Answering Theists #1

There are a lot of theists out there who type up what they think are “gotcha” questions for atheists. Theist trolls absolutely love these lists and to copy/paste them, often on a hit-and-run basis. Judging from the newlines I’m cleaning out, Michael Benson Ajayi copy-pasta’d such a list in a Pharyngula comment thread. (Or he wrote it in Notepad or something and word wrap tweaked it.) So I’m starting this series here.

Questions I would like to Ask an Atheist
out of curiosity I wish to ask :
1 . If there is no God, “the big questions” remain unanswered, so how do we answer the following questions:

A) Why is there something rather than nothing? This question was asked by Aristotle and Leibniz alike – albeit with differing answers. But it is an historic concern.

B) Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet,

and C) is there any meaning to this life?

D) If there is meaning, what kind of meaning and how is it found?

E) Does human history lead anywhere, or is it all in vain since death is merely the end?

F) How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier?

G) If these concepts are merely social constructions, or human opinions, whose opinion does one trust in determining what is good or bad, right or wrong?

H) If you are content within atheism, what circumstances would serve to make you open to other answers?

(Reformatted by me for clarity)

That’s a lot of questions to put under one number. One important point I should get across: I’d rather say “I don’t know” rather than have an untestable or wrong answer. I also don’t see how theism answers them without retreating to “just because.”

A: It’s something of a weird question, and frankly, I think it’s somewhat presumptuous to assume there is an answer. There may be no reason aside from weird physics. It also touches on tautology, recursion, or something like that. For there to be a question or a reason, there needs to be something in the first place. I also question the coherence of the idea of nothingness. I don’t think we’ve ever observed a “true” nothingness.

B: The short answer is evolution. Consciousness is a powerful survival trait in many species, and humans are highly specialized to make use of our consciousness.

C: Life makes its own meaning. I don’t need a god to hand me one. I know what I want out of life, and it’s fairly mundane stuff, including the intangible things like friendship, fun, and wonder.

D: It’s made by self-determination by each individual. Family, friends, and community can certainly make suggestions for a person, but the individual decides.

E: I don’t know where human civilization is going to lead in the long run, barring stuff like nuclear war wiping us out in the short run. There will be an end, sooner or later and I accept that. I mostly want the ride to be an enjoyable and enlightening one for us all.

F: What do you mean by “transcendent signifier” and what does it have to do with morality? I determine good and evil by using moral reasoning. Spread out benefits, minimize harm and arbitrariness. That sort of thing.

G: Moral reasoning, again. I accept the opinions of those who argue a good case for justifying their actions. And that is on a case-by-case benefit per action, not person. I weigh benefits, risks, and the utility of moral precedents versus reasonable exceptions. There’s nothing all that special about how atheists do it. Frankly, the forms of morality that require a god are what appear strange to me and even a lot of Christians: They arbitrarily elevate the often baseless opinion of one authoritarian figure above all others and above questioning. The reward/punishment afterlife system just makes it worse, since it short circuits the moral reasoning process by actively changing benefit and risk to conform with the god’s whims (in other words, an arbitrary additional circumstance/preference) rather than basing moral decisions on the effects they would normally have on their own. It essentially requires that the god in question not be held accountable for his decisions about the afterlife, too.

H: I need a coherent, testable definition of your god and evidence that supports that hypothesis and a lack of contrary evidence despite efforts to find it. Essentially the same with any scientific question. Of course, even if you did prove the existence of your god, I’m doubtful I’d like him. My parents raised me properly, so I don’t affiliate with unsavory characters.

2 . If we reject the existence of God, we are left with a crisis of meaning , so why don’t we see more atheist recognize that in the absence of God, there was no transcendent meaning beyond one’s own self-interests, pleasures, or tastes. Without God, there is a crisis of meaning, and these three thinkers, among others, show us a world of just stuff, thrown out into space and time, going nowhere, meaning nothing.

I fail to see the crisis, and I fail to see how a god would bring any additional meaning. I fail to understand how a god could provide a “transcendent” meaning, whatever that means. You’re also dehumanizing humanity in general, since many of us see meaning in helping others and we actually feel good about doing good. Sometimes I do good deeds just for the pleasure I get in knowing someone will benefit, even if I never get to see the effect myself. A good deed can indeed be its own reward, in my experience.

I don’t know your life’s circumstances, but if you stopped believing in god, would your life suddenly become unhappy? Would you stop getting warm fuzzies out of making someone smile? Would your hobbies become uninteresting? Would you stop getting the satisfaction of a job well done? I used to be Christian, and deconverting to atheism didn’t change the way I feel about life all that much, aside from adding a little bit more urgency to make the most of it.

3 . When people have embraced atheism, the historical results can be horrific, as in the regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot who saw religion as the problem and worked to eradicate it? In other words, what set of actions are consistent with particular belief commitments? It could be argued, that these behaviors – of the regimes in question – are more consistent with the implications of atheism. It could be argued that the socio-political ideologies could very well be the outworking of a particular set of beliefs – beliefs that posited the ideal state as an atheistic one.

The big problem here is that you can’t sort out the enormous feature that those evils have in common: Authoritarianism. They were motivated to eradicate religion forcibly because it was a competing authority. The atheists you typically meet online have no love for those dictators. Stalin would likely have us thrown in a gulag or executed for believing in genetics instead of Lysenkoism, for one thing. From our point of view, they’re little different than fundamentalist theists in their mindset. I’ll even go so far as to say they emulated religion, which also falls prey to cults of personality, substituting supposedly infallible leaders or states for the supposedly infallible god or clergy.

We aren’t restricted to the narrow ideas of religious authoritarianism or atheistic authoritarianism. All the atheists I know reject both because we don’t want to fall into the same traps they do. We may want to get rid of religion, too, but we have moral precedents against violence and unethical discrimination against the people we disagree with. It’s my intention to get rid of religion by open criticism, not by gun point. It’s my opinion that religion is wrong, both morally and epistemologically, and I’ll argue that case over the blogosphere using logic, moral appeals, and scientific evidence as applicable. I restrict myself to those tools because using violent methods would set a precedent for using those tools against good ideas and artificially shelter me from their arguments. I could be wrong, and if I’m wrong, I want someone to be able to show me without unnecessary risk to his life or livelihood. The freedoms of speech and religion (which includes freedom from religious imposition by the state) benefit everyone because it allows lively, critical discussions where people don’t have to hold back out of fear of authority. If someone’s wrong, he won’t be artificially shielded from criticism, which gives him the chance at self-correction.

That’s why authoritarian societies so often end up falling behind in science: The truth isn’t always politically convenient for the authority, so they repress it as heresy against church or state and run the risk of enshrining bad ideas as unquestioned dogma as a result. The same thing happened to Communists for the same reasons as it happened in theocracies over the ages.

4 . If there is no God, the problems of evil and suffering are in no way solved, so where is the hope of redemption, or meaning for those who suffer? Suffering is just as tragic, if not more so, without God because there is no hope of ultimate justice, or of the suffering being rendered meaningful or transcendent, redemptive or redeemable. It might be true that there is no God to blame now, but neither is there a God to reach out to for strength, transcendent meaning, or comfort. Why would we seek the alleviation of suffering without objective morality grounded in a God of justice?

How does god solve the problem of evil? It’s not a problem for atheists because we humbly accept the universe wasn’t made to appeal to our idea of perfection. Shit happens.

Suffering is tragic, period. We’re motivated to alleviate suffering because we have empathy for others. Put simply, we care. Without a god to deliver perfect justice, that means we can’t just sit by in sloth and apathy, expecting some cosmic judge to sort it all out for the better for us. We can’t expect a god to provide strength and comfort to us, so we’re obligated to reach out to others and help them. Because of this, our choices matter. It gives us a sense of responsibility. It gives us a reason to carefully think about the morality of our actions instead of simply idolizing harmful traditions. Atheists like me can’t eliminate suffering, but many of us find meaning in trying to minimize it.

Quite frankly, putting a god into the picture makes things disturbing. A divine plan essentially means he’s using people against their will, deliberately choosing to bring suffering on them. He justifies it by saying it’s for the greater good and that we should just take his word for it. Or rather, that we take the priest’s, witchdoctor’s, or ancient book’s word for it, since we can’t get consistent answers from gods through prayer. One believer says one thing, another says something else.

It’s a form of the Just World Hypothesis, too, where being a victim is effectively a conviction for an unspecified crime. That rationale encourages injustice and apathy because people under its sway seem to assume that all suffering is necessary, either as a punishment for unspecified crimes or as necessary to achieve some greater good. By that token, anyone who tries to alleviate suffering is working against the greater good. It’s a subversive anti-morality.

5 . If there is no God, we lose the very standard by which we critique religions and religious people, so whose opinion matters most? Whose voice will be heard? Whose tastes or preferences will be honored? In the long run, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway? Who is to say that lying, or cheating or adultery or child molestation are wrong –really wrong? Where do those standards come from? Sure, our societies might make these things “illegal” and impose penalties or consequences for things that are not socially acceptable, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun; from slavery, to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy. Human taste, opinion law and culture are hardly dependable arbiters of Truth.

History tells me that gods’ opinions are no better than human opinions, and arguably worse on average. From the arguments I’ve had to date, Divine Command Theory is simply enshrining a god’s arbitrary personal preferences and justifying them with magic-sounding labels instead of giving them reason or purpose. Morality is not like personal preference. Rational people form their morality through reasoning, trying to benefit as many people as they can while harming the fewest. Moral consensus forms for general cases and personal preferences might modify the definition of benefit and harm for that particular person. It’s not absolute or perfect, but it’s hardly as arbitrary or chaotic as divine morality. That’s why we still have moral arguments, and our fallibility means we won’t be running out of them. But not all social consensus is reached using this process. That’s why we use moral reasoning in hopes of overturning irrational prejudices and unjust laws.

We give moral decisions weight because we’re able to understand that our actions have consequences for others and social consequences for us in how they would respond to unfair treatment. We need morality to be able to function as a society. Societies exist to benefit their members. People determine morality because it’s about finding the fairest way for people to benefit. Essentially, as members of a human society, we’re all stakeholders.

Lying is generally wrong because it often leads to one person having an unfair advantage over another. Even when it’s meant for the victim’s benefit, it can harm them from making them unable to make truly informed decisions. It violates that person’s trust, and society needs citizens to have at least some minimal level of trust to stay together. If you want to make an exception, you have to be prepared to justify it.

Adultery is a violation of trust, like lying.

Child molestation is a crime like rape because, by default, children aren’t considered competent to understand all the consequences or make informed judgements on matters of sex. There’s some wiggle room as they approach adulthood, but that doesn’t mean the general rule is meaningless. I don’t know which is the more disturbing thought: That the original writer was feigning ignorance of the matter or that he sincerely doesn’t know what makes rape immoral.

The standards of morality come from the nature of human societies combined with reasoning and empathy. That doesn’t mean that we have to view governments as gods handing down arbitrary laws that can’t be questioned. We can question the government by using reasoned arguments, just like we can question anyone else. The major theme I sense from this list is that the writer can’t grasp that we’re not substituting one absolute authority for another, we’re rejecting absolute authority as a viable concept as well as inherently subversive to society when taken seriously.

6 . If there is no God, we don’t make sense, so how do we explain human longings and desire for the transcendent? How do we even explain human questions for meaning and purpose, or inner thoughts like, why do I feel unfulfilled or empty? Why do we hunger for the spiritual, and how do we explain these longings if nothing can exist beyond the material world?

Humanity makes a lot more sense than you give credit. We’re imperfect creatures created by an imperfect process taking place in an imperfect universe. So we have needs. We have consciousness that evolved because it helps organisms make decisions that fulfill those needs. Of course, with more complex consciousness, we become aware of “meta-resources” as we evolve instincts to seek them out because they help us seek out more basic resources: We seek out companions because teamwork makes it easier to do things we can’t as individuals, for example. Humans have gotten conscious and technologically enough that survival is relatively easy in developed nations, but we still have our instinctive desires and tribal modes of thought. The DNA and developmental processes that build our brains don’t simply take away the desires just because we can fulfill the basic ones.

Define “spiritual.” I’m a monist. There is only one reality and I see no point in drawing lines in the sand by arbitrarily labeling them as “spiritual” or “supernatural” versus material. I need a coherent definition and a clear purpose for bothering with the categorization. Where applicable, I need to see good evidence for “spiritual” phenomena before I accept their existence. Meanwhile, I’m content with my range of material emotions like love, joy, and wonder as well as the means with which I can produce them.

3 responses to “Answering Theists #1

  1. Excellent post, Bronze Dog. I find that some of these questions simply come from a mindset where god exists, period. When a person starts to question the existence of god (outside of our imaginations) then these questions answer themselves or go away because they’re not relevant any more. Or one comes to the thrilling realization that there is no answer, and it’s ok. Or that we don’t know the answer yet but we may find it if we stop looking in our imaginations!

    • Glad you approve.

      One point that slipped my mind while typing this post was about purpose. Imagine you’ve found happiness in your life with hopes and dreams you’re working towards realizing. Then some god comes out of the blue and says he’s got a different purpose for you that conflicts with your morality, is completely unimportant to you, and/or requires that you sacrifice the very things you love and have willingly made personal sacrifices to protect. Thinking of a scenario like that makes me glad that there’s no god dictating the purpose of the universe or its inhabitants. I am not a slave. I am not someone else’s tool. I am a person with my own desires and goals. If there’s a god out there who wants me to work for him, he’d better negotiate with me as a civilized sapient being and be willing to respect my decision, rather than try to bully me into compliance.

  2. Good subject, mabye the last post of this series should include a selection of questions from atheists which the theists must answer!
    Just a thought.

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