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Questions Atheists are Often Asked

By Pam Zerba

Presented by PA Nonbelievers (PAN) – Central Pennsylvania’s community of atheists, agnostics and humanists, with meetings in York, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Lebanon, Reading, Chambersburg.

People often have questions of atheists. These are my answers to common questions. They are just one person’s answers; atheists have no scripture, no book summarizing our beliefs.

What philosophy of life does an atheist have?

One of the functions religion performs is to give you a framework to use in making decisions, in living a rewarding life. What is an atheist’s framework?

Realism. Atheists have no excuse. We are responsible for our lives. With us, what you see is what you get; there is no “God sees the truth, but waits” “I’m earning my crown in heaven.” As Cher says, life is not a dress rehearsal. Have you read the Wizard of Oz? In the book, not the movie, the Tin Woodman is very careful not to step on bugs or worms on the sidewalk, because he didn’t know how somebody with a heart would behave. He erred on the side of caution. We atheists have to do the right thing, because there is no heavenly being who understands that we are really good people, deep down, and no list of immutable rules that fit every situation.

Religious people say that’s a recipe for selfishness. It can be. But religious philosophy can lead to passivity, to a “it’s all for the best” “God doesn’t make mistakes” attitude that can lead to an acceptance of things that shouldn’t be accepted.

When I was a kid, Catholics couldn’t get divorced. I saw lots of unhappy marriages, lots of unhappy kids, because of that. People sacrificed their lives to do what they thought God wanted, although, interestingly, he apparently doesn’t care so much anymore. What happened to all those unhappy lives, unhappy because they lived in the 1950s instead of the 1970s?

Remember Huck Finn? There’s a key chapter early in the book when Huck and his friend, the slave Jim, are going down the Mississippi, and Huck has a crisis of conscience. He’s helping Jim escape. That’s a sin, isn’t it? All the nice religious people of Hannibal, MO certainly think so. In what some people regard as a key moment in American literature Huck finally decides that he doesn’t care: he’ll go to hell, but he will help Jim escape.

My high school religion class asked our teacher, a priest, if that didn’t mean that Huck would, indeed, go to hell, even though he’d done what we all knew was the right thing. Huck had decided that what he wanted was more important than what God wanted; isn’t that the definition of sin?

No, the priest told us. Huck had a malformed conscience. He did not correctly discern the difference between right and wrong.

Wait a second. How does that work? we all wondered. How do you know if you have a malformed conscience? Couldn’t you just assume that anytime you wanted to do anything sinful? We finally decided among ourselves that the priest hadn’t wanted to upset us by confirming that Huck indeed was going to hell.

What these examples tell me is that the rules aren’t quite as permanent as religious people want to think. And if that’s true – if the rules are subject to interpretation – how can be people be sent to hell, how can laws be written, based on them?

What about the accusation that atheism can lead to selfishness, to bad behavior? When I hear religious people say that, I always wonder what it is they would be doing, if it weren’t for religion. I mean, would my religious women friends go down to Baltimore and start picking up sailors? Do drugs? Steal? I don’t think so. I think people want to have friends, a happy personal life, and they behave in a way that allows that result to occur.

But doesn’t a religious population engage in more civic activity?

Perhaps. But the record of religious involvement in civic affairs is by no means cloudless. Churches rightfully point to their involvement in the Civil Rights movement. But how many churches supported segregation, in fact supported slavery, and let the consciences of their members doze. We don’t remember this now, but one of the most contentious issues of the late 19th-early 20th century was temperance. Political elections, the presidency itself, hinged on whether the candidate was a “wet” supporter of alcohol, or “dry,” a supporter of prohibition. One of the key organizations that pushed prohibition was the WCTU – the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Well, they won, and we know how well that turned out.

Here’s the point: atheists believe that we are all responsible for what we think and what we do. We cannot escape responsibility for our actions, or for actions done in our name, by pointing to a higher power.

What have you got to lose by believing? After all, if you’re a believer and you’re wrong, well, you haven’t lost anything, have you? But if you are an atheist and you’re wrong – well, everlasting hellfire for you!

This is actually an old argument, stated by the otherwise sensible French philosopher Blaise Pascal. It’s known as Pascal’s wager. I would argue that you would lose a lot, by subjugating your own judgment and your own humanity to a being that doesn’t exist. The thing is, though, I don’t understand the basic premise. It says that non-believers should pretend to believe, even if they don’t, because that will fool God? I don’t know that there is any God I could believe in but I’m sure that a basic requirement of that God is that he’d have to be smarter than I am. What is the point of a God you could so easily bamboozle?

What good do atheists do? Do you do anything on the scale of churches – run hospitals, soup kitchens, etc?

I disagree with the premise. It’s like asking the Audubon Society where their hospitals and missions are. That’s not what the Audubon Society does, and it’s not what PAN does, either.

And I’d like to take credit for part of those good works by religious groups. After all, one of the reasons that they are able to do what they do is that they are tax-exempt. My taxes help support those organization, whether I like it or not, and believe me, there are many of them I would never send a nickel to.

Added by Webmaster: Also, turn that question around – What good do YOU do? Individually, how many charities have you contributed to this year? Many PAN members on our own volunteer for several charity causes, and PAN occasionally raises money for emergency causes and other area needs – Please see our “About” page

Maybe you are right, at least about some things. But why do you have to talk about it?

I’ve found that many people agree with at least some of our ideas, but wish we would shut up about them. It makes them uncomfortable for us to point out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies in religion, the less than wonderful aspects of various religious activities and people. They seem to feel that we are vulgar to bring all this up out loud – sort of like someone who would walk into a kindergarten blaring that there’s no Santa Claus. Maybe that’s right, but why do you have to bring it up?

The lack of an atheist or non-believer viewpoint leads to distortions of history, and thought, that can be dangerous. In the last few years we are bombarded with the statement that the United States is a Christian nation. That is clearly not true. Neither Jefferson nor Madison claimed that in the Declaration of Independence or Constitution, and John Adams specifically denied it in the Treaty of Tripoli.

It concerns atheists that a significant minority in this country seem to be determined to classify all non-Christians – and that means Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and all the other non-Christian religionists, not just atheists and agnostics – as second class citizens. Why wouldn’t we want to stand up and be counted when that is going on?

Abortion and same sex marriage remain among the most contentious issues in this country. Health care reform was held hostage to the abortion question. While neither abortion nor same sex marriage are purely religious issues – I know atheists who oppose both – it can’t be denied that both get a significant part of their political traction from religious groups. Why shouldn’t atheists identify themselves and state our point of view when religious people don’t hesitate to try to turn their beliefs into laws?

But don’t you think that the world just doesn’t make sense if there’s no God?

Why do our hearts look for faith, why does almost every culture have some kind of supernatural component, if it isn’t true? I think humans are always trying to understand, and formulate an explanation for events we don’t understand. As our knowledge expands, the old explanations fade away. The Greek gods lived on top of mountains until people climbed mountains, and in the sky, until we flew. Thunder was the result of the gods fighting. We know better now.

As you probably know, Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary appeared in Lourdes, in France. Many miraculous cures are attributed to drinking or bathing in the water at Lourdes. But the pace of miracles there has dramatically slowed down in the last 50 years. The reason for that is simple. Medicine has improved, and doctors can explain a lot of cures that used to be called miraculous. As knowledge expands, our restless determination to understand is satisfied by truth, not the supernatural.

Why do the arguments in favor of God, or gods, have to be so elaborate? If there is a god, why is he so hard to find? Religious people say, why, just look at the beauty of nature, the order of nature – don’t you see God in that? But couldn’t god say loudly and clearly that he exists? Instead of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of religions, couldn’t he take a minute to explain what it is he wants from us? I know there are arguments explaining why that’s not possible, but they simply don’t make sense to me, unless God is playing a sort of elaborate practical joke on humanity, or just likes playing hard to get – which hardly seems godlike.

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