A Common Question Done Quick

Question from James:
Quick question. How can you say something is bad without some sense of morals? Where did said morals come from?

Answer by SmartLX:
The quickest answer is that we’ve answered this a lot. This link searches the site for articles on the same subject, and finds four pages’ worth of titles. Read a few and see if you get the idea.

A quick actual answer is that the definition of “bad” and “moral” in general can be constructed in objective and practical terms using different things as the “object”. For example a simplistic approach might be that something is “bad” if it hurts people unnecessarily, but on that alone you get a long way towards doing what most people would consider “good” by preventing “bad” actions.

Claiming an absolute basis for your morality is all well and good, but if your basis is a god that might not even exist you’re on shaky ground. That’s just a way of concentrating all the uncertainty into one point so you can defend that massively uncertain point like a bulldog and keep things simple for yourself.

Crushed by Suffering

Question from Dominic:
How do you deal with senseless suffering–like heartless cruelty imposed on innocent animals? There is such a thing as crush videos where women, mostly in high heels, enjoy crushing small animals on the floor in a gruesome, lengthy process to provide sexual satisfaction for the viewer. Those who produce it say it is allowable because of free speech and also because the dark web has no censorship unlike the surface web. Isn’t it true that without absolutes in the moral area everything is permissible?

Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, I know about crushing videos. There’s room for debate over whether the women who participate enjoy it, or are simply doing what the punters will pay to see as in other kinds of pornography, but animals are tortured and killed regardless.

Just because everything is “permissible” in a high philosophical sense doesn’t mean everything is actually permitted in a practical sense. Cruelty to animals is illegal in most countries and the makers of these videos are prosecuted if caught, for cruelty to animals if not for the videos themselves. No one argues in court that killing the animals for pleasure is fine, only that once the videos are made they’re protected by free speech. They do the killing in ways that make it hard to attribute to anyone. (The “dark web” makes the videos easier to produce and distribute but doesn’t affect their morality, so it’s irrelevant.)

Regarding the free speech aspect, in the United States the videos were outlawed in 1999 after they came to light. The ban was struck down as unconstitutional, but only because it was too broad and mistakenly encompassed all kinds of non-fetish videos involving wildlife and livestock. There was another law in 2010 that did what it could in the circumstances, banning interstate commerce of the videos. The issue was badly handled overall but the government and the courts have done what they thought would protect the animals and punish their tormentors at every stage.

To focus on your main point, if an absolute basis for morals were needed to create an ethical society a secular legal system would be impossible, because the only moral absolutes are those asserted by religions on behalf of their gods, and those are dependent on a shared assumption that the gods not only exist but have the same morals claimed by the religions. Fortunately, it’s possible to have an objective basis for morals and ethics using a more reasonable assumption, such as that the needless suffering of helpless animals should be prevented where possible. This isn’t backed up by any moral imperative baked into the universe (indeed nature completely disregards it and wolves happily eat bunnies) but it has such a near-universal consensus (far more reliable than a simple majority) among humans that those who like to cause or watch the suffering can be justifiably classified as aberrant. We feel quite comfortable calling the videos “wrong” without a hypothetical ethereal lawgiver to tell us we’re right, and while philosophical discussions might poke holes in the word they don’t change how we feel, and importantly how we act.

While it’s beside the point you were making, there’s still that first question of how to emotionally deal with the suffering of animals. It’s not as complex for atheists because we don’t have to wonder why a loving god would allow it. It happens, it’s awful, we feel their pain, we do what we can to prevent it, we give the animals in our lives enjoyment by playing with them, and so on. We accept that some things about the world suck, but not everything, so there’s still joy to be found and good to be done so we look for that. Boom, a high-level work-in-progress guide to living in the real world.

Have They Got It Coming?

Question from Shanoon:
Do you really believe the people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Poy, Mao and all those terrorists, Rapists, killers, and suicide bombers are considered to be criminals and as such should be judged and punished one day?

1- If the answer is NO, then they are innocent. ( and they are not only supporters but promoters of these kinds of innocent (!) evils.)
2- If the answer is YES then how?

Answer by SmartLX:
Some of those you list have been punished, some haven’t, and some won’t be punished ever in their lives for certain things (for instance, way too many rapists get away with it). Without going into horrible detail regarding their crimes, I’ll simply agree with you that there are people in the world who deserve to be punished. Religious and secular ethics frequently agree on cases like these, because the same conclusion is reached multiple ways.

Therefore, if there is no God or Hell then some people who deserve to be punished will never be punished at all, no matter how hard we try to enact justice. This isn’t a happy thought, but if it’s true then there’s nothing we can do about it, except to work to ensure justice is served whenever it IS possible. But the fact that the implications of a state of affairs are unfortunate does not support the argument that it’s not the case, and the alternative isn’t true just because it would be better (objectively or otherwise). An argument from consequences is essentially an unsupported argument, and the only reason to accept it is that it makes you feel better.

Some Things Never Change

Question from Caleb:
In an atheistic worldview why are there laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and absolute morality?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you search the site for the above terms you’ll find quite a few relevant pieces already written, and some very long discussions in the comments. These subjects crop up often because many theists think they have the authority on each. This time I’ll try to answer as straightforwardly as possible; if you look through the rest of the material and think I haven’t covered something, do let me know.

There do appear to be many types of total consistency in the universe, primarily physical and logical. The laws of each don’t seem to change, so we have the kind of stable universe where beings like us can develop over billions of years and create civilisations without everything spontaneously collapsing in on itself every few minutes, or turning into chocolate pudding and back.

None of us know why this is. Some think they know, because if they believe the universe was created by an intelligent god then it sounds sensible that this god would make the universe stable enough to support life and eventually cognition, as most worshipped gods have apparently created humanity for some unknown purpose. To one who has not already accepted the existence of such a being (which hypothetically is more exotic and incredible than anything the universe has to offer, and is thus a dismal working assumption for the purpose of explanation) it seems more likely that, somewhat in the manner of Newton’s first law, there is simply no influence upon the universe causing it to change its fundamental qualities and therefore it doesn’t. The absence of a god does not make the reality impossible, merely unexplained. To go any further is to commit the all-too-common fallacy of an argument from ignorance, or else to claim omniscience.

Absolute morality is different from the other two because we don’t know whether it exists in the first place. Morality is disputed all the time, so any absolute morality makes up a very small part of it. Anything we might think of as a moral absolute might just be something the entire human race agrees upon, but is wrong. Any such supposed absolute might also be regarded with the total opposite of its implication for humans when considered from the perspective of other animals, for example ants. Texts like the Bible declare moral absolutes on the authority of a being whose existence is itself in question. This last point is important, because when you’re using the existence of absolute morality to argue for the existence of a god, you can’t use the latter to argue for the former first.

Evolution and the Holocaust

Question from James:
Hey thanks for reading this. If evolution is survival of the fittest then why was Hitler considered evil? If he could overcome the Jews then Germans must be better then Jews. In fact racism shouldn’t be a bad thing if you truly believe your race is better. Also why does it matter is animals go extinct? I get cows and animals we use, but who cares about obscure fish and bugs?

Answer by SmartLX:
Your initial question about Hitler is like asking, “If the atomic number of boron is 5, why did two different actors play Darrin on Bewitched?” The first part is true and so is the second, but the two are unrelated.

Evolution is an explanation of what has happened, over the entire history of life on earth, to change it from a single population of similar single-celled organisms to the vast complexity and diversity we see today. “Survival of the fittest” is still an apt simplification, because at all times those organisms which are more fit for survival and procreation are the ones that pass on the most genes. Some kill members of their own species to get along, some don’t have to. Even Darwin thought it was pretty brutal, writing that “nature is red in tooth and claw,” but human morality is difficult or impossible to apply to non-human animals. They’re just doing what their instincts tell them.

Evil on the other hand is a label we apply to actions and people who go against our morals and ethics. Hitler’s genocide violates the morality of such a huge majority of us that society as a whole can label him evil without fear of being challenged. That the act was intended to benefit Hitler’s chosen race does not make it good or ambiguous just because this sounds vaguely evolutionary, because there is no morality to evolution. Evolution is just what happened, take it or leave it, and our morals as applied to Hitler come from other sources.

The Holocaust comparison fails on other levels. Here are two.
– Despite the claims of Nazi propaganda which tried to dehumanise the Jews, the Holocaust boils down to a single species attacking itself en masse, which isn’t good for any population. So does any act of ethnic cleansing, which is why racism is unsupportable by evolutionary theory. If anything the Holocaust could be seen as an act of “social Darwinism“, which borrows the terminology of evolution but has little in common with it.
– The six million Jews were murdered in an act of artificial selection, not natural selection. Evolution has no will and no goals, but Hitler decided those Jews should die. This deliberate culling has far more in common with techniques that have been used in animal breeding for centuries, long before Darwin.

Moving on, we actually don’t care very much about fish and bugs, do we? The former we catch live, kill painfully and eat with relish, and the latter we crush on our forearms without a second thought. Fish and insects are alien to us, so it’s hard to empathise with them – especially the insects, as we can’t really look them in the eyes. Once you get to mammals like cows and pigs, we’re still happy to eat them but we start to care whether they are treated humanely on the farm and in the abbatoir. We perceive cats, dogs, apes and monkeys as so like us in behaviour and attitude that most of us wouldn’t even consider killing one, let alone eating it. This empathy is where we get the urge to protect animals and treat them well, rather than some platitude about them all being “God’s creatures”, but there is a sliding scale of how strongly it applies.

That wasn’t really your point though. If you want an evolutionary rationale of why we should prevent obscure species from going extinct, animals that wipe out other animals or plants completely usually do themselves a terrible disservice in terms of survival. They deprive themselves of a food source, or a crucial nutrient is lost which leaves them susceptible to disease, or they allow a new poisonous species to flourish, or they put themselves at war with some other animal that was dependent on the late species. All of the above might apply to us, but additionally human science and medicine might have all sorts of uses for species of any type. Finally, although we can’t muster much empathy for alien-like species while they suck our blood or whatever, the fact that they’re just trying to survive too does engender a broad sense of solidarity with all living things.

The Benefits of Irrationality?

Question from Ariel:
Hello,

I am interested in your perspective as an atheist on a few things. I am not an atheist, nor am I a theist. I am certainly not an agnostic. As a bit of background: I grew up in an entirely atheistic, secular environment and have only begun exploring religious and spiritual traditions recently. I believe that within all mainstream belief structures that I’ve thus far encountered (predominantly atheist and Christian branches), there arises at some point or another – in some structures it is more hidden and deeply buried than in others – some sort of intellectual dishonesty. In most Christian traditions this dishonesty manifests in a relatively evident form of cognitive dissonance. Obviously very few Christians fully cognize the implications of their beliefs or else they would not be able to function in our pluralistic society. To honestly believe that 3/4 of the people I encounter are going to be punished eternally would put a strain on my existence that would become unbearable. The dishonesty I feel I encounter with atheism is that it cannot provide an answer for the qualitative aspects of our human experience. Answers to questions of beauty, morality, meaning, etc cannot be answered within a materialistic paradigm. Science deals with quantifiable evidence in a horizontal plane of existence while religion deals with qualitative evidence in a vertical plane of existence. It’s been often stated that science deals with the How while religion deals with the Why.

Of course that’s not entirely true. Science can begin to explain Why a particular organism behaves in a certain way by referring to various hypotheses within evolutionary science or psychology or what have you. But any answer to a why in a strictly causal, materialistic paradigm leads to another why, and you end up with an infinite regression. The big questions remain mysteries. When a religious person asks: how does your life have meaning without a God? What do you base your morality on? – those are very valid questions, as much as skeptics seem to want to scoff at them. The answers that often arise are answers of common sense: you make your own meaning, of course! You are moral by treating others kindly and valuing their lives, of course! But none of these answers warrant ‘of course’s.

The way that I see it, atheists have internalized the moral foundations that have been developed in religious traditions and have secularized them without realizing that, in removing ‘God’ from the equation, the ‘foundation’ part of ‘moral foundation’ is eliminated. I believe it might be worth studying / engaging in religious traditions, as well as poetry, speculative philosophy, etc for hints at some sort of higher truth than cannot be captured by adamant rationalism. There is a hugely mysterious aspect to our human experience that should not be suppressed by strict adherence to a particular *method* of thinking, like rationalism, logic, empiricism, the scientific method. These are just that: methods. They are particular closed systems in which we have trained our brains to think according to established rules and patterns. The thing about the aforementioned disciplines of speculative philosophy, religion / theology, poetry and arts in general is that they may, in their most honest and non-dogmatic manifestations, experience a high level cognitive freedom that allows them to delve into the vertical plane of existence. It is in this freedom that we may learn to take the leaps of faith that provide us with the ‘meaning’ that we so desperately crave as human beings. Paul Tillich suggested that with the modern emphasis on rationalism, there has been a removal of ‘depth’ from our experiences. That’s why you see so many people falling victim to consumerism or substance abuse. We are trying to kill an eternal God and substitute him with fleeting things, and it’s not leaving us very fulfilled. It is actually also this rise of rationalism / atheism that has led religions to become as literalized as they are (think about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy established in the early 20th century). Religion feels that it has to move from the vertical to the horizontal in order to duke it out with science, which is why we are now seeing a much more explicit divide between atheist-theism than we may ever have seen in the past.

Anyway. I probably ranted. I am wondering whether you feel there is any space for non-rational thought and belief structures in the ideal future that you envision for humanity.

All the best.

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Ariel.

Science and the associated rational way of thinking does not presume to have all the answers. This is a major difference from religious thinking, which does presume that the ultimate answer to every question is God. This becomes problematic when the questions themselves start to involve God, because it’s difficult for a thing to explain itself. More importantly, a believer can assert knowledge of an ultimate answer and therefore have an answer for everything, but what is the value of an answer if you don’t know whether it’s right?

While the “big questions” remain a mystery, science provides reliable answers for many of the “smaller” questions with practical applications for our daily lives. Because we know the rate at which the flu virus is evolving, we know how often a new flu vaccine must be created and distributed to ensure reasonable coverage (roughly every year). Because electricity applied to a magnetic coil in the right way can cause it to rotate, motors function. Because human beings have near-universal natural instincts towards not only self-preservation but living in social groups, we can develop laws and social contracts that will benefit us all. Meanwhile we keep working on the things we don’t know, so that we might actually discover the facts. (Incidentally, if you search this site for blanket terms like “morality” you’ll find that we’ve done far more than scoff at such questions.)

Rather than atheism secularising religious moral foundations, religions have claimed credit for ethical norms that existed long before they did; atheists simply tend to be the ones to point this out. For instance, the Commandment not to kill from the Book of Exodus was preceded by many entirely secular laws against killing, devised separately by civilisations the world over.

You can philosophise and go as “deep” as you like into any aspect of religion, but as soon as you take as a premise anything for which you have no evidence is true, you are in the realm of the hypothetical. You may experience profound realisations about your chosen topic, but as they may rely on false premises they are built on sand, and it may not be possible to translate your progress into anything which will be of practical help to anyone. This is the main problem with theology, from a non-believer’s perspective. Religion is often touted as another “way of knowing” besides science, but what is it that we “know” exclusively through religion that we actually do know? Comment if you have an example.

If I had to try to boil all of this down, I would return to my first point and say that while science cannot answer everything, religion has no more authority to answer anything and yet does it anyway. Which one you rely on for your worldview depends on whether you care more about having all the answers or being justifiably confident that the answers you have are correct.

Finally, there had better be room for non-rational thoughts and beliefs in the future, because no matter how hard people try to be rational they will always fall short at times. We’re all human, and no one’s always entirely rational. Fortunately, leaps of reasoning can indeed be achieved by taking seemingly illogical or irrational steps, though only if logic and rational analysis are applied to them afterwards. New ideas can come from anywhere, but you have to sift through them once you get them.

Right, Wrong, and God

Question from Adam:
Without God, is there right and wrong?

Answer by SmartLX:
Even with a hypothetical god around, would there be there right and wrong?

If God decides what is right and wrong, they are His opinions only, and subject to change. And change they apparently have, because there are all sorts of holy rules in the old Mosaic Law that had been superceded or forgotten as early as the first century AD (or CE). Shellfish, mixed fabrics, working on Sundays, that sort of thing. Therefore God’s sense of right and wrong is arbitrary, and useless to us except in the sense of trying to keep up with the whims of a tyrant to save our necks. That’s if we think He’s there at all.

Without a God imbuing the entire universe with an ethereal sense of right and wrong, there is only what we humans decide, as no other animal has ever set down a code of ethics or morality. (Some groups of apes and monkeys have developed simple moral systems, but purely in practical terms rather than the abstract.) The consensual ethics agreed upon by large groups of people are far less arbitrary than the will of an all-powerful, invincible being, because the way we want to be treated – and therefore the way we treat people – has a comprehensible effect on our wellbeing. For example, a general aversion to killing (except in some extraordinary cases) potentially prolongs everyone’s lives.

So we say that certain things are right and others are wrong, and if these judgements eventually show themselves to be flawed we change them. Regulated slavery was right and good for a very long time, but now we find it reprehensible. We’re entitled to admit mistakes and change our positions when new information comes to light, because we’re only human and we’re doing the best we can. A god has no such excuse; if He ever had to correct himself, He’s not much of a god.

Michael Prescott Tries Theology

Question from Lukas:
Hi.

First of all I want to thank this site for the answers I received so far. It really helps in discussions with believers.

Now to my new question which is rather long. A friend of mine who is a believer sent me a web address of a blog where he gives his reasons why he is a believer – he is a fan of Michael Prescott. I could not find good answers for these things:

(Shortened for quick reading, but see the full piece here)

1. The anthropic principle and cosmic coincidences. It is now a commonplace of astrophysics and cosmology that our universe appears to be “fine-tuned” to be orderly and habitable.

2. The origin of life. The old idea that the first living cell came together spontaneously by pure chance is no longer seriously argued, now that scanning electron microscopy has shown us the fantastic complexity of even the “simplest” cell.

(Points 1 and 2 are the ones that apparently persuaded Anthony Flew.)

3. All attempts to ground morality in naturalistic laws or brute physical facts have (in my opinion) failed, leaving us with two choices: either moral values are subjective and arbitrary, or they are objective but grounded in something outside nature.

4. Materialism, the view that the physical world is all that exists and that mind is, at best, only an epiphenomenon (i.e., trivial side effect) of matter, leads to a debased view of human beings, who are seen as mere animals, machines, robots, or vehicles for genetic reproduction. The dignity of man is incompatible with philosophical materialism.

5. On a personal level, I feel that life simply has no meaning if “this is all there is.”

6. In studying history, I became aware of the very large contribution to human happiness, well-being, and moral advancement made by religion.

7. Finally, after being an extreme skeptic with regard to paranormal phenomena, I began to study the field and found that much of the evidence was unexpectedly strong. This includes evidence for life after death, such as near-death experiences and the better-documented cases of apparitions, deathbed visions, and mediumship.

If you could please answer these questions I would be very glad.

Also thanks again for your time and this site its really great. Thanks for the answer and have a nice day.

Answer by SmartLX:
Your friend has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at you, and it only took him one link. Let’s dive into the pile, and see if crime writer Prescott has uncovered any real-life mysteries.

1. See my pieces on the fine tuning argument together here. Some of the main points:
– The term “fine-tuned” presumes a tuner in the first place.
– The fact that life is only supported on one tiny world within light years suggests that if it’s tuned at all it’s very poorly tuned.
– Some of the “tuned” constants could actually vary by a great deal and still allow life to form.
– We know at least one universe exists, and a multiverse hypothesis merely posits the existence of more of them. A god is completely without precedent in science and observation.

2. Prescott is just plain wrong here. The idea that the original proto-biology coalesced without being directed to do so is seriously argued, and there are a number of quite detailed models currently in play. He’s also wrong about the unlikelihood of new information emerging from disorder without a capital-M Mind to guide it, because it happens all the damn time. I recently argued this very point here.

3. We can argue about religious vs secular morality, but when you get down to it Prescott is just arguing that if there’s no god there’s no objective morality and this would be bad. Something is not more or less likely to be true based on whether it’s good or bad for us; an earthquake that kills millions is just as real as the discovery of a vaccine that saves millions. To suggest otherwise is a well-recognised logical fallacy called an argument from consequences.

4. Similarly, here he’s only saying that it’s better not to look at ourselves from a materialistic perspective (I disagree), and not bothering to actually argue that materialism is false. Same issue as #3.

5. If he can only find meaning in life if there’s a god, that’s his problem. To say it’s an actual argument supporting the existence of one, even to himself, is a third argument from consequences. Besides, I can find meaning in life without a god, and so can others.

6. Even if he’s right about the historical benefits of widespread religion, it’s a total non-sequitur to say that means there’s a god. Religion can have done everything it’s reliably recorded as having done over the millenia without the assistance of a single real deity. Such is the power of human belief and cooperation, for good or ill.

7. Even if paranormal phenomena were real, he’d have a lot of trouble linking them to any particular god. As for near-death experiences, that consciousness survives death is exactly the claim which lacks empirical evidence. I had my biggest discussion of this almost exactly five years ago on the old site (now archived, so don’t try to comment there) and in my estimation little of relevance has changed since.

So, all up there’s not much “philosophy of religion” from Prescott which is new. If Prescott is happy to use this stuff to convince himself, fine, but it doesn’t convince me.

A Set of Four

Questions from Hector, in separate emails:
1. Are we just lucky?
Do u believe it was just kind of a fluke thing that the universe, which you believe has always existed, was one that just happened to be such that it would someday become the life existing highly organized one that it is today? Or do you think even the deadest and dumbest of universes would always somehow just eventually end up turning into the live and highly organized one that we have today?

2. Do you give anything higher priority than your self interests? And why?
Is anything more important to you, that is of higher priority to you, than your self interests? If yes, what would that be and why?
And please please, respectfully I ask you to not dodge this question by asking me questions instead or answering the question for nonatheists. They can answer for themselves, thank you. I’m asking strickly about YOU, nobody else. Thank you.

3. Is unselfish love from other(s) something humans feel a need to have?
Can you conceive of being satisfied as a human if you believed that unselfish love from other(s) did not exist and that the best any of us could hope for was for others to treat us kindly only on the condition that we could give them something of value to them? In other words, do you feel unselfish love from other(s) is something humans do long for in order to be completely satisfied?

4.Atheist consensus view of who Jesus was?
Can you tell what is the shared view of most atheists about who they believe Jesus was and who they believe all those closely connected to him (his mother and father and apostles) were? And a second question, do most atheists give serious consideration to the historical question I just asked, I mean just from a historical perspective even if nothing more than that. I’m sure most atheists (assuming they are not historically ignorant) know that historians are in pretty unanimous agreement that he existed, was baptised by John the Baptist and that he was crucified. So assuming that level of education from atheists, I am curious to the concensus views to the above two questions asked. Maybe the consensus view is to just not even ever give any real consideration to those historical questions, I don’t know. You can tell me. Thank you very much.

Answers by SmartLX:
1. It’s a big universe, with a lot of varied chemistry. If life can emerge in one particular way here on Earth from the interaction of chemicals, there are probably many other ways it could emerge on other planets – and indeed in different universes. We don’t know why the properties of the universe are the way they are, but they’re hardly “fine-tuned for life” if life only develops on one precarious world in several light years, and the rest of the universe is empty. As Martin Rees says in Just Six Numbers, the fundamental constants could have been somewhat different and still allowed life anyway. All up, I’d say there was plenty of opportunity, so it’s remarkable that we’re here but not a complete statistical impossibility.

2. The problem with this question is that anything I’m interested in, even if it’s not directly for my benefit, is necessarily a “self-interest” of a sort. It’s always about what I want, even if what I want is for children in Africa not to starve or something like that. Still, this kind of altruistic desire is seen as a positive thing, so I suppose it counts in terms of your question. Here are a few simple examples of why my answer is “yes”:
– I value the safety, health and happiness of my wife far above my own. I love her, so it all comes with the territory.
– I devote time to this site which I could spend doing other things, perhaps making money or pursuing other selfish goals, because I think atheists need there to be more available resources about atheists, more than I think I should have more nice clothes. All the horror stories of prejudice are readily available online.
– I’ve regularly donated blood, which tends to sap one’s energy and at the very least takes a long time to do. Even a stranger’s health is more important to me than whatever I probably would have gone and done that day.

3. I don’t know whether we could get by and be happy solely on the social contract that drives us to behave well towards each other. Fortunately we don’t have to, because unselfish acts of love happen every day. People care about people, for the most part, whether you think this is a God-given property or it’s something which evolved in the social groups of our mammalian ancestors. Love actually is all around.

4. Atheists do generally think Jesus existed, or some itinerant Jewish preacher (or even several) the details of whose life and teachings were used to create the story of Jesus. In fact, atheists who argue that Jesus didn’t exist are often challenged by other atheists, and called “Jesus mythicists” or “Jesus mythers”. Atheists are usually quite comfortable with the existence of a real Jesus, because it doesn’t help the case for any of the supernatural claims about him.

Questionpalooza

Question from Tim:
I am an honest questioner/agnostic looking for answers. I was born into a Christian denomination, but no longer go to church.

Anyway, here are my questions for you:

1. Assuming evolution is true (and I believe it is), then shouldn’t you allow for the fact that since the Bible was written by human beings, and human beings evolve, so did God in the Bible? In the Old Testament, he was an angry God, but by the New Testament he was a loving God. Why do atheists continue to pick on the Old Testament God who is no longer relavent to our modern day society?

2. A follow-up to #1. The New Testament makes it clear that “God is Love”. Surely, atheists believe in love. Yet, you do not believe in God. Isn’t that a contradiction?

3. Why is it perfectly acceptable for scientists to make and believe in ‘theories’, yet it is not okay to believe in the theory of God, if we may call it that?

4. If atheists believe in ‘nothing’, then isn’t that much the same as believing in God? By that I mean, you cannot prove that ‘nothing’ exists, can you? Show me where ‘nothing’ exists in this world. Isn’t everything made up of something?

5. Why do atheists seem so hostile to even the possibility of God existing? Why can’t God be treated as a possible scientific explanation for the creation of the universe? It seems to me that it is just as hard to believe (if not harder) that there are multiple universes or that this universe was a random mistake that just somehow occured? Until we know the true reasons for the origin of the universe, why not keep God on the table as one possible answer just like any other, since none of the others have been proven yet either?

I may have some more questions for you later, but these are the main ones for now. I would very much appreciate hearing your thoughts and opinions on these matters, and I will consider them seriously.
Thank you for your time.

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Tim.

1. Whether God is angry or loving only matters if you think God exists, so it’s of far more importance to theists than atheists, but we do tend to use it to challenge the basis of religious morality.

Whether God is more loving in the New Testament is debatable, because the Old Testament has no concept of Hell as currently understood by Christians. God doesn’t start condemning people to eternal punishment until the Gospels, so for those on His bad side, love doesn’t count for much. The whole purpose of Jesus’ sacrifice is morally questionable, as no other scapegoat has ever truly absolved anyone of responsibility for their own actions.

The idea of God evolving undermines the idea of divine morality even further. if God’s ideas of right and wrong can change, humans must live in constant fear that God will change His mind again, and a lifetime of good works will be invalidated or a sinful life suddenly vindicated.

2. Love is a function of the brain. It’s not an ethereal presence which floats around us, it’s an abstract description of an integral part of the human experience. When we talk about love, we’re describing what people do for and feel about each other. What Christian would accept that God is nothing more than bio-electrical activity and an abstract human concept?

No, God as envisioned by Christians (and of course the New Testament) is more than love. He’s an intelligent agent with His own will and powers independent of human beings. When Christians say “God is love” they are giving credit to God for all love, but they’re not limiting him to the scope of love. Love doesn’t literally bring people back from the dead, but a god apparently can. That’s why atheists can quite happily accept the existence of love, but still question the existence of God.

3. The existence of God is a hypothesis, not a theory as understood by scientists. A scientific theory, as defined by the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.” God is a possible explanation for various things, yes, but God has not been confirmed to any extent through observation of and experiments on the natural world. When people deride evolution as “only a theory”, they don’t realise that their alternatives of creationism and “intelligent design” are not even that.

That said, the existence of God could be said to be a scientific hypothesis because it’s either true or it isn’t, and it could in principle be supported or contradicted by physical evidence. That’s no reason to think it’s at all likely, but it’s something.

4. Firstly, atheists don’t believe in “nothing” because there is at least something. We exist, and we live in some kind of a world, even if our senses are completely misguided. That’s something. Atheists also variously believe all kinds of things unrelated to gods, such as that everyone deserves an education, or that hard work pays off, or that ghosts are real, or that 9/11 was an inside job. It depends on the person.

I think what you mean is that atheists believe that there are no gods. Some do, and that’s called “strong atheism”, but most atheists simply lack a belief in any god. A god is a huge thing to believe in, and if there isn’t any apparent evidence for one, why would you? If no god has sufficient evidence to inspire belief in you, what you’re left with is atheism.

5. As I said, God is a possible explanation for the universe. Being an atheist doesn’t mean completely ruling out that possibility, it just means not thinking it’s really the case. There are plenty of agnostic atheists around, including me.

The nice thing about the idea of multiple universes is that there could be any number of them, up to and including an infinite number. If there are anything like that many, with a decent amount of variance between them, then the development of at least one universe with intelligent life in it becomes not just likely but a statistical certainty. That aside, without other universes to compare to this one, we don’t know how likely it is that a universe will have properties that allow life to form somewhere, whether there’s one universe or many. Rather than a random mistake, life-friendly properties might be common or even inevitable, such that life is an expected by-product of universes. Life as a whole does seem like the kind of bloody-minded (so to speak) organism that you’d pick up in your travels and struggle to shake off.

If you have related questions, feel free to comment here and carry on the discussion, otherwise go ahead and post unrelated questions as a new entry.