Atheism or A-beliefism?

Question from Sarah:
Atheism or A-beliefism? Suppose we take the whole “Existence of God” question out of the religion and atheism debate. What do we have left? I’m inclined to say that we have a group of people who assert that BELIEF in the absence of empirical evidence is a reasonable and valid way of knowing, and a group of people who claim that it isn’t. My sense is that this fundamental difference in epistemology transcends the entire “God” issue. At the deepest level, an “atheist” isn’t someone who doesn’t embrace a belief in God, but simply someone who doesn’t embrace “belief” as a valid way of knowing. My question is, do you agree or disagree with this assertion and why?

Let’s make it a bit more concrete: Recent insights in astrophysics (eg. the Holographic Principle) and in information science suggest that the foundational components of our universe– rather than being tiny chunks of “solid stuff” (atoms)– might be information (bits). (“It from bit.”) If this is true, then we could actually be living in a Matrix-like universe. This could be a naturally-arising information-based universe, or an artificial one created by an intelligent being or beings. Let’s suppose that we do live in a an artificial “Matrix,” created and maintained by an individual Being. Clearly, that Being would not be an infinite, perfect entity like Jehovah or Allah. However, It would be omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal as far as we are concerned, and it would be supernatural, as far as we are concerned, since It transcends the laws of our universe. I don’t think that most atheists would have a problem with the possibility that this God exists, but they would definitely have a problem with accepting Its existence in the absence of evidence. Why, then, all the debate about God’s existence or non-existence? Why not debate about the REAL issue– which, as I see it, is FAITH as a way of knowing.

Answer by SmartLX:
I agree with you in part. An atheist does not accept the existence of a god or the equivalent, usually due to the lack of evidence or even due to perceived evidence of its absence. To such a person, faith is acceptance of a claim in the absence of evidence and is thus invalid by definition. And yes, I’m fine with the possibility of the existence of a number of different types of gods, including the master programmer version you describe, I just think that each is a very remote possibility and there’s no evidence for any of them.

However, advocates of a god’s existence are not so easily categorised. Perhaps they do generally accept faith as a valid reason to accept it, but when actually arguing the point with non-believers many of them go to the trouble of assembling and presenting what they claim to be evidence that their god exists. A large amount of the past material on this site consists of responses to claims of direct evidence, claims that the entire world IS evidence, claims that certain logical arguments serve as evidence, and attempts to shift the burden of evidence onto non-believers.

I don’t think re-framing the debate into a discussion of “ways of knowing” would be productive, or get anywhere at all. Believers already regularly take our evidence requirement at face value and throw “evidence” at us. Those who do not accept that evidence is necessary often ignore claims that it is, and think to themselves that those who demand evidence are misguided. (Indeed, the Bible explicitly warns against putting God to the test, and that’s good enough for many.) If we were to set our shared position such that some other “way of knowing” were the only valid one, the response from believers would likely be, “Very well, here is how the existence of God is absolutely plain in THAT way of knowing.”

No, the issue of whether God exists is the issue in which people are most often invested, rather than secondary epistemological issues, and I think the debate will stay right there because that’s what everyone wants to talk about.

Should I tell my fiance I’m an atheist?

Nicholas gives us a relationship question (haven’t had one for a while)…

I recently have become an atheist, I was formally a Christian. During my time as a Christian I became engaged to a woman from the Philippines who is a very devout Christian (pastors daughter). I love her very much and regardless of our differences about religion still want to marry her and spend our lives together. I have not told her that I am now an atheist, and am just curious if you have ever seen a similar situation that worked out? I feel that maybe after she has moved here and we have lived together for awhile I can slowly reveal this to her, or if not just keep it hidden inside me forever. To me it is just not worth killing our relationship over our different views. If I may ask your opinion on this situation, and any advice will be appreciated. Thank you.

I can only give you my personal advice here Nicholas and it’s not going to be pretty. You need to be honest with her. A committed relationship is a union where each party agrees to be their complete selves with someone else. By holding back the truth from her, you are holding back who you are, and that isn’t fair to either of you.  Don’t compromise who you are for another person. That only leads to even bigger problems down the line. Tell her your thoughts and feelings and hope that she can be accepting of who you are as a person, not just who she wants you to be.

I’ve known couples who have opposing views on things. Politics, philosophy, science, and even religion. They make it work because although their perspectives may be different, they still share the same respect for each other. I know it’s hard to do the right thing when faced with our fears, but that’s usually when it’s the most important time to do it. So be strong, trust in your relationship with her, and tell her.

Hope that helps.

How can you be an atheist if you don’t know everything?

Tommy asks…

An atheist is defined as someone who doesn’t believe there are any gods while an agnostic is someone who says that they don’t know if any gods exist. Simply put an atheist’s claim is an absolute statement that there are no gods while an agnostic is admitting that he doesn’t know, perhaps for lack of evidence he is willing to accept or some other reasons. Therefore, my question is this: Can someone make an absolute claim that is logical, reasonable, and scientifically supported that “there are no gods” without having omniscience? This is a Yes or No question. In order to answer this question you must first begin with Yes or No and then explain your answer. If you do not answer firstly Yes or No then you have not answered the question because the question is, in fact, a yes or no question. If you deny that this is a yes or no question then you’ve failed to understand the question because I am the one asking the question and I require a Yes or No answer. You are perfectly welcome to explain your Yes or No answer, but you must start with Yes or No. If you feel that the entire question is some sort of logical fallacy then your answer to this question is automatically No and then you must explain then why you believe it to be a logical fallacy. The most honest approach to answering my question is to simply answer Yes or No and then explain yourself from there. Otherwise your answer will be viewed as evasive and dishonest.

The problem is Tonny, you are basing your question on a false premise. You assume that a person can’t be both an atheist and an agnostic. I am an atheist/agnostic. I have no (a) belief in gods (theist) because I have no (a) knowledge (gnosis) of any. (knowledge also meaning evidence) This chart will help explain…

Agnostic v Gnostic v Atheist v Theist

 

In other words, I don’t claim that there are no gods. I claim that the current lack of evidence is such that no gods have been proven to exist and it is because of this that I lack a belief in any. What you are looking for are gnostic/atheists. They lack a belief in gods and also claim that they don’t exist. Which, depending on the gnostic/atheist that you talk to can violate your “Well you don’t know everything” argument. So in a sense, I agree with you. Who knows what’s out there in the land of the undiscovered? Maybe there is a god, I don’t know, and I don’t think you do either. No one does. I am open to the possibility within reason.

So there you go Tommy. Asked and answered. I look forward to your response.

Demons and gods and the Big Bang oh my!

Arushi asks…

Okay so I am an atheist and I am 13 yo girl from India !! Yes , India but my mom and dad were quite supportive of my act … I read about different stuff from the Internet and then I read about Stephen hawking and all his books and he says that the universe just blurted out of a Big Bang and he’s an atheist the question is who really created the Big Bang or designed humans . Then why are there so many evidences that God is present ?? And even if there isn’t y r demons present and I can’t stop myself from believing all this after I saw some real exorcism tapes !! What happens to our body when we die coz atheists don’t believe in afterlife ?? Is there a hell or heaven ?? Pls answer my queries I’ll be really grateful to and I could answer them when my frnds inquire me 🙂 I am really interested in science , physics , philosophy , paradoxes but I love knowing about myths , demons and legends so pls help me end my search !! Thank you xx

Thanks for all of the questions.

You’re problem here is that you have a little information but it’s obvious you haven’t actually studied them for yourself. I know from having a teenager and from once being one, that studying isn’t something that you like to do unless you have to (there are exceptions of course). You are probably used to people telling you what to think instead of learning things for yourself. I get that. You’ve got a lot going on with school and friends and family, who has time to learn? However, if you really want to begin to understand the world you live in, you’re going to have to do more then just “read about Stephen Hawking”, you’re going to have to actually read his books, or at the very least, listen to some of his lectures. You see, the internet is full of disinformation. You have to be willing to verify claims by doing a little research. I know that seems like a lot to do, but it is infinitely better then relying on what other people tell you about things. Look at it this way, the more you know and understand about the world around you, the clearer your perspective becomes. You can either choose to live blindly, or choose to try and understand. The choice is yours alone either way.

With that said, I’m going to answer your questions in a short manner and encourage you to go and learn these things for yourself instead of just accepting what I tell you.

First there is no evidence for any gods. Evidence for any claim of existence requires objective, verifiable proof. If someone told you there was a teapot circling Pluto, you wouldn’t believe it unless you had hard evidence for it right? Same thing with gods and demons. What people like to do is point to something that they don’t understand and say “god did that”, instead of actually trying to understand it for themselves. For example, for a long long long time people thought that those who screamed out, and shook on the floor and suffered from seizures were “possessed by demons”, but it wasn’t until science came around that we came to understand what causes seizures. Guess what? Demons weren’t involved.

Let’s take for example the “exorcist tapes” you referred too. What science was done to confirm these were people actually possessed be “demons”? How do you know the film wasn’t edited to make you think the demons were real? Why is the default explanation “demons” instead of just saying “I don’t know why this is happening”? An extraordinary claim like “demons” demands extraordinary evidence to verify it. Where is the verification? The James Randie Foundation offers a million dollars to anyone who can scientifically verify their claims of gods and demons and magic and psychic powers. Many have tried, and not one has ever succeeded. Their claims always fall short when studied in an objective manner. You might want to ask yourself why that is?

The rest of your questions are easy. There is no evidence for an afterlife just like there is no evidence for gods or demons. Don’t take my word for it though. Go learn these things for yourself. Start with learning the scientific method (systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.) and learn to apply it to your questions and ask if the evidence you’ve been given is justifiable. Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.

I know these aren’t the answers that you were looking for, but the direction I’m pointing you in will allow you to learn these things for yourself instead of relying on others to tell you what to believe. Feel free to read through this website. Use the search function. Read, learn, and try to understand. That’s the best advice I can give you.

Secular devotionals, or the equivalent

Question from Ashley:
Can you direct me to any atheist — or, more likely, secular humanist — devotionals or inspiring readings? I have been asked to do a (3-5 minute) devotional at one of the monthly meetings of parents at my daughter’s Christian school and I would really like to do it — not to rub anyone’s face in my atheism or challenge their beliefs, but just to show them that atheists can provide thought-provoking and inspirational ideas without including references to God, religion, Christ, etc. I can probably come up with something on my own, but I’d love some resources to consult. Any suggestions?

By the way, I am grateful to you for all the resources you supply and for your suggestion, years ago, that I consult Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief regarding raising my children without religion. Thank you!

Answer by SmartLX:
I think I’ve found the earlier exchange here, and if so the book wasn’t our idea. Still, glad you found what you were after at the time.

I won’t lie, it was hard to get started on this question. Atheist and secular humanist devotionals are rare, because a devotional is just a (short) prayer by another name. When there isn’t someone to pray to, it seems a bit pointless to devote oneself to, and beg things from, an empty space.

So I started from scratch and simply looked for inspiring and thought-provoking short-form writing. I realised that there’s a common word for that: poetry. I found some great classical poems, and then was shown up when I found most of the best-known ones on a single two-page list here.

Not everything on the list is secular, so to be specific I recommend If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking by Emily Dickinson, The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and In Spite of War by Angela Morgan. They are respectively about living one’s life for others, finding one’s true identity, and finding joy in the midst of adversity and suffering. These are three things that religious people often think are impossible without religion, but a non-religious person could say any one of these poems and absolutely mean it (and therefore the religious beliefs of the poets themselves, if any, are irrelevant).

Depending on your allotted time, you could string the three of them together into one short speech. If any of them is not to your taste, that’s a whole site full o’ poems ya got there, so rummage around to your heart’s content.

Poetry connoisseur I am not, honestly, so everyone’s welcome to add their own favourite secular writings (use links if possible, to save space) in the comments. What could be read aloud in a church or other religious environment and make everyone think or feel something significant, while forgetting about God for a few moments?

Sometimes we’re the only atheists to ask.

Question from Cody:
a) What does it mean to be human?
b) What happens after death?
c) Elaborate on who Jesus Christ is according to your worldview.
d) How does your worldview deal with the concepts of evil and suffering in the world?

These are 4 questions that have come up in my class. The goal is to get the answers for each question for a Christian and atheistic view.

Any help is appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re not the first person who’s asked for help fulfilling an academic requirement to get an atheist’s perspective on philosophical and traditionally theological matters. We did a big piece here specifically to address the questions in a college course called Christian Worldview. I find it interesting how many people are under the impression that they don’t know any atheists. While in some cases perhaps it’s true, in many cases I bet people know more atheists than they think.

Anyway, to the questions. I’ll give my own views, but I’ll also explain where there is any major disagreement among atheists in general.

a) The human being, or Homo sapiens, is a species to which we all belong. Because our physical and neurological makeup is so similar as members of a species, we have a great deal in common. With very few exceptions, we feel great empathy for each other, and at least some empathy for other life on Earth. Systems of law, ethics and morality have come about not just so we can protect ourselves, but so we can help others in society and achieve justice for all. Of course it doesn’t always work out like that, but we make adjustments and improvements as we go.

b) All known evidence indicates that all behaviour which defines life, humanity and identity is driven by the physical brain and the electrical signals going through it, and not an additional ethereal “soul”. (Consider that physical brain damage can alter or destroy any part of a person’s identity, up to complete brain-death which is equivalent to true death.) When a person dies, the electrical signals stop and the structure of the brain is effectively destroyed in a matter of minutes. Therefore, by all indications there is no longer a person after death for anything to happen to.

c) It’s more a case of who Jesus Christ was, as atheists do not accept that he came back from the dead. And it’s too much to accept Jesus Christ without challenging it, as I understand “Christ” in context means “the anointed one of God” and we don’t believe that God exists, let alone that Jesus of Nazareth had any special relationship with him (that is, more than any Christian claims to have a “relationship” with God). Anyway, there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life since everything we have was written after his death, but on balance I’m prepared to accept that there probably was an itinerant Jewish preacher (or several) on whom the Biblical stories of Jesus were based. Beyond that, not a single event in his life can be established conclusively, let alone his miracles or his resurrection, as historians writing afterwards may have been simply repeating the claims of early Christians. Some atheists don’t think there was any real Jesus and it was all a myth, but this is currently a minority view even among atheists and those who hold it are derided as “Jesus mythers”.

d) Evil is an abstract concept and atheists have all sorts of opinions about it; I try not to label anything absolutely good or evil, only beneficial or harmful to specific people, creatures or causes. Suffering on the other hand is obviously real, and I want to minimise it whenever possible. As for why suffering exists, I don’t have to try to explain it in the presence of a loving god who ought to be preventing it. It occurs simply because people get hurt, deliberately or accidentally by other people, and naturally by the world around them.

That about covers everything. Let me know if you want to drill into any of these topics further, but do search the site first because they’re all pretty popular.

Theist Cosmology: As Long As God’s Necessary Somewhere

Question from Physitheist:
I’m going to start this by saying that I’m a Christian, but also someone who believes in science…Here’s my question. According to the laws of thermodynamics energy moves to heat. Also there is no process that is truly reversible because we can not reach absolute zero, and the process would take infinite time. Since entropy continues to increase, and there is a limit of mass and energy how are we here? If there is not a limit of energy and mass, then why do you think so? And if you believe that energy and mass can appear out of thin air balanced out by anti matter why haven’t we ever seen this? After all the amount of unusable heat created is enormous. So basically my question is this, given the laws of thermodynamics, if you extrapolate to the size of the universe how are we here? After all the Big Crunch theory doesn’t really solve the energy problem since no process is 100 percent efficient. We’d still only have heat since there’s no such thing as negligible when the scale is eternity.

Thank you, and have a wonderful day!

Jesus loves you!

Answer by SmartLX:
I answered a similar question in my piece The World of Leftover Energy, so you can comment on that one if you like. Here I’ll just try to address some of your specific points and questions.

If you extrapolate the laws of thermodynamics regarding entropy to account for the entire universe they need to be applied as to a closed system, because we’re not aware of any energy leaving the universe. A hypothetical Big Crunch takes all the matter and energy there has ever been and jams it back together in a singularity – even the “lost” energy that’s been radiated outwards throughout the history of the compressed universe. That could actually achieve 100% efficiency through recycling, as literally no energy would be lost and the singularity could behave exactly the same as the previous singularity.

There is most likely a finite amount of matter and energy in THIS universe. If it’s the only universe, an eternal existence would have to depend on some form of reclamation, like the Big Crunch, or an exponential decrease that never hits zero, like I describe in the other piece. If there are other universes, as many have theorised and some evidence actively suggests, then it’s very possible that the total matter and energy in the multiverse is infinite, and entropy doesn’t mean much on the grand scale. I don’t feel the need to declare one or the other scenario more likely. An eternal universe isn’t certain in the first place, but a non-eternal universe doesn’t guarantee an eternal creator god.

Think about what would happen if a small group of matching matter and antimatter particles suddenly emerged naturally somewhere on Earth, and therefore in an environment saturated with existing particles of matter (e.g. air, water or earth). The antimatter would be annihilated by the existing matter in an instant, and the matter it touched would also be annihilated, so you’d be left with no antimatter and exactly the amount of matter you started with. It could be happening all around us and we’d never detect it without precise instruments. This isn’t proof that it happens, but it makes it impossible to say that it isn’t happening.

It’s okay to say “I don’t know”.

Todays question comes from Tejash who asks…

I am a very rational and logical person and although i don’t tend to fall into unnecessary arguments with theists but I have two questions about two known miracles. I need an answer desperately before my strong atheism hold gets shaken. 1) It is said – and i coudn’t find any against-article on google as well – that zamzam water (well) in mecca is always flowing and its in a desert. Therefore, its a miracle. Is this actually a miracle?. and if it is then what more do we atheists need as evidence. Please give a logical explanation asap so my believe in rationalism is not shaken 2) Dead body of a pharoh (by the name ‘firon’) was found in red sea and it has not decomposed for thousands of years. Which is scientifically not possible which many muslims claim. The reason why it has not decomposed is that its God’s miracle to show what will happen to your body if you do a lot of crimes like ‘firon’ did. Please tell me how do i rationally, scientifically, and logically disprove this because I could not find anything logical in it. I hope for a positive reply. Thank you.

I’m going to disappoint you by not specifically answering the two examples you gave me. Why? Because answering them doesn’t really help you. You see, the problem is that you’re committing a logical fallacy called “Argument from ignorance”. This is when you give an answer to something that you don’t really know or understand. For example saying “I don’t know how this happened, so it must have been Billy.” is an argument from ignorance. If you don’t know how something happened, how can you attribute it to anything? So simply put, just because you don’t know how these “miracles” happened doesn’t mean that a god did them. It just means you don’t know.

And that’s the tricky thing. Humans don’t like not knowing. It’s why we’ve made so many advancements. It’s why science is always striving to understand existence. It’s our curiosity that has driven us out of the caves and into the light. However that same yearning for answers can dupe us into thinking any answer is better than none at all. Sometimes we have to be okay with saying “I don’t know” because it’s only then that we leave ourselves open to finding the answer.

 

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, defeated?

Question:
The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible contains a long list of supposed contradictions in the Bible, but apologetics sites such as LookingUntoJesus.net have published articles reconciling every single one. Is there any remaining argument against the total internal consistency of the Bible, as befitting its divine origins?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve referred to this many times, but it’s always deserved its own piece.

The shortest answer is to point out the fact that the SAB contains links to the responses in each of its articles concerning an apparent contradiction (this one, for example, has three). Why would it do this if the responses in any way undermined the point it’s trying to make?

I’ve read a lot of the responses, and as far as I can tell they all take the same approach. Using this particular interpretation of the relevant passages, they say, there is no real contradiction. Very well, I say, but what is the evidence that this interpretation is the correct one, i.e. the meaning intended by its unknown author(s)?

More to the point, is it more likely that the 2000+ identified passages are each meant to be understood in the specific way a modern apologist has decided, or that the separate authors collectively got a few things wrong here and there when it’s all considered together? If you presume or presuppose not only the existence of God but the divine authorship of the Bible then of course it must be interpreted in whatever way means it’s not wrong, but the whole point of arguing for its incredible consistency is to advocate that it’s the word of God, so you can’t invoke this in the middle of that very argument or you’re “begging the question”.

So, with the thousands of SAB articles and thousands of attempted refutations, where does it ultimately leave us? There are thousands of potential contradictions, each one of which might indicate that the Bible was written by fallible people. For every one of them there’s at least one interpretation that makes it look at least okay. If we say for the sake of argument that no two of these reconciliations contradict each other either, then there is at least one reading of the entire Bible that is internally consistent, but there are still countless others that are self-contradictory, and no objective way to choose between them. Therefore it’s not certain that it’s perfect, and it’s not certain that it’s imperfect, so all we can do is consider probabilities. That approach, in my view, is not favourable to the book.

Counting Chromosomes

Question from Ken:
I’m agnostic. There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to understand about evolution for a while, and I hope this is the place to get it answered.

When I learnt about it, in school and university, they expressed the idea of increment changes (whether modifications of traits that were already there, or new traits through mutation) over time, passed on through generations, “chosen” by the ability to procreate and pass on genes. That, I think I get for the most part.

But what I never really understood is how the number of chromosomes could change over time. How can chromosome numbers increase and decrease? I mean… let’s say an individual somehow has it happen, shouldn’t he or she be unable to produce viable (or fertile?) offspring with others of the species because of the wrong numbers of chromosomes? How does chromosome number change at all? The only way I know is through issues that happen in meiosis, the kind of stuff that causes Down’s Syndrome, and the XXY and X gender chromosomal abnormalities that cause problems in humans.

So, my question is: How can chromosome number change in to produce a viable, fertile individual for it to be able to spread to an entire species?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a good question because a sudden whole extra chromosome full of junk, or a whole one gone missing, can indeed cause serious defects. That said, it helps to remember that a chromosome is merely a container of genes, and the number of chromosomes has very little to do with the amount of genetic information in each.

The addition of a chromosome is the more complex process, so I’m linking to an explanation of one mechanism by PZ Myers. Essentially, one chromosome’s worth of genes ends up being shared by two, and at first it can interact just fine with the old combined chromosome because the total sequence is the same. This does introduce a higher rate of error until individuals with the split chromosome start mating with each other, at which point there’s no longer a downside. Once the new number of chromosomes is settled, each chromosome is free to mutate independently and add new genetic information in the usual ways.

As for a reduction in chromosomes, we need look no further than our own genome. Our #2 chromosome pair is equivalent to two separate chromosome pairs in our closest ape relatives, but fused together. You can tell because there are two end markers (telomeres) right in the middle of it. No genetic information was lost, it was merely repackaged. This, importantly, is a very clear example of the kind of predictions one is able to make using evolutionary theory: the number of chromosomes in our genome compared to our ancestors’ (i.e. one less) tells us that exactly one fusion must have occurred, and we can then check the genome for only one extra set of markers.