The Effects of Radical Atheism

Question from SL:
Why do atheists always insist that radical theists will kill at worst but radical atheists will only criticize or make videos? I met Eastern Europeans and Tibetans who will say that is an outright lie. Atheist Soviet Union and atheist China did more than make videos. Why do atheists insist on saying that only theistic societies oppressed people when clearly the 20th century proved that atheist societies were not much better. Please do not tell me they were not truly atheist, Marx and Leninist writers clearly state that atheism was a central core to Marxism. I am not trying to be argumentative but, I only met a handful of honest atheists who say that bad mass murdering oppressors can be theist and atheist. Why is that?

Answer by SmartLX:
The distinction you describe is not the correct one to make for just the reasons you describe. Yes, communist regimes (and related ideologies, in case any you mention aren’t considered fully communist) are officially and proudly atheist, and have committed atrocities. The difference is that atheism does not drive them to these things.

Communist regimes do the horrible things they do to spread and maintain Communism, not atheism. They enforce atheism for the same reason. In his famous “opiate of the masses” passage, Marx wrote that religion needed to be removed to deprive people of its comfort, so that they would feel their pain and drive societal change. Atheism to communists is a tool, a means to an end. The likelihood of the existence of gods, or any other intellectual consideration of religious faith, is irrelevant. Additionally, national communism in practice tends to become a pseudo-religion itself (North Koreans actually pray to the deceased Kim tyrants, for instance) and thus religion is suppressed as a direct rival to it.

There’s never been a government regime determined to remove the oppression of religion without putting something similar in its place, and to build a free society based on the ideals of atheist figures like Voltaire or Thomas Paine. (Secular, pluralist systems are a different approach again.) There has never been a large enough concentration of atheists in a place with enough religious oppression to bring it about. If it ever happens, we’ll be able to compare its conduct with that of the world’s theocracies. Right now there’s really no basis for comparison at all.

As for independent radicals, there might well be some atheist loose cannons out there and we should consider their stated goals as available, but you’ve only provided examples related to communism. Know of anything else? Stick it in the comments.

Now You’re Thinking With A Bunch of Atoms

Question from Jeff:
I’m sort of in a searching phase of life where I really don’t know what to believe. I recently heard a compelling argument for the existence of god and want to get some input. The argument goes like this:

If there is no god and the world is just an accident, if everything about people, including what they think and feel, is just the chance combination of molecules and is explained in terms of chemistry and physical laws, why be rational? On the basis of atheism, weeds grow because they are weeds (laws of physics) and minds just do whatever they do. People act like they are free to think about different kinds of ideas and then choose the best one. On the basis of atheism, that’s impossible. Our minds are just a bunch of atoms vibrating and will do whatever they have been programmed to do. If there is no god and the physical world is all there is, there is no logical basis for logic. But people, including atheists, do trust reason and logic even though they have no reason to assume that it works.

Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
Minds, or brains to be more specific, indeed do what is dictated by their physical structure combined with the electrical signals travelling through them, so you could say that they do what they’re programmed to do. The thing is, they are programmed to think. They have the necessary complexity to store something as abstract as an idea, among other information, and they apply ideas to the world around them. This leads them to make choices based on the information available to them, and act upon those choices. This can be called a person’s will. Its ultimately deterministic nature in the absence of supernatural influences (like a soul) leads many to stop short of calling it free will, but it’s will all the same.

We have plenty of reason to assume that reason and logic work, because we live in a world where reason and logic regularly help us make predictions about the world that turn out to be correct. It’s not a matter of philosophy, it’s simply a lifetime of observing the practical power of understanding the logical workings of an apparently consistent universe. We don’t know why it’s that way (and many religious people jump on that fact to make an argument from ignorance in favour of gods – back to this in a moment), but we learn that it is so and we use it to our advantage. That’s what learning is, really. If the world weren’t consistent we couldn’t learn anything.

The argument you heard is rather close to the transcendental argument for God (TAG) and ultimately has the same problem: to establish a god as the source of logic in its premise it has to assert that there’s no other possibility, when there’s merely no other KNOWN source. In fact the possibilities are endless, but the simplest one is that logic has no source and has always been in place, much like God is supposed to have been. The other important thing about the TAG, in my experience, is that its persuasive power is not targeted where you think it is. It almost never convinces non-believers, but it very often convinces believers that their belief is justified when they might be in doubt. It is primarily a tool for reassurance, not conversion. The same may be true of all apologetics at this point, but TAG more than most.

Spontaneous Creation in Physics

Question from Steve R:
If the big bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, please tell me: which law of physics supports spontaneous creation? I have not found any laws or principles of the physical universe which support the idea of bridging the infinite gap between non-existence (quantity zero) and existence (quantity one) using no previous resources. In fact, I think it’s the opposite – there is a law (and a quite significant law) which clearly state that both matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed (1st law of thermodynamics). If there was no one to make this law, then it is just part of the universe. But if it is just part of the universe, then the universe would have to violate its own laws to create itself. So please tell me, again: which law of physics supports spontaneous creation?

Answer by SmartLX:
No law so far, but multiple scientific theories. Lawrence Krauss regularly talks about quantum mechanics spontaneously generating matter and anti-matter, which have a combined energy of zero when there’s the same amount of each, from a previous state which can be called nothingness. (Something can come from nothing, he says, because “nothing” is unstable.) In Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design Hawking makes a claim based on both quantum mechanics and relativity that gravity creates universes and this is only one of them. I recommend reading the work of both to get some idea of the mechanisms science has actually proposed for what you call “spontaneous creation”.

All this may be moot, however, because there is a much simpler solution. As you say, the law of conservation of energy based on the first law of thermodynamics isn’t concerned with the above and states unambiguously that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. The universe would therefore have to violate the law to create itself, but if it exists now then the law implies that it has always existed in some form, and it wasn’t created at all.

The idea of anything creating itself from nothing is absurd, because it would mean that the effect existed before the cause. For the idea to make any kind of sense it needs to be an emergence or formation from nothing. Once you get away from the word “create”, it stops being a contest between creation by an intelligent being such as a god and creation by unintelligent phenomena, and seems much more plausible in the absence of a god. This is of course why religious apologists use variants of the word “create” even when they refer to natural hypotheses.

Something to prove, but what?

Question from Darian:
What would be defined as legitimate proof of god(s) within the accepted community of atheists? And, is there any proper scientific research being done to find said proof? Another way to word, what would be the atheist definition of god(s)?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some argument about this within the atheist community (for example between biologist bloggers PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne) so I don’t think there’s a definitive answer I can give you. Some atheists name grand gestures (say, huge letters in the sky) as evidence they would accept, and some think even that kind of thing would be insufficient.

The more general attitude is that if evidence for an entity which might qualify as a god presented itself, there would be two questions to answer: whether the evidence was valid, and if so what kind of presence was actually indicated. The resulting investigation would make as few assumptions as possible, which might be difficult given the subject, to get as close to the facts as possible.

Religious apologetics, and the idea that a god might be demonstrated by an argument alone, are considered differently. Each of the prospective arguments that aims to do this makes its own presumptions and inferences about the qualities of the supposed god. If an apologetic argument were established and accepted as valid and sound, thereby unambiguously confirming the existence of a god, what that argument said about the god would implicitly be accepted too.

Since the ontology of a hypothetical god (i.e. what it is) isn’t settled, there isn’t a lot of scientific research of any kind being done to discover evidence for it. If scientists knew what to look for, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get a grant or sponsorship with the help of religious politicians, philanthropists or venture capitalists. As it is, scientists are exploring the universe as best they can to find whatever happens to be there, and evidence for a god might turn up under a microscope or millions of light years away when they least expected it.

On the other hand plenty of work is being done to establish the existence of a god (usually a specific god) by those who want there to be one, though a lot of it doesn’t qualify as research, let alone scientific, because it doesn’t uncover anything new. A famous example is that expeditions have set out to find Noah’s Ark, and some claim to have found it (in several different places). The much more common approach, though, is simply finding new ways to interpret existing biological, paleontological and geological data in order to support the idea.

Deuterium-onomy

Question from Moses:
I’m not going to enlighten you on my personal beliefs, because it is moot to my question that I will pose momentarily.

I have made note that your readers all seem to agree that science and rational thinking should be revered above all else.

And further understanding that choice is a free will, individual thought process or belief that may or may not be brought into actions.

So here is my rational, scientifically proven, free willed, intellectual question: “If there is no creation theory, then why isn’t the earth filled with abundant quantities of deuterium just as the rest of the solar system is?”

p.s. The world’s space agencies has sent, and continues to spend billions of dollars for, probes and robots searching for life, but science has proven that the water here on earth is certainly different than elsewhere in our solar system.

I await your response in earnest.

Answer by SmartLX:
Thanks in advance Moses, it’s almost never this simple.

Deuterium IS abundant on Earth; one in about 6,400 hydrogen atoms in ocean water is a deuterium isotope (which is just a hydrogen atom with a neutron) instead of the usual type. This ratio is higher than some of the objects in space we’ve been able to analyse, and lower than others. All measurements within the solar system including on Earth have been within 1-2 orders of magnitude (specifically a factor of ~30), with Halley’s Comet and Comet Hale Bopp near the high end and Jupiter’s atmosphere near the low end. The fact that our ratio is closer to the comets has caused some to theorise that comet collisions with the early Earth are the source of much of our water. There’s nothing special or unique about the ratio at all.

Your personal beliefs may be moot, but to an extent they are also obvious. Only a creationist would make an argument from ignorance based on the supposedly unknown reasons for a scientific factoid (and I’m not surprised that the factoid itself is bogus, though perhaps you are surprised), or use the term “creation theory”. Only devout theists are creationists because faith in a creator is ultimately the only compelling reason to be one. You might be a Christian creationist or a Muslim creationist; few other religions have so many.

As for the water, we’ve known about the ice crust on Europa since the 1970s and it’s likely that Mars and Venus had liquid water in the past. Multiple extrasolar planets are the right distance from their stars to have liquid water, provided water exists there; here’s a list.

Have They Got It Coming?

Question from Shanoon:
Do you really believe the people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Poy, Mao and all those terrorists, Rapists, killers, and suicide bombers are considered to be criminals and as such should be judged and punished one day?

1- If the answer is NO, then they are innocent. ( and they are not only supporters but promoters of these kinds of innocent (!) evils.)
2- If the answer is YES then how?

Answer by SmartLX:
Some of those you list have been punished, some haven’t, and some won’t be punished ever in their lives for certain things (for instance, way too many rapists get away with it). Without going into horrible detail regarding their crimes, I’ll simply agree with you that there are people in the world who deserve to be punished. Religious and secular ethics frequently agree on cases like these, because the same conclusion is reached multiple ways.

Therefore, if there is no God or Hell then some people who deserve to be punished will never be punished at all, no matter how hard we try to enact justice. This isn’t a happy thought, but if it’s true then there’s nothing we can do about it, except to work to ensure justice is served whenever it IS possible. But the fact that the implications of a state of affairs are unfortunate does not support the argument that it’s not the case, and the alternative isn’t true just because it would be better (objectively or otherwise). An argument from consequences is essentially an unsupported argument, and the only reason to accept it is that it makes you feel better.

Causes and Rationality

Question from Jon:
At most, we all choose what is rational in believing or being convinced about something. While searching for answers, I have stumbled upon studying atheism as a choice for my belief but a find it highly irrational. Firstly, atheism appeals that believe in a god/cause/deity is highly irrational because there is no objective evidence to back-it up. But when I analyze it in terms of pure rationality (because the counter option can’t also be validated), I stumble upon choosing between

A) the universe is just a brute fact, nothing caused it to exist, its here because it is here
Or
B) the universe is caused into existence by an agent/cause/god (in my case I don’t define the cause)

And option A which is (correct me if I’m wrong) the heart of Atheism is highly irrational, because so far, inferred from the existence of humanity, humans discovered things or events to be caused by “something” and yet option A completely contradicts it. I believe science breaks apart when something is just assumed as a brute fact. If I have inconsistencies in my analysis, please enlighten me. How does atheism become rational with these arguments taken into hand?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheism takes no position on the universe’s origin or lack thereof, except to say that it’s unlikely at best that a god was responsible because belief in a god’s mere existence (let alone agency) isn’t justified. Option B is fine for a lot of atheists because if there was a cause, it doesn’t have to have been anything like a god. It could be the quantum foam, or another universe in an infinite series, or any number of phenomena we haven’t even thought of.

That said, option A is counter-intuitive but it’s not as absurd as it sounds. If the universe is as eternal as many gods are supposed to be, then it doesn’t need a beginning, and it’s simpler to just suppose that the universe has this quality than to inject a hypothetical separate entity. More significantly, though, everything we’ve ever seen come into existence is made of existing material. Human beings are made of elements found all around us on this planet, and fueled by energy largely traceable back to the Sun. Thoughts and ideas come together in networks of neurons in our heads, powered by electrical energy. Most every building is made from things harvested from, or grown in, the earth. If, by contrast, the universe came to existence out of what could be defined as nothing, it wasn’t like anything we’ve ever seen occur and therefore we have no authority to declare that there must have been a cause. Following on from that, there’s no reason to suppose the existence of a god just for the lack of alternative explanations, and if as you say there’s no objective evidence for gods then there’s no reason to believe in them at all. Thus atheism has a rational basis at least to some extent.

A Message Baked Into Pi?

Question from Anthony:
Suppose that the human race somehow received a direct revelation from God. There are many ways in which this might happen, but let’s go with the method that Carl Sagan used in his novel Contact, which was later made into a movie starring Jodie Foster. (This aspect of the novel never made it into the film.) In the book, we are told that, from the earliest days of our universe, advanced extraterrestrial civilizations throughout our galaxy have discovered that, if you calculate certain irrational numbers (like pi, e, the square root of 2, etc.) far enough out, you’ll find messages. Of course, for that to be the case, the messages would have to be from “God.” In the book, we aren’t told which number or numbers contains the messages, or what the messages actually are, but let’s just say that it’s pi and that one message explains the nature of God. Decades from now, human quantum computers calculate pi far enough out to reveal God’s message. It’s presented in such a manner that, knowing mathematics and the laws of science, it can be interpreted by any civilization.

Roughly translated, the message is: “I am the Source of All Things. I am the Alpha and Omega. I created this universe as an act of will, for reasons only I can understand. I designed it such that, after billions of years, you would come into existence, too. Welcome to my universe, my children. You have no doubt been wondering about me. Why did I create the universe? What is its purpose? What is my nature? I will tell you now, but there are a few things that you must understand first. Infinities are impossible. No actual existing thing can be infinite or eternal in nature. It is like dividing by zero; it makes no sense. I am older, wiser, and more powerful than you can imagine. Functionally, eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent as viewed from your subjective perspective. In absolute terms, though, I am none of these things. Additionally, although I am the Source of All That Is, the creator of this universe, I am not un-caused myself. I created this universe, and it created me. We created each other. In short, I am the Creator of All That Is. I am, as far as you are concerned, eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent. I exist outside of time and space. However, I am supernatural only in the sense that none of you can comprehend the nature of my powers or the essence of my Being. I can bend or break the laws of nature which are familiar to you, having created them, but there are Greater Laws which I Myself must obey. You do not yet understand these laws. Having made my nature clear to you, I have only one thing to tell you. There exists one simple equation which defines and shapes the entire universe. That equation is: 6 x 7 = 42. End of message.”

OKAY: Here’s my question. Do you think that Christians, Jews, and Muslims would be cool with this. Would they accept this PROVEN God, as He presents himself, or would they reject “all this pi mumbo-jumbo” and stick with their traditional worldview and beliefs. Or… would they now define themselves as atheists?

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, that exact message IS encoded in pi – and e, and the square root of 2, and every other irrational number. This is because not only do these numbers never end, but they never loop back to the start, so no matter what code you pick, that message will eventually be spelled out in it if you calculate the number to enough decimal places. This fact is meaningless because literally every possible message is encoded in the same numbers. It’s like looking up at the Milky Way and visualising shapes using only a few of the countless stars; there’s practically no end to the possibilities, but no shape is significant.

Anyway, if a message from the Creator really was buried in mathematics, there’s enough anti-intellectualism around that plenty of believers would doubt the academics who found the message on sheer principle. But let’s say the message was written across the sky worldwide, appearing to each person in his or her own language, so that none could deny it. Belief in a god would cease to be worth discussing once everyone accepted that it was real; it would be like believing in dogs, or believing in paper.

Atheism would become absurd, except in the sense that it would be possible to define the Creator as something other than a god. The debate would turn to pure theology; a real godlike entity would be the subject to study and discuss, because discerning its wishes and intentions would be of utmost importance. People of many faiths, particularly monotheistic faiths (since only one Creator had revealed itself), would certainly do their best to fit what we knew about the Creator into their existing ideas about God, with varying degrees of success. Even of those who abandoned their old beliefs because of the new information, many would retain strong connections to the cultures centred on their religions. (Today’s ‘secular Jews’ demonstrate this in the present day by keeping that identity while rejecting the idea of God.)

Since I don’t think it’s likely a god or comparable entity exists, I don’t think the above scenario is likely either. But if it happened, it would be a very exciting time to be alive.

Satan Does Hollywood

Question from Janiece:
I read the previous question from the Australian guy regarding the Illuminati. My issue is this… Several people who I respect and believe say Hollywood is run by Satanist paedophiles and homosexuals. They talk of and point out things that seem to validate much of this. Things that were done to or witnessed by them personally. I do not believe for one minute that the Hollywood Insiders – paedophiles or not – actually worship Satan but wonder if he is used to make claims regarding the crimes of Hollywood less credible. I am really struggling with all the “devil worship” behind all the secret societies that our Presidents and many other leaders all seem associated to. Since devil worship doesn’t seem to be the real motive behind these groups what is the purpose of using the rituals that can be clearly associated to Satanists?

Answer by SmartLX:
There are certainly plenty of homosexuals in Hollywood. There are also many suspected paedophiles in the movie industry, and confirmed or confessed paedophiles in some cases. (Roman Polanski and the father from 7th Heaven come to mind.) The difference is that one implies sexual behaviour between consenting adults and the other implies rape, at least statutory. I have no problem with homosexuals running Hollywood any more than I would have a problem with a homosexual head of state, provided that this one aspect of their identity does not drive their every decision. As for paedophiles, they should be either in prison or in therapy and have no business running an industry at the same time as either.

Aside from those relatively few individuals committing legally defined sex crimes, as happens in all industries to some degree, what exactly are the crimes of Hollywood? You’re convinced that these shadowy cabals are running the place, but what dastardly deeds are they using that power to actually do? How are you threatened, and why are you so concerned? Comment with some material and let us down the rabbit hole. The simple fact that you’re convinced isn’t enough to convince most of us, I reckon. Besides, if you don’t actually think anyone involved is a genuine Satanist, the whole subject has little to do with religion or with this site.

The Virginal Consensus

Question from Kaitlyn:
I need some help with a question that is really confusing me. I just watched a video regarding Jesus in the Bible. It said that Matthew and Luke wrote about how Jesus was born, his miracles, and his resurrection. It also was said that they may have not known each other. How were they able to write about the same thing, for example that Jesus came from a virgin? Even though they don’t have the exact same story, how could they both all of a sudden think he came from a virgin? I am an atheist, but I question all theories because I would rather be 100 percent about everything before completely crashing it down. This question is one I can’t find myself to answer on my own, and is really making me question what to believe. Please, some help would be awesome! Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s quite a lot going on here. Your question touches on several different issues of Biblical authorship, so I’ll address them separately.

If the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke were in fact written by the apostles Matthew and Luke who knew and followed Jesus, then of course they knew each other and could collaborate on their accounts. As you probably know, though, these gospels were written years or even decades after the given timeframe of Jesus’ crucifixion, and very possibly by other people.

Though the authors might not have known each other, they could have had access to the same accounts from earlier on. As it happens, a popular hypothesis is that the authors of Matthew and Luke shared two principal sources, which explains much of the overlap: the Gospel according to Mark, and an as-yet-undiscovered and therefore hypothetical second document known as the Q source. To summarise, there are credible alternative explanations for the claims made by Matthew and Luke ‘independently’ to the false dilemma of pure coincidence or divine advice.

When the Book of Isaiah, which contains the prophecy relating to the Messiah’s birth, was translated from Hebrew to Greek, the word almah regarding the mother was translated to parthenos. The easiest way to explain the significance of this is that the equivalent of the word maiden, which might mean ‘virgin’ in some circumstances but otherwise just means ‘young woman’, was changed to the word virgin and all ambiguity was eliminated. (The literal Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ is betulah, which wasn’t used.) The Greek translation was made around 200 BC(E) and was therefore available to all the authors of the Gospels if they did basic research. Even if the above hypothesis is wrong and ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ had no common direct sources for the life of Jesus, they both knew that the Messiah’s life had damn well better match the centuries-old prophecy’s call for a virgin mother.