7 Honest Questions for Atheists: Answered
Recently, an article titled “7 Honest Questions for Atheists” appeared on The Christian Post. The author, Michael Brown, is a far-right radio host who wrote a book laying out “the evangelical case for Trump” — not someone I’d normally engage with. And while he claims to “genuinely [want] to understand the atheist mindset better,” the framing of his questions is sometimes condescending and narrow. Still, I thought it might be fun, and possibly enlightening, to answer him.
For context: I don’t really think of myself as an atheist, though I suppose I am one. I don’t think it’s very likely that God exists — neither the bearded man in the clouds from Sunday School cartoons nor any other version of a conscious, all-powerful, universe-creating father figure. I side with atheist activists on protecting schools, courts, and legislatures from religious influence.
But I resist labeling myself in relation to religion. I don’t often relate to people who loudly and proudly declare themselves atheists and I don’t confront religious friends or family members for their beliefs. They, as with most people, have their own personal philosophy with varying amounts of Christian influence — their own ways of rationalizing contradictions or understanding the world. For me, religion simply doesn’t add anything of value to that process.
Technically, nonreligious is probably more accurate for me than atheist. In any case, I’m enough of an atheist for the purposes of these questions and whatever thought experiments they trigger. So, without further ado, here are my answers.
1. Would you say that you are (or, were) an atheist based primarily on intellectual study or based on experience? Or did you never believe in God at all?
A bit of both. I grew up in sort of a cross-denominational household. My mother was a Christian, my father was an atheist. We didn’t go to church much, and I was mostly exposed to religion outside the home. I was curious about it here and there, and even went through a phase of nightly prayer. But by my teenage years, I had found explanations for my questions about life and the universe that seemed far more cohesive, complete, and credible.
Growing up largely secular was healthy, in my view. We’re all born atheists. Imagine you’ve made it to adulthood and have learned about biology, physics, and history, but never been told any Bible stories. Then, someone tries to tell you that the Bible is the literal word of the creator of the universe. That’s going to be a real tough sell. But when every authority figure in your life since childhood tells you the story is true, it’s harder to shake it later.
2. Would you say that even as an atheist, you still have a sense of purpose and destiny in your life, a feeling that you were put here for a reason and that you have a mission to accomplish? Or is it primarily people of faith who feel like this, since we are simply the products of an unguided, random evolutionary process?
Purpose and destiny are two very different things. I don’t feel a sense of destiny, but I do feel purpose. There is plenty of meaningful work to do in this world. We need to take better care of each other, house the homeless, treat the ill, stop our abuses of the environment and animals, and end all wars. I yearn for humanity to tackle those problems — some of which are only made worse by religion.
Brown apparently believes only people of faith have a purpose because atheists believe we are “products of an unguided, random evolutionary process.” But evolution is not purely random. We evolved to care for one another, because it was to the advantage of our species to do so. Goodness is innate in us. It’s religion that tells us we are wicked in our nature and need salvation. I resent that, and feel that other sources of enlightenment can give us greater meaning.
3. Would you say that you are 100% sure there is no such being as God? By “God” I mean an eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing being? Or would you say that for all practical purposes you have concluded that this God does not exist, although it is impossible to prove such a negative with absolute certainty?
I can’t say it with 100% certainty, for exactly the reason Brown mentions. But the burden of proof for any extraordinary claim is on the person making it. The claim that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing entity somewhere in the sky or the cosmos or another dimension who watches us, created us, loves us, and spoke to us in the distant past is a far more extraordinary claim than the claim that there isn’t any such thing.
4. Do you believe that science can provide answers for many of the remaining mysteries of the universe, including how the universe began (including where matter came from and where the Big Bang derived its energy); the origin of life; and DNA coding?
Perhaps. Science has already developed compelling hypotheses for some of these questions. There may well be other things that human science can never answer. How or why the universe began is one such question. But we don’t need to answer it to live meaningful lives filled with the things that make us happy. In a universe that came into being unconsciously, questions that start with “why” or “what is the meaning of” may be completely meaningless. It’s up to us to give life meaning, not up to the universe to reveal it to us. There may not be an answer, and it may not even be a logical question — and I’m comfortable with that.
Why must science, or nonbelievers, answer these questions? If Brown is genuinely curious about the Big Bang, what is his answer for it as a Christian? If the Bible truly reveals all God’s infinite wisdom, why does it contain no mention of bacteria, dinosaurs, relativity, or evolution? Just in the course of writing this, the new James Webb Space Telescope released its first deep-field image, showing a universe packed to the gills with trillions of stars and planets, all of which have their own stories to tell and, almost certainly in some cases, life on their surfaces. Wouldn’t that have been worth putting into God’s book about the creation of everything?
In my view, belief in God actually diminishes the natural splendor of our world. It is bleak for me to imagine that every galaxy shredded in a black hole, every ant who helps her colony build a bridge, every drop of water that hits the earth is preordained and put into motion by a single deity — especially one who threatens us with eternal torment if we don’t believe in him.
5. Have you had any experiences in life that caused you to question your atheism? Has something happened to you that seemed genuinely supernatural or otherworldly? Or have you been confronted with some information that shook your atheistic foundations, such as a scientific argument for intelligent design? If so, how have you dealt with such doubts to your atheism?
I detect a bit of projection here from Brown. Most of the time it’s Christians who talk of experiencing a crisis of faith. Because my atheism demands no such faith from me, I have no such crisis.
Music sometimes feels otherworldly. So, too, does being in love. I’ve taken psilocybin mushrooms and encountered vivid, powerful realizations. There is infinitely more to the world than we perceive with our limited senses. For instance, a vast network of mycelium beneath our feet is communicating right now like a planetary consciousness on wavelengths that we cannot tap into.
But to explain the mysteries of our world and our most profound experiences using God or the Bible is immensely unsatisfying to me. I don’t even wish it to be true — not the traditional story, anyway. Our universe is so abundant and beautiful that if our consciousness does somehow outlast our physical bodies, I have much more ambitious hopes for the afterlife than traditional Christianity presents.
6. Are you completely materialistic in your mindset, meaning, human beings are entirely physical, human consciousness is an illusion, and there is no spiritual realm of any kind? Or are you superstitious, reading horoscopes or engaging in new age practices or the like?
These aren’t the only two options. Human beings are not entirely physical, because matter is not entirely physical. Matter and energy are one and the same. I’ve wondered about psychic energy. Our consciousness is seemingly greater than the sum of its parts. After all, what is the stuff that makes up a thought? If a thought is simply the way our brain translates an electrochemical pulse, does that radiate and leave a residue — and if so, can others perceive it? Whether it does or not, the question is still within the realm of the natural world.
7. If you were convinced that God truly existed — meaning the God of the Bible, who is perfect in every way, full of justice and mercy, our Creator and our Redeemer — would that be good news or bad news? And would you be willing to follow Him and honor Him if He were truly God?
The God of the Bible is not perfect in every way, nor is he full of justice or mercy. He is punitive and vindictive, sentencing people to eternal hell for some of the most minor disobediences. If he revealed himself, I would likely follow him for fear of punishment, but I’d like to imagine I’d have the courage to challenge him on all the suffering and torment in this world.
If I may rephrase the question to, “Would it be good news if we all got to live forever in peace and harmony, as is the promise of Heaven,” I would answer yes — and I would ask what’s keeping us from starting here and now. Under some Christian conceptions, the afterlife is all that matters. This has allowed mankind to dismiss the suffering in this life, because God will set everything right after we’re dead. If it weren’t for that incredibly privileged philosophy, maybe more people would work to make this world a better place.
Bonus question. If there is no God, what incentive is there to do the right thing? Where does morality come from? How can we say there is a right and a wrong at all?
Brown didn’t ask this question, but it’s a popular one. Christians sometimes think that without the divine light of God, man would be no better than a wild animal, completely untamed, killing and pillaging with impunity. The problem with this view — apart from its extremely bleak view of human beings — is that other animals don’t behave that way, either.
Nature demonstrates an enormous capacity for love, compassion, and intelligence. Look at the way elephants mourn the loss of loved ones, or how mothers throughout the animal kingdom care for their young. Wild animals have been shown to rescue one another from danger, and will sometimes even risk their own lives to save animals of entirely different species. Every day we learn more about the intelligence and emotional capacity of our fellow creatures.
To think that we’re better than they are is an extraordinary conceit. Actually, compared to the animal kingdom, civilized human behavior can be quite repugnant. In lion society, when a hunter becomes too old to hunt, the pride continues to provide her food. Under our enlightened system, those who cannot produce are cast into dilapidated homes or under bridges. Our technological capacity far outpaced our moral evolution — like us, chimps go to war, but they don’t drop bombs on each other.
We evolved with a certain amount of decency and morality innate within us. Just like our animal relatives, evolution favored the considerate. Species with the tendency to care for one another thrived. Unfortunately, in human society, governments, corporations, and yes, even churches, have tried to turn us against our own fundamental decency, driven us to compete with one another so that the few can benefit.
Unlike some atheists, I don’t see all religion as all bad. My main issue with modern Christianity is the separation from nature that it entails. Particularly among the religious right, there is an idea that man is chosen, and different, and will be protected from the havoc we’re bringing to this planet when God swoops in at the last minute and calls us all to Heaven.
There’s no evidence that will happen. Better that we should take action and responsibility now. Be better to one another, repair the damage we’ve done, and reorient our entire global system towards health, happiness and sustainability, both for ourselves and for the marvelous creatures we are lucky enough to share this planet with. If there is a perfect, just, and merciful God, he will be glad we did.