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.

Sense and Sense-ability

Question from Dante:
I came up with a notion that i have been musing over for months now. It’s an evolutionary notion/question. I will not use it to make any assertions but I would be interested to hear what any sages would have to say and how they would address it. So here goes….

Realism/rationalism is based firmly on a permutation of inputs through our 5 senses, processed through our brains using the tool of what, contemporarily, we agree to be science. In an evolutionary sense, starting with the primordial soup, the first unicellular organisms would have started out with some sort of sense analogous to the tactile or chemical. As we climb the evolutionary tree with time, we find further senses appearing, which did not always exist – till the present time when we are aware of 5 ”top-level” senses which we use to experience our reality. processing their input to produce our rationality.

Here is the ‘punch line’:- Evolution is ongoing. Therefore we have no basis to presume that life on our planet has reached the zenith as far as the development of senses goes. Or do we? Beings on this planet billions of years from now ( it is not irrational to postulate) would have further progressed the sensory perception – 6 senses? maybe 7 I dont know. But I do know it is arrogance to decide that evolution does not progress beyond five, just because that is the limit of our sensory perception at this stage of evolution.

This is my question – is it not true then that our knowledge’/’rationality’/’reality’ even science has to be at least to some degree subjective? At the very worst erroneous? Are we really masters of this universe with the tools we use at this stage of evolution – FIVE SENSES????

Answer by SmartLX:
No, we are hardly masters of the universe, and yes, our senses are highly subjective and very often erroneous. We have far more than five senses now – look up proprioception and chemoreceptors, for instance – but in the future we might develop more of them and improve our existing senses. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot in the universe we currently have no way of sensing or detecting, near and far. Reality goes way beyond that which we’ve seen and recorded.

So why ask this on an atheist site? Most likely because of the possibility that senses we don’t yet have might be able to detect the influence or even the direct presence of a god. Sure, it’s possible that we could discover a god in the future, if we become capable of looking in the right way. That doesn’t change the fact that there’s no substantive evidence for a god available to us right now, and no good reason to believe in anything but the possibility of a god.

Atheism: Endgame

Question from Brian:
Although I am an atheist, I believe that religion serves a very important purpose in our capitalist society. Most of us live, almost like slaves, being controlled by our employers. It gives meaning to those who otherwise cannot find meaning in their lives. For example the idea that a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, allows someone who is poor, which most Americans are, to believe that while this life may suck, the next life they will find some sort of better life. So Christianity serves an important role in appeasing the masses. Now, what is the endgame for atheism? How will a capitalist society continue to sustain itself, when the masses have no hope, and fail to develop some sort of coping mechanism? Let’s face it, the vast majority of the people are biologically and intellectually incapable of surviving in the harsh capitalist system, which is why they turn to religion and the supernatural. Knowing science or understanding the physical world doesn’t help them in a practical sense. It will only make them more miserable. What’s wrong with a little delusion? Isn’t the most rational thing for people to do is try to live a life as happy as they can?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think that modern religion is very good at serving the purpose you ascribe to it, or that the absence of religion would leave the kind of hole in the collective psyche that you and Karl Marx think it would. (That’s not a general insinuation; he wrote something similar in his “opiate of the masses” piece. He wanted to remove the drug so that people would feel their pain and do something about it.)

Yes, Christianity and other religions have traditionally reassured the poor and warned the rich, and if you’re cynical you might think this was to channel money from both groups to the religions themselves. This message has by now been utterly corrupted by “prosperity gospel” and other such doctrines, and religions are brazenly taking congregants for everything they have. This isn’t universal, of course, but religion as a whole appears to be actively making people poorer on average through the way it’s preached. Throw right-wing politics into the mix and religion becomes a way to make the poor vote against their own interests and further enrich the super-rich at their own expense. Religion can make people happy, but so can alcohol, and the cost can be too great – and I’ve only gone into the financial aspect here. The real problem with a delusion is usually what’s happening in the real world at the same time.

I’m sure many people do find meaning in their lives solely through religion, but this is not because there is nothing else. Religion encourages believers to focus their lives on it, and to draw meaning from it alone, so they seldom even look for alternatives. When one is first divested of belief in a god, the threat often looms that one’s whole world will collapse (try searching the site for my term “faithdrawal”) before the realisation comes that the accompanying beliefs that everything depends on the god are also wrong. I honestly think your opinion that the majority can’t survive without religion is terribly patronising toward the majority. If you’re doing it, why can’t they? What makes you biologically and intellectually superior to so many?

You ask about the endgame for atheism, but atheism need not be the first move. There is an inverse correlation between average happiness and the religiosity of a country, as this infographic explains. The happiest countries by a number of standards are those where relatively few people consider religion important at all. This not only flies in the face of your implication that capitalist society would collapse without religion, but it also suggests a way forward for atheists: simply work to improve your society and make people happier, and religion will fade.

To answer your question directly, the endgame or the ideal for atheism from my perspective is universal voluntary abandonment of religion and religious faith as harmful and ultimately useless. Ideally all benefits of religion are replaced by other sources which don’t come with the same drawbacks. People congregate but are not told what to think, they donate to charities which do good work without an agenda, they find personal meaning in the world around them and work to improve it without arguing to a standstill over the meanings. It’ll be hard to achieve, and as you suggest it will require the world to be a nicer place to live in, but that right there is something we can work towards.

The Khabouris Codex: cool name, but proof of God?

Question from Abishek:
Does anyone know the truth about this “Khabouris Codex”?
Some Christians on the internet use it as proof that the New Testament is divine. I am confused, please help me in this.
Thank you.

Answer by SmartLX:
This was a new one on me. The Khabouris or Khaboris Codex is a manuscript of the New Testament (except for five books) dating back to the 12th century. It contains a note to say it’s a copy of a second-century manuscript, which if true gives it serious bragging rights as one of the most authoritative sources of the NT text in Jesus’ own language of Aramaic.

That doesn’t seem to be what’s important about it for the purposes of proving the divinity of the text. Since it was acquired from Kurdistan in 1966, the manuscript has been physically used to assist in religious healing and spiritual instruction. Reading from it has been claimed to cause minor psychological miracles; the main example is that regularly concentrating on the text in Aramaic – without understanding Aramaic – is said to make one more mature. It was even used in an attempt to calm violent prisoners. It’s a proper Christian relic, with minor powers such as you’d see on items in the ‘relic’ or ‘trinket’ category in a role-playing game. It’s most likely in a private collection at the moment.

The Christians you’re referring to may be arguing for the divinity of the New Testament from any of a few different angles. It might be the idea that the text has barely changed over thousands of years, which is dependent on the unverified claim of the Codex’s own source. It could be the discovery of the Codex, as a new revelation from God. It could be any of the abilities the Codex supposedly displayed after it arrived in the West, which are highly subjective in nature. It could be some passage which differs from the modern Bible and can be interpreted as making a unique prediction about subsequent events. None of these seem to be anything to worry too much about, honestly, but if you have more details of their claims (or a link to their website) please fill us in using a comment.

Some Things Never Change

Question from Caleb:
In an atheistic worldview why are there laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and absolute morality?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you search the site for the above terms you’ll find quite a few relevant pieces already written, and some very long discussions in the comments. These subjects crop up often because many theists think they have the authority on each. This time I’ll try to answer as straightforwardly as possible; if you look through the rest of the material and think I haven’t covered something, do let me know.

There do appear to be many types of total consistency in the universe, primarily physical and logical. The laws of each don’t seem to change, so we have the kind of stable universe where beings like us can develop over billions of years and create civilisations without everything spontaneously collapsing in on itself every few minutes, or turning into chocolate pudding and back.

None of us know why this is. Some think they know, because if they believe the universe was created by an intelligent god then it sounds sensible that this god would make the universe stable enough to support life and eventually cognition, as most worshipped gods have apparently created humanity for some unknown purpose. To one who has not already accepted the existence of such a being (which hypothetically is more exotic and incredible than anything the universe has to offer, and is thus a dismal working assumption for the purpose of explanation) it seems more likely that, somewhat in the manner of Newton’s first law, there is simply no influence upon the universe causing it to change its fundamental qualities and therefore it doesn’t. The absence of a god does not make the reality impossible, merely unexplained. To go any further is to commit the all-too-common fallacy of an argument from ignorance, or else to claim omniscience.

Absolute morality is different from the other two because we don’t know whether it exists in the first place. Morality is disputed all the time, so any absolute morality makes up a very small part of it. Anything we might think of as a moral absolute might just be something the entire human race agrees upon, but is wrong. Any such supposed absolute might also be regarded with the total opposite of its implication for humans when considered from the perspective of other animals, for example ants. Texts like the Bible declare moral absolutes on the authority of a being whose existence is itself in question. This last point is important, because when you’re using the existence of absolute morality to argue for the existence of a god, you can’t use the latter to argue for the former first.

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.