Thursday, January 29, 2009

Questions from Believers

Over at the Friendly Atheist there's a list of questions that Christians would like to ask atheists. Commenters there are answering them now, and I thought I'd post my answers here:

Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus’ resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself.

Well here are four that spring immediately to mind, and I'm confident I could think up at least a dozen more. The witnesses lied. The resurrection was faked by someone. The event was entirely made up after the fact by the authors of the gospels. Jesus wasn't really dead. Each of these explanations make much more sense than a guy coming back from the dead after three days, which is something that we all know is physically impossible.

Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?

Nobody knows whether or not the matter and energy began to exist a finite amount of time ago. We think it existed as a singularity, a region of infinite density and infinite space-time curvature. What happened before that is potentially a meaningless question given that the big bang (i.e. the expansion of this singularity) is when we think time, as we know it, began.

And "the universe is fine-tuned for life"? No. Life is fine-tuned for the universe, or at least our tiny corner of it.

Granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don’t such ‘injustices’ or ‘evils’ seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?

I don't accept that "the problem of evil" is the main objection to the belief in God. There are many other factors, and every atheist has come to his or her conclusions via different thoughts and concepts. For me in particular, it's the complete lack of any evidence. And no, I don't believe that the fact that we can recognize an act as "evil" means that there must be an objective standard for "good". This is like saying that because I find olives to taste bad, there must exist somewhere a food that tastes absolutely perfect.

Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from non-life, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source.

As I said above, the big bang theory does not require something to come from nothing. It describes the universe coming from the singularity, which may have always been there, or may have come from somewhere else.

Life could come from non-life via molecules such as RNA strands or something similar, which, since they can self-replicate, can undergo the process of evolution and selection.

How can mind come from brain? I'm not sure how you define the word "mind" but I assume you mean consciousness. I believe that consciousness is an illusion resulting from electrical impulses in our material brain.

Our moral senses likely arose as a by-product of our evolutionary history.

These explanations, I believe, are plausible. The details are being fleshed out more and more each day by scientists and experts the world over. The amount of evidence for the truth of these ideas is growing. And they require no god or supernatural elements to work.

It should also be pointed out that theists certainly cannot answer these questions any better than I can, at least not beyond "God did it", which explains nothing at all.

Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?

I honestly never, ever doubt my disbelief in any of the organized religions, or of the concept of a personal or intervening god.

Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?

This question seems to be built on several unfounded assumptions. The idea that "the physical universe is not eternal" is not "clear" to me. Then, "everything came from outside the universe" or "everything came from nothing"? These are not the only options. How about "everything was always here, in some form of other"? The big bang theory does not refute this, and if something had to have always existed, it might as well be the universe than God. And an atheist is a person lacking belief in a god. The descriptor "atheist" says nothing about a persons belief regarding the origins of the universe any more than about their taste in music.

If our cognitive faculties were selected for survival, not for truth, then how can we have any confidence, for example, that our beliefs about the reality of physical objects are true or that naturalism itself is true?

Much of this question can be discarded. It boils down to "How can we believe in anything?". This question should be more unsettling to the theist than the atheist. The answer is that, philosophically, we can never be certain about anything, but we can test ideas by repeat measurements, theories, models and verification of predictions. God fails these tests, whereas my hypothesis that "if I drop a brick on my foot, it will hurt" is based on past experience and my knowledge of the world. Science works.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Humanistic Morality

Humanistic morality is a code of ethics based on the value and quality of human life. It is not derived from absolute engravings on a cosmic stone tablet. Morality is relative to human things like happiness, health, peace, beauty, love, joy, and justice. It is the preferring of those actions and ideas which enhance the human condition over those which threaten it. The Nazis, who were mostly Catholics and Lutherans, were wrong not because they broke an absolute law, but because they desecrated human life. Even though humanistic morality does assert some rights and wrongs relative to the human condition, it is flexible and free to improve. For example, on the one hand it is inconceivable that something like genocide would ever be considered moral, and on the other hand that something like genuine politeness could be considered immoral; but there will always be a middle ground between those extremes for things like birth control, divorce, diet, self defense, or patriotism, which will depend on the situation.

Any morality which is based on an unyielding structure above and beyond humanity is dangerous to human beings. History is filled with examples of what religious "morality" has done to worsen our lot. Whole cities can be gleefully exterminated in God's name. Society's "witches" can be eliminated. Free thought can be suppressed, squelching any hope for progress. (Why else were the Christian-dominated centuries called the "Dark" Ages?) Under Christian morality, anything goes if it furthers God's plan. In place of CS Lewis's Law of Morality, more enlightened people would champion reason and kindness: principles that are pliable and human, not rigid and cold.

Dan Barker

Taken from the article Mere Assertions.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Quote of the Week

Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day. Give him a religion, and he'll starve to death while praying for a fish.

Timothy Jones

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Good Without God

What would you do if there were no God? Would you commit robbery, rape, and murder, or would you continue being a good and moral person? Either way the question is a debate stopper. If the answer is that you would soon turn to robbery, rape, or murder, then this is a moral indictment of your character, indicating you are not to be trusted because if, for any reason, you were to turn away from your belief in God, your true immoral nature would emerge. If the answer is that you would continue being good and moral, then apparently you can be good without God. QED.

Michael Shermer

From his book, The Science of Good and Evil.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Quote of the Week

I expect death to be nothingness and, for removing me from all possible fears of death, I am thankful to atheism.

Isaac Asimov

Friday, January 16, 2009

Science vs. Faith

Click to enlarge:

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Atheist Bus Campaign Update

I posted a while back about the atheist bus campaign in the UK. It's finally getting underway, and you can read more about it here (thanks Dave). In my previous post I did say that I thought they could have come up with a better slogan for the campaign than the one they chose (There's probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life). I've posted many a quote on this very site that would be more suitable. Well, it turns out that the campaign will indeed also be using a few other choice quotes:

That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.

Emily Dickinson


I do not beieve in a personal God and have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.

Albert Einstein

While I think the scheme is a great idea, I still find these quotes somewhat lacking. Then yesterday I read about the Italian atheist bus campaign. Their slogan (translated to English) reads:

The bad news is that God does not exist. The good news is that you do not need him.

I love it. It's confident and positive. Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist), however, is of the opinion that the lack of the "probably" qualifier, as seen in the UK slogan, is "intellectually dishonest", since we can't prove absolutely that God doesn't exist. I disagree, since nobody would think to argue the same point about the phrase "Santa Claus does not exist", and God and Santa Claus each have exactly the same amount of evidence for their existence.

Thumbs up to the Italian infidels.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Things That Really Matter

Atheism, as I have seen it, isn’t about Darwinism and science and mocking faith, although there are atheists who enjoy pursuing all of these things. It was about recognizing, as religious people do, that our time on the earth is limited. The difference is that atheism realizes that your time on earth is limited, and when it’s over, it is probably really over. Religion gives people something to cling to, and encourages a disregard for this life in its most fervent and conservative believers. The next life is the one that really counts, so it doesn’t matter much if you’re a failure in this one. As long as you’re not a failure to god. If you live in poverty, if your man beats you, if you don’t pick up litter, none of it matters. In atheism, there is no do over. This is it.

Atheism is about making every moment count, and you do that by seeking out and cultivating connections to people, the earth, the universe. I personally think this is why many atheists are so interested in science, for science explains the things that connect us to the universe and to the hummingbird. When you know that this is the only time you have, and that you won’t be able to do it over, it makes you want to spend your energy on the things that really matter - the family, friendships, and pursuits that really enhance your life. If others deem that pursuit petty, it doesn’t matter. It is about doing what feels good, as long as it doesn’t harm another. And there is nothing wrong with it. The only difference in this between an atheist and a religious believer is that the religious believer is made to feel guilty, dirty, and ashamed for doing what feels good, while the atheist is allowed to experience the joy unfettered. You don’t don’t deny yourself because there is no other opportunity. There won’t be a day when you can indulge in sex with eager virgins, or drink all the wine you like, or wear pretty clothes except the days you have today.

Tree Dreamer

Taken from the essay Beautiful Atheism.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Quote of the Week

I'm not a bad guy! I work hard, and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I'm going to Hell?

Homer Simpson

Friday, January 9, 2009

The God Simulator

This has to be the easiest game ever. It's when you play it badly that things start feeling strangely familiar...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Apatheism is yet another stance on the debate, and one that seems to be commonly held. From Wikipedia:

Apatheism is acting with apathy, disregard, or lack of interest towards belief, or lack of belief in a deity. An apatheist is someone who is not interested in accepting or denying any claims that gods exist or do not exist. In other words, an apatheist is someone who considers the question of the existence of gods as neither meaningful nor relevant to his or her life; nor to human affairs.

Personally, I see Ignosticism as an acceptable position to take regarding the question of the existence of god. After all, each religion defines god in fundamentally different ways. Even the three main "Abrahamic" religions, which I've often been told worship the same deity, have crucial differences in their definitions and claims over who or what this deity actually is.

Apatheism however, as it is defined above, I do not accept as an intellectually tenable position, though I know many individuals who would seem to fit the definition perfectly. Assuming one could avoid an ignostic response by first defining the word "god" (let's assume it's an omniscient, omnipotent being that created the universe and takes an interest in our activities), then the correct answer to the question "Does god exist?" is crucial, and would have an effect on our lives that would be absolutely profound.

If the answer was yes, further questions would immediately arise, most notably "So which religion is the correct one?" and "How can I avoid upsetting such a powerful being?". Given the existence of god, these questions would be of fundamental importance and would utterly dominate our lives (which begs the question "do believers really believe?").

If the answer was no, think how drastically the world as we know it would change, for better or for worse (I would argue for the better). So many aspects of society (and therefore our lives) are built upon the foundations of religion, and to ask "is there a god?" shoots straight to the core of whether or not these aspects are justified.

The existence of god is therefore a vital matter, and, even if the question may never be resolved, to take the apatheist's stance is to admit to indifference to the world and intellectual lethargy.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Ignosticism is a lesser known alternative to atheism, agnosticism, theism, etc. From Wikipedia:

Ignosticism is the theological position that every other theological position (including agnosticism) assumes too much about the concept of God and many other theological concepts. It can be defined as encompassing two related views about the existence of God.

The first view is that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of God can be meaningfully discussed. Furthermore, if that definition cannot be falsified, the ignostic takes the position that the question of the existence of God is meaningless. In this case, the concept of God is not considered meaningless; the term "God" is considered meaningless.

The second view is synonymous with theological noncognitivism, and skips the step of first asking "What is meant by God?" before proclaiming the original question "Does God exist?" as meaningless.

An ignostic cannot even say whether he/she is a theist or a nontheist until a better definition of theism is put forth.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Quote of the Week

Scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.

Richard P. Feynman

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Few More Religulous Quotes

A lot of people have arrived at Atheist Wisdom after googling for "Religulous quotes", so here are a few more of my favourites. First, Bill Maher talking to Father Reginald Foster, a senior Vatican priest:

BM: The date of Jesus’ birth really wasn’t established until 349 AD.

RF: Oh yeah, that’s because… he might have been born on July 3rd. These are all just nice stories, you know.

BM: And that doesn’t bother you either?

RF: Well it bothers me when everyone says “Oh, we have to have midnight mass because Jesus was born at midnight on the 25th”. This is all nonsense.

Later in the movie he chats with Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, a preacher who claims to be a direct descendent of Jesus Christ:

J: Two angels came to me and they told me that the lord of lords and king of kings is coming to anoint you for the ministry tonight.

BM: What form did the angels come in?

J: They were tall and strong. Whatever they told me, I obey. I don’t want to mess with them.

Towards the end of the film Bill visits the Dome of the Rock and talks to Dr Muhammad Hourani:

BM: Women in your culture seem not to be as equal to men as they are in our culture.

MH: (Points to a lone female worshipper on the other side of the room) You see, we have women here. They have a special corner.

And I've posted one last quote from the movie on my other blog.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Jealous God

Bill Maher talks to "Jesus" at The Holy Land Experience in the documentary Religulous:

J: No other gods before me, Bill.

BM: But having no other gods before you, that’s not moral. There’s nothing moral about that, it’s just something a jealous god would do.

J: It does say that our god is a jealous god.

BM: But your god is jealous? That seems so un-god-like. That god would have such a petty human emotion. I know
people who’ve gotten over jealousy.

J: Well there’s two sides of the coin. He’s a jealous god, and he’s also a merciful god.

BM: No, he spends the first five books of the bible wiping out people.

J: Well, that’s what he chose to do. His ways are higher than ours, Bill!

BM: Maybe our thinking should be higher.

J: That’s a good point.