How Can You Be An Atheist if Your Brother Survived a Brain Injury?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers a reader’s question: How can you be an atheist if your brother survived a brain injury?:

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Agrajag

    I don’t get the question at all. That’s like asking “How can you be an atheist if cows have 4 legs”, i.e. I don’t see how there’s even a connection between being an atheist, and surviving something.

    Alternatively, if everyone who knows someone who survives “should” be religious, does that also imply that everyone who knows someone who dies, “should” be atheists ?

    • Jasper

      It’d be like if I hired a plumber to fix a leaky pipe in my house, and when it was, I thanked Neptune, completely ignoring the plumber’s involvement.

      • KeithCollyer

        I don’t understand your problem, the plumber, for all his skill and experience, was only a vessel for Neptune’s work

        • viaten

          I think he’d be better off thanking the Greek god Hephaestus. Thanking the wrong god could lead to more problems.

  • Jasper

    Sounds like it’s the mother who could use brain surgery.
    /cheap shot

    • Matto the Hun

      cheep but necessary ;)

  • Bitter Lizard

    So many things wrong with that question…

    (1) Surgeries like this are only possible through the same scientific methodology that increasingly tells us that there’s no reason to believe in God. It’s a good thing your brother wasn’t trapped in a culture where prayer was used as a substitute for evidence-based medicine.

    (2) If God is responsible for all the times someone doesn’t die, and should be thanked for it, we should also probably “good game” him on all the plagues and genocides that have wiped out massive populations. I guess God just cares about who you care about, and doesn’t give a shit about the millions who die violent, premature and preventable deaths. Sucks to be them, right?

    (3) Questions like this remind me of the “no atheists in foxholes” argument. Even if it wasn’t complete bullshit, it’s still a transparent admission from theists that they believe in God out of fear and not because they have any good evidence.

    (4) Why did God bother making brain surgery necessary in the first place? If I stab you in the face and then put a band-aid on it, I’m not expecting a thank you.

    (5) And why did God need the doctors? An all-powerful being could have just miracled the whole situation away. Is he in bed with big pharma or something? Why is it that whenever God does something, it’s through processes that seem to function exactly as they would if there was no God at all?

    I could probably go on. Fuck is theism stupid.

    • viaten

      Given that God supposedly can cause trouble for people on a small or large scale, it’s almost like people are thanking God for not doing something worse.

      • 3lemenope


        I think when you dig through enough layers, this is often where it comes out.

        Attrition FTW.

        • Bitter Lizard

          The God theists believe in is never any less petty than they are. I’ve argued with theists who thought I was really playing with fire when I dared God to kill me. Upon realizing my power, I started to dare God to kill them, too.

          • baal

            I’m so going to start doing this. “Dear god, your followers drive me into satan’s hot and sweaty arms on nearly a nightly basis. Please hold them accountable for that sin and smite their asses to death.”*

            *also post it to youtube.

        • viaten

          Digging through the layers I think some people are faced with choosing between a cold, uncaring, random universe or a hidden God who is, they try desperately to justify, messing with us, but they can only hope to ultimately be on his good side by silly rituals of praising and acting like they are on his good side. You can’t reason with a chaotic universe, but there’s hope even if a crazy dictator seems to be in charge if that dictator can’t back out on his final judgement.

  • viaten

    I certainly hope the guy makes or has made a full recovery, but what gets me is that some people will consider any kind of rarity a miracle if it happens in the right context, like someone surviving an accident but with a loss of limbs provided a number of others died in the same accident. It seems some believers think that the more it appears “it could have been much worse” for someone, the more it’s a miracle for that person.

    • flyb

      While following the events in Nairobi for the past few days, I’ve already heard the M word thrown around a few times. Sick.

  • Matto the Hun

    I think the better question is “How isn’t you aren’t punching me in my dumb-ass face for asking such a dumb-ass question?”
    Oh look I skinned my knee, oh but now I have a band-aid on it. CHECK MATE ATHEISTS!

  • Baby_Raptor

    My exhusband survived a brain injury. I don’t at all see how this is supposed to connect to my lack of a belief in god.

  • Michael

    Isn’t the answer simply “How can you believe in a omnipotent, omnibenevolent god when your brother has suffered a brain injury?”

  • Matto the Hun

    Also what’s the deal with this annoying imbalance where we unbelievers are posed the stupidest and most insulting questions and yet when we pose questions and clear criticisms to theists we are militant, intolerant, hateful, mean, etc?

    It’s so tiresome.

    • Baby_Raptor

      We actually have answers. All they have is “Because god.”

      • viaten

        “We actually have answers.”
        Good answers, which we got because we know how to ask good questions.

      • Derrik Pates

        That’s one of my issues with religion – no matter the apologetics being used, all their supposed “sophisticated theology” still boils down to “because god, that’s why”. There really isn’t anything more to it than that, but believers try to dress it up as something else. At least be honest, guys, we all know it’s the same answer you’ve been using for thousands of years.

  • jeffj900

    Another angle on this question is to consider the relationship between the brain and consciousness, personality, character, memory, and the standard capacities of the human mind.

    If you have even a simple acquaintance of the dramatic changes that come over a human mind due to sleep, anesthetics, drugs or alcohol, injuries, or disease, how can you not be an atheist? How can you believe there is a soul and life after death?

    If you have ever talked to someone with serious Alzheimer’s, how can you not ask the question “where has that person gone?”. How will the person I once know come back after the brain and body dies? The answer, if you think logically, is that they can’t. They are gone because their brain is gone.

    All of the information that makes a person what they are is in the brain. All the memories, the love, the emotions, the ability to experience and enjoy pleasures and relationships, the simple ability to recognize the faces of loved ones. We have ample evidence of these things disappearing when parts of the brain are damaged or destroyed.

    There really is no way that a thoughtful, aware, logical person can honestly and seriously take note of and consider our experience with brain surgery, brain disease and injury, mind altering substances, and even sleep and believe that somehow “I” will still be “me” after my brain is dead.

    • enuma

      I completely agree with you on this.

      However, the standard apologist reply that I’ve encountered to this argument is that the brain is some sort of antenna that transmits signals from the soul to the body. Alcohol, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, etc. damage that antenna. This isn’t exactly the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, but it’s definitely up there. I’ll at least give them points for creativity.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        Then of course they need to be made aware that they’re arguing that the person is still in there suffering with full awareness (indeed, with more awareness than humans can imagine) that entire time.

      • jeffj900

        It’s something I’ve thought of before, and heard before. But it can be dismissed with some thought.

        If we can be conscious and fully be ourselves without the body, then the antenna isn’t needed. Why have a brain? Why not just an empty cavity in the head where this “spirit” can reside?

        We know the physics and chemistry of the brain pretty well. We know how neurons and glial cells work, and we understand the processes that cause nuerons to fire. If there were some outside force beamed down from who knows where actually affecting our nervous system, actually interacting with the body in a way that imparts energy and can cause movements, we would be able to detect it. If it can move matter, we can build a detector in order to know of its existence.

        If this signal comes from some place, then all the information for each unique self is stored there. Why organize the universe that way? Why not just make us decentralized autonomous beings? How do the signals avoid crossing or interfering? How does a beam broadcast from across the universe exactly target each individual in a stadium precisely and uniquely with no interference or crossed-signals?

        This is basically a ghost in the machine argument, which has coherency problems. Basically, if all the information for our mind, our personality, character, memory, etc. is contained in this spirit signal, and is caused by it, what causes that signal to exist and function? If our mind can’t originate here in our physical brain, but must have some remote cause, how does that remote cause exist and function without itself having some other cause remote to it? What happens is an infinite regress that can only be resolved by hypothesizing some kind of first cause, just as with the cosmological argument for the existence of God. And we know that doesn’t work. Why is some hypothetical substance better able to create the complexity of our mind than our physical brain can?

        Occam’s razor, plus the ability to detect anything that can interact with matter suggests that this antenna idea isn’t plausible.

  • LesterBallard

    I’ve gotten this personally. My niece’s husband brutally murdered her and his eight year old step son. He didn’t harm, physically, his two and a half year old son. I should become a Christian and thank god. The little boy got the experience of telling the police that “mama’s dirty and daddy made Ethan throw up red.” I haven’t felt very thankful the last three years.

    I just want them to keep it to themselves.

    • baal

      I’m sorry you and your family have to bear that.

  • Erika Klipa

    We had a similar situation recently within the church I used to attend (no longer attend because I no longer believe!). The Pastor’s son was in a horrible accident and had a traumatic brain injury. Everyone in the church rallied and prayed (it was all over fb, so I saw evidence of their mass devotion to the cause every day). The son came out of it and began to heal and the DOCTOR’S THEMSELVES called it a MIRACLE. So, of course, when those who helped to save his life and set him on the path to healing attribute it to a higher power…it only confirmed the belief that everyone had that their *god* had intervened. I’ve been so out of the loop with these people, and the Pastor’s wife and I used to be good friends. After this happened she called me and left a voice mail asking if I had heard about her son and all that had happened. She had never called me before to ask why I left the church or the faith or for any other reason over the past 5 years. Yet, I suppose she wanted to hold this up and ask me how could I not believe anymore, when so clearly her son had been healed by *god*. I’m glad her son lived and has healed. But I wish they could see that the healing was instigated by medical professionals. But I also see how, when those who instigate the healing proclaim a miracle, it only cements the belief of those who prayed for a miracle.

    • viaten

      “the DOCTOR’S THEMSELVES called it a MIRACLE”
      Sometimes I wonder how many doctors say “It’s a miracle.”, thinking maybe it’s a plus for their business. “Look, God favors me by doing miracles for my patients. And I should know better than anyone if it’s a miracle or not.”

      • brianmacker

        The word has multiple meanings. This is a typical case of equivocation. Miracle is also used to describe a good situation occurring which was unlikely. It would be a miracle if I won $300,000,000 in the lottery buying just one ticket. In saying that I do not mean that it would require the intervention of a diety. Someone was bound to win, and most buy just one ticket, so the most likely outcome might just be a person who bought a single ticket. It is not a miracle that someone won, just if I had, in that sense. When treating patients doctors don’t do things that they know will absolutely not help recovery, also many recover without treatment. So in a sense the fact he was even getting treatment meant they expected, at some point, for someone in a similar situation to recover. Otherwise, why bother?

        • viaten

          I know “It’s a miracle.” can be a figure of speech to express that something was a lucky rarity. I doubt many doctors say it to suggest anything more than that but some might. But doctors should know that many people might take it to mean more than that and be careful saying it when people could take it to mean more than a lucky event or outcome, or more than just the “miracle” or modern medicine.

  • Sebastian

    My Grandma did the same thing, asked me why I don’t believe in god when I was saved after I had a brain aneurysm. I shouldn’t have to believe to give thanks. I thanked the nurses and doctors when they helped me.

  • Katie

    “I feel really fortunate that he came out of it just fine. I’m grateful that he has excellent care. And, frankly, we were all lucky to have a good outcome. So many people are not as fortunate as we are. Their injured family members either die or are forever disabled. I don’t believe that god healed my brother any more than I believe that god cursed them. They weren’t any less deserving of life than my brother. They were simply less fortunate.”

  • cary_w

    I work in a school for special needs children. You only need to spend a few minutes in this school to know for certain that there is no God. Why does God hate these poor innocent children so much that he won’t heal them? There has been no lack of praying for them, but He chooses to let them suffer. The “miracle” of survival is not a “miracle” if you live the rest of your life as a vegetable. A merciful God would not have saved the lives of some of the kids in our therapy room, He would have let them die and taken them to heaven where they could be whole again. The only reasonable conclusion is either He doesn’t exist or he’s an asshole not worthy of praise. And don’t try to sell me on the “God works in mysterious ways” or “He’s testing you” bull crap. You don’t make children suffer to be “mysterious” or to “test” someone.

    • Guest

      Well, that’s to say there’s no “God” as defined as a benevolent caring one, anyway. The old testament God would make more sense in this context. He’d be going all Job on them.

    • Xuuths

      You do if you’re evil, imaginary, vindictive, apathetic, . . .

    • Miss_Beara

      How about the “God gives special children to special people?” or “God never gives you more than you can handle” BS?

      It is people like you who really help special needs children, not some god who is “testing” people. It takes a special type of person to do what you do.

  • NewDawn2006

    How can you love a god that, either through sadism or indifference, allowed the injury to occur in the first place?

    • Matt D

      Placing the blame elsewhere is typically the method used to reconcile that possibility….Satan, Gays, Women, Muslims, mixed fabrics, Commies, Liberals, etc. The list is endless for those that use their imagination to define reality.

      • NewDawn2006

        A justification for abuse.

  • debdellapiana

    It’s called SCIENCE. And it’s called doctors who go through years of study so that they can help other people recover from injuries. That’s how I can be an atheist if my brother survived a brain injury. Thanks for asking, but it’s a stupid question. I don’t know, but we were told when we went to Catholic school that God put us here to use our intelligence and help mankind. Why is it that you folks simply “don’t get it?”

  • Kim Willette

    I survived a brain injury & surgery. Still an atheist!

    • m6wg4bxw

      So, the trauma which led to you hating god was something else. ;)

      Congratulations for your survival, and persistent god-hating!

      • Kim Willette

        I don’t hate any god, not even Zeus! Can’t hate what doesn’t exist ;)

  • m6wg4bxw

    Argumentum ad successu cerebrum chirurgia

  • mambocat

    I love the cartoon currently going around, showing a doctor in surgery thinking, “I swear, if somebody thanks God for this, I’m putting the tumor back in.”

  • Q. Quine

    Some people will have events in their lives that they think are so unlikely that such must be the result of divine intervention. If someone prays to win the lottery, and then does, you are not going to be able to dissuade that person, because he or she will be going on “personal evidence.”

    • Feminerd

      “The doctor said there was a 1 in 64 million chance of this happening! It’s a miracle!

      Which it wasn’t, of course. Things that have a 1 in 64 million chance of happening, happen all the time. To suggest that it’s a miracle is to significantly underestimate the number things that there are. Maths.”

      -Paraphrase of Tim Minchin in a hilarious bit of standup. Start at ~1:30

      • allein

        I love that bit. :)

      • SphericalBunny

        “Scientists have calculated that the chances of something so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one.

        But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.”

        - Terry Pratchett, Mort

  • Richard Wade

    I’m glad the brother was fortunate enough to have access to excellent medical care.

    I understand the mother’s anguish at having her son sick and in jeopardy. However, I have to wonder how far down a list of various surgeries the mother would go before she reached a threshold where she did not overtly attribute the patient’s recovery to God:

    How can you still be an atheist if your brother survived…
    …brain surgery?
    …heart surgery?
    …liver surgery?
    …gall bladder surgery?
    (skipping a few)
    …setting a bone?
    …repairing a torn ligament?
    …repairing a torn rotator cuff?
    …cortisone injection for a herniated disk?
    (skipping a few more)
    …removing an ingrown toenail?
    …lancing a boil?

    Granted, even the toenail or the boil, if they were neglected or the minor surgery was botched could lead to lethal complications, but that’s not the point. My point is that the more a religious person feels helpless, and/or the more they think there is a risk for failure, the more likely they are to attribute divine intervention in a successful medical procedure.

  • m6wg4bxw

    “How Can You Be An Atheist if Your Brother Survived a Brain Injury?”

    What can I say, mom? It’s a fucking miracle!

  • BatmanJesus

    I interview people living with the effects of brain injury for a living and a common thing to hear in the interviews is how it’s a “miracle” they survived or are doing well or recovered. Part of this I attribute to the extreme variables of brain injury recovery. If you break your arm, the healing process is fairly linear, more or less. There can be complications, of course, but a healing arm is fairly predictable. When a person makes a full recovery, it’s par for the course.

    With brain injury, the outcome is rarely, if ever, predictable and medical professionals are loathe to offer optimistic forecasts for recovery. So, people frequently hear “Don’t expect a good outcome.” Then, when there is a good outcome, it’s seen as a miracle. This is often supported by doctors who proclaim unprecedented recoveries to be “miracles” simply because . . . they have no other way to explain them. Brain injury survival and recovery is so individualized that medical professionals are often at a loss to explain a person’s progress.

    So, i hear a lot of God talk in my interviews. I avoid any of that talk myself, uless I’m quoting, but I have to fight my former surpervisor’s desires to call everything a “miracle.”

    • Richard Wade

      I’m glad your former supervisor is your former supervisor. Hopefully he or she has moved elsewhere, rather than farther up the same ladder you’re on. Calling everything a miracle ends up making nothing in particular a miracle.

  • Robster

    Yeah but, they all forget that the kid got a brain injury with the baby jesus/god/holy spook/magic mary looking down from above, in the first place. If the previously mentioned deities can be held responsible for fixing the problem, they must also accept the blame for the problem in the first place, if they were to actually exist, but that’s another story.

  • cary_w

    You are spot on with this one, Hemant. God doesn’t perform miracles, people do. No one could survive a traumatic brain injury without the help of hundreds, if not thousands, other people doing their jobs, and selflessly helping others, not because God told them to, but because they care about other people, and it’s just the right thing to do. You can only survive a brain injury because of the doctors, nurses, EMTs, pharmacists, stranger who called 911, and all the people who developed and perfected the technology and techniques that are used to treat such an injury. Give credit where credit is due. It is insulting and demeaning to all those people that worked so hard to be able to help you when you dismiss their efforts and sacrifice and say, “God did it”.

  • brianmacker

    My answer would be, “Mom, how can you still believe in god when he let this happen to your son? You either have to believe he doesn’t exist as described, or he doesn’t care. If you think he exists then you certainly can ‘believe in him’ in the sense of trusting he’ll do the right thing. He didn’t in this case. It is obviously much easier to prevent such difficult situations in the first place than to fix them after the fact. A little whisper in Timmy’s ear saying ‘here comes a car’ is way easier than fixing the damaged brain after the car accident. Not only is it easier but it cuts out all the suffering and worry.”