing to do.

    I think if there was a God he/she/it would rather you choose between right and wrong yourself and not to try an impress him/her/it with your actions.

    Do not steal.
    Do not kill.
    Do not rape.

    These are princibles every one can embrase not because a/the “god” told you so but because they are things you would not like done to yourself.

    In closing of this rant about my belifes I would like to ask you the reader to excuse any spelling or puncuation mis takes I have made.

    thanks

    Peter

  3. Peter says:

    Sorry me again I just thought I might deliver these quotes from the bible it’s self to show why I belive the thoughts expressed in between it’s pages are important veiws to concider:

    James 2:14
    What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?

    Jeremiah 17:10
    I the Lord … give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.

    James 2:17
    Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

    James 2:21-25
    Was not Abraham our father justified by works? You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rabab the harlot also justified by works? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

    Again I would like to ask you the reader to excuse any spelling or puncuation mis takes I have made.

    thanks

    Peter

  4. gorckat says:

    Good read. My wife was stunned to hear me say a few years back that I didn’t really belive in God. I’ve been on an Atheist journey for about 15 years now since I was 13 or so. I started questioning with access to my high school library and have had periods of ‘faith’- first in the Catholic church and later with the Episcopal.

    My mother once told me, “Let go and let God.” in reference to some family troubles. She also used to be quite religious (born again for awhile- I’ll never forget attending church where people regularly spoke in tongues!) but has come to the belief that you carry God in you. There is no need to be ‘religous’ or overtly devout to live well in God’s eyes.

    I think that is one step from being Atheist since God can be removed from that path to living well. Even AA and other 12 steps groups are moving away from God and referring to “your Higher Power” which can range from God to confidence in yourself.

    Also, I can empathize with the depression- been there, hospitalized for that (while there, met a guy who thought I was Jesus…kinda funny since in high school I had long hair and a beard- my friends and football teammates even called me Jesus for awhile!)

    I don’t think I can say I am fully Atheist…pehaps just Agnostic for now, but I wish the hate against any belief not harmful to others would cease.

    Cheers

  5. pronoblem says:

    I like the quote that appeared at the top of the page as I was reading this:

    “If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.”
    — Zen proverb

    Lyle: Do you have any kind of spirituality?

    Dave: I don’t really know what that means.

    Do you drink liquor?

  6. Sistawoman says:

    As someone who states that she is a Christian, I am intrigued by your comments. As you and your blog readers are aware, I am very involved in my church and embrace the label of Christian. However, while being a tremndous God fan, I am not so crazy about Jesus. His entire purpose was in my opinion was to act as a conduit to God – the God that you state does not exist. But you see, I also believe that Jesus, the man, preached that we are all to BE God for those around us. Jesus taught us about how God thinks and acts and then left so that we may become God for others. So to believe in God is, partly for me, to believe in my responsibility to my fellow man.

    Now I understand that being a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination ( and yes it is a true denomintation)allows for a lot of “wiggle room” when it comes to a belief structure. Our belief structure is based upon “no creed but Christ” meaning that all we require of our members/followers is that they believe that Jesus is the Christ and he died for us. So ok, I believe that and I am good. However, that is where the rules stop and the work begins. Unlike Catholicism, where followers are given a recipe for heaven (say two Hail Marys and add four Our Fathers and your in) in the DOC church you must develope your own belief system and translate that into a personal relationship with God. So my faith is not your faith. We are a thinking people of faith and a questioning one as well. A past pastor of ours wore a question mark around his neck on a chain to remind him that he was never to accept someone else’s second hand faith. We are to be constantly questioning and learning. And we are never to sit on our butts and be content that we wear the title of Christian.

    In addition to my faith structure, I believe in God because I feel He has made himself known on occassion. Did I hear him? Well if I said yes, you would think I am crazy. Did I see him? No! Have things happened to me that go beyond random chance – oh yeah! And I understand that that may not be proof enough for you but it is for me and since I can only control my own personal relationship with God, that is enough for me.

    And so my dear brother, do I use God as a crutch? Perhaps. Will I be disappointed someday? Again, perhaps. But for me, the belief in a higher power that calls me to act as God for someone else is a good thing. And that means I have to love atheists too. Even you.

  7. Mrs. Mancer says:

    Sista woman wrote:

    “Unlike Catholicism, where followers are given a recipe for heaven (say two Hail Marys and add four Our Fathers and your in) …”

    Ummm… That’s NOT at all what Catholicism says. I won’t defend every crackpot part of the Roman Catholic faith and don’t want to get into a side-debate, but this is an extreme oversimplification of what the religion is about.

  8. Dave says:

    And so my dear brother, do I use God as a crutch? Perhaps.

    Nobody’s said anything about crutches.

  9. Kurt says:

    “Unlike Catholicism, where followers are given a recipe for heaven (say two Hail Marys and add four Our Fathers and your in) …?

    Ummm… That’s NOT at all what Catholicism says. I won’t defend every crackpot part of the Roman Catholic faith and don’t want to get into a side-debate, but this is an extreme oversimplification of what the religion is about.

    Hear Hear. Mrs. Mancer. Catholicism is probably one of the least understood religions, even by people that are in (or were in) it. The teachings in Catholicism are numerous, but not so formulaic.

  10. pronoblem says:

    I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: “Stop. Don’t do it.”

    “Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.

    “Well, there’s so much to live for!”

    “Like what?”

    “Are you religious?”

    He said: “Yes.”

    I said: “Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?”

    “Christian.”

    “Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

    “Protestant.”

    “Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”

    “Baptist.”

    “Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”

    “Baptist Church of God.”

    “Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”

    “Reformed Baptist Church of God.”

    “Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”

    He said: “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.”

    I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off.

  11. MYRZ says:

    Hail to this nice piece a work…

    Also being an Atheist, and and pounding my head up-on-down while reading your arguments, i might want to translate most of your site in Dutch, if that ain’t much of a problem…

    With some slight changes, here and there…

  12. Chris Shaffer says:

    I think you misunderstood Jonathan Bartlett’s question, which is the problem of free will vs. determinism. It can be restated as follows: “If the universe is purely mechanical, with a full causation chain in which each event has deterministic causes, how can humans make choices or have free will?”

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