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.

6 thoughts on “Sometimes we’re the only atheists to ask.”

  1. These are all really good questions and to fully appreciate the breadth of all possible answers would be a study course (and maybe even take a lifetime) in itself. I’d like to comment briefly on three pertinent points:

    (i) Atheism is simply a lack of beliefs in gods or supernatural god-like entities. It is not a worldview, though it is commonly viewed as such. By way of example, compare these two atheists:

    John is a capitalist banker who owns a Ferrari and a yacht and his goal in life is to make as much money as possible and have sex with as many women as possible, he eats only the finest cuts of meat, wears only the most expensive suits, and believes that caring for others is a waste of resources if there’s no return on his money or time.

    Jane is a Theravada Buddhist nun who owns only her simple robes and a few eating utensils, is a strict vegetarian, celibate, and devotes her life to increasing her levels of compassion so she is better able to help others less fortunate than she is.

    I think you’ll agree, there’s no way these two atheists are anywhere close to having the same worldview.

    (ii) Always keep in mind that believing in a god is not the default position and atheism is simply a reaction to that belief. Lack of belief (in anything) always comes before having that belief.

    (iii) It’s not uncommon to assume that the only alternative to atheism is theism and in western culture in particular, that brand of theism known as Christianity. This is not so; there’s many other theisms, as well as polytheism, pantheism, panpsychism, ancestor worship, animism, simulation hypotheses etc. To do justice to the questions you’re asking it’s only fair that the variety of human belief is appreciated.

    So my overall advice would be try to remember these subjects you’re studying are more complex than many people will have you believe. And don’t forget the importance that evidence, and/or the lack of evidence, plays in why atheists have no belief in a god.

    Good luck with it, Cody.

    1. “Always keep in mind that believing in a god is not the default position and atheism is simply a reaction to that belief. Lack of belief (in anything) always comes before having that belief.” I still want to argue that whichever one has the most evidence, or is possible with our current knowledge should be considered the null hypothesis… No matter how much I look at it, given the second law of thermodynamics, we don’t have one example of a singularity with density great enough to stop time. Not to mention once time was stopped there would be no way to get it started again and there is no such thing as a process that reverses entropy.Therefore I can’t understand how you say the belief in something contrary to what we have observed could ever be the null hypothesis. I mean unless the universe existed in zero space with stopped time we wouldn’t be here today, assuming there isn’t a god… But that would also lead to us living in zero space with stopped time which isn’t the case. So how is atheism anything more than believing in the impossible and unknown.

      1. Look, it’s really, really simple. The situation is this:

        Science doesn’t operate according to subjective desires or personal perceptions. It’s a publically accessible and independently replicable method of investigation that is conducted according to well defined and tested methodologies. That’s why it’s so successful.

        We have never observed any experimental evidence for anything other than a physical causation of any phenomena we have ever investigated using this methodology. Never. Ever.

        Ergo: on what possible grounds can you posit a null hypothesis (H0)that assumes supernatural causation?

        You can certainly posit an experimental hypothesis (H1) involving supernatural causation. But not a null hypothesis (H0). What part of this is hard to understand?

        Sit down and think of the ramifications for the world and everyone living in it if every scientist on the planet started used supernatural causation as the H0. Seriously, think about it. Science would collapse. We’d return to the dark ages.

        I have never met a working scientist who is also a theist who wouldn’t agree with this.

        1. OK… so I have one problem with this. You should know that this isn’t true. “Science doesn’t operate according to subjective desires or personal perceptions”. Almost everything is researched for a purpose, and that means we never really have objective data. Everything is flawed. Hypothesis are made, and data is analyzed… which in theory, if you don’t add in the human element is reliable. However that’s just a rabbit trail I really don’t want to go down right now…”We have never observed any experimental evidence for anything other than a physical causation of any phenomena.” this is what I want to talk about. What physical causation??? Frankly based on our data we can’t find a physical cause, but we can tell that there isn’t one! If you have to say that you believe that there is a physical causation wouldn’t you have to have a physical causation to believe? The physical causation I know of for the current state of the universe and where it is headed is that the universe had to come from somewhere… I mean if were talking about the laws of physics what choice is there? Would it be better to act like an fool denying the facts in front of me? I mean it’s written in black and white, and it’s effects have been tested. Entropy is most assuredly real… a magical amount of mass that stops time and exists in zero space? not so much. I love to talk about physical causes, but sometimes the only “Physical cause left” is that it was built by someone. if It’s 90 degrees outside and you see a ice cube on the sidewalk do you think to yourself… there must’ve been a puddle there and the water froze and formed into an ice cube. No, you don’t because you know better. I just don’t understand how you don’t know better! I mean there are plenty of sources… just do a little analysis, and see how it’s possible. If we only look at what you call physical causation we are left with one solution. the world exists, and still exists in zero space. On the other hand I wouldn’t be alive if that was true… so where does that leave us. If you’ve checked everything else, and looked at every solution then whatever is left no matter how unlikely is the truth. I think that is what defines sanity. So all I’m asking is for you to think. Check everywhere, but you won’t find one iota of evidence that says anything to the contrary. You’ll see people talking about theoretical ideas, and you’ll see that what they say does not match up to what we’ve seen. I love science… and I don’t doubt it when there are facts. See there’s no scientific discovery in the world that is in contrast to what I believe. only assumptions hypotheses that are for unrealistic scenarios that contrast it, and the data that we actually have that agrees. However where in the world is there one piece of evidence that the universe could have happened naturally AND still be here. Because unless it fulfills both, I don’t understand how you seem to think that out of the two of us I’m the one who believes in magic. I believe in data. And I’ve got plenty of it.

  2. Cody:

    I’m curious what kind of class is looking for a “Christian and atheistic” view. Those are only two of the many different viewpoints on dogma and the supernatural. What about Hindu, Jewish, Islamic, Taoist, Buddhist, and so forth? Seems a bit arrogant to gather information on just Christian opinions when there are so many other religious opinions in the world. My guess is that this is a Christian class, since religions tend to assume that their version of the supernatural is right and the rest is wrong, and therefore only compare themselves to those that don’t believe in anything.

    To answer your 4 questions:

    A) This is a rather general question. What does it mean to be human biologically? Environmentally? Spiritually? Socially? Biologically you are human if your DNA is within the range of DNA associated with the homo sapien species. Our species is the only currently living species of the hominid line, while others have gone extinct (such as Neaderthals for example). DNA is the most useful and accurate way to classify all living things on Earth, and in my opinion the best way to define each species within the broader context of life on Earth.

    If I may assume for a moment, I would think your phrasing of the question shows that you are angling for a different type of answer than what I have provided above. By writing “what does it mean” I suspect you are going for a more purposeful slant, trying to suggest a directed meaning to our existence. To that all I can say is that there is zero evidence to suggest that humans exist for any particular reason. In other words, I don’t see any data that shows that humans exist because some divine creature wanted us to exist. Like every other living thing on Earth, we are a product of evolution, chance, and timing. We were never guaranteed to exist as a species, it’s just the way it worked out. This kind of randomness is uncomfortable to a lot of people because they don’t like the idea of a universe that is not controlled in some way. But since there is zero evidence of any such control, it would appear that randomness and chance is the only reason for human existence.

    So what does this tell us about what it means to be human? Well, life is what you make of it, which is true whether you are a religious person or not. What it means to be human is defined by the society and culture you live in at the time you live in it, and that definition is decided by the very same people who reside in that society and culture. We collectively decide what it means to be human…

    B) Nothing. We cease to exist forever when we die. Everything we were is lost for all eternity. It’s like going to sleep at night, only this time you never wake up.

    C) Jesus the man may or may not have existed. Jesus was not an uncommon name in that part of the world at that time, so the mention of someone named “Jesus” may or may not be the same person that you find in Christian religious texts. Regardless of whether the specific Jesus of Christianity did or did not actually exist, there is exactly zero empirical evidence that Jesus was a god, or that any of the claims made by religion are true and accurate. There is no evidence for virgin births, resurrections, spontaneous healing of lepers, water being turned into wine, worldwide floods, etc. Jesus either started one of the classic frauds of all time or he was used as the basis of one of the classic frauds of all time.

    D) As has already been pointed out, “evil” and “suffering” are human concepts, terms we use to lump together and define groups of things. Nothing is “evil” unless humans give it that title. What is evil in America is not necessarily evil in Afghanistan or the Brazilian rain forest or in China. The definition of “evil” is similar to the definition of “human” because they are both determined by the people that live in a particular society or culture.

    “Suffering” is not as abstract as many other concepts in my opinion, because it usually deals with specific concrete physical things like pain. There isn’t any real difference between Christians and agnostic atheists when it comes to the concept of suffering. Both groups don’t like it, don’t want people to experience it, and offer help and assistance to relieve and rid others of it. There are some differences, such as some Christians view that sin (another human concept) is somehow responsible for it while atheists understand it to be just a part of the world we live in. Regardless, there is a common desire to help those who are suffering.

    Good luck with your class.

  3. Phys writes: [OK… so I have one problem with this. You should know that this isn’t true. “Science doesn’t operate according to subjective desires or personal perceptions”. Almost everything is researched for a purpose, and that means we never really have objective data. Everything is flawed. ]

    You have a logical disconnect here. Just because something is researched for a reason does not automatically imply that we can’t have objectivity. For example, when someone researched why the sky was blue, can you rationally think of any subjective motive for doing so? Of course not. The question was researched because someone wanted to know.

    Scientific investigation is done largely to satisfy the curiosity of humans. We want to know things. And the tool we use to guide us in that investigation – the scientific method – is designed specifically to help remove subjective and erroneous work in order to maintain objectivity. I’m not saying it is perfect, because it isn’t. Nothing involving humans is. But it does a pretty remarkable job of keeping things in perspective and on track. Your comment doesn’t reflect the reality of what’s going on in scientific fields…

    [The physical causation I know of for the current state of the universe and where it is headed is that the universe had to come from somewhere… I mean if were talking about the laws of physics what choice is there? Would it be better to act like an fool denying the facts in front of me? I mean it’s written in black and white, and it’s effects have been tested. Entropy is most assuredly real… a magical amount of mass that stops time and exists in zero space? not so much.]

    The universe did not have to come from “somewhere”. The net energy of the universe is zero. The net spin is zero. The net charge is zero. We live in a zero sum existence. The universe appears to be nothing more than “zero” broken up into pieces, that when added back together leave you with “zero”. We just exist in between those zeros. You can verify all this too Phys, don’t take my word for it. I’ve already mentioned how matter pops into and out of existence all the time. It’s a known phenomena. I don’t why you keep denying the facts in front of you…

    [I love to talk about physical causes, but sometimes the only “Physical cause left” is that it was built by someone.]

    You ever apply your standard to your god? I see believers make this illogical loop all the time, and it amazes me that your crowd never sees it. Your basic statement is that the universe had to come from somewhere, so that means your particular divine being (out of all the divine beings in human history) must have created it. OK…so where did your divine being come from? It HAD to come from somewhere, right? You just stated that something has to come from something else. So where did your divine being come from? From another Thing that created your divine being I suppose. Now we have to figure out where that Thing came from, because it is something and therefore cannot exist naturally…

    See the circular logic here? As you say in your post, I’m asking you to think about it. You cannot ever possibly rectify your circular logic, which means it is illogical and should be thrown out. You need to realize something Phys – adding a god creature to the explanation of how the universe came to be only makes the whole thing more complicated, not simpler. What sense does it make to claim that…

    [If you’ve checked everything else, and looked at every solution then whatever is left no matter how unlikely is the truth. I think that is what defines sanity. So all I’m asking is for you to think. Check everywhere, but you won’t find one iota of evidence that says anything to the contrary. You’ll see people talking about theoretical ideas, and you’ll see that what they say does not match up to what we’ve seen.]

    So how do we know Odin isn’t responsible. Or Isis. Or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Maybe it was the king of all unicorns. In fact, there are an almost infinite number of choices of unprovable, baseless explanations for the existence of the universe. Why should your god creature be any more special than the Greeks or the Egyptians? Science may not be able to tell you where the universe came from, but science is at least following what we do know (cosmic background radiation, Lamb Shift, Casimir Effect, expansion of the universe) to try to figure it out. What do believers have to go on? Nothing. Not a damn thing. Sorry to keep beating that dead horse, but you still don’t have any proof of the supernatural, be it Vishnu or Isis….

    [However where in the world is there one piece of evidence that the universe could have happened naturally AND still be here. Because unless it fulfills both, I don’t understand how you seem to think that out of the two of us I’m the one who believes in magic.]

    Where is there evidence that a god could happen naturally? You realize that, as some point, SOMETHING had to happen naturally, right? An infinite divine being is an illogical absurdity, so the only plausible god is one with a start, which means a natural start, which means that nature is still the start of it all. Gods are illogical Phys, no matter what angle is played with them…

    [I believe in data. And I’ve got plenty of it.]

    You just can’t provide it…

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