If you talk to the religious in person, at an outreach or online, (or maybe they’re family), you’ll often hear the same questions over and over. A while back, I came across a list of 10 of these common questions on Facebook. What followed in the comment section was mostly snark and general ridicule, with very few people attempting to answer honestly. The few religious people in the comment section quickly exited.
Snark and ridicule have their place; I’ve used them myself. Sometimes these questions are asked as some sort of ‘gotcha’ by a religious believer or apologist trying to catch you in a contradiction or pose a question you can’t answer. Surprisingly, this particular set of questions was posted by a fellow atheist – a point lost on many of the commentators.
Yes, I know many of these questions induce maximum eye-rolling by Humanists, but it’s important to remember that many believers have never been exposed to secular thought (apart from what their pastors and priests tell them). For them, these are important and honest questions, critical to their understanding of who we are. In most cases they are worth a well-thought-out, kind, and empathetic answer.
Here is the list of questions, with answers from me and a few other members of HAAM and the Eastman Humanist Community. I invite you to formulate your own answers.
– Pat Morrow
- How much does it cost to become an atheist?
The flippant answer has often been “10% less than to be a Christian”, since we don’t have to tithe a portion of our income. But in truth, I think it’s probably a wash. Humanists donate to charities all the time. Their donations could amount to more than 10%, or less; where I think we come out ahead is that an atheist of limited financial means who is unable to donate doesn’t have the guilt. Also, we can feel free to give to the causes that are closest to our hearts, knowing that the money goes to the cause and not to the upkeep of a belief system.
On the other hand, the personal cost of atheism can be high. Atheists who have left cults, evangelical Christianity, and other fundamentalist religious groups often lose friends, family, jobs. They can be excommunicated or shunned. This can be devastating in the short term. In my experience, most eventually find new friends, partners, and sometimes family, but their greatest reward is that they become comfortable in their own skin. They discover the joy of knowing, not just believing. They don’t have to censor themselves, and they can talk about issues that were once considered taboo.
In short, the rewards outweigh the costs.
- What is THE book on atheism?
There isn’t one. There is nothing that codifies atheism, no book. Atheists are simply people who do not believe in gods. This is not to say that there aren’t works of literature that are important to us, such as those of Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell, or Marcus Aurelius, or the latest well-thought-out ideas of any other fellow human being. Some of us discovered atheism through a critical examination of the Koran or the Bible. The books of atheism are very much the subjective opinions of each individual atheist.
- Are atheists afraid of the Devil and Hell?
Generally, no. It’s quite hard to fear something that we don’t believe exists. However, for people who have emerged from many years of religious belief, the fear of hell can linger, eventually fading like a bad dream.
- Where do atheists get their morals, if not from the bible?
Many great tomes throughout human history have been written on morality; far too many to even touch on here. Throughout most of modern history, it was professed that morality without religion is somehow morally bankrupt. Today we know this is not true. We observe moral behaviour in all kinds of social species – ducks, dogs, zebras, monkeys, elephants and yes, human beings. Morality is about the well-being of the individual as well as the group. It isn’t a set of standards that we are given, but one that has developed, and is developing, over time.
One just has to ask the question “how far would we get if person get if everyone’s moral system allowed for raping killing and stealing as a way to get ahead?” I suggest our species wouldn’t have even gotten started.
- How did you become an atheist?
The answer to this question will differ for every atheist you ask. There are a myriad of reasons.
Some have left oppressive religious cults.
Some see the damage done to humanity by religious beliefs.
Others saw the absurdity of faith and the inability of religion to answer life’s questions.
Yet others, like myself, have never believed, even at points in our lives when we tried really hard. For many of us, atheism is not a position you convert to. The term ‘atheist’ is just the label given to people who have discovered there is no reason to believe in gods.
- If God did not create the universe, who did?
To say that the universe was created assumes a creator. As atheists, we simply don’t find the evidence for a creator convincing, so we can’t make that assumption. A better question might be: How was the universe created, if it was created at all? Carl Sagan said:
“In many cultures it is customary to answer that God created the universe out of nothing. But this is mere temporizing. If we wish courageously to pursue the question, we must, of course ask next where God comes from? And if we decide this to be unanswerable, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always existed?”
- Why are atheists so angry?
I don’t think that as a group we are angry, but if we are, the anger often stems from religion’s nature of asserting its rules, laws, and doctrine over others. One just has to look at the tens of thousands of often violent splits in Christianity, because of one denomination rejecting the doctrine of another denomination. This may help to illustrate the frustration felt by non-believers who reject the imposition of religious doctrines of others.
If this question is important to the reader, there is an entire book on the subject for further reading (available in our HAAM library). Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, by Greta Christina.
- Do atheists have a soul?
The amount of evidence for any kind of spirit, energy, or life force that continues on after we die is nil. Also, the absence of a clear definition of what a soul is would lead most atheists to believe that no, we don’t have a soul. But I do take some comfort in knowing that soul music will live on long after I’m dead.
This is a surprisingly common question asked of the HAAM folks who staff our outreach booth. It’s a question I’ve never understood. Barring mental illness, or possibly head trauma, how could anyone have no beliefs in anything?
Fellow Humanist Nathan Prokopowich answered the question this way:
Its not that we believe in nothing, it’s that we don’t have a belief in a deity. I personally believe in humanity – as much as it screws up, we have gotten very creative in fixing things too. The simple kindness of one person helping another for no other reason than to be kind is all the belief I need. But if you want to split hairs, I can witness an act of kindness, and perform and receive an act of kindness as well. So in that instance, it’s more empirical than a belief.
- If atheists don’t believe in God, what prevents them from raping, killing, and breaking the law?
This one was answered by members of the Eastman Humanist Community:
“What prevents atheists from raping, killing, and breaking the law is the same thing that prevents theists from doing so. The only difference is that theists attribute their lack of doing so to their god. Humans generally treat each other well because that’s what contributes to well-being. Treating each other well has nothing to do with a god, any god.
– Helen Friesen
I personally believe in the inherent goodness of people. There are scientific studies that have shown people actually want to be nice. We do not need to be threatened by some abhorrent afterlife to do good for our family, friends, neighbours, and yes, even strangers. Doing good does make us all feel warm and fuzzy inside. Kindness is its own reward; I do not need to prove myself to some “group” or deity.
– Johanna (last name withheld)
Bonus question: What happens when you die?
One HAAM member tackled this biggie:
That is probably the question I struggled most with on my journey to becoming an atheist.
Today, I believe that my body and mind will cease to exist. And then nothing. Many things will of course happen in the world, to my family, friends, and cats. Good things and bad things. And I will not be aware of any of those things. It was hard for me to accept (quite narcissistic in hindsight), that my beautiful mind, full of ideas, dreams and memories, my constant companion for as long as I can remember, will one day be gone. Hopefully at the time of my death and not before.
As a Christian, I was convinced that after death my consciousness would somehow continue in the afterlife, that I would be able to connect again with loved ones long gone, who would be, like me, some kind of conscious ghost.
I shed that belief only after learning more about dementia. How people suffering from dementia lose, bit by bit, their beautiful minds, until just the outside shells remain. I asked myself whether I believed that after the heart stops beating and the brain cells stop firing, there would be a magical reboot of the consciousness of the deceased. For me, the answer could only be “No”.
This also meant that I had to really let go of my loved ones and accept that they are truly gone forever.
This might sound all very bleak to a believer, but by shedding the delusion of an afterlife, I feel that I have become a better, kinder and more caring person who cherishes every moment spent with family, friends and cats.
– Caren (last name withheld)
For a different point of view, watch for Part 2 of this post – another complete set of answers to these same questions – coming up in our July newsletter.