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Interview with an atheist
Most Common Theist Questions
Answered in a Nutshell
Neil Marr

When a theist of any religious persuasion enters into debate with an atheist, it is often with misconceptions (possibly on both sides, we admit). So it's maybe a good idea get a few basic points cleared up from the start rather than go over old ground in the Atheists Today forums themselves.

Below are examples of the kind of questions frequently asked by theists in their first encounter with atheists. Provided are only the bare bones of likely answers in the interest of brevity: even so, I'm afraid this introduction necessarily runs to a good ten minutes of reading - so save it for a coffee break. But it might save a lot of misunderstanding if you spared it some time before joining in the Atheists Today debates.

Bear in mind that atheists are individuals with no spokesperson qualified to represent them, and many fellow atheists might not fully agree with the selection of questions or with the wording of my replies. To produce an atheist consensus would be as feasible as herding cats.

Please don't feel that this simple and hypothetical Q&A session is meant as any more than a very, very basic introduction. Theists are more than welcome to develop the anecdotal questions in forum debate, ask new questions of their own, put forward their own views, and solicit more detailed and profound answers from other members. Just remember the rules of netiquette and everything will be friendly, civil and constructive. You'll be welcome.

(I use he/him in its neutral sense below for convenience only and it implies no sexist insult).

Q: Is atheism a religion in itself?

A: Atheism is not a religion. Atheism is merely the non-acceptance of the existence of any divine entities and other supernatural influences. It has been said that atheism is to religion what not playing golf is to sport. That pretty well sums it up.

Q: What is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?

A: An atheist absolutely rejects the notion of deities and supernatural intervention, an agnostic feels the existence of gods is unlikely in the face of negative evidence but will not deny the possibility, no matter how remote. There are several schools of atheist philosophy: positive atheist, secular humanist, bright, free-thinker, non-theist, even in extreme cases, anti-theist. Some terms are pretty well interchangeable, but fine differences will be explained in the forums during the course of debate.

Q: What does an atheist believe?

A: You would have to ask him, and I hope you will. Each and every atheist, like each and every theist, believes many things. The only thought atheists share in common is an absolute non-belief in gods, afterlife (in the form of heaven, hell or reincarnation) and supernatural intervention in the cosmos and the affairs of man.

Q: What's to stop an atheist running riot if he has no God-given moral code?

A: An atheist is bound by the same moral codes of human decency and social responsibility as a theist, but he does not believe these codes are heaven-sent. In fact, many atheists feel that the theist idea of actions being rewarded or punished by a divine entity casts doubt on inherent morality. An atheist's motivation is conscience-driven rather than imposed and influenced by ideas of divine reward and punishment. Evolutionary theory, by the way, posits strong reasons for ethical behaviour as a matter of what has become 'human nature'. And, of course, we follow even the lesser laws of our lands and don't double-park.

Q: An atheist can't prove there is no God, can he?

A: He does not feel obliged to. The burden of proof is on the claimant. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There is no empirical evidence suggesting the existence of deities. What evidence is offered is 'circular' in that it relies upon partisan literature and/or is faith based. Faith is not admissible evidence. Earnestly believing something to be true does not make it so.

Q: Surely religion is about love and peace. What's so wrong with that?

A: Religion has, though the ages, proven to be divisive and destructive and has given rise to many a bloody conflict. Jewish, Islamic and even Christian scriptures actively promote violence. As for love, the New Testament concept of eternal torment for temporal human sin seems to contradict the ideals of love and forgiveness. This is such a broad subject that, again, it is wide open for much broader discussion in the forums.

Q: Are atheists so arrogant that they think they're above God?

A: As there are arrogant theists, there are arrogant atheists. However, an atheist does not feel he is above God; because no god exists. He knows mankind to be the pinnacle of currently known earthly evolution and most feel great humility in the face of the majesty of time and space and the richness of all that is a natural part of the world in which he plays his tiny, temporary, but privileged part. Some atheists feel that theists are arrogant in their belief that a godhead takes a personal interest in their affairs.

Q: Why can't religious people and atheists get along together?

A: We can. And we hope Atheists Today forums will provide ample evidence that we often do. We do not necessarily accept that religion per se should command respect, any more than non-belief commands respect. But people can command respect. Hopefully atheism or theism doesn't fully define us. There are many more points on which the atheist and theist would agree than there are those upon which they would disagree. Bearing this in mind, we have a platform here for open discussion of differences and for showing that we all share human decency and love of our fellows, irrespective of gender, race, nationality, colour, social standing, and creed.

Q: Do I risk conversion to atheism by visiting these forums?

A: Atheism is a non-belief, a non-establishment, a non-institution; it is not a club where we head-count membership. The purpose of these boards is not to evangelize but to openly discuss matters of mutual interest. A knowledge-questing theist might well question some of his pre-conceptions (though not necessarily his faith) after careful consideration of other ideas, or he might - as many admirable theist friends do - stick to his guns and give the atheists food for thought. We're not on a conversion kick, but we do try to promote common sense and education.

Q: Is the material universe the atheist's God?

A: The atheist is, like any thinking person, in awe of the cosmos - what is known and what is yet to be discovered. But the universe is not his god. He has no god. The universe is innocent of its own existence, let alone of ours. Such acceptance is the basis of atheistic humility and the reason most atheists support scientific and scholarly quest for answers that will enrich humankind.

Q: Why are atheists so hung up about a dividing line between church and state?

A: All past and present incarnations of theocracy have resulted in untold misery, warfare, poverty of spirit and ignorance. What atheists feel is that - especially in the USA - the west is seeing the thin edge of a worryingly broad wedge that threatens educational, scientific and scholarly progress and sometimes discriminates against the non-theist (in some cases even non-Christian) through governmental, commercial and social interference. This is another point that will be discussed more fully in forum.

Q: What about the murderous regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot?

A: We must, although tempted, avoid placing too much weight on the fact that Adolph Hitler was a staunch Roman Catholic to the end of his days (see Mein Kampf, his raving speeches and bear in mind the fact that every German Soldier in WWII wore a belt buckle proclaiming Gott Mit Uns [God is with us]), and that Stalin was schooled in a Russian Orthodox Christian seminary where he planned to become a priest. The simple fact is that all three of these so-called 'atheistic' regimes did not stand in the name of atheism but in that of a perverted political ideal. All three used the system, tried and tested by theocratic religions, of establishing a 'godhead' as a personalised head of state and commanding blind obedience to him and his laws. Jews were not slaughtered on grounds that were not religion-based, for instance. You may find this answer unsatisfactory. That's another good reason to register with and open discussion.

Q: Science can't account for everything; ergo there must be a God, no?

A: No. Already the disciplines of science and scholarship have answered many complex questions and solved many hitherto insurmountable problems, opening up a magnificent vista of possibility. Science and Scholarship is ever-questing and self-critical. Where there might currently be a gap in scientific knowledge (and they're working on it), to suggest that the gap be automatically filled by supernatural means is hardly realistic. We feel that, whereas science and scholarship strives to offer answers to questions, religions merely offer answers that must not be questioned.

Q: God created everything; the universe and all that's in it is part of His plan. It says so in the scriptures, doesn't it?

A: This is an example of 'circular' argument, where support for a supposition comes from a source that is itself part of that very supposition. The scriptures of all religions are fatally flawed. They are riddled with inaccuracy and contradiction. Creation stories, from the sublime to the ridiculous, abound. None match and none offer the satisfaction and staggering beauty of scientific evidence in support of the start and development of the universe and evolution of life on earth. But, you might legitimately ask, what was the first cause? It's a question deists answer by accepting a mysterious but non-intrusive, hands-off god. OK, let's discuss the question, but let's not blindly use a god to fill that current gap. It's shaky ground, because god-filled gaps have an historical habit of being re-plugged by new scientific discovery.

Q: But evolution, for example, is just a theory, isn't it?

A: It is important to understand clearly the definition of scientific theory. In this formal usage, the word theory has little in common with its casual everyday use to describe an unproven supposition. Evolution is a tried-and-tested scientific theory just like gravity is a tried-and-tested theory. Please don't jump out of a window to prove that the theory of gravity is the figment of scientific imagination. Do not French kiss Typhoid Mary to test the germ theory. Much, much more will be available to you on such subjects when you start to take part in the forums. There are scientists and scholars among AtheistsToday membership with the generosity and patience to share their knowledge.
Q: So atheism is based upon the findings of science, evolution and the revelations of scholarly scriptural criticism?
A: Not at all. Science and scholarship lend support to the atheist viewpoint, and, doubtless, some who held faith have lost it in the face of overwhelming evidence; but an atheist may well know nothing at all about scientific and scholarly matters and still reject the idea of divinities. Many, if not most, atheists are natural non-believers simply because they discover - at whatever stage of life - that belief in deities is irrational and irrelevant to their lives. Any later understanding of science merely underlines their intuitive inclination.

Q: If there is no afterlife, where does an atheist turn to for purpose?

A: Ask him. Each of us has his own justification for living life as he does. Most atheists - more than content with their tiny flake of existence - try to make the very most of their time on earth and to make their lives productive and useful to those around them. An atheist must fulfil his perceived purpose in the here-and-now, or fail. He yearns for no heaven and fears no hell. There are no second chances through reincarnation. Death and birth bracket an atheist's existence. He accepts this fact and is comfortable with it.
Q: Why do so many atheists research religion when they are so sure there are no gods?
A: Firstly, religion and history are fascinating subjects for academic research to anyone with an enquiring mind. Secondly, even though we accept no divine basis to religion, one true reality of religion is its influence upon the world in which we live. We have a vested interest in knowing as much about it as we can. And it often surprises us that so very few of those professing a faith have actually read and studied the literature upon which it's based and know anything about their particular religion's history and structure. But please don't think that most atheists are avid students of religion; the vast majority are merely apathetic toward it (apatheists?) and dismiss the entire subject as having no relevance to their lives. Those you will meet here at are the exception rather than the rule.

Q: What about Pascal's Wager?

A: The French philosopher Blaise Pascal is popularly quoted by Christian theists when they argue against atheism. In a nutshell, Pascal said: Believe in God and you stand to gain everything. If you're wrong in that belief, you lose nothing. Heads you win, tails you don't lose.

There are two problems with this gambit. Firstly, you cannot, with honesty, choose to believe. You either do or you don't. Secondly, which god is Pascal talking about? Who's to say the theist (insert a religion here) has chosen to believe in the right one? There are many to choose from.

Think on this: If you are a monotheist (say a Jew, a Christian, a Moslem), you believe in one god. You disbelieve in the hundreds and thousands of other gods worshipped in the world today and in the past. The atheist merely believes in one god fewer.

Another philosopher, Epicurus, writing 300 years before the alleged birth of the Christian's Jesus Christ, composed what is known as the 'Epicurean Paradox'. It is more likely to be quoted by atheists than the flawed Pascal's Wager:

Is God all-powerful but unable to stop evil?
Then God is not omnipotent.
Is God all-powerful but not willing to stop evil?
Then God is malevolent.
Is God all-powerful and all-good?
Then whence enter evil?
Is God weak and unable to stop evil?
Then why call him God?

I hope you've found this simple Q&A helpful and not in any way offensive and that you'll join us here at Atheists Today to engage in thoughtful and friendly debate on a subject of mutual and heartfelt interest.

Ends. nm

catman on 08/10/2008 03:10

I'm very pleased to see your article here, neilmarr. It sums it up quite well.

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