Questions for Atheists

Andromeda

I feel so lucky to live in a time when we can take pictures like this.

I came across this list of “questions for atheists” on an apologetics website thanks to a YouTuber named Steve Shives. He’s an atheist who is giving his own answers to the questions in a series of three videos, and I highly recommend his channel for a clearly-presented atheistic viewpoint. He has several video series in which he reviews apologetics books extensively and explains why he doesn’t find them convincing.

I thought it would be interesting to answer these questions myself, although I’m not an atheist. Some Christians insist that I am, since I don’t believe in their particular god. Of course, by that reasoning any Christian could be called an atheist for not believing in the god of Islam. If you really think about it, pretty much everyone holds an atheistic view toward other people’s gods. Some Christians like to frame atheism as a belligerent, angry, or irrational point of view, but not believing in the Christian god is really no different than not believing in the god of Islam. Perhaps we can recognize the commonality we have there, and perhaps my answers from a middle-ground position will help to clear up misunderstandings.

So with that said, let’s dive into the questions.

How would you define atheism?

There are two types of atheism, agnostic and gnostic. The former is framed as not believing in any gods, while remaining undecided on the question of whether or not a god or gods might exist. Gnostic atheism is the positive claim that there is no god. However, the distinction isn’t perfectly clear because the atheist who claims there is no god is not usually claiming to know it with complete certainty.

Do you act according to what you believe (there is no God) in or what you don’t believe in (lack belief in God)?

I act according to what I believe, but the existence of a god is no more than a philosophical position to me and lacks relevance to my everyday life. Aside from writing and talking about the ideas of god and religion, I do not act on my disbelief in the Christian god any more than I act on my disbelief in Zeus.

Do you think it is inconsistent for someone who “lacks belief” in God to work against God’s existence by attempting to show that God doesn’t exist?

When we attempt to show that “god doesn’t exist”, we are usually concerned with a very specific god, such as the god of Christianity. In most cases it isn’t the mere existence of a god that is in question, but very specific claims of a religion that professes to know the absolute truth. This becomes a problem when such a religion actively attempts to make non-believers follow their rules. That’s the main reason someone who lacks belief in a god would put effort into showing why that god doesn’t exist. Christians attempt to show that everyone else’s gods don’t exist, is that not inconsistent?

How sure are you that your atheism properly represents reality?

How sure are you that your atheism is correct?

These two questions are the same. Something that is correct is something that properly represents reality. Since I draw my beliefs from observations of reality, and always endeavor to eliminate bias, I’m reasonably sure my beliefs regarding the existence of god are correct. As I mentioned, I’m not exactly an atheist, since I hold the possibility of a god of some sort to be about as likely as any other explanation for the origin of the universe. To be precise, I suppose you could say I’m agnostic with a preference for deism. I call it agnostic deism. If there’s a god and an afterlife, I guess we’ll find out. If there’s no afterlife, we’ll probably never know either way. It seems most reasonable to me to live as if there’s no afterlife, and if there is hopefully I can be pleasantly surprised. Since there’s no good reason to think there is, however, it would be illogical and silly to dedicate my life on this earth to hoping for an afterlife that may never happen. Better to focus our resources and time on improving the world we already have.

How would you define what truth is?

Truth is what is correct, which is what properly represents reality. When we talk about truth, we usually mean what is true within the framework of reality that we experience. Since everything we know is filtered through our perception, there’s always the possibility that the “absolute truth” is that we are incorporeal minds, floating through nothingness and imagining everything. However, this is unlikely, and even if it was true, it wouldn’t be relevant to our lives. So we define as truth what is objectively correct within the reality we experience.

Why do you believe your atheism is a justifiable position to hold?

I’m replacing “atheism” with “not believing in a specific god”. I believe it’s justifiable because there is overwhelming evidence against any interventionist deity, and many specific claims and promises made by religions can be tested and found to be false.

Are you a materialist or a physicalist or what?

I’m a What. I was born When in the land of Where, and learned about Why and How from a very intelligent Who named Carl Sagan.

Do you affirm or deny that atheism is a worldview? Why or why not?

No, atheism is a position on one single matter…the existence of a god or gods. A worldview is the collection of knowledge and beliefs that comprise a person’s fundamental view of life, the universe, and everything (42 is an acceptable worldview if you are a computer). Simple atheism is entirely inadequate for anything other than dealing with the philosophical question of whether or not a deity exists. The same goes for my own agnostic deism. My own worldview, and that of a lot of other non-religious people, would most accurately be labeled humanism.

Not all atheists are antagonistic to Christianity but for those of you who are, why the antagonism?

Speaking for myself, I’m generally antagonistic toward ideas that hold people back from living happy and free lives, or that inspire people to oppress others. A large portion of Christianity does both of those things and is often very antagonistic toward humanism. However, I try to stay away from antagonizing people, as I would rather discuss the ideas than get distracted by an endless string of personal attacks and excuses. Someone who is unable to discuss ideas separate from the people ends up turning any discussion in which there is disagreement into a debate over what someone meant when they said something that bothered someone else. It tends to destroy any chance for peace and understanding.

If you were at one time a believer in the Christian God, what caused you to deny His existence?

I was raised Christian, and then logic and reality taught me better. It was a simple matter of studying the Bible, looking at reality, and realizing they’re not compatible. Apologetics fails to be convincing at all because, with few exceptions, every argument is either circular, deceptively illogical, or just plain wrong. The tiny number of plausible arguments in Christian apologetics point only to a god of deism, at which point apologists irrationally jump straight to assuming this deistic god must be their specific Christian god. I bought into it when I was younger because it was all I knew for most of my life, but eventually I started noticing the cracks, and after a rough two-year search that involved a lot of painful self-correcting, I found my way to a clear perspective and finally saw the religion for what it was. It’s ridiculous now, how Christians accuse me of hating the truth or thinking I’m never wrong. The only reason I’m not still a conservative Calvinist Christian is because I admitted I was wrong about almost everything.

Do you believe the world would be better off without religion?

I’m not sure. I’ve shown with actual data that the more secular countries in the world are safer, and they also have better standards of living and more freedom. But this is just a correlation, and we can’t say for sure that there is a causal link between religion and crime. The correlation is also found in the United States, with highly religious states having higher rates of crime and other issues such as teen pregnancy. Given that religion has been a major cause of war for millennia, and the recent rise in secularism has coincided with (and arguably caused) both the exponential progress of technology and the spread of democracy, I would say there is ample evidence that religion in general is, at the very least, not beneficial.

Do you believe the world would be better off without Christianity?

The answer to this is the same as the answer to the previous question. Every religion has violent extremists, non-violent extremists, a bunch of mostly normal people, and a handful of saints. Christianity is no exception, and I don’t have enough information to decide if the religion is overall harmful, beneficial, or neither. Some versions are great and inspire people to do good things, while others are horrible. The anti-human message that underlies much of Christianity, as well as the concept of hell, are two of the major aspects I believe are harmful.

Do you believe that faith in a God or gods is a mental disorder?

Not at all. If believing something that is untrue is a mental disorder, then most likely everyone on earth has it. However, there are mental disorders (or “deficiencies”) that might make people more likely to believe superstitious things. John Stuart Mill observed back in the 19th century that “stupid people are generally conservative”. I think the reason is clear; those with less capacity for learning new things and understanding difficult ideas tend to stick with what is familiar to them, and that is precisely the definition of conservatism. This isn’t to say that conservative people are generally stupid, as there are other reasons for such a mindset. I think we can take another step, and say that conservative people are generally religious, because religion is familiar, and it offers to answer the unanswerable and provide absolute truth, which can be comforting in a complex and painful world.

Also, I’ve said that people tend to make their gods in their own image…in other words, they select a religion and a version of that religion based on what fits their own needs, desires, and personality. A narcissistic or abusive man might be drawn to the version of Christianity that subjugates women and treats men like kings. A significant number of my young Christian friends have parents who attempt to control them well into adulthood, sometimes using harmful and even illegal forms of manipulation and displaying signs of various personality disorders. Someone with very low self-esteem might feel enough guilt to buy into Calvinism (I’ve seen it). And so on…there seems to be a denomination of Christianity to match every mental problem and personality flaw.

But at the same time, there are good forms of religion that appeal to people who truly value kindness and cooperation. It all depends on the intentions and motivations of the religious person in question.

Must God be known through the scientific method?

The scientific method is simply a way of thinking and exploring ideas that is designed for the purpose of reducing bias and giving you the best chance to find what is really true. You don’t need to use it, but it’s highly recommended if you care at all about truth. In his book The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan outlined some fundamental aspects of critical thinking and the scientific method in what he called a “baloney detection kit”. This way of exploring reality has been developed over thousands of years in the western world, being largely pioneered by the Greeks and then picked up again in earnest during the Renaissance by European philosophers and scientists. Many of those people have been religious as well, but it was the scientific method that gave us computers, vaccines, modern agriculture, and all the other technological advancements that have saved billions of lives and made it possible to understand our universe at a much deeper level than religion has ever reached.

If you answered yes to the previous question, then how do you avoid a category mistake by requiring material evidence for an immaterial God?

The scientific method is not about “material” evidence. To put it simply, it’s about making informed guesses (hypotheses) about what might be true, and then pursuing evidence that might prove the guess wrong. If experiments and evidence continually confirm a hypothesis, it becomes accepted as a likely truth. The reason for seeking evidence that would prove your guess wrong is simple; if you look for data to prove yourself right, you can usually find it, and you may ignore or totally miss some important evidence that would prove you wrong. This is called confirmation bias. My article A Search for Truth goes into more depth on the subject.

Furthermore, some ideas can be tested even if the subject is immaterial, because evidence can be abstract information. Mathematics is a great example of a field that uses the scientific method and logic to discover fundamental truths without physical experiments. In 1637, Pierre de Fermat made the claim that no three positive integers (a, b, and c) can satisfy the equation a^n + b^n = c^n if n is an integer greater than two. More than 350 years later, someone finally worked out a proof for it, showing that the claim was true without any need for material evidence other than paper to hold the information. Apologetics often attempts to “prove” god in a similar way, but the logic always fails because it tries to impose a particular hypothesis about the material world (that it came from the Christian god) over the evidence, and most evidence is not compatible with that hypothesis, or points more prominently in a different direction.

Do we have any purpose as human beings?

If we do have purpose, can you as an atheist please explain how that purpose is determined?

I’m combining the answers to these questions because really all I have to say to the first one is yes, we do. A mother has purpose in caring for her child, and if you extend that same idea to the whole of humanity, one of our basic purposes is to raise another generation and keep the species going. But I suppose people want more of a purpose than just having sex and making little humans who flood the bathroom and vomit in the car.

I think the question itself is flawed, in a way. It’s looking for an ultimate purpose that applies to all people, but why would such a purpose be superior to the individual momentary purposes we have throughout our lives? What’s the purpose of having an ultimate purpose? In everyday life, most people (even theists) aren’t concerned with the ultimate purpose of humanity, but rather their duty to and enjoyment of the people, culture, and natural world around them. I believe beauty and purpose are human constructs to describe how we perceive aspects of reality, and I wrote this little article on the subject about a year ago. We derive pleasure from seeing something, and therefore consider it beautiful. We desire something, and therefore value it.

There are beautiful things in our world that last only a short time, and the fact that they aren’t eternal does not mean they have no purpose. Many Christians believe animals have no souls, and yet animals are not worthless. In some cases, it is precisely the temporary nature of a thing that gives it value and meaning. We value life because it doesn’t last forever. And because we value life, because we enjoy beautiful things, we feel an emotional connection to the universe and seek to leave some sort of mark on it. But whether or not there is an afterlife has no bearing on our purpose in this world. The lust for an ultimate and eternal purpose seems as self-centered to me as the lust for power or wealth, although maybe both are just different reactions to the fear of death.

I love Carl Sagan’s view of the issue. He would often say that we are star-stuff, because every atom in our bodies was formed inside a star. If you want to identify an ultimate purpose for humanity, perhaps it can be found in this: we are products of a beautiful and incredible world, and we are a way for the universe to know itself. Our bodies were made from it, and after we die the stuff that was once us will become something else. In that brief time between your conception and your death, you are a small collection of atoms that has become self-aware, able to perceive and experience reality, feel emotions, create art, and affect the lives of other beings. There’s a universe in your head, and you think that if you don’t last forever, you have no purpose?

Where does morality come from?

Just like we define beauty and value, we also define morality. I often use this simple thought experiment to explain how morality is man-made: if you were the only sentient being in existence, then nothing you did would be wrong. It couldn’t be, because there would be nobody else to be wronged. Morality is nothing more than assigning values to the interactions between sentient beings, and thus it can exist perfectly fine without a god.

Our current moral system is a complex mixture of instinct, empathy, and logic. We value life because it is fragile and we have an instinctive desire to survive. We value freedom because it is an essential aspect of an enjoyable life. We object to being harmed because it’s an assault on freedom. We object to harming others because we understand that they feel pain just like we do. We empathize, and we think, and that’s why we are moral.

It’s a nearly universal human agreement that being stabbed is unpleasant. Thus, we developed a sort of unspoken social agreement that stabbing is wrong. It’s a survival mechanism on a level that only highly intelligent, self-aware beings can attain. And contrary to popular belief, it isn’t unique to humans. Many of the more intelligent animals, especially apes, have been observed exhibiting simple moral behavior. It seems to be a natural development when a being is intelligent enough to draw a connection between its own experiences and the experiences of others.

Are there moral absolutes?

If there are moral absolutes, could you list a few of them?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that certain actions in certain contexts always have negative effects, and therefore we can logically conclude that they are always wrong in those contexts, because that’s sort of the definition of wrongness. But you cannot say, for example, that it is always wrong to imprison a person, because that would depend on whether they had done something for which imprisonment would be considered a fair punishment. I would say that the fundamental moral absolute is this: it is wrong to harm someone against their will, unless it is in the context of a socially accepted and fair method of punishing a person who has harmed others. Of course, there is much more than that to morality, but the concept of harm being negative is where it starts.

Do you believe there is such a thing as evil? If so, what is it?

Evil is just our label for things that have very harmful effects, as judged by our morality, and is usually reserved for what we consider to be totally lacking in anything good or beneficial.

If you believe that the God of the Old Testament is morally bad, by what standard do you judge that He is bad?

You can judge the god of the Christian Bible as morally bad by his own standards. He says not to kill, and yet kills millions of people himself. He supposedly teaches selflessness, yet demands that we all praise and worship him, or else we will be tormented for eternity. Why would you worship a god who doesn’t even hold himself to the same standards he imposes on you?

And don’t try to say that the sacrifice of Jesus was selfless. According to Christianity, Jesus is still perfectly alive and no worse off than he was before. God lost nothing through that charade of human sacrifice, nothing but a temporary human body. And it was done for what? To appease his own anger at the fact that the people he created didn’t do something that they are entirely incapable of doing? This is lunacy. God creates humans knowing that they will disobey him. He tells them that if they disobey, he will do terrible things to them. They disobey, he does terrible things, and then he gives them an impossible standard of perfection. This petty god then gets mad when his own creation fails to live up to the standard he imposed, a standard he knows they cannot meet.

Rather than showing any reasonable sort of compassion, he splits off one of his personalities and puts it in a human body, has the body killed, gets the personality back, and then tells us, “Since you can’t meet the impossible standard I imposed, here’s a new one: just believe this very specific set of nonsensical things, without any logical evidence, and I’ll forgive you for being incapable of pleasing me. Otherwise you will suffer for eternity.” The Christian god is often compared to a father, yet if a human father acted like this, he would lose his children and probably be imprisoned for life. Quite simply, “worship me or suffer for eternity” is manipulative and incredibly selfish. It’s no wonder so many hardcore Christian parents are narcissistic and abusive; they’re just following their god’s example.

What would it take for you to believe in God?

What would constitute sufficient evidence for God’s existence?

To believe in a god in general, I would need evidence for which there is no other explanation. With our growing knowledge of the universe, we have examined phenomena once thought to be supernatural and discovered exactly how they happen naturally, and sometimes even learned how to cause them ourselves. Assuming a supernatural cause for an event that could have a natural explanation is a bad idea, because our experience so far has been that it’s never supernatural. If something were to happen that is known to be impossible by the laws of our universe, that might be evidence. If a god came to earth and was seen by humans and spoke to us and provided proof that he/she was supernatural, that would be evidence. Of course, it would also have to be documented properly if I didn’t witness it myself.

But what would it take for me to believe in the Christian god? I think I would have to wake up and realize that everything I’ve ever done, everything I’ve ever known, was a dream, and reality is radically different than I thought. Since I don’t think I’m lying somewhere in a coma, I’m pretty sure I can assume the reality I’m observing is actually real, and if it is, the Christian god cannot exist. That is, the version of the Christian god who is omnipotent, perfectly good, and loves humanity, yet would let anyone suffer for eternity. There’s no way to reconcile reality, or the idea of hell, with a perfect and loving god. The god of Universalism, who takes everyone to heaven, is more plausible and consistent. However, in order to be consistent with reality he would need to not be omnipotent. The omnipotent Christian god would not be loving or good at all.

Must this evidence be rationally based, archaeological, testable in a lab, etc., or what?

The requirement I have for evidence of any particular god is simple: it merely needs to rule out enough other possible explanations that the god in question is overwhelmingly the best option. If I didn’t witness the evidence myself, it would need to come from a known and reputable source. It would need to be consistent with what we know of reality. It would need to be something that could only be adequately explained by the existence of a god.

Do you think that a society that is run by Christians or atheists would be safer? Why?

Neither might be the best answer depending on the type of government involved. I’ve already shown that more secular societies in the world today are safer. And if you look at the European nations of the last two thousand years that were ruled by Christianity…it wasn’t pretty. But it really depends on the type of Christians, the type of atheists, and the type of government.

Do you believe in free will? (free will being the ability to make choices without coercion)

I tend to lean that way, but I am refraining from establishing a “belief” about it because I don’t have enough data to reach a conclusion. Much like I lean toward thinking there may be some sort of sentient being that is responsible for the existence of our universe, but refrain from specific beliefs on the matter because I have nothing beyond philosophical conjecture.

If you believe in free will, do you see any problem with defending the idea that the physical brain, which is limited and subject to the neuro-chemical laws of the brain, can still produce free will choices?

The limitation of the physical brain is exactly what calls into question our otherwise obvious experience of free will. Also, the concept of spacetime in general relativity raises some questions about the true nature of time and whether we can actually change what happens in the future.

If you affirm evolution and that the universe will continue to expand forever, then do you think it is probable that given enough time, brains would evolve to the point of exceeding mere physical limitations and become free of the physical and temporal, and thereby become “deity” and not be restricted by space and time? If not, why not?

It seems unlikely that we could evolve beyond physical limitations since our nature is fundamentally rooted in physical phenomena down to the smallest level, though I’m hesitant to say it’s impossible. It’s more likely that we will take control of our own evolution through technology and get closer and closer to whatever level of perfection is allowed by the laws of our universe (even more likely, we’ll destroy ourselves or get walloped by a comet and some other species will take over). Perhaps technology could allow us to escape the limitations of space and time, but the possibility of that would depend on the answers to questions we are only just beginning to ask.

If you answered the previous question in the affirmative, then aren’t you saying that it is probable that some sort of God exists?

It’s possible to conceive of a god who is a highly evolved being in another universe, who created our own universe as an experiment or a piece of art. I enjoy entertaining these ideas, but philosophical entertainment is really all they’re good for.

Image: Time.com

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