“…if the basketball at the next NBA finals were to suddenly fall upwards and get stuck under the scoreboard, the theory of gravity would be challenged and science would have a lot of catching up to do. That does not mean it’s at all likely to actually happen.“
Question from Rory:
When confronted by the issue of the existence of ghosts or spirits by a religious person I find myself stumped to find a scientific explanation to respond with.
Obviously many supposed sightings of ‘ghosts’ have been misunderstandings, camera trickery or an exaggerated memory.
Much like the stories of religion and the image of god, our perception of what a ghost is is entirely manmade; usually the image of a transparent human figure.
But suppose someone really did see something paranormal, irrefutably standing in front of them, maybe a human figure or some other unexplainable entity. Are there any scientific theories to explain these things? Is it possible to see reflections of the past, for example?
I should point out, I do not believe in the existence of ghosts and have never seen anything that I could ever perceive to be anything paranormal.
I am an atheist and don’t believe in much more than what we see and can be proven.
Neither do I believe in ghosts. I simply feel that when combatting an argument against someone who claims to have seen a ghost, the argument of the sighting potentially being anything and simply a misunderstanding comes across as vague and weak (although almost certainly true).
IF someone really did see a ghost, spirit or other supernatural entity, and could prove beyond reasonable doubt that they did (have fun imagining how), then naturalistic views of the universe would be challenged. That’s a big if. Significantly, this has not happened (or even been convincingly faked) in centuries of investigations and claimed sightings.
Thinking sideways for a moment, if the basketball at the next NBA finals were to suddenly fall upwards and get stuck under the scoreboard, the theory of gravity would be challenged and science would have a lot of catching up to do. That does not mean it’s at all likely to actually happen.
That said, since science is permanently in the business of correcting itself when new information and evidence come to light, it’s probably quite likely that phenomena will be observed which at first do not seem natural, but will ultimately be furnished with a natural explanation which is then confirmed by experiment.
James Randi has a word to describe such phenomena: perinormal rather than paranormal. Peri, as in “periphery”, implies that such things are right on the edges of human knowledge waiting to be discovered. When Randi was running his Million Dollar Challenge to test self-proclaimed psychics, it was his faint hope that a candidate would pass the test and demonstrate a real perinormal ability, and that the discovery of its mechanism would be well worth the prize money.
For the moment, however, there are no unambiguously demonstrated perinormal phenomena to consider, let alone genuinely paranormal. So we wait, and we investigate claims. The burden of proof is on those making the claims. Responses to unsubstantiated claims are necessarily vague, since an unsubstantiated claim tends to be devoid of useful, verifiable details. That doesn’t make the responses weak relative to the claims, it simply makes them appropriate.
One other point I should make is that if religious people are making claims of ghosts in order to support their religions, it’s worth asking them and yourself whether what they describe actually links exclusively to one religion. Otherwise they may in fact be describing events which, if true, suggest that they’re worshipping the wrong god or gods.
“The fundamental constants are set in one of potentially infinite combinations which permit life.”
Argument by Robert O’Brien, based on Probability, Statistics and Theology by David J. Bartholomew:
“As far as I know, there is no reason to believe the values of the physical constants are necessary, in which case, we have the following likelihood ratio:
P(physical constants and the universe in which we exist|God)/P(physical constants and the universe in which we exist|no God) =
P(physical constants|God)P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and God)/
P(physical constants|no God)P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and no God)
“Now, P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and God)/P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and no God) is essentially one since it does not seem likely that our universe depends on whether the physical constants we observe arose by design or not. Therefore, the likelihood ratio takes the form:
P(physical constants|no God)
which I argue is large since it is easy to conceive of God wishing to create a particular universe and choosing the appropriate values of the physical constants whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to achieve the correct values.”
The point of the argument doesn’t actually require most of the mathematical notation, so we can skip a lot of the above. We’ll concentrate on the last expression of the ratio of probability:
P(physical constants|no God)
For those who haven’t seen this kind of thing before, here’s a crash course. P(something) means the probability of that thing happening. If you toss a fair coin, P(heads) is one half or 0.5 and so is P(tails). The | in the middle, which is called a pipe, means “given” or “given that” or “in the case of” or just “if”. For example, if you take the bus to work, P(getting to work on time|catching the bus) is higher than P(getting to work on time|missing the bus and walking).
So, O’Brien’s final expression is the probability of the universe’s fundamental constants having their present values if there’s a God (note the capital G – he means a god like the Christian one) divided by the probability of the same constants if there’s no God. The reason why the former is much higher than the latter, he argues, is that “it is easy to conceive of God wishing to create a particular universe and choosing the appropriate values of the physical constants whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to achieve the correct values.”
Let’s transfer the argument sideways. Which is higher,
P(last week’s lottery numbers|God) or
P(last week’s lottery numbers|no God)?
One would have to argue the former using O’Brien’s logic, because whether or not it happened, it’s really easy to conceive of God wishing to make a particular person rich and choosing the right numbers whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to match a given person’s numbers. Many winners do thank God, after all.
So why are there winners all the time, then? Because any combination could be a winner, and you don’t necessarily need last week’s specific lottery numbers.
Similarly, while some combinations of the fundamental constants are unworkable, many others are. Most who argue that they aren’t make the mistake of varying just one constant at a time. Even within that limitation, the gravitational constant for example would have to vary by a factor of about 3000 to preclude the formation of stars.
Without the limitation, as Victor Stenger discovered, “changes to one parameter can be easily compensated for by changes to another, leaving the ingredients for life in place.”
The fundamental constants are set in one of potentially infinite combinations which permit life. They don’t even seem terribly conducive to life, given that it has only apparently emerged on the surface of this one rock within hundreds of light years. They’re no better than a Division 3 lottery win.
One may consider it a low or even negligible probability that an unsculpted universe will be life-ready. Assuming there are six major fundamental constants (and you may want to consider others), the entire six-dimensional sample space would have to be analysed, not just slight variations of our set, or there’s no basis for this.
And that’s without even considering a multiverse or the anthropic principle.
“You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially.”
Question from Matthew:
I don’t have any friends who claim to be atheist and I simply like to understand the position better. If you have any other input in addition to these questions I would appreciate it. Thanks.
1. Do you believe that a personal God exists? Why or why not?
2. Do you believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate? Why or why not?
3. What is the purpose of human existence?
4. How do you know what is right and wrong?
5. What happens to a person at death?
I assume you know the answers to some of those, but I appreciate that you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially. If you want more detail, comment and ask for it, and/or better yet read through some older questions.
1. An atheist does not believe that any god exists, let alone a personal capital-G God. The reason is generally lack of evidence or convincing arguments supporting the existence of such a god, and that’s the case with me. Check out The Great Big Arguments #1-#6, consisting of most of the early pieces on this new site, to see why the well-known arguments you might be in the habit of using have not proved convincing.
2. If one does not believe in gods, why would one believe despite this that Jesus was the incarnation of a specific god?
Leaving the basic position of atheism aside, the claim that Jesus was God does not stand on its own merit. The New Testament was written by people who all wanted people to believe it, whether or not it was true. The prophecies supposedly fulfilled by Jesus were available to his chroniclers, making them candidates for #5. Made to Order (in my terminology) on the list of explanations that must be considered besides the false dilemma of pure chance and true prescience. Surviving extra-Biblical documentation of Jesus, for instance that passage by Josephus, has its own issues.
3. Since the human race developed on its own and needed no creator, there was no external purpose for its emergence. The reason for the existence of humans is that life arose on a planet saturated with its building blocks, and then competed with itself over billions of years. During this demanding competition, more and more complex forms became the standard until we were the next evolutionary step.
If you mean to ask why we bother to keep existing now, it’s because we want to. There isn’t much of an alternative that we know of. As for giving purpose to individual human lives, humans can do that themselves.
4. From many different sources – the law, historical precedent, varying philosophies (including religious ones) formulated over the centuries, common sense, simple concepts such as fairness and the minimisation of harm, etc. – we have built a very good picture of what is right and wrong to humans. Obviously we don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on most things.
Any of the above sources could be wrong, and any could be challenged, but they’re there and each one tends to be consistent. The alternative is to appeal to an absolute morality, one independent of humans, which may not even exist and simply cannot be tested. I don’t need the whole universe to agree with me that what I do is right, but if most of the human race agrees based on real concepts that can be reasoned through, then I literally have a reasonable basis for my actions.
5. At death, a person ceases to exist. The person’s condition is often described using that rare and fascinating antonym of “existence”, namely “oblivion”. What happens to a person after death is therefore not worth considering, because after death there is no longer a person for anything to happen to. There is only a body. We have one life. Good thing it’s an interesting life.
Chew on that lot and speak up if you’d like to explore anything.
“Belief exists at different levels in different people, and the sooner you plumb your own to find the depth of it, the sooner you can deal with it directly.”
Question from Ron:
Just stumbled upon your site, I am from India, and here questioning the existing of god is like painting a red sign on your back here.
I have been an atheist for as long as I can remember (i.e never went to a place of worship), and my immediate family never imposed on me.
However when I was young I always used to thank or curse a faceless entity in my mind for good fortune or misfortune.
Then when I discovered the atheistic ideology and openly told everyone, I started feeling a sense of estrangement from my family. It has been so ever since (since 7 years).
Lately I have been going through many rough pathches and good times, and I sometimes find myself speaking to the above mentioned faceless entity. But then I right myself calling it stupid.
However how do I get rid of this internal conflict?
Depends on where it’s coming from, and it’s hard to tell that from over here.
If you really did believe in some such entity as a youth, perhaps you still do on some level. There are religious folks who think all atheists are believers in denial, and of course this is nonsense, but nevertheless there are those whose belief persists despite their sincere intellectual acceptance of the unlikelihood of gods. Maybe you’re one of these unfortunate individuals. If so, it likely surfaces in times of stress or great emotion. So face it head-on: has your entity ever answered? What’s it done for you? Is it even an entity worth talking to? And be patient – expect such a subconscious belief, however light, to fade slowly.
If on the other hand you don’t think you ever really believed, and you started praying after a fashion as an imitation of your religious peers (or out of loneliness or estrangement, like some kids invent an imaginary friend) then it’s basically a habit. It probably does you no harm if you know you’re talking to no one, but if the fact that you do makes you uncomfortable then treat it as any other habit that needs breaking; address the root causes (the occasions which cause you to do it), or just find another thing to do.
Human beings are conflicted creatures at the best of times, so don’t feel alone. Belief exists at different levels in different people, and the sooner you plumb your own to find the depth of it, the sooner you can deal with it directly.
“A little more detail might help.”
Question…well, more of a spiel from Jeff:
I stumbled onto your website about a week ago and saved your website on my computer. This week I was clearing out my “favorites” in the computer and came across it again. I just listened to your info on you tube and agree with where you are at this point in your life. I was somewhat close to where you are on a spiritual level 43 years ago. I wasn’t sure there was a God. My mom was a spiritual nut in the big pix but I had no reason to believe.
Somehow I got linked up with a guy who happened to become my best friend who was a pastor’s son. I could see strange happenings around him and i wondered what was causing them. Later on he invited me to a chuch camp where everyone was talking about Jesus. I was arogant and doubtful that he even existed. I said these words out loud: “If Jesus is so real, why doesn’t he show himself?
Over the next 40 years I tracked unusual events in my life and they all tied together with this very incident. I’m currently writing a book about it as i believe people should be aware of what i was seeing.
I work in electronics and I analyze things for a living. If my analysis takes me off course, then i waste valuable time and money. So i’ve learned to sharpen my skills. I ended up at a church camp 39 years after this event and saw something I couldn’t quite believe so i asked 6 other people what they saw. The answer tells the story that Jesus is real. The book is “the Cross in the Road” and i’m writing it for the people who can not see God in their life. It explains how i come to realize he was real. I’ve seen the impossible happen right before my eyes many times and even questioned my own sanity. But the other 6 people confirmed that it wasn’t my sanity in question but my belief system.
A little more detail might help.
I realise that you want people to read your book when it’s finished, assuming it becomes available to our visitors the world over. For the moment though, you’re claiming to have seen miracles without even describing them, let alone supporting your claims with evidence. This will probably not convince anybody, or even pique much interest.
What you have done is talk up your own analytical powers, essentially daring people to say you’re wrong about what you saw. This doesn’t count for much, as every religion has sharp people among its devout and they can’t all be right about their conversion experiences.
That’s the general problem with using perceived personal experience of the divine when proselytising: there’s no real credibility to be gained, and plenty to be lost. You’re essentially trading on your existing credibility, which relative to the strangers you’re now trying to reach is zero.
I’m not saying you won’t convince anybody, because at worst some people will believe anything. I’m just saying that the persuasive power of your experiences at church camp will not easily translate into a written account intended for the general public in their living rooms.
“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.
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.
“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.
“…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?
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.
“Of course, easily the most direct orders against homosexual sex are in the same part of Leviticus.”
Question from Anonymous:
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!
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.
“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.
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.