Miracles for the Masses

Question from Daniel:
Hi. I wanted to know if there is any mass revelation/miracle in The Vedas (i.e Miracles that were performed in front of many people)?

Answer by SmartLX:
I was a Christian once but I was never a Hindu, and never discussed religion with my few Hindu friends in school. Right off the bat I invite any Hindus reading this to comment right away and set us straight.

From what I can gather after some brief research is that the Vedas are not written as a history or a narrative like most books of the Bible are. The four Vedas mostly consist of hymns to the various gods (most intended to be heard in song rather than read), descriptions of rituals, and discussion of philosophy. There are bits of history woven into it all concerning the people from whom the texts emerged, but if they were ever intended to be taken as literal accounts of major events, Hindus tend not to take that view nowadays.

Your question is often used to advance an argument for the truth of Judaism, sometimes known as the Sinai argument, which claims that the supposedly uniquely mass-spectated nature of the miracles in the Torah supports their veracity. Christians sometimes argue along the same lines based on the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to five hundred people.

I’ll leave it to followers of other religions to make their own claims of mass revelations, but the basic problem with all of these stories is the same: accounts of witnesses are not witnesses. Each of these stories is still just one account, with only one source to believe or disbelieve regarding the number of people present. Contrast it with a big event happening in the middle of a city today; tweets and Facebook posts from hundreds of sources or more can flood the web, arguing over details but collectively leaving no doubt that something major went down. An account is an account even if it contains emojis.

Something to prove, but what?

Question from Darian:
What would be defined as legitimate proof of god(s) within the accepted community of atheists? And, is there any proper scientific research being done to find said proof? Another way to word, what would be the atheist definition of god(s)?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some argument about this within the atheist community (for example between biologist bloggers PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne) so I don’t think there’s a definitive answer I can give you. Some atheists name grand gestures (say, huge letters in the sky) as evidence they would accept, and some think even that kind of thing would be insufficient.

The more general attitude is that if evidence for an entity which might qualify as a god presented itself, there would be two questions to answer: whether the evidence was valid, and if so what kind of presence was actually indicated. The resulting investigation would make as few assumptions as possible, which might be difficult given the subject, to get as close to the facts as possible.

Religious apologetics, and the idea that a god might be demonstrated by an argument alone, are considered differently. Each of the prospective arguments that aims to do this makes its own presumptions and inferences about the qualities of the supposed god. If an apologetic argument were established and accepted as valid and sound, thereby unambiguously confirming the existence of a god, what that argument said about the god would implicitly be accepted too.

Since the ontology of a hypothetical god (i.e. what it is) isn’t settled, there isn’t a lot of scientific research of any kind being done to discover evidence for it. If scientists knew what to look for, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get a grant or sponsorship with the help of religious politicians, philanthropists or venture capitalists. As it is, scientists are exploring the universe as best they can to find whatever happens to be there, and evidence for a god might turn up under a microscope or millions of light years away when they least expected it.

On the other hand plenty of work is being done to establish the existence of a god (usually a specific god) by those who want there to be one, though a lot of it doesn’t qualify as research, let alone scientific, because it doesn’t uncover anything new. A famous example is that expeditions have set out to find Noah’s Ark, and some claim to have found it (in several different places). The much more common approach, though, is simply finding new ways to interpret existing biological, paleontological and geological data in order to support the idea.

Atheism or A-beliefism?

Question from Sarah:
Atheism or A-beliefism? Suppose we take the whole “Existence of God” question out of the religion and atheism debate. What do we have left? I’m inclined to say that we have a group of people who assert that BELIEF in the absence of empirical evidence is a reasonable and valid way of knowing, and a group of people who claim that it isn’t. My sense is that this fundamental difference in epistemology transcends the entire “God” issue. At the deepest level, an “atheist” isn’t someone who doesn’t embrace a belief in God, but simply someone who doesn’t embrace “belief” as a valid way of knowing. My question is, do you agree or disagree with this assertion and why?

Let’s make it a bit more concrete: Recent insights in astrophysics (eg. the Holographic Principle) and in information science suggest that the foundational components of our universe– rather than being tiny chunks of “solid stuff” (atoms)– might be information (bits). (“It from bit.”) If this is true, then we could actually be living in a Matrix-like universe. This could be a naturally-arising information-based universe, or an artificial one created by an intelligent being or beings. Let’s suppose that we do live in a an artificial “Matrix,” created and maintained by an individual Being. Clearly, that Being would not be an infinite, perfect entity like Jehovah or Allah. However, It would be omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal as far as we are concerned, and it would be supernatural, as far as we are concerned, since It transcends the laws of our universe. I don’t think that most atheists would have a problem with the possibility that this God exists, but they would definitely have a problem with accepting Its existence in the absence of evidence. Why, then, all the debate about God’s existence or non-existence? Why not debate about the REAL issue– which, as I see it, is FAITH as a way of knowing.

Answer by SmartLX:
I agree with you in part. An atheist does not accept the existence of a god or the equivalent, usually due to the lack of evidence or even due to perceived evidence of its absence. To such a person, faith is acceptance of a claim in the absence of evidence and is thus invalid by definition. And yes, I’m fine with the possibility of the existence of a number of different types of gods, including the master programmer version you describe, I just think that each is a very remote possibility and there’s no evidence for any of them.

However, advocates of a god’s existence are not so easily categorised. Perhaps they do generally accept faith as a valid reason to accept it, but when actually arguing the point with non-believers many of them go to the trouble of assembling and presenting what they claim to be evidence that their god exists. A large amount of the past material on this site consists of responses to claims of direct evidence, claims that the entire world IS evidence, claims that certain logical arguments serve as evidence, and attempts to shift the burden of evidence onto non-believers.

I don’t think re-framing the debate into a discussion of “ways of knowing” would be productive, or get anywhere at all. Believers already regularly take our evidence requirement at face value and throw “evidence” at us. Those who do not accept that evidence is necessary often ignore claims that it is, and think to themselves that those who demand evidence are misguided. (Indeed, the Bible explicitly warns against putting God to the test, and that’s good enough for many.) If we were to set our shared position such that some other “way of knowing” were the only valid one, the response from believers would likely be, “Very well, here is how the existence of God is absolutely plain in THAT way of knowing.”

No, the issue of whether God exists is the issue in which people are most often invested, rather than secondary epistemological issues, and I think the debate will stay right there because that’s what everyone wants to talk about.

It’s Evolution, Baby

Question from Nichole:
So, I just have a couple questions for those atheists who believe in evolution or those who would call themselves Evolutionists. I’m really curious what you guys think about it. So here are my questions:

1. In your thinking, what is evolution? How would you define it?

2. What do you think is the strongest evidence for evolution?

3. What empirical evidence are you aware of supports evolution?

4. Is there anything about evolutionary theory that makes you wonder about its validity? If so, what?

5. Are you aware of scientific evidence (or mathematical probabilities) that suggests evolution may not be true? If so what?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s already quite a lot about this on the site so do a search in the top right for ‘evolution’ and other obvious keywords, but there’s no harm retreading old ground. I gather from your language that you’re neither an atheist nor an “Evolutionist”, so everyone has to start somewhere. I’ve numbered your questions for easy reference.

1. Evolution simply means “gradual development”. The demands placed upon followers of the God of Abraham evolved between the Old and the New Testament, for example, when Jesus became a requisite object of worship. Of course what we’re really talking about here is the scientific theory of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, which says that the first primitive life on Earth multiplied and diversified into literally all of the modern forms of life, including plants, animals and humans.

The theory of evolution takes no position on where that initial life came from; that’s a whole other area of investigation. It passes no judgement on the morality of the phenomenon, if indeed morality can even be applied to it, though some scientists have their own opinions. (Even Darwin wrote that “nature is red in tooth and claw”.) It makes no pronouncements on how we ought to behave, as it is merely an explanation and not a set of rules or guidelines. All it does is describe the development of life in all its diversity and complexity, accurately as far as we can tell from the evidence.

2.
I think the strongest evidence for evolution is the genetic and morphological (i.e. shape-related) similarities between living things. Almost every vertebrate animal has practically the same skeleton, but seemingly stretched, squashed and bent by countless generations of developmental pressure. Most of the same organs are there too. Two species of bird on one island may be able to interbreed, while seemingly similar birds from the next island over are incompatible with either species because they’ve been separated for too long. We share over 95% of our DNA not just with apes, but with any given species of mammal. Embryos of different animals look almost identical up to a certain point in their gestation.

In case you think all of this is simply signs that all life had a common designer, it doesn’t speak well of that designer because the similarities are not always a good thing. The appendix is useful to many animals, but about all it can do for us is kill us. Many deadly viruses and bacteria are just as at home in a human body as any other warm-blooded animal, which is why we can catch fatal infections from pigs or birds. The laryngeal nerve connects the brain to the larynx but it takes a detour all the way down by the heart in mammals, because the equivalent route in fish was more direct. (In a giraffe, it’s just ridiculous. Here’s a video where they’re dissecting one – it’s not too gory.)

3.
Everything mentioned above is empirical; you can see the evidence in your own body, anything else that’s alive, the recently dead and even the fossilised remains of ancient lifeforms. Really, the study of evolution is the direct study of living things, so there’s very little evidence for it which could not be called empirical.

4.
There isn’t anything which seriously throws the validity of evolutionary theory into question, or the controversy would be an argument between evolutionary biologists rather than between evolutionary biologists and religious creationists. Religion is the only reason anyone challenges it, which is why there are no secular opponents of the teaching of evolution (except for one fellow I know of, who makes quite a lot of money as a professional advocate). Not every religious person denies evolution as many prefer to see it as a divine method, but opposition to it has just that one source.

5.
Carrying on from #4, creationist evangelists present a wide range of claims about the natural world as arguments against evolution. They all have the same form: “Feature X could not possibly have come about naturally and gradually, or the odds are so small as to be practically impossible, so evolution can’t have produced X.” Even if no evolutionary path to the final result is known, this in all its forms is an argument from ignorance because not knowing how something is done does not necessarily mean it’s impossible. In practice, however, a plausible evolutionary method of producing the feature is often already known before the claim is made – the creationist just hasn’t looked it up.

I think that’s a fair representation of what atheists think of evolution, though any atheists reading this are free to correct me. So, tit for tat: what do you think of it, Nichole?

“HERE IS THE EVIDENCE ~!”

Question from Robert:
Why don’t atheists believe in God if atheists admit that there is no proof that He doesn’t exist? (see What is an atheist?) That’s like asking why adults don’t believe in the tooth fairy simply because there is no proof that she doesn’t exist. But more to the point, compelling evidence for the existence of God is sorely lacking.

ARE YOU KIDDING? HERE IS THE EVIDENCE ~!
AND IT IS ABUNDANTLY CLEAR~!! *** REALLY . ****

JUST LOOK. >>>>>

Fast Facts

2. The adult body is made up of: 100 trillion cells, 206 bones,
600 muscles, and 22 internal organs.

3. There are many systems in the human body:
Circulatory System (heart, blood, vessels)
Respiratory System (nose, trachea, lungs)
Immune System (many types of protein, cells, organs, tissues)
Skeletal System (bones)
Excretory System (lungs, large intestine, kidneys)
Urinary System (bladder, kidneys)
Muscular System (muscles)
Endocrine System (glands)
Digestive System (mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines)
Nervous System (brain, spinal cord, nerves)
Reproductive System (male and female reproductive organs)
4. Every square inch of the human body has about 19 million skin cells.
5. Every hour about 1 billion cells in the human body must be replaced.
7. The circulatory system of arteries, veins, and capillaries is about 60,000 miles long.

———————————————————————

How could evolution, even over millions of years form into such amazing complexity~! How can you explain billions of cells changing into and then organizing themselves into something so amazingly complex as the human body? How did cells which have no brain, change into heart cells, lung cells, esophagus cells, blood vessel cells, kidney cells, liver cells, ligament cells, tendon cells, pancreatic cells, super complex eyeball cells, optic nerve cells, hair cells, eyelash cells, eyelid cells, nose cells, jawbone cells, teeth cells, gum cells, lip cells, muscle cells, bone cells, red blood cells, white blood cells, and super, super, super, super, super, complex brain cells — ALL ONE HUNDRED BILLION OF THEM ~!~!~!
One person likened it to putting all the parts of a watch together, then shaking all the parts together for a million years, and then voila ….. you have watch ~!
——————————————————-
And then here is this. It takes a male and female to be able to create a new life. A male and female COULD NOT EVOLVE AT THE SAME TIME~!~!~!~!

You try to explain this by saying that male and female creatures were once hermaphroditic. THAT IS INSANE~!! Why then are the vast majority of animals today, male and female, and not hermaphroditic? — But even then, how could one animal develop male and female organs —- AT THE SAME TIME ~!~?

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE. —- AND SO EVOLUTION ( No God ) IS IMPOSSIBLE ~!

Answer by SmartLX (and by the way, the question arrived with #1 and #6 already missing):
I don’t know what things are like in your neck of the woods, but in most places adults don’t believe in the tooth fairy despite the lack of disproof, and no one disputes that this lack of belief is justified.

Explaining the theory of evolution as it applies specifically to each of these parts of the human body would take up far too much space, and you can get much more information simply by Googling “evolution of ” followed by the name of the body part. To address it very briefly, any positive change to a simpler organism was reinforced because more individuals survived and procreated to pass on the gene responsible, and most of the time that meant making the organism more complex. This process went on for an unimaginably long time, and has been extremely productive as we can see.

The watch analogy betrays a core misunderstanding of the theory of evolution, which is the assumption that the process is entirely random. It is anything but random, because the path of evolution is determined by which creatures survive and which don’t. There are random elements, from mutations to natural disasters to plain old bad luck, but those with better genes are far more likely to survive these uncontrolled events. Would you say that because some elements of a tennis match are random, like the wind and small imperfections in the playing surface, it’s entirely up to chance whether Andre Agassi would beat Peter Dinklage in a friendly set? Of course not. Some differences really do make a difference to the result.

Before gender distinction and sexual reproduction developed, individual organisms were not hermaphroditic. They were asexual, and reproduced through either cell division or forms of cloning. They didn’t have two sets of sexual organs, they had none. Gender developed as a reliable way for two individuals to exchange genetic information and thus allow for recombination of DNA, speeding up the process of evolution by creating more variables.

There are lots of fascinating details like the above to study, but ultimately your argument is a textbook argument from ignorance. You dismiss evolution as a valid explanation for the complexity of life, then immediately assert that God had to have been responsible. If evolution is false, there needs to be positive evidence that your alternative explanation is true or else it could just as easily be some unknown third option. God seems like the obvious explanation to you because you’ve already accepted that there is one, but why would a non-believer discard an explanation with a mountain of evidence behind it in favour of a supernatural explanation with no available substantive evidence at all?

Why Evolution?

Question from MiK’la:
Why do you believe in evolution? It is completely unscientific. It cannot be observed, repeated, or tested. Can you give me some evidence for evolution that can be observed, tested, or repeated? (and please give your answer in as little words as possible.)

Answer by SmartLX:
As few words as possible, huh? Okay, I’ll do it in two. Go here.

Seriously though, while evolution itself is very difficult to directly observe or repeat (mostly because it’s so slow), the evidence for it can be readily observed, and some aspects of it can be tested. DNA tests comparing our genome to to that of any other living creature will find at least some similarity, indicating that all life had a common ancestor and therefore we’re all part of the same family. The flu virus evolves so much in a year that the antibodies produced by a year-old vaccine will fail to recognise it. Some species of insects have diversified under observation into two populations incapable of breeding with each other, by definition becoming two species. Artificial selection applied to either plants or animals can radically change their appearance and behaviour in a relatively short space of time, and there’s no barrier to natural selection doing the same over millions of years.

To say that evolution is unscientific is to completely misrepresent science. Let us know why you think the mountains of evidence for evolution somehow don’t count if you like, and on whose work you base this conclusion, but in the scientific community there is no controversy at all over the basic fact that evolution has occurred.

The Unproveable Absence of God

Question from MiK’la:
Atheists always ask the Christian to prove that God exists. What proof is there that He doesn’t exist?

Answer by SmartLX:
None, but that doesn’t change anything.

Most atheists, myself included, allow for the possibility of a god existing. We think it’s unlikely, but there are so many ways in which a god could exist and yet remain unproven that there’s no way to prove beyond all possible doubt that there are no gods. That in no way means there’s enough evidence to justify positively believing that there is one, let alone a particular one. It’s impossible to prove that George Burns wasn’t the actual composer of Eleanor Rigby – he was around at the time, after all, and might have written Paul McCartney a long letter – but no one believes he did it. (That analogy was originally going to be that no one believes Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but it turns out some people do.)

Christians do believe in God, and therefore think there is at least one good reason to believe in God. When atheists go asking, we’re asking what that reason is. It’s an important question, because if it’s really a good reason to believe then we should believe too, and if it’s not a good reason then the believer shouldn’t. This is all based on the simple assumption that one should only believe in something with good reason. You’re welcome to argue with that if you really want to.

The Importance of Evidence

Question from Charles:
Dear Friends,

Something I’ve tended to notice is the overwhelming urge most atheists need to have objective evidence of God’s existence, prior to any personal commitment on their behalf of acknowledging such a deity as an Almighty God.

1. Can you conclusively prove that God doesn’t exist, anywhere in the universe?
2. If such a deity did exist, would you recognize Him as such? What shape and form would He have to possess?
3. Once you’ve recognized Him as God, would you be willing to totally acknowledge Him as God – to concede your free will to His?

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, wouldn’t you want good reason to think something was real before you based your whole life around it? In what other situation do you completely devote yourself to someone without knowing that it’s the right thing to do? If you’ve done this, what are your reasons?

1. You can’t prove a universal negative without being omniscient, so no. That said, you can in principle establish something as unlikely, and I’ve had a go at doing that with gods here.

2. Perhaps such a deity does exist, but I’d have to sense His, Her or Its presence or actions in some way before I could recognise Him, Her or It. God in many people’s opinion has no physical form so there’s really nothing to go on; I think a god would be more recognisable through its influence on reality than through its appearance.

3. If I knew God existed, and I knew what He actually wanted from me, I’d give it to Him. I’d be stupid not to, because if He’s anything like the Abrahamic religions portray Him then He’s a tyrant who punishes people forever – in other words, far out of proportion to anything they could possibly have done wrong in life. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I’d toe the line like a good little serf.

Biblical Evidence Disqualified?

Question from Zach:
Does Christians not having evidence that isn’t rooted in the Bible mean there is no proof that has yet been discovered?

Answer by SmartLX:
What’s in the Bible isn’t proof either, so regardless of the Bible there’s no available proof at all.

There are quite a few different ways in which people attempt to prove the truth of Christianity using the Bible, some of which we’ve looked at here (see following links where available) but none of which have achieved much more than to reassure those who already believe.
– They argue that the text couldn’t have stayed as intact as it is from copy to copy from the original manuscript if the important bits weren’t true. To address this as briefly as I can, this is not convincing, because yes it could have.
– They argue that the Bible makes prophecies that are fulfilled in later books of the Bible, came true later or reveal scientific truths unknown to the people of the ancient world. This was Great Big Argument #5 in my series.
– They argue from their own personal “religious experiences” while reading the Bible, claiming that God has done what He’s supposed to do and acted upon them through His Word. This is extremely subjective, and unless it results in a verifiable miracle it’s not verifiable at all. It’s their word against anyone else’s.
– They argue that if people acted as written in the four Gospels and afterwards, then Jesus must really have risen from the dead. This one has caused a lot of long arguments here with little progress, and it remains unconvincing to non-believers no matter how incontrovertible it sounds to believers when it’s coming out of Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell or William Lane Craig. One problem is that Christians tend to be very, very reluctant to concede the slightest point about Jesus, so central is he to the truth claims of the religion. If you want to wade in, there are recent-ish articles about Jesus here and here. This answer has links to tons of material both within and outside Ask the Atheist if you want to go all out.

Science and Human Evolution

Question from EvoE:
What is the proof humans have evolved from a common ancestor? If the scientific method is observation, data collection, internal and external validity and reliability; then how can one observe human evolution?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t observe human evolution. Scientists genuinely don’t know whether it’s still happening, and discuss it often.

This means little, because science does not always require direct observation of a past event to confirm that it’s happened. If it did, the police would have to be present at every murder in order to charge any suspects. We can instead observe and collect evidence that humans have evolved from ancestors we share with other animals.

The evidence includes but is not limited to:

1. Comparative physiology
We often say we evolved from apes, but it’s just as correct to say that we are apes. Without even considering genetics, we can be classified as apes using physical characteristics such as our long arms, omnivorous teeth and lack of a large tail. It goes far beyond superficial physical qualities, because our internal organs and body chemistry have countless analogues in other primate bodies. We’ve even got some organs that are practically useless to us but essential to other primates, such as the appendix and the muscles for moving our ears. (These and other human vestigial organs speak loudly against the Intelligent Design proponents’ claim that all the similarities are due to the other animals having the same Designer. Why wouldn’t He just leave out the useless organs, rather than leave them in place to potentially kill us?)

2. Genetics
The genes linked to the analogous systems mentioned above can be sampled from each species and compared directly. Now that the whole human genome has been sequenced, it can be compared all at once to the genomes of other animals. The results are as expected: our DNA diverges less than 2% from some species of apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. (By comparison, the most distantly related humans differ from each other by about 0.1%.) As we compare ourselves to other non-primate mammals, reptiles, plants and so forth, the genetic difference rises accordingly, exactly as we would expect if we diverged from these other branches of life earlier on.

Even knowing single comparative facts, like that chimpanzees have one more chromosome than we do, we can predict and discover evidence of very specific biochemical events that happened during our own evolution, such as the mark where two of our ancestors’ chromosome pairs fused to make one of our own pairs, specifically Chromosome 2.

3. Observed natural and artificial selection (and speciation)
We have watched some species with relatively short life cycles breed and diversify to the point where two populations of the same animal became unable to breed with each other. We’ve conducted breeding programs which have deliberately achieved the same thing, just to see what’s needed for it to happen. These are instances of speciation, or the splitting of one species into two, because part of what defines species is that they can’t produce fertile offspring with other species. There have been billions of years for this kind of thing to happen all over the world without any external help, and there’s no reason to think our own origins are any different.

If you want the rest of the evidence, start at the Wikipedia page for evidence of common descent. It’s not solely concerned with humans, but a lot of it has to do with us. If there’s something specific there that you don’t accept, bring it up in a comment.