Uncommon Sense

June 11, 2013

Why Do I Care What You Believe?

If you haven’t noticed, I am one of those militant atheists. In the terminology sprouting up around the “New Atheism,” I am a positive atheist in that I deny that even a single god exists. And I not only argue that I do not believe in your god, but that you shouldn’t either.

Pretty cheeky, no? Why should I bother with what you believe? What’s the harm? Aren’t you allowed to believe what you wish? Religion has many benefits that you say make it attractive. The example most often given is that religion consoles those left behind when a loved or respected one dies. Atheism can’t do that, you say.

I urge everyone to seriously consider these claims. Too often atheists just concede this point rather than think it through. I do not.

I have attended my share of religious funerals—of aunts and uncles, grandmothers, cousins, nieces, my father’s (but not my mother’s) and numerous others being relatives of friends or spouses with which I was not particularly well acquainted. I gave eulogies at a number of these as well. In every one of them I was assured that my loved one/whatever was in Heaven with God and was bathed in love or some other such nonsense (one uncle, I was told, was “surely playing golf in Heaven”).

Let’s consider this objectively. How well does one person know another, even a spouse of many years? Even a person very close to you could have committed a mortal sin before you met them or worse, at some point in time, lost their faith. On this last point the Christian and Muslim sacred texts are explicit—if you lose your faith, you cannot be forgiven. So, really, these folks are off to Hell for an eternity of everlasting torment. And we can’t know whether our recently deceased friend was one of these. The priests/ministers certainly can’t know and do not know your loved one as well as you do to boot. So, there is this uncertainty about going to Hell that cannot be resolved. No one can assure you that your loved one is in Heaven and they aren’t about to say tings like “In all probability, Bob is I now in Heaven…,” nope, no way. So, they are blowing smoke, bullshitting you, and you have to know this. This is not very consoling.

Someone very close to me suffered great fear as a child when she realized that her grandparents, whom she loved, were going to Hell. That’s not only not consoling, that’s child abuse. People of different denominations bandy about what they think will happen to those “other” Christians and usually it is not pretty.

It is also no skin off of my butt, so why do I care about what you believe?

As a scientist, I have seen incontrovertible proof that if you choose to believe something false, that prevents you from seeing the truth. The current “low fat” craze is a prime example where my people, scientists, did not oppose very bad thinking on the part of medical “researchers” resulting in three decades of misery, disease, death, and weight gains. We still haven’t shaken off this wrong and wishful thinking.

Religiously, with so many dogs barking up the wrong trees, how will we ever find the tree with the truth in it?

By the way, when I die, I want all of my friends and acquaintances come to my house, eat my food, and drink my liquor and tell stories about all of the dumb, nice, petty, stupid, and fine things I had done, like as in a good old-fashioned Irish wake. This, I think would be more consoling to the loved ones and family I leave behind than some priestly-type who barely knew me pontificating from the pulpit on me “being in Heaven.” (I won’t be, nor Hell, either.) The social benefit of a gathering in which people acknowledge one’s existance and by telling stories giving evidence that they knew you and will remember you is the primary benefit of a wake or a funeral, not the false assurance of where your loved one ended up in a mythical afterlife.


  1. I like! Here, it’s long, but this text by Aaron Freeman is what we militant atheists should be pushing to reclaim death from the religious.

    “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

    And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him/her that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let him/her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her/his eyes, that those photons created within her/him constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

    And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

    And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”


    Comment by john zande — June 11, 2013 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

    • Somehow I knew you would be the first to comment (work shirker!).

      All mockery aside, a physicist is more qualified to console than most protestant ministers. Inept and not very bright they are. (My inner Yoda just burst forth!)

      Seriously, if we were to look carefully at what things actually do console people for loses … instead of ceding them to religions as if that is their natural place in things, we would probably be ahead of the game. These religious paragons are not in any position to console anyone as they can’t know what people want to know when they believe in fairy tale afterlifes. I want people to know that when I am gone, they can’t borrow money from me any more, you know, useful stuff. Not that I am singing hosannas at God’s feet–really, if God wanted me to sing at his feet, you’d think he would have given me a singing voice. (As my Dad said, “the boy can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”)

      Maybe at my wake I could have a physicist recite the proof that it is hotter in Heaven than it is in Hell. That would be helpful to the few believers I have as freinds, no?


      Comment by stephenpruis — June 11, 2013 @ 12:29 pm | Reply

  2. I have been to two very touching, non-religious memorial programs for friends who died in the past few months. They consisted of speeches, music and slide shows honoring the memory of the deceased. These were far more consoling to me than anything religious could have done. In the final analysis, we all console each other. We do it in human terms.


    Comment by marksackler — June 11, 2013 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

  3. Cheeky? Not at all. You are merely sharing your mind, and I am grateful for another perspective. It sounds as though you have critically thought through your worldview, and I am interested in reading more.

    From what I hear/see/read, the majority of Christians talking about their faith are absolutely incapable of adequately depicting their worldview and conviction. Many are also not familiar with science and how it relates to their faith, and can become downright condescending when they are challenged to substantiate their statements with logic. Go figure. (My husband, a science and philosophy major, expounded on this when we first met.)

    We have truly dropped the cultural ball, and behaved like morons. I can’t apologize enough.

    On the flip side, there are some sound Christian figureheads you may not be aware of, and might find of interest as you continue to dialogue. My husband has found the resources below to be scientifically sound, very insightful, logical, and philosophically apt.

    -Dr Hugh Ross, Astronomer, http://www.reasons.org/about/who-we-are/hugh-ross
    -Chuck Missler, Engineer/Mathematician/Information Science/Physics & DoD background – he’s an older guy but keeps up with new scientific research, http://www.khouse.org
    -Ravi Zacharias, exceedingly well educated Philosopher Theologian, http://www.rzim.org.

    They have a lot of stuff on YouTube.

    Thanks again!


    Comment by Aviyah — June 11, 2013 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

    • Unfortunately, most of the guys you link have the same problem. They accept their faith as a given and then look at the modern world and interpret ancient scripture through a modern lens. There is no message in the Bible that isn’t hopelessly garbled. Consequently people extract what they want. It is fine with them that the Bible sanctions slavery and selling off of one’s female children. That they gloss over and praise other stuff. If one were to extract all of the moral admonitions in scripture, you would find a hopeless mishmosh that doesn’t come close to being comprehensive, consequently people simply compress their ethics into we “should love our neighbor as ourself” but then do they really do that. It is telling that so many evangelicals, including my own sister, support cutting food stamps for poor children. I could accept that stance if they were working on a substitute that will keep children out of poverty or at least not dying from hunger to replace an unwanted government program, but most of these folks have an attitude of cut first, and see what the little people can scare up.

      I could go on and on but I don’t want preach to the choir in the opposite case.


      Comment by stephenpruis — June 11, 2013 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

      • Actually, the first resource I listed, Dr Hugh Ross, Astrophysicist, grew up in a non-religious home, and states in his testimony (which can be found here http://www.reasons.org/articles/hugh-ross-testimony and here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zmzAdqqLks ) that he “did not know any Christians or serious followers of any other religion while growing up.” His initial research was an attempt to find the loopholes in religious texts using “the facts of history and science to test each of the ‘holy’ books.”

        Chuck Missler was also well into his DoD/Engineering/Information Sciences career before he began to follow any religion (http://www.khouse.org/pages/mcat/about_the_misslers).

        And Ravi Zacharias, Philosopher/Theologian, was in his formative years in New Delhi, India, where the culture typically holds to a belief in many gods (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gex6wcf2jqU). While his testimony is significant, he often speaks on a variety of current and philosophical issues -many times with atheists and people of diverse backgrounds/beliefs who attend his conferences.

        Consequently, none of these men had accepted their faith as a given and then tried to interpret scripture. It was quite the opposite.

        With regard to the Bible, it is certainly an interesting piece of literature. Unfortunately, when glossed over rather than studied in depth, there may appear to be contradictions. (I thought the same thing until I really began searching for my own answers, and stopped jumping into another’s worldview without investigating it properly.) Contradictions are also easy to form when you snip one verse out of the context of an entire letter or book, as is prevalent.

        There also appears to be a lot more to the text when you begin to study it in the ancient Hebrew, and also when you study in the context of the era. The confusion starts to dissolve.

        To touch on your point, just because there are things like slavery and polygamy mentioned in Scripture does not mean it was condoned by God. The Old Testament contains a number of accounts such as these, but when examining the moral of said story, it shows the downfall of acting in such a manner. When looking at the bible as a whole, it’s important to see it as a master plan that has been slowly revealed over the course of history. Again, unfortunately, the VAST majority of Christians (so called) don’t actually read -let alone study- the Bible for themselves. This is not to say we have all the answers, but there is a lot more to consider than what is commonly heard, and there are believers who share the same value as (so-called) atheists in taking an objective approach.

        Overwhelmingly it seems that, for those who have truly concerned themselves to look for the answers to the mysteries of the universe and life, etc, they have been turned to God. My husband (who has said a number of times, that he used to take pleasure in crushing Christians in debate) said he never thought Christianity was capable of holding any answers for him. But when he looked, he found. Just as the Scripture said it would happen.

        In your writing, you claimed that your purpose was to convince others that they ought to become atheists, also. You said that we should be very careful to know what we believe and why. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think it is important to hear and dialogue with counter-perspectives, and weigh a matter to its logical outworking. What resources or ideas you would offer to someone of faith?


        Comment by Aviyah — June 13, 2013 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  4. It would be interesting to know if there’s actual statistical data on whether religious people handle death of their loved ones easier than atheists (accounting for the personality types, of course). Considering that the believers are so sure that those who died aren’t really dead, but just continue their eternal life elsewhere, they should overcome their grief much quicker.


    Comment by List of X — June 13, 2013 @ 11:22 pm | Reply

    • Indeed. A quick internet search showed lots and lots of opinions and stories but no research per se. A number of articles addressed how atheists respond when people trying to consol the berieved say things like “he is in a better place,” etc. but no formal studies were mentioned.

      Consoling people by propagating a mutual fantasy seems kind of odd, very odd. Joining together to share experiences of the dead seems human and supportive.


      Comment by stephenpruis — June 14, 2013 @ 8:22 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: