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

Spirits?

“The existence of spirits doesn’t automatically mean that there’s a god. There are religions out there with many various lesser spirits and no centralised deity.”

Question from Ron:
i have seen quite a few “spirit” beings (not good ones). i have checked online and many many other random people have had seen the same beings as me..doesnt it mean the spirit world exists? if all these people in diffent walks in life happen to see the same weird beings it must be more than a fluke
if the spirit world exists then god must exist

trust i would be very happy to hear “i am just hallucinating” for no apparent reason

Answer:
If you are hallucinating or otherwise “seeing things”, and others have seen the same as you, then there might be something you and the other witnesses have in common which has made you see similar things – light conditions, medical conditions, etc. Not to say you’re necessarily impaired, but you never know.

Without details I can’t make very educated guesses about what you saw, and others reading this can’t tell whether their experiences might be the same. Therefore, feel free to comment and describe the apparitions and the circumstances in as much depth as you like. That will allow us out here to do the same research you did, and compare your story to those of others.

The existence of spirits doesn’t automatically mean that there’s a god. There are religions out there with many various lesser spirits and no central deity.

SmartLX

Ask from the Past: What makes science and history more true than religion?

“Once you stop looking for absolute certainty, you start to judge these things on their actual merit.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions was found in the approval queue. I’m answering them here in Ask from the Past, and this is the last one.)

Question from Nym:
Hello.

I was recently in a debate against something on the topic of religion (namely, Christianity) vs science. I was debating for the scientific side. It was going well, but then he brought up a couple of questions that I didn’t know how to respond to.

1. What makes science so accurate?

Here, he was explaining to me how science is “proven wrong a lot more than Christianity is.” He brings up the example where he claims that the Bible says the world is spherical (he says the word used in Hebrew means “spherical”), whereas science didn’t prove this until much later. He later goes on to say that since science is proven wrong so many times, how can we accept it as truth? I explain that we can’t completely prove anything, but then he says why we should accept science over religion if it is sometimes wrong. His final statement regarding this part of the debate is “[One] should spend less time arguing why religion is wrong and more time arguing why science is accurate.” The one thing I did not want to fall back on is the word “faith.” I mean we can reproduce experiments and get similar results, but how do we know that this is really the true nature behind what we are observing? The scientific method does exist so that it can adjust when something is proven wrong, but we can’t really be certain when we’ve reached the pinnacle of truth.

2. Is believing in history not the same as believing in religion?

I brought up how Jesus’ existence is disputable, using the 40 year gap between his supposed death and the story of Saul of Tarsus; how there was no historical account of Jesus in that gap of time. He rebuttals, “They were all persecuted.” I couldn’t respond to this one. Any more explanations I could use would be very helpful.

Something else he said included “How can you believe anything in history over the Bible?” I see where he was getting at. For example, how can we prove that Napoleon existed? History says that he did, but what can do to prove that? We may have historical accounts of people who were supposedly there during that period, but how do know if those are reliable; at least, any more reliable than accounts in the Bible? We can’t really prove anything other than what we observe, and even then, who’s to say that our eyes don’t deceive us?

Thank you very much for reading.

Answer:
A lot of apologists think of using the “historical” Jesus and Biblical ties to modern science as bringing out the big guns. They’re tough to rebut if you don’t have the answers on you, especially if you’re not familiar with the Bible quotes they use.

I’ll tackle the spherical earth claim first: the passage is most likely Isaiah 40:22 which says, “He sits upon the circle of the earth…” The Hebrew word in the original text that translates to “circle” is gh, which unsurprisingly means “circle”. It’s rwd that means “sphere”. (I got that from a bible study site, mind you.) If this is what your opponent was referring to, he was wrong. The author of the Book of Isaiah (whether Isaiah or not) might have been referring to a flat earth, or the circle of the horizon as visible from a high place, or any number of things.

It’s true, scientific information is found to be false all the time. That information which replaces it is nearly always more accurate. Furthermore, it’s usually found to be false in small ways; that the Earth is 100 million years older or younger than was estimated last time, for example. That’s hardly a reason to chuck it all out and say it’s 6000 years old instead of over four billion.

While I’m on the age of the Earth, it’s been found to be billions of years old in many different ways. Whenever anything on the planet is dated to more than ten thousand years ago, a doctrine of Christianity (among others) is proven wrong again. Every generation that goes by without Jesus returning is a further contradiction of his supposed prediction that he’d be back within just one, unless he meant something out of the ordinary by “generation”. Christianity at least rivals science when it comes to being wrong.

Absolute truth is probably unattainable as long as the absolutes of the universe (if any) are unknown to us, but we can try to get closer all the time. Long before we reach that point, we reach a point where even if our underlying hypotheses are wrong, they approximate the truth closely enough to be useful. When science reaches that point, it’s able to make concrete predictions which can then be tested. This is one major area where it deviates from the Bible: what predictions can that be used to make which can be tested in the near future, as opposed to interpreting it in hindsight to match events which have already happened (much, much easier, and not just with the Bible)?

Getting on to Jesus, the authors of the New Testament were likely persecuted even after they’d written and distributed it. What I find more interesting is that they would have been very old when they did, as 25-30 years was the life expectancy at the time, or if later people wrote it then it was all second-hand.

While we can never be absolutely certain of history, a bit like science, evidence accumulates which can give us a great deal of confidence in it. Here’s a sample of what we have of Napoleon that we lack for Jesus:
– Consistent likenesses, from life-size statues to portraits for which he posed in person to coins which were minted and used during his lifetime.
– Writings by the man himself, starting from a manuscript he wrote at 17 and ending very shortly before his death in exile.
– First-hand accounts by hundreds of people, all of them undisputed real people, of personal dealings with him and his appearances before hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens, written within days of the events…rather than accounts mostly written in the third person by a handful of authors so disputed as to be effectively anonymous, of his appearances before hundreds, most of whom were illiterate (the literacy rate in first century Israel/Palestine was about 3%), written years or decades later.

Once you stop looking for absolute certainty, you start to judge these things on their actual merit. One can be far, far more confident in a historical Napoleon than a historical Jesus. It worries me that this was not plain to your opponent.

SmartLX

Ask from the Past: can it ALL be wrong?

“Only faith makes a miracle seem at all likely, all things considered.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from Mike1234:
What about all the things that people have seen like ghost or anything physical or somthing happening out of the norm, is it all just mental and in your head. There have been so many things that people have seen or strange things happening to people that you may of never heard, but in order to not believe in a god everything would have had to been mental or proved scientifically.

According to what i have heard people have had broken arms healed in front of their face and even someone on tv said they have seen a limb regenerate in front of their face.Yes i know some people can be liars, but for every sigle one to be a lie or just something mental would be really rare out of the all those people who had a experience which is probably tons and tons of people. People have become unblind physically at crusades or other supposable things happening according to what i have heard.

Or somebody on tv said that god took him to hell and then brought him back. He said he came out of his body and was physically in hell and then Jesus took him out telling him that many of his own people don’t believe in this place. His wife saw him on the ground holding his head and then jesus brought him back. He said it wasn’t a dream and it was real.or what about some guy getting hit by a semi or car or something and was told by police that he was dead on arrival but somebody, who happened to be a christian out of nowhere started praying for him for about maybe 15 minutes or so, and im not sure if he even knew the guy or not, and the guy cam back. The guy who was hit talked about his experience and how he actually saw a gate ahead of him and how the bible describes it and all, but as soon as he was approaching it he went back into his body.

I am not saying that this is true or anything even though the people sound like they are really telling the truth, but for every single experience to be a lie or something mental or something that can be scientifical would be hard. It would seem like it would take more faith to say that everyone of those is a lie or something else rather then to believe one and have to believe in some type of divine being.

Answer:
It would take something akin to faith to say with absolute certainty that every one of those claims was utterly false, especially without hearing them all first-hand. That’s why atheists don’t tend to do that.

Perhaps a man did manage to regenerate a limb on the spot, I don’t know. I’ll wait for the evidence, if any. Since it’s extremely unlikely given the little that I know about human anatomy, I’ll assume for the moment that it didn’t really happen. If I’m wrong and evidence comes along later, I’ll be surprised and fascinated.

You raise an interesting point about the sheer number of extraordinary claims, Mike. Just how unlikely is it that all of these people are either wrong or lying? Not as unlikely as you’d think at a glance. Even if several such claims emerged every day, you must remember that such claims are picked up and trumpeted by the media wherever they’ve come from. Out of six billion people, if something has a chance of a million to one you would still expect it to happen to six thousand of them. If it’s newsworthy, the whole world might well hear about most of them.

What’s more difficult to calculate is the probability of a miracle, versus the probability of a lie or an error. What makes a lie likely is that telling an extravagant lie often gets a lot of attention, and can be profitable. You can usually understand why a claimant would be lying if he or she is. What tends to make an error likely, on the other hand, is usually the state of the claimant at the time of the event. You can imagine what I mean by that.

Only faith makes a miracle seem at all likely, all things considered.

SmartLX

Ask from the Past: The EPR Paradox

“A quantum physicist I ain’t, but I know they get upset when quantum mechanics are essentially used as pseudoscience.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from Linkinism:
You can find information on this and quantum mechanics in many books and websites. How do you interpret this information? One with faith may interpret these theories and postulates as proof of a higher beings existence, but how does an athiest view these things?

Answer:
With great interest, but not a lot of concern.

A quantum physicist I ain’t, but I know they get upset when quantum mechanics are essentially used as pseudoscience. The usual formula is this: according to quantum mechanics, something extraordinary happens for which there is no explanation. Therefore, God (or whoever you want) makes it happen.

The EPR paradox goes a step further than claiming the extraordinary. I won’t go into the details, but not only does it imply that incredible things happen but the three scientists who came up with it used it to argue that quantum mechanics is an incomplete theory. As a bonus, the E in EPR was Albert Einstein.

Things have come along since 1935 but we know full well that quantum theory is currently incomplete. The most glaring omission is that it has no explanation for gravity. (A theory of quantum gravity is one of the big goals right now.) That means there’s lots of room for a God-of-the-gaps for those who want to insert one, but it hardly makes it necessary to do so.

Just because there’s no explanation for something yet doesn’t mean a god is the only possible explanation, so theists can’t make much of a proof out of the EPR paradox or any other area of science which is relatively poorly understood. That doesn’t stop some from trying, or at least declaring that there is a proof to be had.

SmartLX

Ask from the Past: What Am I?

“Going by the word alone, an atheist (a-theist) is someone without a theistic belief. That includes deists.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from friendlyagnostic:
I go back and forth between deism and straight up agnosticism, so normally I call myself an agnostic deist (not theist). Most of the time I don’t know and I really don’t care (unless religion is in my face), but when I do think there might be a “higher power”, I think of it in deistic terms. theism makes no sense to me. I would never be arrogant enough to say “I know” or that “I can prove” b/c this is impossible. I consider myself a non-theist. however, according to the defintion on rrs’s website, I am considered an atheist too, just b/c I am not a theist. Is everyone who is not a theist an atheist? Am I, even with my deistic leanings? I honestly want to know……thanks

Answer:
A deist is not a theist, that much is clear and easy.

If you think there’s a good chance of a deistic god, but you don’t know, then you’re an agnostic deist. That’s pretty clear too. So we just have to work out what else you could be called at the same time.

An atheist by the everyday definition is someone who doesn’t believe in gods of any sort, even deistic gods. That rules you out.

Going by the word alone, though, an atheist (a-theist) is someone without a theistic belief. That includes deists.

Regardless, I couldn’t comfortably call you an atheist without qualification, because the way people understand the word it includes the position of a-deism.

If you really wanted to nail it to the letter, you could say that you’re an atheist but not an a-deist. If I shared your position, though, I wouldn’t bother. I’d just self-identify as an agnostic deist and not worry about whether I was technically an atheist too.

SmartLX

Ask from the Past: Religion, Family and Children

“Given how hesitant you are to come out of the closet, are you certain you’re the only one in there?”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from Watcher:
I’m a deconverted ex-theist who lives in the Bible Belt. I was raised Southern Baptist and, as far as I know, all of my family is religious. I have young daughters and my mother has approached me saying that she is ‘dissapointed’ that I am not indoctrinating her grandchildren with religion. The main problem is that I have found myself unable to tell her that I am now an “atheist”.

Knowing that she does this out of love, and truly believes that they will go to Hell if I do not take steps to make them accept Jesus as their Saviour I find myself in a quandry. I’m still rather bitter at religion myself and at first thought would rather raise them to question theological claims.

This situation has the potential to create a serious rift in my family. Heck it would have been better if I was just gay. That wouldn’t create near the controversy. But now I don’t know what to do. She would probably go into a mental ward if she knew the truth about me. I work with people that don’t believe in evolution and believe in a young earth. I have no idea where to find advice for my situation where I live.

Answer:
I think you’re dead right about the potential impact of declaring yourself “atheist” in a staunch Southern Baptist family. In some places and communities the word has a really disproportionate stigma.

However, give your mother more credit. That you’re not Bible-thumping your girls and that you probably don’t go to church much will have at least made her realise that you’re not very religious anymore. (I find “not religious” to be a great euphemism for “atheist” if I don’t want a conversation to suddenly be about that.) That you no longer believe might not be such a big shock.

If you capitulated but only at a surface level, you wouldn’t be the first parent teaching your kids family traditions for the sake of their grandparents. You haven’t said how old the girls are, but what if they were in on it, so to speak? What if your stance toward them were like this? “Listen, it’s really important to Grandma that you learn this stuff, and can say it when you’re asked, but whether you believe any of it is up to you.” Even better, if your daughters are going to learn prayers and catechism anyway, why not grab some library books and make a comparative religion class out of it? They might find it fascinating to learn about Zeus and Buddha as well as Jesus.

If you’re not willing to go that far, then you probably will have an unpleasant confrontation or two on your hands. For your daughters’ sake, of course you’ll leave them well out of it until you and your family reach an understanding. Look on the bright side: you might get lucky and find kindred spirits within the family. Given how hesitant you are to come out of the closet, are you certain you’re the only one in there?

Given that this is an Ask from the Past, I hope you get this and it’s still of some use to you, and things have gone well in the meantime.

SmartLX

Ask from the Past: Evolution vs Creation Conundrum

On the “croco-duck”: “Birds evolved from reptiles, all right, but you’re never going to find a fossil that shows a transition between two modern species.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. In Ask from the Past I’ll be working through them.)

Question from Katoi5:
I am in the difficult process of completely renouncing my faith, I’m pretty much an Atheist, but I think I am more of an agnostic. My problem is with Creationists and how they are insisting that there are no transitional form fossils in the fossil record and Evolutionists insisting that there are several.

Since I can’t physically see these fossils for myself I can’t prove to myself once and for all that they are in fact real. Who can I believe? For any Atheist who has seen or knows for a fact these transitional forms exist, please let me know and perhaps tell me where I can find out more about them. If in fact there are transitional forms, then are creationists lying or do they really not know?

Thank-you

Answer:
As Richard Dawkins explains in his new book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, there’d be plenty of evidence even if not a single fossil had been unearthed, let alone obvious transitional forms. As it happens, there are lots of them.

All fossils are transitional in a sense because evolution is an ongoing process. The three most famous fossilised creatures who make great examples are Ambulocetus (literally “walking whale”, a huge sea mammal who hadn’t lost his legs yet), Tiktaalik (partway between a fish and an amphibian reptile) and “Lucy” the Australopithecus afarensis (a primate with an ape-sized brain and an upright gait). In each of these skeletons, both the type of animal it evolved from and the type it would eventually evolve into is startlingly obvious.

It can be difficult to see the fossils in person, for instance because “Lucy” is in Africa where she was found. If you have the resources and the mobility, however, they really do exist and you can go chasing them if you really need to. Otherwise, Google Images can quickly round up photos and drawings of them from all over.

Individual creationists may deny the existence of transitional fossils for any of several reasons:
– They haven’t heard of the famous ones.
– They have heard of the famous ones, but they’re trying to persuade those who haven’t. (Sophistry alert.)
– They maintain a definition of “transitional fossil” which does not match the reality. (Take Ray Comfort’s famous “croco-duck”: half-crocodile, half-duck. Birds evolved from reptiles, all right, but you’re never going to find a fossil that shows a transition between two modern species. There isn’t a straight line of descent between distant cousins.)

While as I said the complete absence of fossils would not harm Darwin’s theory, the well-known transitional forms we do have make the process of evolution just that little bit more visible and comprehensible. That’s anathema to creationists, hence the campaigns of denial.

SmartLX

Can an atheist be spiritual?

“Visualising spirits, or spiritual energy, can be tremendously helpful in some circumstances (martial arts, for instance, or meditation) even if you don’t accept for a second that there’s anything really there.”

Question from Ace:
I attend my local Unitarian Universalist church, engage in or observe other people’s ceremonies and Celebrations and once a week I have my own ‘Ritual’ Day where I might light some candles, Incense and Sage to set the mood, Meditate, Read, Dance, Drum, Garden, Do Yoga and engage in many other Practices that would help me to feel re-connected to myself and able to go back out into life the next day…
Yet…
I do not believe in any God or gods of ANY Kind-Not The Universe, Not Nature, Not God is within or God is love, I also do not believe in the supernatural-No Ghosts or Angels, Magick or Prayer, I am not superstitious as far as I know..I have tried to ignore and deny these needs and desires to be involved in these Rituals and Celebrations and I have even explored different traditions such as Buddhism, Pantheism, Paganism and Though each of them can be Atheistic I dont find them to be a complete fit and they still have beliefs and practices that are outside of common sense and logic for me…Help!

Answer:
I think you answer your own question, by being a very spiritual atheist. The rituals and activities you mention all have documented benefits for the human body and/or mind, and do not require supernatural assistance to be useful or pleasurable.

Visualising spirits, or spiritual energy, can be tremendously helpful in some circumstances (martial arts, for instance, or meditation) even if you don’t accept for a second that there’s anything really there. This is what a lot of people think of as spirituality.

Get on Google and read some articles by Sam Harris. He’s one of the four major “New Atheists”, but he takes from Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies a great deal of instruction in spirituality. He actually catches a great deal of guff for it from other atheists, but I don’t think he’s actually contradicting himself.

SmartLX