The Unproveable Absence of God

Question from MiK’la:
Atheists always ask the Christian to prove that God exists. What proof is there that He doesn’t exist?

Answer by SmartLX:
None, but that doesn’t change anything.

Most atheists, myself included, allow for the possibility of a god existing. We think it’s unlikely, but there are so many ways in which a god could exist and yet remain unproven that there’s no way to prove beyond all possible doubt that there are no gods. That in no way means there’s enough evidence to justify positively believing that there is one, let alone a particular one. It’s impossible to prove that George Burns wasn’t the actual composer of Eleanor Rigby – he was around at the time, after all, and might have written Paul McCartney a long letter – but no one believes he did it. (That analogy was originally going to be that no one believes Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but it turns out some people do.)

Christians do believe in God, and therefore think there is at least one good reason to believe in God. When atheists go asking, we’re asking what that reason is. It’s an important question, because if it’s really a good reason to believe then we should believe too, and if it’s not a good reason then the believer shouldn’t. This is all based on the simple assumption that one should only believe in something with good reason. You’re welcome to argue with that if you really want to.

Right, Wrong, and God

Question from Adam:
Without God, is there right and wrong?

Answer by SmartLX:
Even with a hypothetical god around, would there be there right and wrong?

If God decides what is right and wrong, they are His opinions only, and subject to change. And change they apparently have, because there are all sorts of holy rules in the old Mosaic Law that had been superceded or forgotten as early as the first century AD (or CE). Shellfish, mixed fabrics, working on Sundays, that sort of thing. Therefore God’s sense of right and wrong is arbitrary, and useless to us except in the sense of trying to keep up with the whims of a tyrant to save our necks. That’s if we think He’s there at all.

Without a God imbuing the entire universe with an ethereal sense of right and wrong, there is only what we humans decide, as no other animal has ever set down a code of ethics or morality. (Some groups of apes and monkeys have developed simple moral systems, but purely in practical terms rather than the abstract.) The consensual ethics agreed upon by large groups of people are far less arbitrary than the will of an all-powerful, invincible being, because the way we want to be treated – and therefore the way we treat people – has a comprehensible effect on our wellbeing. For example, a general aversion to killing (except in some extraordinary cases) potentially prolongs everyone’s lives.

So we say that certain things are right and others are wrong, and if these judgements eventually show themselves to be flawed we change them. Regulated slavery was right and good for a very long time, but now we find it reprehensible. We’re entitled to admit mistakes and change our positions when new information comes to light, because we’re only human and we’re doing the best we can. A god has no such excuse; if He ever had to correct himself, He’s not much of a god.

How do you deal with doubt ?

Adam asks:
Since you became an atheist, have you ever doubted atheism? Yes, that’s a funny combination of words.
Do you still keep it in your head that there may (with a reasonable probability) actually be a god out there, we just don’t know yet? Or has that thought ever crept in? If so, please share your thoughts, and how you moved past them to be in the state you are now.

Jake answers:
The simple answer is, I’m not sure of anything. I always leave room for the possibility that I may be wrong. Sometimes, I have experiences from which my old theist way of thinking kicks in and I ask myself ” Is that god? ” Then I realize what’s happening and I ask myself, ” Why would that be god? ” and I come back to my senses.

I think everyone needs a healthy dose of skepticism. I try to always look at things as objectively as I can. Obviously I don’t always succeed ( who does? ) though I try anyway. This is why I’m an atheist/agnostic. It’s the agnostic side that keeps me in check, even about my atheism. Since agnosticism deals with knowledge, it reminds me that I don’t ” know ” unless I have evidence, and even then, I could still be wrong. Some things of course I don’t need to doubt. Like Santa Claus, or Jesus. There’s enough contradictions in the stories, along with enough evidence to show how the stories were created to know that Santa and Jesus can’t be real. So it’s not hard to discard them. However, there could be a god out there that I’ve never considered, so I leave room for the possibility, despite the low probability.

The point is, keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out. Keep searching, but remain skeptical.

Let’s throw the question out to the comments, as atheists, what do you do with doubt ?

Religion vs. Philosophy: Asatru worship ?

Ryan asks:
Hello, I am a 15 year old and I am a strong believer in a faith called Asatru. Asatru is the pre-christian religion of the Germans and Norse, so yes, Thor, Odin, Njord, Freyr, Freya. I believe their names and anthropomorphism is only used in place to understand the forces they control, like Thor = Thunder etc. As an atheist, would you say its wrong to believe in something irrational like this, but at the same time I don’t impose my beliefs on others nor do I really think my religion is universally applicable to everyone, because honestly, do we know whats out there? Btw, Asatru, is generally more ethically focussed (Google 9 Noble Virtues for more info) and the faith has a large population of atheists who use it as an ethical base.

Jakes answer:
Hi Ryan. I think what we need to do here is distinguish the difference between a religion and a personal philosophy. For example, I may be an atheist, but I am also philosophically a buddhist. I try to practice the 4 noble truths and to be mindful. Since buddhism doesn’t concern itself with gods or the afterlife it’s not in conflict with my atheism. The same can be said for those who follow the 9 noble virtues. Religion is generally defined as a system of worship ( the politics of mythology if you will ). Asatru in my understanding is more of a personal philosophy which anthropomorphises the elements and attributes of man as a way of understanding the world around us. ( please correct me if I am wrong ) In my eyes this is completely different from those who believe in a personal god, and believe that said god dictates to them how they should live their lives. Asatru, like buddhism asks you to discover for yourself by looking inwards and understanding your impact on the world. The abrahamic religions demand worship and obedience and tell you that your impact on the world isn’t as important as personal salvation in the afterlife. These are two different mindsets and are incompatible. From what I understand Asatru is even against proselytizing.

So I understand why atheists turn to Asatru. I have several friends who practice it. I get it. I don’t see a problem with it.

Age of non belief, christian friends, and family religion.

Jasmine asks:
At what age did you decide that you believe there was no God? When people try to convert you, what feelings do you encounter? Do you have any Christian friends, or have you completely removed yourself from anyone with any label near to that? Were you born into a Christian family, or were you born into an Atheist family and are just believing what your folks told you? How do you argue that atheism makes more sense than Christianity?

Jakes answer:
These are questions that I often get from people who are trying to understand why I am no longer a christian. I hope that I can answer your questions satisfactorily. Let’s take them one by one.

At what age did you decide that you believe there was no God? I lost my faith around 23. Technically, I don’t believe there is no god. I lack belief that there is a god. Now I know this might sound like the same thing at first, but it really isn’t. Let me explain it like this, let’s say that I have no active belief in a god. I am at 0 beliefs in a god or gods. You come and tell me about your god. If I accept this belief then I am at +1 beliefs in a god. If I do not accept your belief then I have not gained anything and remain at 0 beliefs in a god. For me, this was a 23 year process. So now, I am at 0 beliefs in a god. Now on the other hand, I do believe that the evidence people give for their gods are false. Since the only valid evidence for claims of existence must be objective and verifiable, and since no believer has ever produced such evidence, I believe that their evidence is invalid. Do you see the difference?
When people try to convert you, what feelings do you encounter? That depends on what I’m being told. My feelings can range anywhere from pity, to humor, to indignation. I pity those who believe without understanding what it is that they believe. I find it humorous when people present evidence that they wouldn’t accept themselves if the word “God” wasn’t attached to it. I feel indignation when a believer tells me that I am evil for not believing.
Do you have any Christian friends, or have you completely removed yourself from anyone with any label near to that? I have a few christian friends. I had more but people find it difficult to remain believers around me. I’ve deconverted most of my family and friends. I didn’t have to preach to them or anything like that, I just answer their questions much like I’m doing now with you. Eventually, they see the truth for themselves.
Were you born into a Christian family, or were you born into an Atheist family and are just believing what your folks told you? I was born into the LDS faith. My family were all LDS as well. I served a 2 year mission at 19 in the Dakotas and sat as a counselor in the bishopric after. I was a very strong believer. It wasn’t until I was 23 that I met a buddhist monk who taught me about objective thinking and began my journey into non belief. It took me about 2 years before I lost my belief in a god.
How do you argue that atheism makes more sense than Christianity? The same way a person argues that not believing in Santa Claus makes more sense than believing in Santa Claus. When you grow up, you realize that the story of Santa Claus has no evidence and includes impossible things. The same thing happened with me and the idea of god. I studied it, found it lacking, and stopped believing.

Well I hope that answers you’re questions. If not, feel free to ask for follow ups in the comment section below.

Answer by SmartLX:
Oo, oo, I want in on this one.

At what age did you decide that you believe there was no God?
Jake’s already nitpicked the specifics of the question, so…I honestly don’t know. There was about a 15 year gap from age 11-12 onwards when I barely thought about it, but when I did think about it at age 26 I realised I no longer believed. My faith had faded completely in the intervening years, so I had a drama-free deconversion.

When people try to convert you, what feelings do you encounter?
– Nostalgia, because people talked to me like that all the time in Catholic primary school.
– Deja vu, because whatever arguments or appeals they use I’ve probably already received them on this site at some point.
– Engaged, because if I do get something new to think about it’s great fodder for the site, or at least my own research.
If I get angry or upset in a situation like this, it’s not simply because I’m being proselytised but because the “witness” is going about it in an emotionally confronting or manipulative way. It still doesn’t work, but it puts a damper on my day.

Do you have any Christian friends, or have you completely removed yourself from anyone with any label near to that?
My wife’s Christian. About half of my family still is, and half of hers, and of course many of our friends. Australia’s far less religious than America, but that’s not saying much. We all get on, and there are plenty of non-adversarial discussions on the subject. I don’t go sword in hand 24/7.

Were you born into a Christian family, or were you born into an Atheist family and are just believing what your folks told you?
Catholic mother, atheist father, raised Catholic and believed what I was told until I found out Dad is an atheist (he only ever said so about twice) and therefore not everyone believes what I did. I think that started me on the road to disbelief, or at least skepticism.

How do you argue that atheism makes more sense than Christianity?
By essay, usually. My best attempt to do this directly is right here.

Macro vs. Micro, bird and the egg, and deceitful theists.

Todays Question comes from Charles who asks…
“My question is in reference to the theory of macro-evolution.

I’ll start by saying that I was an atheist for around 5 years of my life but am now a Christian. I fully believe in micro-evolution as it is evident and has been proven Macro- evolution however has gaping holes in it that need answers.

Let’s discuss the first bird. We can all agree birds are hatched from eggs but what came first, the egg or the bird? Also did the first bird breathe? Did it breathe before it evolved lungs? How did it do this? Why did it evolve lungs if it were happily surviving without them? How did it know what needed to be evolved if it’s brain hadn’t evolved yet? Did the bird have a mouth? How did it eat before it had evolved a mouth? Where did the mouth send food before a stomach evolved? How did the bird see what there was to eat before it’s eyes evolved?

I’ll end with a quote from Prof Louis Bounoure, Dir of Research, National Center of Scientific Research: “Evolution is a fairy tale for grown ups. This theory has helped nothing in the progress of science. It is useless.” ”

Answer by Jake:
Charles, if I thought evolution was what you think it is, I wouldn’t believe in it either. Fortunately, I know what evolution is. Let’s see if I can’t course correct your lost ship and help you navigate the sea of facts.

First, micro evolution. There’s no such thing. Evolution is evolution. It’s like saying “recycling”. You can recycle a big thing like a car, or you can recycle a little thing like a can. Either way, both have to go through the process of recycling. Both are stripped down, melted or shredded and then formed into something new. There’s no micro recycling nor is there macro recycling. The same thing applies to evolution. Both little things and big things go through the process of evolution. The only difference, just like in recycling, is the amount of time it takes to evolve. Big things take longer, little things go faster. To claim that they are two separate things, you would have to show the process that separates the two. You can’t, because there is none.

Next, your “which came first” question. The answer is simple, the egg came first. When the bird became what we know today as a bird, it was maybe 1% different from it’s parent. Evolution happens gradually. In increments. It doesn’t happen all at once. A bird doesn’t decide it needs wings and then just grows wings. It doesn’t decided it needs lungs and then grows lungs ( like your examples above. ) That’s not how evolution works and is why I said in the beginning that if I thought it was what you think it is that I wouldn’t believe in it either. I’ll give you a reference at the end of this reply so that you can learn what evolution is for yourself.

Lastly, your quote. It’s wrong. What you’ve probably done is read a christian website that misquoted the professor in order to try and justify their beliefs. It’s a dishonest tactic and if you had simply done a google search to check the quote, you would have learned of it’s dishonesty for yourself. Here is the explanation for the quote and where it came from. http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/ce/3/part12.html

While you’re at that website, check out the rest of it. Talkorigins.org is a great place to learn not only about evolution is, but what it isn’t as well. I would start here http://www.talkorigins.org/origins/faqs-qa.html and read over their FAQ section. You may be surprised at how much misinformation you’ve been fed by your fellow believers. Once you realize this try asking yourself why they mislead you to begin with?

One last thing. Keep in mind that evolution neither proves nor disproves gods. There are many people who still believe in a god and accept evolution. They see their god as the one who set evolution in motion. Although I don’t accept their conclusion that a god exists, I still appreciate that they at least recognize the overwhelming evidence for evolution and don’t try to twist it in order to suit their agenda.

Atheists have no morals ?

Question from Adam (Trimmed to get to the meat.)
“Have you encountered situations where a religious person could not believe atheists had morals? I tried to explain to him how morals are built from emotion, and as a mechanism to survive as social creatures. He didn’t even respond, and reiterated that, “all I did was state the fact that atheists have no morals”. I didn’t get emotional or bothered in the conversation, because I don’t particularly care if this random guy on the internet is a closed minded prick. But the fact that many religious people do share that belief is a bit disheartening.

How would you go about convincing a person that atheists have morals when they have been taught the contrary? Is it possible to convince a Christian that morality doesn’t originate from the bible or from this “god” of theirs?”

Answer by Jake
First Adam, sorry for cutting some of your email out, but I wanted to get directly to this great question and save a little space at the same time, so bare with me.
The simplest answer is that some people don’t want to understand. They don’t want to listen to ideas or new thoughts that might go against their beliefs. No amount of debate or discussion is going to change these peoples minds. If someone isn’t willing to listen, there’s no way for them to learn.

However for the sake of this discussion lets assume that the person you are talking to isn’t that closed minded. How do you get through to them? Well again, the simplest answer is that you just give them the facts. What if though, they don’t want to hear about social empathy, or the social contract? I’ve found that a great way to get someone to start thinking about another perspective is to get them to discredit their own perspective first. Each religion is different, but they all for the most part have conflicting beliefs. For example in my view, Xians have no morals because they can be forgiven so arbitrarily that the morals that they have accpeted may as well not even exist. The following is an example I’ve used many times….

Imagine there’s a hockey game and a player sticks another player who doesn’t even have the puck. In this situation the player may be put into the penalty box until it’s time for him to come out again. Now imagine for a moment if the player had the opportunity to remove himself from the penalty box at any time he wished and all he had to do was tell the referee that he was sorry? How long would that player stay in the box? What would be the point of having the penalty to begin with?

This question is great because it asks the theist to compare and contrast their own morals. It won’t convince them that atheist have morals, but what it will do is force them to consider their own morality. If their morality is self nullifying then why do they use morals at all? It’s these kind of questions that if we can get people to ask themselves may lead to a deeper understanding. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve found more often then not it puts the theist on the defensive and demands that they prove or at least rationalize their morality.

Faith Healing and Holy Feelings

Question from Jesper:
Hi, I really hope you guys can help me with this. I’ve been talking to some Christians from a local Christian youth group. They told me their reasons why they were Christians, I was a bit unsure of what to say to them, and I’d hoped you guys can give me some rebuttals to these arguments.

1. One that they all pointed out was faith healing. For example one had his hand injured at one time, then 5 others came to him and asked if they could pray for him, afterwards he could no longer feel the pain. Another guy came with the story about a 10 year old who had broken his legs, I don’t know for how long they had been broken. But after a prayer he no longer needed his crutches to walk.

2. The second one I heard was that millions of people around the world had felt and experienced God.

Hope you guys can give me some rebuttals for them, that would be most appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
For starters, the reasons they’ve given you are not actually the reasons why they’re Christians, or at least #1 isn’t. They were already in the youth group when they prayed for the guy’s hand, and you don’t join a group like that unless you already believe. Chances are they learned about the “millions of people” while in the group as well. This is stuff they use to convince others, but it’s not what convinced them in the first place; all it did was reassure them that they were right. I don’t think they’ve really told you anything at all about their own journeys to faith, so it’s still something you could pursue with them.

Anyway, let’s look at faith healing first.

Pain fades if the issue causing it is resolved or mitigated, regardless of whether it’s resolved by medicine, painkillers or the body itself. All pain that isn’t chronic goes away at some stage. If the guy’s hand pain went away too quickly for ordinary bodily functions to explain, it’s possible that the communal prayer session had a hypnotic and/or a placebo effect. Same with the leg guy; if pain was the only reason he walked with crutches, he might not need them after convincing himself he’d received divine relief.

Pain is highly subjective, given that it’s nothing more than a feeling. Not until 2011 were scientists hopeful of finding a reliable method to measure the amount of pain a person is in without being told, and there’s been little or no news since then. Therefore, any medical recovery which boils down to pain relief literally cannot be proven to any decent standard. It’s not really evidence for anything, especially when it’s part of an undocumented anecdote.

More generally, faith healing and specifically the healing power of prayer have not shown any significant beneficial effect, and can in fact be harmful. In one major study, patients who knew they were receiving prayers did worse than either those not receiving prayers or those receiving prayers unknowingly, perhaps because they felt there was pressure on them to “perform”. A well-known study which did support faith healing turned out to be co-authored by a man posing as a doctor.

All too regularly there are reports of people, mainly children, dying of treatable illnesses because they received prayers instead of treatment. If faith healing is real, God’s selection criteria suck. And if you’re not supposed to rely on it in place of real medicine, then what is it for?

Finally, most of the devastating sarcasm in Tim Minchin’s wonderful song Thank You God can be applied to any faith healing anecdote, including these two.

As for the second claim, I can sum up my response by adding a few words to it: Millions of people around the world have felt and experienced what they believed to be God. This feeling or experience can be anything from a full in-person conversation with God incarnate on the chair opposite them…to a voice in your head…to an inexplicable feeling of power or happiness…to practically nothing, remembered later as more than it was. The possible natural causes for each of these experiences are countless, which is probably why there are so many of them.

Another reason why they seem so common is that people only talk about them when they happen. If people mentioned every time they had prayed and not had a religious experience, the times when something did happen would seem like a drop in the ocean. Think about it: if a billion Christians each prayed three times a day, that’d be a trillion prayers a year, and that might not be too far off the actual number. A few million strange experiences hardly register on that scale.

One more point is the fact that these experiences can apparently be caused by mutually exclusive gods. Tribesmen all over the world have extraordinary experiences while dancing and praying around campfires, with and without the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Hindus have ceremonies where they put themselves into trances to be possessed temporarily by gods like Shiva. If only one true god is really causing these feelings and experiences, why is he/she/it using them so often to convince people that rival gods are real?

The Ubiquitous Supernatural

Question from Kelly:
Hello.
I am curious about how atheists reconcile their belief in only the natural world, i.e. what can be seen and touched and scientifically proven, etc., with the mass amounts of eyewitness accounts of the supernatural? Every time we turn on our televisions we are presented with such accounts of these unexplained supernatural happenings. If you look back through history these occurrences are nothing new. I personally have witnessed such an occurrence. I am just curious as to what atheists have to say about this aspect of our world that has no other explanation than that it’s supernatural. Thank you

Answer by SmartLX:
Not everything in the natural world can be seen or touched or scientifically proven. A lot of it is too far away, or too small, or can only be detected in parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to which human bodies have no access. Fortunately, evidence for many of these otherwise invisible things can be gathered through scientific experiments and technological advances. In most or even all cases (depending on your philosophy) it doesn’t amount to absolute proof, but it makes these things likely enough to exist that we can confidently behave as if they do.

Supernatural phenomena, by contrast, have no such evidence available. Yes, there are countless accounts and claims of the supernatural, but the more one hears the more important it is to ask why none of these people have ever managed to produce substantive evidence for their claims. Not one verified ghost caught on camera, not one psychic established as reliable, not one faith healer with a better success rate than a placebo. Why? How?

My answer to this question has two major parts. One is that there are countless natural phenomena which can be mistaken for supernatural activity, or cause other natural phenomena to be misidentified. There are an infinite number of ways to be wrong about this stuff. The second part is that getting your supernatural story on television can be very financially rewarding if you spin it right. Whether or not it’s true, amazing = ratings, and everyone wants a piece of that. In these ways, an abundance of supernatural claims is entirely plausible in a world with no supernatural phenomena whatsoever.

It’s important to remember that to be wrong does not imply anything further. I think you’re probably wrong about the nature of what you experienced, even without hearing the story, simply because my opinion is that the influence of any supernatural entity is not present to be sensed or detected. But that’s all, I think you’re wrong. Not stupid, not crazy, not lying, not clinically delusional, just wrong.

You can tell us about your own supernatural occurrence and we’ll all see what we think of it, but in the end it will just be another account, another claim. You’re entitled to believe in it if you were convinced by your experience, but that won’t convince the rest of us. If you can’t back it up, you need to find someone else with a story they can back up, if you’re going to increase acceptance of the supernatural by even a tiny bit.

Atheism by Email, Last Century

Question from Janet:
About 14 years ago, an email circulated about a number of contradictory and outrageous scriptures in the Bible. One I remember in particular was about Lot offering his virginal daughters to a bunch of men in Sodom. I forget the rest of the examples. Do you remember that email? It was written in narrative form, not as a list of weird things. Does anyone have a copy?
Many thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
Sorry. In 1999 I had no interest in either religion or atheism and few friends who were online, so I’m not surprised that this email didn’t reach me. I can’t track it down now either. Anyone else?

Don’t worry, because it’s extremely unlikely that the email contained any truly unique criticisms of the Bible. The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible is an excellent compendium of contradictions, cruelty, intolerance and more from throughout the 66 books of the modern Bible. If anyone does find the old email, I’d be willing to bet that everything in it is covered in the SAB. It even includes links to Christian responses to each criticism, so it’s a one-stop shop.