No Afterlife, No Purpose?

Question from Josh:
Do you have a purpose in your life without there being a possible god? If so what is it and what good is it without an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
Andrea wrote about purpose in a previous answer, but I don’t think I’ve had my chance yet.

First, I’ve never said there can’t possibly be a god. There might be one, there’s just been no substantive evidence for one so far so if anything it’s too early to believe it.

Anyway, there’s an underlying assumption in your question that the only purpose in life for anyone who does believe in a god and an afterlife is to please the god and achieve the best available afterlife. I doubt this very much, because there have got to be non-atheists out there who do great works out of genuine altruism and not just to win points with the big boss. One’s desire to help one’s friends or family could actually trump one’s own hopes of heaven; if a friend was determined to commit suicide, as a last resort one might murder him first, endangering one’s own soul to save that of one’s friend. For another example, a good man might steal to feed his family, and not be at all sorry that he has done so despite having sinned, because his children can eat.

I’m trying to demonstrate that even for believers, their purpose in life is a personal choice. It’s the same for non-believers but, since they don’t think they have an afterlife to prepare for, it doesn’t factor into their options.

Believers often take for granted the idea that they will be able to savour their rewards forever, and are horrified by the idea that they might not. Well, if that’s the way things are, then tough. Whatever we achieve in life, we may have a few good years to enjoy it, and we can be content in the thought that it will persist after we’ve died, but then that’ll be it for us.

It’s in this spirit that many non-believers take up the popular pursuits of happiness, helping others and making the world a better place. Since we only accept the existence of one finite life and one world to live in, our priorities tend towards that life and that world. Those who are more self-centred will concentrate on their own lives, while those with more empathy are more likely to go out into the world and work to improve others’ lives. My own purpose, like most, is a mixture of the two.

The Great Big Arguments #1b: Presuppositional, SyeTenB Style

Sample argument:
The proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn’t prove anything. You must borrow from the Christian worldview, and a God who makes universal, immaterial, unchanging laws possible, in order to prove anything. By what standard can you know anything without God?

Answer by SmartLX:
This is the Transcendental Argument for God in a form made popular by Sye Ten Bruggencate and his fellows. The argument above is paraphrased from his automated, supposedly God-proving website. (Just click through the obviously desired responses to get to the meat.) I’ve already addressed the TAG here, but this version has a different emphasis and it warrants another look.

Presuppositionalist apologists work from two main presuppositions, both of which follow from a basic assumption that the Bible is the inerrant word of God:
– crediting all the universe’s unchanging laws, including logic and truth itself, to God (Jeremiah 33:25 among others), and
– the idea that all non-believers are actually believers in denial (Romans 1:18-20, with added derogation in verses 21 and 22).
The practical approach to witnessing is to deprive subjects of any basis for knowledge or reason except God while pleading for them to repent, in the hope that their supposed secret belief will reassert itself. For examples, look up any video or recording of Bruggencate, who proudly never does anything else.

Engaging this argument invariably boils down to arguing over one’s own ideas about truth and reason. If I say I look for evidence for truth claims, I’ll be asked how I know the evidence isn’t faked or imaginary. If I rattle off tests, I’ll be asked how I know they’re reliable, and so on. If I point out something crazy or immoral in the Bible, I’ll be asked by what standard I can judge it. It often goes nowhere in the end, with the believer thinking he’s “won” and the non-believer not only continuing not to believe but thinking a lot less of the believer.

There are different positions people can take, of course, but my approach to objective morality applies pretty well here too:
– If there are absolute laws of logic, morality, etc. then we probably don’t know what they are. Just because the God character in the Bible says certain things are absolute doesn’t mean those are the ones. (If you’re a presuppositionalist trawling this piece for absolutist statements to pounce on, that last sentence qualifies for one, and yes, I think some absolutes do exist. Just because I don’t know why they exist doesn’t mean a god set them up – see below.)
– Most or all of what we say that we know might be wrong, because we’re fallible people. However many things are testable, repeatable and consistent enough that we can be confident that they’re true, and behave as if we know them. Known absolutes are not necessary. A believer, by contrast, thinks he or she really does know some crucial things for certain, but might be wrong all the same.
– That laws (may) exist which are universal, immaterial and unchanging does not mean a particular book’s idea of a universal, immaterial and unchanging God created them. One simpler explanation is that, like God Himself is meant to be, the laws themselves are eternal and had no beginning.

I should also mention the circular reasoning inherent in the presuppositional approach. God exists, which is revealed to us in the Bible, which God apparently wrote because the Bible says he did. It’s no more complicated than that, and Bruggencate has admitted as much. It doesn’t concern him, firstly because he argues that everyone else does the same thing and secondly because if God is somewhere in the circle then it’s “just” or “virtuous” circular reasoning. I’ll let that speak for itself.

I’ve said before that much emphasis is placed on spreading the Word and very little on making it stick. The presupposition that there are no real atheists goes a long way towards explaining this, so I suspect it’s quite widespread. Further, Bruggencate and others regularly give it as a reason why this argument will Save(tm) professed non-believers. There are no statistics to suggest that any significant number of atheists or others are “renewing” their faith as a result of this argument, but measurable results don’t seem to matter. The apologists make their money from reassured believers regardless, so what’s the difference if they’re dead wrong about us atheists?

Leaving Islam as a Teenager

Question from Ayesha:

I feel the need to clarify that I am a teenager who used to be a Muslim, until recently when I just couldn’t pretend to myself that I believed in a God. Many of my friends know, and they don’t mind. The thing is my mother is completely religious and if she knew I was an atheist… well I don’t know. I want to tell her but I don’t know how to bring my point across without flushing and ending up looking confused.

I suppose what I’m trying to ask is how does one go about trying to make others understand that your life isn’t just determined on your religion status and how to truly explain to someone – in my case, my mother – that just because you don’t believe in a God doesn’t automaticially make you a bad person? How would I tell her?

Answer by SmartLX:
If I were to take your question at face value, it would be truly tragic. Do you really think that your mother, who’s known you all your life, would suddenly and completely invert her view of you if she knew you’ve lost your faith? I hope she knows you better than that. You’re still the same person.

I’m not saying she won’t have a strong reaction, I just don’t think that’ll be it. My guess is that she’ll ultimately be afraid for you. Not only will you be inviting Allah’s wrath from her perspective, but other Muslims might become very aggressive towards you. Even “moderate” Muslims believe (and can often be made to admit) that the proper penalty for apostasy (leaving the faith) is death. Even in a country where people don’t usually follow through with that, they may feel justified in victimising quitters in other ways.

If you decide you do want to tell her, firstly it’s entirely up to you when you do it, and a lot of people roughly in your position do it after they’ve left home. Depending on the rules of your family you may not be able to leave home by yourself, but consider the timing carefully regardless.

When you get around to it, let her know you’re open to questions. She’ll have many, even if she doesn’t ask any, and foremost among them will be, “Why?” It could also be a while before she asks anything because she might have to calm down first.

She’s likely to suggest various methods of restoring your faith, for example increased mosque attendance, Muslim camps (I’m guessing) and other group activities. You know what’s available better than I do. If you don’t want to be put through this, have ready explanations of why they won’t work. This might not actually save you, but it will lessen her shock and frustration when you return unmoved.

Ultimately I’m trying to advise one person I don’t know about dealing with another person I don’t know, and there’s only so much I can predict about what will happen. (I don’t know how proper Dear Abby columnists do it every week.) I think it’ll help others if we know what happens to you, so if you go ahead with all this please let us know how you go in a comment. Best of luck.

Understanding Christians

Question from Kage:
So what exactly is a Christian, and why do they believe that someone died, and somehow managed to raise himself from the dead and all? Is there a reason they believe this? Any evidence at all? Any contrary?

Answer by SmartLX:
Christians are followers of Jesus Christ, as the name suggests. Some self-proclaimed Christians don’t let this affect their daily life very much, to the point where being a “follower” of Jesus Christ means no more than being a “follower” of someone on Twitter. Still, Jesus is their central figure.

Trinitarian dogma varies between denominations, but since a common belief is that Jesus was not just the son of God but God himself, it’s fair to say many Christians do believe he raised himself from the dead.

The reasons why Christians believe this is often different from the reasons they give others to believe it. For most, they believe it simply because they were taught it from a very young age. For some, they’ve had a “religious experience” and think they’ve seen the risen Jesus first-hand.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is entirely document-based. The Bible states that it happened, and some other sources mention it (though there are no contemporary accounts), and people simply argue for accepting the fact based on this. That gets you into long discussions about scriptural reliability and fulfilled prophecies. If you search this site for Jesus and/or the resurrection, you’ll find a lot of this kind of thing.

The only thing which might count as evidence against the resurrection is the lack of evidence for the resurrection, but it depends on how much evidence you would expect there to be.

Multiple questions, as if by telegram

Questions from Naki:
What are they seeking for?
Is there anything in the world that GOD didn’t mention in the bible? Yes? What is it? Is atheist right? how?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists are a diverse bunch, seeking many different objectives. There are a few objectives shared by large numbers or even the majority of outspoken atheists: freedom from religious persecution, the end of religious privilege, secular morality and government, and of course the end of prejudice against atheists.

There’s plenty that isn’t mentioned in the Bible, let alone in statements attributed to God in the Bible, because the last book in the Bible was completed before the year AD 100 (or 100 CE). It didn’t mention Islam, the Crusades, the steam engine or the internet. Neither did it mention much of what was happening at the time of its writing in places inaccessible to its human authors; for instance there’s no mention of the Australian Aborigines.

It’s not certain, of course, but I think atheists are more likely to be right than believers in any given religion. The main reason for this is that even if atheists are wrong and there’s at least one god, the chance that believers in a particular god are correct is one in the number of possible gods. That may well be infinite, so the effective chance of a given god approaches zero.

Healing Hands? Harrumph!

Question from Marie:
I’m wondering if beyond the scope of anything “religous” are athiests open to healing methods using therapeutic touch or reiki? Energy has been proven to have healing effects based on scientific studies like that of Dolores Krieger (Wrote “Therapeutic touch”).
And all matter is essentially frequency in motion as proven by science. All these healing methods do is raise the frequencies in the body to promote healing.

Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, according to quantum mechanics (and pardon me in advance for oversimplifying) all matter oscillates at certain frequencies depending on the type of matter and the amount of energy stored in it. There is however no evidence…
1. that human bodies have anything like the cohesive “energy field” Dolores Krieger describes,
2. that the body’s intrinsic energy can be significantly or even measurably altered by the touch of another human being, or
3. that if the body’s energy were somehow deliberately affected (e.g. if the frequencies of the tissue were raised), it would assist with any known medical ailment.

People receiving therapeutic touch and other similar treatments (such as reiki) have sometimes shown improvements in their condition. This does not by itself prove a healing effect, because it must be established that the improvement is not due to some other factor. It’s difficult to test in this case, because the simple act of touching a person has positive physical and mental effects unrelated to the whole energy business, and doing anything at all to a patient can cause a placebo effect. Users of therapeutic touch might be better off getting an ordinary massage.

Krieger’s go-to anecdote is her eventual housemate Nabeela George, who broke her neck in a fall. In the two days after the accident Krieger performed therapeutic touch on her, and George regained some movement in her arms and legs. This is far from miraculous; those with spinal injuries regain the most feeling and movement in the time immediately following the injury (up to the first six months). By performing an apparently ineffectual technique on such a patient at the right time, Krieger may well have taken credit for George’s own limited natural recovery. She might also have prevented greater recovery by persuading George to submit to her in lieu of other medical treatments. If you know of a study which gives better support than this, please point us to it so we can investigate and discuss it here.

Atheists don’t believe in gods, but some atheists do believe in the kinds of undetected energies that supposedly enable such phenomena as therapeutic touch. This is not a contradiction, if they think the energies can exist without gods. This group of atheists is not a very large percentage, however, because the kind of skepticism that leads many to reject religious faith is also very inhospitable to unsupported medical claims.


Question from Kaye:
I am doing a research on the concept of healing. I was wondering do atheists believe in the concept of healing? Not weird or religious or fanatic…just plain everyday healing that may or may not be explained.

Answer by SmartLX:
What heals a body, more often than not, is the body itself. Doctors can help, but in the end the human body is at the mercy of its own immune system and other regenerative processes, such as skin regrowth and bone knitting (no, that’s not the medical term for it).

Beyond the capabilities of the body alone, there’s a lot that physicians and “healers” can do to effect real healing. They can help physically by removing dangerous tissue, binding broken limbs, cooling a fevered forehead and so forth. They can help through chemistry by administering medicine and drugs, and regulating a patient’s diet. They can help psychologically by encouraging a positive outlook in the patient, which is known to affect internal processes.

The kind of healing which apparently falls outside of these two categories is the “miraculous recovery”, where a person recovers from an injury or illness normally beyond the body’s own capabilities without medical help. If it’s really happened (which, in many instances, is a question well worth asking), there must be a reason, and this is where different people are tempted to insert their favourite god or other supernatural entity.

To an atheist, the most likely reason for super-healing like this (again, once verified as having actually occurred) is something natural but unknown to the chronicler: some unique property of the subject’s physiology or body chemistry, prior treatments or preventative measures, added time for recovery, etcetera. Just thinking that there aren’t any supernatural agents at work doesn’t mean assuming that one knows every phenomenon that can affect a human body. Medical science may one day benefit greatly from what we presently don’t know, based on its progress so far.

If you have a particular healing story in mind, comment and re-tell it for us to discuss.

So Help Me…Who?

Question from Ashley:
Do you have to swear on the Bible in court? And if you don’t how else would you swear you’re telling the truth?

Answer by SmartLX:
In the United States, and here in Australia, non-believers can affirm a secular oath instead of swearing on a Bible. The US District Court version of the oath is,
“You do affirm that all the testimony you are about to give in the case now before the court will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; this you do affirm under the pains and penalties of perjury?”
The reply is, of course,
“I do.”

The idea of a believer swearing to God to tell the truth in a particular instance seems pointless to me. God’s supposed to know when you’re lying at any time and can supposedly punish you for it after death, whether or not you’ve previously said in public that you won’t lie. A secular oath has exactly the same practical purpose as religious oaths (e.g. “so help me God”): to make a witness immediately punishable on Earth for perjury, thus providing a very good reason for the witness to tell the truth.

DNA and Intelligent Design

Question from John:
Can you believe in ID and Evolution? If not how can we prove that a undirected process created information and design within DNA? And if it was created by a misguided process does that mean that everything around us is simply a delusion?

Answer by SmartLX:
Many people, including some scientists and even biologists, believe that evolution happened but God or some other “designer” guided important parts of it, the main instance being the development of human beings. This position is known as theistic evolutionism. It’s not normally called “intelligent design” because self-proclaimed ID proponents like those in the Discovery Institute oppose undirected evolution explicitly; their goal is to establish their designer as necessary to the process, not just a possible part of it.

Undirected processes create additional information within DNA all the time through mutation, often under observation. The easiest-to-understand mechanism by which this happens is gene duplication: a small part of a genome is duplicated, changing the instructions it gives the same way an extra “o” changes “hot” to “hoot”. Here’s a video by Don Exodus which goes into more depth; I’m sure you can find many more.

By definition, an undirected process cannot create true design, which implies the existence of a designer. An undirected process can however create the appearance of design if a selection process exists which favours more elegant solutions to physical challenges, and that’s exactly what natural selection does. Even Richard Dawkins often says that living things look designed; this has no bearing on whether they really are.

Everything we sense around us might well be a badly distorted image of what’s really there, or even a complete hallucination, but we are able to test our surroundings and find consistency. When we let go of a ball, it always falls down (unless we’re underwater). When we feel something hot, it hurts us to touch it. We know from smell alone whether someone’s farted in our elevator. The world we see gives every impression of being a real, tangible world, even if we might not be seeing it as it truly is. Nobody said evolution produced perfect results, but it’s given us good enough senses to make some internal sense of the world and survive in it. That’s technically all we need.

Evil, Suffering, Injustice and Jaywalking

Question from Vicky:
I cannot seem to find any credible sources where atheists define evil or at least how they view evil, injustice, and suffering. What is their solution to evil, suffering, and injustice?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists don’t define evil as being against a god’s laws or wishes, because they live and think as if there are no gods. Most atheists define evil in terms of more specific concepts like suffering, injustice and other harmful effects an action or attitude may have. Some atheists don’t think there’s really such a thing as evil, but that doesn’t stop them from wanting to combat suffering and injustice.

Suffering is an uncontroversial idea, because we all know what it looks like. Physical pain, mental anguish and financial hardship are easy to see in the world if we go looking for them. Our common empathy with all human beings (and other animals too) drives most of us to end and prevent suffering wherever we find it. (By “us” I mean everyone, not just atheists.) Any reasons we give for doing this tend to be rationalisations after the fact.

Injustice depends of course on the concept of justice, which can be far more widely interpreted than suffering. We all have an acute sense of reciprocity inherited from our social ancestors, and tend to react strongly when one party is clearly getting less out of a deal than another, especially if we’re in that party.

The solution to any of the above depends on the situation. There’s no all-purpose secular balm for humanity’s ills, or we would have cured them long ago. We just have to get stuck in and solve each problem practically.