Dilemma in India

“Belief exists at different levels in different people, and the sooner you plumb your own to find the depth of it, the sooner you can deal with it directly.”

Question from Ron:
Hi,

Just stumbled upon your site, I am from India, and here questioning the existing of god is like painting a red sign on your back here.

I have been an atheist for as long as I can remember (i.e never went to a place of worship), and my immediate family never imposed on me.

However when I was young I always used to thank or curse a faceless entity in my mind for good fortune or misfortune.
Then when I discovered the atheistic ideology and openly told everyone, I started feeling a sense of estrangement from my family. It has been so ever since (since 7 years).

Lately I have been going through many rough pathches and good times, and I sometimes find myself speaking to the above mentioned faceless entity. But then I right myself calling it stupid.

However how do I get rid of this internal conflict?

Answer:
Depends on where it’s coming from, and it’s hard to tell that from over here.

If you really did believe in some such entity as a youth, perhaps you still do on some level. There are religious folks who think all atheists are believers in denial, and of course this is nonsense, but nevertheless there are those whose belief persists despite their sincere intellectual acceptance of the unlikelihood of gods. Maybe you’re one of these unfortunate individuals. If so, it likely surfaces in times of stress or great emotion. So face it head-on: has your entity ever answered? What’s it done for you? Is it even an entity worth talking to? And be patient – expect such a subconscious belief, however light, to fade slowly.

If on the other hand you don’t think you ever really believed, and you started praying after a fashion as an imitation of your religious peers (or out of loneliness or estrangement, like some kids invent an imaginary friend) then it’s basically a habit. It probably does you no harm if you know you’re talking to no one, but if the fact that you do makes you uncomfortable then treat it as any other habit that needs breaking; address the root causes (the occasions which cause you to do it), or just find another thing to do.

Human beings are conflicted creatures at the best of times, so don’t feel alone. Belief exists at different levels in different people, and the sooner you plumb your own to find the depth of it, the sooner you can deal with it directly.

SmartLX

One Man’s Miracles

“A little more detail might help.”

Question…well, more of a spiel from Jeff:
I stumbled onto your website about a week ago and saved your website on my computer. This week I was clearing out my “favorites” in the computer and came across it again. I just listened to your info on you tube and agree with where you are at this point in your life. I was somewhat close to where you are on a spiritual level 43 years ago. I wasn’t sure there was a God. My mom was a spiritual nut in the big pix but I had no reason to believe.

Somehow I got linked up with a guy who happened to become my best friend who was a pastor’s son. I could see strange happenings around him and i wondered what was causing them. Later on he invited me to a chuch camp where everyone was talking about Jesus. I was arogant and doubtful that he even existed. I said these words out loud: “If Jesus is so real, why doesn’t he show himself?

Over the next 40 years I tracked unusual events in my life and they all tied together with this very incident. I’m currently writing a book about it as i believe people should be aware of what i was seeing.
I work in electronics and I analyze things for a living. If my analysis takes me off course, then i waste valuable time and money. So i’ve learned to sharpen my skills. I ended up at a church camp 39 years after this event and saw something I couldn’t quite believe so i asked 6 other people what they saw. The answer tells the story that Jesus is real. The book is “the Cross in the Road” and i’m writing it for the people who can not see God in their life. It explains how i come to realize he was real. I’ve seen the impossible happen right before my eyes many times and even questioned my own sanity. But the other 6 people confirmed that it wasn’t my sanity in question but my belief system.

Answer:
A little more detail might help.

I realise that you want people to read your book when it’s finished, assuming it becomes available to our visitors the world over. For the moment though, you’re claiming to have seen miracles without even describing them, let alone supporting your claims with evidence. This will probably not convince anybody, or even pique much interest.

What you have done is talk up your own analytical powers, essentially daring people to say you’re wrong about what you saw. This doesn’t count for much, as every religion has sharp people among its devout and they can’t all be right about their conversion experiences.

That’s the general problem with using perceived personal experience of the divine when proselytising: there’s no real credibility to be gained, and plenty to be lost. You’re essentially trading on your existing credibility, which relative to the strangers you’re now trying to reach is zero.

I’m not saying you won’t convince anybody, because at worst some people will believe anything. I’m just saying that the persuasive power of your experiences at church camp will not easily translate into a written account intended for the general public in their living rooms.

SmartLX

Explaining Good Fortune

“Firstly, congratulations on your deconversion, your new job and everything else. Secondly, don’t underestimate coincidences or sell yourself short.”

Question from David:
My wife and I deconverted from christianity about two years ago. Ever since then I have been an atheist. When we were christians, we would attribute good events in our life to god having favor on us. I know that’s not true now but some recent events have me perplexed. In the last two weeks, the following great things have happened: I landed a job without an in-person interview, I was able to get out of my rental agreement in order to move to my hometown and the house beside my parents became available to rent during the week I moved. When I was a christian, I would’ve attributed this to god. I know that’s not the reason. However, how can these things be explained? I’m having a difficult time thinking of this windfall as a bunch of good coincidences.

Answer:
Firstly, congratulations on your deconversion, your new job and everything else. Secondly, don’t underestimate coincidences or sell yourself short.

Imagine standing in heavy rain. The chances of any given raindrop hitting you are miniscule beyond comprehension, but stand there for only a few seconds and you will be soaked. Why? Because of the sheer amount of raindrops that fall on every square foot in every minute. There’s still a chance that every single drop will miss you, and indeed you do get the odd moment when you hardly feel any, but it’s just too unlikely to keep you dry on any occasion in one human lifetime.

Likewise, while any particular coincidence you can imagine is unlikely by definition, the other possible coincidences that could happen in any situation are practically infinite in number. The tiny chance of each one is balanced out by the many different chances, to the extent that we may expect to see a certain amount of coincidences in our lifetimes. It would be a strange life that was never touched by coincidence.

Let’s consider your two-week windfall specifically. I said earlier that you shouldn’t sell yourself short; your own people skills and other talents had at least something to do with your success in the remote job interview and with your rental agent, though of course you were still fortunate. As for finding the house next to your parents, that’s where the above really comes in. Think of different events which would have been as good as finding that house, or nearly as good. Any house within several blocks of your parents would have been convenient in the same kind of way, or something on the same bus or train line. Your parents could have had some reason to move near where you were going instead, or you both might have got apartments in the same building. All unlikely, yes, but if you keep on thinking, the alternatives just keep suggesting themselves. Look up from the raindrop you’ve caught and you can see the downpour.

I’m not saying it was likely that things would fall into place for you and your wife. I’m saying that there are such a huge number of ways in which things could have fallen into place for you that it’s not so inconceivable that one of them actually, simply, happened.

Again, congratulations.

SmartLX

A Question For You

“Why do you believe the truth claims of your religion or equivalent?”

Welcome to Ask The Atheist. If you’ve come back after a while, obviously the site has changed and most of the old material has not come across. It’s available at the archive. Please don’t comment there, as no new material will be approved. Speak up here instead.

Now then, there’s a question “The Atheist” would like to ask believers everywhere.

Why do you believe the truth claims of your religion or equivalent?

In other words, why do you believe for example that there’s a God? Or that reincarnation happens? Or that it’s wrong to eat pork, or beef? Is it because you have grown up believing it, or were you consciously convinced of it at some point?

I’ll go first, as a former believer. I was a lifelong Christian who accepted what I read and was told. After I was asked some hard questions, I looked at it all again, and it didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Other former believers are welcome to speak up, but I’m most interested in current believers. I plan to write articles based around responses that come in, individually or using groups of similar ones, depending. My aim is to discuss rather than attack. I may or may not succeed in this.

To participate, either comment on this post or write to the email address on the right with the subject “Why I Believe”. If you’re a former believer, use “Why I Believed” and focus on that, not “Why I Don’t Believe”. Thank you.

What I believe, right now, is that this will be educational for us all.

SmartLX

Interview with the Preacher

“…you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.”

Question from Bailey:
I’m an atheist and a freelance writer. My dad’s preacher has agreed to answer some questions I have about the Bible and his views on things of the religious matter. Trouble is, now that I have the opportunity to ask whatever I want (and get an entirely silly response I’m sure), I am a bit stumped. I have in mind:

1.) If the Bible is as black and white as they say, why ignore the laws in the Bible such as “don’t eat shellfish” and the like, and follow rules like “homosexuality is a sin?”…I will be referring to the laws in Leviticus.

2.) Do you believe in creationism or evolution and why?

3.) Why are there so many contradictions in the Bible? (I will be using specific examples, but would like as many ideas as possible).

Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Help?

Answer:
That lot’s a good start, but you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.

I’ve only just answered a question about the nasty Leviticus laws, so check that out first.

Whether your father’s preacher is a creationist depends rather a lot on his denomination. Evangelicals are generally creationists to some extent (with some high-profile exceptions such as Francis Collins), whereas Catholics usually toe the Vatican’s line of theistic evolutionism which is basically, “God caused evolution.” Either way, what he believes is almost certainly what his church officially believes, and you’d do best to look that up.

You may be at a disadvantage if he does turn out to be a creationist. There are a great many creationist arguments which, unsound as they are, take 5-10 seconds each to say and require a bit of research to rebut properly. About the best thing I can do for you is supply a slightly old but still exhaustive list.

If you’re looking for contradictions, you can’t go past the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible. It’s got a huge collection of them. Best of all, it’s been around long enough for other sites to write replies, and in a grand example of sportsmanship the SAB links to them directly. If you have a selection of apparent contradictions you’re going to bring up, you can get a very good idea of how this preacher will respond if he decides to defend them.

Besides your suggested questions I have one more, which I always try to ask believers: quite simply, “Why do you believe?” Once you know that, it’s only natural to work through the follow-up question with them: basically, “Is that a good reason?” It’s why I’m an atheist, really. I examined my own reasons for believing in the Christian God, and they just weren’t good enough. Self-examination, if you can manage to provoke it in others, is a powerful tool.

Best of luck with the interview, whatever your goal is. (You didn’t really make that clear. I hope you actually have one.) Let us know how it goes.

SmartLX

Mosaic Law

“Of course, easily the most direct orders against homosexual sex are in the same part of Leviticus.”

Question from Anonymous:
Hello,

I’m an atheist. I recently told a gay-hater about this and his response was that “It came from the Mosaic Law which is no longer in effect.”

What’s the right response to this?

Keep up the good work!

Answer:
Mosaic Law, taken in this case to mean a large set of Old Testament laws including the one in the link, is widely regarded by Christians who care about this sort of thing to have been contradicted many times and therefore superseded by the teachings of Jesus. A good example is the substitution of “turn the other cheek” for “an eye for an eye”. This rationale is often given for not following the really destructive laws in Leviticus.

Of course, easily the most direct orders against homosexual sex are in the same part of Leviticus. Some apologists give quite complex reasons why certain parts of Mosaic Law should continue to be upheld, while others just drop the whole thing and rely on other parts of the Bible, such as Romans 1 in the New Testament, when condemning homosexuality.

The most straightforward response to your “gay-hater” is to move out of the Old Testament altogether and quote some apparent silliness from the New Testament instead. This article, though not very carefully written (see the typo in its title), has some good examples. This will maintain your original point while avoiding his grounds for dismissal.

Keep us posted via comments, if you like.

SmartLX

“Why did God choose me to be a Seer?”

“Without some kind of evidence that you really have been contacted by God, it’s not much use discussing His motives with someone who doesn’t think He exists.”

Question, verbatim, from Peter:
Why did god save my life when evil attack me and give me knowledge of his existence and his power over evil.And told me I was to be a Seer and give me strength and showed me the strength of love and how to used it as a shield for other poeple to stand behind for strength.I was a atheist a sinner.

Answer:
The real question isn’t why God chose you, it’s whether God chose you. Only if this were establshed would the why be of any use.

In short, how do you know? How would you demonstrate to someone else that you had been chosen by God? For example, as a “Seer” are there things you know that others don’t, and could you prove yourself to be in possession of information you couldn’t have gotten any other way?

Without some kind of evidence that you really have been contacted by God, it’s not much use discussing His motives with someone who doesn’t think He exists.

SmartLX

Evidence For Atheism

“…absence of expected evidence can indeed be evidence of absence, like the absence of any bat guano in your attic.”

Question, often asked of atheists by Shockofgod:
What is the proof or evidence that atheism is accurate and correct?

Answer:

Sometimes an apologist will hit upon a question which is not easily answered off the cuff and, by asking it repeatedly, give the impression that there is no good answer and the opposing position is unsupported. You can usually tell such a question by the fact that it’s asked with almost exactly the same wording every time. The above is Shockofgod’s personal weapon. Obviously, asking tough questions is a valid persuasive technique, but if they’re intended to be tough then one may need time to answer them the right way. A written response can be a great help, especially when you’ve read it before being asked the question verbally.

The question is hard to answer as is because atheism itself is the absence of a certain type of belief, not the presence of an equivalent belief. It feels wrong to advance the lack of a belief as correct, let alone proven.

What we need to sort out beforehand is the position of atheists (or at least the majority of them) on the existence of gods and the truth merit of religions. This can be defended, as “what atheists think”, far less awkwardly.

This attempt is probably not definitive, but here goes: 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.

Now that we have a defined position, what evidence or proof can we offer? It’s hard to support a negative like this, but “available substantive evidence” narrows the field a bit. It essentially means significant evidence which we’ve actually got. There might well be evidence which is not available, like God’s signature in three-inch letters on the surface of Ganymede. There’s plenty of “evidence” which is not substantive, like claims of personal experience and unverified miracle stories. Neither of these is a good reason to abandon atheism. Available substantive evidence for a god, on the other hand, would be good reason.

Therefore the evidence (proof is going too far) is the appearance that there is no such evidence for gods. If it did exist, and were substantive and available, it would be paraded around the world. Whichever god it supported would be vindicated. So it’s very unlikely that evidence is available and substantive and yet appears as though it’s not there.

Another possible piece of evidence for the likelihood of the absence of gods (remember, the position on gods is a statement of probability) is precedent. Unsubstantive “evidence” for gods often takes the form of supposedly impossible things, everything from the beginning of the universe to the diversity of life to Peter Popoff’s inexplicable knowledge of his audience members’ business. As Tim Minchin says in his brilliant beat poem Storm, every such mystery which has been solved has turned out to be “not magic”. Evolution explained the diversity of life brilliantly. Popoff’s earpiece, through which his wife fed him information, was revealed by James Randi. Such cases speak well for the chances that many remaining mysteries will soon be solved. Most importantly, gods seem less and less likely to be necessary in the areas where we have no good natural explanation yet.

Finally, we must address the possible impression of an overreach or a non-sequitur. Why does the absence of good evidence make it likely that there are no gods? Because gods as described by religions which have them (a) have visible, even obvious effects on the world and (b) want people to believe in them. (One or both is usually true even for deistic gods.) The lack of available substantive evidence suggests that either they aren’t both true, or there isn’t a god. Of course theology has reconciled this many times over, but not in ways with any evidential support behind them.

The evidence for atheism, in short, is the lack of available substantive evidence for gods when there probably should be a lot. On hearing that response, an apologist will probably retort in one of two ways:
1. Argue despite any clarification you make that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, in which case it’s helpful to remember that absence of expected evidence can indeed be evidence of absence, like the absence of any bat guano in your attic.
2. Actually present some supposed evidence for the existence of a god, in which case the discussion will then be about that.

In any case, the unanswerable question isn’t.

SmartLX

God is Good, Existence Notwithstanding?

“Atheists aren’t entirely blind to the possible benefits of religion. Its perils, however, are substantial enough to make any judgement of its ultimate worth on its own merits very difficult.”

Question from James:
Why must atheists be just as equally hard core biased about their beliefs as Christians?

I do not believe in the existence of a deity. Although I do highly condone God. As no one can logically argue that “God” is not simply the best thing for mankind.

I just want to know why despite your beliefs you can fail to see reason, and even if there is no God, why shouldn’t we all just pretend for our own sakes?

Answer:
Some non-believers are nevertheless very supportive of religion, like you. They argue that believing in gods is beneficial even if the beliefs themselves are false. Philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this position “belief in belief”. Biologist-blogger Jerry Coyne calls it “faitheism”.

When trying to logically determine whether belief in gods or in a particular god is ultimately beneficial, you need to look at both sides of the issue.
Pros: There are in fact several studies which show small but significant differences in happiness, health and longevity between theists and atheists, always in favour of the theists. (Atheism is generally favoured in studies which focus on certain other attributes.) Fear of God may very well encourage good behaviour, though it’s not the only way to encourage this.
Cons: believers may devote huge amounts of time, money and effort to their churches which might be spent more productively, they tend to antagonise members of other churches and religions, and they live their lives by laws which may not in fact be backed by an absolute authority, and therefore may steer them wrong.

Atheists aren’t entirely blind to the possible benefits of religion. Its perils, however, are substantial enough to make any judgement of its ultimate worth on its own merits very difficult. In the absence of a clear verdict, atheists like me tend to encourage people to be atheists, simply because there don’t appear to be any gods.

SmartLX

Jesus Unscriptured: Josephus

“This is a real Jew of the establishment we’re talking about. He stayed a Jew all his life which means it’s very doubtful he actually thought Jesus was the Messiah, which is what “Christ” meant in a Jewish context.”

Question from C.L.H.:
Christians sometimes point to “independent sources” or historians of Greek or Roman history in validating the existence of Jesus and historical truth of the Bible.

For example: Flavius Josephus wherein he writes about Jesus the Christ.

“Chapter 3 – Sedition Of The Jews Against Pontius Pilate. Concerning Christ, And What Befell Paulina And The Jews At Rome

3. Now there was about this time Jesus , a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
(from Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, PC Study Bible formatted electronic database Copyright © 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

I know there are several other historian accounts that are often referenced, but I can’t recall them right at the moment.

What are we to make of this “history”?

Answer:
The other day I covered independent references to Jesus, and the evidence for him in general. I’ll focus on Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum this time.

In my other piece I said that the document was a battlefield. It’s been disputed since the 17th century, because although it’s the most direct (and flattering) extra-Biblical mention of Jesus we have which was apparently written in the first century, there are many reasons why it might not be entirely genuine.

Its positive affirmations are a major sticking point. It says, without qualification, “He was [the] Christ.” Elsewhere it says he rose from the dead after three days. Josephus isn’t obviously saying that this is what Christians think, he’s apparently flat out saying it happened.

This is a real Jew of the establishment we’re talking about. He stayed a Jew all his life which means it’s very doubtful he actually thought Jesus was the Messiah, which is what “Christ” meant in a Jewish context. He also did a lot of what amounted to PR work for the Romans who weren’t keen on prophesied kings. Had he actually written and released this passage at the time, as is, he’d have been thrown to the lions figuratively or literally.

The passage comes to us via a set of Greek manuscripts, the earliest of which dates back to the 11th century. That means about a thousand years went by in which changes might have been made. In the third century, after reading the Testimonium, the Christian historian Origen wrote that Josephus “did not accept Jesus as Christ”. The version he read at the time, therefore, was likely to have given a different impression than the one we have.

From this fact alone, apart from the likelihood that the Testimonium was changed at some point to be more Christian-friendly, we can deduce one more thing: that Josephus probably did write something or other about Jesus. That isn’t saying much, because in his original piece he might simply have recounted the story preached by Christians without saying that any of it was fact.

I won’t go through the other arguments against it, but suffice it to say that there’s plenty to argue about.

In general, documents such as the Testimonium Flavianum reveal credibility issues as soon as you scratch the surface. That doesn’t mean they’re all false, it just means that the standard of evidence they provide isn’t earthshaking right now.

SmartLX