Ironically, atheists seem to have to defend their non-belief (it is just one really) from the religious community. Here are the top 5 annoying questions atheists are asked by believers. I have provided a possible answer to each question.
1. As an atheist what purpose does your life have?
Before tackling the life purpose of atheists maybe a good starting point is to look at the purpose of believers. Why might religious people feel that they have a monopoly on purpose, and what are some of the outcomes of that position?
The simple answer to religious purpose lies in the concept of reward. Be a good person and get to heaven. Whilst I don’t doubt that there are those religious individuals out there who actively pursue a life of tolerance and good, I don’t agree that this position is unique to religion. I also believe that the outcomes of this belief system can have negative consequences.
What are the possible negative outcomes of religious purpose?
The dangers of religious belief systems are mostly linked to one primary concept: “the real life you are living for, is not this one, but the one god will grant you if you do all the right things.”
- Many religions focus on recruitment. This is supposedly to make sure that all are welcome in god’s kingdom when we die. Realists might argue that it’s more related to financial empire building or colonization. After all, belief systems need recruits in order to survive. When it comes to the negative consequences of religious recruitment it doesn’t take much to end up with some real gems. Think about “The Crusades”, “the Inquisition”, many religious wars and religion-based terrorism.
- Often governments and corporates are blamed for sacrificing long term social gains for short term financial benefit. Striving for the afterlife may have the same impact by sacrificing the survival of our planet and its creatures to achieve immortality. After all, heaven is the ultimate prize and the place where you expect to live for eternity. Do you really need to worry about planet earth and its creatures? They’re transient. All that matters is eternity, right?
Atheists on the other hand, believe that this life is it.
The Skeptic Heretic answer to this question: “To me, purpose comes from knowing that this life is not a dress-rehearsal. When this life is over, we go back to nothingness. That makes being alive extra special. It means treating people with kindness and respect. It means this life is a less selfish one than the one driven by external reward”
Atheists are often scientists and freethinkers and there is a desire to see mankind flourish. I know I will be long gone when we travel to the stars but I have this deep desire and hope that we will achieve it. One of the primary goals of this website is to challenge ignorance. Ignorance which leads to division, conflict and abuse of our planet and its people.
2. How can atheists have morals without religion?
You will often hear or read people say: “Without religion the world would be a disaster. What would stop everyone from murdering, raping and stealing?”
Do religious people really need the 10 commandments in order to stop themselves from killing people (read my alternative set of New Commandments)? I find the concept really disturbing. There are two ways to examine this question:
Do religious people not sin? The answer to this one is really simple. Well, hell yes, they do. There are plenty of examples:
- War and conflict waged in the name of religion. Think Northern Ireland, The Crusades, The Muslim Conquests, the Lebanese Civil War.
- Sexual abuse by priests and other religious leaders.
- Adultery aplenty.
- Abuse of power and money.
- Family feuds (often based on religious differences).
- And the list goes on.
Do atheists and humanists murder, rape and steal at will? Well certainly, I don’t, but that might be difficult to prove. So, let’s look at some facts that are available for scrutiny:
- In recent studies in the US, the LEAST religious states fare much better on social scores such as lower crime and greater social welfare.
- Secular countries are, on average, much safer places to live in than religious countries. (Scandinavia vs Central America for example)
- Atheists are much more likely to be supportive of women’s rights and the LGBT community.
- Atheists are more likely to accept climate change and to agree that it is caused by human activity. They are also more concerned about its consequences. (Religion Does Matter for Climate Change Attitudes and Behavior by Morrison, Duncan and Parton)
The Skeptic Heretic answer to this question: “The very essence of secular humanism lies in the desire to solve human issues through rationalism and is concerned with human goodness and empathy. This is a truly altruistic wish that is not determined by the promise of an afterlife.”
3. What do you believe happens after we die?
The answer may not be a comforting one, but it’s relatively simple. When you die, your body shuts down and your consciousness with it. For a scientific view on the afterlife (or lack thereof) see books like Spook (Mary Roach) or Heavens on Earth (Michael Shermer).
Why do I believe this to be true? Well, there is no reason for me to think that consciousness exists outside the brain (the most complex machine in the known universe). There are a few things directing me to this conclusion:
- There is nothing in my experience which leads me to think anything different. Death appears to be pretty final.
- The concept of a “soul” which lives outside the body would seem to be false for two reasons. Firstly, I have been under general anesthetic and know what it’s like to experience a complete lack of consciousness (no dreaming or awareness of anything). Secondly, I know that I experienced nothing before I was born. If a soul exists, why did it seem to become aware, learn and gain wisdom at the same time as my brain? This leads me to the next point.
- The universe has been around for 13.7bn years without me being aware of its existence. I remember absolutely nothing of the formation of the galaxy, our solar system, or its planets. I remember nothing of the formation of life. The universe will happily continue to exist without me for billions of years into the future.
The Skeptic Heretic answer to this question: “Quite simply, a lot happens after we die. We just won’t be there to see or experience it. Enjoy this life because it’s the only one you will have.”
4. How was the universe created from nothing?
The obvious retort to this question is “how was god created from nothing?” As Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion, we seem reluctant to believe that the universe just came into being, but we’re happy that something infinitely more complex (an all-seeing all-powerful deity) just spontaneously happened?
Looking at this question a little closer, there are two possible options:
- The universe (or what led to this version universe existing) was always there.
- The universe came into existence from nothing.
We could debate here for hours which one of these options is the right one. However, the answer is unlikely to suddenly become evident – many scientists have put years of research into understanding the first moments of the universe. I like this article on the topic from the Atheist Alliance of America.
The point being that either one of these options could be with or without a god as the instigator. The simplest answer is the one that doesn’t involve god.
The Skeptic Heretic answer to this question: “As a scientist, there is no reason to start the genesis story with a god and it doesn’t simplify the argument in any way.”
5. Isn’t atheism a belief like any other religion?
There are still some in religious circles who believe that atheism is the same as Satanism. That we believe in some anti-god or that we are angry with god for some reason. Whilst there are atheists who use Satanism as a parody they do not, by definition, believe in Satan who is an imaginary being.
Atheists simply do not believe in god. So, threatening them with an afterlife in hell is a bit like threatening most people with eternity in Mordor. A scary thought, but still just an imaginary story.
Aside from the central tenet there is nothing else that binds us as atheists. Whilst atheists are often freethinkers, humanists and lovers of science, this is not necessarily the case. Today, more and more atheists are being born from secular parents (although one could argue that every child born is an atheist). They may not necessarily have come to this conclusion independently.
As the saying goes: if atheism is a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in god(s). Atheists have nothing other than this in common.
The Skeptic Heretic answer to this question: “As a Christian (Muslim, Jew), you don’t believe in Apollo. Does that make you a member of the No-Greek-Gods Religion”?