Ask Reddit (with commentary)

By: Dean Tersigni

Awhile back there was an Ask Reddit where atheists encouraged religious people to ask them questions about being an atheist. The thread had a lot of interesting questions, so I picked out some of my favorites to answer here. I paraphrased some of the more rambling ones.

Do you get angry at bigoted or ignorant atheists who give a bad reputation to everyone else?

Yes, a million times, yes! In fact, I tend to avoid the atheist channel of Reddit because the atheists there spout so much vitriol. Yet, despite both groups having bigots, I think there is a key difference that gets overlooked. When a religious person is a bigot it's because of their religion (how many times have you heard, "I don't say gay people are evil, the Bible does!"). This is different for atheists because there is nothing in atheism that demands or even suggest bigotry. An atheist can be a bigot because of their politics or upbringing, but they can't be a bigot because of their atheism.

Do you ever have doubts, like we do? Have you ever had an experience that made you question your lack of faith?

Everyday I'm still faced with things I can't understand, but now I try to investigate these unknowns and I usually find that there is a reasonable natural explanation. On the occasion when a natural explanation isn't readily available, for example, "how did life begin on the Earth?", I hold the unknown in abeyance, fully admitting that I don't know the answer, but not resorting to a supernatural explanation. I do this because there is a noticeable pattern throughout history: natural explanations replace supernatural explanations, but supernatural explanations never replaced natural explanations.

If you had to pick a religion to follow, which would you choose?

Probably Unitarian Universalism. Although, I would probably also be fine with a very liberal form of Buddhism, Quaker, or Sikhism.

Isn't it depressing, knowing you get one shot at life?

Unless you believe in reincarnation, don't you also believe we only get one shot at life? The afterlife as described by most religions is very different from real life.

Though, I assume the point of your question is, are you depressed by inescapable impending oblivion? To some extent, yes. I love life, and I have no desire to die. However, no amount of hoping will make me immortal, and it is the constant nagging reminder of my impending death that pushes me to live my life in the here and now. Also, since I don't expect to get a second shot, it means my only hope of living in paradise is here on Earth, so it drives me to try and change the world for the better with this short period of life I have now.

Does your atheism affect how you view horror movies/stories/fiction?

When I was more credulous, I believed in a lot of the aspects of the occult like ghosts, psychic phenomena, communication with the dead, etc. After exploring the evidence of such claims, I have discovered that occult claims are invariably the result of incorrectly identifying natural phenomena (like a haunted house being caused by carbon monoxide) or flat out deception from charlatans. I wasn't ever a huge fan of horror movies, but now I feel a bit of ire around them because I feel like they're profiting off the perpetuation of lies. I still love many genres of fiction, I just prefer when the creator is upfront that it's meant to be fantasy.

Do you believe life exists elsewhere in the universe? If so, why? There's no evidence. It's just a belief.

I haven't seen any reliable evidence of extraterrestrial life. If the life on Earth has a natural origin, and there is a growing body of evidence to support such a hypothesis, then we can say that life arose naturally on at least one planet in the universe. And, if our planet isn't exceptional, and there is a growing body of evidence to support such a hypothesis, then we should expect millions of similar planets all over the universe. This means, with the evidence we see today, life on other planets is certainly plausible. However, I don't believe in things just because they're plausible, so, I won't actively believe in life on other planets unless more tangible evidence is made available.

What are your thoughts regarding the reluctance or refusal of some atheists to criticize Islam as a doctrine, while having no issue doing the same for other religions?

While there might be some atheists who don't criticize Islam, I've never met one, and I've met hundreds of atheists. Personally, I will say that I don't see anything special about Islam compared to any other religion. Their holy scriptures contain the same outdated bigotry, ignorance, and calls to violence I see in every other religion's. I don't find the Koran to be as immoral as the Old Testament, but it's certainly not good either. Of course, many religious groups have found a theological way to ignore most of the bad stuff in their scripture and have joined the secular world, and liberal Muslims are very similar to liberal Christians in this regard.

Would any of you care to study the Bible with me?

Yes, but you probably wouldn't like it. Most Christians I've met have only a narrow understanding of the bible, interpreted through a lens to fit their particular denomination while obscuring any alternate interpretations, origins, and well-known flaws.

Do you view another person's religious beliefs as a set of personal choices to be respected or as an indicator that they are not someone you want to associate with?

Neither. I don't think religion is a set of personal choices, but a result of a person's culture. World polling shows that the vast majority of people stick with the religion of the culture in which they were raised. Children born in Christian cultures mostly stay Christian into adulthood, children born into Muslim cultures mostly stay Muslim, etc. Very few people take the time to learn about the various world religions, weigh their merits individually, and change to the one that best fits with reality. Some people claim that they have done this, but they still almost always stick with the religion they were raised with. I enjoy associating with people based on their merits, it doesn't matter what their religion might be.

Why is it that all the atheists I know are so militant about god not existing?

Speaking only for myself, I'm not militant about gods not existing, but rather preventing people from mistreating others because of their religion. For example, imagine living in a country where 95% of the people worship the god Svetovid. Their constitution says they must remain neutral on the topic of religion, but you discover that the government is trying to pass a bill which will divert tax dollars from the fire department to fund a group that evangelizes for Svetovid. When you go to petition the leaders, they dismiss your objection and instead pass the bill with an additional rider which allows companies to dump to toxic waste near your house. They argue that Svetovid will never let your ground water become toxic, but, if it does, it's your fault for not adhering to the laws of Svetovid. As a last ditch effort, you try to sue the government to force them to follow their constitution, but at your day in court, you meet the judge sitting below a plaque which reads, "In Svetovid We Trust," and his first question to you is, "Which church of Svetovid you attend?"

Everything mentioned above happens routinely in the USA with the Christian god. This is why I'm militant against religious encroachment.

I find your lack of faith disturbing.

In Star Wars, Darth Vader said this line while choking someone using the power of the Force, in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda used the Force to levitate space ships, in Return of the Jedi, Emperor Palpatine uses the Force to shoot lightning out of his hands. In the Star Wars universe, it doesn't take faith to believe in the Force. It can be seen, measured, tested, etc. This is different from religious beliefs in the real world. Religions either do not make testable claims, make testable claims and fail them, or refuse testing altogether by saying testing is blasphemy.

Isn't the lack of belief still technically a belief?

There is a subtle difference between, "I don't believe in gods," and, "I believe gods don't exist," and it's important to understand the difference. When someone says, "I don't believe in gods," it means they haven't yet seen enough evidence to convince them gods exist. This is the default position on any belief. It's up to the believer to show convincing evidence that what they believe in exists. When someone says, "I believe that gods don't exist," they are claiming that the believers are wrong to hold their beliefs. In this case, it is up to the doubter to show convincing evidence why their beliefs are unwarranted.

Depending on how someone defines a god, I will adjust my response. If someone suggests a vague god like a "spiritual consciousness to the universe," I will say that I don't believe in such a god. However, if they say they believe in Raijin, the Japanese god of thunder and lightning, I will say I believe such a god doesn't exist because we now have a natural explanation for thunder and lightning.

Do you get your jollies by going around on social media and ousting religious people for no reason at all?

I know what it is like to have my religious world view demonstrated to be false; it's both heart-breaking and embarrassing, and I don't enjoy causing such grief to other people. However, there is a reason for discussing this, and it's a very important reason. It is important to have an accurate truthful view of reality, because we can't discover new truths or fix falsehoods without first being able to talk about beliefs openly and rationally.

Where you born atheist? If not, why did you turn atheist?

I don't think any child is born believing in the Shiva, Odin, or any other god. I think that everyone is born an atheist implicitly, and it is only after being exposed to religions that they start believing in gods (or by incorrectly attributing agency). However, you might be asking, "were you raised in a family that believed in a god?" While my family was mostly secular, I went to church each weekend with my aunt and uncle from around age 10-18. I was saved and baptized in a Pentecostal denomination of Christianity, and a firm believer in young-earth creationism. However, my faith was slowly replaced by science and philosophy and, by my mid-twenties, I had stopped believing in the supernatural altogether.

Why do you think anybody else cares?

I think that the big philosophical questions like "why are we here?" and "where are we going?" are cared about by pretty much everyone.

Although, you may be asking, why do I think that anyone else cares if I'm an atheist? In that case, I think they care because many people want to know what other people think. We hear questions like this all the time, "what is your position regarding same-sex marriage?" "Which party do you vote for?" "When is the right age for letting your children date?" and so forth. When people stop caring about the opinions of other people and think only their own beliefs are "correct," I think bad things happen.

One of the big tenants of science is that you cannot prove the existence of nothing, so how do you rationalize that you believe in the existing of nothing? (No god)

I would first expand your original statement, science cannot prove the existence of anything at all. Proof is in the realm of logic and math, not science. Science can only prove something in the legal sense of the word, that is, show a preponderance of evidence in favor or against a claim.

Regarding a belief in nothing, it's always best to ask people what they believe rather than assume you know. Atheists don't believe in "nothing," we believe in all sorts of things, many of which you believe in as well: the earth, the universe, you, me, love, compassion, fear, etc. We just don't believe in your god.

Why do atheist congregate like a religious following?

Religion did not invent fellowship. Sports fans meet to talk about sports, knitters meet to work on their knitting projects; it is normal for people of similar interests to congregate and talk about their interests, atheists are no different.

Do you ever wonder why millions of people throughout history have believed in a god and have had profound spiritual experiences and why some of the most advanced spiritual minds in the world have devoted their lives to this belief (e.g., the Dalai Lama), so there might just be something to it that you are not seeing? Do you ever try to understand it or are you just convinced you are right and all those people are just delusional?

There is a lot to the question, and I want to get to it all, so I've paraphrase each of the questions and answered them below.

Many people have believed spirituality for years, doesn't that suggest it's true?

For centuries people believed in the four elements, woodland elves, that the sun orbited the earth, and so forth. They found these beliefs helpful because they seemed to answer difficult questions and made sense of their world. Of course, no matter how ubiquitous or tenacious a belief is, it can still be wrong. History is littered with mistaken beliefs, supernatural beliefs especially.

Many people have had spiritual experiences, doesn't that suggest they're genuine?

Recent advances in neurology show that, under an fMRI, religious experiences are very similar to strong emotions or drug use. Pair that with the fact that many religions have traditionally used mind-altering situations like fasting, physical duress, and psychedelics to help achieve "spiritual" experiences, and it's hard for me to think there is anything supernatural about religious experiences.

Do you ever try to understand religion, or are you just convinced you are right?

After I stopped believing in gods, I read primers for every major world religion. None of them seem truly special to me, instead, my researched caused me to begin to see them as rather quaint and juvenile. Likewise, while I may find thought-provoking statements from holy books or religious leaders, I've never read or heard anything to make me believe their wisdom was supernaturally profound.

Do you think all religious people are delusional?

I don't think that religious beliefs are mental disorders or delusions. To say something is a "disorder" means that it is interfering with normal behavior, and most religious people I know live their lives nearly identically to the way non-religious people do. If religious people get to the level where they start refusing life-saving medical treatment or demand the death of people who don't believe as they do, then I think they have a mental disorder. A delusion means refusing to accept when you're wrong, even when a great deal of evidence shows otherwise. This can apply to some religious people about certain beliefs, but a lot of religious beliefs are matters of opinion rather than cold fact. For example, many scholars doubt the authorship of the First Epistle of Peter, while some believe it's genuine. There isn't enough evidence to definitely say one way or the other which is correct, so neither belief is delusional. Of course, if you believe the story of Noah's Ark took place as described in the Book of Genesis, then, yes, I'm afraid you are delusional.