Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Have You Heard These 10 Questions?

            I recently came across this posting claiming to pose “Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…” Incidentally, that quote there is the entirety of the introduction, and the “interesting conclusions,” it alludes to are never addressed at all. The post then goes on to list ten questions. So, shall we see if I, as an atheist, can truly, honestly, and really answer them?

1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?

             Okay, so right out of the gate, we can see that the poster isn’t taking this seriously. Is his claim really that atheists cannot honestly answer this question? The only possible way he could make that claim is to assume right off the bat that we’re lying no matter what we say. I would ordinarily have taken this as a sincere question, were it not for the author’s assertion that atheists cannot answer any of these honestly.

            But, to treat the question seriously, I became an atheist because I never had any real reason to believe in a god. My parents tried to convince me to believe in a version of the Christian one, and when I was young and more insecure I tried to believe for them. But it never really stuck. By my late teens, I had stopped trying to pretend I believed it.

2.       What happens when we die?

            Decomposition, mostly. Depending on circumstances, perhaps mummification or some other form of physical preservation. If we have loved ones, they will likely mourn for a time. Hopefully, they will carry positive effects from my influence on their lives, and will go on to be happy in their own right without me.

            I suppose, though, that the thrust of the question is more about what happens to us, by which I mean our thoughts, memories, and personalities. Well, so far as I know, they end. All that made me a person will be gone. I could be wrong about that, and I’m perfectly willing to change my mind should someone be able to demonstrate convincingly that something else happens. But I don’t have any reason to believe it yet.

3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

            If I’m wrong about the existence of a god, I’d be interested to know which one(s) I’m wrong about. But given that this list came from a Christian site, I assume the author is talking about Yahweh. And if I’m wrong about his existence, I still know nothing about what will happen to me because there are so many contradictory interpretations of what the Christian god proposes to do with us all that it just amounts to random guessing anyway. I suppose it’s possible I’ll go to hell, but it seems like such a remote and unknowable possibility that it’s just not worth rearranging the life I know I have over it.

4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?

            The same place you do: a combination of moral precepts taught to me when I was younger, my innate empathy for other people, and my observations and reasoning about the consequences of certain behaviors.

5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

            That depends on what you mean by “free.” Most interpretations of the Christian god suggest that we’re free to do what we want anyway. There’s just some ultimate reward/punishment system for those actions that is claimed to be perfect but is conveniently removed beyond the ability of any living person to ever verify that it functions. Many interpretations suggest that we are free to commit any atrocity whatsoever with absolute abandon, since the only determinant between eternal bliss or torment is asking God to handwave the badness away.

            Meanwhile, in the real world, there are consequences for our behavior. People don’t like getting murdered or raped, so they tend to fight back. And societies tend to set up systems of mutual support to help more people avoid having those things done to them and to punish the people who commit the crimes. Sure, they’re not perfect and the results aren’t always in perfect accord with the severity of the offenses, but at least everyone can see that they exist.

            Plus, I don’t know about the author, but I don’t want to murder or rape anyone. And I don’t necessarily expect to get rewarded for behaving decently, or carry around a load of resentment when I don’t get rewarded.

6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

            Because I choose to give it meaning. Because it means something to the people whose lives I affect. What more do you need?

7.       Where did the universe come from?

            I don’t know. I just have no reason to believe that it had to come from an infinitely powerful being who somehow doesn’t need to have come from anywhere, and who is obsessively interested in the sex lives of a miniscule percentage of the biological products of a single planet orbiting a single sun among the hundreds of billions present in a galaxy that is itself only one among hundreds of billions.

8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

            What about them? Thus far, I have little to suggest that any of these things are more than delusions, or unfounded interpretations of natural phenomena and unusual brain states. And since they are reported within pretty much every faith, they certainly aren’t evidence in favor of choosing any one religious belief over any other.

9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

            Okay, once again I can see that the author is not taking this seriously. He is making the claim that I cannot give an honest answer to a question about my opinion. Or he’s making a claim that I cannot have an opinion at all, which would be even more asinine. But, again, I will treat the question as if he had asked it in good faith.

            My view of Richard Dawkins is that he is highly intelligent, witty, well-spoken, a wonderful communicator of science (particularly biological evolution), but possibly a bit of a dick. I wouldn’t mind meeting him, but I suspect we wouldn’t choose to hang out with each other socially. I could be wrong.

            My view of Christopher Hitchens is that he was also highly intelligent, witty, and a great communicator. A bit more strident and intense than I’m comfortable with, and more politically hawkish than I’d like, but altogether I think we’re better off for having had him around than if we hadn’t. It’s a shame he died so young.

            I don’t really know enough about Sam Harris to have much of an opinion. On some subjects we seem to agree, and on some we don’t, but I haven’t invested a lot of time in getting to know about him.

            All of those opinions are subject to change. Also, I should point out, I don’t know a whole lot about any of those men beyond their public statements (and in some cases not even much about those). My atheism is in no way founded on what I think about any of them; I had already been an atheist for years before I ever heard any of their names or their arguments. Which kind of makes me wonder what the point is to this question in the first place. Does the author think atheism is founded on these people? Or that atheists are somehow obligated to support everything about these guys just because we happen to agree with them about the nonexistence of gods? If so, it just shows that he doesn’t really understand atheism or atheists.

10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

            If there is a God, why have no two societies independently discovered and worshipped the exact same one? And why is it that many religions, while they may feature a vast array of spiritual beings, don’t actually reference anything really identifiable as a god?

            People are curious and crave answers to their questions. People are fearful, and crave a sense of control over circumstances they don’t necessarily understand. People encounter situations for which they have no ready explanation all the time, and in the absence of the tools necessary to find the physical reasons they often default to superstitious ones. And people, especially children, are kind of wired to trust what other people tell them, especially if it’s expressed confidently. Religions also serve a socialization and organizational role that can be quite powerful. All of these are just universal parts of being human beings, so it’s hardly surprising that religions should be the outgrowth. It’s really, really not hard to think of reasons why religions would form in the absence of actual gods. But since I’m not an anthropologist, they’re pretty much just conjecture on my part.

            Incidentally, check out these guys. They’re an Amazon tribe that has no concept of a god or gods. Be careful with the word “every.”

            So that’s it. I’ve answered all ten questions. You’ll just have to take my word for it that I did so honestly. In many cases, the answers I provided here are just pocket notes versions of subjects I’ve covered elsewhere in this blog. If you’re unsatisfied with any of them, you’re welcome to ask for clarification; I’m happy to oblige.
            By the way, if you’re interested check out Godless Mom for another set of answers to the same questions. Her blog is where I first found out about this list, and this blog post is kind of my way of accepting her invitation to readers to give our own answers. Just be warned that she has a somewhat more colorful writing style than I do.

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