What’s in a name? Or a closet?

Question from Jim:
Thanks for the work and effort that goes into your podcast, I enjoy it immensely. I’ve found that using the term “coming out” as an atheist, always requires a lot of explanation. But that’s alright, because it opens up the conversation, to other issues. Such as the issuance of titles. Namely why we have to use a title. Would titles be necessary if it weren’t for the title “Christian”? Did this title not open up this Pandoras Box? Or maybe even the title “religious”?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think the term “atheist” would be needed if there weren’t a large number of people with opposing viewpoints.

The term “abolitionist” was relevant in the United States only until slavery was successfully abolished. Nowadays it’s assumed that (nearly) everyone there is opposed to slavery and would work against it if it returned, so everyone’s an abolitionist and there’s no point using the word to refer to individuals.

Likewise, “atheist” is a term for someone who rejects a popular position, namely theism. If religious belief declined until it were as rare as, say, political anarchism, there’d be no more reason to call someone an atheist than there’s reason to call someone a non-anarchist. It would already be assumed, and instead the theists would need to speak up.

As for “coming out”, its meaning for gay people is common knowledge, so it shouldn’t be too hard to transfer it to other revelations of people’s private nature. Atheists in certain places have just as much reason to be “in the closet” as gays, so it’s just as meaningful when they “come out”.

By the way, we don’t do a podcast, so the one you enjoy is by someone else. Jake did a few short videos some years ago, but that was it.

The Big Spill?

Question from Jethin:
Space, Time and matter expanding from a tiny spot as formulated in the big bang theory still looks to be confined especially to the question of where and how all the stuff came for the bang. What if the universe that we see is a part of a recycler that create a multiverse and our universe is just one of numerous other universes. A universe like the one we live in could emerge from the tip of a crater of an ultimate system of all creations wherein matter in the form of pure energy is spurted out from a central cauldron holding finite quantum of energy at enormous pressure and temperature. Like a lava flow, energy from this casing could escape through vents in the space-time fabric at higher dimensions, thus creating may be three or multidimensional universes. Studies on CMB radiation and the results therein leading to inflation theory of sudden expansion still call for more observational validations. Could this sudden expansion of our universe be triggered by the super charged energy outflow at tremendous pressure and temperature from an extra dimensional boiler?

What happens to all the matter that fall into a black hole? Spaghettification, singularity, Hawking radiation, black hole evaporation and what more, all such possibilities have been studied but still there is something missing. Should there be a link between singularity and big bang elsewhere; may be a link that is routed through that ultimate crucible of all creations. Like a reservoir, matter in its pure energy form could be encased in such a place from where the distribution starts to create different universes. The feeding source into it could be black holes pulling in materials from their own universes, stripping to its primal form and gushing into the mother pot. Is our universe a part of that energy-matter recycler that has been going on indefinitely?

Answer by SmartLX:
No freaking idea.

There are a great many models for explaining the beginning of the modern universe. Some posit that the Big Bang really was the beginning and some do not make that assumption. Every so often evidence comes to light that rules out one or more models, leaving the rest as candidates for what really happened. What you describe is closer to some of the surviving models than others, and so far I see no obvious reason to rule it out.

The important thing about your hypothesis for the purposes of this site is that it does not require the initiative or the intervention of a deity. It’s been some time since cosmologists turned to God to explain the as yet unexplained, because they’ve had no need. They might resort to God to explain the impossible, but they haven’t come up against that yet.

Evolution: The Fossils Say Nothing, ‘Cause They’re Dead

Question from Thinkingman (in an unapproved comment last week, rescued from the static archive of the old site:
When “The Atheist” was asked if he believed in evolution he replied, “of course I do” as though evolution was as provable as “gravity”. If that is the case then
1. why are scores of very accomplished scientists moving away from the ‘theory of evolution” toward intelligent design?
2. And how can the “theory of evolution” be considered real science when it contradicts the second law of thermodynamics or “entropy”?
3. And how can evolution be accepted as an immutable fact when there are no fossil links that have ever been discovered indicating one species has morphed into another? There should be tens of millions of such fossil records.

Answer by SmartLX:
Seriously, people, it’s just an archive now. Comments aren’t approved there anymore. I go and check for new ones sometimes, and bring them here if they’re worth answering, but it’s not a reliable way to make yourself heard. Comment here instead.

As is my habit, I’ve added numbers to Thinkingman’s questions for easy reference. All three are classic creationist talking points, and answers to all three in their stated forms are widely available – which means the important thing to Thinkingman is not to find answers, but to disseminate the questions as widely as possible, to help them persuade the uninformed. Unfortunately for that cause, ask [questions] and ye shall receive [answers].

1. Yes, scores of accomplished scientists reject the theory of evolution by natural selection and embrace the hypothesis of intelligent design or ID. (For those who criticise evolution as being “only a theory”, remember that ID isn’t even that.) “Scores” is fairly accurate, because it literally means multiples of 20 (“four score and seven years ago” means 87). The Discovery Institute’s famous 2001 petition A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism collected the names of just over 200 biologists, while the other 500-600 signatories were in unrelated fields (making their “accomplishments” largely irrelevant). Even in the United States, where acceptance of evolution is badly affected by a high rate of religiosity, about 0.01% of biologists appear to oppose it. The scientists in relevant fields who do reject evolution remain statistically insignificant, and their numbers do not seem to be growing in relation to the total.

2. The theory of evolution does not contradict the second law of thermodynamics because, despite the creationist assumption, the second law of thermodynamics does not completely prohibit the emergence of order from chaos. This law merely requires that any new order in a physical entity is balanced out by an increase in chaos or entropy in another entity connected to it by a transfer of energy. Our sun is a raging, barely-contained nuclear wildfire which bombards us with energy, so there’s no problem.

3. So-called transitional fossils are largely a matter of definition. It can be argued that fossils of any species no longer living are transitional fossils, because they capture the species in the process of changing from whatever they were previously into whatever they became.

What creationists generally expect to see in a transitional fossil (and celebrate when it isn’t found) is the properties of a hypothetical trans-genus hybrid, or chimera. The commonly ridiculed example is Ray Comfort’s crocoduck, which demonstrates the unreasonable assumption most often made: that a transitional fossil should show one modern animal “morphing” into another. Modern creatures are distant cousins of each other, not ancestors and descendants, so one would never become another.

Regardless, comparable processes of pronounced physical change have occurred over geological time, and they are very obvious in certain fossilised animals. Here are the two most famous examples:
Ambulocetus, literally a “walking whale” with identifying characteristics both of modern whales and of the quadrupedal mammals from which they evolved.
Tiktaalik, a creature partway through the process of evolving from a fish into a four-legged amphibian. (For more detail on Tiktaalik and much more evidence for evolution besides, read Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin.)

This is all basic, well-known stuff, but I’m of the opinion that it benefits the cause of reason to increase the rate at which supposedly rhetorical “challenge” questions are accompanied by straightforward responses when they appear. The above does just that.

Arrogant Atheists Anonymous

Question from Aaron:
Hey guys,

I’ve been pretty solidly atheist for about two years now, and one attribute of religious perspectives that irks me is the arrogance they exude. Such arrogance is often entirely unintentional, but to proclaim knowledge about something that is entirely unprovable does require at least some arrogance on a believer’s part. One of my favorite aspects of atheism and skepticism is the admission that most things, even seemingly solid scientific fact, cannot (and should not, in my opinion) be stated as 100% certain.

Unfortunately, this arrogance that I myself formerly had as a devout religious person is difficult to get away from. I live in a particularly religious region of the US, and I often find myself feeling somehow superior to, or wiser than, the religious people around me because they believe in something that makes no sense to me. I don’t voice such opinions, of course, and I try constantly to remind myself that there is always the possibility that my convictions could be flawed or wrong, but it can be very difficult NOT to feel this way, particularly when the religious perspectives fly directly in the face of science or logic (which feels like most of the time).

Any ideas for reigning in arrogance and keeping myself grounded?

Answer by SmartLX:
Here’s a mantra for you: Being right doesn’t mean you’re smart, and being wrong doesn’t mean they’re dumb. Whatever wacky fundamentalist beliefs you may come across in your area, there are bona fide geniuses and high-level academics (not necessarily the same thing) who believe exactly the same things and work to defend them in the public square. There are also some real boneheads who are in complete agreement with you on this particular topic.

The reverse is also true, of course; there really are intelligent atheists and proudly ignorant and uneducated believers. A large majority of studies even suggest an inverse correlation between intelligence and religiosity. However, you cannot reliably apply a population-wide correlation to individuals. Any given believer could be one of the smart ones.

So, how can smart people get something like this completely wrong, and not see why? It can have a lot to do with the foundations of their reasoning. An argument or line of reasoning can be valid and sound given its premises, but actually completely wrong if one or more of the premises is false. You’ll find that for many believers, the existence of God is itself a premise rather than a conclusion. (I therefore suspect that many arguments for God are originally formulated backwards, e.g. “God made life, so…1. life exists, therefore 2. God exists.“) It’s a premise because it’s drummed into believers from early childhood, or particularly intense “religious experiences” have made them emotionally invested in the idea, or in a few cases they’re getting paid to advance a particular view.

It’s not like this for everyone though. People may have correct, reasonable premises and still reach the wrong conclusion through flawed reasoning. There are a huge number of logical fallacies that are easy to apply (indeed, difficult not to apply) and will not be obvious or even visible to many.

There’s also the possibility of cognitive dissonance. If a particular conclusion is desired, then even if one avoids making an appeal to consequences (see the list of fallacies), one will subconsciously be more accepting of poor logic that reaches that conclusion. Two real world examples:
1. Software pirates: “Those who take goods without paying are thieves. I take software without paying. Therefore, I…am NOT a thief because software isn’t real goods, and everybody does it, and information should be free, and…”
2. Prison rapists: “A man who has sex with men is homosexual. I’m having sex with this man. Therefore I…am NOT homosexual, because this man is now a woman. I’ve made him my bitch.”

I’ll leave you to imagine how religion can inspire this kind of mental swerving to avoid the unthinkable.

There are any number of ways to get something important completely wrong, and many have nothing to do with intelligence or the other innate qualities of individuals. You’re entitled to be confident (not certain) that you’re right, but if you’re right it implies only one thing about those who disagree with you: not that they’re stupid, or ignorant, or mad, or lying, but that they are wrong. If you think it’s worth correcting them, go for it, but there is no good reason to be judgemental purely on this basis.

Cloudy With A 15% Chance of God

Question from Anonymous:
To whoever receives this message,

I was raised from birth as a Muslim, but as I began to study science, the stories that are told- such as Noah’s ark, Jesus, Moses etc.- seemed, well, improbable. I’m on the verge of becoming an atheist but there’s a couple of questions which I can’t seem to answer using scientific thought, I am after all only a second year university student. I feel as if I can’t just quit my religion without being at least 98% certain that there is most likely no God (I understand God can’t be entirely disproven, much in the same case the flying spaghetti monster can’t be either 😛 ). I’m hoping you’re able to.

The first is:

1. How could the universe begin if there was no creator that has been around since the beginning of time?
– Because if you can deny the creator, you can’t deny that at the very least energy would have had to have been around and had to have existed since the beginning of everything, and in this case:

Would energy be God? Can energy be God? Does this mean energy cares about what human beings do?

2. Life ceases to make sense, there is no drive, does this mean there is no point in life ultimately?
-I understand from an evolutionary perspective it is imperative we believe there is a reason to live. Humans are very reliant on being self centered and believing that everything must be about them. But I don’t like the idea of everything- this temporary struggle- to be about nothing.

3. Can you explain in terms of evolution how a new sexually producing species can be formed- in the sense that once the mutation occurs to cause a change in the species inside of a member of a population, how a male and a female version of the same different ‘evolved’ species (that has become reproductively isolated) is able to ‘come about’ at the same time in order to allow a continuation of this new, evolved species?
^ If I’ve explained that right, this is really dependent on chance and perhaps increases the likelihood of a God-like influence on the construction of a new species.

At the moment I’m at a 60-85% sure point that God doesn’t exist– it varies depending on the day, as I’m sure you would understand if you have been brought up on another faith, it is rather hard to get rid of that part of you which stubbornly doesn’t want to change no matter what the facts are.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I truly appreciate it. Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve never known anyone with such a specific threshold for the probability of the existence or non-existence of a god (other than those futilely seeking certainty). Perhaps we should all be as demanding of reality, and employ this brand of aggressive curiosity.

Anyway, let’s see if we can help you out.

1. It’s possible that the universe has always been around in some form, just as the creator god is assumed to have been. Indeed, it’s the simplest inference from the commonly understood law of conservation, which states that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. According to that, matter exists now, therefore it always has, and the Big Bang was just one event in an ongoing timeline. No creator is necessary in this case. As for the matter/energy which may always have existed, we have no reason to suppose that it’s anything like a god itself – that it answers prayers, or cares about humans at all.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the universe really did emerge from nothing, because quantum physics strongly infer that what we think of as “nothing” is highly unstable and generates new particles all the time. If you want to research this scenario, read A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss. (If you instead interpret this to mean that the “nothing” is really something, that changes little because it’s still an unintelligent object which renders a creator god unnecessary.)

2. You may not like the idea that we have no divinely bestowed purpose, but how does your personal taste for an idea (or anyone else’s) affect whether it’s true or false? The universe does not owe us comfort.

Evolution has endowed us with a strong survival instinct, yes, but it is not the only reason we have for existing. We give ourselves plenty of other reasons: science, art, the pursuit of happiness, the care of other creatures, each other and so on.

Any divine purpose which has ever been proposed appears to have actually been invented by humans anyway, so I think it’s better to be honest about it. Other theists maintain the vague belief that God has a purpose for them, but they’re not meant to know what it is. What’s the point of that, besides generating an unsupported sense of self-importance?

3. New species do not evolve as individuals, but as populations. The shared genome changes very, very slowly over hundreds or thousands of generations, and beneficial mutations spread across the group through new offspring. Both genders come along for the ride; gender is determined by a single chromosome, and the rest of the DNA is pretty much identical. Once the population has become different enough on average to qualify as a different species than it was before, there are plenty of new males and females around.

Happy new year to you too.

Entropy 101

Question from Jack (reproduced from a comment in the archive):
I’ve spent some time reading about evolution and creation. I’ve read several pages about entropy and I can’t seem to find one that makes sense. Can you explain entropy to a poor retard like myself?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a difficult concept, and most of us have to make do with an approximation, so here’s mine.

Imagine the process by which objects with some physical order (structure, symmetry, smoothness, etc.) break down over time (decay, melt, crumble, evaporate, rot) into substances which do not have that initial order (powder, gases, liquids, mush). They’re moving from an ordered state towards a more and more unordered state. Entropy, as a quantity, is the extent to which this has already happened at any given time. About the closest thing to a synonym for it is “loss of order”.

If entropy increases, order has been lost. If it decreases, order has emerged or been created. The point of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is that entropy can’t decrease without increasing by at least as much in some connected object or area. In other words, it can’t decrease overall in a closed system.

The corrupted version of this law used by creationists is effectively that entropy can’t decrease at all without divine help. Alternatively they accept the law, but claim that the Earth is a closed system and any fresh order on it must be gods’ work. The response to the latter is to point out that the sun is part of any closed system which includes us. The thing runs on explosions, causing massive amounts of entropy. It sends some of the resulting energy our way as light, heat and radiation so that we might undo a tiny fraction of that entropy. That’s the connection.

A more general response is that if you think entropy is decreasing in a closed system, it’s likely that the system is not really closed.

Religious Education

Question:
Do atheists want religious education to be removed from schools, especially public and other secular schools?

Answer by SmartLX:
Generally not, though it depends on the type of religious education.

Like it or not, participate in it or not, religion is a huge part of modern life. Kids need to learn about it so they can understand where people are coming from, and of course keep the multitude of religious literary references whizzing around from going right over their heads.

Atheists tend to object to religious education only when it becomes religious indoctrination, particularly indoctrination of young children. The difference in a nutshell:
– Religious education is, “This is what people of this religion believe.”
– Religious indoctrination is, “This religious doctrine is the truth.”

There’s nothing wrong in principle with proclaiming what you believe to be true, but the reason why a lot of people believe in religious doctrine is that it was taught to them as fact before they developed the faculties to judge it on its merit. That makes it very difficult to examine objectively, even later on.

An approach which would make most atheists happy would be for schools to teach comparative religion: the beliefs, practices and known histories of all major religions (and as many minor ones as possible). Then it’s all in the open for the kids, and when they’re ready they can make their own decisions about what faith to identify with, if any.

One issue with comparative religion is impartiality. The person teaching it has to be very aware of his or her own bias in the matter. This also applies to the texts; there are plenty of books comparing religions, and some of them are better in this respect than others.
The Universe Next Door by James Sire is heavily biased towards Christianity and theism in general, which is why it’s used in a lot of Christian courses.
The Heathen’s Guide to World Religions by William Hopper is basically an atheist’s irreverent view of the different faiths. The difference from the above book is that this one doesn’t bother to claim impartiality. (It’s really very funny, so I can recommend this book for your own recreational reading.)
Our Religions takes an excellent approach from an educational perspective: the section on each religion is written by a scholar and adherent of that religion, so every faith featured can represent and defend itself.

Most atheists learn about religion, and in fact many of us were indoctrinated into various religions and denominations as children (including me – I sometimes refer to myself as a “cultural Catholic”). There’s no reason why the genuinely educational part of this shouldn’t continue into the foreseeable future, for as long as religion is so prominent in our daily lives. It would simply be nice to see religions compete with each other and with non-belief on a level playing field, letting people come to them with their eyes wide open.

Hizzle Is Fo Rizzle?

Question from Josh:
“A young boy emerges from life-saving surgery with remarkable stories of his visit to heaven.” I don’t buy this for one minute, but some of my religious friends hound me for an explanation. How would you explain this? I tell them it is a shame.

Answer by SmartLX:
It is rather a shame. Thanks to Heaven Is For Real, for the rest of Colton Burpo’s life people may well want to talk to him about something he barely remembers more than anything he achieves afterwards.

What Colton Burpo didn’t already know about what was going on in the real world while he was unconscious, he could have guessed (for instance that his extremely religious parents were praying). If any of the real-world revelations still seem too unlikely, the father and author Todd Burpo admits a period at the beginning of the poor kid’s interrogation when Todd hadn’t thought not to ask leading questions. There’s no telling what he fed Colton.

As for Colton’s descriptions of heaven, he could have picked up any amount of theological geography from his father before the event. Despite this, he recounted a great deal of detail which doesn’t match the Bible at all. Some believers have rejected the whole thing on this basis, but there are many others who simply ignore what Colton got “wrong” even as they proclaim what he got “right”.

There’s a decent critique of the book and the kid’s story here, written by a Christian apologist academic of all people. He’s one of those for whom the “wrong” theology is a dealbreaker. So you see, even many of the faithful aren’t happy with Colton’s testimony.

Approaches to Morality

Question from V:
Well, obviously you reject God.
As such i must assume you reject god-given moralities, and moral rules.
As such i would like to ask what are the moral rules you accept and your rational justification for them.

Thank you.

Answer by SmartLX:
I would say that I reject the idea that a God exists, rather than God himself. Rejecting God directly would require the assumption that there is a God to reject.

I covered the basics of atheist morality in a piece I wrote a few months ago. Read that if you like, but the main point I like to make is that you and I have two choices:
1. The heuristic approach: use the common qualities and shared experience of all (or most) humans to create ethical standards which are applicable in as many situations as possible. Constantly verify that adherence to the standards is beneficial to people, and revise the standards if it isn’t.
2. The absolutist approach: declare that one specific set of rules applies to everything, everywhere, and is supported by the authority of an all-powerful being – despite a complete lack of evidence for that being, or that if the being exists he/she/it actually endorses these rules.

It might be great if we all had a set of absolute, unchallengeable rules that guaranteed a good life and afterlife. It might also be a nightmare, as it is in various theocracies (Iran) and pseudo-theocracies (North Korea), but it would at least give a feeling of security. Unfortunately, until the absolute authority and eternal protective power of a deity is certain, nothing about such a system is truly absolute. Better to work with what we know we have.

Atheist in America

Question from Ellen:
Hi!

Great site, I found it by coincidence. Are you guys from the US? I’d like to know how it is to live openly as an atheist in your country. If you’re outspoken about it, that is. What do people say? Does anyone exclude you ever? What did your family/friends say when you first told them? You get my point. I’m a big time atheist, but I’m from Sweden so it’s not really a big deal here. I’d just like to know!

Answer by Andrea (rewritten after she got more time to write):
Hi Ellen,

I admire your great country on its wide-spread secularism. Your society is much healthier than ours, which sociologists attribute to your lack of religion and our surplus of religion. (See studies by sociologist Phil Zuckerman for details.)

Anyway, from my experience being a large part of various atheist organizations, I can tell you that I’m not outspoken about it, and many people ask why I don’t believe in a god to which I usually respond, why do you? To me it just doesn’t make sense.

Regarding not being invited to events, most of my friends know I’m an atheist and that hasn’t made a difference with that regard.

I think most people in the US are afraid to admit to their atheism because there is so much superstition in this country and therefore bigotry against atheists. The radical religious right here hold a lot of power since they are politically allied with big corporations and although “non-religious” is the fastest growing group in the US, I think most of us are still afraid to proudly proclaim our atheism. I know I don’t make a big show of it since I work for the son of a minister as well as with many religious folks.

Things are looking up though. We recently formed a National Atheist Party and more and more people are “coming out.”

Thank you for your question. Be thankful for the rationalism in your country.

Sincerely,
Andrea