10 Answers from an Atheist… [part 2/2]

For those of you who missed my first entry, I am going through the questions on this list. I already went through questions 1 to 5, and we are now on the last five.

(Roderick T. Long posted his own answers on his entry Ten Answers from an Austro-Athenian. Check it out after you’re done.)

6. Meaning
In the atheist worldview we are products of time, chance, and blind forces – there is no objective meaning and value to our human existence. Yet our deepest longing is for our lives to count for something. We intuitively know that humans have rights and dignity.
Does life really have no point other than what you pretend for your own sake? Will you say, like atheist philosopher Albert Camus, that the only serious question is “suicide?” What values and purpose will you instill in your children? Will you be honest with them, or will you borrow ideas from some non-atheistic belief system so as not to disappoint?

Now I think I see the problem with their previous question about morality, because it’s the same as this one. Apparently the people who wrote these questions believes there is an “atheist worldview.” But that’s ridiculous on the face of it. Not believing in God doesn’t make a worldview. My guess is, he’s taken the opinions of some atheists he’s seen on television or talked to in person and now thinks this is “the atheist worldview” that all atheists believe in. “The atheist worldview” says that “we are [solely] products of time, chance, and blind forces” and that “there is no objective” (there’s that word again) “meaning and value to our human existence.”

I don’t believe either of these propositions falsely attributed to “the atheist worldview.” So now we have the same problem as for the previous question: how does this put us anywhere closer to proving the Christian worldview or disproving my own? That I need to “borrow ideas from some non-atheistic belief system” in order to find rights, dignity, values and purpose? But as I already pointed out, these things are innate in every human being (and the author of the questions seems to agree, which makes his reasoning all the more puzzling), and there’s no reason to believe that they come from some “divine author” except circular arguing, and there’s no reason to believe that they are restricted to “non-atheistic belief systems.”

What we are seeing, in fact, is a more sophisticated version of fine-tuning, albeit an unconscious one, on the part of the questioner. He seems to be assuming that our innate moral values and virtues somehow conform to those of Christianity, and that this bears explaining. If I am correct in assuming this, then the answer is simple; as usual for Christians, he’s got it all backwards. It is Christianity which, insofar as it is accepted, conforms to our innate moral values and virtues, and not the reverse. In fact, Christian churches and hierarchies always have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, towards new moral understandings after the wider society has accepted them and made them impossible to ignore.

It seems to me that the question that the author really wants to ask is the following: “how did the innate moral values and virtues come to be?” This would be a fair question, if he did ask it, but it would, once again, not bring us any closer to disproving “the atheist worldview” or proving that Christianity has any credibility. It would merely mean pushing back the circularity one step further, as the Christian would assume that innate moral values and virtues must come from a “divine author” (a coy phrase to use when one means “God” but doesn’t want to repulse “atheists,” I suppose) because the “divine author” is the author of morality and that’s the end of the discussion.

It further seems to me that questions 4, 5 and 6, which proceed from the same circular way of argumenting, are rather disingenuous and do not seek to pursue constructive dialogue between Christians and “atheists.” They rather seek to smuggle in hidden premises (such as “moral laws can only come from a divine author”) in order to “logically” stump the “atheist” without actually appealing to his morality or sense of order. I don’t really see the point of proceeding in such a manner.

As for the issue of raising children, I have already elicited more than enough controversy on this blog regarding the topic of whether having children is moral or not, so I don’t particularly want to come back to it. It will suffice to say that, if for some reason I take leave of my senses permanently and decide to “have children,” I would be honest with them and not corrupt their minds with some “non-atheistic belief system” out of cringing fear that they might turn out badly or out of cringing fear of tradition. I would teach them the truth, which is that values, virtues and purpose are things that exist inside of them, and that they don’t need to listen to sky-fairy drivel to figure out something as simple as who they are and what they are doing here.

7. The Mind
In the world of atheism, where there is no soul or transcendent “self,” humans are simply biological machines, and our minds are just computers made out of meat. With this in view there is really no room for something like freewill, since we are all just operating according to our “programming” and our environmental influences. And there are great difficulties in conceding that chemistry can produce something as abstract as “consciousness,” or at least anything qualitatively different from what we ourselves might ultimately produce using computer technology.
Are you prepared to accept the idea that no one is really morally responsible for their bad behavior and, conversely, that virtuous behavior is not commendable? In what way will you seek to convince me that I am really not a conscious and self-aware being; that it is just a complex biochemical illusion? Can you accept that computer programs may one day be just as much “persons” as you, yourself?

We continue in the straw-man characterization of “the atheist worldview,” or in this case “the world of atheism” (as if labeling atheism a worldview wasn’t enough of a gross exaggeration, now it’s a world!). Apparently “the world of atheism” prohibits free will, consciousness or moral responsibility. But why?

I have debated presuppositionalists (Christians who argue that materialism is bankrupt and that only Christianity can explain logic, science, morality, and so on), and there is one thing that is really salient about them. They really like to smear materialism as being about “mere atoms banging about” and so on, omitting all that is sublime about it and keeping only what they find alienating. But, even for all they are worth, they are always utterly unable to justify exactly why they believe that materialism cannot generate whatever it is they think it cannot generate. Why can a material being not generate free will? Well, it just can’t. Why can a material being not generate consciousness? Well, it just can’t. Why can a material being not rationally hold moral responsibility? Well, it just can’t.

The argument is once again circular, and goes a little something like this: materialism is merely nasty atomicism with no redeeming value whatsoever, therefore materialism cannot explain X, because Christianity can [pretend to] explain X, and Christianity is better than nasty atomicism with no redeeming value whatsoever because Christianity says that it has no redeeming value… repeat again and again until your voice becomes too hoarse to complain about “atoms banging around.”

You might say I am being rather unfair to these questions, because I don’t know whether the person who wrote them is a presuppositionalist or not, and that is a fair criticism. Although the questions 4 to 7, as I’ve discussed, show all the signs of being written from the presup handbook, I will not belabor the point any further. Suffice it to say that there is zero evidence present in the question to justify its own premises, and that therefore I consider those parts null and void, just as I did for the previous circularities.

Which brings us to the three closing sub-questions of this question (mega-question?) 7.

Am I prepared to accept the idea that no one is really morally responsible for their bad behaviour? No, because it is false. The individual is morally responsible for his bad behaviour. Let’s use murder as an example, since it’s universally recognized. I believe that the American soldier who murders Iraqi protesters in cold blood is morally responsible for his crimes, certainly. Whether he has free will or not, he is the individual who committed the actions that led to innocent deaths, he is the most direct person to blame for the actions (although it must be noted that there are many other people to blame and to hold responsible), and he is therefore “morally responsible” in the plain meaning of the term. We must deal with him as a guilty party out of a desire to stop murderers, not out of a misguided desire to save his soul.

In what way will I seek to convince him/her (the person who wrote the question) that he/she is really not a conscious and self-aware being? In no way would I do such a thing, since the person who wrote these questions must have been conscious in order to be able to write them, and, presumably being a human being, was also self-aware.

Can I accept that computer programs may one day be just as much “persons” as myself? Yes. One wonders what fear or dread this prospect might elicit in the Christian who wrote this strangely specific question.

Here is another return to sender: since when do Christians give a damn about free will and moral responsibility? Christianity is ferociously against free will and moral responsibility, by preaching submission to God and the extermination of all philosophical thought about morality that does not conform to said submission, as well as the elimination of all questioning about one’s social role, unless of course said social role goes against the needs of the Christian churches. Why should “atheists” explain the existence of something Christians don’t even believe in? I will explain this in more detail at the end of this entry.

8. Supernatural Experiences
Every known time and culture is rich with stories of near death experiences, ghosts, angels, demons, prophetic dreams and visions, and miraculous healings. While some of these are certainly spurious or not well documented, others have reasonable experimental support. In addition to this, humans seem to be incurably religious; the idea of God and the spiritual is deeply entrenched in the human psyche, if not in its actual experience.
What are we to make of all this? If man is simply an adapted biological organism, then how is it that we did not manage to adapt to our natural environment in this area – why are we not “naturalists” rather than theists? Can’t any of this be a hint toward reality, or must we think that the bulk of humanity flirts with insanity?

I am glad to report that we have finally left the presuppositionalist streak of questions and are back to more interesting fare. However, the premises of this question are not any more supported than the premises of the presuppositionalist questions. Exactly which phenomena in the list of “near death experiences, ghosts, angels, demons, prophetic dreams and visions, and miraculous healings” have “reasonable experimental support”? I think this was a spelling mistake: he surely must have meant “experiential” (i.e. relating to experience), not “experimental” (i.e. relating to scientific experiments). I do agree that some of the things listed have experiential support, but none have any experimental support whatsoever.

But this is mostly nitpicking. The real issue under scrutiny is, why are human beings not instinctually naturalists rather than instinctually theists? Why did we not manage to adapt to our environment and, presumably, believe that gods, angels and demons are all nonsense? This way of posing the issue presupposes that there is a clear and strictly delineated dichotomy between disbelief in the spiritual and belief in the spiritual, between naturalism and theism, that they are as distinct as reality and insanity, and that evolution should have sorted it all by now.

But this is a gross misunderstanding of evolution. Our gene pool does not reflect the conditions in which animals (such as ourselves) live today, it reflects the conditions in which animals lived millions of years ago. For example, there is not enough time from the invention of the automobile to today for human beings to adapt to automobiles and develop instincts meant to deal with automobiles. Our gene pool is well adapted- to homo sapiens living in a low-technology, nature-dependent state, not to homo sapiens as it lives today.

In a low-technology, nature-dependent state, it is entirely reasonable to think that the gene pool of a species of higher intelligence would develop superstitions and beliefs about things which are not immediately accessible to its organisms. Superstition and beliefs are precisely how all animals with some intelligence, from birds to humans, use to fill in their lack of knowledge. When telescopes, airplanes and modal logic are not available, the best available substitute is probably some form of religion.

“AHA!,” I imagine our questioner thinking at this point, “you’ve just said that religion is better adapted to reality!” But what I am saying is that religion is better adapted to our daily life in a low-technology, nature-dependent state, not to our daily life today. We fortunate few who sight-see the universe on the shoulders of giants do not need religion to make sense of natural laws or universal laws. It is the gap between the state that gives rise to religion and our current state that makes religion look insane, not either state in and of itself. Religion survives because it is a belief system that is good at surviving, because it excels at systemically exploiting human foibles (desire to belong, desire to conform, need for comfort, fear of death, fear of the unknown), not because it is still adapted to the way reality appears to us.

9. Case for Christ
The case for the Jesus of Scripture is extremely compelling. There is good evidence that the New Testament was written in the generation of the Apostles. We have thousands of copies of these documents in their source language, some of which go back inside of 100 years after Jesus’ death. There is no evidence of significant corruption in the known manuscripts. There is no motivation and evidence for fraud among the apostles and church fathers – most died martyr’s deaths. The trend of archaeology is toward validation, not denial, of what it is possible to confirm in Scripture. Even non-biblical manuscripts support various key details of Christian theology.
The burden of proof is generally on the one seeking to deny historical records.
What alternative explanation do you offer to the New Testament documentation and the tradition of the church, and what support do you have for your theory?
Is it because of the miracles that you doubt the Scriptures? If Jesus really were God in the flesh, how would you expect Him to confirm that fact?

There are many premises in this question. Each and every one of them is completely and spectacularly false. All the evidence tells us that the New Testament books were written at least 30 years after Jesus’ fictional death. There is significant corruption in the manuscripts, unintentional and intentional. There is plenty of motivation for the first Christians to fradulently claim that the being they worship actually existed in the flesh, and to use written material from a previously existing rabbi (called the Q Document by scholars), turning it into a present time (insofar as they were concerned) narrative designed to preach their personal vision of the future religion (also, there is no evidence that any of the Gospel writers died martyr’s deaths, as we only have a general idea of who they are). The “trend of archaeology” is to ignore the silly claims of Christian literalists; the trend of Christian literalists is to point to pieces of driftwood and scream “come all, see the landing place of Noah’s Ark!” There are a few non-biblical manuscripts that support the hypothesis that Jesus actually existed, but none that are actually credible.

The only thing that is true at all in these premises is that we do have thousands of copies. Unfortunately, thousands of copies of a fraud does not make it less of a fraud; it just makes it a popular fraud.

The burden of proof is generally on the one seeking to deny historical records.

Entirely correct; too bad that no such records actually exist in the case of Jesus. One might more pointedly say that the burden of proof is generally on the one seeking to establish extremely extraordinary claims with no valid corroborating evidence.

What alternative explanation do you offer to the New Testament documentation and the tradition of the church, and what support do you have for your theory?

I don’t need to offer any “alternative” explanation when the official one suits me just well: there existed a list of sayings by a man called Jesus, which was used by the Gospel writers to pierce together all sorts of different stories (remember that there were hundreds of Gospel narratives written, not just the four that were chosen) putting forward their own version of a new religion that would free the Jewish people from the oppression of the Roman Empire and their exclusion from the mainstream.

If Jesus really were God in the flesh, how would you expect Him to confirm that fact?

I can’t make heads or tails of this question. How can a person both be God and be flesh? What does that even mean? Of course, I know this question has been asked for centuries, and Christians just repeat “Jesus was fully divine and fully human” as a pat non-answer… so this is a very unfruitful avenue of discussion.

10. Rational Faith
Christians are often accused of being simple-minded, superstitious, or irrational.
Is it so unreasonable for us to believe that the universe had a beginning because it actually was created; the laws of physics are so fine-tuned because it had a designer; people are preoccupied with good and evil because they are real things; we long for purpose and meaning because they exist to be had; life from non-life really is miraculous; consciousness and freewill seem real because they are; people are incurably religious because there is actually something real in religion; and the historical case for Jesus is so tenacious because it is actually true?
If there really is no meaning or purpose to life, no objective good or evil, and the existence of “truth” itself is open to debate, by what standard will you condemn the beliefs of Christians?

Before I answer, I must point out the excellent use of the semi-colon in that long middle sentence. This is completely unironic; I have in fact been reading a book about punctuation that has made me understand the elegance and usefulness of the semi-colon, and I really appreciate its use here. I would have added a “that” at the start of each phrase, though, but that’s just me.

Punctuation aside, this seems to be, not a question, but rather a final parting recap, followed by one last presuppositionalist potshot (you don’t even believe in truth!) which must have been too irresistible to pass up.

From my materialist standpoint, there is meaning and purpose to life, there is good and evil, and the existence of truth is not open to debate. That being said, the “atheist” is here asked the following: “by what standard will you condemn the beliefs of Christians?” This is a fair question.

I condemn the beliefs of Christians based on two main concepts: moral responsibility and free will.

In substance, Christianity’s doctrines can be seen as an extremist formulation of a general blanket denial of moral responsibility. This is not particular to Christianity; most religions and spiritual worldviews share this blanket denial of moral responsibility (either through the “law of attraction,” karma, or other such devices). Let us first start with what is widely considered the most attractive part of Christianity, the statement of John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

According to John 3:16, man is saved, redeemed, made good, by belief, not works. Whatever we do can be redeemed as long as we believe. Is it any wonder that Christianity attracts the worst kind of criminals and frauds? The statement of John 3:16 is the simple and straightforward credo of the criminal and the twisted. It is a statement of open defiance against any moral responsibility for one’s actions.

In fact, the Christian’s very conception of justice (concretized in Heaven and Hell) is predicated on the statement of John 3:16. Believe and you will be judged worthy, do not believe and you will be judged unworthy. But this is the exact opposite of any sane conception of justice. Its implementation in any society would result in the equivalent of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany: those who believe in the new order are innocent, those who fail to believe are criminals.

What about the evil that salvation exists to resolve: original sin? How does an individual acquire this original sin? He acquires it for being a descendant of the first man and woman. Once again, this is the exact opposite of moral responsibility: universal evil is imputed to all human beings on the basis of their lineage, instead of their own actions. This leads Christian literalists to claim that the Flood was perfectly moral because everyone who lived at that time was absolutely evil and deserved to die. Well, you don’t need to look at what each person actually did, you see: they didn’t believe in God, and that’s all it takes.

This blanket denial of moral responsibility has permitted, and still permits, people of all religions to commit the worse atrocities known to man. Whether it be the Marxist belief in a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the democratic belief in the “will of the people,” the capitalist belief in profit, the Christian belief in original sin and salvation, the terrorist’s belief that his race (whether Occidental or Middle-Eastern) is a superior race, or the belief of the mass murderer that he is a victim of pulsions he cannot control, abandoning moral responsibility can only lead to ruin.

The natural result of abandoning moral responsibility is the rejection of free will as a guiding principle for the individual, his groups and families, his societies or his world. This rejection negates the most fundamental freedom, more important than any political right: the freedom to think. It channels people’s energies and sense of self into the narrow confines of political and religious dogma. Christianity, like all other such worldviews, keeps man a beast. It sets man as the enemy of his own free will and the enemy of everyone else’s free will. It disconnects the individual from his innate sense of morality, from his natural compassion and intelligence, substituting them with fear of others and obedience to the group.

Fortunately, people are starting to wake up to the deleterious effects of religion. Christianity is fast becoming a mostly harmless tradition to which people pay lip service while worshiping at the altar of consumerism, which dissolves and co-opts all belief systems in the name of the almighty dollar. So, as a guise of conclusion, I will say that perhaps it is not “atheists” that Christians should target with their questions, but rather capitalists…

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5 thoughts on “10 Answers from an Atheist… [part 2/2]

  1. [...] Click here for part 2. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Answering “Outside-In” Moral Aberrations.Secular Sunday: Atheist Q&A!Our big big big big universeThe Atheist Delusion [...]

  2. theconverted April 18 2009 at 10:38

    Well said Francois.

  3. kentmcmanigal April 18 2009 at 22:58

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to answer this silly thing. Just a couple of days ago I was called a “liar” on another blog when I tried to nicely point out that the Christians who use their religion as an excuse to use the state against others are not helping freedom. It’s so pathetic.

  4. muhammad April 28 2009 at 19:00

    Hey

    I agree with your political economy, I consider myself a kind of left libertarian, but I am a Muslim.

    Anyway some of your answers seem like ‘a cop out’. Like atheism is not a world view etc.

    A worldview is a philosophy about the nature of existence (what is it? how does it work?, how can human beings understand this and gain accurate knowledge of this? Do humans have a role to play? What is it? how should they behave? what is right and what is wrong?).

    I accept that there is no universally acceptable atheist worldview they all differ, but at its core you start out with the answer that, life is naturalistic, materialistic (no God) and our morality is self formed, and contextual to time and place, therefore you might think something is right and do it. This is a sensible approach to morality in my view, but you have to bear in mind that not all religious people have such sophisticated understanding of reality, many are simple minded and tend to think in black and white terms, if you speak to the religious intelligentsia you may get a better perspective. So there is this basic unity among atheists which can be termed a ‘world view’.

    Atheists I have spoken to tend to emphasize their own moral superiority over religious people (granted nearly all these atheists were statists in one form or another), they always claim they do good and avoid doing evil because they were inherently moral beings, while religious people do thee things because they fear hell or want endless rewards in a paradise (ie atheists do good because it is the right thing to do and religious people do it sometimes and many times they do not and in fact they do evil to non belivers because they think they will get rewards).

    On the face of it all of this doe appear to put atheists above religious people, but you do not realize human beings cannot function nihilistically if the whole society actively learnt and held a nihilistic point of view, some things would be better, but the majority of people would lose their reason for living and they would all just give up and die, nothing would remain…so some myths are necessary for life, of course we do not need a State.

  5. Francois Tremblay April 28 2009 at 19:04

    I am not a nihilist, so I don’t know why you’re telling me all this.

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