Suicide

“Death to an atheist is essentially a tremendous waste of opportunity and potential. It’s also actual death, rather than a passport to another life. It’s not often worth hastening.”

Question from Sam:

Hi,

If I commit suicide, I will:

1) Not experience any of the harms of life.

2) Not miss any of the benefits of life.

So why not commit suicide?

Answer:
Hi. You tell me. Why haven’t you done it yet? Purely because a god told you not to? I don’t think so, or you’d be constantly wishing He’d let you.

If you commit suicide, you will:

1) Not be able to do anything about the harms of life.

2) No longer experience any of the benefits of life.

If you care at all about others, you have an opportunity to help them only when you’re alive. Even if they end up getting your help after you die, in your will for example, you have to prepare for it while you’re still with us. It’s the other people in this world that keep most of us in it, I think. As Robert Frost wrote, we all have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. They can be some fulfilling miles.

If on the other hand all you care about is yourself, then it’s up to you to decide whether the benefits of life still available to you are worth the “harms” you’re likely to go through. Because life is absolutely teeming with potential benefits, depending on what you like, only in really awful cases does the answer to this reasonably approach “no”. It does happen, however, which is why there is a certain amount of support for voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill.

Death to an atheist is essentially a tremendous waste of opportunity and potential. It’s also actual death, rather than a passport to another life. It’s not often worth hastening.

SmartLX

Materialism, Free Will and Rationality

“Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics.”

Question from Graham:
If atheism is true then it would seem that materialism – physical matter is all that exists – is also true. If that is so, is it possible for there to be free will?

Materialism would seem to imply that everything functions in a purely mechanical way, with molecules simply interacting according to the laws of physics, and that would seem to leave no room for free will.

If there is no free will then it would seem to be impossible for us to engage in rational discussion. After all, the product of our “minds” would be determined entirely by a long chain of molecular interactions rather than by non-physical reasons.

Atheism implies materialism: materialism implies a mechanistic universe: a mechanistic universe implies no free will: and no free will implies non-rationality.

Do you agree?

Answer:
I’m with you some of the way, because I don’t believe in free will.

This is for roughly the reason you give. Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics, and for which there is no evidence.

That’s not to say that will doesn’t exist. We still want things, and we do what we want to do. The absence of free will simply means that we can’t choose what to want. We are driven by our desires. If we refuse to do something we want to, it’s because we want something else more. For example, if you want to lose weight, you don’t eat the big cake.

Will is an example of an abstract concept which accompanies the materialistic worldview for functional purposes. It’s a word which effectively describes an action or quality without physical presence except for a representation in the brain. In a physical sense, my will is a subset of my neurons which stores my short-term and long-term desires and coaxes my brain as a whole to think of other things in terms of those.

There is a long list of such concepts, which fall into the category “information”, including opinions, rules, agreements and of course discussions. A rational discussion is taking place between us, as defined thus: relevant, related information is getting from your brain to mine and vice versa, roughly as intended, through the media of our hands, our keyboards and a ton of networked hardware.

The religious or dualist alternative is that the discussion is essentially taking place between our souls through our subservient brains in addition to all the other media. The only difference is the nature of the participants, since the same information is exchanged. I submit then that if a discussion between two souls is rational then the same discussion must be rational between two brains, or for that matter two computers or other groups of molecules. Of course the brain is a computer, so it’s a thin distinction.

I suspect you have a definition of rationality in mind which makes a much larger distinction, and I’d like to hear it.

SmartLX

What was a question that made you question your faith?

“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!”

Answer:
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.

SmartLX

Christian Atrocities vs Atheist Atrocities

“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)

Answer:
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.”

SmartLX

Deism and Atheism

“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.

Answer:
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.

SmartLX

Atheism an “argument from ignorance”?

“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?

Answer:
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.

SmartLX

Evidence in the Bible

“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?”

Answer:
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.

SmartLX

Where’d it all come from? Religion, that is?

“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?

Answer:
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.

SmartLX

Atheism is F***ing Metal

” 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?

Answer:
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.

SmartLX

Talking to God

“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?

Answer:
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.

SmartLX