We had over 200 questions and comments roll in after I introduced Hemant Mehta, aka “the friendly atheist,” and invited you to ask him your pressing questions. It was tough picking the best ones—(we relied heavily on the “like” feature and questions that appeared to overlap with one another)—but I think these represent a good start to a healthy dialog.
RHE: Thanks for taking the time to participate in this discussion, Hemant! It seems to have attracted quite a bit of interest. So, by way of background, what brought you to become an atheist, and what keeps you as an atheist? (question from Melissa)
HM: I became an atheist (someone who doesn't believe in a god) because I started questioning my parent's faith (Jainism) at 14 and I discovered that there was no proof for a lot of what they believed -- no proof for reincarnation, the existence of karma, heaven or hell, etc. There was really no evidence that anything supernatural ever occurred, period. Turns out that didn't just apply to Jainism -- every major religion believes in something supernatural. So I started calling myself an atheist.
What keeps me an atheist? Continued lack of evidence for the supernatural. Whenever Christians want to convince me god exists, they cite some personal anecdote… as if your cancer went away because God Did It (and not a doctor)… or you met your significant other because of God's Guiding Hand (and not via match.com or through mutual friends or pure coincidence).
In my experience, Christians tend to be very bad at explaining their reasons for why god exists (and specifically the Christian version of god) in a way that any atheist can take seriously. Usually, we can respond with a perfectly natural explanation for your "miracle." Or, sometimes, I hear a Christian offer their explanation, and I wonder how they would feel if someone from a different faith said the exact same thing. Are they wrong?
What is the biggest misconception that Christians have about atheists? (question from Josh)
The biggest one that comes to my mind: Atheists are immoral because they don't believe in a god.
That's absurd. On the whole, we are highly ethical. The atheists I know donate to charity, volunteer their time, donate their blood, help other people, etc. Why be good? Because it makes the world a better, happier place to live in. Wouldn't you want to live in a world where people were helping each other instead of hurting them?
So why do people believe the opposite? I think a lot of pastors love to demonize atheists because they want you to believe that to be good, you need God… and since atheists don't have god, we can't *possibly* be good. It's just bad reasoning all around.
To paraphrase something I've heard before, if your belief in god is the only reason you're not killing, robbing, or raping others, then maybe you need to see a psychiatrist… (For what it's worth, I'm aware there are good and bad atheists just as there are good and bad Christians.)
What's the single question that you pose that people of faith have the hardest time answering to your satisfaction? And what single question do atheists in general have the most difficult time addressing? (question from Torcon1)
The hardest question for people of faith to answer: Why are all the other religions wrong? To me, they all believe in the same type of nonsense, so the same evidence that you might use to dismiss another faith can probably be used to dismiss your own. (And in case you're thinking "the Bible proves Christianity is true," I assure you all the other faiths think their holy book proves their religion is true, too.)
The hardest question for atheists to answer: You know, I thought about this for a while, and I really can't come up with anything. It's not that atheists know everything; it's just that we're perfectly comfortable saying "We don't know" to questions that no one has the answer to. Why do we exist at all? I don't know. What caused the Big Bang? I don't know. Why do we have consciousness? I don't know. I don't know those things and you don't either.
In my experience, most religious people can't handle that uncertainty. Their religions make up answers to those questions (and others like them) on the basis of no evidence whatsoever and people start believing it after a while. It'd be much more honest of them to admit no one has the answers to those questions and it's possible no one ever will.
What are ways that religion (Christianity specifically, since most readers here come from that faith tradition) crosses over from being something that you simply disagree with to something that you find harmful? (Question from Alise)
Religion is at its worst when people use their beliefs to deny other people equal rights, treat them in some awful way, or cast doubt on otherwise solid ideas.
Because of Christians, there are still laws in several states (though they're unconstitutional) that deny atheists from holding elected office. Because of Christians, in most states, my gay friends in committed relationships can't get married, adopt children, or put their significant other on their insurance plans. Because of Christians, we've become a nation full of evolution-deniers and science-doubters.
Of course, there are individual Christians who don't fall into each of these categories. But the institutional as a whole has done a hell of a lot of damage.
It's not just these "worst case" scenarios, though. Even "good Christians" on the side of proper science education and social justice believe in the supernatural. They believe someone is listening to their prayers and that Jesus rose from the dead, despite there being no evidence for either of those things (no matter what Lee Strobel tells you). Atheists believe in discovering the truth whenever possible, and anything that gets away from that is harmful to some extent.
A lot of folks wanted to know your response to Pascal’s Wager… Has this factored into your thinking at all?
Pascal's Wager essentially says: If you believe in God, you're safe whether he exists or not. If you don't believe in God, you're screwed if he exists. So why not just believe in God and save yourself from possible misery?
Frankly, I'm shocked so many Christians still use this argument. But here are a couple responses…
-- What if we're believing in the wrong God? Then we're all in trouble.
-- Do you really want me to say I believe in your god just to "hedge my bet"… or because I firmly believe your god exists?
Pascal's Wager ends up just asking for lip service, not genuine belief in a god.
On a side note: To everyone who asked about Pascal's Wager, you could've answered your own question by Googling "Pascal's Wager," going to the first link (Wikipedia), and reading the article :) That's the case with a lot of Christian "arguments for god." I wonder why so many Christians don't check with Google first. Or are they the same people who forward those annoying emails without checking Snopes.com first…?
Do you experience discrimination as an atheist? (Question from Jessica)
Yes, but it's not always "in the books."
Most atheists couldn't run for elected office because there's a taboo against people who don't have the "right" religious faith. (The fact that Mitt Romney is the current Republican frontrunner just proves that you don't even need to be a Protestant -- you just have to have faith, period.) Atheists are also the most distrusted religious minority in America as well as the people you'd least like your children to marry. So we're up against all those awful stereotypes.
More specifically, though, I remember applying for my first high school teaching job. Most of my leadership experience to that point had been with atheist organizations. I'd received a number of scholarships because of my activism, started my own successful atheist group on campus, helped run a non-profit group to help college atheists, written a book about atheism… and I had to purge all that from my resume because there was a strong likelihood those things would count against me.
I have no doubt, though, that if my resume said I volunteered with my local church, ran a church youth group, and received scholarships from national evangelical groups, it would've been a boost for me and made me look like a great candidate.
That's the sort of de facto discrimination atheists have to deal with all the time, and it's primarily due to religious leaders spreading misinformation about us. I'm trying to do what I can to reverse that damage.
Several people wanted to know what evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to believe in God?
At this point, I'd have to experience a miracle that had no natural explanation (and couldn't possibly have one). A real miracle, too, not "God opened up this parking spot for me; it's a miracle!" Sometimes, I'll hear about how doctors couldn't cure someone's disease but it "miraculously" went away… and it never takes into account that there could have been a misdiagnosis in the first place or that your body healed in a way we just haven't figured out yet. That's not evidence of god. Give me something irrefutable.
Or maybe god just needs to talk to me. God loooooooves talking to people who are already Christians, but he apparently hates talking to atheists :) I'm always listening. I always hear nothing.
From Liz: Do you say the Pledge of Allegiance? ("one nation under God")
As a high school teacher at a public school, it's said over the intercom in my classroom every day. I never say it, but my students are free to do so.
(For what it's worth, I think it's silly concept to pledge allegiance to any country in the first place. I'm a proud American, but there are a lot of horrible things my country does that I'm not proud of and there may come a time when it makes sense not to pledge allegiance to it. Why should we blindly commit ourselves to supporting our country no matter what? I think that's a bad lesson to teach children.)
From Ben: Who are your favorite living atheist thinkers? Who are your favorite living Christian thinkers?
I like Daniel Dennett, because he demystifies religion from a sociological perspective. His book, Breaking the Spell, is one of my favorites -- he made a lot of arguments against religion I hadn't considered before. I like blogger PZ Myers because he's never afraid to tell you what he thinks, no matter how uncomfortable it might make you feel (e.g. To Catholics: A communion wafer is just a cracker, not Jesus. Get over it). For what it's worth, I don't always agree with him and I sometimes dislike the tone he uses, but I appreciate his dedication in going after religious wrongs and faulty uses of science.
My favorite Christian thinkers? This is tough, because the theologists and apologists never seem to say anything compelling or different. There are brilliant scientists who happen to be Christian, but it's their contributions to science that I'm interested in.
Honestly, the only Christians I read on a regular basis are bloggers/writers who are willing to challenge the orthodoxy, the ones who tell the church it's wrong when it comes to science, homosexuality, its treatment of women, etc. But even *they* tend to cloak everything in the veil of "doubt" out of fear of offending other Christians… so instead of saying "There's no evidence God actually speaks to anyone," they say "I have doubts about whether God is actually speaking to Christians." I really don't think they're all "questioning." I think they've already made up their minds, but they're afraid of saying as much. Why not just tell church leaders how arrogant and misguided and pigheaded and wrong they are (when it's warranted)? It's not just the public Christian figures who don't get well-deserved pushback, though -- how many Christians have told their own pastors they're wrong on a particular issue? I would guess the number is very low.
That's what I love about atheists. We're not afraid to call people out on their crap. We're not afraid to criticize other atheists (public figures and bloggers alike) when we think they're wrong, either. There's just a sense of honesty and accountability in our movement that I don't always see in the Christian world.
From Heidi: When you feel moved to give thanks for something, to whom (or what) do you address your thanks?
To the people who deserve it.
If I got better after a surgery, I would thank the doctors. If I did well in a class, I would thank the teacher… or maybe pat myself on the back for studying so hard.
From April: What are you currently reading?
Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN. And a whole bunch of plays/scripts for the forensics/speech team I coach at my high school... (I read books/blogs about atheism all the time, so when I get a chance, it's nice to read things that are totally different.)
From Christine: What do you love most in life?
My friends. My family. My girlfriend. My job. My Speech Team kids. Reddit.
Note: Several atheists have jumped into the comment section to answer your questions from last week, so if you didn't see a response to your question here, check there. Or feel free to pose additional questions after this post.