Blood Covenants And You

Question from Chinx:
Should blood covenants ever matter to atheists?

Answer by SmartLX:
If they’re real, yeah.

A blood covenant, as far as I can gather from articles like this, is a mutual obligation between two parties to serve each other in every way needed on pain of a horrible death, not just for the covenant-breakers but possibly for their loved ones.

If one thinks one is a blood covenant, and that the penalty can be enforced, it makes sense to honour it for one’s own safety even if one did not enter the covenant by choice. If a man with a gun is holding you to a supposed blood covenant you should probably do what he says, at least until you can call the police. And if you do enter a blood covenant by choice then you probably have good reason to want to help the other party.

None of this is exclusively in the realm of religious belief or non-belief. Where religion comes into the picture is that Christians, Jews and others think that everyone, not just those groups, is in a blood covenant with God. Whatever God is meant to be doing for us, apparently we are bound to do everything for Him, and we will be punished for not obeying God’s commands.

If you don’t think that’s true, it makes no sense to obey. If there’s only a chance that it’s true, again in the vein of Pascal’s Wager you have to consider all the other possible commitments that might have been made for you by gods and ancestors without your input. By honouring the supposed covenant you’re aware of, you might be breaking the real one. Doing so is by no means the safest move.

So in the end, threatening atheists with the blood covenant is like threatening them with Hell, or demons, or the boogeyman. You have to believe in something at least to some extent to be afraid of it. A lot of Christians think atheists secretly believe in God so these kinds of threats (often phrased as warnings on behalf of God, which is a thin distinction if you don’t believe in God) can be justified internally, but that doesn’t make them work any better.

Looking For That 100%

Question from Josie:
Hello this is a college student who is pretty much confused. I do have a fact in mind God doesn’t exist. But, the other part of me doesn’t. Is there any steps to pretty much make me fully sure he doesn’t exist. My mind 85% tells me he isn’t real but some odd reason my mind won’t agree with it. Any suggestion?

Answer by SmartLX:
No one said you had to be sure. I’m not. 85% confidence in God’s absence isn’t bad at all really.

You can’t prove a negative, as they say. To be 100% confident there’s no god you’d need the knowledge of a god yourself, to be aware of all the possible ways a god could influence the universe and know that they’re not happening. If you’re being realistic you have to accept some uncertainty, even if you think the concept of a god doesn’t make sense. (There might conceivably be a way it does make sense that you haven’t learned yet.) But if your opinion is that there isn’t a god because you lack positive belief that there is one, that’s as good as most atheists have it.

So what do you do with that uncertainty, the perceived 15% chance (or whatever you estimate) that there’s a god of some kind? Not much really. You keep an open mind and consider any evidence or arguments for gods that you’re exposed to, if you have the time. But do you behave as if there’s a god, just in case? That’s what people who cite Pascal’s Wager would suggest, because even if there’s no god there’s no harm done, right? Unfortunately if there’s a god it might not be the one you think it is, or demand from its worshipers what you think it does, so praying on the off chance might just piss it off. Not worth the trouble, I say. Better just to try to be a good person, which any god worth worshiping would respect but more importantly is its own reward.

Apostles, Therefore God?

Question from José:
Hi! I´m atheist, but I was born into a Christian family and It´s still difficult for me to answer too many questions. I don´t believe in the Bible, but there are a lot of websites claiming that is completely real because so many reasons.
Well, my question is about apostles. Jim Wallace claims that God truly existed because of the martyrdom of the apostles. He said, If It was a joke, no men would have been killed. They would have said that they invented Jesus or something like that. No one die when they know it´s all a lie. Could you explain that to me? I really want to know what your answers are.
Thank you so much.

Answer by SmartLX:
Jim Wallace isn’t the only one to make that claim, many prominent apologists have at least touched on it. I’ve covered it in a piece called “Did they Die for a Lie?” And Other Appeals to Character. I even recorded audio for it. The shortest possible summary is that the possibilities are endless.

Check it out, then comment there or here if you need clarification on anything, or just to say what you think.

Clinging to Afterlife

Question from Lee:
I just want to ask what do you guys think about the afterlife (after you die), because that’s the only thing that’s keeping me believing in God but I don’t pray to God because why would I pray to someone who is powerful enough to create a world of peace but instead make a chaotic world that’s forcing us to do sins.

Answer by SmartLX:
An afterlife requires a soul, or something similar which lets a person’s identity and personality survive the death of the body and brain. There’s no good evidence for souls, so atheists usually don’t believe there’s any kind of afterlife. From the perspective of someone who dies, the world doesn’t fade to eternal darkness and silence because that’s still a kind of afterlife; there stops being a person who can experience anything, or who anything can happen to. Some atheists do believe in the existence of souls, an afterlife and even ghosts, but this isn’t due to their atheism. They just believe for some reason that souls can exist without a god.

Whether or not you want there to be afterlife is not a good reason to believe or disbelieve in gods, because if one of two possible truths is preferable that doesn’t make it more likely. Thinking so regardless is an appeal to consequences. If you don’t believe in God but you’re not happy about it, you’re still an atheist, you’re just not happy about being an atheist and you should try to make your peace with it.

Why Fight the Young Earth?

Question from Jerry:
I very often hear about if the Earth is ~6000 – ~10.000 years old or if it is billions years old.

But I don’t understand how this is an argument, just because in the Bible it says God created the heavens and the earth and all live on the Earth in 6 days.
So.. if Adam would do scientific research on the universe and the planet, would the planet look like its only a couple of days old?
I can’t imagine how that would look like, because scientifically, a 6 day year old planet would look nothing like a planet, more a ball of lava.

So If God created the Earth to be habitable, it would HAVE to be a billion year old planet, there is no other choice. So of course the planet looks old, even if it’s created just a second ago.

So many atheists use the evidence for an old Earth as an argument against Creation. I don’t see how it has any argumentative value though.
I’m wondering what an atheist’s response to this is.

Thank you ever so much 🙂

Answer by SmartLX:
Young Earth creationists (YECs) do say that God created the Earth more or less the way it is, without working through the lava-world phase over millions of years. As you say, there’s strong evidence for an old Earth (geological, astronomical, radiometric, etc.), so a young Earth would have been created with all that evidence essentially falsified. This is the problem though, because why would God go to so much trouble to deceive us into thinking it was so old? Especially if we’re supposed to take the roughly six thousand year history of the world in the Bible seriously?

Of course the problem with any anti-religious argument that goes, “Why/how would God do this?” is that it’s possible to assert as gospel (sometimes literally) any answer which explains it away. The Earth looks old because God’s testing our faith, for example. Thus faith is insulated from any attempts to make their beliefs sound silly, and plot holes in scripture can be ironed out.

The main point of this particular battleground is that young Earth creationism follows on from Biblical literalism. The Bible says the world was created in six days, and that there have only been a small number of generations of humans since then, so that’s the way it was. There’s no good reason to believe it except if you want or need the Book of Genesis to be literal. Outspoken YECs try to convince nonbelievers that the world is young so that they will accept that God created it, because supposedly nothing else could explain a young Earth. Even if they fail, they often succeed in reassuring other Biblical literalists.

To give their position a respectable veneer, in order to appeal to nonbelievers and impress believers, YECs need to make it look like it has secular scientific support, which means presenting scientific arguments that the Earth is young. The proper use of the real evidence that the Earth is old, rather than to jump straight to advocating atheism, is to simply counter these arguments by YECs, and the evidence does so very easily. Thus there is no intact evidence for a young Earth, YECs are reduced to claiming God made the world look old, the young Earth becomes a mere assertion and it cannot serve as a solid premise for arguments for the existence of the God of Abraham. Thus you can believe in a young Earth if you want but it won’t get you anywhere with those who don’t already agree with you.

A Relationship with the Divine

Question from Samson:
I am studying philosophy and worldview and I’m currently working on an assignment where we are meant to explore this question:
“What is the relationship between humanity and the Divine?”

If you aren’t sure how to answer the particular question outright, I think answering these questions might give me what I’m interested in knowing:

1. Do atheists believe in any gods or supreme beings?
2. Do you believe in the supernatural or paranormal at all? Not just gods, but stuff like ESP, magic, mind reading, ghosts, etc.
3. Does life or humanity have intrinsic value?
3a. If not, is there any way for a human or their life to be “valuable” or have meaning?

Answer by SmartLX:
The main question is easily answered from an atheist perspective: “probably none”. There has to be a Divine for humanity to have any real relationship with it; if there’s not then much of humanity is operating on false assumptions, and any perceived relationship is in their heads.

And now for the rest of the questions, which I’ve numbered above for clarity.

1. Atheists, by definition, do not believe in any gods, and most definitions of a “supreme being” are close enough to a god as makes no difference. For instance, there’s a similarly poor standard of available evidence and logical arguments for a non-divine supreme being, so it fares no better than gods in that respect.

2. Lots of atheists believe in supernatural or paranormal phenomena. For instance I’ve discussed ghosts with many self-proclaimed atheists who believe in them for various reasons. It’s consistent (to some extent at least) for an atheist to believe in such things if they do not necessarily require a god to exist. I personally do not believe in any such things, as far as I’m aware.

3. Look up definitions of value and you will find expressions like “the regard that something is held to deserve” and “one’s judgement of what is important in life” (emphasis mine). Value is subjective by its very nature, because it has to have value to someone. Even its definition as a verb is phrased along the lines of “consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial”, which is again dependent on the one doing the considering. For something to have “intrinsic value” it would need to be of value to the universe as a whole, entirely independent of people. That either means the universe is conscious and values certain things, or it is controlled by an entity such as a god which has its own values. Atheists don’t think either is the case, so there’s no such thing as intrinsic value to us – unless you instead define value in terms of physical quantities. A pint of beer might cost $10 or it might come for free or it might save or end a life, but it will always measure one pint.

3a. The above does not stop us from valuing things, because subjective judgments are still judgments. Life has value to the living, humanity has value to humans, and we’re all living humans so we can happily behave as if they are intrinsically valuable. If there’s no god then you’re not looking for a stamp of approval for your values from the universe at large, only from the people your values may impact or impress.

With that covered, take a step back and consider the nature of question 3a. I don’t know whether you’re repeating it from somewhere, but it could be considered an attempt to have atheists admit a bleak, nihilistic outlook, as the existence of 3a makes it look likely that the answer to 3 is “no” and the answer to “3a” might just be “none”. If this is the author’s motivation, it is an appeal to consequences as it does not say anything about whether atheism is right or justified. Apologies if this is clearly not the author’s intention, but it is exactly the intention of some advocates so I wanted to mention it regardless.

Bringing God to the Homeowners

Question from Jerry:
I live in an HOA community of about 100 homes in North Carolina. We have a clubhouse and monthly dinner socials and there is always a spoken Christian prayer before each meal. After going to these for two years I met with the HOA Board to complain about the prayers because they were not inclusive and this is not a religious compound. Their lawyer told them that did not have the authority to tell anyone to pray or not to pray. They sent out the board minutes to the community and instead saying a resident complained about prayers, they mentioned me by name. Because of this is sent out a 17 point rebuttal explaining why I had done this. Interestingly enough I got a lot of hugs and hand shakes for doing this. I tried to bring it up at the annual meeting and was shut down because they had already ruled on the issue. I am at present circulating a petition and so far have 20 homeowner signatures. This must be a HOA issue nationwide. The boards always deal with property management companies. Our property management company suggested that I just leave the room. I replied that I was not going to sit in back of the bus. I did a little research on national property management trade organizations but could not find anything about my issue. Do you have any suggestions.

Answer by SmartLX:
Even if I were American I think I’d be the wrong person to ask about the laws that apply to American homeowner’s associations with respect to religion, or to anything else for that matter. So I’ll say up front, folks, comment to help this guy out and you’ll probably do better than me.

From what I can gather from forums and from simple articles like this one, as a private entity not representing the state in any way a HOA can pretty much do whatever its board wants, as long as it’s within the law generally. Praying in front of you on behalf of the HOA certainly favours a particular religion but the HOA is not required to be impartial as long as your rights are respected, and you are not technically a captive audience.

Those hugs and handshakes are important, though, if only because you know you’re not alone. I’d say the best way to change what the board does is to change what the board wants, and the most straightforward way to do that is to change who’s on the board. Here I’m adrift as I have no idea whether your board simply consists of every homeowner or it’s elected from within that group. If the latter is the case then you could encourage the huggers and handshakers to run next time around, and potentially form a focused minority on the board with the leverage to effect change.

I’ll just bring up one strategy I’ve read about that has gotten fast results in the fight against partisan prayers in other spheres, in case you can find a way to use it. It’s to demand equal time for other views, or just exercise freedom of speech and answer one expression with another. People have used Hindu prayers, prayers to Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, readings from The God Delusion or On The Origin of Species and so on. Once it becomes clear to the Christian majority that minority beliefs and positions will appear on the same stage (sometimes literally) as their own with equal significance, they may decide it’s not worth having a timeslot for prayer at all.

Some Of The Smart People Are Wrong Too

Question from Rodermac:
I was at some site immediately prior to this. Some questionnaire for atheists – no help at all really. Nice to be somewhere I don’t have to be afraid. Tried to believe in something, seemed to be a somewhat key ingredient in a fellowship i’d joined. Started reading the Bible that had been placed in my room by the Gideons. I guess I never recovered from that exposure. How can it be that so many people, oodles of them smarter than me, conceive that a faith based on this concept of a deity could be a good one?

Answer by SmartLX:
If that deity is real, then faith in it isn’t just good, it’s essential. It’s the only thing which just might save your soul. The fact that this strikes many as a horrible state of affairs is irrelevant if it’s the truth.

If you truly believe it, you are emotionally and often socially driven to use the full force of your intellect to do several things, consciously and subconsciously. You regularly reassure yourself that it’s true in all kinds of ways, which protects you from losing your precious faith and staves off some of the inevitable nagging doubt. You look for opportunities to share your faith with others, either by reinforcing their existing faith or by converting them outright, which you believe is a gift to them and reflects well on you. You try to have God’s will be done on earth, living by (and possibly holding others to) the commands you believe He has given. And through it all you convince yourself that it’s a good thing, for the sake of your own happiness.

When you’ve been doing all of this for years, deliberately examining your beliefs to see whether they hold up sounds like a very dangerous proposition. You risk invalidating all the work you’ve done for the Lord, you’re disobeying direct orders not to question Him, and even if you’re right then you have to accept that you’ve spent all that time before on a fool’s errand and your worldview crumbles around you. It might actually be harder for some very intelligent people to do this as they’ve built better defenses in terms of apologetics, that is, they have more to unlearn. It’s all very well to say you want to know the truth, but sometimes it can seem like if the truth is a certain thing then it’s not worth knowing.

I’m not saying the process is hard in order to congratulate myself for going through it and coming out the other side as an atheist. My journey was very easy compared to most, because I simply let it all lie for more than a decade while I worked on other things. When I eventually came back to reconsider it, my emotional and social connections to Christianity were all but severed; my love of God and fear of Hell had been neglected, and I only went to church with the family at Christmas and occasionally Easter, so the congregation barely knew me. The New Atheist books by the “Four Horsemen” were just coming out, and I was able to consider arguments from both sides quite coldly (this site is one of the places I went looking for where the “fight” was happening). One side won.

Information Sources

Question from Louis:
Where does new information come from? Material does not generate information.

Answer by SmartLX:
New order and information is generated where there is a local decrease in entropy. (If the concept of entropy is new to you, pause here and read my article on the subject.) Entropy can decrease in an area when energy is transferred to it from a connected area, because the transfer increases entropy in the source area and the overall entropy stays positive.

The application of this to our general situation is that the sun generates a huge amount of entropy by burning itself up, and the resulting energy radiates to us where it can fuel the emergence of all kinds of new stuff. Considering evolution in particular, which is usually the reason for asking an atheist this question, new information enters the genome via the events of natural selection between organisms. When a gene makes it significantly more likely for a subset of a population to survive and procreate, useful information in the genome is favoured and junk is slowly weeded out (though there’s plenty of junk still in there, no matter what organism you’re looking at).

For a simple way of understanding how simple selection acting upon random mutations can create order and recognisable information, imagine a row of ten random digits, e.g. 1907632438. If you repeatedly randomise all ten digits with no further guidance, you might get some coincidences but it will remain random. Instead of that, you fix a digit in place for one round if it is larger than the digit to its left and smaller than the digit to its right (for the two on the ends, only one of these rules is applied) and randomise the rest. Over time the numbers will tend towards an ascending order from left to right, and it might be inevitable that the final sequence is 01234567890, without any number ever being deliberately chosen. Making this actually happen would be an excellent programming exercise for any students out there.

About “The Atheist”

Question from Niki:
Please supply us with general info on your person, like place of living, age, gender, formal education etc. And if there are more people than ‘SmartLX’.

It would be fair to know who I ask and who answers my questions, just as when I read a book or an article, I can see the name of the author, and when I google the name I will know more about the person, thus I can distrust, and in my case trust, the answer more, if I know just who is answering them. I am not asking about the IQ of the person, but I would love that too. Mine is not too high, but high enough for me to know my boundaries. Goethe’s, I believe, was 210 or even more, while Mozart’s was ‘merely’ 165. I believe mine is 110-120 and I am ashamed of its lowness, cos I love intelligence and knowledge, especially in natural sciences, classical music, psychology, sociology, neurology and psychiatry. And flowers, children, cats and MOZART. lol

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t see how all of the requested information is neccessarily relevant but I’m not really concealing any of it either, so: I’m 36, male and in Queensland, Australia, and it’s just me on ATA right now. I have an undergraduate degree in mathematics and computer science, and another in theatre. I work in IT and HR.

My IQ has been measured variously between 148 and 166 by different tests some time ago, and that’s high but I’m very aware that IQ tests only measure a very narrow set of abilities, so I don’t put much stock in it and neither should you. The strengths of your intelligence may be in areas the tests don’t cover. Besides, 110-120 is still above average, because by definition the average is 100.

If anyone else is curious about me beyond my atheism for any reason, feel free to ask other questions in the comments. I reserve the right not to answer any given question, but I’m open to answering plenty.