1. How Did You Become an Atheist?
I realised that most of the religious claims I’d heard (not just the Christian ones – don’t make the mistake of assuming that atheists are only atheists with respect to your religion) were not supported by any sort of evidence beyond anecdote, tradition and hearsay, and that still more were flatly contradicted by the actual evidence provided by history and science. I further reasoned that, due to their contradictory claims, not all of the world’s religions could be right – not only that, but I realised that there was no reliable way to discern which, if any, were right or which even had Buckley’s of being right.
Anway, if you’re interested, here’s my religious history.
My parents didn’t raise me Christian, but there was no shortage of religion during my childhood. There were compulsory Religious Instruction lessons at our state primary school (this is Australia, where the Constitutional proscription on not establishing a state religion is broadly interpreted) and we went to Sunday School as well, which essentially meant feelgood Jesus-songs and the occasional story of Old Testament wizardry and massacre while the grandies were getting their weekly fix of rural, Anglican, cake-stall Christianity. At around 7 I asked my first religious question: “If I was born in India, would I still be a Christian?” I reasoned “probably not” and wondered not only if Hindus would go to hell despite whatever goodness they engaged in, but if my Catholic friends would go there too. I didn’t even know what I was, but I knew that I wasn’t Catholic, and it troubled me to think my mates and I wouldn’t see each other in Heaven.
At high school, about twice a year, the local evangelists would hold a Religious Education seminar in the library which was again mandatory (that or my parents didn’t exempt me, which is the same thing). Of course, it wasn’t “education” about religion, it was a chance for the local faith-sellers to try and make converts out of other people’s children, because what’s the point of being an evangelist if you don’t act like you know better than other people and take advantage of having unfettered access to their kids? Even though I was still nominally Christian before the age of 15 (and carried a pocket New Testament everywhere), the discussion groups we’d split into with the local doe-eyed & domesticated happy-clappers made me suspicious of organised religion’s claims to great wisdom, as my friends and I made sport of posing questions the clappers had to fumble about to answer. Nothing too sophisticated, though, but quite often a question like “Is Ghandi in Hell?” was enough to make a green Cool Youth Pastor Dude catch his breath before searching his internal copy of Platitudes and Rationalisations For All Occasions, 1992 Edition.
At 15 I abandoned organised religion altogether, reasoning that if there was a god who cared what I did, and if that god was reasonable, he’d only care if I was a decent person and wouldn’t really care what else I did regarding rituals and magic words and certain food and what I did with my willy. I found it difficult to trust in an all-powerful god that only made contact via third and fourth parties, and my increasing distrust of authority was only exacerbated by the detailed & restrictive proscriptions of behaviour unique to most religions.
My late teens contained some flirting with New-Age spiritualism, but, if I’m honest, that was chiefly because I wanted to flirt with New-Age spiritualist girls, who not only had teenage bodies but also weed.
In my late twenties I realised I’d been essentially living as an atheist for the last decade, holding no supernatural beliefs (certainly none that I acted upon) and barely sparing a thought for any afterlives or karma or anything else people used to promise me.
2. What happens when we die?
The quick & easy answer is that the bacteria that live on us and inside us immediately start eating us because our bodies’ natural defences against being eaten have ceased – but I know that’s not spiritually satisfying.
Here’s the real answer: nobody knows, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus and anyone else who nonetheless claims to know (and whose ideas almost always wildly contradict each other). However, the very strong evidence is that “we” stop existing, because our brains, of which our minds are an emergent property, cease functioning. If any credible evidence for human consciousness existing non-corporeally after death exists, it should be presented. Pending that presentation, it’s only reasonable to conclude that life ends – permanently – with death.
3. What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
What if you’re wrong and Hell is the place Allah sends infidels? What if Heaven is the place where Hindus watch Christians burn? What if Heaven is only for people who’ve reasoned that ALL religions are wrong, and God permitted the flourishing of faith as a test of mankind’s intellect?
See? I can ask silly, fearmongering questions with scare-caps TOO!
But seriously, I don’t withhold belief just because I want to. I withhold belief because my belief in things is predicated on there being evidence for their existence. I can’t fake belief in something just to get a reward, especially if there’s a god who can know my deepest thoughts and would rumble me in an instant. I’d also like to think that such a god would prefer the company of an honest atheist – or any honest person – instead of a self-interested “Christian” who’s sucking up for a carrot or to avoid a stick.
But yes, what if I’m wrong? Then your god is happy to send people to Hell to be tormented forever for making an honest and completely understandable mistake, which makes your god an irredeemably evil monster, eclipsing your very own Devil, who was made by your god and allowed to take possession of Hell for, well, I suppose, Good Reasons.
But what if I’m right? You’re wasting a goodly bunch of time jumping at shadows when you could just try to be good to others.
4. Without God, where do you get your morality from?
I don’t “get it” from anywhere. It was instilled into me in my youth, via the examples of my parents, friends, family, community, broader society and culture, my natural sense of empathy and my ability to think about the consequences of my actions. Same as most Christians, I’d expect – just without the extra baggage of believing it was carved in stone and given to me in the form of a list of orders.
Where do groups of ants, bacteria, fish, wolves, apes and even plants “get the idea” to work together for their mutual benefit and defence instead of just devouring each other? Could it be that a free-for-all, selfish, destructive existence is detrimental to individuals as well as communities? Could it be that we’re not the first species to work that very simple thing out?
5. If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
There are probably no gods of the sort you’d prefer, so go ahead and do whatever horrid thing you want and see what happens. Bystanders, police, courts, the odd masked vigilante – they’ll all have something to say about it.
By the way, if you are the kind of Christian who only refrains from murder and rape because you think a powerful entity is hovering over you with a stick, I dread the day you realise your god’s not there. I’d prefer the company of a person who refrains from harming others out of a sense of fairness and empathy, as opposed to someone who so refrains because they think they’ll get smacked down otherwise.
And yes, good deeds frequently go unrewarded, just as bad deeds frequently go unpunished. Life is very often unfair – just ask all those hapless people the Church burned and tortured and invaded and massacred during its thousand-year reign in Europe. And look at all those Crusader Popes and knights and nobles who did the massacring, only to die rich and at peace, their victims having no recompense.
If you only – or even mostly – do good things in expectation of reward, you’re a cynical, self-serving opportunist. If you only refrain from bad deeds because you fear punishment, then you’re a craven, self-serving opportunist.
6. If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
How does life have any meaning with a god bestowing it upon you? Meaning is inherently subjective and having it imposed on you by another person removes all agency and choice and freedom from you to decide what parts of your life mean anything at all.
My life means something to me because it is mine and mine alone. As such, further meaning can be found by doing things I like and which enrich that life: friends, family, work, leisure, charity, occasionally lazing around doing nothing at all. If someone wanted or attempted to impose some kind of arbitrary meaning onto my life without consulting me, and just said “This is what your life means!” I would laugh in their face. The whole notion of meaning being a quality or condition that one entity can project onto another is ridiculous.
Meaning imposed from without is without meaning.
7. Where did the universe come from?
I don’t know. It might have always been here in some form. Smart people are working on it, and they’re not looking in old books of spells.
And no – “I don’t know” doesn’t mean that the answer is your god, or anyone else’s. It means “we must keep looking”.
8. What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?
What about all the people who have rid their bodies of Thetans?
What about all the people who have seen Mohammed?
What about all the people who think that they themselves are Jesus?
What about all the people who write “Jedi” as their religion on census forms?
Do you find it at all curious that ALL stories of profound religious experiences (and near-death experiences) are told through the lens of the witness’s personal religious and cultural background? Why don’t Buddhists ever have blinding visions of Jesus? Why don’t Neo-Pagans or Jews? Why don’t dying Muslims have visions of Catholic Heaven?
9. What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
These days, they’re more or less irrelevant to me and to the broader atheist community that I interact with. Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” was an interesting read the first time through, and made me realise I’d essentially been an atheist for at least the preceding decade if not longer, but he didn’t “convert” me. I’ve essentially given up on the guy over the last few years because, perhaps through upper-class Oxbridgean cultural myopia, he can’t see why people react so ungraciously to his frequent condescending, sexist comments.
Harris, who has written some vital critiques of religion, is also pro-torture, an advocate for racial profiling and seems manifestly incapable of admitting when he’s been outgunned intellectually. Curiously, he’s also on record as a sexist, thinking certain intellectual pursuits are above the cerebral pay grade of women.
Hitchens, who wrote many a fine word about atheism and religion and many other things, was a fierce debater and rhetorician, but who was nonetheless was taken in by the Bush/Blair rationale for invading Iraq; he was also, sadly, an inveterate sexist.
I notice Daniel Dennett isn’t on that list – did you forget that there were four “Horsemen”? Perhaps you did, but I suspect you left him out because he’s the least confrontational, the least publicly embarrassing to atheists right now and because his critiques of religion were perhaps more devastating than those of his colleagues, though expressed more intellectually and far less polemically, making them easier for Sunday Christians to ignore – that or you didn’t even know he existed, which makes you a poor researcher, or just lazy.
I also notice the glaring omission of anyone who’s written anything about atheism more or less since The God Delusion, as well as the absence of any atheist who isn’t a white male intellectual. Curiouser and curiouser…
10. If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?
If there is a god, why is every religion in every society so wildly different that people have historically (and in some places, still do) murder others wholesale because of differing religious beliefs? And why do these religions tend to stay confined to the region in which they were conceived? Do you think it’s possible that every religion ever conceived is as much a product of the culture that conceived it as are that culture’s music & folk tales? It’s no coincidence that Rome, with its love of feasting and festivals, had a god in its pantheon whose chief concern was feasting and festivals; similarly, it’s no coincidence that the Vikings, concerned as they often were with war and glorious deaths, worshipped gods who were themselves legendary warriors.
As for the global popularity of Christianity, do you really think it would’ve spread beyond the Middle East and Mediterranean purely on its merits if Rome didn’t adopt it as its official faith, and imposing it on the imperium? Do you think it would’ve later crossed the borders of Roman-then-Christian Europe to dominate the Americas, Australia and parts of Africa & Asia if not for centuries’ worth of imperialists from Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Holland, France, Britain et al sailing around the world, claiming inhabited nations as their own and imposing their Christian beliefs along with their diseases and engaging in coercion, forced conversion and outright genocide on non-compliant populations?
Christianity might well lay claim to the world’s most popular religion, but it’s impossible to avoid that it became that way through Christian European invasion, occupation and colonisation of whatever nations were undefended enough to allow it, and through imposition, rather than through some global evangelistic effort. It’s also worth noting the other side of that coin: the places where Christianity isn’t dominant are mostly those places which already had their own strong religious or spiritual traditions in place and/or which were able to resist Christian attempts to convert the populace. For example: you don’t see a lot of Christians in India, despite its long history under British rule, while you do see loads of Christians in the former British colonies of America and Australia. The former country had its large size, large population, strong traditions and many centuries of history and technological and scientific achievement to aid in its resistance of wholesale conversion; the latter two countries, though large, were sparsely populated by semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers when they experienced invasion at the hands of a culture which was so technologically advanced that they were thought of as gods – and later, more appropriately, devils.
So, there you have it. Ten answers with far too much detail than any Christian who’d ask such vapid questions in the first place would ever bother to read anyway, in response to a frankly pointless and ‘baity ChristFeed article that doesn’t allow comments, and past which most regulars at that site would click as soon as they’d finished.
Who said secular media had a lock on vapid content-free non-stories designed to generate ad revenue? Well, they were wrong.