Explaining Good Fortune

“Firstly, congratulations on your deconversion, your new job and everything else. Secondly, don’t underestimate coincidences or sell yourself short.”

Question from David:
My wife and I deconverted from christianity about two years ago. Ever since then I have been an atheist. When we were christians, we would attribute good events in our life to god having favor on us. I know that’s not true now but some recent events have me perplexed. In the last two weeks, the following great things have happened: I landed a job without an in-person interview, I was able to get out of my rental agreement in order to move to my hometown and the house beside my parents became available to rent during the week I moved. When I was a christian, I would’ve attributed this to god. I know that’s not the reason. However, how can these things be explained? I’m having a difficult time thinking of this windfall as a bunch of good coincidences.

Answer:
Firstly, congratulations on your deconversion, your new job and everything else. Secondly, don’t underestimate coincidences or sell yourself short.

Imagine standing in heavy rain. The chances of any given raindrop hitting you are miniscule beyond comprehension, but stand there for only a few seconds and you will be soaked. Why? Because of the sheer amount of raindrops that fall on every square foot in every minute. There’s still a chance that every single drop will miss you, and indeed you do get the odd moment when you hardly feel any, but it’s just too unlikely to keep you dry on any occasion in one human lifetime.

Likewise, while any particular coincidence you can imagine is unlikely by definition, the other possible coincidences that could happen in any situation are practically infinite in number. The tiny chance of each one is balanced out by the many different chances, to the extent that we may expect to see a certain amount of coincidences in our lifetimes. It would be a strange life that was never touched by coincidence.

Let’s consider your two-week windfall specifically. I said earlier that you shouldn’t sell yourself short; your own people skills and other talents had at least something to do with your success in the remote job interview and with your rental agent, though of course you were still fortunate. As for finding the house next to your parents, that’s where the above really comes in. Think of different events which would have been as good as finding that house, or nearly as good. Any house within several blocks of your parents would have been convenient in the same kind of way, or something on the same bus or train line. Your parents could have had some reason to move near where you were going instead, or you both might have got apartments in the same building. All unlikely, yes, but if you keep on thinking, the alternatives just keep suggesting themselves. Look up from the raindrop you’ve caught and you can see the downpour.

I’m not saying it was likely that things would fall into place for you and your wife. I’m saying that there are such a huge number of ways in which things could have fallen into place for you that it’s not so inconceivable that one of them actually, simply, happened.

Again, congratulations.

SmartLX

A Question For You

“Why do you believe the truth claims of your religion or equivalent?”

Welcome to Ask The Atheist. If you’ve come back after a while, obviously the site has changed and most of the old material has not come across. It’s available at the archive. Please don’t comment there, as no new material will be approved. Speak up here instead.

Now then, there’s a question “The Atheist” would like to ask believers everywhere.

Why do you believe the truth claims of your religion or equivalent?

In other words, why do you believe for example that there’s a God? Or that reincarnation happens? Or that it’s wrong to eat pork, or beef? Is it because you have grown up believing it, or were you consciously convinced of it at some point?

I’ll go first, as a former believer. I was a lifelong Christian who accepted what I read and was told. After I was asked some hard questions, I looked at it all again, and it didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Other former believers are welcome to speak up, but I’m most interested in current believers. I plan to write articles based around responses that come in, individually or using groups of similar ones, depending. My aim is to discuss rather than attack. I may or may not succeed in this.

To participate, either comment on this post or write to the email address on the right with the subject “Why I Believe”. If you’re a former believer, use “Why I Believed” and focus on that, not “Why I Don’t Believe”. Thank you.

What I believe, right now, is that this will be educational for us all.

SmartLX

Interview with the Preacher

“…you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.”

Question from Bailey:
I’m an atheist and a freelance writer. My dad’s preacher has agreed to answer some questions I have about the Bible and his views on things of the religious matter. Trouble is, now that I have the opportunity to ask whatever I want (and get an entirely silly response I’m sure), I am a bit stumped. I have in mind:

1.) If the Bible is as black and white as they say, why ignore the laws in the Bible such as “don’t eat shellfish” and the like, and follow rules like “homosexuality is a sin?”…I will be referring to the laws in Leviticus.

2.) Do you believe in creationism or evolution and why?

3.) Why are there so many contradictions in the Bible? (I will be using specific examples, but would like as many ideas as possible).

Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Help?

Answer:
That lot’s a good start, but you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.

I’ve only just answered a question about the nasty Leviticus laws, so check that out first.

Whether your father’s preacher is a creationist depends rather a lot on his denomination. Evangelicals are generally creationists to some extent (with some high-profile exceptions such as Francis Collins), whereas Catholics usually toe the Vatican’s line of theistic evolutionism which is basically, “God caused evolution.” Either way, what he believes is almost certainly what his church officially believes, and you’d do best to look that up.

You may be at a disadvantage if he does turn out to be a creationist. There are a great many creationist arguments which, unsound as they are, take 5-10 seconds each to say and require a bit of research to rebut properly. About the best thing I can do for you is supply a slightly old but still exhaustive list.

If you’re looking for contradictions, you can’t go past the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible. It’s got a huge collection of them. Best of all, it’s been around long enough for other sites to write replies, and in a grand example of sportsmanship the SAB links to them directly. If you have a selection of apparent contradictions you’re going to bring up, you can get a very good idea of how this preacher will respond if he decides to defend them.

Besides your suggested questions I have one more, which I always try to ask believers: quite simply, “Why do you believe?” Once you know that, it’s only natural to work through the follow-up question with them: basically, “Is that a good reason?” It’s why I’m an atheist, really. I examined my own reasons for believing in the Christian God, and they just weren’t good enough. Self-examination, if you can manage to provoke it in others, is a powerful tool.

Best of luck with the interview, whatever your goal is. (You didn’t really make that clear. I hope you actually have one.) Let us know how it goes.

SmartLX

Mosaic Law

“Of course, easily the most direct orders against homosexual sex are in the same part of Leviticus.”

Question from Anonymous:
Hello,

I’m an atheist. I recently told a gay-hater about this and his response was that “It came from the Mosaic Law which is no longer in effect.”

What’s the right response to this?

Keep up the good work!

Answer:
Mosaic Law, taken in this case to mean a large set of Old Testament laws including the one in the link, is widely regarded by Christians who care about this sort of thing to have been contradicted many times and therefore superseded by the teachings of Jesus. A good example is the substitution of “turn the other cheek” for “an eye for an eye”. This rationale is often given for not following the really destructive laws in Leviticus.

Of course, easily the most direct orders against homosexual sex are in the same part of Leviticus. Some apologists give quite complex reasons why certain parts of Mosaic Law should continue to be upheld, while others just drop the whole thing and rely on other parts of the Bible, such as Romans 1 in the New Testament, when condemning homosexuality.

The most straightforward response to your “gay-hater” is to move out of the Old Testament altogether and quote some apparent silliness from the New Testament instead. This article, though not very carefully written (see the typo in its title), has some good examples. This will maintain your original point while avoiding his grounds for dismissal.

Keep us posted via comments, if you like.

SmartLX

“Why did God choose me to be a Seer?”

“Without some kind of evidence that you really have been contacted by God, it’s not much use discussing His motives with someone who doesn’t think He exists.”

Question, verbatim, from Peter:
Why did god save my life when evil attack me and give me knowledge of his existence and his power over evil.And told me I was to be a Seer and give me strength and showed me the strength of love and how to used it as a shield for other poeple to stand behind for strength.I was a atheist a sinner.

Answer:
The real question isn’t why God chose you, it’s whether God chose you. Only if this were establshed would the why be of any use.

In short, how do you know? How would you demonstrate to someone else that you had been chosen by God? For example, as a “Seer” are there things you know that others don’t, and could you prove yourself to be in possession of information you couldn’t have gotten any other way?

Without some kind of evidence that you really have been contacted by God, it’s not much use discussing His motives with someone who doesn’t think He exists.

SmartLX

Evidence For Atheism

“…absence of expected evidence can indeed be evidence of absence, like the absence of any bat guano in your attic.”

Question, often asked of atheists by Shockofgod:
What is the proof or evidence that atheism is accurate and correct?

Answer:

Sometimes an apologist will hit upon a question which is not easily answered off the cuff and, by asking it repeatedly, give the impression that there is no good answer and the opposing position is unsupported. You can usually tell such a question by the fact that it’s asked with almost exactly the same wording every time. The above is Shockofgod’s personal weapon. Obviously, asking tough questions is a valid persuasive technique, but if they’re intended to be tough then one may need time to answer them the right way. A written response can be a great help, especially when you’ve read it before being asked the question verbally.

The question is hard to answer as is because atheism itself is the absence of a certain type of belief, not the presence of an equivalent belief. It feels wrong to advance the lack of a belief as correct, let alone proven.

What we need to sort out beforehand is the position of atheists (or at least the majority of them) on the existence of gods and the truth merit of religions. This can be defended, as “what atheists think”, far less awkwardly.

This attempt is probably not definitive, but here goes: the atheist position is that there is no available, substantive evidence for the existence of any god. Therefore it’s likely that there isn’t one.

Now that we have a defined position, what evidence or proof can we offer? It’s hard to support a negative like this, but “available substantive evidence” narrows the field a bit. It essentially means significant evidence which we’ve actually got. There might well be evidence which is not available, like God’s signature in three-inch letters on the surface of Ganymede. There’s plenty of “evidence” which is not substantive, like claims of personal experience and unverified miracle stories. Neither of these is a good reason to abandon atheism. Available substantive evidence for a god, on the other hand, would be good reason.

Therefore the evidence (proof is going too far) is the appearance that there is no such evidence for gods. If it did exist, and were substantive and available, it would be paraded around the world. Whichever god it supported would be vindicated. So it’s very unlikely that evidence is available and substantive and yet appears as though it’s not there.

Another possible piece of evidence for the likelihood of the absence of gods (remember, the position on gods is a statement of probability) is precedent. Unsubstantive “evidence” for gods often takes the form of supposedly impossible things, everything from the beginning of the universe to the diversity of life to Peter Popoff’s inexplicable knowledge of his audience members’ business. As Tim Minchin says in his brilliant beat poem Storm, every such mystery which has been solved has turned out to be “not magic”. Evolution explained the diversity of life brilliantly. Popoff’s earpiece, through which his wife fed him information, was revealed by James Randi. Such cases speak well for the chances that many remaining mysteries will soon be solved. Most importantly, gods seem less and less likely to be necessary in the areas where we have no good natural explanation yet.

Finally, we must address the possible impression of an overreach or a non-sequitur. Why does the absence of good evidence make it likely that there are no gods? Because gods as described by religions which have them (a) have visible, even obvious effects on the world and (b) want people to believe in them. (One or both is usually true even for deistic gods.) The lack of available substantive evidence suggests that either they aren’t both true, or there isn’t a god. Of course theology has reconciled this many times over, but not in ways with any evidential support behind them.

The evidence for atheism, in short, is the lack of available substantive evidence for gods when there probably should be a lot. On hearing that response, an apologist will probably retort in one of two ways:
1. Argue despite any clarification you make that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, in which case it’s helpful to remember that absence of expected evidence can indeed be evidence of absence, like the absence of any bat guano in your attic.
2. Actually present some supposed evidence for the existence of a god, in which case the discussion will then be about that.

In any case, the unanswerable question isn’t.

SmartLX

God is Good, Existence Notwithstanding?

“Atheists aren’t entirely blind to the possible benefits of religion. Its perils, however, are substantial enough to make any judgement of its ultimate worth on its own merits very difficult.”

Question from James:
Why must atheists be just as equally hard core biased about their beliefs as Christians?

I do not believe in the existence of a deity. Although I do highly condone God. As no one can logically argue that “God” is not simply the best thing for mankind.

I just want to know why despite your beliefs you can fail to see reason, and even if there is no God, why shouldn’t we all just pretend for our own sakes?

Answer:
Some non-believers are nevertheless very supportive of religion, like you. They argue that believing in gods is beneficial even if the beliefs themselves are false. Philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this position “belief in belief”. Biologist-blogger Jerry Coyne calls it “faitheism”.

When trying to logically determine whether belief in gods or in a particular god is ultimately beneficial, you need to look at both sides of the issue.
Pros: There are in fact several studies which show small but significant differences in happiness, health and longevity between theists and atheists, always in favour of the theists. (Atheism is generally favoured in studies which focus on certain other attributes.) Fear of God may very well encourage good behaviour, though it’s not the only way to encourage this.
Cons: believers may devote huge amounts of time, money and effort to their churches which might be spent more productively, they tend to antagonise members of other churches and religions, and they live their lives by laws which may not in fact be backed by an absolute authority, and therefore may steer them wrong.

Atheists aren’t entirely blind to the possible benefits of religion. Its perils, however, are substantial enough to make any judgement of its ultimate worth on its own merits very difficult. In the absence of a clear verdict, atheists like me tend to encourage people to be atheists, simply because there don’t appear to be any gods.

SmartLX

Jesus Unscriptured: Josephus

“This is a real Jew of the establishment we’re talking about. He stayed a Jew all his life which means it’s very doubtful he actually thought Jesus was the Messiah, which is what “Christ” meant in a Jewish context.”

Question from C.L.H.:
Christians sometimes point to “independent sources” or historians of Greek or Roman history in validating the existence of Jesus and historical truth of the Bible.

For example: Flavius Josephus wherein he writes about Jesus the Christ.

“Chapter 3 – Sedition Of The Jews Against Pontius Pilate. Concerning Christ, And What Befell Paulina And The Jews At Rome

3. Now there was about this time Jesus , a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
(from Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, PC Study Bible formatted electronic database Copyright © 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

I know there are several other historian accounts that are often referenced, but I can’t recall them right at the moment.

What are we to make of this “history”?

Answer:
The other day I covered independent references to Jesus, and the evidence for him in general. I’ll focus on Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum this time.

In my other piece I said that the document was a battlefield. It’s been disputed since the 17th century, because although it’s the most direct (and flattering) extra-Biblical mention of Jesus we have which was apparently written in the first century, there are many reasons why it might not be entirely genuine.

Its positive affirmations are a major sticking point. It says, without qualification, “He was [the] Christ.” Elsewhere it says he rose from the dead after three days. Josephus isn’t obviously saying that this is what Christians think, he’s apparently flat out saying it happened.

This is a real Jew of the establishment we’re talking about. He stayed a Jew all his life which means it’s very doubtful he actually thought Jesus was the Messiah, which is what “Christ” meant in a Jewish context. He also did a lot of what amounted to PR work for the Romans who weren’t keen on prophesied kings. Had he actually written and released this passage at the time, as is, he’d have been thrown to the lions figuratively or literally.

The passage comes to us via a set of Greek manuscripts, the earliest of which dates back to the 11th century. That means about a thousand years went by in which changes might have been made. In the third century, after reading the Testimonium, the Christian historian Origen wrote that Josephus “did not accept Jesus as Christ”. The version he read at the time, therefore, was likely to have given a different impression than the one we have.

From this fact alone, apart from the likelihood that the Testimonium was changed at some point to be more Christian-friendly, we can deduce one more thing: that Josephus probably did write something or other about Jesus. That isn’t saying much, because in his original piece he might simply have recounted the story preached by Christians without saying that any of it was fact.

I won’t go through the other arguments against it, but suffice it to say that there’s plenty to argue about.

In general, documents such as the Testimonium Flavianum reveal credibility issues as soon as you scratch the surface. That doesn’t mean they’re all false, it just means that the standard of evidence they provide isn’t earthshaking right now.

SmartLX

Spirits?

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

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

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

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

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

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

SmartLX

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

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

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

Question from Nym:
Hello.

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

1. What makes science so accurate?

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

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

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

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

Thank you very much for reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SmartLX