Nothing, Something, Everything

Question from Niki:
Hi, it’s me again, with my ORIGIN OF MATTER IN EMPTY SPACE question. Or not so empty, even before the big-bang.

I tried again googling the question with some other words, like what caused the big-bang, why then and not sooner or later, and how did the matter in whatever is called singularity, or is it the event of big-bang that is called so, or both, how did the material got there and where it came from.

So, having read this time what Stephen Hawking says on the issue, as well as many other relevant articles, I got to realize that science has no idea where that matter, that later big-banged, came from and how it got there. So much for the answer about the origin of matter, cos big-bang only explains what happened to the matter in singularity, after it had been there for no one knows how long, but not the origin of that matter there.

But, here I have another question. It has to do with the notion that if THAT matter came out of nowhere and that in the moment of singularity time was created, it’s totally unfathomable for my earthen brain, dumb or smart, relevantly educated or not, then what is the difference from that with the divine creation. So, the matter we now see and know is out there, and we ourselves are part of it, came from nothing, say the scientists and it satisfies the scientists who say so, however it does not satisfy the lay people who believe in divine creation of matter. And now I wonder, what is the difference between the origin of matter being from nothing, scientifically, and from a divine entity, again from nothing.

My answer, and I believe all scientists who claim it came out of nothing, but not from divine entity, is that the difference is really MAJOR, that in case of origin of matter from the universe, or its state before the big-bang occurred, there was no intelligent and intentional agency that created matter out of nothing, whilst in case of so called ‘god’, this entity is intelligent and intentionally created matter, no one of them can tell us the reason, motif for ‘god’ doing so, again out of thin air, as is the case of what scientists claim. No intelligent or any other intention. Just an accident, for scientists, and intelligence and intention for the believers. Or, the universe, let’s call it so, before the big bang, was such a place, that it had in it the ‘pre-matter’, and it once happened to get into this little spot (or was forever in the past, before, in it), and then blew up. Why, what is the cause of it in both solutions, according to the law of causality, or we are asked to believe Einstein who told us time began then, so there is no sense in asking what happened before, thou there is very much the question of the origin of the matter in the little ball, what caused the scientific explanation, and divine one too, it is interesting to know, but even more interesting, in my humble opinion, cos my knowledge of physics is from the secondary grammar school…well, I was listening to the teacher and reading my physics text book. But, still, very modest knowledge. However, I now have ample time and internet, together with great curiosity and kinda master English, so I think, think, think. And, what I finally realized is that even Stephen Hawking does not know, so I am OK with not knowing the first question of the thinking brain: the origin of matter. So, what is YOUR take of it?

I, of course, don’t ask about the purpose of humanity or whatever happens and is felt and thought of, decided by our brains, our consciousness, cos I firmly believe in the causality law, that says everything is a consequence of previous causes, a chain of them, and going backwards in time I came to the beginning of the universe, where the first question was awaiting me and every thinking human, well not everybody, cos MOZART thought of better things than I do, how to move my feelings. And believed in ‘god’ firmly, my darling Wolfgang… So, no purpose in anything, and thus not even in humanity. But, since life is kinda nice, then we want to live it, thou we will die one day, just as we go to a holiday knowing it will be over soon. Well, holidays will repeat themselves, but there are nice things we do, thou knowing they will be over once and forever, just as is human life. But while we are here, why not enjoy the journey?! And, as for unhappy, sad lives, people normally don’t end them themselves, evolution took care of that, for good or for bad in their cases…

Answer by SmartLX:
You’ve certainly given this a lot of thought Niki. My thoughts on these matters are similar in many ways.

The scientific hypothesis that the universe came from nothing uses a nuanced definition of “nothing”, because it can refer to the “quantum foam” or some other ground state. The simplest explanation I’ve read is that it counted as nothing because its total energy was zero. It was unstable, so from the zeroed-out state emerged a positive quantity and a negative quantity at the same time: matter and antimatter, which then acted out the Big Bang and everything that followed. When you added it all up it was still zero, so rather than something from nothing it was technically a case of nothing from nothing. The entire universe may be a zero sum game, and one of many at that, since there’s no indication that the quantum foam went anywhere.

The theistic alternative to this is that a god existed before the universe, made the universe, and still influences it to this day. It’s impossible to prove that this didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean there’s any good evidence that it did, or particularly that there’s good reason to believe that it did. There are reasons mind you, and Christians will happily tell you theirs, but it must be asked whether those reasons are good ones.

One point I haven’t seen many people raise is that we’ve never seen anything come out of absolutely nothing. New objects, new lifeforms and even new thoughts consist of the matter and energy that came before. When the Kalam Cosmological Argument claims as a premise that everything that began to exist has a cause, it has no basis to extend it to something that may have come from nothing, except for an assertion about the universe that pre-empts the conclusion of the argument. We don’t know what it takes for something to emerge from nothing in a void without time or space, if anything is required at all.

Adam and Eve, not Ug and Eev!

Question from Dontay:
Evidence of dinosaurs has been found…museums show that cavemen existed…. But… How can cavemen be real if Adam and Eve are supposedly the first people on earth?

Answer by SmartLX:
If by “cavemen” you simply mean people who lived in caves and hunted and gathered for a living, then perhaps Adam and Eve’s immediate descendants did that once the garden of Eden was closed to them. The timing doesn’t work out at all when you count the supposed 34 generations from the Biblical Adam to the Biblical and historical King David and compare them to the scientifically estimated dates of the cavemen’s remains, but people who are motivated to prop up the story of Genesis will accept it anyway.

If on the other hand you mean Neanderthals and other departed species within the genus Homo, there you have a conflict which is less easily dismissed. The story goes that God not only made Man more or less in his present form (or a super-version that was huge and could live for centuries) but He made Man in his own image, which is poorly defined but usually taken to mean an image of perfection. “Lesser” or more primitive versions of Man don’t jibe with this idea at all. That’s why creationist explanations of the evidence simply assert that they were all just modern-type humans with primitive lifestyles.

As for dinosaurs, all evidence points to the fact that the last ones were dead millions of years before the first humans were born. Not so for most creationists; rather than deny they existed, many of them say dinosaurs were present on the Ark, and they’re depicted as such at the new Ark Encounter park in Kentucky. Any evidence or argument that so much as requires the expression “millions of years” is explicitly demonised.

Blood Covenants And You

Question from Chinx:
Should blood covenants ever matter to atheists?

Answer by SmartLX:
If they’re real, yeah.

A blood covenant, as far as I can gather from articles like this, is a mutual obligation between two parties to serve each other in every way needed on pain of a horrible death, not just for the covenant-breakers but possibly for their loved ones.

If one thinks one is a blood covenant, and that the penalty can be enforced, it makes sense to honour it for one’s own safety even if one did not enter the covenant by choice. If a man with a gun is holding you to a supposed blood covenant you should probably do what he says, at least until you can call the police. And if you do enter a blood covenant by choice then you probably have good reason to want to help the other party.

None of this is exclusively in the realm of religious belief or non-belief. Where religion comes into the picture is that Christians, Jews and others think that everyone, not just those groups, is in a blood covenant with God. Whatever God is meant to be doing for us, apparently we are bound to do everything for Him, and we will be punished for not obeying God’s commands.

If you don’t think that’s true, it makes no sense to obey. If there’s only a chance that it’s true, again in the vein of Pascal’s Wager you have to consider all the other possible commitments that might have been made for you by gods and ancestors without your input. By honouring the supposed covenant you’re aware of, you might be breaking the real one. Doing so is by no means the safest move.

So in the end, threatening atheists with the blood covenant is like threatening them with Hell, or demons, or the boogeyman. You have to believe in something at least to some extent to be afraid of it. A lot of Christians think atheists secretly believe in God so these kinds of threats (often phrased as warnings on behalf of God, which is a thin distinction if you don’t believe in God) can be justified internally, but that doesn’t make them work any better.

Looking For That 100%

Question from Josie:
Hello this is a college student who is pretty much confused. I do have a fact in mind God doesn’t exist. But, the other part of me doesn’t. Is there any steps to pretty much make me fully sure he doesn’t exist. My mind 85% tells me he isn’t real but some odd reason my mind won’t agree with it. Any suggestion?

Answer by SmartLX:
No one said you had to be sure. I’m not. 85% confidence in God’s absence isn’t bad at all really.

You can’t prove a negative, as they say. To be 100% confident there’s no god you’d need the knowledge of a god yourself, to be aware of all the possible ways a god could influence the universe and know that they’re not happening. If you’re being realistic you have to accept some uncertainty, even if you think the concept of a god doesn’t make sense. (There might conceivably be a way it does make sense that you haven’t learned yet.) But if your opinion is that there isn’t a god because you lack positive belief that there is one, that’s as good as most atheists have it.

So what do you do with that uncertainty, the perceived 15% chance (or whatever you estimate) that there’s a god of some kind? Not much really. You keep an open mind and consider any evidence or arguments for gods that you’re exposed to, if you have the time. But do you behave as if there’s a god, just in case? That’s what people who cite Pascal’s Wager would suggest, because even if there’s no god there’s no harm done, right? Unfortunately if there’s a god it might not be the one you think it is, or demand from its worshipers what you think it does, so praying on the off chance might just piss it off. Not worth the trouble, I say. Better just to try to be a good person, which any god worth worshiping would respect but more importantly is its own reward.

Apostles, Therefore God?

Question from José:
Hi! I´m atheist, but I was born into a Christian family and It´s still difficult for me to answer too many questions. I don´t believe in the Bible, but there are a lot of websites claiming that is completely real because so many reasons.
Well, my question is about apostles. Jim Wallace claims that God truly existed because of the martyrdom of the apostles. He said, If It was a joke, no men would have been killed. They would have said that they invented Jesus or something like that. No one die when they know it´s all a lie. Could you explain that to me? I really want to know what your answers are.
Thank you so much.

Answer by SmartLX:
Jim Wallace isn’t the only one to make that claim, many prominent apologists have at least touched on it. I’ve covered it in a piece called “Did they Die for a Lie?” And Other Appeals to Character. I even recorded audio for it. The shortest possible summary is that the possibilities are endless.

Check it out, then comment there or here if you need clarification on anything, or just to say what you think.

Clinging to Afterlife

Question from Lee:
I just want to ask what do you guys think about the afterlife (after you die), because that’s the only thing that’s keeping me believing in God but I don’t pray to God because why would I pray to someone who is powerful enough to create a world of peace but instead make a chaotic world that’s forcing us to do sins.

Answer by SmartLX:
An afterlife requires a soul, or something similar which lets a person’s identity and personality survive the death of the body and brain. There’s no good evidence for souls, so atheists usually don’t believe there’s any kind of afterlife. From the perspective of someone who dies, the world doesn’t fade to eternal darkness and silence because that’s still a kind of afterlife; there stops being a person who can experience anything, or who anything can happen to. Some atheists do believe in the existence of souls, an afterlife and even ghosts, but this isn’t due to their atheism. They just believe for some reason that souls can exist without a god.

Whether or not you want there to be afterlife is not a good reason to believe or disbelieve in gods, because if one of two possible truths is preferable that doesn’t make it more likely. Thinking so regardless is an appeal to consequences. If you don’t believe in God but you’re not happy about it, you’re still an atheist, you’re just not happy about being an atheist and you should try to make your peace with it.

Why Fight the Young Earth?

Question from Jerry:
I very often hear about if the Earth is ~6000 – ~10.000 years old or if it is billions years old.

But I don’t understand how this is an argument, just because in the Bible it says God created the heavens and the earth and all live on the Earth in 6 days.
So.. if Adam would do scientific research on the universe and the planet, would the planet look like its only a couple of days old?
I can’t imagine how that would look like, because scientifically, a 6 day year old planet would look nothing like a planet, more a ball of lava.

So If God created the Earth to be habitable, it would HAVE to be a billion year old planet, there is no other choice. So of course the planet looks old, even if it’s created just a second ago.

So many atheists use the evidence for an old Earth as an argument against Creation. I don’t see how it has any argumentative value though.
I’m wondering what an atheist’s response to this is.

Thank you ever so much 🙂

Answer by SmartLX:
Young Earth creationists (YECs) do say that God created the Earth more or less the way it is, without working through the lava-world phase over millions of years. As you say, there’s strong evidence for an old Earth (geological, astronomical, radiometric, etc.), so a young Earth would have been created with all that evidence essentially falsified. This is the problem though, because why would God go to so much trouble to deceive us into thinking it was so old? Especially if we’re supposed to take the roughly six thousand year history of the world in the Bible seriously?

Of course the problem with any anti-religious argument that goes, “Why/how would God do this?” is that it’s possible to assert as gospel (sometimes literally) any answer which explains it away. The Earth looks old because God’s testing our faith, for example. Thus faith is insulated from any attempts to make their beliefs sound silly, and plot holes in scripture can be ironed out.

The main point of this particular battleground is that young Earth creationism follows on from Biblical literalism. The Bible says the world was created in six days, and that there have only been a small number of generations of humans since then, so that’s the way it was. There’s no good reason to believe it except if you want or need the Book of Genesis to be literal. Outspoken YECs try to convince nonbelievers that the world is young so that they will accept that God created it, because supposedly nothing else could explain a young Earth. Even if they fail, they often succeed in reassuring other Biblical literalists.

To give their position a respectable veneer, in order to appeal to nonbelievers and impress believers, YECs need to make it look like it has secular scientific support, which means presenting scientific arguments that the Earth is young. The proper use of the real evidence that the Earth is old, rather than to jump straight to advocating atheism, is to simply counter these arguments by YECs, and the evidence does so very easily. Thus there is no intact evidence for a young Earth, YECs are reduced to claiming God made the world look old, the young Earth becomes a mere assertion and it cannot serve as a solid premise for arguments for the existence of the God of Abraham. Thus you can believe in a young Earth if you want but it won’t get you anywhere with those who don’t already agree with you.

Some Of The Smart People Are Wrong Too

Question from Rodermac:
I was at some site immediately prior to this. Some questionnaire for atheists – no help at all really. Nice to be somewhere I don’t have to be afraid. Tried to believe in something, seemed to be a somewhat key ingredient in a fellowship i’d joined. Started reading the Bible that had been placed in my room by the Gideons. I guess I never recovered from that exposure. How can it be that so many people, oodles of them smarter than me, conceive that a faith based on this concept of a deity could be a good one?

Answer by SmartLX:
If that deity is real, then faith in it isn’t just good, it’s essential. It’s the only thing which just might save your soul. The fact that this strikes many as a horrible state of affairs is irrelevant if it’s the truth.

If you truly believe it, you are emotionally and often socially driven to use the full force of your intellect to do several things, consciously and subconsciously. You regularly reassure yourself that it’s true in all kinds of ways, which protects you from losing your precious faith and staves off some of the inevitable nagging doubt. You look for opportunities to share your faith with others, either by reinforcing their existing faith or by converting them outright, which you believe is a gift to them and reflects well on you. You try to have God’s will be done on earth, living by (and possibly holding others to) the commands you believe He has given. And through it all you convince yourself that it’s a good thing, for the sake of your own happiness.

When you’ve been doing all of this for years, deliberately examining your beliefs to see whether they hold up sounds like a very dangerous proposition. You risk invalidating all the work you’ve done for the Lord, you’re disobeying direct orders not to question Him, and even if you’re right then you have to accept that you’ve spent all that time before on a fool’s errand and your worldview crumbles around you. It might actually be harder for some very intelligent people to do this as they’ve built better defenses in terms of apologetics, that is, they have more to unlearn. It’s all very well to say you want to know the truth, but sometimes it can seem like if the truth is a certain thing then it’s not worth knowing.

I’m not saying the process is hard in order to congratulate myself for going through it and coming out the other side as an atheist. My journey was very easy compared to most, because I simply let it all lie for more than a decade while I worked on other things. When I eventually came back to reconsider it, my emotional and social connections to Christianity were all but severed; my love of God and fear of Hell had been neglected, and I only went to church with the family at Christmas and occasionally Easter, so the congregation barely knew me. The New Atheist books by the “Four Horsemen” were just coming out, and I was able to consider arguments from both sides quite coldly (this site is one of the places I went looking for where the “fight” was happening). One side won.

Left Christianity, but Hell followed you out?

Question from Chris:
I was raised Christian until I found a Jewish website that explained how the New Testament contradicts the Old. I now describe myself as agnostic, but I’m still afraid that there may be a hell. This is stopping me from living my life and while I doubt that I’ll become a Christian again, I sometimes wonder if there’s any chance the Jewish faith was right.

Is there any way that I might be able to let go of this fear? Maybe some way to make a firm decision on whether or not I should be religious? People have advised me to learn more about religion and the world in general; maybe there’s something specific I should look at?

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is my word for the lingering emotional aftereffects of strong religious belief, chief among them fear and guilt. That fear might stick around for a while even if you stop believing entirely. The more often you can register that your level of fear is unjustified, the quicker it will fade, but probably only by small degrees.

If you think the Jewish version of Hell is the most likely to be real, it certainly doesn’t warrant the same kind of fear as the Christian Hell because it is NOT a place of eternal torment. Read this Jewish article on the subject: their name for it is Gehinnom, and it’s light-heartedly described as a “spiritual washing machine” that prepares your soul for Heaven. It’s closer to the Christian concept of purgatory; while it’s not something to look forward to, there’s a purpose to the suffering and most importantly there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

So that’s what to keep in mind when you’ve got your figurative yarmulke on, but the rest of the time it’s good to read up on conflicting reports of Hell from different religions, and even different denominations of the same one. It’s the strongest sign we have that no one really knows anything about it, or has any authority to tell you what to fear. Not only that, but the reasons a soul is sent to Hell are mutually exclusive between different religions and denominations. Beyond the obvious fact that you can only proclaim one kind of faith which denies all the others, the rules for living are different all round. That means it’s futile to try to behave any particular way in order to avoid Hell because you’re almost certainly doing something wrong. That sounds pessimistic but it can at least free you from micro-managing everything you do, and give you a sense of community as you’re in the same unreliable boat as everyone else.

You can make a decision about how devoutly to keep to the tenets of whatever religion you choose to adhere to, but how religious you are is not really your decision to make. Your level of belief is influenced by what you see, read and hear. You could immerse yourself in religious media and after long enough you might no longer doubt it, or avoid it altogether and slowly forget, but this is artificially reinforcing a bias and does not reflect reality. Regardless, I can tell you that being more religious is very unlikely to make you less afraid of Hell. If you accept its existence and its specific nature as dictated by your religion, your work is cut out for you as you are acutely aware of what you must do, and not do. You’re also surrounded by people who don’t share your faith, aren’t living right and are therefore bound for Hell, emphasising how easy it is to fall short and pay the price.

Better to get on with life, I say. Just be a person in the world, do what you can to be a good one, improve life for others, have your fun when it’s not hurting anyone. Thoughts of the afterlife tend to take a backseat when you live in the now.

What can Christians do for atheists, and themselves?

Question from Lane:
Reading these essays here on ATA has both strengthened my faith in God and given me a better respect for atheists, by giving me a more comprehensive understanding. The color blue does not look the same to everyone (being subjective, “blue” is a label), but everyone should be encouraged to express what and how they believe.

That said, I have two questions:

1. What things can us Christians do that benefit atheists?
2. What are the disruptive or distracting things that Christians should avoid?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written before that examining one’s own beliefs can lead to either strengthening or abandoning them. I came to this site as a reader (among other sites, religious and otherwise) to see if there was anything in the challenges submitted by Christians that might restore my faith in God, and nothing did. If you’re secure in your faith then good for you.

The number one thing Christians can do for atheists is something a lot of Christians already do, which is to support secularism in government and society. This does not mean the absence of religion but merely the separation of church and state or other authorities, so that no one religion gains power over others or over the irreligious. As an atheist in Australia I’ve got it pretty good (I’m a bit worried about how the school chaplaincy program will eventually intersect with my son’s education), but here as elsewhere the problems atheists have are mostly caused by specific religions exerting their political and/or social power to affect non-adherents in all kinds of ways. A minor example is the endlessly repeated fight over monuments to the Ten Commandments in US courthouses. An extreme one is the unchecked victimisation of atheist and secularist writers in Bangladesh.

Other than supporting secularism, Christians can help atheists and other non-Christians just by learning more about other belief systems, which will prevent a lot of assumptions around the idea that everyone will think or behave like a Christian in certain situations. I’ll come back to this point.

Apart from literally attacking non-believers, which doesn’t happen much in most countries, the most disruptive and distracting thing Christians do is proselytise. I don’t actually hold this against them, because after all many of them believe they are commanded to do so, and even if not then they still think accepting Jesus is the single best thing people can do for themselves. Put more simply, if you think people are wrong about something important then you see changing their minds as helping them out, and that’s fine. But there are absolutely wrong ways to go about it.

One very common approach is to not only utilise but monopolise public speaking platforms and other one-way communication. The market street in my old hometown had a speakers’ stone, where you could talk about anything for 30 minutes. An organised squad of evangelists tag-teamed the stone for hours, every high-traffic day for months. (I hope they eventually changed the rules but it’s more likely that they just removed the stone.) A large percentage of public/community access television airtime is pre-booked by the devout. This approach can bleed into private conversation too, when any opportunity to steer the topic to what God would think is seized upon.

I think it stems from the idea that the Word of the Lord is literally magical, that it has the power to claim souls not merely through persuasion but by serving as a conduit for divine influence. Therefore there’s a lot of effort to spread the Word with speeches, tracts and railroaded small talk, but not much effort to make it stick. They think the Word will do the work for them, and good luck to them.

What I would suggest instead, if your fellow Christians want to engage others on the topic, is to truly engage with people. The spray-and-pray approach of declaiming the spiritual facts as you see them, or handing them out on an A4 sheet folded into a pamphlet, does not give any opportunity for reply and does not therefore put your own ideas up for discussion or challenge. People are far more likely to listen to you if they think you are willing to listen to them too, and that means exposing yourself to ideas that might challenge your faith. It’s a risk that I seriously hope Christians are willing to take, because it’s win-win; if their faith turns out to be unsupportable they can rid themselves of it and look at the world anew (perhaps re-finding faith later), or like you they can become more confident for the experience and also better able to co-exist with non-Christians.

The short and flattering version of all this, Lane, is that many Christians could afford to be more like you. We get a lot of questions from Christians, but most are really flat-out challenges that they think will stump us cold. I much prefer when they genuinely expect and want to read an answer. That’s what engaging means.