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Talking about angels with an atheist is like admitting to a belief in aliens

I told him everyone had a guardian angel, and that they were ‘all around us at this moment’. For my atheist brother-in-law, this was too much

By on Monday, 23 August 2010

The Miracle of St Michael at Chonae, a 12th-century icon at St Catherine's monastery, Mount Sinai

The Miracle of St Michael at Chonae, a 12th-century icon at St Catherine's monastery, Mount Sinai

Thank you for the very informative responses to my blog on the theme of a “just war”; I learned a lot from them, not least that the very phrase “just war” is not a simple oxymoron. It struck me afterwards that Christian hymns and prayers are often full of bellicose language: “Onward Christian soldier”; asking St Michael the Archangel to “defend us in the day of battle”; a hymn from my youth with a line about “the war against sin” and so on. And was it St Francis de Sales who wrote that “God hates the peace of those he has destined for war”?

Mention of St Michael (who, as we know, engaged in the cosmic battle against Satan) brings me to my present blog: about angels. My Quaker friend recently lent me a book, Seeing Angels, by someone called Emma Heathcote-James. During three years’ research she had interviewed 800 people about their encounters with angelic persons. Some of her stories struck me as of dubious provenance; others as very likely. But how do you judge?

Following this, the subject came up in a conversation with my brother-in-law, a devout atheist. (He used to call himself “agnostic” but when I suggested to him that this meant he had simply been an atheist of a lazy and indifferent kind, he agreed.) He is a psychologist (and believes that the phrase “Christian psychologist” is – wait for it – an oxymoron; you cannot be a Christian and a psychologist: it’s official).

We were discussing the idea of demonic possession. I said I thought it was extremely rare and was usually a case of mental illness. I happened to add casually that of course I believed in evil spirits and in their leader, the real Prince of Darkness, and my brother-in-law’s mouth fell open. I then added that just as there are demons, there are their spiritual counterparts – the angels. He was dumbfounded: “How can intelligent people possibly believe such nonsense?” etc. I countered: how can intelligent persons not believe in a world beyond the senses?

Being a card-carrying materialist, he then asked if angels were born, had parents, lived and died. I explained that spiritual entities were not the same as human beings, that they had intelligence and will but not bodies. I added that everyone has a guardian angel, including him and that they were “all around us at this moment”. This was all too much; I might have been talking about abduction by aliens (which I understand is a very popular misconception in the States.) I ended up telling him that perhaps he was not yet ready to listen properly to what I had to say, having put up all sorts of sceptical atheistic barriers. The conversation ended amicably and I should say that despite the huge gulf between our conception of the world, I am very fond of him (he might read this so I have to cover my back, you understand).

Back to my Quaker friend; she had been listening to the 4th Symphony of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, titled Los Angeles. She told me that when asked by an interviewer the “reason” for the title he had replied in broken English: ‘No reason – is reality.’ I can’t improve on that.

  • Anthony

    Don't be too harsh on atheists. They are God's way of countering the absurdity of creationism.

  • Ranmore

    “how can intelligent persons not believe in a world beyond the senses?”

    The equivalent question is actually: “how can intelligent persons not believe in bizarre fantasies invented by primitive and ignorant people?”

    Believing there might be something beyond our senses is one thing – but believing that you know, in detail, what that might be is pure delusion.

  • Anthony

    “how can intelligent persons not believe in bizarre fantasies invented by primitive and ignorant people?”

    How do you know they were primitive and ignorant? Were you there?

  • QuodEratDemonstrandum

    “how can intelligent persons not believe in a world beyond the senses?” – Francis Phillips

    Hardened skeptics will hapilly change their mind about the existence of the supernatural as soon as there is some good evidence for it. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – Carl Sagan

    Asking for evidence of extraordinary claims is not “all sorts of sceptical atheistic barriers” it is what any rational person does, including you. If I told you I have seen the Unicorn mentioned in the Bible at Job 39:9-12, you would not believe me and you would demand some pretty strong evidence for my claim (also known as “Sceptical barriers”). See? you're a skeptic too when it comes to other people's unproven assertions.

    ” I ended up telling him that perhaps he was not yet ready to listen properly to what I had to say, having put up all sorts of sceptical atheistic barriers.” – Francis Philips

    It appears by “listen properly” you actually mean “suspending Reason, disregarding the Scientific Method and not questioning my unfounded, evidence-free belief”. Will you do the same for my Biblical Unicorn? He talks to me and everything but you can't see him because he's invisible and only appears to me in visions when I'm alone. I tried to take pictures of him but he doesn't register on film or digitally. I called my brother as a witness but he couldn't see the unicorn. You have to believe in the unicorn for the unicorn to appear to you. Scientists can send rovers to Mars to take pictures of its surface but they can't see Unicorn or test for its existence. But you have to believe me that there are Biblical Unicorns and one of them appears and talks to me regulalry.

    See how silly that sounds to you? Now you know what your brother in law feels like when you talk about angels and demons.

  • Anthony

    Angels and demons are mentioned in the Bible; unicorns are not.

  • QuodEratDemonstrandum


    UNICORNS at JOB 39:9-12 King James Bible

    or follow this link:

    So now that we know that Angels, Demons and Unicorns are in the Bible you're willing to accept the existence of my Unicorn in the same way you accept there are angels and demons. Right?

    If you aren't willing to believe my Unicorn is real, just like Angels and Demons, I predict some goalpost moving in 3 . . .2. . .1 . . .

  • QuodEratDemonstrandum


    I also have a DRAGON at home, just like the one described in Revelations 13:11 KJV (except mine's invisible)


  • Anthony

    If you have that kind of dragon you had better call an exorcist.

  • Anthony

    Catholic interpretation of that verse is “wild ox” not “unicorn”, whereas angels and demons are unambiguously mentioned and alluded to throughout the Bible.

  • QuodEratDemonstrandum

    Well you can “interpret” “Unicorn” any way you want but the 1769 KJV and the 1611 KJV say “Unicorn”

    I can “interpret” “Angels and Demons” to mean “schizophrenic hallucinations” but Mr. Philips clearly said “Angels and Demons”

    So back to my Unicorn. Are you willing to accept that I see a Unicorn and that he exists just like your angels and demons? I have presented the same evidence as Mr. Phillips 1) It's in the Bible and 2) I'm telling you it exists.

    I was just joking about the Dragon. I don't really have one, I just note that they exist in the Bible. Or is there another “catholic interpretation” of “Dragon” I should know about? How about Cockatrices ( Isaiah 14:29 KJV )

  • burritobob

    But the King James Bible is Anglican, not Catholic..

  • Anthony

    “Unicorn” is a dubious, and to Catholics erroneous, interpretation of that verse. The existence of unicorns in the Bible is dubious at best and erroneous at worst. On the other hand, the well-documented existence of angels and demons in the Bible is factual.

    You are disingenuously comparing one wholly ambiguous entry with a multitude of unambiguous biblical assertions.

  • Buster

    Um… Read what they wrote. It was primitive and it was ignorant.

  • QuodEratDemonstrandum

    “well documented existence of angels and demons in the Bible is factual” – Anthony

    Are you really saying that because there are lots of mentions of Agels and Demons and comparatively few about Unicorns in the Bible the former are real but the latter aren't?

    How about “”Flying Serpents” Isaiah 14:29 (“Cockatrice” in the KJV)? Ok, not a lot of them either but they are in the bible. There are loads an dload of Giants, and Land of Giants will you believe a Biblical Giant visits me?

    I even used a catholic source for “flying serpents” instead of the KJV bible

  • geoffreysmith1

    The KJV Bible is notorious for its huge number of mistranslations. Couched in beautiful English maybe, but mistakes nevertheless. Be very careful indeed if you really must use it to bolster your arguments.

  • QuodEratDemonstrandum

    Good point burritobob. Please see my response to Anthony that includes citation to the Vatican website's online Bible re “flying serpents.”

    I understand your point about Anglican Bibles versus Catholic Bibles but it can be confusing trying to get to the true word of God amongst the hundreds if not thousands of modern translations of the Bible today and throughoutt history. It's really difficult to parse “Word of God” from “poor translation from the Aramaic” or “Medieval Monk got the Greek wrong”. So you can see how one person's “Unicorn” is another person's “Ox” and a “cokatrice” can be a “flying serpent”

    The real point I am trying to make is that there are mythical elements to the Bible. These include Giants, Flying Serpents, Angels, Demons and in some translations, Unicorns.

    If Mr. phillips can claim that there are Angels and Demons based on their appearance in the Bible and his experience, my claim to Unicorns is equally valid becaue I present the same evidence: “It's in the Bible” and “I saw it”.

  • Anthony

    How do you know who wrote what?

  • Bruce in Orlando

    Anthony please illuminate us. Instead of responding 'how do you know' please feel free to jump in and tell us what you do know about the subject.

  • Anthony

    “Are you really saying that because there are lots of mentions of Angels and Demons and comparatively few about Unicorns in the Bible the former are real but the latter aren't?”

    It is a fact that the existence of angels and demons is well-documented in the Bible. Unicorns are not mentioned at all apart from one highly dubious entry which Catholics interpret as “wild ox”.

    “Viper” or “flying dragon” is a prophecy of either Sennacherib, king of Assyria, son of Sargon II, or Hezekiah, king of Judah, son of Ahaz.

  • Anthony

    I neither made the claim that primitive and ignorant people invented bizarre fantasies, nor claimed that what they allegedly wrote was primitive and ignorant. The onus is on those who gratuitously made those claims to substantiate them.

  • Anthony

    We've already discounted unicorns and flying serpents (see earlier posts). Where's your entry for giants?

  • Conrad Noll

    Anthony, do you know what sophistry is? I am sure you know… or will shortly when you Google it.

    You are a masterful practitioner.

    Conrad J. Noll

  • Anthony

    On the contrary, mine is a clumsy effort to impart the truth.

  • QuodEratDemonstrandum

    geoffreysmith, unless one is a biblical scholar and can read hebrew, Aramaic, greek and latin and have access to primary sources, every single version of the bible is a translation and thus an imperfect, flawed version of the original. Even biblical scholars disagree over meanings. So it's no good to argue that your version is the accurate one

  • Stonyground

    It seems to me that if everyone has one of these guardian angels, some of them are not very competent. If as Anthony states, the Catholic Church generally manages to come up with translations that make the Bible seem less ludicrous, I wonder what they have come up with for the talking ass in Numbers chapter 22?

  • HarryR

    The article seems to contrast a presumed reasonable belief in angels and other supernatural entities with a presumed absurd belief in the existence of aliens.

    Surely that should be the other way round?

    I mean there is no evidence for anything supernatural, other than anecdotal accounts over long periods of time by diverse people in diverse circumstances whose experiences were then generally written down by strangers as hearsay many years later and whose own writtings were translated by later strangers and so on thru time to the present day.

    Without any further evidence, the supernatural entities can be reasonably regarded as inventions by people seeking some kind of explanation for natural phenomena they could not understand and which we don't need to accept unquestioningly given we now have many more proven tools to understand our universe with. Or just lies to give credence to their own objectives.

    In fact, if there were any evidence for supernatural entities, they wouldn't be supernatural.

    Whereas, discounting anecdotal accounts of flying saucers and abductions, the existence of aliens, meaning life forms that have developed elsewhere other than on our own planet, is at least plausible and if or when we our confronted with unambiguous evidence of alien life, whether it consists of signs of a bacteria analogue on Mars or an interstellar superhighway elsewhere in the Galaxy, it will be fascinating and affect our view of ourselves but won't fundamentally change our understanding of the Universe other than by expanding it.

    Unambiguous evidence of the existence of angels and demons would contradict a vast body of experimental data and laws of conservation of energy and momentum would have to be discarded or changed in some way to allow for the new phenomena while continuing to work for the non supernatural universe.

    Despite the current lack of direct evidence, given the size & age of the universe it is reasonable to believe that it is statistically probable that life has developed independently elsewhere.

    There is no basis for such a belief in supernatural entities.
    Unless they are alien tourists projecting themselves onto our world by some technology and whose occasional and bizarre appearances have been rationalised by superstitious minds into something that makes sense to them ;-)

  • MarkNS


  • guest

    And telling a Catholic you’re Atheist is like telling them you burned down the Humane Society…