My friend Neil Carter over at Godless in Dixie shared a set of ten questions for atheists about Christianity, along with his excellent answers. Since answering questions is an easy way to fill up a blog post, and they are good questions, I decided to answer them as well. (I consider myself fully agnostic–I have no belief about the existence of gods in general, but I do think all gods with names were probably invented by humans.)
Have you ever been to church?
Whether in my own home, someone else’s house, or a dedicated church building, I attended church about every week until I was 21 years old, and was thoroughly indoctrinated from infancy to believe a certain type of Christianity (which changed slightly over the years as my parents bounced from church to church). For many years in my teens I participated in mid-week bible studies, and I frequently played piano for worship services both at home and at churches. I’ve been to churches a few times since I deconverted, for various reasons, but I find that climbing a mountain on a sunny Sunday morning is far more beneficial for my physical and mental health than sitting for an hour or more while somebody bloviates about their personal opinions regarding an ancient book of myths that I’ve already read cover to cover multiple times.
Do you have any Christian friends or family members? If so, what do you think of their faith?
Most of my immediate family is still as devoutly Christian as I used to be. I’m not the only one who has left, though, and I suspect that more of my siblings will end up following me. They’re too smart for that nonsense. I grew up in a brand of Christianity that was very concerned with remaining separate from “the world”. I was homeschooled all the way through high school with strictly controlled internet access. My one semester of college was at a Nazarene university. Until I moved out and deconverted, I had basically zero contact with or knowledge about non-Christians, and even Christians who didn’t believe the “right” things were to be avoided. I think that form of faith is destructive and dehumanizing, because it encourages division along lines that in practice mean almost nothing. My employers, many of my coworkers, and the majority of my friends are also Christians; most of them are more reasonable and their faith is usually a harmless fantasy.
What do you think of Christians?
I think they’re normal people like anybody else, who believe some false things like everybody does. We all have our blind spots. I do think that religious people tend to have a poorer understanding of reality and a screwed up concept of morality that fails to consider consequences. That’s not just based on personal experience (of which I have plenty), but also on scientific studies that have shown both of those things to be true. Again, not all Christians, but religious people in general are more likely to have those problems.
What do you think of Jesus?
He was probably a real guy who accidentally started a cult. There’s no telling what he actually said, since all the words attributed to him weren’t written down until decades or centuries after his death and there are numerous conflicting accounts about his life, many of which were left out of the bible entirely. But it seems likely that there was some sort of preacher or zealot who inspired the stories and got promoted to the position of Messiah after a generation or two of oral storytelling and embellishment.
What do you think of the Bible?
Early this year I wrote a five-article series covering a few of the many reasons I think it’s ludicrous to claim the Christian bible was inspired by an all-knowing god. Those reasons include things like explicit permission to enslave people as permanent property, commands to murder family members or friends who follow a different religion, promises to force people to eat their own children if they disobey, and of course plenty of blatant internal contradictions and inaccurate scientific or geographical information. The bible also includes some fascinating stories, and occasional moral advice that reflects what plenty of other people figured out long before the nation of Israel even existed. There isn’t much in it that’s uniquely new or useful…even Jesus’s most universally praised moral teachings are found in older religious traditions around the world, and many of the details of the story seem to have been directly borrowed from other mythologies. It’s like the bible is ancient fanfiction.
Has anyone ever preached to you personally?
They never really stop.
How would you feel if someone tried to persuade you to believe in Jesus? Would it make a difference if that person were a stranger or if they were close to you?
I would actually be less bothered by a stranger doing it. I have nothing against a good debate. When it’s someone close to me, it sometimes makes me feel like they don’t care about or understand my experiences. There’s really nothing they could say that I haven’t heard before, and most of it I said myself when I was a Christian, and they should know that. But it also depends a lot on how they go about it; I have no respect or patience for arguments that appeal to emotion, intellectual dishonesty, equivocation on the definition of words, and all the other manipulative tactics people have attempted to use on me. We can either have an honest and enlightening conversation, or you can prove that you have no real interest in anything other than protecting your precious beliefs and I’ll just tune you out.
What are your biggest objections to Christianity?
- The book of scripture on which it is based depicts a god who is obviously evil, even if judged by the same standards he imposes on humans. He is selfish, arrogant, petty, vindictive, and presents long lists of horrific punishments (such as the aforementioned eating of children) that he’ll inflict on his people if they disobey him. He murders huge numbers of people, including pregnant women and young children, and commands his followers to commit genocide. He explicitly approves of enslaving people as permanent property, and prescribes abortion as punishment for a woman who cheats on her husband. His laws include commands to kill people for minor transgressions like being rebellious teenagers, being female and unable to prove you’re a virgin on your wedding night, following a different religion, and so on.
- The claimed characteristics of this god contradict many of the stories told about him in his own scripture. They say he knows everything–past, present, and future–and yet somehow isn’t responsible for all human suffering despite his actions directly and knowingly causing it. An omnipotent god could have created humans who would freely choose not to sin, thus preventing all the human suffering that an omniscient god would’ve seen coming. They say he punishes us or “allows us to suffer” in order to bring us closer to him, while simultaneously claiming that the first time we meet him face-to-face is too late to accept him, and anyone who didn’t have faith before they died will suffer for eternity…a pointless punishment that serves no redeeming purpose. Whenever Christians give me examples of how suffering can work out for good, they are using situations where a small amount of suffering is necessary to prevent greater suffering. If they believe in an eternal hell, they’re essentially making the claim that literally infinite amounts of suffering are required to prevent even greater suffering, which is logically incoherent. And if they believe in an omnipotent god, they’re making the claim that he is unable to achieve his positive goals without inflicting enormous amounts of suffering on humans, which is self-contradictory since an omnipotent god could easily come up with a different plan. They say he never changes, yet in different bible passages he says completely opposite things, and most Christians ignore the majority of Old Testament laws because “Jesus changed things”, even though Jesus himself said every one of those laws would be in effect until the end of the universe. They say he wants a relationship with every single human, and the bible says multiple times that he wants everyone to be saved, but it seems he doesn’t want it enough to put any effort into developing those relationships with people like me. I could go on.
- Many of the claims made by the religion are incompatible with my experiences and knowledge of reality. On the minor end you have things like the creation story (which could be explained as metaphorical), or the greatly inflated population numbers that are not reflected in archaeological evidence, or the mention of cities in supposedly ancient stories that didn’t exist until several hundred years later (about the time that the stories were actually written down…hmm…), or plenty of other scientific, mathematic, and geographic errors. On the more serious end, there’s the account of Noah’s flood for which there is zero geological evidence, the plagues and exodus from Egypt which have zero archaeological evidence, the promises made about prayer that fail under every fair test they’re subjected to, and so on. In addition, our advances in biology have illuminated extensive flaws in the basic “design” of living things, making it quite obvious that if we were designed by an intelligent being, he was a largely incompetent designer who put an immense amount of effort into making all life appear to be descended from a common ancestor, to the point of inserting useless genes and/or body parts into organisms to make them seem related to similar organisms in which those same genes and body parts are actually useful.
Hypothetically speaking, if the claims of the Christian faith were proven true beyond a shadow of a doubt, would you become a Christian?
Absolutely (assuming one of the proven claims is that god is perfectly good, which would be difficult since the bible itself tells me otherwise). In this way I’m the opposite of people like Ken Ham, who when asked what could change their mind say “nothing”. It’s a mark of intellectual dishonesty and blind arrogance when you claim that nothing would be sufficient to convince you that you’re wrong. The only reason I’m not still a conservative Calvinist Christian is because I was open to being wrong about everything, and I can easily come up with imaginary situations in which things I’m quite convinced are true could be proven wrong. That’s not to say that such situations are plausible or likely, only that they’re possible to imagine. Anyone who says they can’t even imagine something which would prove them wrong is either dishonest or lacking imagination. Back when I deconverted and slipped into a vague deism for a while, I offered multiple opportunities for Christians to prove their faith, much like Gideon asked god to prove himself with multiple physical miracles, but their god seems unable or unwilling to back up the lofty claims made about his abilities and character. The dishonest and illogical excuses given for his lack of action only serve to convince me further that he’s imaginary.
Describe your beliefs about God, salvation, the afterlife, etc.
I have no beliefs about god. Instead of choosing an answer to the question that I want to believe, I refrain from believing any answer at all until I have the data necessary to rule out enough possibilities that one emerges as almost certainly right. In the case of gods, there are thousands of hypotheses and no conclusive data. However, I can exclude certain hypotheses if they contradict things I know to be true. So I am open to the possibility that there is a god of some sort, but many of the specific claims made by Christianity, Islam, and other religions can be tested and proven false. I do think it is more likely that there was a natural cause for the origin of the universe, but that’s just a matter of probability. We have explained a great number of mysteries, and so far every single one has had a natural cause. If 100% of the weird stuff that we’ve explained so far has a natural cause, why should I suppose that the stuff we haven’t explained yet has a supernatural cause? This doesn’t mean I “believe” the universe had a natural cause, only that I suspect a natural cause is most likely while recognizing that further data is needed to reach even a tentative conclusion.
I think the premises of salvation are flawed from the start, as the concept is usually based on the idea that humanity is somehow fallen from an initial state of perfection and is now fundamentally evil. For one, we have extensive fossil evidence to reconstruct much of our family tree, which split from chimpanzees and included dozens of other human species that have since gone extinct (some of which left behind traces of their DNA in our own due to interbreeding). The farther back we look, the smaller our brains and the shorter our lifespan. We’re moving in the opposite direction from what Christianity claims…from ignorance to knowledge, from violence to peace, from short lives to longer ones. These advances became especially pronounced when secular worldviews caught on, and today the most happy, peaceful, and prosperous nations are the least religious. There is a strong correlation around the world between the level of belief in theistic religion and the level of violence. I think that’s because the same factors lead to both, not because there’s a causal link, but either way the data proves that religion does not reduce our negative habits. Humans do both good and evil things regardless of their religion–we are neither fundamentally evil nor fundamentally good–but we tend to be more good and less evil in the absence of religion. Thus, the Christian concept of salvation is an impotent solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
As for an afterlife, nothing we have observed has ever indicated that human consciousness can continue after death. Attempts have been made to prove the existence of a soul, but nobody has even come close. So with all the data pointing to our brains being the sole source of all human thought and emotion, it seems most reasonable to live as if this life is all we get. If there happens to be an afterlife, hopefully it will be a pleasant surprise. But it seems irresponsible to claim without evidence that a certain sort of afterlife exists and that it matters more than our lives do in this world. I’m not going to base my whole life on a hope that’s backed up by nothing but ancient mythology. I already tried that, and it simply didn’t work in the real world. An approach based on evidence and logic has proven to be much more reliable than religion.
For any Christians reading this, I have my own list of eleven questions that still haven’t been answered. I’m very curious to see if anyone can offer something new and logically coherent in response to them.
Image: Clipart Kid