A friend made me aware of TodayChristian.net's recent column titled 10 Questions For Every Atheist. The questions are left, of course, unanswered (one presumes there are no atheists at TodayChristian), and so I thought I'd try my hand at answering them. Full disclosure: I am not, strictly speaking, an atheist, as I admit that a full-on denial of a god is hypocritical when condemning others for their full-on belief in a god. I'm fairly comfortable with a 'don't know' philosophy.
Anyhow, here we go.
Question 1: How did you become an atheist?
Answer: Probably what helped in this regard was the lack of being brought-up in any particular faith. My father had been raised Baptist, my mother Catholic, but neither went to church when I was growing up. We would attend the occasional Christmas Eve mass at our friends' Lutheran Church, and we knew some religious people who talked about their faith, but that was about it. As a teenager, I had a very open mind to learning more about organized religion, and toured some local churches, finally attending a Baptist church in Champaign. That experience, along with some critical thought and lack of indoctrination as a child, was no doubt part of becoming an atheist/agnostic.
Question 2: What happens when we die?
Answer: I have no clue.
Question 3: What if you're wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
Answer: A couple of things first. One, I am relating these questions as they are written. Therefore, take note of the punctuation after the word hell. It is presented as an exclamatory statement, not a question. And, two, it's pretty obvious that they presume my answer to # 2 is along the lines of, 'Nothing, we die.' Fair enough, as it's a question put to an atheist.
Anyhow, to answer the question. If there is a Heaven and a Hell, then I'll deal with that situation when it arises. I hope God would say, "You've been a pretty good person, Matt. You weren't sure that I existed, but no sweat. Welcome." If, however, God is like, "You've been a pretty good person, Matt, but you didn't believe in me, so fuck you. Burn in Hell!" then I don't think he's the kind of entity I'd like to spend much time around, to be honest.
Question 4: Without God, where do you get your morality from?
Answer: This is always a curious question because of what it implies about morality -- that we (some of us, anyway) are moral because we fear a series of consequences. This may be true for some, and for others just in certain situations. For example, I wouldn't steal from a grocery store, regardless of the risk of arrest, but I would most likely speed on a highway if I didn't worry about their being a possible ticket as a result. I try and treat others as I would like to be treated. I don't need a god or a religion for that. It just makes common and emotional sense to me. There shouldn't have to be a reward or punishment dangled in front of us (in most cases) for us to do the right thing.
Question 5: If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
Answer: I'm just going to speak to Christianity here for a moment, but if you feel the need to be rewarded for doing good deeds, then you've missed the entire fucking point of Christianity (pardon the French). As for the rest of the question, my answer to # 4 should suffice. It's true that we have laws partly to deter (as well as punish) crime, but most of us shouldn't be sitting around wanting to rape and murder people in the first place. If you do, I suggest seeking help.
Question 6: If there is no God, how does your life have any meaning?
Answer: I'm not sure why the existence (or lack thereof) of a god would impact my life's worth, or meaning? After all, there's always the possibility that there might be a god, but that he/she/it hasn't endowed us with a soul, that this life is, as they say, it.
Anyhow.... I find meaning and purpose in my life through, well, my life. By accident of birth I arrived in this world in a great country, into a middle-class environment, and with many opportunities thrown my way. I have interests, loves, hopes, goals, fears, etc., and configure them all into what I hope is a life of purpose and meaning.
Question 7: Where did the universe come from?
Answer: No idea. It's true that I like to watch science programs on PBS, some of which will occasionally ponder the question of how the universe came into being. Fascinating stuff! But I don't pretend to understand all of it. People far, far smarter than I have been attempting to answer this question for millennia. What I won't do is to just say, "God created the universe," because that's a cop-out non-answer answer. It also begs the question: Where did God come from?
Question 8: What about miracles? What about all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?
Answer: This is a good question to follow # 7, because they both involve things or events or that we don't really have an explanation for, and then implying an answer for them ("God did it"). The occurrences that we like to describe as "miracles" can often be explained by science or physics, or are hard to explain, but maybe because we're not advanced enough to understand the reasons why?
For those who claim to have a connection with Jesus... who knows? Perhaps they do? As I said earlier, I'm more of an agnostic, so I admit that there very well could be a Jesus who has a relationship with billions of people. There could also be billions of people whose brains have allowed them to believe they have a connection with something. The brain is a pretty remarkable bit of tissue.
As for saints or angels.... that's difficult to say. I've had an experience where it seemed like my maternal grandmother visited me not long after she died. Was it "real," or simply an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, or a fragment of underdone potato? Who's to say?
Question 9: What's your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
Answer: Presumably this refers to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (deceased) and Sam Harris, all of whom are known for their atheism. They are/were very intelligent men, whom I respect. They make strong arguments against religion, and the idea of a god, but (again) I do not believe as strongly as they do. Push come to shove, I agree with much of what they say, but am just not able to supremely say with 100% confidence that there is absolutely no afterlife or a god of some sort. If I can level any real criticism at these individuals, it is that they sometimes come off a tad arrogant and brusque.
Question 10: If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?
Answer: Probably the two biggest constants with any family, tribe, society, or civilization humanity has ever known are the desire to create some sort of order, and the fear of death. I suspect that, from both of these concerns, religions have been born. Create an always-watching god, and the reward and punishment of Heaven and Hell, and you have attempted to create some sort of order. Likewise, with the notion of religion, god, afterlife and souls, you've managed to allay many of the fears of death. That, I think, is why most societies have a religion.
And, there you have it. I'm no smarter than most people, and could very well be wrong in many of these answers. That's the beauty of this debate. None of us -- really -- know the answers until we die. And, perhaps not even then.