Last month, we asked HAAM members to submit their answers to these common questions. If you missed their submissions, you can catch up by reading Part 1 now. Most of the people who responded answered one or two questions – but Chad Froese tackled ALL of them. His answers were so amazing and insightful that they merit an article in themselves. So here they are. Enjoy!
As atheists become more numerous and visible, more believers have realized how little they know about us. I have personally been asked versions of these common questions quite a few times. In one-on-one conversations, it usually works best to ask clarifying questions, since many queries have a wide range of meanings, and sometimes have expected answers. Questions can also take people off pre-rehearsed scripts, denying the cheap thrill of a ‘gotcha’ moment and facilitating an honest conversation. Books can and have been written about each question, so without knowing the aims, knowledge base, or attention span of the questioner, these answers may be a good starting point.
- How much does it cost to become an atheist?
Your mileage may vary. The cost depends entirely upon the person’s personality, family, friends, church, town, state, country, and point in time. For many around the world – death. For people who live in the Bible belt of either the US or Canada – at least some family, friends, and (likely) livelihood. For most others I know – some friends and family, and a lifetime of uncomfortable conversations. For most of those, regardless of their situation – the pain of examining and giving up a childhood or even lifetime of deeply held beliefs. Few are willing to do the work, and many avoid the possibility, even though they secretly share the same troubling questions.
The benefit? Conscience. People live in misery with a guilty or unresolved conscience. People gladly sacrifice their lives to follow their conscience. The difference is hard to overstate. Many people call themselves freethinkers, which sums it up nicely – freedom to think, unconstrained by taboo. Most people’s lives don’t change a great deal, since they still live in the same broad location, culture, and time. But knowing this, they find their place in the universe; a new wonder for life, love, morality, and purpose.
- What is THE book on atheism?
There is no anti-Bible. There is no anti-Koran. You can make general statements about atheists, comparing them to the general public, but our differences are greater than our shared lack of belief in any god(s). Certain books by prominent atheists may be relatively popular in certain places and times, but we don’t share a common book — another feature of organized religion that we lack.
If you want to learn about atheism, read a book about atheism written by an atheist. When I wanted to know about day-age creationism, I followed the same advice and read works on the issue by old earth creationists. Keep in mind that what you read will not be representative of all atheists, but the more you read, the better the picture you’ll have. You can also engage atheists in conversation. Many organizations offer ways to Ask An Atheist, from personal chats or IMs to FAQs and YouTube videos.
- Are atheists afraid of the devil and hell?
Are Protestants afraid of passing through purgatory for not believing Catholic doctrine? Are Christians or Muslims afraid of going to Hades for not worshipping the Greek gods? It seems that most religious people don’t understand what it means for someone to lack belief in what they hold to be true. You can write a long list of all the things that any particular person doesn’t believe and therefore isn’t afraid of, but people generally focus only on the beliefs they currently hold–and have difficulty understanding that (and how) others aren’t affected the same way. The same holds true in politics; it’s easy to assume that people who hold different opinions are less intelligent, informed, moral, or honest.
In some cases, however, the complexity of human psychology shows up. Some ex-Christian atheists still feel that fear for a time, even though they know it is irrational. It often takes more time to untangle conditioning than to explore and dismantle indoctrination. Long-associated emotions can linger with certain smells, sounds, phrases, people, or situations that are no longer relevant. In times past, labels were given to strong negative forms of this reaction, like shell shock, which we now classify as post-traumatic stress disorder. Positive, less traumatic examples also exist – many ex-Christians still enjoy playing or listening to hymns despite the irrelevance of the archaic lyrics, because of the associated happy memories of community, childhood, or important religious celebrations.
- Where do atheists get their morals, if not from the Bible?
The idea that Christians get their morals from the Bible is another religious belief that atheists lack. Members of any large worldwide religion run the gamut in moral beliefs and behaviour, and every one of them will attribute their morality to their religion. From conservative to liberal, from sanctioned violence against women to supporting women’s shelters, from marching with Nazis to marching with Black Lives Matter, from committing genocide to providing disaster relief, religious people do it all, and they point to their religion to justify their actions and beliefs. Atheists don’t occupy quite as much of the spectrum, but our values and actions also span a great range.
We get most of our morals the same way religious people get the vast majority of theirs. Our morality generally reflects the culture, upbringing, social environment, politics, economic reality, country, time, and many other factors in which we live, constrained by our psychology, biology, and physical environment. We have no holy scriptures, so we have more freedom to re-examine those moral stances.
Many atheists would identify as Humanists, since atheism is about what one *doesn’t* believe, and humanism is about what one *does* believe. Humanism is a very broad set of philosophies, but it centres on affirming human abilities and responsibilities to lead ethical, purpose-filled lives that contribute to everyone else’s well-being.
- How did you become an atheist?
I grew up in a home in which reading was valued and questions were encouraged. The passion I had for my faith was lived out by developing a deep understanding and appreciation for theology, apologetics, and creation. Two of my guiding verses were Matthew 22:37, with an emphasis on the last word: “Love the Lord your God…with all your mind,” and 1 Peter 3:15b “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” My mother and I had constant conversations – sometimes arguments – about theology and science. I went to a Bible college with a high level of academic excellence, where I learned about the history of the Christian church and the canon of the Bible, Biblical interpretation, critical thinking, psychology, and cultural anthropology. Through this, my beliefs moved from that of an Evangelical Mennonite, to someone more comfortable in an Anglican church.
My wife and I were friends in college, and she went through her own crisis of faith, and came out trying to hold her belief in God together by sheer determination. We both worked hard to find answers to our questions and form a coherent, rational Christianity. At one point, I read a book by an atheist, Carl Sagan, finally encountering the arguments of an opponent in their own words. His premises were true, and his logic was unimpeachable, but I could not agree with his conclusions. I descended into depression for a while, at one point exclaiming to my wife that I wished God would show me some real evidence of his existence.
Finally, one day, I realized that I no longer believed god existed. I was shocked and dismayed that I had become the enemy – an atheist. I spent a great deal of time after that going back over all the apologetics and creationist literature and arguments I had previously believed, as well as their rebuttals from ex-Christians, echoing the works of philosophers, biologists, archaeologists, and Biblical scholars among others.
From there, it has been a journey of rediscovery, examining and appreciating the valuable parts of what I once believed, while carefully working out new positions on life, the universe, and everything. I have had to deal with anger at being misled by formerly trusted leaders, and mourning the loss of belief in the afterlife. I have had numerous difficult conversations with friends and family, losing some and gaining new common ground with others in the process. I began with anti-religious zeal, but eventually came to appreciate how much common ground I share with the believers who make up the majority of my social circle.
- If God did not create the universe, who did?
Why is it necessary for someone to create the universe? The reason humans tend to ascribe agency to everything is that we’re wired that way, not because there’s any good evidence for the universe’s creation by anything that could be described as a “whom.” Our ancestors benefitted from assuming that mysterious noises or movements were caused by another being, thus keeping them safe through precaution. Religions have simply amplified that mental shortcut into giving a simple explanation for something complex that was previously out of our ability to investigate.
We are quickly gaining more and more insight into the universe’s early days, which is opening up possibilities that sound like science fiction. The problem is that despite the many hypotheses about what started the universe’s expansion, we still have no idea what the answer will be. The honest answer to the question of why the universe exists is “we don’t know yet,” and anything else is wishful thinking. Humans have difficulty with that answer – with true mystery – which should push us to work harder towards discovering the truth.
- Why are atheists so angry?
Why does it matter that you see atheists express anger? Does someone’s anger devalue them and their arguments? Does it define them? Do you see atheists as less human, less intelligent, or less honest because of it? What makes you angry? Should others make similar judgments about you when you speak up against injustice?
Is anger a bad thing? There’s a lot to be angry about in this world – willful ignorance, dishonesty, corruption, injustice, selfishness, greed, prejudice, violence, etc. Most of the time, atheists share this anger with theists, because human suffering is a universal injustice. Anger is not a bad emotion. It is unpleasant, but like pain, we can respond by lashing out and hurting others, or by working to resolve the situation or change the attitude that is causing our anger.
The subject of our anger matters. Sometimes we feel it because we see people being hurt, and sometimes because others point out or threaten a privilege we’re used to exercising, one that others are denied. Atheists are among the many who see and are angered by the disproportional power and influence Christians exert in North America. Those who most benefit from this privilege, and yet are told every day to watch for persecution of their faith, view the loss of their privilege as oppression. Thus atheists appear irrationally angry, despite many others speaking the same truth.
- Do atheists have a soul?
If we’re referring to the supernatural belief in mind-body dualism, in which a soul is someone’s immaterial, immortal essence, then no; nobody has a soul. Humans have long had difficulty explaining the complexity of consciousness and the human mind. Greek philosophers like Plato proposed duality as an explanation, which was later developed by others like Descartes, and heavily influenced Christian theology. In the time since, we have discovered a great deal about the workings of the brain, such that a soul no longer makes sense, even if it is something we’d like to imagine. Chemical and physical changes to the brain affect one’s reasoning, emotions, memories, and personality. Diseases can completely change the person we love into someone who we don’t recognize, even someone whose soul seems to have departed. The concept of a soul is a magical idea, but ultimately a wishful one which cheapens the amazing function of our brains.
- Do atheists believe in nothing?
You have reached the limitation of labelling someone by what they *don’t* believe. The term atheist is useful in a world where most people believe in some type of god(s), but it really doesn’t tell you much about what fills their lives or their minds. If you want to know what someone thinks about an issue, ask. You may find out that someone is a pacifist, that someone else is a non-practicing Jew, or that I identify as a Secular Humanist. Most of us have no reason to reject the findings of science on cosmology, physics, biology, or medicine. Many of us identify as Humanists. Just like religious people, there are atheists marching with Nazis and atheists marching with Black Lives Matter. We have children, family, friends, coworkers, and sometimes fellow Humanist group members. We work, we play, we create, we love, and we die. We are human, and there is no human who has *no* thoughts about their world.
- If atheists don’t believe in God, what prevents atheists from raping, killing, and breaking the law?
Christians have been raping, killing, and breaking the law at a furious pace for a long time, and many are still doing so as I write this. It appears that belief in god isn’t stopping them. I have already written a bit about morality, but it bears restating that Christians are not more moral than atheists. Non-believers raise more compassionate children, we commit crimes at a lower rate, and countries in which religion is less prevalent are happier and more successful. Even within the US, states with higher rates of religiosity are poorer and more dysfunctional, including having significantly (up to 3 times) higher rates of teen pregnancy.
I have no desire to rape or kill anyone, and I assume the same is true for you. What does god have to do with that? The idea that superior morality is found in the Bible or in religious belief is something atheists simply don’t share.
Bonus question: What happens when you die?
To us, nothing. We lose consciousness and resume the dreamless sleep of nonexistence that we had before our brains developed. We live on through the impact we left on the world; in the lives we touched and the people we loved. We live on in the memories we write in other’s brains. As memories of us fade, our impact continues to spread like ripples in water, swelling out through the world for generations. With time, our nutrients will be returned to the earth and reused, to create or nourish new life to experience the universe.