On Some Questions for Atheists

I suspect they’ve been around, but a series of questions for atheists once again appeared in my reader. I encountered the questions on Noel Onyongo’s Random Thoughts blog. I tend to like these kinds of things. First, I like to talk about myself. I mean that in as non-narcissistic a way as possible. I enjoy that I have to explain/defend myself. It is an opportunity to assess what I think I understand and how I think I understand it. Second, I really enjoy reading other people’s answers – see where we agree and don’t agree.

[Update: Other bloggers’ answers can be found here and here and here (part 1 and part 2).]

A Little Background

The questions come from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (or CARM). From their homepage: “CARM is a 501(c)3, non-profit, Christian ministry dedicated to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ and the promotion and defense of the Christian Gospel, doctrine, and ministry.”

The questions were posted by (and, presumably written by) Matt Slick, a relatively well known apologist. The questions are transparently tied to CARM’s approach to arguing against atheism. This can be gleaned from the questions themselves, but a sidebar on the right underlines this point by linking to all of atheism’s supposed failures (e.g., accounting for existence, morality, or rationality).

Interestingly, among its various projects, CARM “analyzes… movements and compares them to the Bible.” Under the heading of ‘Secular Movements’ they list: abortion, atheism, creation evolution debate, evolution, government, homosexuality, the Raelians, and relativism. I’m pretty sure the inclusion of the Raelians was just CARM trolling touchy secularists. However, I hope they comment on other key secular movements like the common core, the war on Christmas, and Beatlesmania.

 On to the Questions

1. How would you define atheism?

I’m trying to be more comfortable wearing the ‘believe there are no gods’ definition of atheist, but I’m okay with the ‘lack belief in gods’ definition.

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)?

I think he thinks he’s being clever with this question, but he’s just overthinking things. When it comes to acting, there is no substantive difference between the two. That in which you accord your actions will be something else (e.g., a stance like Humanism).

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

This question better gets at what Slick wants to criticize than the previous question. In my experience, those who ‘lack belief in gods’ but still engage in counter-apologetics maintain the ‘lack belief’ stance to remain honest about the scope of their knowledge. In other words, they are not absolutely certain (and perhaps think they can never be absolutely certain) that no gods exist, so they maintain the weaker position.

What Slick’s question seems to forget is that there are more possible gods than the Christian God. Though we can work to disprove the existence of all the gods on offer, it is possible a god exists that has not yet been proposed. Therefore, the atheist is perfectly consistent to only lack belief in gods while attempting to disprove the gods on offer.

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

Pretty sure, I guess. I find this a strange question. Or, perhaps, I find this an unclear question. What scale of assuredness should I use? I’ll say I’m a 7, and I’ll let you choose the scale.

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

Sorry, now I’m doubly confused. How is this question supposed to be different than the last question? See my previous answer.

6. How would you define what truth is?

By giving it a definition. Definition subject to change with further information.

I tend toward pragmatic and pluralist understandings of truth.

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

The lack of convincing evidence for theism, and its seeming irrelevance without connection to doctrine.

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

Why is this question written with such a casual voice?

Oh my god, Becky, look at her ontology. It’s so reductionist.

I’d call myself a naturalist. Unlike Quine, however, I tend to not like desert landscapes.

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

I would deny that atheism is a worldview. It may be relevant to one’s worldview, but it is not a worldview, itself.

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

Because, we stand on the side of truth and glory.

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

Not applicable.

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

Not necessarily. That depends on how you define ‘religion.’ I do think the world would be a better place if religion, as a means of self-identification, was given less leeway when used as a justification for violence and maltreatment.

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

I don’t know. That’s the only honest answer I can give. I have no idea what a world without Christianity is like.

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

No. If pressed, I suspect most (all?) atheists would deny that faith in gods is a formal mental disorder. I have criticized atheists in the past for using the comparison loosely, as I think it misrepresents religious belief and disrespects those with genuine mental illness.

More to the point, I don’t think religious believers use different ways of knowing from nonbelievers. They just use such ways of knowing with different points of emphasis and different starting assumptions. Hence, people will convert and de-convert.

15. Must God be known through the scientific method?

No, but if the evidence for God was falsifiable, that would help.

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?

By what method did you determine that God was immaterial such that you can actually say it is a category mistake?

Besides, God is omnipotent, right? Why can’t God make himself known via the scientific method?

17. Do we have any purpose as human beings?

Yes.

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

Genetics. Outcomes may vary.

I may not be using ‘purpose’ in the same manner as Slick means (i.e., teleology), but I see no reason to privilege his definition.

19. Where does morality come from?

Wisconsin.

20. Are there moral absolutes?

I’m undecided on the question of meta-ethics. Right now, I probably lean toward something like Blackburn’s quasi-realism, but I consider this an open question for myself.

Unlike the scare tactics used by many apologists, there’s not much to worry about moral anti-realism. Matthew Ferguson wrote a great post exploring this.

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

If they do exist, I feel certain these will make the cut:

A. Do support the Portland Timbers.
B. Do not support the Seattle Sounders.
C. Do not chew your food with your mouth open.

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

Yes. The Seattle Sounders.

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

The God of the Old Testament does not exist. As such, the God of the Old Testament has no moral status. The actions attributed to the Old Testament God do seem to represent morally bad actions. If we don’t presume God’s moral perfection, many of OT God’s actions don’t seem to pass the intuition test.

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

See 26.

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

See 26.

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

The problem with questions 24 through 26 is that they have embedded within them an unwritten assumption that we actually know something about God. Consider this rather specific list of attributes for God from CARM ‘s webpage:

“…the only supreme, eternally self-aware being, who had no beginning nor will he cease to exist, who is non-contingent, transcendent, and immutable, and of whom no greater being exists. His attributes include holiness, omniscience, omnisapience, omnipotence, omnipresence, logical, righteous, just, merciful, gracious, etc.”

This list comes from centuries of rational exploration of philosophy, science, and theology. Those attributes of God are the product of intelligent people putting in hard work to understand the being they worship. With full recognition of how flippant this might sound; however, it is nothing more than sophisticated guess work. It could be the case that a god exists, yet it only possesses a fraction of the qualities in CARM’s list. Said god may possess them in a different way. There may be multiple gods. None of this has actually been confirmed.

So, how am I supposed to know what will convince me? How am I supposed to know what evidence will make me believe a god exists? Most people ask this question of an atheist because they have a desire to convert the atheist to their religion, but that’s skipping a step. First, I need evidence a god exists. Once I have that, I’ll consider whether or not the evidence fits with the god of your religion.

I have no preconceived notions of what a god is supposed to be, so I can’t offer much here. That evidence which convinces me a god exists is the evidence that I would need to believe a god exists. That circular line is all I got.

Because it sums up why I’ve never come to believe in a god so well, I want to quote the ex-apologist’s non-trivial counterpossible from back in February:  “If theism were true, you’d know it.”

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

Society? Christians. Tail-Gate Party? Atheists.

Why? Because dumb questions get dumb answers.

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

As defined, yes, I can accept that such a free will exists.

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?

If nothing is coercing me, where’s the problem?

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?

Totally, maaaaan. Like, dig this: in, like, billions of years, our minds will, like, totally evolve to become one with the universe, maaaaan. It will be a melding of mind and soul in the ultimate spiritual union, maaaaan. Its what the Buddha and Jesus were talking about, maaaaan. We’ll all be beings of mental and spiritual energy. We’ll just spend our existence meditating on all the good, hip stuff that just is. Trippy, right? Well, what if I told you that this guy from Sedona already achieved this transcendence but the government is working with Big Yoga to keep it all a secret? It’s all a conspiracy, maaaaan.

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?

Sorry, Matt, but your incoherent ‘what if’ scenario does not make it probable a god exists. Setting aside its many conceptual flaws, what about it suggests a god exists?

Regarding those conceptual flaws, seriously, what is this? 1. What relevance does the universe expanding have on evolution? 2. Who thinks the universe will expand forever? 3. Who thinks “brains will evolve to the point of exceeding physical limitations”? 3a. Did he mean minds will evolve to such a point? 4. How can something evolve (a process of physical change over time) to “become free of the physical and temporal?” 5. If you set up a ‘what if’ scenario, you can’t then use the answer as a trap. It’s a ‘what if’ scenario. Does the answer imply the existence of a god? I don’t know. Tell me more about your made up scenario.

I think he wants to ask: If given enough time, could humans evolve into deity-like entities? If you answer yes, doesn’t this suggest that there could already be deity-like entities?

The problem is that an evolved deity is very different than the Christian God that Slick affirms to exist. So, even if an atheist answers in the affirmative to both questions, they aren’t offering any credence to the existence of Slick’s god.

Other Thoughts:

* The questions related to the ontology of truth and morality were definitely the hardest to answer with detail. This is partially because they would require long answers. However, I’m also not settled on them. Regarding truth, I haven’t really done too much exploring on this topic. While I feel comfortable putting my flag in the pragmatism and pluralism camps, I don’t think I could do much in the way of defending them.

* As I breezed over in question 26, when it comes to providing answers to a lot of these questions, I view my answers as preliminary. They are subject to change with further information. Take the question of truth, for example. We have centuries of very smart people trying to pin down a solid definition of truth, and there’s still a reasonable lack of consensus.

One of the things I find unconvincing about apologetics that note how concepts are difficult to ground in an atheistic universe is how much they overestimate what we actually know about the topics. What is truth? I don’t know. Here are the available theories. No, your god hasn’t been proven to exist.

* On question 7, by “its seeming irrelevance without connection to doctrine” I mean that I am an apathetic adeist.

* My answers to questions 17 and 18 (regarding purpose) are a bit flippant. I don’t know if I could see through a conception of genetics that could be understood as a purpose. But, no, I do not think there is a teleology of the sort Slick will likely say exists due to God.

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6 comments

  1. makagutu · August 13, 2014

    In all I think you took the questions more seriously than I did and you did them justice. And your answers to some of them are outright hilarious!

    • thecaveatlector · August 13, 2014

      Thank you. I enjoyed your answers as well.

      A number of the questions were transparently leading toward Slick’s apologetics, but I tried to, at least, make them serious.

      The last two questions, though. Those were just funny.

      • makagutu · August 14, 2014

        Especially the last! Why does he think there must be a deity?

  2. Godless Cranium · August 14, 2014

    “What scale of assuredness should I use? I’ll say I’m a 7, and I’ll let you choose the scale.”

    *a theist pops up*

    Surprise! It’s out of 1000 so you’re not sure at all.

    In all seriousness, great answers here. Nicely done.

    • thecaveatlector · August 14, 2014

      Thank you.

      And no worries, I’m ready to pencil-in a decimal point or two if needed. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Stumptown | The Caveat Lector

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