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 bold. Atheist 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?
– No (2)
– Don’t know (2)
– 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?
– 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)
– 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.