Thursday, 15 October 2015

Questions for an atheist.

Over at GM made a post answering a bunch of questions that were put to her by a college student. GM tweeted that she'd like to see how I, and others, would answer the same questions. I said I would give it a shot, and this is it...

1. Why are you an atheist?
I've never been given good reason to not be one. 

2. Have you ever believed in a Higher Power?
Yes, I was born into a Catholic family and raised to be one. I believed, without doubt or question, that the god of the bible was a real thing. 

3. If so, Did something traumatic happen to make you stop believing?

4. If not, why did you stop believing?
In short, I thought about it. I questioned what I believed and why I believed it, and realised that what I believed was nonsensical and why I believed it was because I'd been told it was real. I studied more about the universe and realised that what I was learning was inconsistent with the stories I'd been told were true. It got to the point where my understanding, logic, and reason no longer allowed me to believe what I'd been told to believe when I was a child. 

5. What do you think happens to us when we die?
Nothing. We cease to be. 'Us' is gone and we're now a decaying (or burnt) collection of cells, molecules and atoms that will be retuned to the universe. As Lawrence Krauss points out, we are here because stars exploded and the atoms on our left hand probably came from a different star to the atoms in our right. One day our own sun will envelope the earth and I quite like the idea that atoms that have made me who I am, will one day end up in a star again. I like to keep in mind that I was not alive for billions of years. I see no reason to think it'll be different when I'm not alive again. 

6. Without believing in a Higher Power, where do you think we get our morals from?
The same place any species that exhibits moral traits gets them - empathy, logic, reason, understanding, compassion. We also have the advantage of being able to discuss things. Years ago a black person couldn't marry a white person. Before that, it was 'acceptable' to own black people as slaves. Today in my country same sex couples aren't allowed to marry, but around the world, that is changing. It's happening because we, as a society, are discussing it and listening to people and being empathetic towards them. Some things we all recognise as 'wrong', some things take a little more time and work. But there is no doubt it's 'us' who is guiding it. 

7. Where do you think the universe came from?
'Came from' suggests that the universe is somehow transient and I'm not sure that it is. I think it was in a 'state' and some as yet not fully understood 'thing' happened which caused that state to expand into what we see today. Why is there something rather than nothing? Krauss says there had to be. I'm not sure. 

8. What’s your views on Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens?
I think they're far wiser than any of their vocal critics and largely misunderstood by people too stupid or lazy to actually listen to them closely. I think Dawkins suffers from overestimating his audience almost daily. This is a shame, given he was once Professor for Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. Dawkins loves to hypothesise, particularly with emotive topics, but with the emotion taken out. That's fine with he's sitting around with his like-minded friends. When he does it on twitter, he's dealing with 'the masses' and the 'the masses' are stupid. Dawkins needs to be more aware of this. 
Harris has managed to talk above the heads of people that unfortunately have an audience. These people constantly misrepresent him, despite the clarifications he's made on some of his more controversial topics. These people are gaining an audience, and even for some, an income, from trying to tear down things Harris simply hasn't said. His critics appeal to a lowest common denominator of idiots and people that want to be seen going against the grain. I love how Sam always remains calm and smooth. I loved his quote 'don't judge me by the quality of my enemies'. 
Hitchens was a master orator. A commanding voice, with points to match. I have seen Dawkins and Harris live, but never got to see Hitchens live and I'll always be sad about that. I disagree with him on a few things, but I loved his passion and the way he commanded attention when he spoke. He, somewhat ironically, may have been the only person who could have convinced me a god exists.

9. Do you consider yourself a weak atheist or a strong atheist?
I am a strong atheist. There is nothing about the god claims that give them any credibility whatsoever, in my mind. I have no more reason to believe there's even a chance of a god existing than I do of any other clearly fictional character. God's attributes have everything in common with the imaginary and nothing in common with reality. If it's unicorns or leprechauns or dragons or fairies I wouldn't think 'but maybe somewhere, somehow, they might exist'. I don't see anything that suggests I should give gods and goddesses that benefit either. 

10. How can you prove that God doesn’t exist?
You make a case against it. You show that gods and goddesses are invented exclusively by primitive, ancient people who didn't know better. We know better now. You show how gods and goddesses reflect the society that invented them. You show how the gods and goddesses of the less advanced nomadic peoples are quite different from the more advanced people of Rome and Greece. You make the case that, if gods and goddesses are a human construct, this is what you'd expect. You show that the spread of religion follows the advancement of the populations that are also advancing. No remote tribe was ever discovered already believing in Jesus. There's a reason for that. You show that god has been the posited explanation for any number of things but has never once been the confirmed explanation for anything. You use the problem of evil. You highlight the logical fallacies contained within all the common arguments for existence. I know I can't prove absolutely that no gods or goddesses exist, but I'm very confident I can make a case beyond all reasonable doubt. 

11. Do you believe in miracles?
What is a miracle? It's a word believers use to describe an occurrence that they can't otherwise explain without invoking god. As in the above answer, god has never once been the confirmed, verifiable explanation for anything - this includes so called 'miracles'. I think some of the events claimed to be miracles have happened, but the actual explanation is nothing 'divine'. 

12. Do you have a support group/system?
I have family and friends that I know will look after me and help me if I need it. I have made wonderful friends online, particularly through twitter. 

13. Do you try to get others not to believe?
No, and I don't know that that would be possible. I try to get people to analyse what they believe, to question it, and to do what I did - ask themselves what they believe and why. If they do that with unbiased honesty, and still come up as a believer, so be it. I don't have a problem with theistic/religious belief in and of itself. I have a problem when people's actions negatively impact others and they cite religious belief as the justification for doing so. Therefore getting people to not believe isn't the goal. Getting people to realise that *their* belief shouldn't negatively impact *my* life is a better goal. 

14. Do others tend to view you differently when they discover you’re an atheist?
Not really. It generally doesn't come up in Melbourne when you're out with people. If I'm out with atheist friends I've met through twitter, they already know, obviously. 

15. Do people tend to try to convince you that your views are wrong?
Every day pretty much. But regardless of who it is, which god they're arguing for, and how they're trying to argue for it, it always comes down to the same few fallacies. Argument from Ignorance and personal incredulity being the most common. If god isn't real then how.... It's god of the gaps stuff and just doesn't work on me. 

16. How does your family view your beliefs? Are they supportive?
I think my atheism isn't really a problem but my anti-theism hits a few nerves sometimes. They seem want me to go for the 'live and let live' approach but they don't understand that for that approach to work, it *has* to be theists first. Atheists have spent a long time being quiet about our lack of belief and it's done us little good as far as being 'let live' goes. Religion encroaches on way too many aspects of society and it needs to be stood up to. I think a few members of my family don't like that I'm one of the people standing up to it. 

17. What are your views on Madalyn O’Hair?
I don't know anything about her, really. 


  1. Well said. #10 is particularly well reasoned.

  2. This is one of my favourite posts of yours MrOzAtheist. I don't always comment and I'm not very active on Twitter any more but I never miss your blog updates.

    We're on the same page about just about everything. As Gary said your answer to number ten is particularly excellent ("extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" as the late great Carl Sagan said). I think we've read a lot of the same material :)

    I certainly agree with your comments about Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris (easily the most misrepresented public figure I've ever known). I met Dawkins at the 2010 Atheist convention in Melbourne and he was a real gentlemen. His knowledge and passion for evolution makes him one of the most important 'strong atheists' of the last 50 years as his arguments against a creator or any form of "intelligent design" are as logical as you can get.

    You're absolutely right about the way Dawkins phrases things on Twitter and I get very tired of the attack campaigns run (especially by the "regressive left" - a term Harris seems to have recently coined) when he asks perfectly reasonable and logical questions of his audience. It's just too easy for his critics to paint him as somebody he isn't.

    I haven't seen Harris in person yet, but am flying up from Hobart to see him talk in Melbourne in January and cannot wait. Harris has become one of the compelling critical thinkers of our age, through his ability to take on the hard questions (i.e. criticising Islam without personally attacking Muslims) in a logical, consistent and elegant manner and it saddens me greatly the amount of intellectually dishonest people that seek to discredit and distort his important views. I also like the way he's managed to combine elements of "spirituality" without the BS mysticism and religion usually attached to it (though his analysis of mediation, and achieving altered states of consciousness with psychedelic drugs etc). His background as a neuroscientist and his experience with meditation makes him a fascinating character. His latest book with ex-radical Islamist Maajid Nawaz is a must-read.

    Well done on such well thought answers to the the above questions. I hope we get to meet one day as I think you're a fascinating person, fighting the good fight for secularism in a polite, logical and consistent fashion. The world needs more "new atheists" like you :)

    - Simon (@SimonReidy on Twitter)

    1. Thanks kindly for the kind words Simon, and thanks for reading my blog regularly, I really appreciate it.

      I've got the Harris/Nawaz book on my 'to read' pile and am really looking forward to it.

      I'm not going to see Sam when he's in Melbourne, but I will be around so hit me up when you're over here and we'll catch up for a drink :)

    2. No worries mate! Thanks for the offer to catch up. May well do that while in Melbourne. Would be a pleasure to meet and have a beer. I'm particularly fascinated to hear about your journey from Christian to free thinker (I was lucky enough to be born into a secular household with both my parents being proud atheists so this is a somewhat foreign concept to me). Having said that I did go through a very brief period in my teens of religious exploration to see if there was anything to any of the major faiths (spoiler: there isn't :) ). Religion is still fascinating from a historical and cultural perspective though, and I always find it interesting that many of the atheists I know tend to to know more about the religious source material than the people that beleive it...