No god or probably no god?

Question from Mark:
Claiming that there is no god is a universal negative. So, my question is, do most atheists flat-out claim that there is definitely no god, or is it more often than not an “it’s not probable” argument?

Answer by SmartLX:
No, not most atheists. Some atheists, sure, but not the majority and not the most prominent atheists, and not me. Even Richard Dawkins, when he created a scale of 1 to 7 from total belief to total disbelief, rated himself a 6.9 to leave room for some possibility.

Certainty in the absence of gods is called gnostic atheism. Gnosis is a knowledge of the spiritual, so gnostic atheism is just knowing that there’s nothing there. The obvious question for a gnostic atheist, as you imply, is how can one know such a thing? For me there’s no good answer to this, though that doesn’t imply by itself that positive belief in a god is justified.

“Did they Die for a Lie?” And Other Appeals to Character

Question from Jamie:
I have a question about two types of evidence that Christians use to prove the Bible. What do you (and maybe most atheists?) think of Saul of Tarsus’ conversion and the historical record of at least 3 of the apostles being martyred for their beliefs as being any kind of proof that Christianity is true? They say that it is very unlikely that people would have died for a lie and Paul had no reason to suddenly convert. I’m not asking as a Christian but as kind of a skeptic.

Answer by SmartLX:
Doesn’t matter who you ask as, I’ll answer it the same way.

Christian-persecutor Saul had no reason to suddenly convert to super-Christian Paul that we know of, but that’s not the same as having no reason to do it. There are plenty of reasons you can imagine; guilt is an obvious one, but it could simply have been a very persuasive proselytising Christian. If Saul had any earthly reason to switch but didn’t want to admit to it, the story of Jesus appearing to him on the road to Damascus was a great alternative that his new fellow worshipers would happily accept.

Perhaps something really did happen to him which he mistook for a divine experience. He’d never seen Jesus in life, so any man might have sufficed. The temporary blindness he reported could even be a sign of a stroke, so there are plausible ways in which his judgement could have been impaired.

The point is that supporting one’s claim by saying or implying there are no alternatives is a very weak argument unless one can actually establish that there are no possible alternatives. Otherwise you’re claiming that if you don’t know of a possibility, there is no such possibility. This is an argument from ignorance, the logical fallacy I most often see in arguments for the existence of God.

The argument about the apostles’ sacrifice is similar: that they had no reason to “die for a lie”. As you can see from the linked YouTube search, this is a major talking point for Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and other prominent apologists. Again, the short response is that there are plenty of potential reasons. Maybe they believed the lie, or they thought the lie was worthwhile to advance the teachings of Jesus. Maybe the lie was a good short-term measure to keep them from being lynched by their own followers; not counting Judas an apostle was first killed eleven years after Jesus died, which isn’t bad considering. Maybe reports of their martyrdom are greatly exaggerated.

There are Christians who won’t tolerate a bad word about these arguments appealing to the integrity of the earliest disciples. Whenever I address one here, a long thread of comments follows where each of the hypothetical alternatives I’ve presented is attacked in great detail. It’s pointless because the alternatives aren’t limited to what I personally can imagine, but it shows that this topic genuinely and reliably strikes a nerve. That makes me think that behind the chaff of myriad apologetics Christians are taught and simply repeat, this is one idea that they actually use to reassure themselves that they’re right.

Why so aggressive?

Question from Julain:
I have found myself more Gnostic than anything, and I want to ask about a few things.
Why are atheists so aggressive and nitpicky? All of the staunch atheists I’ve met have to make a point about how right they are, then start asking about how their god is real, a dumb question really. So, back to the question, what makes atheists so self-righteous and dogmatic?

The other question I have is simple: Why are staunch atheists so scornful of religion? I, personally, am 100% for meeting up and reminding people to love their fellow man/not tear out neighbor john’s esophagus. You get so dogmatic, so evangelical, as a group, all about something that can not be proven by science. It is not a simple thing we can find, it is transcendent. It was said that “God is dead” for a number of reasons, one of them being that he is no longer objectively provable. On the flipside, we can not disprove him either. I am not saying to believe one way or another. The entire argument is meaningless, though, and that is the important thing- that these people get some kind of sensual, almost erotic joy in a small, meaningless victory that has not changed the world around them.

Why is atheism uniting as a movement? I feel that such a move could be dangerous to the ideas ‘defended’ by it. Skepticism is not going to be found in a large group, that is when you start becoming a unified force instead, with unified ideas. That is the opposite of skepticism.

My final question is why you guys talk about “science” like it is a bible. The thing that keeps this amorphous, shifting mass of ideas moving is the constant search for understanding, knowing that we can always be wrong. Many things are not such. Evolution? Definite, real, we have proof. Red Queen hypothesis? Plausible view of evolution, really more like frame of reference. Those are directly observable. However, then you start getting to physics and cosmology, or almost anything that involves space. In general, we know almost nothing. The average person just flaunts ‘the big bang’ while only knowing the basic framework from wikipedia or a textbook. In the end, we know so little, it is best to reserve judgement.

I say with confidence that I know little, and that I know not what lies beyond the pale of death. Past that? Absolutely nothing.

Answer by SmartLX:
If what you’ve said is true then it’s not true about all the staunch atheists you’ve met, it’s just true about all the staunch atheists who’ve announced themselves to you. Like any group of people, atheists have some among them who can’t entertain the possibility that they might be wrong or allow others to differ in peace, and this can make them abrasive when on the subject. Others, like my father for one, mention it once every few years if at all, and avoid all discussion of it with believers because they know it can cause an argument. In short, you can be a dick about anything and that includes atheism, but when atheists aren’t being dicks you might not even identify them. Engaging people constructively on an emotionally charged subject like faith when you think it’s all unjustified is bloody hard, especially in person.

Many atheists are also anti-theistic, or opposed to religious belief in general, for three reasons. Firstly, it does appear to be misguided to atheists or at least likely to be wrong, and it’s usually in everyone’s interest for people to live their lives according to what’s actually true. Secondly, religious belief can cause great harm in some circumstances (the regular news stories about parents failing to pray away their children’s illnesses are a ready example) while its mental and social benefits can come from other sources instead, so the cost-benefit analysis goes badly for it. Finally, widespread belief makes non-believers a minority, and sometimes a persecuted minority depending on where they are. (I’m not going to Bangladesh in a hurry.)

Many atheists united behind a fresh movement around 2006 for these same reasons, when a group of books on the subject came out together and acted as a catalyst. (New Atheism was a terrible name for it, but there it is.) I disagree that skepticism can’t function in large groups, because if the people question each other then every idea must prove itself. Managing a large group of atheists has been compared to herding cats, so they’re an ideal demographic to put this into practice.

It is indeed folly to dogmatise science, so we simply try not to. If evidence for something is in place, we act and speak with confidence in its reality. If not then we reserve judgement, and that should include the possibility of a god or its influence. But not knowing for sure does not mean all possibilities have equal probabilities, and the concept of a god is so far beyond anything we’ve observed that positing it as an explanation for anything does not make for a useful hypothesis, or an appealing one unless you’re desperate for a simple answer. It raises more questions than it answers anyway.


Question from Emily:
I was wondering what an atheist stance on karma would be. I’m not a big believer in faith or the supernatural. However, I am becoming a Buddhist and I just wanted some educated thoughts on the subject matter. I couldn’t really find my answer on the web. One thing I have noticed over the past few years is that things like karma tend to happen. For example, someone drove me out of a dorm because she didn’t like my tolerant view of homosexuality (Christian College). This year, she was driven out of the school because of financial problems. I keep noticing that situations where one “gets what they deserve” just tend to happen. The way they harmed others is the way that they were harmed in return. My question is, could karma be real? Is it possible that it is a factual law of the universe? I’m not inquiring if there is a god in the sky zapping bad people, I’m just wondering if there could be an unseen cause and effect to our actions/ energy. Thanks!

Answer by SmartLX:
Like the gods people believe in, karma certainly could be real, and some things can be interpreted as results of its influence. It’s just difficult or impossible to establish beyond doubt that it’s really true.

The “as you sow, so shall you reap” kind of karma in particular is easy to perceive in the world around us whether or not the universe is actually “keeping score”. We have an innate sense of fairness from our long history as a social animal, so we acutely sense when someone has done enough good or bad deeds to be due some repayment and we remember well if it happens. If it doesn’t, we just hope or assume it will come in the future. That’s confirmation bias for you.

What really muddies the waters in the case of karma is that our behaviour has many kinds of worldly effects which can cause the same kind of future events that karma would. Someone who tends towards violence is more likely to be injured, killed or arrested as a result of a conflict they either started or chose not to avoid. People who are conspicuously generous will inspire generosity in others, towards themselves in particular (the end of It’s a Wonderful Life being a fictional but believable example). A supernatural balancing force is not necessary for people to frequently receive the same treatment they give out.

The existence of karma can be detrimental to assume in some situations. If someone is suffering, then to assume that the suffering is the result of karma is to blame the victim to some extent. If everyone gets what they deserve, there must be some reason they deserve to suffer. Coupled with the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, it can create a very cold and unjustified attitude towards people born physically or mentally disabled in Buddhist countries. The attitude is, “That person must have done something awful in a past life to be brought back like this.” Buddhist scripture does not direct its followers thus to my knowledge, but it’s an unfortunately common interpretation.

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.


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.