Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Recently, the website posted an article, "10 Questions for Every Atheist," that unsurprisingly contained ten questions for atheists. 

The first line of the article touts these questions as "Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…" [sic].  Of course, the article ends without any conclusions other than a note that the questions were copied from a website where they were asked and answered, presumably Truly and Honestly REALLY answered, by the atheist site author.

But I thought it would be a useful exercise to offer my own answers to these questions in the interest of promoting dialogue.  A good (Christian) friend recently told me that she has had to "mute" the Facebook posts of some atheists because they are unnecessarily rude and pushy.  I don't believe that being rude and pushy ever got anyone to understand anyone else's point of view.  I do find that there are plenty of Christians who are rude and pushy about their religion, too; that's basically a human failing that doesn't depend on whether you are a religious person or not. 

Anyway, here goes.

1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?

 I've written about this previously.  I would, however, like to clarify some things.  First of all, I really don't think of myself as an atheist per se, even though I am.  It seems odd to me to classify myself by what I am not, as in not a theist.  It would be like a woman saying her sex is "nonmale."  It's just odd.  Also, I find that the term "atheist" is very much incomplete.  "Atheist" encompasses, for example, Buddhists; to the extent that Buddhism reflects some sort of spirituality, I reject that as well.  It also encompasses Deists, who believe in a god who created but does not involve himself in the universe.

Indeed, I do not believe in any sort of supernatural occurrences at all.  The things that happen in the universe are explainable exclusively through physical processes and principles.

So, to define myself by positive principles, I say that I am a secular humanist.  What that means is (a) the rejection of spirituality and supernaturalism, combined with (b) a devotion to the betterment and development of humankind.

The short story of how I came to adopt that viewpoint is that I came to the recognition that I am part of a long line of humans who have struggled to understand in ever-increasing detail the way the universe works and to make life ever easier and better for an ever-wider number of humans.  My role in that chain is to do what I can with what I have to continue that process.  We are a remarkable animal, capable of so many things.

2.       What happens when we die?

To answer that question, we have to first say what happens when we are alive.  What we call life is the collected activity of trillions of cells--many of which are not even human--working together to perpetuate the existence of the organism to which they belong.  Our environment is full of constant threats to those cells.  Most of those threats come from organisms in their own right that are looking to use those cells as fuel to perpetuate their own existence. When life ends, consciousness ceases, and the body stops its defense against those threats.  Eventually the body is decomposed into nothing recognizable.

3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

This is a sort of back-door approach to what is commonly known as "Pascal's Wager."  Blaise Pascal, a brilliant French philosopher and mathematician who lived in the 17th century, devised an argument for Christianity on the basis that humans bet their lives on whether God exists or not.  Pascal concluded that even if there are real and substantial questions about the existence of God, one should nonetheless choose Christianity.  Pascal's perspective was that choosing to be a Christian if there is no God causes a person to lose nothing, while choosing to be an atheist costs a person everything if God does exist.

It's a clever argument, but its basis is errant.  It assumes that choosing to be a Christian has no effective cost.  From my perspective, this is the only life I will ever have.  If I waste time with rituals that ultimately have no meaning or effect, instead of working to better humankind, there is a very real cost, not just to me, but to all humankind.  When I think of the amount of time, energy, money, and other finite resources that humans have wasted on religious activities, I am deeply disappointed.  Of course, as a humanist, I have to accept that others have their own agency; they can do what they want to do, even if I would find it foolish or wasteful for me to do those things.

But to answer the question, if I'm wrong, I'm wrong.  There is no sense in worrying about something that may never happen, and causing that worry to waste what I already know I have.

4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?

I make moral decisions based upon a human instinct that has evolved in us over millions of years because its application makes the survival of the species more likely.  That human instinct is expressed as "the Golden Rule":  Treat others as you would want to be treated.  It exists, in one form or another, as a core principle of every human religion that has ever survived more than a few generations.  The reason why that is, is simple:  It is our human instinct.  Humans create religions in order to assert control over our societies, but the mechanisms those religions express are essentially human; they are effectively a part of our DNA.  The details of what specific acts are considered "moral" or "immoral" is more a function of the prejudices of the human founders of those religions, but the broad strokes are all alike.

In my own life, that view is augmented by my humanism.  Treating others as I would want to be treated also means respecting the rights of others to make their own decisions, and treating them as equal participants in humanity. 

5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
I'll let you in on a secret:  I have raped and murdered as many people as I have ever wanted to.  It just so happens that I haven't wanted to rape or murder anyone.  If you believe that a belief in God is keeping you from raping and murdering people, then by all means, do what works for you.  But there are plenty of people, committed Christians, who have committed rape, murder, and all sorts of other crimes.

"God" is not required to make murder or rape illegal.  All that is required is the recognition that murder and rape are offensive acts that deny other humans their lives, their physical integrity, their choices, and their essential humanity.  We should absolutely punish murder and rape, not because God tells us so, but because of the impact of those crimes on our society and on the individuals that make up that society.

As for good deeds...those often go unrewarded anyway.  And most of the Christians I know would argue that heaven is not a reward for good deeds, but for genuine belief in Jesus Christ as a savior from sin.  If you are doing good things because of the rewards they bring, you're likely to be disappointed.

6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

The "meaning" my life has is in its significance:  Did I make use of my innate abilities?  Did I respect others?  Did I ease the pain of those who suffer?  Did I materially advance human knowledge?  Did I help others to understand and accept the equal rights of all humans?  Did I do my part to keep the species going?  "God" has nothing to do with any of those things.
7.       Where did the universe come from?

I think this question is perhaps born of a lack of understanding of what we already know about the universe.  About 14 billion years ago, as we measure time, all of the matter and energy of the universe--which is literally everything that exists--was concentrated into a singularity, a point of zero dimensions that was, by definition, infinitely hot and dense.  The singularity exploded, creating what we understand as space, which is expressed as matter and energy.  We know these things because we can literally observe their residue (up to a point).

It does not make sense to talk of what happened "before" the Big Bang, because time is a part of the universe the Big Bang created and has no meaning apart from that occurrence.

But the deeper question, to me, is why anyone believes it is necessary to have a creator, a cause, for what exists.  There are many things we do not know about the universe because we lack the technological capacity to observe them.  As we learn new things and garner new insights about the universe, we will modify and enhance our theories.  In fact, we have done more over the last 70 years to gain an understanding of the origin of the university than we did for all of human history before then.  

It would be easy to say that the universe exists because God created it, but that would eliminate the need to think about it.  When humans stop thinking, we stop growing, and we retreat a little from the long campaign to better ourselves.

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?

The human mind is capable of great deception (and self-deception).  It is true that a core component of our ability to gain knowledge is that we trust what we observe.  But if we are honest, we have to recognize that we cannot necessarily trust our imperfect human brains.  Part of our ability to survive as a species is based upon the ability of the brain to rationalize stimuli into a form we can understand, even if that rationalization isn't an accurate picture of the world.  

There is a great deal of pressure in our society--perhaps most firmly within our own families, from the youngest of ages--to perpetuate the religious myth.  On several occasions, I have read posts on Facebook from Christian friends who regard their 6-, 7-, or 8-year-old children's decision to "accept Jesus" as cause for the greatest of celebrations.  So much of our participation in religious activities is driven by social expectations and the desire to please others by showing conformity.  

If I am being honest, I have to regard those who believe in "miracles" or who "have a connection with Jesus" or who have seen "saints or angels" as delusional.  I don't mean to be offensive when I say that.  I don't think less of people for being deluded.  I have my own delusions.
9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

I admire their ability to stand up for humanism in a world that is stacked so heavily against them.  There are times when they have said things that are needlessly offensive to persons who have religious beliefs.  They aren't perfect people.  But they are right about a great many things.

10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

Every society needs to maintain control over its members in some fashion.  The process of developing a civilization requires everyone to set aside some of their own interests to create something better.  When human understanding of the universe was very limited, superstitions put explanations to the unexplained because there was literally nothing else that could be done to explain natural events.  These superstitions were easy, and perhaps useful, mechanisms for control.  

I happen to think that the development of religion has been an essential element of human evolution, because it aided us in getting the species from frightened tree-dwellers to scientists and engineers and poets.  But we have outgrown its usefulness as a tool.  We, meaning humanity as a whole, are ready to push beyond all of that and to replace the rote rules with a deeper understanding of how we can achieve greater heights.

The main reason why I say that is because human progress has tended to relegate God to the "gaps."  Take lightning, for example.  When we were ignorant, we assigned responsibility for lightning to God (or "the gods").  Not only did we lack any concept of how lightning could form naturally; we also lacked the ability to gain any reasonable concept of a natural world that included random discharges of static electricity.  So if our caveman ancestor Ugg was killed by a lightning bolt, it had to be the doing of a supernatural being--and, applying our own human morality to that idea, Ugg's pals had to assume that Ugg had done something to anger that being.  Now, however, we know how and why lightning occurs--it's not God doing it.  We no longer have a gap in our knowledge, so there is no need for God to fill it.

At some point, after this happens enough times, the conclusion becomes rather obvious, that (a) we're going to have gaps in our knowledge, (b) we should work to fill them with understanding, not miracles, and (c) there's no reason to stick God in there.

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