Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer!
As promised, here are “Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer!” along with my answers. Here is the source link, which I’ll be reading from instead of the Pharyngula post so that I won’t have to wonder if I would have said that before I read PZ’s answer. Hopefully writing the last post will have moved my mind in different directions enough to help with that for the questions I already read. Since the list is hosted on Today Christian, I will assume the context that the questions are being asked by some variety of Christian.
1. How Did You Become an Atheist?
I’m a little puzzled that anyone could think that’s an unanswerable question, it’s the sort of self-identity thing that most people will be hard to shut up about once you get them started on it.
I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere, but in brief I became an atheist by studying the world around me and reading about religions. As I learned more, it became increasingly apparent to me that none of the various religions offered any significant reason to believe that they were true over any of the others, and that all of them had a sense of… I can’t find a word for it. Fantasy? They didn’t feel like the real world, they felt like make-believe. I think I first noticed this when I was about seven years old, and as I grew that feeling increased while religions looked more and more… I hesitate to say “childish”, but that’s honestly the best word I have for it. Pleading with an authority figure, flattering and offering to do apparently pointless menial chores or minor bribes to placate their ego, much like a child trying to convince their parent to bend the rules or buy them a treat.
Eventually I came to believe that religions are made up stories the same way I believe that the Sun will set in the west. I cannot honestly say that I chose to be an atheist, I simply chose to be honest about how I saw the universe.
2. What happens when we die?
Huh, the title-style capital letters only lasted one question. Weird. Anyway.
What happens is the same thing that happens when a dog dies. The body begins to decay, the people who cared dispose of the remains and mourn.
I’m sure that the asker wanted to know what happens from the point of view of the one who died, but that’s not a useful concept because once one dies, one no longer has a point of view. I don’t expect to know when I am dead, because I won’t be alive to notice it. When I am dead I won’t know that I had ever been alive, I won’t exist as a personality anymore. My mind will be erased like a name written in sand smoothed by the waves.
If you have ever been unconscious, not merely asleep but completely blacked out by, say, injury or heavy drinking or total exhaustion, that dreamless oblivion right before you started to be aware again is the closest I can imagine to being dead. Based on my experience of clawing my way back to consciousness after a concussion I conclude that coming back from the dead would really suck, at least while it was happening.
3. What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
This question annoys me because it’s clearly intended to intimidate. Seriously, look at the punctuation there, they want you to be afraid of HELL! as you read that. It’s enough to make me suspect that these questions aren’t being asked in good faith.
It’s always possible that I’m wrong, that’s the human condition. No matter how confident you feel about anything, there is an inherent possibility of being wrong. I suppose in this scenario then after I die a loving, merciful God will cast me into Hell to be tortured for ever and ever and ever and ever and ever without hope of parole or reprieve or even the sweet oblivion of true death.
This question can be asked of anyone, in any framing. Suppose you are wrong, questioner, and upon your death Allah condemns you for ignoring the words of his true Prophet? Suppose Odin mocks you for your straw death, or Huitzilopochtli condemns you for failing to provide tribute, or Anubis solemnly places your heart on a scale to be weighed against the feather of Ma’at? These scenario are every bit as valid as the one you posit, and must be considered just as carefully. My answer applies equally to all of them, how about yours?
4. Without God, where do you get your morality from?
Empathy, mostly. I recognize that the feelings of others are as real and important as my own, from a universal perspective. Subjectively, of course, things are more complicated, but it’s a good starting point. I put considerable thought into the potential consequences of my actions, and minimizing negative impact on other people is a very high priority. But that’s getting into what I do, I suppose I really answered the question in my first two sentences.
Broadening that slightly, I have learned from many other people and thought quite a bit about it on my own, and formed my morality out of the conclusions I have drawn. A major element was considering what kind of world would result, and which of these possibilities I would prefer to live in. This led me to decide that kindness is important and that I should be as kind as I reasonably can.
There’s an element of self-interest in that, of course, because by being kind I encourage others to do so, and I would much rather live someplace where kindness is common. I am okay with this.
5. If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
This is the question that made me stop reading Pharyngula and write my previous post, because what popped into my mind as I read it was very close to what Professor Myers responded with.
We are obviously free to murder and rape because those crimes are very, very common.
On the 14th of April, 2014, Boko Haram militants attacked the girls’ school in Chibok, Nigeria. They murdered at least 16 people and abducted over 200 girls, whom they bragged they would treat as slaves, and did so. Apparently the price to buy one as a “bride” was about $12.50. God did nothing to prevent this, (In fact Boko Haram leader Abudakar Shekau said that God “instructed me to sell them”) therefore regardless of God’s existence we clearly have that freedom.
Perhaps a person’s actions are eventually punished or rewarded in some afterlife, but I doubt it. And given the propensity of clergy and those who claim to know the mind of God or act on instructions from God to abuse people, clearly many of them don’t, either. I suppose atrocities are okay if God told you to do it.
But the simple answer to this question is yes. We are free to commit atrocities and we know this for a fact because many of us do just that. So is a fear of punishment from God the only thing keeping you from committing murder and rape?
6. If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
The capital letters just keep slipping away, here. I suppose this question refers to “god” as a generic entity, rather than a proper title.
What do you mean by “meaning”? I’ve never quite understood that choice of words. I think of “meaning” as something a symbol has, like a red traffic light meaning “stop” while a green one means “go”, or the letters that make up the words you are reading right now. Do you mean “purpose”?
My life only has purpose that I choose to assign to it. The downside of that is that I have to figure things out on my own and make hard choices about what to do and how to survive. The upside is that I’m free to do so as I wish.
To ask whether my life as a state of existence has purpose, that is to say that I exist at all for a reason or that my birth happened for a purpose rather than as a result of my parents’ sex life, is a meaningless question to me. You may as well ask about the wetness of classical music. I am alive, and that’s all there is to it. The same may be said of all matter and energy, really.
If you ask “why does the Sun exist?” one could reasonably answer that it was formed by gravity from a vast cloud of hydrogen and the debris remaining from an old supernova, describing how it came to be. To ask why it came to be in the first place assumes that it was made for a purpose, like a tool. This question leads back to everything that has ever existed, and could also be fairly asked of God, if you think about it.
“Why does anything exist?”
“God made it all for ineffable reasons of His own.”
“Well then why does God exist?”
Ultimately, the chain of intent reaches a point where the only possible answers, besides the always applicable “I don’t know”, are that it exists for its own sake without any purpose or that the question is meaningless.
7. Where did the universe come from?
I don’t know. See above.
Look, I know there’s a lot of work done on this subject, but I’m not a cosmologist.
8. What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?
What about fairies? What about people who claim to be in polyamorous marriages with extraterrestrials? What about those who claim to have seen Buddha or Shiva, or what about the Oracle of Delphi?
I’m not being flippant, either, these are all equivalent questions.
I especially want to know about that last one, because the successive priestesses of Dephi were known for giving generally good advice, and also for phrasing their prophecies in ways that left them an out if the obvious interpretation did not come to pass. They were fairly well documented and operated for over a thousand years, is this proof of the power of Apollo?
When I think of miracles, beyond the usual sense of something good happening that is so unlikely or unexpected that the reality of it is shocking, two examples come to mind.
First, the miracle of liquefaction of blood recorded by Mark Twain in his nonfiction (well, mostly) book The Innocents Abroad. Twain describes it has happening once a day for a week or two every year, and it consists (or consisted, I’m typing this out from memory and haven’t bothered to look it up) of a vial of dried blood becoming liquid again. Noted in the text was that the first time every year, when a large crowd has come to see it, the liquefaction takes hours, while at the end of the run when only a handful are in attendance it happens in minutes. I speak only from faded memories of the words of a humorist who was clearly hostile towards the idea, but it does come off as a deliberate scam.
The second that comes to mind is much more recent and more troubling, and that’s Catholics causing Sanal Edamaruku to flee his home country after he showed that a “miracle” in which a statue appeared to be dripping water from its feet was caused by a bad drain. Not only is there fear of random violence, he was threatened with arrest and criminal charges over this, which is especially galling because people were drinking that “miracle water”, and it clearly wasn’t healthy. The archbishop had the audacity to say the charges would be dropped if Edamaruku apologized for honestly reporting the truth about something that was endangering the health of some true believers.
Look, people claim a lot of things that clearly aren’t true. Probably most are simply mistaken, for whatever reason. Others are lying for attention or profit or personal power. Probably there’s some overlap between those two categories, too. There’s really no reason to assume that visions of Apollo are less credible that visions of Jesus.
9. What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
Are you just throwing this in to make it ten questions? I mean, there’s no way you thought someone couldn’t answer this. Seriously.
I haven’t read a book by any one of them. Dawkins occasionally says sexist things on twitter. Hitchens is dead. Harris is a name I’ve heard a lot. That’s about all I know about them, so I don’t really have a view about any of them, except for my view that Dawkins is a bit misogynist. Meh.
10. If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?
Wow, that’s a question filled with assumptions.
First, maybe you haven’t noticed, but most societies do not have a religion, they have many. A quick google search turned up 54 in San Francisco alone, and that only counts the ones that are legally recognized as an entity for tax purposes. There’s no telling how many informal organizations or loose affiliations of people there are that, for practical purposes, are religions.
Second, you may have noticed that there are many different religions that frequently contradict each other, even over questions as basic as where there is one god, many gods, or one god in multiple aspects, as many Christian religions treat the trinity.
Third, if you assume that people are imaginative creatures capable of dreaming up fantasy stories, which even I have to think it pretty much indisputable; and that people are also capable of being wrong about things, also well known by anybody who’s spent any time at all amongst human beings; then we already have a basic framework in which religions can be constructed.
With that in mind, consider that until very recently we knew almost nothing about the world we inhabit. I mean, a mere century ago scientists assumed that animals which left fossils found on multiple continents must have migrated across temporary land bridges because continental drift hadn’t been discovered yet! Continental drift was explained by the highly contentious and radical tectonic plate theory, which is now very well accepted. The study of tectonic plates and building up a coherent understanding of them led to understanding earthquakes.
So there’s food for thought. A hundred years ago people didn’t understand what caused earthquakes. Now think about the implications there, imagine that situation. The ground shakes violently, houses collapse, trees fall over, people are hurt, and you have no idea why that happened. You have no knowledge of the vast universe, of the constant motion of everything; from your point of view wind blows, water flows, the Sun and Moon and stars wheel across the sky, and nothing else moves unless something alive moves it.
What caused the earthquake?
You can see this thinking in many religious stories, too. In the Bible there are many stories of God sending plagues to kill hundreds or thousands for petty reasons, remember that germ theory is only a few centuries old and before that if someone got sick people didn’t know why. Since we’re self-centered beings we don’t look at why something is happening, but why it is happening to us. It’s not hard to imagine those old testament patriarchs carefully going over everything they’d been doing before the plague, looking for some mistake, some crime, some reason God would do this to them, and eventually concluding that God had killed people because the king held a census, or because the last, currently dead, king killed the wrong people, or because the wrong person lit incense at a ceremony.
Hell, think of the plot of Clash of the Titans! Imagine being an ancient Greek and seeing Argos wiped out by a tsunami. You wouldn’t wonder about the epicenter or magnitude of the earthquake out to sea that caused it, you’d wonder why Poseidon destroyed the city, what had they done to offend the gods.
It’s a big scary world and we’re self-absorbed and far too ignorant of the way things actually work. We’re getting better, we’re learning about the universe and using that knowledge to learn about ourselves, and I really do think we’re improving. But we’ve only found the methods that work really well in the last half-millennium and we’ve been pondering these things for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s really not surprising that we have a multitude of explanations for why things happen from long before we learned the actual reasons.
This also leads into a question I would like to ask you, questioner. If there is one God, why are there always more religions in places with freedom of speech and freedom of worship where nobody can suppress the true holy word, while in tyrannical countries where a state religion is enforced, often brutally, the truth of God fails to miraculously outshine the national faith?
I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning, but the list was prefaced with “Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…” (That’s not only a direct, copy & pasted quote, but I took a screenshot to remember it by!) However the entire post is just the list, whatever conclusions it leads to are left unsaid.
I had originally planned to wrap this up by reading PZ’s answers to the questions and comparing them to mine, but I’ve been writing for over five hours now and would like to go outside, so I’m going to get this edited and posted as fast as I can and go. Maybe I’ll do that in a separate post later.