“For me it was the Problem of Evil, the apparent contradiction between the existence an all-powerful, all-loving God and the horrible things which continue to happen in the world.”
Question from A:
What was the question that made you say, “that doesn’t sound right?” For me it was when someone told me that I wasn’t going to heaven on my being a good person. When I asked why they told me I had to believe in Jesus and if I didn’t nothing else mattered, it didn’t matter that I was naturally giving and compassionate. The thing that would send me to hell was the fact that I didn’t believe. I thought, “well that sucks!”
For me it was the Problem of Evil, the apparent contradiction between the existence an all-powerful, all-loving God and the horrible things which continue to happen in the world.
Of course there are lots of answers to that question: God’s testing us, Satan is responsible for the bad stuff, it’s a necessary consequence of free will, it’s our own fault things have been crap since the Fall, we only perceive things as evil when in fact they’re all part of God’s plan…and so on, or combinations of that lot.
If my inherited Catholic faith had supplied just one answer, I’d probably have accepted it and carried on, but it coughed up this whole mess of answers, some compatible, some contradictory. It really drove home that even the priests and bishops didn’t really know what’s going on, and if they didn’t, nobody did. Thus came the first desire not to simply accept what the supposed religious authorities told us kids.
Not long after that I was an agnostic, and my slow journey to atheism had begun.
“What’s more important is whether the atrocities were committed because of Christianity/atheism, either in an effort to specifically spread Christianity/atheism or because some tenet of Christianity/atheism commanded it.”
Question from Brian:
I’ve debated many christians in the past few weeks, and they all seem to think atheism creates evil. Can you name a few christians that have committed atrocities? (Besides Hitler, we all know that one)
My go-to guy is Sir Thomas More, pious 15th-to-16th-century Catholic who put people to death for the crime of owning Bibles in the English language. Incidentally, he was English. Here are some more. And a whole pile of awfulness went on during the Thirty Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics.
Thing is, you’re not going to get far in an argument by comparing kill counts between Christians and atheists (though you might surprise some people when you have something to contribute). What’s more important is whether the atrocities were committed because of Christianity/atheism, either in an effort to specifically spread Christianity/atheism or because some tenet of Christianity/atheism commanded it.
Atheism comes out of such comparisons rather well, because
1. it was the Communists who forcibly spread atheism the most, and only because Communism declares itself ideologically incompatible with major religions, and
2. there are no tenets of atheism, besides statements of its actual position. Nowhere does it say, “There is no God, therefore do this.”
“This argument from lack of expected evidence is strongest against theistic and theistic-in-advance gods, though it does apply to deism to some extent. In the case of a straight deistic god which has no further influence on or interest in us humans, it is indeed moot whether we believe in it.”
Question (sort of) from Jay:
You stated: The atheist position is that there is no available, substantive evidence for the existence of any god. Therefore it’s likely that there isn’t one. (No, it is stil 50/50. Likely, is a biased term)
And the Deist position would be: As a Deist, I know that it cannot be proven nor disproven, that a God does or does not exist, therefore I have the right to choose to believe in one or not. Since at this time, we do not have an answer either way. I simply choose to believe, rather than disbelieve, because I feel that nature, life, the universe, and other sources, are enough to sway me to believe, rather than disbelieve.
Therefore, who cares if you believe or not, it is a moot point. The only thing irrational here, is theism.
There is actually a bit of reasoning between the lack of evidence and the statement that there isn’t likely to be a god.
A hypothetical theistic or deistic god created the whole universe, and a theistic god continues to influence it. (Some deists think God planned out world history and people’s lives in great detail, which is a kind of theism-in-advance.) The fingerprints of such a god would be everywhere, obvious and unambiguous. That’s not the case, most obviously because there are so many atheists.
An explanation for this, besides the simple absence of a god, is that the real god is hiding its work. This goes against something which is common to all theistic religions and some deistic ones: the idea that the god desires belief. There are several theological conjectures about why a god that desires belief would be hiding its work regardless (to test us?), but they have to stack up against the simple and ridiculous fact that this hypothetically all-powerful being isn’t getting what it wants.
This argument from lack of expected evidence is strongest against theistic and theistic-in-advance gods, though it does apply to deism to some extent. In the case of a straight deistic god which has no further influence on or interest in us humans, it is indeed moot whether we believe in it.
That said, I’ll reply to your position fairly subjectively. Firstly, I don’t think belief is a choice because we’re either swayed by what we see as evidence or we’re not. Secondly, while I respect your right to believe, nature, life etc. do not sway me that way and I remain an atheist.
“I don’t know for sure that there isn’t a god, and I never said I did. I simply don’t believe that there is one…”
Question from Jay:
How is an atheist’s argument that there is no God any different from a Deist’s argument that there is a God? Both are unfalsifiable stances. How is an atheist’s view any better? You maintain your stance because it is the best answer you can come up with. You cannot rationally explain your stance any better than I can. How do you rationally know there isn’t a God? I know, you’ll say I don’t know 100 percent, well nobody does. But you asked this same question to a Deist, can you answer it?
I don’t know for sure that there isn’t a god, and I never said I did. I simply don’t believe that there is one, and I don’t think it’s likely either for reasons I’ll go into when answering your subsequent question.
Deists have an easier time defending their position than theists because they don’t have to establish any interference by a god since what they see as the act of Creation. Of course they do have to argue for Creation the same as theists, and there’s your overlap. I’ve laid out my basic position on the cosmological argument here in response to both theists and deists.
“Well, the Bible is evidence. It’s evidence of what early Jews and Christians thought, or at least told people, was true. However it’s not such good evidence that the events therein are true.”
Question from Brian:
What is the best way to deny that the bible counts as “evidence?”
Well, the Bible is evidence. It’s evidence of what early Jews and Christians thought, or at least told people, was true. However it’s not such good evidence that the events therein are true.
It essentially makes a series of claims. Some of these claims are outlandish by historical standards, others less so. Some require the laws of physics to be broken, others don’t. Some can be investigated, others can’t. Some have apparently been proven to be true, others apparently disproven.
The central, critical claims in the Bible are all supernatural, like the Ten Plagues or the resurrections of Lazarus or Jesus or of course the existence of God. There’s no agreed threshold of documentation quality beyond which claims like these are generally accepted. Believers tend to think that’s because unbelievers are in denial and won’t accept any level of evidence if it leads to a conclusion they don’t like. Unbelievers tend to think it’s because all the evidence so far hasn’t actually demonstrated the truth or even the likelihood of a supernatural claim. Both may in fact be the case simultaneously, or only one, or neither.
To answer your question, it’s worth drilling down a bit to find the believer’s real argument. Ask something like, “Why does the fact that someone wrote 2000+ years ago that this happened mean that it actually happened?” The answer will tell you why your believer thinks the Bible is good evidence, and will be along one of several lines: uncanny preservation of the original text, corroboration of different texts, the idea that people died because they wrote it and so on. Between this site and the old one (see the archive link in the sticky post) I’ve replied to most of these at some point.
“The Christian religion three days after Jesus’ death, if you believe any of what’s written, was fewer than twenty people, none of whom had yet written anything of note.”
Question from Caalia:
Did the bible start the Christian religion? In other words, were there believers in yahweh, his creation,the ten commandments, etc. before the compilation of the bible?
I heard the bible was written years after the said events (be they fictional or factual). If so, where did the believers in Yahweh before the compilation and writings of the bible get there ideas from? What was there source, if not the Torah, or the bible?
There were certainly believers in Yahweh, creation and the Ten Commandments before Christianity, and before the Bible as we know it was completed, because those are all Jewish beliefs as well as Christian.
These events are all laid out in detail in the Torah, which is actually the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy from what’s now the Old Testament. As far as anyone knows it was started over a thousand years BC and finished five to six hundred years BC. People believed in these things and passed them down through their families long before they wrote about them. Literacy was hardly widespread in the ancient world.
Specifically Christian beliefs, i.e. those pertaining to Jesus, began during Jesus’ supposed lifetime, with people claiming he was the Messiah. Stories about his resurrection began soon after the supposed date of his execution, and the Gospels were written something like five to fifty years after that when there was already a fairly large population of Christians.
Generally speaking, “sacred” texts are written to spread beliefs, not to start them. They’re written by people who already believe, or at least want others to believe. The Christian religion three days after Jesus’ death, if you believe any of what’s written, was fewer than twenty people, none of whom had yet written anything of note. Only years later did they commit it all to parchment.
” I haven’t pinned down whether members of Atheist are actually atheists, but I can’t imagine a Christian band calling itself Atheist, can you?”
Question from Brian:
Me again. This is a little bit different than my usual questions, but do you know any really good atheist metal bands?
You can’t go past Atheist. I haven’t pinned down whether its members are actually atheists, but I can’t imagine a Christian band calling itself Atheist, can you?
You’ll find more atheist musicians here, including two members of Slayer.
“Many are convinced that their personal gods have spoken directly to them. The speakers are different, contradictory gods for different people in different places, mind you, so at least someone out there has to be completely sincere and yet wrong.”
Question from Brian:
Hi, it’s me again. I’ve been in many arguments with christians in the past few weeks, and there’s just one thing I don’t know how to respond to. What is the best way to respond when they say they’ve personally talked to god?
It’s easy enough to talk to God, but getting Him to talk back is hard if He’s not there, and unless you record it there’s no way to prove it.
Many are convinced that their personal gods have spoken directly to them. The speakers are different, contradictory gods for different people in different places, mind you, so at least someone out there has to be completely sincere and yet wrong.
So, assuming just for the moment that a believer’s particular god either doesn’t exist or just didn’t really speak to him, how can he/she (he, henceforth, for convenience) be so sure it talked?
Foremostly, he wants it to be true. Perceived direct contact validates his beliefs, whether new or lifelong, and is a great honour to boot. Even if he’s in some doubt as to whether it’s true, he might still claim certainty in order to convince more people to seek God.
On top of that, any of a number of things might have happened. He could have dreamed it and not realised. He could have interpreted what he thought God’s answer would be as God putting the answer directly into his head. He could have been in something resembling a trance (evangelical group prayer methods, like many others, can sometimes approach hypnotic techniques) or on some substance (knowingly or unknowingly) and interpreted just about anything as God. Or, of course, someone else could have been pretending to be God.
No believer who’s really convinced that God spoke to him will accept (immediately) that any of the above might be the case instead, so in answer to your actual question listing alternative explanations probably isn’t a good response. Perhaps it’s better to generalise: “There are any number of ways in which that might not have been God talking to you.”
Ultimately, people who claim to have talked to God are trading on their own credibility. If they don’t know you well, they’ll talk that up as much as they can, probably making other claims worth examining. Otherwise they’ll use something akin to Lewis’ Trilemma: that they’re lying, mad or telling the truth, and they’re not lying or mad. The response to this is quite simple: you don’t have to be lying or mad to be wrong.
“So when you criticise religion these days, you encounter people who 1. are on some level shocked that you would do so, 2. may not think they can argue effectively with you and 3. have passed judgement on you because of your criticism and may not think you’re worth arguing with.”
Question from Brian:
Hi, it’s me again. Why is religion given such an untouchable status in the minds of so many? They think they can say whatever they want, but if we respond it’s a “personal attack”.
The following is a gross over-generalisation, but that doesn’t stop it from being essentially true.
2 or 3 generations ago, Christianity in Western countries was happily assumed to be the religion of everyone you were likely to meet. Arguments over religion either happened between Christian denominations, very occasionally between Christians and Jews or in universities where nobody was listening. In this situation, not only was there no reason for anyone to criticise religion as a whole, anyone who did was attacking beliefs apparently held by society as a whole, beliefs which were there for the good of all. Atheism had little or no public presence and those who knew its position on such things didn’t sympathise with it.
There are a great many people who think we still live in that world, and judge recent public criticism of relligion in that light. Religion is Good, and attacking something Good is Bad. Also, religion hasn’t had to seriously defend itself in public for some time, which means many believers haven’t learned how. There are a lot of crash courses going on now, after the advent of “new atheism” (which is really just ordinary atheism after a few authors made everyone take notice), but it’s still not a universal skill.
So when you criticise religion these days, you encounter people who 1. are on some level shocked that you would do so, 2. may not think they can argue effectively with you and 3. have passed judgement on you because of your criticism and may not think you’re worth arguing with.
On top of all this, there’s another line of reasoning which shows no empathy with anti-religionists at all. Basically, some people don’t understand why anyone would criticise or attack something given to us by God, who is all-powerful and loves us. This doesn’t take into account the fact that other people don’t think there is one, or think there’s a different one. It’s roughly the same logic that causes people to threaten atheists with Hell. This thinking does exist despite the obvious flaw.
As for criticising the non-religious, whether it’s honest or not there’s a catch-all rationale for it: it’s good for us, we need it, they’re doing us a favour.
“…just because you can’t explain something doesn’t make it supernatural. It merely makes it unexplained – so far.”
Question from Edgar:
I’ve met people who claim to have experienced, or known someone who has experienced, physical encouters with “ghosts”. They claim to have been scratched and had witnesses who testified to them(the scratches). Also, some claimed that they shared paranormal experiences. By that I mean, multiple people seeing or hearing the same thing. How can two or more people hallucinate, or imagine the same exact thing?
I am 19 years old and have considered myself an atheist since 8th grade. When a theist finds out I am a non-believer, they feel they have to challenge me. I have no trouble providing overwhelming evidence(to them) regarding evolution vs creationism. However, I am always stumped when the subject of ghosts emerges. When I am at a loss for words, and they feel they have “defeated” me, they inform me(in their most condescending tone) that I am so naive. That I will one day learn the error of my ways. I need help.
If people feel they have to challenge you, imagine what they throw at a website called Ask the Atheist.
To address the specific claims above, just because someone has real scratches doesn’t mean a ghost made them (anything could have), and assuming you have several people claiming the shared experience instead of just one guy saying others had it too, if something looks or sounds like a ghost in the first impression when multiple people are present, they may well think it is a ghost and reinforce each other’s belief or credulity.
Speaking more generally, what you’re dealing with is either anecdotal evidence or at best circumstantial evidence. The stories of shared experiences are not accompanied by photos or recordings so that others might share in them, so stories or anecdotes are all they are. The scratches might have been made by a ghost, or they might be from scraping a wooden bookcase without noticing before or during the event. None of it proves anything, or goes any distance towards establishing any facts.
Even more broadly speaking, just because you can’t explain something doesn’t make it supernatural. It merely makes it unexplained – so far. Out of the possible explanations, even if they’re quirky or unintuitive, it’s worth asking out loud whether all the natural explanations combined are less likely than an actual ghost of which there is now no trace.
If you’re dealing with any famous claims, rather than friend-of-a-friend stuff, send them in as questions or comments to this question and I’ll see if I can help with some basic research.