Four Questions From
A High-School Teacher
I am a high school teacher and as part of classes, I need to teach beliefs other than religious, including atheism.
I have looked at various sites on atheism and I am unable to answer these questions. I would appreciate any help you could give me.
1. What do atheists believe happens when you die?
2. How do atheists believe the universe was created?
3. Apart from not believing in the exisence of a God, supreme being, etc., is there another belief that binds atheists together?
4. If you had to go to court, for whatever reason, what do you swear to tell the truth on?
Thank you for your time and effort,
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Melissa Brady"
Subject: Re: What do atheists believe?
Date: Sunday, October 22, 2000 10:44 PM
Atheism is simply the lack of a god belief, although some atheists strongly assert that no gods exist. Please make this clear to the students, as the popular definition (popularized by the Roman Catholic Church) aggravates the stigma that is everywhere against atheists. The article which argues this definition most lucidly is George H. Smith's "Defining Atheism." We also cover this topic extensively in "Introduction To Activistic Atheism."
For information on the stigma against atheists in the United States, see Wendy Kaminer's "The Last Taboo" (particularly this section), and the 1999 Gallup poll summarized in and linked from Brazilian author Huascar Terra do Valle's letter to us dated August 10, 2000.
I will address your questions, but not in the order you asked them. Please bear with me as this will be long. Many of these discussions, particularly the one on origins, require much background information in order to grasp our position. (This is no easy deal.) Other sections, such as the discussion on death, warrant careful discussions on some peripheral issues. For example, in the case of the discussion on death, it is necessary to show how various atheists feel about this being our only crack at life. And, whenever we can, we must compare our thoughts with those we hear from theists, if we wish to have any hope of theists understanding our position, particularly if we want theists to know how we came to the positions we hold and why we reject the theistic position.
No. Not necessarily, anyway.
The definition for atheism that we use, put simply, says that atheism is the lack of a god-belief, the absence of theism, to whatever degree and for whatever reason. The one thing that all atheists have in common, according to this definition, is that they are not theists. One either believes one or more of the various claims for the existence of a god or gods (is a theist) or one does not believe any of those claims (is an atheist). Though we do not recognize any "middle ground," we do acknowledge the agnostic position, which spans both theism and atheism: a theistic agnostic thinks one or more gods exist but can say no more on the subject than this (is a theist); an atheistic agnostic doesn't know if any gods exist (lacks a god belief, and is thus an atheist). Noncognitivists think all god-talk is meaningless, and thus lack any god beliefs (are atheists).
This, our working definition for the meaning of the words atheism and atheist, is known as the weak definition for the word atheism. We cover several aspects of this definition in our FAQ piece titled "Introduction To Activistic Atheism," from which this piece is excerpted.
To assume that atheism involves more than the absence of theism is an error. Atheists are not necessarily Communists (though some are). Atheists are not necessarily immoral or "wicked" (though some are). Atheists do not necessarily assert that "no gods exist" (though some do). Atheism is but one component of an atheist's larger philosophical outlook and can influence that outlook, but atheism is never itself that primary outlook.
Some atheists simply lack belief (or even awareness) while others have carefully considered the various claims and have either found them unconvincing or have flat-out rejected them as pure falsehood. Even if a person has never heard someone claim that a god or gods exist, that person lacks theism and is therefore, technically, an atheist. Nevertheless, most atheists would convert to theism if presented with a convincing argument, be they people who have yet to encounter claims for the existence of gods, or be they people who have honestly and carefully considered and rejected those claims that they have encountered.
One very important feature of the atheistic position is the fact that we are dealing entirely with claims -- claims that various deities exist. In discussing claims, it is always the person making the claim who is responsible for providing evidence and strong argument. The person listening to the claim need not make any argument at all. And the listener does not need to disprove a claim in order to reject it. If the person making the claim fails to make a convincing case, the listener rightly rejects the claim as falsehood (or suspends judgement, based upon the strength of the claim). In either event, the listener ends up lacking a belief in the object of the claim. While the world's atheists have assembled a vast and powerful arsenal of anti-theistic arguments, it is never the atheist's responsibility to prove or disprove anything. That job belongs to the person making the claim, which, in this discussion, is the theist.
And in lieu of hearing a convincing argument for the existence of gods, we remain without theistic beliefs: We remain atheists.
(Portions excerpted from the introductory remarks to the subsection, "Regular Atheism," within the main section called, "What Is Atheism?," part of our FAQ centerpiece, "Introduction To Activistic Atheism," by Cliff Walker.)
Activistic atheists tend to support State-Church separation, and oppose such things as organized school prayer, placing religious slogans on our money, and other intrusions of religion onto our private lives. But, many atheists are too busy fearing for their safety and trying to keep a low profile that they remain silent about these views that are almost universal among philosophical atheists (those who have thought about the issues and have examined the claims of theism and have rejected those claims). Many of us would lose our jobs if it were found out that we were atheists. So, we "stay in the closet" as the homosexuals say.
It's too bad that so many theists are so viciously prejudiced against atheists that rival sects have been known to unite for the purpose of purging their societies of those of us who don't believe any of the fantastic stories about gods and angels and demons and heavens and hells. We are forced to lie to others about are true thoughts in order even to get along.
In 1999, the Gallup Poll asked Americans who they would vote for. Only 49 percent said they would vote for an atheist, while 59 percent would vote for a homosexual. Nowadays, 92 percent would vote for a black (not all blacks are African, so the poll didn't state "African American"), and 95 percent would vote for a woman. This figure is up from 1958, when only 18 percent would have voted for an atheist. No other group has ever gone lower than 26 percent, which was how many people would have voted for a homosexual in 1987 (when the homosexual category for this poll began). The second most prevalent religious prejudice is against Mormons: 79 percent say that they would vote for a Mormon for president, up four percent from 30 years ago. The other religions listed, Jews, Catholics, and Baptists, received 92 percent, 94 percent, and 94 percent respectively. This survey and its analysis is posted on the Gallup website.
So, we at Positive Atheism have, as our highest priority, the reduction or elimination of this stigma. Since we cannot change denigrating Bible passages such as: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God" (Psalm 14:1: the word fool here means "morally deficient"); "He that believeth not shall be damned" (Jesus in Mark 16:16); "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made ... so that they are without excuse ... that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God ... and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.... And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind" (Paul in Romans 1:20-22, 28, a passage which many Christians use to falsely accuse atheists of secretly knowing that the Christian religion is true, but that we are willfully lying about what we "know" to be true).
However, there are a few things we can do from our end. We can explain the nature and range of nonbelief, and we can discuss our reasons for rejecting theism. We can remind believers that the theistic position consists entirely of claims, controversial and untestable claims; that the theist is obligated to prove those claims; that the listener (the atheist) is not obligated to prove anything. We can show the wide range of degree encompassing atheism, that some have yet to hear a god claim that holds water (the weak position) while others have honestly and carefully weighed the various arguments (the strong position). And we can offer the many positive arguments that favor of the view that no gods exist.
An atheist can cut short much of this stereotyping by: (1) pointing out that the strength of conviction among atheists varies as widely as it does among theists; (2) emphasizing the fact that the theism-atheism discussion revolves entirely around the claims made by theists, not any denials made by atheists; (3) insisting that the burden of proof rests upon the one making the claim, not on the listener.
(Portions excerpted from the segment called, "Vilifying One-Fifth of Humanity," part of our FAQ centerpiece, "Introduction To Activistic Atheism," by Cliff Walker.)
Since the only thing that all atheists have in common is that we lack theism, we lack a god belief, this answer depends upon the individual atheist.
Most atheists who are atheists of the philosophical variety (we have thought these issues through; we have studied the various claims and have rejected them) will tell you that the human consciousness depends upon a working nervous system. Our conscious, aware "Self" is established by the structures and the processes of the brain and nervous system. Thus, once these processes and structures are destroyed, there is no longer any mechanism with which to establish the "Self" and so the "Self" ceases to exist.
This idea has been described very lucidly in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures, by Zen Buddhist Alan Watts, and by Greek philosopher Epicurius.
His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.
... it would be as if you had never existed at all! Not only you, but everything else as well. You would be in that state, as if you had never been.... You couldn't even call it a tragedy because there would be no one to experience it as a tragedy. It would be a simple -- nothing at all. Forever and for never. Because, not only would you have no future, you would also have no past and no present.
Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is. I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?
The mechanics of existence and nonexistence is one thing; it is another thing altogether to describe what this can mean to someone who cannot rely on comforting myths about an afterlife. I will describe the two extremes: the angst of death and joyous appreciation for having had an opportunity to live.
Anthony Burgess, author of the futuristic novel A Clockwork Orange (which doesn't resemble the film at all), expressed what this means to some of us: the fear of dying, the desire not to die.
Am I happy? Probably not. Having passed the prescribed biblical age limit, I have to think of death, and I do not like the thought. There is a vestigial fear of hell, and even of purgatory, and no amount of rereading rationalist authors can expunge it. If there is only darkness after death, then that darkness is the ultimate reality and that love of life that I intermittently possess is no preparation for it. In face of the approaching blackness, which Winston Churchill facetiously termed black velvet, concerning oneself with a world that is soon to fade out like a television image in a power cut seems mere frivolity. But rage against the dying of the light is only human, especially when there are still things to be done, and my rage sometimes sounds to myself like madness. It is not only a question of works never to be written; it is a matter of things unlearned.
Richard Dawkins, in the opening words of his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, sees this situation in a much more positive light than Burgess (an attitude reflecting some of what we at Positive Atheism seek to advocate among atheists). In it, Dawkins expresses a profound appreciation for the opportunity to have lived.
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here....
This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, 'the present century'.... How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.
In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book. I am equally lucky to be in a position to write one, although I may not be when you read these words. Indeed, I rather hope that I shall be dead when you do. Don't misunderstand me. I love life and hope to go on for a long time yet, but any author wants his works to reach the largest possible readership. Since the total future population is likely to outnumber my contemporaries by a large margin, I cannot but aspire to be dead when you see these words. Facetiously seen, it turns out to be no more than a hope that my book will not soon go out of print. But what I see as I write is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.
My understanding of Dawkins's views comes out in a recent e-mail exchange with a Christian, when I describe myself as "a human being who is humbled by the honor of being able to spend a moment or two as a human."
Others lack a god belief but still have a belief in an afterlife, of sorts. Some atheistic religions teach reincarnation. Other people believe that we may one day be able to restore people through cryogenics (freezing people for later resuscitation).
Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury, in an old piece called "Mother" that I remember reading in Reader's Digest as a youngster, describes how we leave parts of ourselves behind in the form of offspring and in the form of the work we have done, though our consciousness does not survive our death according to Bradbury. After reading this, I wondered if perhaps we can come back later on, if perhaps our consciousness is passed on genetically. I stopped thinking along these lines after realizing that for this to be possible would require that it be possible for "Me" to exist in two places at the same time (such as if the new "Me" were to come out as a great-grandchild while the old "Me" is still alive).
I now think that this is my only crack at living, and that my brother, who died as a young child, never got much of a chance to live at all.
This realization profoundly affects my sense of morality, as best described by Joseph Lewis and Bertrand Russell.
With this recognition of the finality of death, no one should willingly withhold acts that would bring benefits, joy or happiness to others.
United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love. The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instill faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need -- of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy as ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed.
Far from the slander which is so often repeated against us, most people who realize that this is our only life will work tirelessly to make the most of what little we have. We tend to keep ourselves healthy and to take care of our environment. And we tend to treat others with dignity.
In fact, a case can be made that the belief in the afterlife does, in come people, impair one's prospects for holding such sentiments. Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux in 1209, when asked by the Crusaders what to do with the citizens of Beziers, who were a mixture of Catholics and Cathars, is said to have replied: "Kill them all; for the Lord knoweth them that are His." ("Tuez-les tous; Dieu reconnaitra les siens.") We all have heard the stories of the Muslim warriors who, enticed with tales of the Islamic "Paradise" (wherein each martyr is given 72 virgins), went off to war not caring whether they survived. However, we at Positive Atheism tend to downplay this idea, preferring to imagine that most theists are at least as careful and appreciative about living as most atheists are.
Atheists do not believe the universe was created: to ask it this way is a rhetorical trick known as "begging the question."
Most atheists of the philosophical variety (those who have thought their position through as opposed to those who simply lack a god belief by default) respect the liberal scientific method. In liberal scientific method, every claim to truth is up for gabs. Nobody holds the keys to knowledge, and anybody has the opportunity to overthrow even a major branch of knowledge by supplying the scientific community with new evidence. Albert Einstein, while he was a patent clerk, overturned the entire branch of physics with his theories of relativity. Graduate student Joycelyn Bell discovered the first pulsar, revolutionizing our understanding of what stars are (although it was her instructor who received the Nobel Prize).
So, anything we think we know is subject to change; this is how science works. It seems feeble to someone who thinks they have an infallible unchangeable revelation from a deity, but science is the best we have for discovering truth on our own. Besides, some of us don't believe that any of the reputed "scriptures" are anything more than human inventions, so we're stuck with using our minds and our senses and our tools to learn about our world and ourselves.
So, here is the latest thinking in the branch of particle physics, the Inflationary Big Bang model.
Basically, it is possible, in a complete vacuum, for pairs of oppositely charged particles to manifest themselves from nothing, and to assimilate back into nothing. Since they are oppositely charged, no energy is used for their creation and no energy is lost in their assimilation. This phenomenon is called a "singularity."
This is what most particle physicists think a singularity such as this got the Big Bang started. Now, it is a mistake to think that there was any energy coming from within the Big Bang; the energy came when the singularity escaped to fill the vacuum. None of this violates any known laws of physics. Recently, we have been able to establish that the total amount of energy in the universe equals about zero. So, it makes sense that if it took zero energy for the universe to get started, it would still contain zero energy today. Nothing was added to the singularity escaping into a vacuum, and nothing was used up.
Also, it is a mistake to think of the universe itself as being complex. It is not. The universe is almost complete chaos, randomness, and only here and there exist tiny (very tiny) pockets of order. People say that the laws of thermodynamics show that things go from order to chaos, and that for order to exist requires an outside force doing the ordering (even though there is no evidence of energy being added to the universe). This was a formidable objection 100 years ago, before American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble discovered that the universe is constantly expanding. This expansion leaves room for pockets of order to form without violating any known laws of physics -- and fitting in nicely with the laws of thermodynamics.
It is these tiny pockets of order that our eyes are able to see: the earth, the stars, etc. To even detect the rest of the matter in the universe (called "dark matter") requires sophisticated techniques that are only now being developed -- if we ever discover a way to detect this dark matter directly, for now, we must rely on very sensitive measurements of the effects this matter has on gravity in order to show that it exists.
What was before the universe? Perhaps just a big vacuum: nothingness. Perhaps this universe is just a tiny, brief "bubble" in a much larger system. We don't know. The latter speculation does not violate any known laws of physics (I don't know about the former) but for us to establish this as fact would be quite a trick indeed (though I will not get into why).
The most important question to keep in mind is this: If the universe is so vast and complex that it requires that a creator created it (that "it couldn't have just happened"), then that creator would need to be even more vast and more complex than the universe. Thus, all the more would we need to explain the creator. In other words, if you think the existence of the universe needs explaining, and if you posit a creator to explain the universe's existence, then you will need to explain the existence of the creator.
Another thing to remember is that any talk of creation requires first that we first establish the existence of a creator. It is backwards to try to establish the existence of a creator by observing creation. They tell us that if we find a watch in the desert, we surely know it was created. True. We can look on the back and see which company manufactured it, and then we can visit the plant and talk with the designers and the production crew. We also can look at it and observe evidence that implements have been used to form it: scratch marks and the like. But we cannot just go talk to a god, and as far as we know, everything we see is natural.
(Portions based upon our Interview of particle physicist Victor J. Stenger, by Cliff Walker.)
This is not only part of the discussion of religious freedom, it is also part of the discussion of bigotry against atheists.
The Unites States was founded as a secular nation. Our founders rejected the notion of a state religion as being not only dangerous to those who disagree with the state religions (whichever one may currently be on top), but also dangerous to the religious freedom of all. It was commonly understood that the Constitution's prohibition against entanglement forbade governments and the offices of public servants from endorsing any religion. Thus, when asked to proclaim a national day of prayer and fasting, President Thomas Jefferson replied: "Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it." (January 23, 1808 letter to Rev. Samuel Miller.)
The latest Supreme Court decision in this respect bans student-led public prayer before football games at public high schools. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community."
So, it is wrong for the government to endorse one sect over another, and it is equally wrong for government to endorse religion over the lack of religion. And if it is wrong for government to endorse religion, it is all the more wrong for government to require that its citizens to participate in religious ritual.'
To require that citizens swear an oath in court is to require people to practice a religious ritual. In the middle of the twentieth century, the Jehovah's Witnesses successfully argued that courts should not require people to swear the god-oath in court. Now, courts are required to allow citizens to simply "affirm" to tell the truth, etc.
But this is not good enough for me, because my country is still sponsoring and endorsing religious ritual in the course of official business. This is why we at Positive Atheism are still working to abolish a practice that was inherited from Common Law England when our country was founded. True, it was then seen as proper decorum, but Justice Stevens's remarks ring true for me every time I find myself in court.
When I caught two car thieves several years ago, I testified before the Grand Jury. It felt very awkward for me to tell the DA that I wanted to affirm, and then she made a big announcement about it to the Grand Jury. As I was affirming, I looked up and recognized a fellow I knew, a man who had watched me struggle for dignity as an atheist when I had been court ordered to attend Twelve Step meetings (and was jailed for refusing -- even though I had no drug-or alcohol-related charges, much less convictions). He winked at me and I realized at once who he was and I remembered us talking about whether I should keep quiet about my beliefs in the very religious Anonymous programs -- and I felt okay. I saw that he recognized that I am true to my beliefs even when under pressure from a court.
Some of us are not so fortunate as I. I live in Oregon, which has the highest incidence of atheists in the country. A woman wrote to us from Alabama where if you're an atheist you best keep mum about it.
When I got my divorce in 1991 Judge [Roy] Moore held the ink pen in his hand but before he signed my divorce papers he asked me a question which took me by surprise. "Do you or your husband attend church anywhere?" Naturally, I was afraid to say no, so I lied and said that I did.
Judge Moore, if you will remember, abuses his position as judge when he endorses the Christian religion by conspicuously posting the Protestant version of the Decalogue in his courtroom. With an authority figure of that level allowed to endorse his private religious views so blatantly and so conspicuously, no atheist dare do anything but pretend to be a Christian if she or he hopes to receive any justice at all in Moore's courtroom. At least this is the message being sent by Judge Moore and his supporters. When the House approved its endorsement of Moore's activities, Representative Scarborough of Florida used, in his argument, a quotation allegedly from James Madison which, at the time, was widely known even among Christian circles to be a fabrication. Representative Canady, also of Florida, argued that since his money said "In God We Trust," this provides "tangible proof of the traditional cooperation of church and state." Never mind that "In God We Trust" first appeared on U.S. currency in 1964. With such blatant deceitfulness being used to advocate Judge Moore's breaking of the ultimate law, our Constitution, we atheists can be sure that prospects for receiving the same justice that Christians enjoy are slim to none -- not only in Moore's court, not only in the House of Representatives, but in many other aspects of life in America.
Worse than forcing us to practice religious rituals against our will, is (again) the stigma implied in this brutally despicable practice. The implication is that unless we are religious, we cannot be trusted to tell the truth. Civil War hero Robert Green Ingersoll stated it more bluntly: "Christianity has such a contemptible opinion of human nature that it does not believe a man can tell the truth unless frightened by a belief in God." (Quoted from Joseph Lewis, Ingersoll the Magnificent, which gives no citations.) Ingersoll made this comment in direct response to the practice of requiring a god-oath and, in some places, refusing to allow people to testify unless they profess a belief in a particular god. One of our charter subscribers, retired judge Dale Jacobs, currently of Wilsonville, Oregon, told me he never made people practice the god-oath ritual, but simply looked them in the eye and asked, "Now, do you promise to tell me the truth?"
No. We may think we have religious freedom in America, but we do not. We have a long way to go, and may even be moving backwards since the onset of the Cold War (when the words "under God" were placed into our Pledge of Allegiance, and when the words "In God We Trust" first appeared on our currency -- you read that right: this all started during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s).
(Portions derived from "Governments Should Not Erect Religious Displays," by Cliff Walker, published in PanGaia Magazine, Winter, 2000-2001. Not currently web posted.)
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