There Will Always Be an Argument About Information

Question from Sam:
Hi, so I was casually surfing the web when I came across a video in “Answers in Genesis” which was basically said it could disprove evolution in 3 minutes with two simple facts. The second fact, which they championed, made the claim that it was impossible (there are no possible means by which this can occur) to add to genetic code in any way, meaning there was no possible way for an aquatic creature to create genetic code to grow legs, etc. (Disproving evolution) Of course, I questioned this bold claim, especially since they were extremely vague about their sources and provided no sources or further material for study. As such, I haven’t a clue how they came upon this claim, or the legitimacy of it, could you lend some further insight into this?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m assuming the first of the two facts didn’t do anything for you, which does not surprise me.

The source of the claim amounts to “it stands to reason” which is what people say when they don’t want to bother reasoning through something. It’s one variant of the argument from ignorance I’m always pointing out, specifically, “I personally don’t know how additions can be made to a genome, therefore there is no way.” People don’t know this because they literally have not checked at all, because the relevant material can be found online in seconds.

This TalkOrigins article from 2001 fits the bill nicely. The mechanisms by which information is added to the genome are quite simple, for instance gene duplication, or essentially random noise from mutations. What’s harder to comprehend is how this information proves useful, and particularly allows new features to emerge.

The answer to this is straightforward though the detail is immense if you drill into it: natural selection helps to eliminate the information which is not useful, leaving that which is. There are countless analogies for this, so to pick one arbitrarily, genetic material is thrown into an arena and under constant attack, so whatever survives does so because it makes a difference to the fight.

The true difficulty is in convincing creationists that this kind of argument doesn’t convince anybody, which does seem to be true in my experience; its purpose nowadays is instead to reassure creationists. Or perhaps they know this already, but it doesn’t stop them from using it to reassure each other.

Atheism Before Darwin

Question from Amanda:
Where did atheists believe humans came from before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution existed?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some information on this here. There were theories of what would come to be called evolution long before Darwin, though none that fit the evidence nearly so well. Among some biologists there were inklings of the basic concept of common descent, for instance the idea that humans and apes were related, but without the strength of Darwinian theory this opinion was highly controversial and one risked one’s reputation by airing it.

So for the lay atheist minority worldwide, our best answer to your question was that they just didn’t know. Since they didn’t think a god existed, let alone created humanity, they reasoned that there must have been a natural mechanism to allow modern life forms to develop some time after the birth of the planet. With what they knew then, they were unable to take it any further.

This basically meant that evolution in that period was in the same position abiogenesis (the initial emergence of simple life from non-life) is in now. No mechanism was clear despite various conjectures, but if a god didn’t seem likely to you then this inspired confidence that a mechanism existed and might eventually be found. Darwin came through for his field, but we’re still waiting for “the Darwin of abiogenesis”. While we wait (and while some of us work at it), we have to content ourselves with not knowing, because to demand an answer when information is lacking is to open ourselves to a wrong answer.

Worldview Analysis: An Analysis

Question from Jerry:
I was recently debating a good friend of mine and asked him to justify Christianity or show evidence that it is the one one true religion. He claims that it is the only religion that demonstrates itself to be the best possible logical and rational choice based on worldview analysis. Worldview analysis is a tool to sift through the basics of each and all religions without having to take years of comparative religion courses or study to separate the religion which has the best chance of being true, based on the evidence. I’m researching a rebuttal to his strong argument by reading up on Naturalism, Structuralism and the ideas of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, as I believe my friends’ attempt to compare Poetic (Metaphorical) Truth with Physical or Natural Truth to be flawed. I was wondering how many different approaches there are to counter his position?

Answer by SmartLX:
Worldview analysis is a tool for evaluating a community’s values, priorities and outlook, developed by a scientist who’s a Christian but appears to use this tool for secular purposes. The version that’s applied to try and rank religions is either unrelated or a major bastardisation. Here’s an example where you answer a bunch of questions from the perspective of a given religion’s doctrine, and compare the answers to your own values.

If your friend is throwing around terms like “poetic truth” as a serious rival to empirical fact (likely “physical/natural truth” in his terminology), the criteria on which he rates different worldviews are going to be worthless to many. He also recognises that religions need to commandeer and redirect the meaning of the word “truth” to have a decent chance of being established as “true” themselves.

I think the most important thing is for you to distinguish at any given time which of two questions is being asked: what worldview best reflects reality, or what worldview is best or nicest to have. I think your friend’s system will drive the discussion towards the latter whenever it can, because the latter legitimately does not require evidence. Christianity may be a beneficial worldview for one’s physical and mental wellbeing in a number of scenarios regardless of whether it’s true, the following two most obviously:

– If Christianity is the majority religion, and especially if non-Christians are looked down upon or actively persecuted. It sucks to be in any victimised minority.
– If the tenets of Christianity match your own values very closely, in other words if Christianity gets a very high score when you do the questionnaire above. To believe that the universe as a whole reflects your own outlook can be a big boost to the ego.

If your friend is arguing along these lines, he’s answering your question by attempting to justify Christianity as a lifestyle choice, not verify its supernatural claims. And even if his reasoning on this is rock-solid and you eventually realise it would be better for you to be Christian, it’s only going to get you so far. You could live as a Christian, worship, donate, evangelise and all the rest of it, but if nothing has actually convinced you that God is real and Jesus is his still-living son then you would be a false Christian. And hey, maybe he’s okay with that, but I don’t think I would be if I were a believer.

A Simple Question About Complexity (and Design)

Question from Sean:
Hey, I’m wondering, what is your take on the complexity of the human body and the design of the universe?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s over here, for starters. My Great Big Arguments series serves as an extended FAQ for common approaches by believers, and this is one of those approaches. Just one, mind, not two; it’s the same thinking applied on two different scales.

Very briefly, because it’s all in print already, the complexity in the human body came about very slowly through evolution, and any “design” in the universe is only apparent. If you want to delve into something in particular, Sean, do a quick search to make sure we haven’t covered it lately and then put in a comment.

I See Demons!

Question from Alexia:
I would like to know if atheists ever have moments of fear over the idea that they could potentially be wrong, and that there is a nasty afterlife waiting for them? I, as an agnostic theist, do. I feel that if I were to stop believing (the idea has crossed my mind) that I may regret it.

I have had dreams before of seeing hell, and my grandfather had a Near Death Experience where he saw hell and was tortured by evil creatures. I have noticed that in many dreams, near death experiences, and so called revelations, people often report seeing demonic creatures in this so called hell. I would like to get the perspective of atheists. Why is it that if Christians are raised to expect Satan in hell that they never report seeing Satan in these visions, but they commonly report multiple strange beings or creatures attacking them and enjoying it? I read a book from the 1980s about Near Death Experiences by Raymond Moody, and even he says in his research that negative experiencers often report demonic creatures from interviews conducted early on in Near Death research.

What might be the reason for why many of these visions people have involve evil creatures, when the bible says nothing about that? People from the early 1900s have been giving consistent reports with people today in 2017. What would you say, percentage wise, are the odds that a literal hell exists, given the consistency of so many peoples’ “visions” and “revelations” of hell? Is there really going to be multiple reptile looking creatures who enjoy peoples’ misery and torture them forever, swearing at them, taunting them, or is there something else at play here?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists do get these moments of fear, but not usually forever. For those like myself who had faith and lost it, the fear of God’s wrath often outlives the belief even though it’s irrational to be afraid of something you no longer believe in. (It’s part of the phenomenon I call “faithdrawal”.) This is to be expected, since emotions can easily defy rationality. I personally avoided this completely by hardly thinking about religion at all for over a decade before realising I was an atheist; my emotional attachment to God and faith had faded away so it didn’t try to reassert itself.

In previous articles like this one I’ve answered the general argument based on the similarity between people’s visions of the afterlife, so read through the link and also just search the site for ‘nde’ to find more on the subject. Here I’ll address the particular question about Satan and lesser demons in Hell. Most Christians get most of their mental images of Hell not from the Bible but from other media, everything from Dante’s Inferno to Constantine to The Simpsons, and sadistic torturer demons have been a fixture in this material for centuries. While you can imagine individual demons looking and behaving any way you like without challenging your theology much, Satan is a major figure on whose appearance the subconscious might be uncomfortable taking a firm position. Thus Satan conveniently does not put in an appearance for people who are just passing through.

And then there are the Christians who do report seeing Satan, which doesn’t really help any argument based on this not happening.

Hey, That’s Our Holiday!

Question from Marilyn:
Why do Atheists celebrate Christian holidays?

Answer by SmartLX:
By and large, we don’t. Take a look at this list: atheists don’t celebrate Lent, Pentecost, The Assumption of Mary, Christ the King, All Souls’ Day, All Saints’ Day or over 20 others. And that’s without considering the individual saints’ days that occupy literally every day on the calendar.

You are of course referring to Christmas, Halloween (All Hallows Eve) and possibly Easter. There are two main responses to this.

1. In most Western countries, Christmas and Easter have state-designated vacation periods including at least one public holiday each, often several. These are holdovers from attempts by governments to emphasise their religiosity in eras gone by. Atheists in these countries get these holidays too, whether they value the reasons behind them or not, so they usually just enjoy them as time off work.

2. Atheists do often actively celebrate Christmas and Halloween, and in some cases Easter. This is because these holidays have developed cherished traditions that have almost nothing to do with their religious origins: the gift-giving, the novelty costumes, the chocolate eggs and so on. To support these traditions an encyclopedia of secular mythology has sprung up around each, not believed at all by anyone over a certain age but still enjoyed as a shared seasonal game. Santa brings the presents in December, the Easter Bunny brings the eggs in March/April, and all manner of monsters break loose in October. That’s all fun no matter what you believe.

I do hope that no one reading this thinks the honest answer to Marilyn’s question is, “because atheists secretly believe in Christianity”, but I know for a fact that many do think so. Some people just won’t live with the thought that there are others who disagree with them about an important thing.

Psychology 20 Questionnaire

Question from :
I’m currently taking Psychology 20 in school and would like to ask you a few questions about atheism for a project on spirituality if you have the time. The questions are:

1. How does your faith or understanding of the world shape your worldview?
2. How do you justify your actions (good and bad) for your belief system?
3.What gives you meaning and purpose?
4.What are ways you express yourself and why?
5. How do you view the idea of the soul and/or the afterlife?

Hoping for a quick response and thank you for taking the time to answer.

Answer by SmartLX:
Not my quickest response ever, but not bad. Here we go.

1. My view of the world is that it’s shaped and influenced by natural forces, which are powerful but undirected and certainly not worth pleading with. I’m acutely aware that many do not feel this way, so I see what appears to be a great deal of effort wasted because it’s spent trying to please gods that I don’t think are there.

2. I care for myself, and as a social animal I care for the people around me. My awareness of the world beyond my immediate surroundings extends that expression of care to all the people of the world, generally speaking. I justify my actions in terms of the benefit and harm they do to myself and other people, not necessarily in that order, with a view to maximising benefit and minimising harm. The exact meanings of those two quantities I often re-evaluate based on the situation, so that I’m not thinking in a way that doesn’t apply to the circumstances at hand.

3. I choose what my purposes are. From personal achievements to the welfare of selected others (that is, not all purposes are selfish), I devote myself to realising those things I want to bring to fruition. This gives my life meaning to me, and to many others, though not to everyone. This is enough, because whether my life matters to all strangers is not something I worry about.

4. I speak, I write, I sing, I draw, I work, I dance, I play, I struggle, I love. I do these things because I can.

5. The soul does not appear to exist, because identity and consciousness are products of the brain and are damaged or destroyed when the brain is. After the death of the brain there is nothing left of a person to experience any kind of afterlife.

The Face Of Jesus

Question from Vlad:
Last night I got together with a few friends, and we were talking about how in Islam for example, there is very little imagery (if any) of the prophet Muhammad or Isa (Jesus) but how in Christianity, there are numerous depictions and drawings of Jesus. One thing I found curious was that many of the so-called visions people have of Jesus in dreams, or even according to some individuals “in real life” generally cater to the images they were brought up to believe. A Christian living in Texas, for example, who believes he or she encountered Jesus, is likely to describe him as having long dark hair, pretty light skin, a thin build, etc. However, I brought this up during our conversation, and one of my friends (who is very religious) told me that Jesus did actually look like the way he is depicted in photos. I know quite a few people on here may not even believe Jesus ever existed, but assuming he did, I would have thought that he would have likely looked less “European”. My friend told me that recently, a cloth with Jesus’s face on it was discovered apparently where he was buried, and there are documentaries about this. Apparently carbon dating was done to prove that this cloth existed around his time. He said the only thing they could not verify was Jesus’s skin colour, but that it is actually known what his physical structure looked like. I’m not sure if any of you are familiar with these recent claims, but I would like to know, what would your opinion be on this? Does this give these visions any more credence?

Answer by SmartLX:
Islam, or the widely practiced version of it, expressly forbids depictions of Muhammad. That was the whole basis of the furore surrounding the Danish cartoons depicting him, and the resulting attack on the publication in which they appeared. That’s why there are so few images of him. As for Jesus in the Muslim tradition, he’s only a relatively minor figure in that mythology, and not being able to depict Muhammad makes it difficult to express images of any of the other figures regardless.

The “cloth with Jesus’s face on it” was the Shroud of Turin, which I’ve covered before. Its whereabouts have only been traced definitively back to the 14th to 15th century, and the majority of carbon dating tests done on it so far place its origin around that time. The Christian image of Jesus had mostly been standardised by the 6th century, so if the shroud is a fake then it creators were already working from the image we’re familiar with from so many paintings.

There are claims that those tests were invalid because they were supposedly done on newer patches of cloth, but even the strongest advocates of the shroud’s authenticity can only point to a test which indicates a date range that includes the time of Jesus, but also includes the year 1000 BC and the year AD 1700. In other words it’s useless.

Coming back to your question about people’s visions of Jesus matching the image on the shroud, they also match the accepted image of Jesus from all the art. Even if the shroud is genuine, the supposed visions would only be amazing just for matching the shroud if the shroud were the only surviving source of that type of depiction of Jesus. To sustain the claim, a Christian would have to go on to claim that every famous artist who painted that kind of face for him had a similar vision, because otherwise the face comes to people’s minds for other reasons than that Jesus has paid them all a visit.

More Than a Feeling? Not Even a Feeling

Question from Dylan:
As an Atheist, do you have that feeling/thought deep down that tells you there has to be a God? I was an Atheist for my whole life and fought with the idea of god, even though I felt it was right. I couldn’t bring myself to believe because I didn’t have cold hard evidence right in front of me and obviously didn’t want to waste my life on something that may be false. Long story short I found faith during some hard times, I accepted Jesus and have never felt the same.

I just wanted to say that if you do have that feeling deep down that God is real, give it a chance. From one human to another, faith has changed my life entirely and after stumbling upon your site I felt compelled to share this with you. Sorry if you’ve already completely made up your mind, I just thought I’d give it a shot. Just keep in mind that sometimes the heart knows best.

Enjoy your Sunday and take care mate.

Answer by SmartLX:
I didn’t have that feeling even when I was a Christian. I just accepted what I was told and assumed God was real right up until I realised that some people didn’t believe, and some of the theology (though I hadn’t learned the term) didn’t really make sense to me. This led to a minor crisis of faith at age 11 and I just stopped thinking about it all. A couple of times I reassured myself that certain coincidences were God at work, but they were just so trivial and the argument felt hollow, so I dropped it again. Finally I took stock as an adult and realised my belief had faded entirely, and the world made more sense without a god than with. My heart did not object, and I felt no disappointment. Rather, I felt freed.

Faith does change lives, I wouldn’t dispute that. It even changes some lives for the better overall, though of course it has its drawbacks from a secular perspective. But it’s not the only thing that can effect that sort of positive change, and the change does not depend on the god actually being real because it may simply be all you, with a new attitude. But it’s all good, do what you’re compelled to do.

So Many Saints, So Many Miracles

Question from Jacob:
Hey, So this post won’t be on any specific miracle, but mainly on those of the Saints before they can be canonized. Many of these miracles go through some very careful Investigations by the Vatican. So how does a skeptic explain so many of them?

Answer by SmartLX:
Go and read about some specific saints from post-Biblical times and the miracles attributed to them. I’ll wait.

There’s no good evidence for any of them, but to the Church doesn’t need the evidence to be good. The miracles that supposedly occurred during the saints’ lives are anecdotal, but many of the saints are canonised based on events that occur after their deaths. Amazing medical recoveries after praying to the right figure are probably the most common “miracle” and, as in the case of 19th century saint Francis Xavier Bianchi, the required evidence for even this is mere testimony before Church-appointed “judges”, and not by the doctors but by the patients themselves.

The position of “devil’s advocate” is a real thing in the Church, but its role even at its most active seems to have been to seek clear evidence of hoaxes and signs of a potential saint’s poor character, because being utterly discredited was about the only thing that would stop the rise of a new saint once the process was in motion. The judges could disregard anything that turned up if they chose. And then in 1983 Pope John Paul II changed the role of the position and removed nearly all its power, and the rate of canonisation skyrocketed. Relatively speaking, it’s an open door now.

The sheer number of miracle claims would be more worrying to skeptics if there were any indication that the average quality of the claims were beyond the level that only an already devout Christian would accept. There’s no such indication, so skeptics only pay attention to the few that Christians really push as being incontrovertible. Even those are all eminently controvertible.