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The Atheist Challenge

July 2, 2012

A little over a month ago, The BitterSweet End, a Christian’s blog about his struggle with faith and unbelief (he has since come to accept his atheism and is in the painful process of coming out to those around him), posted “The Atheist Challenge: 10 Questions to Ask an Atheist” (he also made a companion post, “The Christian (Theist) Challenge”).  I meant to take a stab at this in June, but as I was off the face of the web under my pseudonym, I didn’t get to it then. So here is my make-up post for missing June: my answers to his 10 questions.

1. If there is NO God, then there is no Measurement or Standard for morality?  Then What will define morality?

Morality is a product of sentience. Without sentience there is no sense of morality. It is not morally wrong for a lion to kill a gazelle, or even another lion. It is not immoral for a dog to mate with its mother/father/sister/brother. It isn’t morally wrong for a penguin to steal rocks from another penguin’s nest.

Human morality is the product of human sentience and, more specifically, of human society. Murder is considered an almost universal wrong because a society in which murder is an acceptable form of revenge, obtaining what you want, or simply something enjoyable to do, would not last long. Sex with a close family member is considered wrong because of the effects of low genetic diversity on offspring, and also because of problems it would cause in the family social unit.

These are just a couple of examples of things that seem, to humans, to be universally wrong but have no real counterpart in non-sentient species. There is no universal morality, or it would have to be applied to all lifeforms equally, regardless of sentience.

As we have developed social structures we have developed a system of ethics that says what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Some of these things apply universally to human society (not murdering people for the adrenaline rush, for instance) and other things are more dynamic (sexual practices), none of them are universal in the sense that they apply to the whole of existence.

As our society continues to develop we have continued to change our views on what is moral. It was once acceptable to own people as slaves and to subjugate women. This is no longer the case. It was once acceptable to force young children to work in dangerous conditions for little pay. This is no longer the case. Even those who claim there is a universal, objective moral standard have different morals than the people that came before them in their religions.

I derive my morality from what is best for the common good, and what is best for my own well-being. It isn’t very good for the common good if I start murdering people to get my kicks. It isn’t best for the common good if I start raping people to satisfy my need for sex. It isn’t good for my own well-being to quit my job even though I am now there under false pretense, I’d be broke in less than a month with no way to pay my bills, then would possibly end up homeless if my family discovered my unbelief (I’m not sure on that point, but it is always a possibility).

2. If there is NO God, then there is NO meaning or purpose to Life.  So without a God, does life have purpose or meaning?  Without God, does the Atheist have purpose?

This is a non sequitur. It does not follow that if there is no god that there is no meaning or purpose to life. I do agree, however, that life, in general, doesn’t really have a meaning. The universe happened, and then some time later Earth formed around our star. Some time later still life happened on Earth. There was no purpose for that life, it just happened, and proliferated because the conditions were right. In that sense, life has no real meaning or purpose.

Genetically, however, I have evolved with a purpose: to live and to procreate. That is why we have such a drive to eat, to provide shelter for ourselves, and for sex. Now, I have chosen not to procreate, but my genetic drive to further my own genetic code has sort of been re-purposed to further the well-being of my species as a whole, and to that end the planet and entire biosphere of Earth. That is my purpose.

I also have another purpose of my own, to enjoy life as much as I can while it lasts. I know it is finite, that I will likely die sometime in the next forty or so years. I intend to make the most of it that I can.

3. Are you an advocate of New Atheism and Darwinism?  If so, then the most extreme and logical form of Darwinism is Eugenics.  Would you support this?  Why or Why Not?

So called “new atheism” and so called “Darwinism” are not the same thing at all (and I really don’t care for either label. “New Atheism” is simply atheism. “Darwinism” isn’t a thing. Evolution is. It is entirely possible to be an atheist and believe that speciation happened in some other way than evolution (and the theory of evolution doesn’t have anything at all to say about the origins of life, just about how that life became so diverse once it did arise on Earth). Not likely, but possible.

Eugenics is not the same as natural selection. Natural selection actually tends toward diversification as is obvious by the great diversity of life on Earth. If natural selection was only going toward a more perfect and efficient design then there would be far less diversity than we see, and than we have evidence for in the past. The main problem that would arise if all life were the same, fit perfectly to the environment and lifestyle, then the species would be extremely susceptible to extinction due to natural disasters or similarly well-adapted diseases.

Eugenics is much more comparable to the breeding of domesticated animals for particular traits, and the problems with this can be seen in the many breeds of dogs which suffer from serious health defects. Just look at pug nosed dogs and their health troubles as one example. Also there is the recent speculation that the Cavendish banana may be in danger due to a fungus that it is particularly susceptible to (the Cavendish being the yellow bananas most Americans are familiar with).

4. If we are ancestors/descendants of Apes, then why are there no transitional fossils or species to support this theory?

We are apes, we are not the descendants of apes. Ape is the common name for the superfamily Hominoidea. This superfamily contains two families: Hylobatidae and Hominidae. Humans are a member of Hominidae (also known as great apes). We are, therefore, apes. What we are not, is gorillas, chimps, orangutans, or bonobos. They are all Hominidae and Hominoidea as well, but they are not humans. Gibbons and siamangs are in the other family, Hylobatidae, but they are also apes, being members of the superfamily Hominoidea.

The assertion that there are no transitional fossils to support our evolution to our current form is incorrect. There are some transitional fossils, just as there are transitional fossils for other stages of development (from fish to limbed creatures with necks, as evidenced by tiktaalik, for instance).

Even if we had found no transitional fossils it would not discount the process of evolution. It has been observed in living creatures. The multitude of species that came before us is great, and the number of fossils that have been discovered is relative small compared to it. The formation of fossils requires some very specific circumstances and not every creature to ever live and die did so in such a way as to become a fossil.

I am an advocate of science-based education, which includes the facts about the theory of evolution, the origins of life, and the origins of the universe. I also believe that education should include critical-thinking skills so that students can be well-equipped to think about these difficult issues.

I am also an advocate of atheism. I firmly believe that the magical thinking associated with theism and most religion is harmful to society and to the individual. I especially abhor the fundamental forms of religions that infringe on the basic human rights of various groups of people. Were religion able to exist without indoctrinating the innocent and trying to impose its skewed morality on everyone, regardless of belief, I would be more willing to accept it. I would still oppose the idea, however.

One thing I do not do, however, is advocate legislation to do away with religion. It has been said before, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Commonly attributed to Voltaire, though that is thought to be incorrect. It is thought that Evelyn Beatrice Hall was the one to write the phrase in 1906.)

5. Do you believe in Human Nature?  It is Human Nature to believe in God, if so, why do you go against human nature and not believe in God?

This is another non sequitur. Saying that it is human nature to believe in god does not follow. Human nature is simply that set of innate instructions which have been hardwired into our brains. It is human nature to seek food, shelter, and sex. There may be some evolutionary remnant that makes us likely to believe in god or other supernatural things, but there is no hardwired instruction to believe in the god Jehovah, or the god Allah, or any other specific god that humans have come up with.

6. Can ‘Something come from Nothing’?  Doesn’t that violate The First Law of Thermodynamics?

The First Law of Thermodynamics is referring to closed systems, though it is often brought up in support of the cosmological argument for god. Even if you consider the universe to be a closed system, that does not prevent an outside force from acting on it. If our universe is part of a larger multiverse then that outside force could come from something in the multiverse. The easiest answer I could give is that we really don’t know. It’s impossible to look at what happened before the moment of the beginnings of our universe with any current technology. As far as I know, it will always be impossible to do so.

There are, however, far smarter people than myself who study these things and they may have better answers. One such person is Dr. Lawrence Krauss. He has a lecture that can be found on YouTube titled “A Universe from Nothing” and has a book of the same title (which is currently in my stack of books to read, but I have not yet gotten to it).

Even if one were to assume that something cannot come from nothing, this does nothing to prove the existence of a god, and even less to prove the existence of the god of Christianity (or any other particular theistic god). If we were to assume that something had to start the universe, what is to say that that something was Jehovah? If we admit that something cannot come from nothing, then where did the something that is god come from?

7. It seems that a society of Atheist are immoral and self-destructing.  Why would anyone want a Godless Society, just look at our examples: North Korea, Maoist China, Stalin, & Pot Pol?

This is a poor comparison. There is plenty of evidence to point to atheists being, on average, more humane than theists are. The countries shown to have the highest standard of living are some of the least religious countries, and the population of prison inmates who claim atheism is far smaller than those who claim a religion.

The latter isn’t actually very good evidence that doing away with religion will make our lives better. It is entirely likely that were the majority in America to be atheists that the prison population would also be majority atheist (and even more likely if there were a reward to inmates who convert to non-belief). The former, though, is a little more interesting. I don’t think it points to religious people being bad people on average, though. (The correlation is likely more between more educated, content people being less prone to believe religious ideas than less educated, suffering people.)

Being an atheist has no bearing on one’s morality. Being an atheist simply means that one does not believe in a god. Being a theist does not have any bearing on one’s morality, either. One could believe in a god who commands them to murder innocent people in painful ways, to steal from the poor, to maximize suffering in the world. They would be a theist, but they would not be good by society’s standards of morality.

8. If you were to die, and you were before God.  And he was getting ready to pass judgement on you,  What would be your reaction or thoughts?  What plea would you give him so he does not judge you harshly?

My first reaction would probably be to question if I was in my right mind. I am well aware that the human brain is often a poor interpreter of the information presented to it. That is to say, we are easily fooled into seeing things that aren’t there.

If I were able to resolve that, and accept that this god person was real, I would demand to know what right it has to demand my obedience without proof of its existence, what right it has to my devotion and worship, and why it’s such an ass in general.

9. What would convince you atheism is wrong?  And that Christianity is Right?

I’m not sure that I could be convinced that atheism is wrong. I have rejected the idea that, were there some sentient being that created the universe, it wouldn’t be deserving of humanity’s unceasing worship. If I were to build a computer model of the universe, and inhabit it with sentient AIs, those AIs should be under no obligation to worship me. I might give credit where it is due, for creating everything, but I would assume it was just an advanced form of life with technology beyond ours.

To convince me that Christianity is right? Nothing could do that.

10. Why are you an Atheist?  Why do you NOT believe in God?  Why do you reject God?  (You can be as detailed as you want.)   

I am an atheist because I do not believe in god. The word atheist means without god, or to not believe in god. That is all. I do not believe in god because no suitable evidence to the existence of any god-like being has been seen. Additionally, I’ve seen no evidence that any powerful being, even were it able to create the universe, would have a right to be called a god. I reject the idea of god because it is a creation of the human mind and society.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2012 1:10 am

    I think that our so-called morality is much governed by brain chemicals, which can explain a lot about why about one out of twenty people seems to be unable to feel certain things. Oxytocin is a common chemical, I think, among mammals and is responsible for empathy, while testosterone has to do with being protective. Of course, I have no doubt that the brain is influenced by a great many things. When you look at a dog, your brain is using the same chemicals that the dog’s brain is using when it looks at you. Fascinating stuff.

    I think that as we age, our moral outlook becomes more fine-tuned (sometimes) and we want to do more good and less harm. It’s sad that we grow too soon oldt und too late schmardt.

    Finding any morality in the Bible can be a very difficult task. The beatitudes are mindless drivel and giving everything away to the poor only makes sense if you plan to die very soon. The examples given by biblical characters are pathetically immoral – so much so that you might think that those characters were invented to teach us what NOT to do.

    Jared Diamond wrote “The Third Chimpanzee” on the hypothesis that we are so genetically like them that we might be classified right along with them. Sadly, we have the chimps’ penchant for warring and not enough of the bonobos’ sex drive.

  2. July 7, 2012 9:28 am

    a matter of doubt also did a podcast on it too.

  3. July 7, 2012 9:29 am

    oops just realized, u recognized it in your list of related articles

    • July 7, 2012 11:23 pm

      No problem. :) Listening to their podcast is what reminded me that I’d meant to post these questions/answers myself!

  4. July 7, 2012 6:57 pm

    I’m curious about your answer to the standing in front of God question. Granted, it used “God is about to pass judgement,” but there was no other indication that this was the God of conservative Christianity. Why the assumption that the God you would be standing in front of is an ass?

    • July 7, 2012 11:23 pm

      On what grounds is this god judging me? If there is some all-powerful, intelligent creator who has set up a system where we must believe a particular way or do particular things in order to pass its judgement and yet it has done nothing to make itself readily known, and differentiate itself from the myriad other gods that people came with on their own, then there is something wrong. Add to that the fact that this being is supposedly all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good, yet it allows suffering to exist, the suffering of innocents especially.

      These are the kinds of things that make me say if there were to be some sort of final judgement by this being that I would think it were an ass, regardless of whether it were the Christian god, Allah, Shiva, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Cthulhu, or any sort of intelligent, all-powerful being that deigned to pass judgement on my life.

  5. August 6, 2012 7:58 pm

    I may be wrong, but would assume that it is because to an atheist, he essentially acts as his own god and wants to be the ultimate authority in his world. He defines his own truth and doesn’t want to abide by guidelines that don\’t seem right as defined by him.

    On a different level, this same scenario plays out when a parent lays out guidelines and disciplines a child for not abiding by them. The child may want to play in the street but the parent realizes that doing so is dangerous and so asks the child not to. It isn’t to be mean but rather is in the child\’s best interest. He may not understand this and get mad because he wants to do what he wants to do and be the boss of his world. But this doesn’t change that the parent has authority over him and lays out guidelines for a reason.

    In a belief system with no God there is no ultimate authority defining truth, so truth is up to each person’s interpretation. What’s good for one person may not be good for the other. There’s also no standard by which to judge right or wrong. There may be some or even many who agree that something is morally right or wrong but who’s to say they’re correct? What’s wrong at a point in time may be acceptable at another when the theoretical collective morality shifts. It would not be possible to say with certainty that something was always right or always wrong.

    C.S. Lewis the Oxford professor and writer was once an atheist who converted to Christianity. As to the dilemma of suffering he said, ”My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call something crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies.” -from the book Mere Christianity

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