Answering 10 Questions for Every Atheist

TodayChristian.net seems to think they have a set of questions that “Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…”  They’d better be very interesting to warrant that mess of capital letters and using the word “atheist” like someone who doesn’t know English very well.  Let’s see what these stumpers apparently are.
1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?
2.       What happens when we die?
3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?
5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
7.       Where did the universe come from?
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?
9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?
Sigh.  Here we go.

1.     How Did You Become an Atheist?
Lucky for you, I wrote a six-page account of my evolution from a young nominal Catholic to an agnostic atheist anti-theist, helpfully divided into three chronological chapters.
I’m rather puzzled why you think this is something that atheists cannot “truly and honestly” answer.  Is it because you’ve decided in advance that the only acceptable answers are “because I hate YHWH in particular!” or “because something bad happened to me and broke my mind,” and anything else is not “truly and honestly” answering?  I’ve met people who react that way to any atheist’s story of how they arrived where they are, and I have no good things to say about any of them.
2.    What happens when we die?
Look, TodayChristian, you impress no one when your list has as its second question the one that was the first question on a list I took care of a long time ago.  That tells me that you aren’t learning from the answers you get.  And if you’re just keeping the same list handy to use over and over again even after you learn that we actually DO have an answer for it and it’s a better answer than yours, then you’re not being an honest interlocutor.  One might even say you’re arguing in bad faith.
Go read that answer, for comprehension this time.  Then read Ania’s quick-and-dirty on why that answer doesn’t bother us the way it bothers you.
3.    What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
I try not to preoccupy myself with exceptionally unlikely events.  I do not have a “what if a meteoroid crashes through my living room onto my dog’s bed and when I examine the meteor it has the word ‘Zaturnnah’ carved in it?” plan.  (If I did, that plan would be “swallow it to gain its sexy and hilarious powers.”  Seriously, watch Zha Zha Zaturnnah right now.)  Believe it or not, the idea that this universe features a universe-scale intelligence that cares what this particular spec of CHNOPS does with its free time and its genitalia and has a way to preserve the workings of its brain long after the brain itself is decayed and does so to inflict punishments or grant rewards that neither that spec nor any of the others could possibly learn from, is way the hell less likely than me eventually acquiring a meteor that transforms me into a shapely red-haired superheroine with the power to simultaneously defeat a giant frog and the skeleton pirates that live in its belly.  (You guys need to watch that movie.  It’s won awards.)  So, I see no need to prepare for either scenario.
More seriously, what if there’s a Nirvana?  What if there’s a Valhalla?  What if you’ve condemned yourself to having your eternal heart devoured by Ammit if it fails to pass the test of Anubis?  Pascal’s Wager doesn’t apply only to the Christian version of the Abrahamic god—it applies to all 42,000 denominations of Christianity and the tens of thousands more religions the world has spawned, all of which make contradictory demands on their adherents.  And if you’re not worried that the Tengrists or Australian aborigines might have been right all along and the people of first-millennium Rome grievously mistaken, why should I be?
“But it might be true” is not a good reason to do something, all by itself.  It is missing the most important part of that decision-making process: how likely is it?  There’s a very human bias that makes people rate large dangers as more likely in their minds because they’re larger, even though the danger of a scenario is totally unrelated to its probability of occurring.  And in this case, the probability that you’re right about YHWH existing, being deeply concerned about the people who interact with my reproductive organs, looking askance on the pleasure I take in seafood, and having the ability to break every law of physics to punish or reward me in the most useless way possible based on its appraisal of my behavior…is so unlikely that I’m quite comfortable declaring the chance of all of that being true is not meaningfully different from zero.  So I’m not going to worry about it.  Just like you don’t stay up at night shaking about how if the Catholics are right, taking Communion violates the Jains’ prohibition on violence.
4.    Without God, where do you get your morality from?
If the only reason you don’t want the people around you to suffer is that you think God doesn’t want them to suffer, and not because you don’t want them to suffer, you’re not a good person.
The basics of morality are hardwired into the human condition, and some of them show up in most or all other social animals as well.  Those basic intuitions of fairness underlie the dozens of ethical frameworks out there that make no reference to any deities.  Ethics as a field of philosophy has far more going on than “God said so,” and there are far better reasons to regard something as right or wrong than the supposed opinions of an imaginary monster.  We do not need the idea of people suffering being a bad thing to be imposed from outside—it’s imposed from inside, by the factors that do or don’t enable a society of this or that scale to function and by the same things that make us human.
But even if no one had thought of ethics beyond “God says so,” I could figure out that being mean to people was wrong.  That’s what empathy is for.
5.    If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
Go out and put a screwdriver through your favorite forklift-operator’s neck right now.
Since you’re still here, I’m going to assume you didn’t do that.  I guarantee you, what stopped you from doing that is not the invisible hand of YHWH or the threat of reincarnating as a Fasciola.  First, the fact that you’re not a completely irredeemable human being made you not want to fill that woman’s neck with spurting holes, and then the fact that we live in a functional society with laws against murder and people tasked with enforcing those laws made sure that you didn’t think you would succeed.  So, in practice, most of us are not free to rape and murder, and God has nothing to do with it.
Many good deeds are their own reward.  Making the world a better place is something that benefits not just other people, but us as well.  Those of us with functional empathy systems derive pleasure from helping other people flourish, and often, that’s the only reward we have any reason to expect.  The rest of the time, it’s up to us to make and keep this world as the kind of world that makes good, prosocial behavior the sort of behavior that makes things better for those who engage in it.  In a society as large and complicated as ours, that can mean structuring our economy in a way that doesn’t disproportionately favor predatory, unethical activities and which creates incentives for people to do things that might cost them a bit in the short term but reward everyone in the long term if no one “cheats.”  This is an ongoing challenge for humanity precisely because there is no God to place a heavy invisible hand on the scales.
6.    If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
Why does the idea that a god exists give your life meaning?  Why does the idea that you are a cog in someone else’s machine and not a self-actualizing entity whose goals and activities are your own not fill you with despair and loathing?
We do not exist in the service of some outside entity, whether that entity is God, the market’s invisible hand, or the alien Elohim that one French magazine writer thinks will resurrect us all in the universe’s waiting room to pass judgment for the sum total of our good and evil deeds.  We simply exist.  We came to be through a long and impersonal process that took us from self-replicating molecules to skyscrapers and laser hair removal in a few billion years, and it is up to us to do with that ineluctable gift what we can and what we will.  No one gives us meaning—we make it.
In my neck of the woods, imagining that something as tiny and random as a human is of special significance to the universe itself, and not just to its fellow humans, is called “megalomania.”  Not “meaning.”
7.    Where did the universe come from?
The universe didn’t “come from” anywhere, because the notion of “coming from” is incoherent outside the universe.  There is no place outside the universe for the universe to have “come from,” and no time before the universe in which the universe could plausibly have been created.  As far as the scientists whose job it is to probe this most basic question have devised, time began with the initial expansion of a singularity which previously held all of the universe’s matter in an infinitely small, infinitely dense point, and continues because that expansion has not stopped.  There is no “before” that point because time itself is a property of the universe, not of some grander scheme in which the universe participates.  In effect, the universe has always been, but its form has varied immensely in the billions of years that have passed since.
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?
Those people are wrong.
A miracle is merely an event that someone popularizes as such prior to, or in the long-term absence of, a non-deific explanation.  A lot of famous “miracles” have long since been debunked and even duplicated, and others are so poorly documented that it’s not possible to say what they were with a reasonable chance of success.  Many, indeed, are obvious frauds whose obviousness is deliberately hidden so that the “miracle” can live on.
So many people claim a “connection” to Jesus that it’s not at all clear what saying that actually means.  Given that the supposed historical person Jesus many imagine lived in what is now Israel in the 1st century CE almost certainly did not in fact exist, and an enormous body of evidence suggests that any divine entity associated with that person likewise doesn’t exist, it follows that those people do not have a “connection” to anything.  They may identify with or regard as a model to follow the literary character Jesus, but that is rarely reflected in their actions, so that doesn’t seem to be true either.  Most, then, simply use the idea of Jesus as a talisman to ward off criticism of their behavior and solidify their status as a particular group or tribe that is different from the broader society and from other groups that use other talismans.
The visual properties of saints and angels are associated with particular patterns of hallucination that are characteristic of a number of brain conditions and psychological events.  These include sleep paralysis, epilepsy, and schizophrenia.  It’s possible to induce religious visions with a variety of drugs, including ketamine and peyote, and the visions induced by particular drugs tend to have properties in common.  The popular perception of these entities is likewise influenced by the historic neighbors of various religions, in Christianity’s case the imagery associated with Zoroastrian and Greek myths.  Humans also have a hardwired tendency to see patterns, especially faces, in ordinary shapes, as part of the mental pathways that make humans so adept at identifying faces and recognizing the enormous number of emotional cues presented in faces.  In a world as busy and loaded with events and objects as ours, it is purely a matter of chance that some of them have patterns that religious humans recognize as fitting in with their idea of how this or that supernatural being operates.
9.    What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens[,] and Harris?
No Daniel Dennett?  Someone’s only been paying attention to the Four Horsemen of New Atheism long enough to notice that one of them is a blinkered, provincial, classist crank who has outlived his utility for the movement by several years; one of them is uncomfortably right-wing for my tastes; one of them is regularly criticized by progressives for claiming Malala Yousufzai as one of ours when she really isn’t and for bizarrely ignorant views on gun violence; and all of them are blazingly eloquent while on their subjects of greatest expertise.  All of them have said powerful and important things on the subject of atheism, things that have benefited from their expertise as a scientist, a journalist, and a philosopher.  Dawkins in particular needs to learn to stick to that area of expertise, because he’s an asshole when he doesn’t.
10.  If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?
The emergence of religion in human societies is a complicated phenomenon with many contributing factors, and almost certainly cannot be even mostly attributed to any specific societal event or phenomenon.  The underlying bits of human biology, however—the pattern-seeking tendency, the pareidolia, the assumption of agency, the need for things to have explanations even when the data just isn’t in yet—those are shared between virtually all humans.  Most humans fail to overcome them well enough to recognize that deities , leprechauns, thetans, spirits, devas, and Mongolian death worms do not have any genuine explanatory power, because we’ve also built massive systems to encourage belief in these preposterous things and to chide and ostracize people who never believed in them or who eventually stop.  Note that atheism, too, shows up in every human society, but Christianity doesn’t spontaneously erupt among the Buddhists of Mongolia or the animists of uncontacted inland Brazil.
There.  Really answered, truly and honestly.  The fact that this person thought that would be difficult tells us all two things: they haven’t talked with any honesty or openness with any nonbelievers, and they haven’t thought all that deeply about the underpinnings of their own faith.  Since this person clearly thinks that nonbelievers are a gang of murderous thugs in the midst of a deep, nihilistic existential depression, neither is all that surprising.  That was not lost on the inimitable PZ Myers, who also completed this challenge, or on Robert Nielsen, an atheist whose blog appears to be the source of this specific set, where he answered them.

There is nothing quite as mendacious as a Christian trying to make atheists look bad.
Advertisements

2 comments

  1. This shit is painful. Haven't we seen all these questions already, hundreds of times each? It's exhausting to see the same crap come up over and over again, like it's shocking and brave.

    Like

  2. Don't I know it. At this stage, I write these answers so that I have go-to paragraphs prepared for when I see the same questions again a few weeks later, and to remind myself that few people who ask them are actually interested in answers. Mostly, they want to reassure their fellows that THEIR answers for these are good enough by pretending that ours don't exist. The important part of Christian propaganda like this isn't items 1-10, it's the intro paragraph where they insist that anyone else is lying 😛

    Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s