Twelve Questions to Ask an Atheist: The Responses

I received a surprising number of responses to my recent post, “Twelve Questions to Ask an Atheist”. So many, in fact, that it didn’t seem practical for me to address them individually. In this post, I will provide a summary of the answers I received, as well as some (brief) feedback of my own.

Unfortunately, many of the comments were laced with insults and profanity…so I deleted those. After adding up the remaining comments on this blog – as well as the comments on this reddit page that were at least somewhat respectful and serious – I came up with a total of 11 people who responded to all of the questions.

I also want to clarify my intentions in asking these questions, since several respondents evidently thought I was trying to “stump” atheists. My goal was simply to provide an opportunity for introspection, and perhaps spark some constructive dialogue.

So here goes. My original questions will be in boldAtheist responses will be italicized, with the # of similar responses in parentheses. My own feedback will appear as standard text.

1. Does the universe have a beginning that requires a cause? 

- Yes
- No (2)
- Don’t know (2)
- Probably
- Not necessarily (2)
- No clear response (3)

…If so, what was this cause?

- Don’t know (4)
- It was inevitable
- We CAN’T know
- There was no cause (2)
- P-Branes/Special Black Hole Hypothesis/Quantum Foam/Penrose Cyclic Universe
- No clear response (2)

The most noteworthy finding here, I think, was the diversity of responses. The predominant theme seemed to be that we don’t know whether or not the universe requires a cause…or what that cause might have been. Several respondents suggested that this lack of knowledge shouldn’t be particularly troubling. For those who did make more clear assertions, I would be curious to ask: “Are alternative explanations any less faith-based than the belief that God created the universe?”

2. Is materialistic determinism compatible with the intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics?

- Don’t know (5)
- No (2)
- Yes, since macro-objects behave in a deterministic fashion
- Kind of, since laws are still reliable on the macro-level
- Claims the question is a non sequitur
- No clear response

I was somewhat surprised that only two people came right out and said, “no”. Two other people suggested that determinism is still compatible because quantum effects are typically only seen on the micro-level…but it remains unclear to me why materialistic determinism should grant an exemption to protons, electrons, etc.

3. How do you account for the physical parameters of the universe (the gravitational constant, the strong nuclear force, the mass and charge of a proton, etc.) being finely tuned for the existence of stars, planets, and life?

- Conveniently fixed parameters don’t imply that they were fine-tuned…reason unspecified (5)
- Anthropic principle/multiple universes will produce one capable of harboring life (5)
- Claims this is begging the question

Responses to this question generally fell into two groups – either insisting that the universe’s finely-tuned parameters don’t mean anything (without much elaboration), or else citing some variation of the anthropic principle.

The strong anthropic principle – at least in my view – is really just a non-answer to the question. It states that the universe MUST be this way, but doesn’t really move beyond this assertion to address WHY complex/sentient creatures exist. The weak anthropic principle initially seems much easier to swallow, but it requires the existence of multiple universes (or even infinite universes) that cannot be measured, observed, verified, or falsified. If this kind of proposal doesn’t violate Occam’s Razor, then what does? For interested readers, this is an issue that I discussed in a previous post.

4. Why is the human mind naturally fluent in the language of mathematics, and how do you explain the eerie, seemingly unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the laws of nature?

- Math is merely explanatory (3)
- Most people aren’t good at math (5)
- This fact isn’t unreasonable
- Claims the question is circular
- No clear response

Several people suggested that mathematics is only explanatory, and isn’t actually a fundamental characteristic of nature. I would strongly urge these readers to read Eugene Wigner’s paper (the link I used in the initial question).

The largest group (5 of the 11) argued that I was working on a faulty premise, and that the human mind ISN’T naturally fluent in the language of mathematics. But this argument really doesn’t hold any water. Just because many (or even most) people are poor at mathematics, doesn’t mean that our minds lack an ability to grasp mathematical concepts. Virtually everyone is capable of some degree of mastery, even if it’s simple addition; and the very fact that mathematics derived by humans is successful is really all that’s needed to establish the question’s premise.

My real goal with this question was to get my atheist friends to ponder the implications of the following quote, from Pope Benedict XVI: “If nature is really structured with a mathematical language and mathematics invented by man can manage to understand it, this demonstrates something extraordinary. The objective structure of the universe and the intellectual structure of the human being coincide.”

5. Do you believe that DNA repair mechanisms, catalytically perfect enzymes, and phenomena such as substrate channeling are best explained by naturalism? If so, why are rational human scientists and engineers so woefully incapable of imitating the precision and complexity of cellular machinery that (presumably) arose via strictly irrational processes?

Note: Although not explicitly stated, I infer that virtually all respondents would say “yes” to the first question. Answers to the second question:

- Lack of knowledge doesn’t mean God is the answer (2)
- Science is still too young (7)*
- Evolution isn’t irrational (3)*
- There’s no master design to understand

*Two responses included the ideas “science is still too young” as well as “evolution isn’t irrational” – hence why the total adds up to 13 for this question.

For those who argued that a lack of knowledge doesn’t mean God is the answer: I agree that we shouldn’t look at these sorts of topics with a “God of the gaps” mentality. I would point out, however, that many people are all-to-willing to play a game of “naturalism of the gaps” when it comes to particularly intricate systems like those that I mentioned.

For those who argued that science is still too young for us to replicate the precision and complexity that occurs on a molecular level: You may very well be correct. I asked specifically about DNA repair mechanisms, catalytically perfect enzymes, and substrate channeling because I’m trained as a biochemist. Others with my background would probably be less hesitant to explain these away with naturalism…but at the very least, I encourage you to research them and consider the issue with as much open-mindedness as you can muster.

For those who argued that evolution isn’t irrational: This really depends on how one defines “irrational”. For the purposes of this question, I define it as the lack of any source of higher intelligence (or conscious will). One could perhaps imagine evolutionary processes RESEMBLING something rational – or define evolutionary principles as being rational to us – but this isn’t what I was talking about.

6. Do you believe free will to be illusory?

- Yes
- No (5)
- Sort of
- Don’t know (2)
- Probably not, because of quantum mechanics
- Claims the question is pointless 

…If so, can the punishment of crimes be ethically justified (and does the word “ethical” have any real meaning)?

- Yes (6)
- No clear response, or not applicable (5)

I was very surprised that only one respondent clearly stated that free will is illusory, since that tends to be the answer I receive most often from atheists. Maybe this is just a sampling error, but at the very least it highlights the importance of knowing what specific people believe about an issue.

Many of those who stated that the punishment of crimes CAN be ethically justified appealed to some form of utilitarian ethics. For these people: I would be curious to hear about your grounding for utilitarian ethics. Given materialism, what reason – aside from your personal opinions – do we have for valuing happiness/pleasure over pain/suffering? Can we really say that happiness/pleasure is more valuable to a species from an evolutionary point of view?

7. Does objective morality exist?

- Yes (3)
- No (8)

…If so, what is its source…and how do you define “objective”?

- It’s innate and driven by self-interest
- It’s simply defined as human well-being (2)
Not applicable (8)

…If not, do you concede that concepts like “justice”, “fairness”, and “equality” are nothing more than social fads, and that acts of violence and oppression must be regarded merely as differences of opinion?

- Kind of (2)
- No, morality is universal and selected for by evolution (3)
- No, we can rely on an empathy-based system of morality (3)
- Not applicable (3)

Those who held that objective morality exists generally defined it as “something we can talk about in objective terms”. I’ve heard this response before, and I think it’s a common cause of misunderstanding between atheists and theists. I would point out the following: claiming to have objectively meaningful terms or conditions – within an otherwise subjective system of morality – is completely different than having an objective system of morality.

Using the analogy of baseball: the fact that 3 strikes = 1 out (objectively) doesn’t make the game any less subjective as a man-made invention. If enough people decided that a strikeout should require 4 strikes, and successfully changed the rules, then the 3-strike rule would no longer be an objectively meaningful condition. The “rules”, then, were never anything more than a man-made invention supported by the majority opinion. Viewed more broadly, they were never really objective at all.

Contrast this with, say, the mass of the electron. It won’t ever change based on human popular opinion. A truly objective system of morality – from the theist’s perspective – will look much more like the mass of the electron than the rules of baseball.

The largest group of respondents denied objective morality yet disagreed with the final part of my question. Most of these responses argued that morality – while not objective – was nonetheless universal and logically defensible. This almost seems to be a contradiction of terms, particularly from those who attempt to ground morality on an empathy-based code of behavior. There are numerous holes in the empathy-based model that I won’t go into here…but our first question must be, “Can an empathy-based moral code truly be universally applied, while remaining consistent with the evolutionary goals demanded by a materialist’s worldview?” We might then go on to discuss specific issues – such as eugenics or the economic cost of caring for the sick and elderly.

8. In what terms do you define the value of human life? Is the life of a human child more or less valuable, for example, than that of an endangered species of primate?

- Life is precious, since it’s the only one we get
- Value is based on our ability to “experience”
- No definition is completely logically consistent
- Human life transcends value
- Our value is defined as our value to others
- It’s a personal/subjective decision (4)
- Human value is self-evident
- Human value is based on empathy for our own species

The responses to the first question were highly diverse. I summarized them as best I could…but as you can see, there weren’t any major trends. All of these answers obviously differ considerably from the Christian view, which holds that life is valuable because we are created in the image of a loving God.

Only two respondent addressed the second question. One claimed that it “depends on the child”, while the other claimed that the human child was more valuable than the endangered primate.

9. Much attention has been given to alleged cognitive biases and “wishful thinking” contributing to religious belief. Do you believe that similar biases (for example, the desire for moral autonomy) play a role in religious nonbelief? 

- Yes (5)
- No, or mostly no (4)
- Unsure
- No clear response 

…If not, what specifically makes atheism immune to these influences?

- Lack of belief is the default
- Morality is inherently autonomous
- No clear response (2)
- Not applicable (7)

With this question, I was really just curious to see how honest people were being with themselves.

10. Do you believe religion (speaking generally) has had a net positive or a net negative effect on humanity.

- Net positive
- Net negative (6)
- Depends on the religion; net negative for the Abrahamic religions
- Unsure, or neutral (3)

…If the latter, how do you explain the prevalence of religion in evolutionary terms?

- Religion has evolutionary benefits, despite having a net negative effect on humanity
- Religious belief probably isn’t genetic, so it can’t be bred out (2)
- Religion survives through the intervention of man, particularly those who benefit from religion
- No explanation offered (3)
- Not applicable (4)

The majority of respondents felt that religion has had a net negative effect on humanity. Several respondents offered evolutionary explanations for how religion could have survived…but I remain extremely skeptical that any of these could account for the overwhelming prevalence of religion across cultures and continents. To quote CS Lewis: “If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.”

11. Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?

- Yes, given the chance of success and the impact to others
- Yes, since these risks could be evolutionarily selected for
- Depends on the situation (6)
- No (3)

I have to give some credit to the 3 respondents who took their medicine like men and answered “no”. Given atheism, it would seem utterly irrational to risk one’s life (the only one we get!) in order to save someone outside of the family or the tribe. The atheist might still FEEL that this is “the right thing to do” – but that feeling cannot be defended RATIONALLY within his worldview.

As a Christian, I can rationally defend why I ought to risk my life to save a stranger. I am called to emulate the example set forth by Jesus, who not only risked, but sacrificed his life for my own sake. I am taught that my soul is eternal, so my existence doesn’t come to an abrupt end when I unsuccessfully leap into a river trying to save someone who’s drowning. I can also follow the examples of the countless Christian martyrs who have cheerfully sacrificed their lives in order to serve others and further God’s kingdom.

12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true?

- Would follow (3)
- Wouldn’t follow (4)
- It would depend on how this truth was revealed (2)
- Christianity can’t be true (2)

…What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Christian life?

- Adjusting wouldn’t be that difficult; would eagerly welcome knowing that Christianity was true
- Trying to convince myself that the God of the Bible is deserving of worship (2)
- No clear response, or not applicable (8)

Most respondents included a statement about having difficulty following a God that they perceive as a moral monster. I think this is really unfortunate. I suspect that much of this perceived barrier has to do with how God is portrayed on reddit/r/atheism (where the majority of respondents came from). Whether it’s links to misleading websites, out-of-context OT verses, or malicious and sarcastic internet memes, reddit/r/atheism doesn’t exactly paint a fair or accurate picture of God’s character.

I would only implore these respondents to read the Bible in its entirety – with a fair and open mind.

UPDATE: Since the publication of this post, additional responses have been written here.

About these ads

39 thoughts on “Twelve Questions to Ask an Atheist: The Responses

  1. I think it’s great that you’re willing to invest this much time in reaching out and trying to have a logical (and, as you say, civil) discussion of the ideas with others who don’t currently agree with you.

  2. Reblogged this on catholicboyrichard and commented:
    AS YOU READ THIS, take the quiz yourself and give me some responses too, I will be sure to pass them on to my great brother in Christ Matt…

  3. You shouldn’t be surprised by the diversity of responses you got. Imagine if you set out a series of questions for theists. You might draw respondents ranging from Sufi s, to Biblical literalists, to adherents of George Berkeley, to Islamic fundamentalists. Obviously, you would get a variety of answers to your questions, some sophisticated, some crude, some simply hostile.
    Some of your questions have questionable premises. For instance, the third and fourth presume the validity of concepts which are based on observation bias. I know that some still try to defend them, but the defenses offered always run into the same problem you do with “irrationality”. You wish to define it in terms of its converse, and the definition you seem to imply for the converse is: rationality is the stuff that a mind produces. You can certainly define your premise into existence like this, but your subsequent argument is then based on an assertion.
    This brings things back to the Kalam argument, or more properly the Contingency argument. You set that out in the first question and have hit on the the underlying problem with the entire enterprise in the rhetorical question you offer at the end of your response to the responses.
    These cosmological arguments make a space for a god as an uncaused cause or non-contingent entity, but they do not demand such. Philosophical systems such as Taoism have been based on very similar arguments without reference to a conscious entity as the ground substance. Those who wish to claim such an entity do so based merely on an assertion of faith, as you imply in your rhetorical question. I would reject that assertion merely on the basis of parsimony – which I faithfully assert is marginally stronger than mere assertion:).
    I think that you will find all the subsequent discussion of moral realism and the other issues your questions allude to circles back to this prime point of contention. You won’t resolve that, but I think you can get something from the fact that your entire conceptual framework rests on this kind of foundation.The point to be had is: pay attention to what’s in front of you first and don’t take yourself too seriously. If you want a point of convergence, that’s it.

    • “Those who wish to claim such an entity do so based merely on an assertion of faith, as you imply in your rhetorical question.”

      Not *merely* on an assertion of faith. By no means! Faith isn’t something that’s simply asserted (at least not for myself). It’s something that’s supported by reason, and arrived at in light of philosophical considerations, historical evidence, personal religious experiences, etc.

    • Many of the accusations made against God in the responses simply cannot be supported by a fair reading of the entire Bible.

    • By fair, I mean: “a reading that honestly seeks to understand the intended meaning of the text” – as opposed to a reading where one projects his/her own opinions and prejudices onto the text.

    • “By fair, I mean: “a reading that honestly seeks to understand the intended meaning of the text” – as opposed to a reading where one projects his/her own opinions and prejudices onto the text.”

      The problem is, you do that too. Everyone does. Even changing the language alters the inherent connotations of certain scriptural elements.

      And one could argue that prophets and biblical figures themselves (and later, translators) projected their own opinions and prejudices onto the text. You could argue that the bible has an inherent sinful human bias. What, then, protects the bible from this? Would you then maintain that there is a divine forcefield protecting the bible from corruption? Clearly this is not the case, as suspect translations and early differences of opinions about the canon demonstrate. So what then? How does one determine what is a “fair reading”?

    • “The problem is, you do that too. Everyone does.”

      The real issue is one’s motive: are we honestly seeking to understand the true meaning of the text, or have we already decided what we think of it? It’s a question of exegesis vs. eisegesis.

      Obviously different people will interpret different passages slightly differently. But you’ll actually find that Christians who adhere to the primacy of Scripture – regardless of the branch or denomination – have reached remarkably similar conclusions on the overwhelming majority of doctrinal issues.

    • “But you’ll actually find that Christians who adhere to the primacy of Scripture – regardless of the branch or denomination – have reached remarkably similar conclusions on the overwhelming majority of doctrinal issues.”

      I don’t think that’s remarkable at all. Rather than “reaching similar conclusions” in an independent manner, most mainstream denominations are descended from the same tree. Post-Nicene, Diet-of-Worms early Catholic Church. The creed and canon was already solidified by the time significant branching started to occur.

      A modern reader, with zero preconceptions from indoctrination either way, but find the whole thing puzzling. Animal sacrifice? Original sin? Rib-woman? A narrative that requires new covenant revision in which God splits part of himself into a man and then lets it die as a sacrifice? A just God that almost loses His temper until Moses actually has to remind Him that He made a promise to be nice and not flood Earth?

      I had a friend who grew up totally secular that decided to read the Bible and the Quran. He was never much of a Dawkinsite, just grew up without God. He found the Bible totally mystifying, and the Quran angry/sociopathic.

      So I don’t think a “fair” reading would quite go the way you want it to. Attribution of intentionality to invisible agents may be natural (and evolutionarily beneficial!) for many, but believing many of the specific, strange non-sequiturs in the Bible requires priming. In other words, it requires the “intellectual infrastructure” I mentioned in my blog post about belief. For those who don’t have that, the Bible is a very odd volume, full of moral and supernatural lessons that have more of a similarity to animist pagan stories than the mostly sensical, scientific world we currently live in.

    • “A modern reader, with zero preconceptions from indoctrination either way, but find the whole thing puzzling…I had a friend who grew up totally secular that decided to read the Bible and the Quran. He was never much of a Dawkinsite, just grew up without God. He found the Bible totally mystifying, and the Quran angry/sociopathic. So I don’t think a “fair” reading would quite go the way you want it to.”

      A modern reader very well might find the whole thing puzzling…but I would argue that this is largely BECAUSE of their preconceptions. A modern reader might have “zero preconceptions” concerning the Bible itself, but his outlook on faith, reason, and the supernatural will have likely been shaped by the prevailing attitudes of modern Western culture. Indoctrination takes many forms.

      It’s true that not everyone who reads the Bible will react the same way…but that’s an obvious consequence of man’s free will. One’s reaction, in my view, is a *decision*. It might be influenced by his/her upbringing and preconceptions, but it isn’t ultimately *determined* by them.

      I would also cite as a counterexample (drawing in part from my experiences in the mission field) the countless “modern readers” who *have* read the Bible and converted to Christianity. A fair reading won’t “go quite the way [I] want it” in every case…but the historical growth of Christianity – and the rapid, continued growth in much of Asia and the Southern Hemisphere – shows that it’s been effective on a wide scale.

    • I don’t think one could consider lack of experience with supernatural acts to constitute any sort of western indoctrination.

      I think in that case it’s very easy for Christians to resort to a persecution complex around themselves, framing “The World” (or the West, or whatever) as a source of evil/secular indoctrination. In this view, people who have grown up without God have grown up being influenced by “The World”. It’s a very easy, dismissive way of insinuating that since a person has not been raised Christian (or normalized to Christianity), they must therefore be biased or have been indoctrinated against it.

      Like I said, there just isn’t any room for reasonable disbelief in this worldview. A reaction that results in disbelief will always be rationalized as a “decision” that is the product of evil or misguided influences. So it seems to me that you’ve already defined “fair reading” in terms that are favorable to your own views, because there just isn’t any sort of “fair reading” that could ever rule against Christianity. Because, you know, indoctrination and stuff.

      So I just can’t swallow the idea that a fair reading which finds the Bible wanting is automatically a decision against God, as you have implied. That’s not a “fair reading”. That’s called “my way or hell”.

    • “I don’t think one could consider lack of experience with supernatural acts to constitute any sort of western indoctrination.”

      I wasn’t referring to a lack of experience with the supernatural, but an unwillingness to consider the possibility of the supernatural.

      “In this view, people who have grown up without God have grown up being influenced by “The World”. It’s a very easy, dismissive way of insinuating that since a person has not been raised Christian (or normalized to Christianity), they must therefore be biased or have been indoctrinated against it.”

      We’ve all grown up being influenced by “the World” – myself included. One of the biggest problems with American Christianity, in my opinion, is our tendency to “scramble for a natural explanation” to any and every event. This isn’t something unique to non-believers, by any means. I think it’s *realistic* – not unreasonable – to address the fact that we’re *all* influenced by these kinds of prejudices.

      “Like I said, there just isn’t any room for reasonable disbelief in this worldview.”

      I say this as respectfully as possible…but in all our interactions over the last year or so, I’ve yet to see any room for reasonable *belief* in your own.

      “So it seems to me that you’ve already defined “fair reading” in terms that are favorable to your own views, because there just isn’t any sort of “fair reading” that could ever rule against Christianity.”

      What did I say, specifically, that led you to reach this conclusion? I believe I DID say: “It’s true that not everyone who reads the Bible will react the same way…but that’s an obvious consequence of man’s free will.”

      So can a person read the Bible objectively and fair-mindedly, and *still* choose not to believe? Absolutely. I hope that clears things up a little. :)

    • “So can a person read the Bible objectively and fair-mindedly, and *still* choose not to believe?”

      If I take that sentence as an integrated whole (that is to say, “still choose not to believe” is a logical consequent of the first part of the sentence), then God can send a person to hell for being objective.

      But I don’t think you meant that. I notice you’re dividing the sentence up there, to indicate that the decision to not believe is separate from a fair reading. But you’re going out of the domain of discussion. Our discussion did not involve separating rejection decisions from fair-minded reading. Our discussion has been about rejection being possible as a *consequence* of a fair reading. In other words,

      Fair Reading->Rejection

      Not

      Fair Reading^Rejection

      If rejection is possible as a consequence of fair-minded reading, then God cannot justifiably kill the rejector, since he made his rejection on a rational basis. If rejection is not possible as a consequence of a fair-minded reading, then you’ve already decided what a “fair-minded” reading entails.

      So, I hope I have answered your question “What did I say, specifically, that led you to reach this conclusion?”

    • “see your response to keithnoback, which answered only one part of his response and cited the very “philosophical considerations” he was disputing”

      keithnoback said the following: “These cosmological arguments make a space for a god as an uncaused cause or non-contingent entity, but they do not demand such.” He didn’t appear to be *disputing* the validity of those arguments, but rather dismissing them “merely on the basis of parsimony”. So my response to him only addressed one sentence, which I believe misrepresented the meaning of “faith” held by most believers.

      “If I take that sentence as an integrated whole (that is to say, “still choose not to believe” is a logical consequent of the first part of the sentence), then God can send a person to hell for being objective…But I don’t think you meant that.”

      I did. God can judge someone for rejecting Him. Your statement here seems to imply that “being objective” somehow means that one *isn’t making a decision*. I reject that assertion.

      It’s also evident from Scripture that God will reveal himself to those who truly and passionately seek after Him (which might involve much more than just an objective reading of the Bible). From Matthew 7:7 – “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

    • It should also be noted that all of your arguments (above) seem to be based on the *conclusion* that the Bible should be rejected.

      Out of curiosity:

      Do you believe that a fair reading can lead someone to objectively decide that the Bible is true?

      -If so, then how do you reconcile this with your sweeping claims about Biblical inaccuracies?

      -If not, then haven’t you already decided the meaning of “fair reading” in such a way that it agrees with you? Is there any room for reasonable belief in this worldview?

    • “He didn’t appear to be *disputing* the validity of those arguments, but rather dismissing them “merely on the basis of parsimony”.”

      He was criticizing those philosophical arguments because they required a faith assertion, which means that they do little more than beg the question. Then your response was that they weren’t only an assertion of faith, because faith is supported by, among other things, “philosophical considerations”, much of which he was disputing because of the faith-based premises. Circular.

      “I did. God can judge someone for rejecting Him. Your statement here seems to imply that “being objective” somehow means that one *isn’t making a decision*. I reject that assertion.”

      They’re making the decision on an objective basis. Not subjective. Not “I want to disobey”. They weighed the Bible objectively and found it wanting. If God can judge someone for exercising objectivity, then there is little room for reason or objectivity in your worldview.

      “It’s also evident from Scripture that God will reveal himself to those who truly and passionately seek after Him.”

      And why should someone who was never normalized to the supernatural “seek after him”? Why is “seeking after him” even an option if one cannot find evidence for the basic premise? Being given evidence only upon seeking it is a bit circular.

      “Do you believe that a fair reading can lead someone to objectively decide that the Bible is true?”

      Parts of it. If they are normalized to supernatural ideas, then a fair reader could find parts true. For example, personal revelation could convince a person that God is real, or that Jesus died for their sins. I’ve seen it before. But in order to accept the whole narrative, a fair reader would have to resolve a variety of contradictions and inaccuracies.

      “If so, then how do you reconcile this with your sweeping claims about Biblical inaccuracies?”

      No need to “reconcile” them. A fair reader would see that the Bible has many inaccuracies. Ranging from factually problematic assertions that the world is flat, to the Flood, to the Exodus, to contradictions like Jesus’ Mark 10:11 vs Paul’s 1 Cor. 7:27-28. Or the total exclusion of the sheep-and-goats parable from subsequent Pauline faith-only doctrine.

      On the other hand, if one decides to omit these problems (or resolve them someway), there’s still enough material to accept the basis premise of the Jesus Narrative, provided that one accepts the supernatural premise on the basis of, say, personal revelation (I say this only because I’ve never talked to any mentally fit person who has seen an external, physical supernatural act).

      I think the supernatural premise is the sticking point. If one can accept it, then belief in parts of the Bible is not only reasonable, but natural. If no personal evidence has been found for it, then rejection is likewise not only reasonable, but natural.

      To conclude, I think a fair reading would find true and false bits. Certainly some of the Davidic, Occupation, and Jesuit histories are correct, or have at least a basis in fact. But whether one considers the “true” bits to include the supernatural is dependent on whether one accepts the supernatural premise. And under no circumstances do I think a fair reading would conclude the literal, absolute truth of the entire Bible.

    • “Then your response was that they weren’t only an assertion of faith, because faith is supported by, among other things, “philosophical considerations”, much of which he was disputing because of the faith-based premises.”

      “Much of which”? He was talking about one specific argument…

      Would it have been better if I’d said “other philosophical considerations”?

      “If God can judge someone for exercising objectivity, then there is little room for reason or objectivity in your worldview.”

      Let’s imagine a father tells his 14-year-old son, “Seat belts make you more safe. I want you to always wear a seat belt when riding in cars with friends.”

      -The boy might reject his father’s instructions *subjectively*, out of defiance for his father’s authority.

      -The boy might, instead, reject his father’s instructions *objectively*, because he’s read a few misguided articles on the internet and *genuinely believes that seat belts make a person less safe*. (I had a friend in high school who believed this)

      Either way, the father is right to ground his son for disobeying. The boy can’t argue that this isn’t fair punishment on the grounds that he “weighed the evidence for seat belts and found it wanting”.

      “And why should someone who was never normalized to the supernatural “seek after him”? Why is “seeking after him” even an option if one cannot find evidence for the basic premise?”

      Romans 1:20

      “I say this only because I’ve never talked to any mentally fit person who has seen an external, physical supernatural act.”

      My father has. I’m pretty confident he’s mentally fit.

  4. Job well done! The Bible is my favorite book and I have read the old Testament 2 times,, then various books in it many times; have read New Testament so many times I don’t remember. Honestly, the Old Testament is difficult to get through in so many places-some of it is still not my favorite reading, though I do love many of it’s books. What I love is the more you read, you find yourself saying, “Oh….I get it now.” Lights go on and new understanding comes in. It is the perfect manual for living. There isn’t a current scenario that isn’t covered in the book. It’s amazing.
    THANK you for your dedication to the questions and the responses. Very, vert interesting.

    • “What I love is the more you read, you find yourself saying, “Oh….I get it now.” Lights go on and new understanding comes in. It is the perfect manual for living. There isn’t a current scenario that isn’t covered in the book. It’s amazing.”

      Quite true! I’ve found that verses can speak to me in dramatically different ways when read months/years later.

  5. Pingback: Flotsam & Jetsam (7/18) | the Ink Slinger

  6. Pingback: God, Science, Reason…Are They Compatible? | Lame Housewife

  7. Pingback: The Christian (Theist) Challenge « Confessions Of A YEC

  8. Pingback: Answering some questions posed to athiests | The Heretical Philosopher

  9. Pingback: Twelve Questions to Ask an Atheist: The Responses | anglicanboyrichard

  10. Pingback: Ten Questions to Ask a Christian: My Responses | Well Spent Journey

  11. Pingback: Answering the Well Spent Journey Atheist Questionnaire | The BitterSweet End

  12. Pingback: Twelve Questions to Ask an Atheist | Well Spent Journey

  13. Pingback: Saccades and Smooth Pursuits (Fodder for Your Next Dinner Party) | Well Spent Journey

  14. The problem I have with this is your basic assumption that belief in science translates to atheism. I disagree with that completely. I am an atheist because I believe the Bible to be written by man, full of contradictions and is almost wholly based on older religions that follow the same story line (virgin birth, ascension to heaven etc…).

    I agree science doesn’t have all the answers but that is because no proof is no proof. Once answers are found, they published with authenticated results. And even then they continue to question. Because things and understanding can change.

    How do you know your faith/religion is THE correct one? Lots of people believe lots of different things but there’s no proof you or they are right. You just believe it. And so do they.

    Do I know where all this came from? No. But I believe the quest of man is to find the truth. With real information, not stories from the past.

    And for clarity, I do not deny you or anyone your faith as long as no one gets hurt along the way. I just happen to disagree that your view is valid but I completely accept your right to have that. And no, I am not being a jerk like you need my permission. I just happen to believe in a free society.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I’ll try to be brief, but I did want to respond to just a couple things you said.

      First, in response to the Bible being “full of contradictions” and “based on older religions that follow the same story line”: could you give some examples? I hear these claims frequently, but have yet to be shown any specific examples that would give me reason to doubt the Bible’s authenticity.

      Second, in response to your question about how I know Christianity to be the “correct” religion: I actually agree with you that Christianity can’t be “proven” – at least, not in the empirical sense. I’ve written quite a bit about the proof/evidence issue quite a bit, and I think this post explains my position pretty well: http://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/alister-mcgrath-on-the-demand-for-proof/ (and I would also make the claim that one’s faith can be “validated”, or “inwardly confirmed” – after the fact – by the Holy Spirit).

      Despite the inability of ANY religion or belief system to be truly “proven”, I believe that the arguments for Christianity are the *most compelling*. I’m still working on updating the list, but I’ve collected a sampling of some of the better arguments for Christianity here: http://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/evidence-for-christianity/

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts! (And I do very much share your belief in a free society, in which we can have these kinds of discussions openly.)

  15. 1. Does the universe have a beginning that requires a cause? If so, what was this cause?

    This is a fragmented derivative of an argument for God which suffers from logical fallacy. It looks like this, roughly:

    1.) Everything that exists must have a cause.
    2.) The universe must have a cause.
    3.) Nothing can cause itself.
    4.) The universe cannot cause itself.
    5.) Something outside of the universe must have caused the universe.
    6.) God exists.

    This is faulty logic because it assumes that God is unique as an exception to the first assertion, rather than the universe, which is unnecessary (a fallacy known as passing the buck; if it has to stop somewhere, the universe requires the least assumptions). In response to your followup question, therefore, the answer is that alternative explanations are less faith-based than religious ones.

    2. Is materialistic determinism compatible with the intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics?

    l0l i’m not a determinist and i don’t care.

    3. How do you account for the physical parameters of the universe (the gravitational constant, the strong nuclear force, the mass and charge of a proton, etc.) being finely tuned for the existence of stars, planets, and life?

    There was this idea summed up nicely by Douglas Adams, who stated something like, it’s not that the universe is a perfect fit for life, it’s that life is a perfect fit for the universe. This applies to all the others. Therefore, it’s nnot that the physical parameters of the universe are the only ones that would have supported all these things, it’s that they’re the ones that did.

    4. Why is the human mind naturally fluent in the language of mathematics, and how do you explain the eerie, seemingly unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the laws of nature?

    If by “naturally fluent” you mean we’ve had a love affair with mathematics for about 6000 years (a fragment of our time on the planet), and with mathematics with no immediate utilitarian arithmetic goals for substantially less. At any rate, I would argue that mathematics developed specifically to fit the needs of description of the natural world. In response to your follow-up, it’s not true that everyone can grasp mathematical concepts which have an importance to the structure of nature, so the followup fails to establish the question’s premise.

    5. Do you believe that DNA repair mechanisms, catalytically perfect enzymes, and phenomena such as substrate channeling are best explained by naturalism? If so, why are rational human scientists and engineers so woefully incapable of imitating the precision and complexity of cellular machinery that (presumably) arose via strictly irrational processes?

    Size is entirely relative. That complex functions formed on a small scale is not surprising; nor is it surprising that scientists would find it difficult to imitate the precision and complexity of something the size of a cell, which I believe is in the order of ten-trillionth the average person’s size.

    There’s a misunderstanding here in what it means to be irrational or rational. Irrational is purely unguided, but evolution is guided by the fitness of an organism to its environment (therefore, by natural selection) and by sexual selection. Evolution has a predictable and therefore rational process, but is not a rational process in terms of intellectual activity.

    6. Do you believe free will to be illusory? If so, can the punishment of crimes be ethically justified (and does the word “ethical” have any real meaning)?

    No.

    7. Does objective morality exist? If so, what is its source…and how do you define “objective”? If not, do you concede that concepts like “justice”, “fairness”, and “equality” are nothing more than social fads, and that acts of violence and oppression must be regarded merely as differences of opinion?

    This is a loaded question for a moral relativist such as myself, as well as a fallacy of excluded middle. If by objective morality you mean a completely objective moral standard which does not fail morally and ethically, no. If the alternative is as suggested, it’s also not true. Relative morality simply means that morality is relative to the situation, to some extent, not that concepts like “justice,” etc. are social fads, or violence is a difference of opinion. In other words, this is not a condition which must be either correct or incorrect.

    8. In what terms do you define the value of human life? Is the life of a human child more or less valuable, for example, than that of an endangered species of primate?

    I value the life of the organism which is capable of higher thought.

    9. Much attention has been given to alleged cognitive biases and “wishful thinking” contributing to religious belief. Do you believe that similar biases (for example, the desire for moral autonomy) play a role in religious nonbelief? If not, what specifically makes atheism immune to these influences?

    I don’t believe that nonbelief is immune to cognitive bias or magical thinking.

    10. Do you believe religion (speaking generally) has had a net positive or a net negative effect on humanity? If the latter, how do you explain the prevalence of religion in evolutionary terms?

    Net positive.

    11. Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?*

    Rationality is an abstract concept developed by humans. If the decision stems from an underlying body of personal principles, it is always rational.

    12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true? What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Christian life?*

    I have intuitively made the decision that I do not believe in God, and am totally secure in that belief (as well as the belief that the question of a God’s existence is essentially unsolvable), so this question is irrelevant.

  16. Pingback: Atheist Survey Results (n=23) | Well Spent Journey

  17. ” The most noteworthy finding here, I think, was the diversity of responses. The predominant theme seemed to be that we don’t know whether or not the universe requires a cause…or what that cause might have been. Several respondents suggested that this lack of knowledge shouldn’t be particularly troubling. For those who did make more clear assertions, I would be curious to ask: “Are alternative explanations any less faith-based than the belief that God created the universe?””

    That is because their is no such thing as an imaginably comprehendable, at this point in time right now, origin to time, creation, and existence in and of itself. God is as much of an origin for this as the big bang, or anything we can think of. The closest we can come to for an origin like this is an infinite chain of cause and effect, making the universe incomprehensibly comprehensible. Therefore, within this chain, everything is origin to the next thing that we can call a universe, which will probably give us a lot of origins to choose from. As far as your question about god, faith, alternative explanation. Two words… Big Bang. We have a ton of evidence for that. However it doesn’t matter cause if it didn’t I think the point more or less would be that existence isn’t evidence for god… It’s evidence of itself, nothing more, nothing less.

    ” I was somewhat surprised that only two people came right out and said, “no”. Two other people suggested that determinism is still compatible because quantum effects are typically only seen on the micro-level…but it remains unclear to me why materialistic determinism should grant an exemption to protons, electrons, etc.”
    Are you saying they are incompatible because those things on a microscopic scale are unpredictable? Like I said in my response to your question, I’m not well educated on this so I don’t know if I can give you a satisfactory answer, but if I’m not mistaken then hopefully this answer helps. For me secular determinism (not a big philosophy mind you) for me has more to do with stating that everything is determined by something and less to do with “destiny” as I don’t believe in destiny, nor that the future is written in stone. If something is determined by chance, to me that aids my secular determinism of which probably extends to materialistic determinism.

    ” Responses to this question generally fell into two groups – either insisting that the universe’s finely-tuned parameters don’t mean anything (without much elaboration), or else citing some variation of the anthropic principle.

    The strong anthropic principle – at least in my view – is really just a non-answer to the question It states that the universe MUST be this way, but doesn’t really move beyond this assertion to address WHY complex/sentient creatures exist. The weak anthropic principle initially seems much easier to swallow, but it requires the existence of multiple universes (or even infinite universes) that cannot be measured, observed, verified, or falsified. If this kind of proposal doesn’t violate Occam’s Razor, then what does? For interested readers, this is an issue that I discussed in a previous post.”
    Well I pointed out that your question has the error that if X leads to Y, it had to be intentional, and explained that logical error. Yes, our universes perfectly fit for making planets, stars, and life, if it did anything else, then you would be asking the sane question of how it was able to do that. That question is like “things logically lead from one thing to another explain that atheists!”. What’s your point? That the gravitational constant and all that jazz should not allow our universe to make stars, planets, and life? Basically you are asking us to explain how, our universe reflects the logic it follows. One responder put it best. What would really be puzzling is existing in a hypothetical universe that shouldn’t allow you to exist, not a universe that does.

    ” Several people suggested that mathematics is only explanatory, and isn’t actually a fundamental characteristic of nature. I would strongly urge these readers to read Eugene Wigner’s paper (the link I used in the initial question).

    The largest group (5 of the 11) argued that I was working on a faulty premise, and that the human mind ISN’T naturally fluent in the language of mathematics. But this argument really doesn’t hold any water. Just because many (or even most) people are poor at mathematics, doesn’t mean that our minds lack an ability to grasp mathematical concepts. Virtually everyone is capable of some degree of mastery, even if it’s simple addition; and the very fact that mathematics derived by humans is successful is really all that’s needed to establish the question’s premise.

    My real goal with this question was to get my atheist friends to ponder the implications of the following quote, from Pope Benedict XVI: “If nature is really structured with a mathematical language and mathematics invented by man can manage to understand it, this demonstrates something extraordinary. The objective structure of the universe and the intellectual structure of the human being coincide.””

    Or maybe the intellect of the human being coincides understanding the universe because we evolved in a universe? The question being equivalent to with your point being. “how are we able to understand the only thing we should be capable of understanding?”

    ” For those who argued that a lack of knowledge doesn’t mean God is the answer: I agree that we shouldn’t look at these sorts of topics with a “God of the gaps” mentality. I would point out, however, that many people are all-to-willing to play a game of naturalism of the gaps” when it comes to particularly intricate systems like those that I mentioned.
    For those who argued that science is still too young for us to replicate the precision and complexity that occurs on a molecular level: You may very well be correct. I asked specifically about DNA repair mechanisms, catalytically perfect enzymes, and substrate channeling because I’m trained as a biochemist. Others with my background would probably be less hesitant to explain these away with naturalism…but at the very least, I encourage you to research them and consider the issue with as much open-mindedness as you can muster. ”

    Because we know nature exists, in fact arguably everything is part of nature. If it is within the universe it is natural, no? Or is the universe unnatural? Every discovery we made had to do with nature, thus suggesting nature is a part of everything. What’s your alternative, supernatural, of which we haven’t the slightest evidence for?

    ” For those who argued that evolution isn’t irrational: This really depends on how one defines “irrational”. For the purposes of this question, I define it as the lack of any source of higher intelligence (or conscious will). One could perhaps imagine evolutionary processes RESEMBLING something rational – or define evolutionary principles as being rational to us – but this isn’t what I was talking about.”
    If that is your definition of rational, then why should we be “rational”, if that is really all you meant be rational? If you mean something more than that as rational, elaborate.

    ” I was very surprised that only one respondent clearly stated that free will is illusory, since that tends to be the answer I receive most often from atheists. Maybe this is just a sampling error, but athe very least it highlights the importance of knowing what specific people believe about an issue.

    Many of those who stated that the punishment of crimes CAN be ethically justified appealed to some form of utilitarian ethics. For these people: I would be curious to hear about your grounding for utilitarian ethics. Given materialism, what reason – aside from your personal opinions – do we have for valuing happiness/pleasure over pain/suffering? Can we really say that happiness/pleasure is more valuable to a species from an evolutionary point of view?”

    Yes… Because if we are happy, then we will value our Lives more, thus motivating our survival.

    ” Those who held that objective morality exists generally defined it as “something we can talk about in objective terms”. I’ve heard this response before, and I think it’s a common cause of misunderstanding between atheists and theists. I would point out the following: claiming to have objectively meaningful terms or conditions –within an otherwise subjective system of morality – is completely different than having an objective system of morality.

    Using the analogy of baseball: the fact that 3 strikes = 1 out (objectively) doesn’t make the game any less subjective as a man-made invention. If enough people decided that a strikeout should require 4 strikes, and successfully changed the rules, then the 3-strike rule would no longer be an objectively meaningful condition. The “rules”, then, were never anything more than a man-made invention supported by the majority opinion. Viewed more broadly, they were never really objective at all.

    Contrast this with, say, the mass of the electron. It won’t ever change based on human popular opinion. A truly objective system of morality – from the theist’s perspective – will look much more like the mass of the electron than the rules of baseball.

    The largest group of respondents denied objective morality yet disagreed with the final part of my question. Most of these responses argued that morality – while not objective – was nonetheless universal and logically defensible. This almost seems to be a contradiction of terms, particularly from those who attempt to ground morality on an empathy-based code of behavior. There are numerous holes in the empathy-based model that I won’t go into here…but our first question must be, “Can an empathy-based moral code truly be universally applied, while remaining consistent with the evolutionary goals demanded by a materialist’s worldview?” We might then go on to discuss specific issues – such as eugenics or the economic cost of caring for the sick and elderly.”
    Logic is compatible with subjective opinions, if I find a candy bar delicious, and I want to eat something delicious, logically to fulfill that desire I should eat the candy bar, (after weighing all the pros and cons of course)?

    ” The responses to the first question were highly diverse. I summarized them as best I could…but as you can see, there weren’t any major trends. All of these answers obviously differ considerably from the Christian view, which holds that life is valuable because we are created in the image of a loving God.

    Only two respondent addressed the second question. One claimed that it “depends on the child”, while the other claimed that the human child was more valuable than the endangered primate.”

    Human value is subjective for me.

    ” With this question, I was really just curious to see how honest people were being with themselves.”
    Well their is a lot of good that cones with not believing, as for myself, I see the claim of god as being the more optimistic stance, as who wouldn’t want an all powerful being to love you? That’s how I feel about that. As far as morality goes. I’ve always had a good amount of compassion and a good moral pcompass,so as far as morality goes, my lack of belief allowed me to objectively measure up secular philosophies leading me to moral nihilism if which was a little hard to digest fooled into the way of thinking that morality has to be objective to matter.

    ” The majority of respondents felt that religion has had a net negative effect on humanity. Several respondents offered evolutionary explanations for how religion could have survived…but I remain extremely skeptical that any of these could account for the overwhelming prevalence of religion across cultures and continents. To quote CS Lewis: “If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.””

    I think that without religion it would have taken a muc more significant amount of time, to get on the path of becoming civilized. Also on an individual by individual case by case basis, religion is a crutch for people, it has helped a lot of people in surviving. However it holds back our species from its true potential.

    ” I have to give some credit to the 3 respondents who took their medicine like men and answered “no”. Given atheism, it would seem utterly irrational to risk one’s life (the only one we get!) in order to save someone outside of the family or the tribe. The atheist might still FEEL that this is “the right thing to do” – but that feeling cannot be defended RATIONALLY within his worldview.

    As a Christian, I can rationally defend why I ought to risk my life to save a stranger. I am called to emulate the example set forth by Jesus, who not only risked, but sacrificed his life for my own sake. I am taught that my soul is eternal, so my existence doesn’t come to an abrupt end when I unsuccessfully leap into a river trying to save someone who’s drowning. I can also follow the examples of the countless Christian martyrs who have cheerfully sacrificed their lives in order to serve others and further God’s kingdom.”

    How do you define rational? If it is irrational to risk my life for a stranger why is it rational to risk my life for a friend or family member? Furthermore, you HAVE to acknowledge your dislikes and likes as subjective, and my reasons behind saving a persons life is subjective, I’m getting the implication that is what makes it irrational, no? So, can you rationally defend why you eat food that you happen to like more often?

    ” Most respondents included a statement about having difficulty following a God that they perceive as a moral monster. I think this is really unfortunate. I suspect that much of this perceived barrier has to do with how God is portrayed on reddit/r/atheism (where the majority of respondents came from). Whether it’s links to misleading websites, out-of-context OT verses, or malicious and sarcastic internet memes, reddit/r/atheism doesn’t exactly paint a fair or accurate picture of God’s character.”

    No, more from the god Christians preach of and have preached of. Also majority of atheists used to be Christian or some other treligion before deconverting, thus a lot of them have read the bible AS a Christian. In fact a lot of atheists turned atheist after reading the bible.

  18. Very great post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve truly enjoyed browsing your weblog posts.
    In any case I’ll be subscribing for your feed and I am hoping you write
    again very soon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

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