All Those People Can’t Be Wrong

Question from J:

I have a question I can’t seem to be able to answer:

The old testament says (I’m paraphrasing) 300000 people were present when the book/tablets was given to them. It goes on about other events that happened to that group of people.

My question is: how would you convince an entire population of something (that didn’t happen to said population)?

e.g If I was one of those 300000, and these events didn’t happen to me, why would I believe that they did; just because Moses said so?

P.S I hope I managed to get my question across and that you can understand what I’m trying to ask.

Answer by SmartLX:
It was closer to three million people with Moses in total, according to Exodus, but who’s counting? The real problem is that you’re making (or allowing an apologist to make) the enormous assumption that there really were hundreds of thousands of people in the desert with Moses.

The story as a whole hasn’t got a leg to stand on; there is no evidence that the Sinai peninsula ever hosted anything like that many nomads, manna or no manna. They could probably have spanned the peninsula lengthwise if they’d all walked ten abreast in a straight line.

Moses himself hardly serves as an anchor for the historicity of the story. I argue with people about Jesus a lot, but at least there’s a certain amount of material to argue about; Moses doesn’t even have that level of support. The idea that Exodus was written by Moses himself or any of his contemporaries has long been abandoned by most scholars, which means it’s anything but a first-hand account, and that leaves a lot of room for exaggeration. That exaggeration can include not only the events themselves but the number of people who witnessed them.

There’s a line in 1 Corinthians that says 500 “brethren” saw the risen Jesus at once, and a similar point can be made regarding both that and this: an account of witnesses is not the same as accounts by those witnesses. Making the number larger, even arbitrarily, is an easy way to make the story sound authoritative, which means everyone who relayed the story to its eventual chronicler was sorely tempted to do just that. We’re lucky because in the case of the Exodus, the number was made so large it outgrew the land that supposedly contained it.

P.S. Considering my title out of context, any number of people can be wrong. There are two billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims and both groups can’t be right, so at least 1,500,000,000 people are agreed on something which is dead wrong.

Proof? We don’ need no steenkin’ proof!

Question from Madoka:
I’m a Catholic but I’m open minded. I keep hearing about how God does not exist but how can you PROVE he doesnt exist? I’m just looking for your opinion because I read about some atheists who had near death experiences and became Christians so it’s kinda confusing. Have you ever thought that He might exist?

Answer by SmartLX:
I can’t prove God doesn’t exist, and I still think that He might exist. Neither of these is a good reason to believe in something, though.

In order to prove God didn’t exist, with our vague concept of what a god actually is, we would have to rule out every place in (and outside) the universe where He might be hanging out. This would be impossible to anyone except a being which itself had godlike powers, so it’s not worth trying. Thing is, it means very little that we can’t prove God’s non-existence if whether he exists makes so little difference to the pursuit. Put another way, we can’t prove that there’s never been any such thing as a leprechaun, but that doesn’t mean we should all believe in them.

I used to think God existed, because I grew up Catholic. When I realised there’s no good reason to think He does, and lost my faith, I didn’t suddenly declare that God can’t exist. I could still be wrong, and He could be out there somewhere. I just think that’s very unlikely, for reasons I’ve given here, and until we know that it’s the right God and not a jealous alternative deity it’s no use worshipping any particular one.

Who/What is God?

Question from Emma:
Hi, I have a religion assignment and I have to investigate the question
‘Who/What is God?’
I am endeavouring to ask people of all different religions, non-religions and world views their opinions to include in the project, so would you be able to tell me, in your opinion

Answer by SmartLX:
The ontology of God tends to be of more importance to theists than it is to atheists, apart from “strong atheists” who positively believe that there are no gods as opposed to just not believing in any. To believe in either the presence or the absence of a thing, you have to have at least some idea of what it is.

A broad theistic definition of a god would be an immortal, intelligent supernatural being with the power to control the universe to some extent, but deists disagree with this because they reject any idea of divine intervention. A broad deistic definition of a god would be an intelligent supernatural being that created the universe, but some theistic gods don’t fit that description (for instance lesser polytheistic gods like Mars and Venus).

The common ground between the two is the idea of an immortal supernatural being with some influence, past or present, on the universe in which we live. Some other hypothetical supernatural beings such as ghosts might also fit this description, so you might add “that was not previously a mortal being”, but the Mormons believe humans can become gods, so that doesn’t work. Therefore I’m content with the above definition in italics, which is slightly too broad but gets the job done. Since I don’t believe in ghosts any more than i believe in gods, that aspect makes little difference to me.

Atheism According To Spong

Question from Geoffrey:
Bishop John Shelby Spong defines an atheist as someone who disagrees with the theistic explanation of God. Do you agree? That seems to make all non-theists myself included an atheist.

Answer by SmartLX:
Based on former Bishop Spong’s definition, that’s the implication. Spong’s own position, however, is almost entirely unique and therefore not a very secure basis for generalisations.

Spong’s stated opinions on Christian doctrine reject theism by name, and place him well outside most people’s definitions of a Christian. It’s difficult to determine from his online writings what if anything he thinks God is, but it’s nothing like the supernatural being we all imagine in some form.

I might agree that an atheist is simply someone who is not a theist from the words alone, if not for the existence of deists. A deist believes in a god, but not the interventionist gods of theists. The fact that “theist” and “deist” come from the Greek and Latin words for “god” (theos and deus respectively) makes the modern definitions somewhat confusing, but there you have it.

I think everyone’s a theist, a deist or an atheist. Some agnostics may disagree with me there, or even be quite annoyed at this statement, but even an agnostic – who by definition does not know or even thinks it’s impossible to know whether there are gods – either believes in at least one god or does not believe in any (which is not the same as believing there are none). I’m an agnostic atheist myself.

The Journey of a Soul

Question from Heather:
I really appreciate this website, it is quite useful. Early thank you for answering my question.

Most theists often worry about where our ‘soul’ goes when we die. I am more interested about where our ‘soul’ was before we were born. I often ask my theist friends this and most of them are perplexed by the question. Where were we before our existence? Shouldn’t we go back to the same place after our death?

When I asked myself this question I came up with no answer because I don’t know. Why don’t people draw the same conclusions about death?

Answer by SmartLX:
Most people can fairly easily understand and accept the idea of previously not having existed. After all, they normally don’t remember anything before at least a year after their own birth. It’s much more difficult to wrap one’s head around not existing at some future date, because it means directly confronting one’s own mortality. That’s why the fate of souls after death commands so much more of people’s attention than the path of souls before birth. Having an immortal soul gets around the whole mortality thing.

Atheists tend not to place so much importance on the possible types of afterlife, for obvious reasons. Considering the before-and-after question regardless can lead to a level of acceptance, as Mark Twain reached long ago: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

This famous quote echoes one of the popular theological options, which is that each soul has existed for as long as the universe. Many theists believe in at least some period of pre-existence. Jews and Christians can even back it up with Biblical passages, such as Jeremiah 1:5 – “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee…” The ensoulment of a human body is usually believed by the religious to happen at conception, or at least before birth, so it’s implied that before that point we exist as thoughts or ideas in the mind of God. Given that we’re supposed to be here to carry out God’s plan, whatever that is, it stands to reason that we ourselves were also planned.

Moving beyond the Abrahamic religions, the concept of reincarnation suggests that your soul was in another body before yours, and many more going back through time. A soul has to have its first vessel at some point, though; the world’s population has doubled in about the last 40 years, so anyone under the age of 40 only had a 50% chance of inheriting a soul from another human (assuming that’s the default option). Therefore there’s a good chance that either your body is your soul’s first outing, or you were once an animal. Maybe at one stage you were a single-celled organism.

I think those theists who have given this particular question some thought are the ones who are genuinely interested in theology beyond its implications for their own welfare. Everyone wants to know what will happen when they die and how they can make it easier on themselves, but it takes real curiosity to want to trace one’s personal origins. Whether the pursuit ends up making the concept of souls look a bit silly is probably up to the theists involved.

Paging Dr God

Question from Sumira:
I am a non believer. One topic that baffles me is when believers seek medical treatment. They spend so much time praying and thanking gods for good health or recovery. Why do they really even seek medical treatment then? Isn’t that admitting that praying isn’t enough?

I know some of these types believe that god works through doctors or prayers result in medical advances. I still don’t understand though. I know this is just one small inconsistency within the larger inexplicable delusion, but please help me. What are these people really thinking and how do you respond?

Answer by SmartLX:
Seriously ill people who don’t get medical attention are much more likely to die than those who do, and no amount of prayer changes that. Remember this anytime you’re baffled and it’ll help you, because the reasoning behind all this stems from it.

Because prayer by itself doesn’t apparently work, it becomes a liability for any religious group that says it does. Those groups who stick to their guns and leave everything to God, like the Followers of Christ or the Church of the First Born, are regularly in the news when the children of their followers die preventable deaths. Mainstream churches can’t afford that kind of ongoing embarrassment if they want to keep their millions of nominal followers. (See the recent decline in Catholicism as a direct result of the child abuse scandals.)

Thus, ideas emerge such as that God works through doctors or medical science, or that He leaves medicine up to us as a test, or that Satan somehow nullifies God’s influence…anything to establish theologically that despite God’s presence, it’s still necessary to properly tend the sick. These ideas might start from either the pulpit or the pews, and they might be official doctrines or just unspoken assumptions by the congregation.

These compromising concepts are useful to religious adherents whether or not they actually believe in them. They save the devout from having to confront the inefficacy of prayer, and give them legitimate reasons to take control of the care of their loved ones. Those who belong to a religion but also rely on medicine are able to reconcile the two to their more religious acquaintances.

Admitting that prayer isn’t all-powerful isn’t the same as admitting that God isn’t all-powerful. All a religion needs in order to ignore the poor results of prayer-based healing is a reason, any reason, why God doesn’t put all of His power into every prayer. Thus potential evidence for the absence of God is reduced to a simple absence of evidence for God, and faith does the rest.

The Old Testament – Ancient Chinese Edition

Question from Heather:
Awhile back (probably 2 years ago) I saw this site that said the Chinese language documented the events of the Old Testament. I forgot the exact words they used but basically certain things translated directly to “woman and serpent” or “boat with many mouths.” Things like that. How do you explain a language “documenting the events of the Old Testament”?

Answer by SmartLX:
This argument for Christianity is put forth in full by the book The Discovery of Genesis: How The Truths of Genesis Were Found In The Chinese Language. Three examples of the supposed links are shown here.

Shortly after the book was published, it was pointed out to the authors that the analyses were based on the modern forms of the Chinese characters, most of which came about long after the time of Christ and hardly counted as “ancient” in comparison to the Bible. The book Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn’t Solve followed very quickly, which threw out much of the earlier material and started over. (Confucius, of course, had nothing to do with any of this.)

Some specific criticisms of the books and their underlying argument can be found in the customer reviews of each book on Amazon, particularly the 1-star reviews. To address the issue very broadly, however, these claims rely on single interpretations of just the few most applicable of the thousands of Chinese characters, most of which already have plausible secular etymology. If a symbol literally means “woman and serpent”, for example, to how many different legends (or real-life snake stories akin to Cleopatra’s) could this be referring besides Genesis? Why is it more likely that the symbol was magically transmitted from a foreign story than simply adapted from some part of the great wealth of Asian mythology?

The real issue, similar to that of “God’s Pharmacy”, is confirmation bias. People notice the few coincidental links in a sea of possible combinations of Chinese symbols and Judeo-Christian icons, and ignore the fact that because there are so many of both we would expect a few matches even if there’s no real connection.

Atheist Survival Tips

Question from Larry:
What’s the key to surviving in this country (USA) as an atheist?

Answer by SmartLX:
Statistically speaking, your literal survival in the United States is not significantly jeopardised by your atheism. A couple of nutjobs have made it their mission to murder atheists (like Arthur Shelton), but members of most religions have been targeted in the same way at some point. I will say, however, that as an openly atheist American citizen you are likely to be subject to bias and prejudice, from your local community right up to powerful politicians.

The most straightforward way to avoid this is of course to hide your atheism, which can be as simple as not mentioning it. No doubt this has already occurred to you, and you understandably wish to be accepted as you really are. Another option is to avoid contact with the religious believers who tend to be the most prejudiced against atheists; again, you’ll have thought of this, but you want or need to deal with such people.

Firstly, you are very unlikely to be alone where you are. The Web can guide you to local atheist groups wherever you are, and you’ll find people who know exactly what you’re going through. Start with this list of groups, which as you’ll see are hardly thin on the ground. Even if you’re in the middle of nowhere, there are online communities aplenty.

Secondly, even the prejudiced know that the enemy of prejudice is education. This is why anti-gay groups lobby to prevent children from learning of the existence of homosexuality, and why billboards that do nothing but announce the existence of atheists are routinely opposed. Those in your community are likely under false impressions of what it really means to be an atheist – they might think that you don’t have morals, that you’re a Communist, that you want to take children away from religious parents or even that you worship the Devil.

You can do a great deal to dispel these misconceptions, either by putting yourself in a position to answer the relevant questions or just by appearing in society and being the good person that you are. (I can’t immediately find a clip, but there was an atheist woman on Wife Swap who proved very educational to the Bible study group she joined.)

We always like to know what works and what doesn’t work in more detail, so we’d welcome any stories you can tell about all this as you make your way in the world. Let us know how you go, and best of luck to you.

God in the numbers? The devil’s in the details.

Question from Neil:
As a ill-educated atheist how do I best explain the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci sequence being nothing to do with a god?

Answer by SmartLX:
The same way Darwin explained that the diversity of life need have nothing to do with a god: by showing the Ratio’s natural origins.

For those unfamiliar with the terms, here’s the basic math: take two 1’s as the start of a sequence and make each new number in that sequence the sum of the previous two:
(1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…)
That’s the Fibonacci sequence, named after the first European to document it.

The interesting thing about it is that the ratio between any two adjacent numbers in it (after the first few) tends toward about 1:1.618, which is called the Golden Ratio. What’s interesting about that number is that ratios close to the Golden Ratio appear regularly in nature: it’s about the ratio between the different segments of your fingers, for example. Some believers see these natural occurrences as a kind of signature by the Creator – a sign of the created order of living beings.

The problem with this idea is the fact of how simple it is to create a sequence that features the Ratio: I started with two equal numbers (they don’t have to be 1), and started adding. Nature can do this too, particularly genetic instructions: “build this part using these two other parts as a reference”. The omnipresent Ratio is an observation we make afterwards; rather than an inbuilt standard, it’s an emergent property of a simple, common, repeated process. No god is necessary, or even of use.

The Best Defence Is To Take Offence

Question from Rieno:
Many Christians express views about many aspects of life. In addition, they also express their honest beliefs in their deity and even preach it. Atheists also express their views on many aspects of life (morality, politics, science, faith, etc.)

Why is it that when Christians express themselves, it is deemed acceptable, but when atheist express themselves it is considered offensive? I, personally, have been called a blasphemer once just by saying “I don’t believe in god”.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you very much in advance.

Answer by SmartLX:
This unequal treatment of views springs from an intrinsic asymmetry between believers and non-believers. This asymmetry is genuine, and the reason for the outrage is sometimes clear, but that doesn’t truly justify it.

Religion is claimed by many to be the sole source of their morals, comfort and/or reason for being. If you question some people’s faith, you are ostensibly shaking the very foundations of their lives; no wonder they take it personally.

This can be taken to extremes, as you’ve already discovered. Recently a bus company refused to run an ad with a one-word message: “Atheists.” It was deemed controversial to do nothing more than alert the public to the existence of people who don’t believe in gods. There are people, the ad says to believers, who think you are wrong.

By way of contrast, atheists usually protest religious advertising either because their own advertising has been refused or because the religious message is effectively delivered by a secular state authority. Aside from these practical concerns, why don’t atheists take as much personal offence from the topic as believers? Because atheism is not an equivalent source of morals or purpose. Atheists source these essential parts of life from other places (I briefly delved into this here), so when their position on the existence of gods is challenged they do not feel that their entire worldview is under attack.

The important thing to get across to believers, though of course it’s not easy, is that the targets of criticism are religions themselves, not their adherents. Religion really is under attack, in a sense, but believers aren’t. The statement that one’s religion is false implies merely that one is wrong, not that one is stupid, insane, wicked or deceitful. If more believers understood this, organisations as the Catholic League would look a lot sillier with their persecution complexes on show.