Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Atheist Response to CARM's "Questions For Atheists"

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn!

When I started making videos and writing blog posts, they mostly centered around my views as an atheist. As shocking as this revelation is, it's been a while. Since TJ made a video addressing questions posed to atheists by Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, I thought I'd do them as well to see where I stand now. Here's the article for the full list.

1. How would you define atheism?

First, I like the way this question is phrased. Not "what is the definition of atheism", but rather, how would I define it. I've written and talked endlessly about how people hold up definitions on pedestals and how this generates drama. WE define words. They're not just ethereally defined and we have to use them that way. What we're really arguing about is how the word SHOULD be defined, and I'm guessing people work in the concept of "the definition" to try and grant their definition more authority.

But anyway...

Atheism, to me, is the philosophical stance of not believing in any gods, or flat out rejecting their existence. There are qualifiers, some which act as independent stances as well, such as "agnostic" (not knowing whether gods exist), "gnostic" (knowing they do or knowing they don't, or claiming to at least), and "ignostic" (rejecting that the term "god" can even be defined adequately enough to even have a discussion about belief in or knowledge of them). I would describe myself as an ignostic, agnostic atheist: I don't believe in any gods, however I can't say for a fact they don't exist, but the definitions given for current gods are too disputed and vague to make an accurate assessment in the first place. Many people will use 1 of those words to describe themselves and reject the others. I accept all 3.

2. Do you act according to what you believe (there is no God) in or what you don't believe in (lack belief in God)?

By comparison, I find this question far less well phrased. I don't believe there is no god as I'm not a "gnostic atheist" (see above). My actions would have to derive from the non-belief, insofar as they actually can.

A lot of people at this point would make some statements like "atheism is a belief in the same way as not collecting stamps is a hobby", and while I agree, atheism shares one characteristic with beliefs: it informs the way you live your life far more profoundly than a non-hobby by virtue of religion's influence in society. Many atheists actively seek to minimize this influence and, when I started on YouTube, I leaned towards this point of view too. While I still think religion causes a lot of problems, taking the idea too much to heart has issues too. One of the main reasons the atheist community died was the massive rift that opened up after discussions about Islam became the dominant topic on YouTube. Because of the actions of some fundamentalists, and because things like 9/11, 7/7 and the Madrid bombings were still too fresh in people's minds, people went to town on Islam, and didn't shy away from painting all Muslims as terrorists or sympathizers. I couldn't go along with this, and neither could many others. My view is that while religion may cause more harm on balance than good, religion is still practiced by human beings with thoughts and feelings, and so  the best way to interact with them is on this level. Have conversations with them, get to know them, be honest about what you believe, and pay attention to what they believe too. In the end, we judge people on their character, not their ideas. Of course their ideas will influence their character, but character is responsible for actions, and they always carry more weight.

3. Do you think it is inconsistent for someone who "lacks belief" in God to work against God's existence by attempting to show God doesn't exist?

I have a few qualms with this question. First, I'm not trying to show that God doesn't exist. A complete lack of evidence points in the direction of that conclusion just fine. Secondly, I can't make any sense of the question. What does it mean to "work against God's existence"? The author is Christian so they obviously believe in God, but the question seems to presuppose God exists from the get go. Nevertheless I still can't fathom, even given the premise that the question presupposes God exists, how it could be viewed as inconsistent from ANY perspective to try to demonstrate he doesn't. It goes back to the question of whether you KNOW there is or isn't a god. In my case, I don't know, so it's perfectly consistent for me to test hypotheses until I arrive at some conclusion, if I ever do.

4. How sure are you that your atheism properly represents reality?

I'm going to give an answer that will seem at face value very interesting to the religious: 0%. I am not sure at all. I am also 0% sure God exists. I'm 0% sure Allah exists. I'm 0% sure Zeus, Apollo, Thor and King Kai exist. Going further, the question is unanswerable through empirical means. In the face of this total uncertainty, what do you do? Well, I disagree with Blaise Pascal: if you assume the Christian God exists just to maximize your chances of getting into heaven, what if there is a god, who's just as selective about the eligibility of his/her followers for admittance into heaven based on their belief in him/her? How could you ever possibly know who's right? Since most people inherit their religious beliefs from their family/friends/wider culture, are some people doomed to some version of hell through nothing other than accident of birth? No, I believe in living your life according to rules that are based on things which are DEFINITELY grounded in reality: empathy and logic.

5. How sure are you that your atheism is correct?

I fail to see any significant difference between this question and the last.

6. How would you define what truth is?

Here we go! As I said before, we define words. As such, truth is a word we've used to describe a concept we don't fully understand, so it follows that the term isn't well defined (you could say I'm "ignostic" about truth :D). However, I'm not going to dodge the question:

A statement can be logically true: 1+1=2. However, even this could be subverted. "2" is a symbol used to describe a concept: there is two of something. What if that symbol was changed to mean "three of something"? The statement is only true because the underlying semantic content is a tautology. That is to say if you have one of something, then another of that same thing, you have one of something and another of it.

The use of the word "truth" by human beings must also be taken in the context of their limitations. By the standards of a lie detector, you would be telling the truth if you were simply able to convince the lie detector that you BELIEVED what you were saying to be true. In addition, if you're telling the truth about something you saw happen, that depends on your vision, your memory, and, to really melt the brains, whether reality is as we perceive it.

This is why I can be precisely 0% sure of my atheism and the existence of any deity. We don't, and can't, know what truth actually is.

7. Why do you believe your atheism is a justifiable position to hold?

Finally, my maths degree comes in handy. Atheism is the "null hypothesis" on the question of the existence of gods. To prove another hypothesis, you would need to prove, as a minimum, the existence of the deity in question. Atheism is what we inevitably fall back on when that task fails.

8. Are you a materialist or a physicalist or what?

I will use CARM's definitions here:


A materialist atheist is someone who assumes that the physical universe and its properties are all that exist and that nothing exists outside of the material world, and this necessarily means that a transcendent God cannot exist.


Physicalism is the proposition that all that exists does so within the limitations of the physical universe and that there are no other kinds of things other than the physical and things derived from the physical realm whether they be forms of energy, motion, or thought.

Yes and yes, but with an important point. This view derives from science which is constantly evolving. What constitutes the physical world changes as science discovers something new. If we were able to show that a god exists, then the god, and everything they were capable of, would be a "material" or "physical" entity from that point on.

9. Do you affirm or deny that atheism is a worldview? Why or why not?

I think here a lot of atheists would end up conflating "belief" and "worldview" as there is vocal opposition to calling it a "belief". However, I have no problem calling it a worldview in that it makes a statement about the state of affairs in the universe: namely that I don't believe in any gods.

10. Not all atheists are antagonistic to Christianity but for those of you who are, why the antagonism?

I'd like to think I'm among the "not antagonistic" atheists. I won't shove my beliefs down other people's throat. If someone asks me what my position is I'll tell them, and I'm happy to talk in detail about these beliefs, but I'm not going to just go off on one whenever I feel like it.

As to why others are, I've been doing this long enough that I don't need to speculate. There are atheists living all over the world who have been marginalized by their more religious family members, friends, teachers, governments etc. Some are shunned, some are fired, and some are even executed. The antagonism is a reaction to, or even a defense mechanism against, this persecution. Even on the less horrific side of this scale, an atheist still has no chance of becoming US President, are still on similar footing to rapists in terms of how well they are trusted, and, as an unfortunate consequence of our activities on the internet, we have recently become stereotyped as intolerant and loud-mouthed.

My response to this is that people on both sides should make an effort to get to know PEOPLE on the rival side. As I said in my answer to question 2, character is what matters.

11. If you were at one time a believer in the Christian God, what caused you to deny His existence?

I'm not sure if I ever was. I was very loosely raised Christian in the sense that I was taught about heaven and hell, baptized, and that was about it. It wasn't an important part of my immediate family at any point. There were several events that led me away from Christianity.

The first time I ever properly understood death was when seeing it happen on an episode of Casualty when I was 6. I was with my Gran and I was so upset that I begged for my Mum to come back. I think I had the picture in my head before that it was a bit more like a video game: the moment of death would happen and you'd just sprout wings and fly up to heaven :)

The second was in high school when I was 14. I'd already gone over questions like this in my head but it crystallized when a substitute teacher took one of our assemblies and said "God has a plan for you" then shortly after, "God loves you". For me, the 2 concepts didn't fit. God's plan had to include people who never live to adulthood, people with debilitating diseases, and people born into extreme poverty. If he loved us, why would he EVER do that to anyone? It all unraveled from there: his "omni" character traits can't co-exist, the Jesus story doesn't make any sense at all, and there's no evidence for god. I'll come to that last one later as there's a question on it.

12. Do you believe the world would be better off without religion?

It's difficult. My instinct is "yes", but religion does provide some benefits for some people, and there's plenty of evidence of people not being very pleasant without it.

Religious texts tend to be contradictory. The result of this is that schools of thought develop as to which interpretations are true, and which passages are more important. Most schools of thought, especially nowadays, emphasize the positive parts ("love thy neighbour", for example). We do, however. also have the Westboro Baptist Church and ISIS.

For me, I think the major benefit of a religion-free world is the necessity of grounding your positions in terms of what can be proven to be real. If someone's arguing against genetic modification, we know it's not because they think we'd be "playing god".

13. Do you believe the world would be better off without Christianity?

It certainly has a dark past: the Crusades, witch hunts, the Nazis (sorry, "Gott Mit Uns" is pretty conclusive) and the aforementioned Westboro Baptist Church. My answer, I guess, follows the same path as the last question.

14. Do you believe that faith in a God or gods is a mental disorder?

If we're being technical, no. It's not in the DSM V. It wouldn't be anyway: it's a symptom at best. It might qualify as a delusion (you can thank Dawkins for that), but I don't agree with this either. A delusion is perceiving something we KNOW doesn't exist. As I've said above, God is unknowable, so he doesn't qualify.

15. Must God be known through the scientific method?

I guess the idea here is that the scientific method is used to verify his existence. Here's the problem: once probed far enough, most believers assert that god is in some way supernatural. Take a trait like omnipotence: how would you verify this? You could ask him to demonstrate his power, but how could we ever perceive, let alone verify, infinite power? That's assuming he'd agree to be our lab rat at all. That's the conundrum with God, in order to prove his existence, you would have to rule out ALL natural explanations for whatever "evidence" is presented. This alone is impossible, but verifying something infinite takes it to a whole other realm of unfathomably hopeless.

God's existence is asserted in a gap that is impossible to fill: the state of defining an entity whose traits are impossible to prove or disprove.

16. If you answered yes to the previous question, then how do you avoid a category mistake by requiring material evidence for an immaterial God?

10 steps ahead of you :) My philosophy, and the philosophy of most atheists I know, depends on being able to verify the material existence of something. Positing God isn't an achievement here, as he's every bit as impossible to prove as he is to disprove.

17. Do we have any purpose as human beings?

We evolved on Earth over billions of years. Processes don't have plans. We have to decide what we do with the time we have.

18. If we do have purpose, can you as an atheist please explain how that purpose is determined?

Let me pose a thought experiment to any religious people watching. Assume that there is no possibility whatsoever of getting into heaven when you die, you will instead be going to hell. There is nothing you could do or say to God to get him to change his mind. How would you live your life? What would you do? I'm not conflating non-existence of the mind with hell here, it's just so that you can more easily put yourself in our shoes. Because we don't believe in a god, our values and desires, which arise through the natural upbringing and environment of our daily lives, guide us towards what we want to do with our lives.

19. Where does morality come from?

It's a by-product of the human mind's ability to make value judgments. If someone hits us, we feel a sensation that we ascribe negative value to. Likewise, if we get a gift, we feel a positive sensation. The final piece of the puzzle is the observation that other people react in similar ways when they experience these actions. This is the blueprint for building morality. However, the nuances are very much up for debate. This will already be a very long post so I won't go into the nuances here, but I am quite drawn to the utilitarian views of ethics: namely that an action can be judged as good or bad in accordance with the pleasure (an umbrella term for all positive emotions) and pain (likewise for negative emotions) these actions bring.

20. Are there moral absolutes?

This is another question heavily involving semantics. To me, a moral absolute is a statement about the morality of an action that can be objectively true or false. For example, if the phrase "killing people is wrong" is an absolute, this would be a true or false statement. As I've already said, I believe these are simply value judgments. I would go even further; even for theists, there are no moral absolutes, as god's morality is still just his opinion. There is nothing about any of his traits that can transform a judgment into a fact.

21. If there are moral absolutes, could you list a few of them?

Even though my previous answer makes answering this question redundant, there is still more I could say. While I judge actions by the amount of pleasure or pain they cause, it's important to note that every action causes a different amount of pleasure and pain, and so there are actions which, while they are not absolutes, are ALMOST universally seen as good or bad. Helping the poor may be an example of a significant good, while genocide may be an example of a significant ill.

22. Do you believe there is such a thing as evil? If so, what is it?

If we're talking about an ethereal concept, no. If we're talking about an adjective to describe a person, that's a matter of simply choosing, or not choosing, to use the word. Personally, I do, as it's a simple and widely understood way to describe someone who is doing bad things for no redeemable reason. What I mean by this is that when a lot of people do bad things, they feel like they can justify it. For example, robberies might take place because the perpetrator is very poor or hungry. Rape might take place out of a misunderstanding of what constitutes rape. Even offense is simply caused by the fact that it's far too difficult and exhausting to please everyone, so we just have to be ourselves, follow basic "don't be a dick" rules, but otherwise simply risk that something we do or say will be offensive to someone. Someone who I would call "evil", on the other hand, is perfectly embodied by Heath Ledger's Joker: someone who commits crimes because it's fun for him, and he likes destruction and pain. Of course, this is an extreme (and fictitious) example, but you get the idea I'm sure.

23. If you believe that the God of the Old Testament is morally bad, by what standard do you judge that He is bad?

I've explained my standard so I'll just get into my opinion of God. This is a being that supposedly created us, and then couldn't understand that we would act freely. He seeks to impose rules on people that he knows will not follow those rules, he has killed people for it, he killed HIS OWN SON on behalf of OTHER PEOPLE doing it, this killing is one of the things he forbids, making him a massive hypocrite, and simply the fact that he created our ability to suffer AT ALL. This means he has knowingly created people who will mostly suffer in their lifetime, and the justification for all of this is "he has a plan". Yes, I think he's bad.

24. What would it take for you to believe in God?

If you're referring specifically to the Christian god, nothing. He is ill-defined, his traits cannot co-exist, and the possible traits are such that there is no way of proving his existence, as there is no way to rule out all possible natural explanations for his existence.

25. What would constitute sufficient evidence for God's existence?

I've addressed this. I find it interesting that the traits that God is meant to possess: omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence and omnipresence make it impossible for God's existence to be proven. It does however make perfect sense if you see it as a way for opportunists to make him immune to disproving.

26. Must this evidence be rationally based, archaeological, testable in a lab, etc., or what?

None of that will do any good if the god in question is supernatural, as these methods rely on naturalism.

27. Do you think that a society that is run by Christians or atheists would be safer? Why?

In terms of how they will turn out in practice, not a clue. I think that an atheist society has the POTENTIAL to be safer though. First, all decisions will be based on things that can be proven (see the 3-person babies example above). Second, religion offers rules to follow. These rules are often far too simplistic, never change, and, most importantly, are aided by the moral weight of an all-powerful authority figure, so transgressing against these rules if you feel they don't make sense, is more difficult. It is especially a problem if we have no reason to believe this figure is all-powerful. An atheist society is free to explore exceptions to rules, and to change with the time. Finally, what few benefits might appear in a religious society (a sense of community, a sense of purpose, and the inspiration religion can impart) can be emulated by an atheist society if a concerted effort is put toward it.

28. Do you believe in free will? (free will being the ability to make choices without coercion).

The best answer I can give to this question is I don't know. Gun to the head, I lean towards no, so I'm quite comfortable saying that I don't believe in free will. The reason for these answers is that we don't yet know enough about how the human brain works to describe consciousness in the necessary detail to answer the question, but quantum physics is insufficiently well understood, so in a similar way that God is immune to being disproved by placing him outside nature, free will is impossible to disprove as things stand even within a naturalistic framework, as that framework is incomplete. I lean towards no because, without going to quantum scales, things have causes and effects. It's very possible that we could just be an extremely complex algorithm, following instructions in accordance with the state of our neurons and the stimuli we receive through our senses.

29. If you believe in free will, do you see any problem with defending the idea that the physical brain, which is limited and subject to the neuro-chemical laws of the brain, can still produce free will choices?

I see you've post-empted the answer to my last question :D

I don't believe in free will as I said. I don't see any reason why an algorithm can't create a sense of self, give that self self-awareness, and give it the illusion of choice. AI researches haven't been able to create anything like that yet, but I think it's only a matter of time.

30. If you affirm evolution and that the universe will continue to expand forever, then do you think it is probable that given enough time, brains would evolve to the point of exceeding mere physical limitations and become free of the physical and temporal, and thereby become "deity" and not be restricted by space and time? If not, why not?

You just made the sci-fi geek inside me very happy :)

So first off, I don't think this can happen by evolution alone. We are restricted by the possibilities of combining adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine (the 4 DNA bases). As our ability to manipulate ever smaller matter increases with our technological capabilities, and as our understanding of science grows, a human race resembling the 5-dimensional beings in Interstellar could be possible. There is a futurist, by the name of Ray Kurzweil, who believes that we could be capable of this before the end of this century. By the way, this guy works for Google, who take his predictions very seriously. 

Regardless of how long it will take, short of an apocalyptic event (I'm not talking about the Rapture here necessarily; a standard meteor, climate change or superbug will do just fine), we will reach a point where we're using technology based on science we can't even imagine today. However, this will still be within the physical universe as, by definition, everything that we can describe around us constitutes the physical universe. As for temporal, we currently understand time to be an inherent quality of the universe, although Einstein showed us that it is malleable if you're a fan of enormous speed. Maybe there's more to it and if there is, we'll understand it in time.

31. If you answered the previous question in the affirmative, then aren't you saying that it is probable that some sort of God exists?

It really depends what you call a god. If we discovered in the distant future that the laws of logic weren't absolute, only then would it be possible for the Christian god to exist. Short of that, THAT god isn't possible. However, if a god is simply a being of vastly superior ability and intellect, and again, if we aren't wiped out before then, we are practically destined to become that. Technology will keep marching forward, and humans will keep wanting to better ourselves. When we no longer have to restrict ourselves to the capabilities of our brains, then things get really interesting!


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