What Questions Do Atheists Struggle With?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers the question: What questions do atheists struggle with?:

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.

  • GCT

    I always struggle with the question of what marinade to use on the babies that I’m going to eat.

    • Ron

      I used to struggle with the same problem until I ceded control to a higher power.

      Turn your eyes upon Google
      Make use of its search interface.
      And the answers you seek will appear on your screen
      From the depths of its vast database.

    • Glasofruix

      The thing is, babies are like chicken, you don’t need to marinate them, just smear them over with whatever delicious concoction you prepared and start cooking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

    This is silly. Atheists are people who lack a belief in God. They don’t share any particular set of questions they struggle with. I myself struggle with how to reconcile my differences with my girlfriend. The question “why did my father have to die” is particularly stupid because all humans die, by various causes, and those causes are contingent on circumstances — *that* is the answer, and if you’re an atheist who doesn’t think there’s an answer then you’re an atheist who doesn’t think clearly. People who “struggle” with this, whether atheist or not, are ignorant and need a science education. Why would I not want to tell others that the reason they have cancer is because that’s how the dice fell, pushed by details of their environment and genetics? What could be kinder than to tell them shit happens and that they aren’t to blame and no sky demon has it out for them?

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      When someone you care about is going through a personal crisis, especially somebody firmly caught up in religion, it might not be the best time to tell them that their worldview is totally wrong. The problem is how to balance honesty with kindness.

      • badgerchild

        That, to me, is the primary question that atheists struggle with… that is, how to mention to others that they are an atheist. It doesn’t matter whether you are open or closed about it; the fact remains that people have various reactions to the fact and those reactions must be taken into account.

        • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

          I know that’s why I blog anonymously and stay off Facebook, and refuse to discuss religion at work, to avoid having to deal with that question.

          • badgerchild

            I don’t try to hide my atheism at work, but we are a multinational corporation and religious subjects are officially off the table anyway. It did once get out that I am an atheist, and as a known “face” (I’m a corporate trainer), I was the recipient of the e-mail equivalent of rolled eyes and sighs from closeted atheists in the company whenever one of the secretaries sent out “thanking” and “blessing” god-spam. It helps to be a nonthreatening middle-aged “mom” nerd, lol.

            But I do post anonymously online. The irony struck home particularly hard the other day when I Googled the name of the best friend I had when I was 14, and found that he was now a very prominent Catholic pundit who has even posted main articles on Patheos. Errrrr… I don’t think I’ll be catching up with him anytime soon. :(

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

        Oh, right, it’s time to tell them that there really is a vicious judgmental god that made stuff bad happen to them because, in their worldview, they must deserve it.

        Not. And it’s actually possible to tell them the truth about why bad things are happening to them without telling them that their worldview is totally wrong … that’s simply your strawman.

    • lmern

      I’m not sure what you found silly about this video. I think Hemet has a point. Especially the ‘WHY’ question. My brother is a Born Again Christian, and aside from all the other infuriating arguments he makes, he often says WHY… WHY if not God, Why if not the compassion of Christ, etc.
      Until you have these conversations with a loved one, and are forced to reconcile your facts with their feelings, then you might not understand.
      Unless of course you’re just a badass and it isn’t hard at all for you to dismiss a loved ones fantasy imaginings, in which case, I salute you.
      Personally I have found that even in presenting the arguments for ‘why’ I get shut down, because people like my brother are brainwashed to believe that everything happens for a reason.
      That’s when I walk away…

      • Charli

        It isn’t the most polite thing to say, but it follows logically that if all things happen for a god-controlled reason then god’s a shit. It’s a standard problem of evil philosophical question

        • lmern

          I agree. It might be easier to point him in the right direction, if he wasn’t also suffering delusions from a mental illness. It is a constant struggle in my family, but he justifies his behaviour with the Bible and all the crap therein. I struggle a great deal with trying to maintain sensitivity for the sake of our mother, while addressing the misguided ideas he has about being on “Gods path”.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

        “I’m not sure what you found silly about this video.”

        So much the worse for you, as I was quite explicit.

        • lmern

          I was sharing an opinion, but if you wanna be a dick about it, thats cool.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

            pot/kettle/black

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      While there is not an inherent logical necessity for any particular set of questions they struggle with, there does appear to be a fuzzy membership set of questions which empirical sociology indicates in (say) the US are more strongly correlated to atheism as opposed to theism.

      Correlation isn’t causation, of course; but correlation is correlation.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

        You would have a better case if you could state these questions and provide some evidence that *atheists generally* struggle with them.

    • http://kingderella.tumblr.com/ kingderella

      “The question “why did my father have to die” is particularly stupid
      because all humans die, by various causes, and those causes are
      contingent on circumstances — *that* is the answer”

      You’re ignoring that the word “why” can have several meanings. A grieving person asking “Why did my father die” is probably not asking for the cause of death, but asking for meaning.

      By giving a scientific explanation of the mechanics of the cause of death, you’re simply not answering the question.

      Personally, my honest answer would be: “Your question doesn’t have an answer, because it builds on the false presumption that life and death inherently have meaning, which they don’t.”

      But yeah, I probably wouldn’t phrase it like that if I were talking to an actual person in pain.

      • Kodie

        If something can happen, it can happen to you, or someone you love. You can look at actuarial tables or whatever. Let’s name a person, Mr. X, somewhere else in the world. You don’t know Mr. X, but he has loved ones too. You are not asking why Mr. X died.

        The main thing about asking why is proximity. Events and people are coinciding all the time. A car accident is caused by at least one error. It might be loss of control or it might be loss of attention, or actively breaking the rules of the road, or something like that, but someone made a mistake. According to statistics, drivers make potentially life-threatening mistakes mumble-mumble an average of twice per minute. That means if there was another car or a pedestrian, your mistake could have caused damage, injury or even death. Or maybe you are the other car and someone else made a mistake. The only reason we’re not crashing into each other as frequently as we make a mistake is there is usually nobody there to crash into and we correct it in time. If my recalled statistics are anywhere near correct, that doesn’t mean everyone is allotted two mistakes per minute, but that some people are really bad drivers and some are way more attentive and law-abiding, which does help to compensate.

        Whenever someone uses “god” to explain their survival of an accident, it is usually a case of proximity. If the other car had hit them a second earlier, it would have hit a different angle and been fatal, or something like that, but here we just have some bruises. Damn lucky. What if the other car had crashed into the space your car occupies an hour earlier? Do people feel lucky for all the accidents they survive because they stayed home to watch a tv show before they went out on their errands, thus avoiding an accident? No.

        About 20 years ago, I was driving in a hard rain. [This is going to sound like the people who recall the events of their accident and suddenly, for no reason, they decided to speed up, or hit their brakes, and they don't know why, but something happened and that spontaneous reflex saved them.] It was raining too hard to keep driving, so I made a decision to pull into the next driveway I saw and get off the road, and I could see it a few feet ahead. The car in front of me was slow, of course, we’re all being slow and cautious. Suddenly, the car in front of me sped up significantly, pulling away, missing getting hit by a tree branch that fell on my car instead, moments before I got to the driveway. Luckily, there was only minor damage to the car and I still made it to the driveway.

        There was no way for them to know that was about to happen, so it’s still weird that they sped up at that moment. If we put it in their perspective, they got away by the grace of god (I don’t think they had any actual idea what they missed), but the branch still fell on me. People don’t care if something happens to other people, they only care if it happens to them. The selfish question “why?” and the answer “god” is meaningless. If not you, then someone else. Chance is chance. They seem to think someone is dishing out the chances that affect people, choosing who to save and who to hit. They might even say (assuming the people ahead of me were Christian) that god saved them, but the branch was a warning message to me. I just think that’s so goofy.

        It is some kind of a warning (more at evidence than a deliberate sign) that a lot of things are out of my control, but that doesn’t mean they are in someone else’s control. Religious belief seems to be a form of paranoia, like if you fall out of god’s favor, you have a target on your back, so watch out for stray branches, diseases, weather, etc.

        • http://kingderella.tumblr.com/ kingderella

          Thanks for answering I guess, and I don’t disagree with you, but I don’t really see how your post relates to mine…

          • Kodie

            Proximity.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

          Reading skills … the question is not “why did my father die”, as in what are the proximate causes, but rather “why did my father have to die”, which is akin to “why did the universe/god choose to kill my father”.

          • Kodie

            Go fuck yourself, how about that.

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

              That a girl, show your maturity and intellectual honesty.

              • Kodie

                I don’t need to argue with you about my reading skills. What else you got to say to me, asshole?

                • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

                  There you go! Let’s hear more of your quality thoughts.

                • Kodie

                  I’m just being intellectually honest!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

        “You’re ignoring that the word”

        Uh, no, I’m not. But you’re ignoring what “Why did my father have to die” actually means grammatically and semantically … it comes from a view of a vitalist, anthropic universe in which all events are motivated.

        • Kodie

          Nobody disagrees what’s at the root of the question when it’s asked. What are you so wound up about?

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

            Uh, *I’m* wound up? Pardon me while I *plonk* you.

            • Kodie

              Well, let’s see. You suffer from some kind of paranoia that people are misunderstanding you and going straight for the “um, nyoooo” roll your eyes and act like some kind of pretentious dickhead correcting everyone’s impressions of what you thought you made oh-so-clear the first time that nobody would have to discuss it at all, so I don’t really care what you do now

              • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

                Well, you obviously do, Ms. Wound Up. But you’ve become a predictable bore. Bye.

                • Kodie

                  Bye bye! I thought you plonked me but I guess you were just being intellectually dishonest.

        • http://kingderella.tumblr.com/ kingderella

          “it comes from a view of a vitalist, anthropic universe in which all events are motivated.”

          … but that’s exactly what I pointed out. Why are you phrasing it as a rebuttal?

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

            You’re confused. You claimed that I was ignoring meanings and asserted “By giving a scientific explanation of the mechanics of the cause of death, you’re simply not answering the question.” — you’re wrong on both points and I refuted your claims.

  • Paul Fischer

    I find I get cornered by being regarded as arguing against the perceived status quo. I must disprove god somehow. This filters down to silly arguments, for example: Noah took a lot of eggs, babies and seeds onto the ark in order to ensure he had space for everything. This is seen as a possible explanation to an argument against the default position. Just insisting that I require some shred of evidence that the Noah story has any basis at all – is not accepted by my opponent as “proof that the bible story x, y or z is wrong”. ISTM that the more detail I have and the more I research, the less convincing I sound.

    • Josh

      The very fact of atheism does mean that we are willing to face this world without easy answers, and the questions are put on the table of scientific discovery. Questions that I struggle with – as another user says,
      struggle is not the right word, maybe it’s questions that I juggle in my mind – without being facetious – is for instance: what other paradigm-like changes could there be ahead in our scientific journey that change the way we understand the world? From Galileo, to Newton, to Darwin, there are some ways that turned our understanding around or at least to a new direction. What new things are there that will make our great-great grandchildren look at the 21st century and say ‘they didn’t get this. yet.” ?

      • allein

        I wonder that, too, sometimes. What are the things we do now that will have future apologists of whatever stripe saying “It was just the time they lived in; they didn’t know any better”?

    • badgerchild

      I don’t get that strategy a lot; perhaps it’s because when I’m asked, “Why are you an atheist” my answer is usually some form of “I used to believe, but try as I might I couldn’t make it make sense; I therefore figured it was more virtuous to not believe at all than to accept something so patently incoherent and contradictory”. The response to that usually includes some mumble about “faith” that I usually dismantle by asking why I should accept the interlocutor’s faith and not some other, contradictory, faith. I’m prepared for the discussion to go past that, but by that time, most people have had enough. If they’re really still interested at that point, then their questions can be answered amicably. If the answer contains some form of “You’re in trouble now, Buster” (this includes “I’ll pray for you”), then I just smile and shrug.

      • allein

        I’ve never had anyone ask why I’m an atheist. The people who know accept it as is and the people who don’t know I feel no real need to tell. I just go about my business and no one has ever really questioned my fairly obvious (if you’re paying attention, at least) lack of religion.

  • Andromedabv

    The only question I struggle with is, what difference does it make to anyone else what I believe or don’t believe? It shouldn’t matter to anyone else if I don’t believe in god or in Santa Clause.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

    First, I don’t like the phrase “struggle with” because it’s such a christian catch-phrase. They’ll say that they’re “struggling with” porn or “struggling with” being gay. So when I hear a religious person say “struggle with” my mental image is of a person dealing with the cognitive dissonance of having to dislike or abstain from something they ought to be enjoying, because jeezuz. In that sense I don’t “struggle” with any questions.

    But most of the questions I find difficult to answer are about finding a balance. Without religion to give us easy black-and white answers, the world is a lot more complicated to figure out. What’s the right balance between allowing freedom of religious expression and reining in the nutcases? When people have competing yet valid interests, what are the best methods of coming to a fair and just compromise? How much control should the government have? When should the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, and when not? We can’t just opt out of answering these questions, the way we can with “Where did the universe come from?” where “I don’t know” is an OK answer.

    • hamnox

      I don’t think it is different. Or at least, I think the difference is a matter of degree rather than a categorical difference.

      The human brain *likes* simplifying things. Even the balance you talk about is a bit of a simplification. It’s hard for the human brain to encompass the complex workings of a big problem in one piece, so we naturally pick concrete ‘sides’ or ‘interests’ to balance. That mental stretching that happens when you’re trying to understand a complex problem isn’t altogether different from the dissonance of holding contradictory views. That religion gives you a specific set of (often factually wrong) simplifications to cling to is almost incidental.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

    I can’t provide a satisfying response to theists who ask what would convince me that a god exists. I don’t struggle with my response, though many of them interpret it as such.

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      My response is that if their god exists and knows everything, then he already knows better than I would what would convince me. And if he’s all-powerful, he could send it. So if their god exists, and I’m not convinced, it’s the god’s fault, not mine.

      • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

        That’s the second part of my response. The only thing I add to it is instruction for them to pray — either to convince god to act on me, or to give them the evidence / argument / whatever so that they may share it with me.

        The first part is basically that I don’t know. I try to explain the difficulties of verifying and trusting anything supernatural. If the rules of nature are violated, then I have no place to begin. Anything I experience might be completely different than what it seems.

    • badgerchild

      That’s always a fun one, and underlies why I classify myself as a Type 7 atheist on Dawkins’s scale. The only evidence that could convince me is direct evidence of the supernatural. The only way to demonstrate that something is supernatural is by showing me something that cannot exist in the natural world. Since I am a natural being and part of the natural world, it is impossible for me to directly experience something supernatural, and any indirect experience would be an experience of the natural and not of the supernatural. Even if (this is a thought experiment) a way could be found to give me direct experience of the supernatural, the demonstrator would have to further prove that the supernatural evidence was evidence of “god” as they define it, which would require them to have a precise definition of “god” that they are extremely unlikely to be able to come up with, given that they are also natural beings in a natural world. This is really kind of a long intro to Ubi Dubium’s response below; the bottom line is that ONLY God, if one exists, could convince me of God’s existence, and that God would have to conform to logic to even get out of the starting gate.

      If the above was a tl;dr then my basic argument was that I actively disbelieve that any necessary and sufficient evidence of divinity CAN be convincingly demonstrated.

      • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

        I’m right there with you.

        • badgerchild

          Amusingly, a young fellow I chat with online asked me just now, “Could God make a ‘pocket’ reality (that is, ours) inside of which his existence could not be proved?” I told him to ask me again when he could show me a colorless green idea sleeping furiously.

          • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

            Sounds like intellectual compartmentalization. Or a microwaveable, god turnover. God Pockets!

            • badgerchild

              Oh, he knew it was silly, but it was a valid question. Really the proper answer is, “what possible difference could it make to anyone in such a pocket reality whether there was any God or none?”.

              • Kodie

                Why would people in that pocket imagine that there was a god and all kinds of qualities he must have and insist we obey it? If we can’t know what god is like, or even if he’s there, then all of devout belief is pretend. Anyone pretending to be a prophet getting radio signal from this god is a fake and should be regarded as a fake.

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            Well, at least I know now what will be giving me insomnia tonight.

  • Markus Schäfer

    This resonates with me quite deeply. I have a sister-in-law who is 29 and in seriously bad health – no one knows what the reason is, but her heart, lung and liver are failing. She is conscious and suffering and there is no hope for her to get better its becoming clear that stopping all treatment is the only humane option. My siter-in-law, my brother and I are all atheists and we have all been feeling how hard it is to face the fact that “shit just happens” and that this shit can kill wonderful people and ruin lives.

  • LesterBallard

    There just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to accomplish all the sinning I want to do.

  • busterggi

    Judging by the testimonies of believers we share many questions with them such as – where is a parking space? where did I leave my keys? will my old high school win this week? – the usual theological puzzlers.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    Several years ago, a neighbor’s husband and their 7 year old boy were camping with the Cub Scouts at a state park here in Pennsylvania. It was raining heavily during the night, but the camping area was in a clearing adjacent to a forest. In the middle of the night, a tall tree fell (obviously, from beyond the clearing) and landed on their tent, killing the boy and slightly injuring the dad. The family is seriously Christian and they knew that I am an atheist. A couple of weeks after the funeral (at which the mother amazingly laughed and told jokes about her boy), I was in my driveway, cleaning my car, and the mother stops by and asks me, “Why do YOU think it happened?” I was shocked that she had the fortitude to deal with this question, especially with an atheist, so soon after the tragedy. I thought for about 5 seconds and replied, “Terrible, terrible, terrible LUCK.” She didn’t argue with that, and accepted it (even though I’m sure she thinks the boy is with Jesus), and she has since had 2 more children. She’s a great mom and neighbor, and the family are friends to this day.

    • badgerchild

      I’m sorry for that tragedy. It’s most distressing. But it’s no more meaningful than the time I was driving on a busy highway and the huge truck in front of me blew a tire and sent a piece of it flying through my windshield. You might as well ask why I lived (indeed, was not even injured) as why the boy died and his dad was injured. There are reasons and then there’s intent, and the neighbor was looking for intent when all you could offer were reasons (because sometimes after a rain, trees fall, and sometimes people happen to be around when it happens, and intent is not part of any of this). And commiseration, which is simply human, and more important anyway.

      • eonL5

        Reason and Intent. Exactly. Our brains imagine Intent everywhere (just as we tend to see patterns everywhere). It must have been evolutionarily advantageous, but it has its downside.

    • KMR

      In thinking about exactly what religion gives us, it comes to mind that perhaps this is why your neighbor was able to go on and obviously still have joy and peace, enough at least to birth more children. There is real comfort in believing you will see your loved ones again a comfort that being secular I am acutely aware that I don’t possess anymore. How would I cope in the same circumstances? I would venture a guess to say not as well as your neighbor. There is nothing to do about it really. It’s not like I can force myself to believe that which I have no proof of. But I can see where in times of “terrible luck”, there’s a huge benefit to it.

      • Anat

        Actually I find those situations easier to accept as an atheist. It is more optimistic to think disasters happen because of terrible luck than disasters happen because God wants them to, or God could have prevented them but couldn’t be bothered to do so.

        • KMR

          In times of prosperity yes, I agree. Since I have finally embraced “I don’t know” as an answer and rejected the theology of my youth, my life is immeasurably better. But then I haven’t lost a child and had to cope with the knowledge that they are more than likely lost forever. But I am an emotional person. Not everyone copes with hardship in the manner that I would thus not everyone necessarily needs the promise of heaven in order to regain peace.

  • sane37

    You don’t need an answer to everything. The danger comes in thinking you have to have an answer, resulting in giving opinions dressed as answers.

    • duke_of_omnium

      James Thurber once wrote, “It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers.”

    • Ron

      Exactly. All that really matters is knowing where your towel is.

  • rjsm

    As someone who is pretty familiar with the Christian world, it’s pretty freeing to be able to say that things just happen… God isn’t punishing someone or trying to teach them a lesson.

    I actually think that is the best answer to give someone – you shouldn’t be worried about saying it.

    Oh I also think that’s the Christian answer – “time and chance”. Right there in the Bible.

  • duke_of_omnium

    I struggle with the question, “where did I leave my keys THIS time?”

    • allein

      You should get a bowl.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        Marijuana is not going to help anyone find their keys. ;-)

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

          I dunno, man — I function better when I’m stoned.

        • allein

          No, but you wouldn’t much care anymore.. ;)
          .
          (Though it was actually a Big Bang Theory reference.)

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            I knew it wasn’t about pot, but mixing up the slang amused me so.

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      They’re in the same place you left your glasses, which is why you can’t find your keys.

  • Art_Vandelay

    The one thing I struggle with in regards to what we are is consciousness. I know it’s part of the brain and I know it’s dictated by DNA but it’s easy for me to separate my consciousness from the rest of my body. For instance, if my DNA were coded just slightly differently, would I be a different person retaining all of these memories and experiences?

    I think in the Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins talks about how lucky we are to be born when you stack it up against all of the possible combinations of DNA so is it just out of the realm of possibility then that I could have been born in another country at another time? It almost seems at times like I was assigned to my body.

    • allein

      “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.”
      -Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

      • Art_Vandelay

        Beautiful…isn’t it?

        • allein

          I have it on my time-off spreadsheet at work (why there, I don’t really know, but I like it). Which is why I was able to post it right now. :)

    • Anat

      With a slightly different DNA there would have been a somewhat different person than you, with somewhat different experiences, memories and everything else. If a person with your very exact same DNA were born under different circumstances that person would have had even more different experiences so would have ended up even more different than you.

      • alfaretta

        Since medical events/conditions like stroke/dementia can substantially alter who we are, the DNA doesn’t even have to change. A lifetime’s worth of “character building” can go up in smoke.

  • C Peterson

    Personally, I’ve never struggled with any “big question”. I don’t even have an emotional sense of what that means. There are no “why” or “how” questions about the life, the Universe, and everything that bother me. Some I think I might know the answer to, some I don’t, some I think are unknowable. Some aren’t even rational questions. No struggles. A good deal of healthy curiosity, though!

    The only questions I could say I’ve ever “struggled” with, and that’s not really the right word, are ones involving large personal decisions. But I applied some combination of reason and emotion and made those decisions. That’s what you do.

    I don’t know if I’ve ever had a friend or family member put me on the spot with one of those “why did this happen to me” sort of questions. If it happens, I will be honest. There was no reason. That doesn’t mean I won’t be sympathetic, but I’m not going to make up some sort of dishonest answer just to be “kind”, because I don’t think that is kind or respectful at all.

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      You can be kind without being dishonest. Sometimes there’s a time for a noncommittal shrug, or a “I don’t have an answer for you” and a change of subject, if you are dealing with someone who is hurting. With a friend or family member in distress, it needs to be more about them than it is about yourself.

      • C Peterson

        It’s not a question of being about myself. I just think the kindest thing is honesty. “There was no reason, it’s just the way the world works” is honest, it isn’t unkind, and can be presented with sympathy and understanding.

        • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

          It can, depending on the person you are talking to.

    • Randay

      “Why?” is a question with ambiguous meanings: it can be 1- “on what ground(s)”, 2- “with what purpose”, 3-”for what reason”. Only number 1 comes close to having meaning. “How?” is entirely different. It only asks “in what condition(s)”. With “how?”, we can either say “I know” or “I don’t know”.

      So I don’t “struggle”(I agree with Ubi) with useless questions like “why?” “Why does the universe exist?” is already conceding to the irrational theist viewpoint. “How did it happen?” is a real question, as is “how does it work?”.

      • C Peterson

        I agree, there are more tangible “how” questions than “why” questions. But depending on how the question is structured, either can represent answerable questions or otherwise (or even meaningless questions).

        Anyway, I think Ubi and I (and you) are saying pretty much the same thing when it comes to a class of questions many of us would agree aren’t worth “struggling” with, largely because they are either meaningless or fundamentally unanswerable.

  • Lina Baker

    Questions I struggle with – and I’m asking these in all seriousness:

    - I have older neighbors around me who are taken care of (doctor’s appointments, care when ill, etc.) primarily by members of their community of faith (not sure where family is). They really relish that love and support. As an atheist, when I am elderly, how will I tap into love and support in times of crisis, if it’s not something available from family and most of my friends are dead?

    - When someone is needing some emotional support, is feeling a bit hopeless, etc., not enough for a mental health professional meeting but enough to be needing some guidance, what books are good to recommend? I like “Buddhism Without Beliefs”, but what would be some of “our” book of affirmations? What would be an atheist (and much better) version of “The purpose driven life”?

    - I am an atheist, but sometimes, I *really* don’t like atheists. They can be so unbelievably snarky – some of the comments here are an example. Do we need efforts to cultivate our kindness? I so love the atheists that are volunteering together as groups – do we need to be encouraging more of that? I sometimes long for a group called “Kind Atheists”.

    • lmern

      It is possible to be both, Lina. I get snarky and angry when presented with condescending and violent messages spread by the Religious, especially when it’s directed at Non Believers like me. I have no problem pointing out their flaws and being ‘abrasive’ when they act stupid. However I also donate to several Atheist charities, I am a very generous, kind and compassionate person.

      I don’t need any one book for guidance and comfort. There are many I can pick up (from Pride and Prejudice to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). Sometimes when you feel small and lonely all you really need is perspective.

      Furthermore, I don’t ever feel the need for a go to item for comfort in the first place. If you struggle to consolidate your lack of belief with a need for a comfort system, maybe you should reach out to a local branch of Atheist volunteers in your area? Or even start one? Any Atheist group could be called “Kind Atheists”. I think it’s rather naive that you claim there aren’t any just because you feel left out :/

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      On your last point, I’d suggest looking at Christopher Silver’s recent research on types of atheist, and comparing it with Dale Cannon’s “Six Ways of Being Religious”. Several of the six types identified by the former appear to correspond to the latter. Most obviously is the correspondence of “Ritual Atheist/Agnostic” to what Cannon terms “Way of Sacred Rite”; while the prominent “Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic” type appears an expression of Cannon’s “Way of Reasoned Inquiry”. As Cannon suggests the six ways are modes that are present to varying degrees without necessarily excluding one another, Silver’s categories are likely based on prevailing but not exclusive modes.

      The sort you are averse to would seem to be Silver’s “Anti-Theist” category and Cannon’s “Way of Devotion”; the sort you are looking for would seem to correspond to what Silver terms the “Activist Atheist/Agnostic” segment and what Cannon’s “Way of Right Action”.

      I suspect the prevalence of Intellectual and Anti-Theist types is in part a legacy of how most of the irreligious in the US seem to tend to be the result of deconversions from a religious upbringing, resulting from a sustained failure of religious claims to withstand critical intellectual scrutiny. As the unaffiliated rise in numbers and have more kids, these types seem likely to diminish in predominance over time.

      This in turn suggests that the sort of book to recommend for emotional support may be dependent on what sort of Atheist you’re dealing with.

    • Charli

      Faith groups are doing things that society should do and should have (= be given) the resources for. It’s good that they do this since we are living an a generally greedy and uncaring world but with one reservation – they shouldn’t be using what they do to guilt-trip people into their religion. I do some support work for others and I really get annoyed when people call me a “christian” person for doing it, so I make sure I tell them I’m not a believer in any god.

  • Willards69

    Answering “Why is this happening” may not be the correct approach. Perhaps if someone asks that question, the answer should be to the question “What are we/you going to do about it?” How can I help going forward, how can we/you stop this from happening to others?

  • Artor

    The questions I struggle with have nothing to do with any gods. I wonder if I’ll ever get medical care for a chronic condition when I have no health insurance. Will Obamacare actually help me? When? Will I ever find someone to be in a relationship with? Will I be able to make it work this time, or will my blind spots from the past bite me in the ass again? Will I be able to find enough work to pay my bills next month?

  • EdmondWherever

    Will Episode VII suck because of JJ Abrams, or will John Williams make it bearable? I struggle with that daily.

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    Whether or not P=NP is rather high up my personal list, but I’m likely a pretty extreme outlier.

    • Pepe

      Traveling Salesman!

  • http://kingderella.tumblr.com/ kingderella

    I relate to what you say about finding it difficult to give solace to a friend in pain sometimes, especially if it involves death or very bad luck (such as disease).

    I may “struggle with” grief myself, but it rarely takes the form of a question. I may feel sorrow over death or very bad luck, but I don’t ask myself “Why did this have to happen?”

    Less personal questions like “How did the world come to be?” are not a “struggle” for me. I might not know the answer, but that doesn’t really impact my life all that greatly. It’s just a thing I don’t know.

    There are ethical questions I “struggle with”: Is people having sex with animals ethical or not? Is drawn child pornography ethical or not? Is it unethical to have sex with a corpse, if there are no relatives or friends? Those are not questions I wring my hands over all day, but I don’t have an answer, eventhough I feel like I should.

    • Kodie

      I think they struggle with how the world came to be because they assume there’s a god. I think most of the questions religious people ask are kind of nonsense questions to ask in the first place, but if you’re someone who is mostly like an atheist and you can’t see evidence of a god – I mean, you look around and are extremely skeptical – the answer of how the world came to be seems to be a really important sticking point. It matters, because even though it doesn’t seem like there’s a god, not being able to answer that question means there might very well be a god! And then you have to worry what he wants and why everything is the way it is and how to find out if he’s really there.

      Now I don’t know how it all started. I know enough about science to accept a natural answer. I am not overwhelmed by the transition of non-living objects to living objects, and I don’t see an overwhelming difference between living things and non-living things. It’s different, but I don’t think bizarre, if that makes any sense. It obviously takes a certain set of conditions, but so does every condition of every planet. You know?

  • Al Dente

    My biggest struggle was stopping believing in God. When I was 12 I first considered the possibility that God didn’t exist. For a difficult 2 weeks I vascillated between thinking the Christianity I was raised on was absurd and praying as hard as I could for God to forgive me. In the end reason and courage won out over superstition and fear and I’ve been an atheist ever since. I will admit that there have been a few times I felt drawn to religion. When I was in my early 20′s I learned about the Baha’i faith and admired its ideas about universal brotherhood of man and being against racism, sexism, nationalism, poverty, war etc. Then I read about the Religious Society of Friends or the Quakers. Quakers were early abolitionists and were active in the underground railroad and were early supporters of women’s equality and sufferage and believed in humane treatment of the insane and prisioners. To me both religions seemed admriable and exciting. There have been times I almost joined churches; I figured that even if I didn’t believe in a literal God that I could still talk about God as a metaphor. Eventually I figured that as an Atheist that I can make my own worldview. I can take the things I admire from any point of view and synthesize my own worldview. This epiphany made atheism seem exciting rather than lonely.
    I usually don’t share with believers that I have struggled with atheism because they see that as an opportunity to sell me on their religion. They think that I’m an atheist because nobody up ’till now has done good enough a job explaining Christianity to me so they want to take up the challenge. Now when believers ask me if I’m “open minded” about God existing I usually tell them that I’ve hardened my heart so they won’t start proseltyzing.
    This is my philosophy on “how should I live my life.” You can never completely escape nihilism in atheism. If our species doesn’t go extinct on its own or die along with our Sun or galaxy eventually our universe will either keep expanding until it is too cold to support life or will collapse back into another big bang to start things all over. In any case, everything about us and all of humanity won’t amount to anything. I was told that because of their very simple brain, reptiles live entirely in the moment. They have no memory of the past or anticipation of the future; all they have is what is here and now. Humans with our glorious brains can never live that simply but all we really have is a bunch of moments so it is up to us to make the best of each one of them rather than morn their passing.

  • baal

    I, as an atheist, have trouble using non-woo woo sounding answers for how and why I meditate let alone the subjective experience. I can use sciency secular language for it but it doesn’t seem to convey the meaning as well as woo-woo language does.

  • garret

    about the only question i struggle with is why these religious door knockers wont leave me the hell alone, i tell them i have no interest in their stories but they will insist on blathering on, now i just answer the door naked and as a white, overweight, 40 something male this is a terrifying sight

    • allein

      I just say I’m not interested and close the door. I don’t even give them a chance to talk (especially when it’s 9:00 on a Saturday morning and I’m still in my PJs). But I’ve only had door knockers a few times. Mostly I’ve gotten Tony Alamo newsletters on my car and magic paper prayer “rugs” in the mail. After I get a good laugh I toss ‘em in the recycling bin.

  • L.Long

    There are NO situations or problems I struggle with. Not because I don’t have problems, its just that I don’t struggle with them.

  • Verimius

    One of the questions I struggle with regularly is what to have for dinner.

  • Hayden

    What does the fox say?

    • allein

      Somehow I’ve managed to avoid hearing that song… until I watched Dancing with the Stars the other night… :(

  • Ashley Nasello

    I think the question that bothers me the most is “Why is it difficult for Christians to accept that I don’t share their beliefs?” I thought acceptance and love of your fellow man was a core doctrine so why must they try to convince me otherwise?

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    TRANSCRIPTS, PLEASE!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Make one and we’ll add it in!

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

        Part of my disability is an inability to fully process auditory information, which is why I am asking for a transcript.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

          We’ll do our best! Right now, I don’t have the time to create one. If anyone would like to volunteer, it’d help out a bunch!

      • TheScienceEnthusiast1130

        Hello, “Hemant Metha”. I am a SCIENCE ENTHUSIAST. I am highly “liberal”, and “scientfifc”. Oh, and I am a “strong” “Atheist”.

  • John Hamilton

    I struggle with…

    Where do I get my morality?

    I don’t drink, smoke, take drugs, sleep around, cheat, steal, murder,
    or any other myriad of things that people call immoral, and I don’t
    know why I don’t have any desire to do them, When asked to explain why I
    donate my time and money to charity, do “good” instead of “bad” and do
    it without the threat of hell or the bribe of heaven…. when asked why I
    honestly haven’t came up with a clearly stated WHY.

    • Obazervazi

      Probably a mix of empathy and learned values.

    • Anna

      To me, the obvious answer is socialization.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    I operate on the “least harm” principle, myself.

  • Jeff See

    I know I left a bit of a smart-alecky answer on the facebook post about this entry, but I suppose it reflects how I felt about your question.

    I had tons of questions that tortured me when I was a believer. Things have to fit, they have to fit a predetermination (that you’re left in the dark about), and you have to stick to the rules (which, according to how you read it, can be totally contradictory), and if you fail, there are varying explanations as to what will happen to you, how, and to what extent; all of that stuff leads to tons of questions, without any real answers. Praying never answered anything, it just let me have an emotional moment, bray like an ass to the sky, pouring my heart out, feel good for a few moments, then right back to the questions.

    With atheism, questions are okay, because you’re not afraid to look for an answer, and the evidence leads you were it may. Also, you won’t get punished for arriving at any one particular answer, unless it truly is the wrong answer, the result of which is punitive in the here and now. You are free to search high and low for answers, you’re not restricted to one bit of source material.

    In short, the only struggle I had with questions, was when I was a believer. I still have questions, and I still have the same existential struggle with life everyone else has, but questions themselves are no longer a burden in, and of, themselves.

    • Ella Warnock

      I’ve been thinking about this. I subscribed to an “ex-believer of certain sect” facebook page for a time. Many of them were still searching for something, perhaps something to replace what they fetl they’d lost. I’m
      just . . . not.

      One of the guys got very involved in Universal Unitarianism, which I think is great. The problem was that he continued to suggest that I check it out even when I, politely, let him know I wasn’t interested. Becoming a different sort of god-botherer isn’t an improvement, especially when your very own experience makes you tone deaf to that similar experience in others.

  • Kodie

    With reference to the video, the question I struggle with is how religion came to be so prevalent that discussing opposing views often seems to come almost always at a time too awkward to talk about it. A religious answer to the desperate question, “why?” seems to be comforting, even if the person doesn’t share those beliefs. For example:

    Person A grieves: Why did my father have to die????

    Person B helps: Well, in my people’s beliefs, a person’s life is like a raindrop. Blah blah blah, metaphor, allegorical platitude business.

    If the person is religious, they may appreciate a comforting gesture from someone with differing beliefs. It would be disingenuous, and people realize this, to expect someone to give you the answers you prefer, i.e., for someone to pretend to believe a Christian answer to the question if they are not Christian.

    In essence, there is no answer to that question. (Religion is invented pretty much only to answer that one question). It just seems like atheists’ approach would be insensitive especially in a time of grief. But keep in mind that in an atheist’s grief, we also get some spectacularly insensitive answers.

    So the question I struggle with is why people can’t hear themselves talk and the things that they say. We can’t blame a person in grief for being overwhelmed. If they knew the answer, they wouldn’t ask. And we want to comfort them, but there really isn’t an answer to that question. I don’t really find discomfort in the fact that we’re here for a limited time and not everything is in our control.

    Que Sera Sera

    Roll the Bones


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