“The hard part is convincing a believer that
1. the absence of gods is the null hypothesis, and
2. there is no contrary evidence to justify rejecting it.”
Question from Ted:
I’m debating a friend who, although he is surrounded by scientific-minded people in University, chooses to embrace Christianity. I want to demonstrate to him that in any scientific research condition, the null hypothesis is favored over the alternative hypothesis by default, unless contradictory research can be produced. This would indicate that before the research is even commenced, it is more reasonable to assume that the null hypothesis is true than to remain undecided or accept the alternative hypothesis.
What are some good references that I can use to get this idea across to him?
It’s a good way to look at the question of gods, and nobody’s ever challenged me on it when I’ve used it before (not, I think, on ATA). If someone did fight me, though, I think I know how they’d do it.
Any textbook on high school or college/university statistics would be sufficient to give your friend the necessary grounding in the concept of null and alternative hypotheses. This is the easy part, because what you say above is straightforward and self-evident; the null hypothesis by definition is what you accept to be the case if no contrary evidence is found. The hard part is convincing a believer that
1. the absence of gods is the null hypothesis, and
2. there is no contrary evidence to justify rejecting it.
Regarding #1, a huge amount of believers are of the opinion that the burden of proof is on atheists because they can’t imagine the world, life, art, love, logic, etc. having come about without a god, and therefore (though they don’t often put it like this) atheism is an alternative hypothesis which needs to be supported with proof that a god wasn’t/isn’t necessary. This response is essentially equivalent to the cosmological, transcendental and/or design arguments for gods, which I and many others have written about before.
Regarding #2, there’s a huge variety of anecdotes and phenomena that believers present as evidence for gods and therefore good reason to reject atheism as a null hypothesis, whether or not it’s actually good evidence or evidence at all. Your friend is liable and entitled to present you with just about anything, so you’ll have to take it as it comes.
The well-known text which comes closest to treating the issue in this manner is God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger. So that’s the one I recommend to you and your friend. Read it yourself first, obviously.
“When a lot of people try to imagine death without an afterlife, what they actually imagine is an afterlife without the scenery; continued consciousness in a dark, silent void.”
Question from Austin:
I respect your choice of being atheist and it doesn’t bother me, in fact i’m very open minded as well.
Since you are atheist what do you think will happen when you die? Will there be nothing? Will you turn into a ghost? I’m just curious what an atheist thinks will happen when they die.
There won’t be nothing. There’ll be a body, or the remains of a body. However, the connections in my brain that currently store my memories, personality and identity will be destroyed very quickly as the brain cells die, so “I” will no longer exist and nothing will happen to me anymore.
When they try to imagine death without an afterlife, what a lot of people actually imagine is an afterlife without the scenery: continued consciousness in a dark, silent void. That’s because it’s really very hard to imagine oneself not existing. One’s imagination generally requires one to be there in some form as an observer, in this case as some kind of disembodied soul or ghost. While it’s easier to think of death as a continuation in this way, there’s nothing to back it up. When I die I won’t be around in any form, whether or not I can currently wrap my head around the idea.
So how do I reconcile the concept of final death, and where do I find my comfort? In thoughts of selflessness. The world will go on when I die because other people will live. I’ll have left my mark by simply existing for the short time that I did, but I probably won’t be any kind of focus for the people who come after me. Even if they remember me or follow my advice or teachings or something like that, they’ll do it for their own purposes. I will cease to be important when I cease to be, and that’s fine with me. Further, if I can do things in life which improve the welfare of those who come after, that makes me feel all fuzzy inside.
I should add that I don’t speak for all atheists on this matter. We’ve had a lot of questions from self-proclaimed atheists who do believe in ghosts or spirits, while not believing in gods and therefore remaining a-theists by strict definition. To them I say much the same thing as I say to theists: support your claims.
Incidentally, atheism isn’t a choice. For me it was a realisation. I don’t believe in gods, and I can’t force myself to any more than you could decide not to believe in a god. You could deny your god, but to stop believing in it you’d actually have to be convinced that it’s not there. Likewise, I’d have to be convinced that it is there, and if that happened I’d have no choice but to believe.
“An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in gods, not someone who’s gone through some kind of ritual or ceremony to “join” atheism.”
Question from Mandi:
I’m 12 and I’ve gone to a Catholic school for all of my school years. Ever since I was young I wondered if there really was a god. I never was really close to my parents and I don’t think I would be able to tell them that I want to become atheist. I was wondering if I could still become atheist after I receive confirmation?
An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in gods, not someone who’s gone through some kind of ritual or ceremony to “join” atheism. Whether or not you’ve had the ceremony to officially become a Catholic is irrelevant. If afterwards you don’t actually believe in the Christian god or any other, you may be a Catholic for life in the eyes of the church but you’ll still be an atheist. Even if nobody knows but you.
“Ultimately your parents will come to some form of understanding. That understanding could be anything from complete tolerance to the idea that you’re the devil incarnate.”
Question from Jarod:
My parents take me to church and expect me to believe in whatever they tell me to. I have had a limited say in anything regarding religion. After many months of questioning and doubt, I have finally come to terms with the fact that there is no god. A lot of my friends know and they don’t mind (in fact, a lot of my friends are atheists), but now I’m contemplating coming out to my parents. I am extremely nervous about telling them because they expect me to be a Christian. How do I approach them, and is now a good time? I’m only 14, by the way. Thanks.
It’s never a good time for something like this, from your parents’ perspective. It’s got to be done sometime though, because (among other things) if they still think you believe when you grow up and have kids of your own, they’ll expect you to indoctrinate the kids too.
I’m sure you realise that if you do it at 14 they have the ability to make your life hell for 4 years, whether or not they actually would. That said, if you think the situation will improve after you get this out in the open, or you don’t relish another 4 years of pretending, go for it and best of luck to you.
To soften the blow, say that you don’t believe in God anymore. The word “atheist” over and above that would probably be more shocking as the first thing out of your mouth, as if you came in and said, “Mum, Dad, I’m a Communist/Nazi/anarchist.” Sad in this day and age, but true. Not believing in God is a personal conclusion you’ve come to which they’ll need to deal with, whereas atheism might seem more like a bad crowd you’ve fallen in with and need shielding from. (That’s enough phrases ended with prepositions for today.)
There’s a chance, especially if they think your disbelief is a form of rebellion, that they’ll threaten you with punishment. Speak the simple truth: that it wouldn’t make you believe again. It might coerce you to pretend to believe, but an all-powerful god would see right through that. No, something would actually have to convince you to believe again.
They may subject you to some form of apologetics: a book, a video, a private session with a local preacher, or they might try their own hand. Look at it as an opportunity to crash-test your atheism. (That’s exactly why I started at ATA.) If they come up with an argument you haven’t already considered and dismissed, you can probably find a reply to it on this site. If they come up with something this site hasn’t answered, I want to know about it.
Ultimately your parents will come to some form of understanding. That understanding could be anything from complete tolerance to the idea that you’re the devil incarnate. Sorry, I can only predict the thoughts and actions of strangers up to a point. Regardless, you’ll have done it, you’ll have been honest and you won’t have to lie anymore.
Let us know how you go, if you like.
In fact, the ancient Romans referred to the first Christians as atheists because Christians didn’t worship Jupiter and the other “true” Roman gods, but nobody uses that definition anymore.
Question from Jill:
My question is this… Do atheists ever question other dieties? I was brought up Christian but always questioned many things that Christianity taught us. When I was around 25-26 I realixed that I was a Wiccan person at heart. Though I don’t believe in a God I do believe in a Goddess. I don’t see her as sitting somehere surrounded by light and clouds, I see her in everything in nature. The birds, the trees, etc.
Do atheists ever think of a “higher power” of any kind? I have no ill feelings towards atheists. I think every person has the right to believe what they want and nobody should tell them they’re wrong. That pisses me off. Thanks!
An atheist isn’t just a non-Christian, or Hindus and Zoroastrians would count as atheists. In fact, the ancient Romans referred to the first Christians as atheists because Christians didn’t worship Jupiter and the other “true” Roman gods, but nobody uses that definition anymore. By modern definition an atheist doesn’t believe in any deity or similar “higher power”, and it goes without saying that this includes your semi-pantheistic Wiccan goddess.
By stating one’s atheism or else belief in any particular deity, one is essentially telling anyone who doesn’t share one’s position that one thinks they’re wrong. Your Wiccanism, for instance, is not just different from Christianity but in open defiance of it. The sooner you and others learn not to take it personally, the happier everyone will be. Having said that, people are entitled, often motivated and in many cases commanded to convince others of what they think or believe is correct.
There’s a theological compromise that a lot of religious people eventually reach when faced with the prospect of loved ones who will never come around to their way of thinking: that God will forgive them (you) for the error.
Question from Andrew:
Since I was a small child I have been taken to church nearly every Sunday of my life. My mother and father being very religious people. They have attended many different denominations but the belief that the Bible is not only infallible but that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old remains.
When I was 12 I had to start to attend confirmation classes at the Lutheran church my parents were attending at the time. After hearing verse after verse I started questioning Christianity and the Bible all together and accepted Atheism by the end of that year. (In this particular church confirmation took three years) I remained a closeted Atheist until I was 16 and finally admitted to my parents that I was an Atheist (Other than a couple of Girlfriends I had never admitted that I was an Atheist) They were shocked and kicked me out of the house for about a day and then came looking for me. My mother said that she would always love me but I would have to repent or spend eternity burning in Hades.
Well, I’m still an Atheist and my parents still make me attend their church (I am 17 right now) They have never come to terms with my Atheism and whenever I question a facet of their religion they simply refuse to talk about it (My mother and father have both said that I will either repent or spend eternity burning in Hades). I will go to college next year, My question is: Even though I will leave their home and hopefully have a decent relationship with them will they ever come to terms with my Atheism?
Thank you very much.
If you and they maintain a relationship, they will probably come to terms with it. The difficulty may be in maintaining that relationship.
There’s a theological compromise that a lot of religious people eventually reach when faced with the prospect of loved ones who will never come around to their way of thinking: that God will forgive them (you) for the error. This is denied by the evangelical doctrine that everyone must personally accept Christ, but it’s an easy thing to believe given that God’s supposed to be able to forgive anything. Given enough time, it’s bound to occur to your parents.
Unfortunately if it does and they mention it to those in their church community, it will be flatly denied. They may end up having to keep your atheism a secret from their congregation in order to reconcile it for themselves, or be peer-pressured to keep witnessing to you.
That aside, I think it’s worth getting across to them that simply getting you into church won’t win you back to the flock. The Word isn’t much good to someone who’s already rejected it, without a bit of actual persuasion to make it stick. They must risk analysis of their own beliefs by opening an actual dialogue, because they’ve got no way to force it in.
Honestly, once you move out they’re not likely to cut you off entirely. That’s the time when they’ll miss you the most. And given time, and love which I’m sure is there, they will find a way to accept who you are and what you don’t believe. Just keep the lines open.
“In summary, we have a very old document which gets many things wrong as well as right, and contains no details which indicate that the things it got right were anything more than intuitive guesses, except for various passages which have been broadly interpreted millenia later in terms of what we now know.”
Question from Antonia:
I was debating some days ago with some (Orthodox) Christians and at some point of the conversation I was asked something rather puzzling and I wasn’t sure how to answer: We have evidence that the Book of Genesis was written at about 500-450 BC or at least before 150 BC (since the oldest manuscripts of the book of Genesis are the 24 fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and they are dating between 150 BC – 70 AD). The book talks about the creation of the world describing the events in the exact same order as scientists have confirmed in very recent discoveries; I am talking about the order in which water, land, the first animals and human appeared on earth. How can that happen? How can a book so old describe these events since the technology and science of that time was not as advanced as it is today? Of course they can only explain it as a word of God but I’m wondering if there’s some other explanation…
Firstly, I have no problem with that rough estimate of when the Book of Genesis was first written. The point of the emphasis on that is to establish simply that it was written before the emergence proper of astronomy, geology, biology and paleontology. That’s pretty obvious.
The reason such an early document can describe the events – not in that much detail, really, but at least in roughly the right order – is that in many cases they seem as if they couldn’t have happened any other way. Humans eat meat and plants, and animals eat plants, so animals must have come after plants and humans after that. There had to be earth (the Earth, which incidentally they thought was flat and had “corners”) for water to settle on, and the water had to be moved aside for land to appear. For the purposes of the authors when Genesis was written, it merely had to sound right, so it does.
Between picking the obvious stuff, Genesis makes glaring mistakes. The main one is saying that day and night, and plants, let alone the Earth itself, were created before the sun (one of the two “great lights”) was. The scientific view is that the Earth formed around the sun 500 million years into its lifespan, that plants came well after that and that the sun causes day and night. Besides this, in Genesis animals emerged in just two short bursts over two days: sea creatures and birds together, then land animals. (That places most dinosaurs after birds, instead of the reverse.) A creationist (probably an old-earth creationist, if the issue has gotten this detailed) might then argue that science has these things wrong, but by doing so would completely abandon the argument that Genesis reflects modern science.
Then, of course, there’s also no sense of timescales in Genesis except the passage of the six days. Even if you apply “day-age creationism”, where each Biblical day represents huge amounts of time, the different days have to stand for different intervals ranging from a few million years to several billion, and there’s no sign of which days are the longest.
In summary, we have a very old document which gets many things wrong as well as getting some things right, and contains no details which indicate that the things it got right were anything more than intuitive guesses – except for various passages which have been broadly interpreted millennia later in terms of what we now know. See my piece on prophecies; the apparently accurate parts of Genesis are candidates for #1. High Probability of Success and #4. Shoehorned.
This is the relativist position: the moral absolutes are either unknown or non-existent and therefore irrelevant.
Question from Steven:
I have been debating morality with a theist, and I was a little unclear about moral relativism and the implications of the law.
1. Does a moral relativist have to be an anarchist?
2. How can relativists agree upon any set of laws?
This is specifically in reference to Dawkins wanting the pope put in prison, and my friend is arguing that as a relativist you can’t judge a child rapist.
Thanks for the help.
This will become a reference point for similar questions, as this comes up a lot these days.
Firstly, this has no bearing on your discussion of the Pope and the Catholic Church, because child rape is wrong according to the tenets of the Church itself. Even if non-believers couldn’t judge the rapists and all accessories, the Church must do or be proven hypocritical. And now that’s out of the way.
Now to answer your questions directly:
1. No, relative (non-absolute) morals are still morals and still have worth and can still be supported. Same with laws, so anarchy is not necessary.
2. Relativists can and do agree on laws by examining their relative merit and picking what appear to be the best ones.
Moral relativism, in the sense your theist means, is the opposite of moral absolutism. Your theist thinks that God has set certain moral absolutes for us, which are supported by His divine authority, and without these no moral judgement can be supported – even the judgement that child rape is bad and should be punished.
Without being assured of the existence of a particular god as described in some religion, there’s no way to know what the universe’s absolute morals are, if any. This is the relativist position: the moral absolutes are either unknown or non-existent and therefore irrelevant. In their place, we use very similar moral codes – most codes condemn murder and dishonesty, value generosity and compassion and so forth – but we support them with things besides gods: history, the law, basic human empathy, the reasoning of philosophers (including some religious ones), abstract principles like reciprocity and the minimisation of harm and so on.
According to any of the above, to take your instance, child rape is wrong and immoral, the perpetrators deserve punishment and the victims deserve protection and/or compensation. You can reason from first principles that this is the case, for example…
– via the law: child rape is explicitly outlawed nearly everywhere.
– via harm minimisation: child rape harms the child for no good reason.
– via human empathy: you wouldn’t want to feel what the child feels while being raped.
Therefore, especially when you use several approaches, you have an objective and literally reasonable basis for your moral judgements.
The issue is that any of these objective but non-absolute bases can be challenged and judgements dismissed, whereas the divine authority of hypothetical moral absolutes cannot be trumped. This is true, and as a moral relativist (again, anyone who isn’t a moral absolutist) one must be prepared to defend one’s morality when challenged. The important thing is that one can defend oneself with logic, precedent and documentation.
Moral absolutists, on the other hand, defend only one thing: the existence of moral absolutes. If they can establish that, their righteousness in this matter is assured, but they have not and possibly cannot. (For more information, see my discussion of recent attempts.)
Ultimately, we must all choose on what to base our morality: on a combination of the flawed but sturdy and obviously real systems available to us on this planet (which usually work together very well), or on a supposedly perfect and all-encompassing moral code which may not even be there.
“Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, using various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing to support one adjustment over another.”
The argument, as straightforwardly put by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:
1. Moral facts exist.
2. Moral facts have the properties of being objective and non-natural.
3. The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is provided by theism.
4. Therefore the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking theism is true.
A common opinion of the religious is that a person can’t be good without God. This argument goes a step further and says that because we know what is good and right and what is wrong, there must be a God.
A more widely used name for a “moral fact” is a “moral absolute” or “absolute moral”. It’s a standing judgement that something is either right or wrong, no matter what. In practical terms, it is what it is regardless of what people think. It’s true anywhere in the world, at any time. It’s the moral equivalent of a logical axiom or a fundamental universal constant.
Since the existence of moral facts is the first premise, and the second premise depends on it, the whole thing hinges on whether they can actually be established. So how do apologists go about doing this? Most of the time, they point out moral judgements which nearly everyone agrees on, such as that murder, rape or an event like the Holocaust is/was bad and wrong.
This won’t do, because moral facts or absolutes as described in these arguments are supposed to be independent of human beings. They’re specific properties of the universe like the laws of physics or logic, written into it by a god. If every human being on Earth disagreed with one (from the religious perspective, if all of humanity turned against God), it would still stand. Therefore the true moral absolutes (if any) could be completely at odds with near-universal human opinions, and so the fact that there are near-universal human moral opinions doesn’t make them absolutes. It just means humans have things in common.
A blogger arguing for moral absolutes challenged me to come up with a reasonable way to see the Holocaust (among other horrible actions) as a good thing. The implication was that if I failed, our near-universal condemnation of the Holocaust had to be based on a moral absolute. That’s wrong, as I’ve just explained, but I took him up on it anyway. All I had to do to contradict him was step outside of the human race and consider the Holocaust from the perspective of ants, or termites. Fewer Jews in Germany meant more abandoned houses in the ghettos, so more food and living space for bugs of all kinds. The Holocaust was so obviously wrong to humans, but if it loses its tragedy when exclusively human concerns are ignored then that’s hardly an absolute.
Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, supporting one adjustment over another with various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing. It appears that we’ve done it all ourselves, completely independent and ignorant of what any true absolute moral facts might be.
“Everyone needs to recognise that belief or non-belief is not a choice as such, and people all have their own ideas about God or other gods.”
Question from Omar:
I’ve considered myself an atheist all my life. I don’t believe a god exists, I believe there’s a greater force beyond our understanding, a force that has made evolution possible, that has made things fit into place but do not be mistaken I speak of a force, don’t quite know how to put it, let’s say a great coincidence that everything is the way it is, something perinormal like James Randi says. Well it doesn’t matter much since it’s got nothing to do with my question.
I’m from Mexico, I live on the border with the USA. I’ve been with my girlfriend for the past 2 years and she’s christian. I’ve been going to church with her ever since just because she asks me to. While living with her and spending time with her family I’ve seen that they firmly believe that being christian is the way of life that will bring them salvation(salvation from what?).
Before they were christian they were catholic and when the subject of religion arises(which is often) they say how wrong other poeple’s beliefs are and stuff like that, they sound really extremist?. My family is catholic and honestly i’ve never heard them or any other catholic friend speak like that of people(christian specifically) that do not share their beliefs. I do not know how well informed you are of how religion is seen in my country since from what i’ve read christianity seems different from what I have seen here(Mexico)and seen in other places and that 90% of the population in my country is catholic.
Now all these situations(my disbelief and lack of faith and catholic family) cause a lot of problems in our relationship if you could give me some advice on how to manage the situation. i’ve considered converting into christianity just so that the issues are solved but haven’t because i still believe that i can speak sense into her(but haven’t really tried to be honest it scares me)
Catholics are Christians too, you know. It’s still all about Christ. Your girlfriend and her family obviously belong to another denomination, or to a group of evangelicals that considers itself beyond denominations. If they have some special vitriol for Catholicism, it’s probably at least based on Protestantism.
While you’re free to go along with her family’s religion to some extent (and have no God of your own to offend by doing so), there’s nothing you can do about your Catholic family short of converting them all as well. Unless your whole family caves in completely, religion will probably always be a source of conflict between the two families as long as you and your girlfriend are together. It probably won’t help much if you yourself convert outwardly.
That doesn’t mean the relationship is not worth pursuing. Since you and your girlfriend are together despite faith and not because of it, your relationship must be supported by other things you share. It just means that you’ll probably always be caught between two conflicting faiths.
The key in the end will be tolerance. Everyone needs to recognise that belief or non-belief is not a choice as such, and people all have their own ideas about God or other gods. Taking you to church won’t convert you after a set period; something actually has to convince you. Your family sees no reason to switch denominations, any more than her family does. And you mustn’t expect anyone else’s belief to evaporate in a day, without some life-changing experience.
The crucial thing, for me, is that religion is a part of our daily lives only as much as we want it to be. If religion is interfering with your family life, it’s because you two and your families are making it an issue. You’re in love right now, and you’ve got plenty of time to sort this stuff out. When people understand that, you may have less trouble.
Your situation is close to my own experience, but our religious troubles are within both my family and my wife’s, so we’re not caught in the crossfire. I have it much easier, I think.
I hope those you care about can learn to live with each other, Omar. Keep us posted if you like, via comments. If anyone else has advice, speak up.