Questions from a Student

Over at Godless Mom, there are a set of questions posed to Godless Mom by a student over Twitter. There are essentially two sets of questions I like to address: those that are so steeped in assumptions that the interesting challenge is to unpick them and reveal the intentions of the author; and honest enquiring questions. These, I think, are the latter. They are polite and seem to not be steeped in trite assumptions and other tripe.

The Twitter student asked Godless Mom these questions to understand an atheist, and what better way to help someone understand than to inundate them with data. (Or, is that called omission by obscurity?) Anyway, I forwarded these questions to Godless Mom to pass on to the Twitter student in a more timely fashion. Nevertheless, and completely out of time, here are my answers.

  1. Why are you an atheist?

Atheism is a lack of belief the existence of a God. So, I don’t believe a God exists. This is different from believing God doesn’t exist. (Reasonably, being unconvinced of a claim does not convince you to the contrary.) A lot of the Gods other people have presented to me, the Gods of classical theism and major religions, I actually believe do not exist. This is because claims associated with them are contradicted by the evidence, else claims about the God are self-contradictory or incoherent.

However, there is a vague and flexible amassing of public philosophy that has sculpted a conveniently broad concept of a God. About these, I am both atheist and agnostic. This is because, although there isn’t a knock down argument against them, like their self-contradictions or contraventions of the physical evidence, there also isn’t evidence in their favour. As a general rule, people don’t believe things for which there is no evidence. If I say, for example, that I am actually a Minion (from Despicable Me) and that Kevin the Minion is based on me, you’d have little compelling evidence to contradict me, but that isn’t how knowledge works.

  1. Have you ever believed in a Higher Power?

Not late enough in my life for it to mean anything. I strongly suspect there is a point in early life where children don’t draw distinctions between fact and fiction. My dad used to read the Brer Rabbit books to me and I don’t remember believing they were fiction. But I also don’t recall thinking they were factual. At some point in my primary school years, I think the idea of a God existed in some similar dimension of amassed things I was uncritically aware of.

I remember playing the childish game of blaming weather on the various recreations and bodily functions of God. Thunder is God bowling, unless my parents weren’t around, in which case it was God farting. Also depending on the presence of my parents, rain was either God’s tears or urine. I suspect the sheer flexibility in that points to me having not taken the God claim seriously.

  1. If so, Did something traumatic happen to make you stop believing?

No.

  1. If not, why did you stop believing?

Aged 11 I moved across the country and this marks a milestone in my life from which I can clearly delineate memories. Things that happened after I was 11 and things that happened before. I know, then, that by 11 I did not believe in God. I think it was a simple case of starting to take that amassed uncriticised ball of things I was aware of and applying crude categorisations to it. I think God, very early on, got categorised with other fiction as ‘not meant to be true’ (which is distinct from ‘false’). Although, during my Religious Education, I figured out that isn’t the case: it is espoused as a truth. That perplexed me.

  1. What do you think happens to us when we die?

As we did in question 1, I think here we might get tied up a little in philosophy. One of the more interesting questions in philosophy is ‘what am I?’ The question doesn’t bother us too much in our day-to-day life because a person can be thought of as the functioning of their mind, the presence of their body, their voice or any variety or combination of other things. This tends to not matter because all these things arrive in a package, together.

If you ascribe to some sort of immortal ‘self’, like the soul, then you still don’t have to worry about this day-to-day, as the body arrives with the soul. However, upon death, the question becomes very different.

There’s no inherent reason an atheist can’t believe in a soul and reincarnation and other afterlives. It’s a rare occurrence (I’ve never seen it) and such a belief is at odds with how I got to my atheism: critical realism and rational thinking.

However, as for what I believe: I believe that which comprises us—our consciousness and neurological function—ceases at death. “We” simply evaporate into the aether (metaphorically speaking: there is no aether and no material to evaporate). We cease and disappear. If you’ve lived in a world where you’ve been promised eternal life, I can see how this view seems bleak and scary. But that is simply a matter of perspective.

From where I sit, it is the finitude of life that gives it meaning. It is the pending deadline of death that means I have the incentive to do things today. That’s the beauty.

  1. Without believing in a Higher Power, where do you think we get our morals from?

There are so many ways to come at this question. Firstly, I don’t believe that if you need a higher power to understand morals that you can be called an ethical person. Submitting to a higher power in claiming to not know anything about morality and simply following orders and expectations. I am not claiming doing this cannot lead to good things, but I am claiming it is doing it for bad reasons. Bad, in this respect, means easily hijacked and corrupted, but also without consideration to the welfare of others.

I like to ask believers what they would do if they came to believe the morals handed down or alluded to by a God were ones they strongly disagreed with. Reading religious text and honestly engaging with this question lead my friend from moderate Islam, to devout Islam, to atheism. A commenter named Equipped Cat has admitted he would not surrender his ethical stances to a God he believed commanded murder and hatred. I’ve not collected many answers to this, so I can’t say anything conclusive about it, but I think it puts clear sign posts towards the true origin of morality.

Human history and civilisation is the story of becoming less fearful, less barbaric and more loving. We are a long way from the best ends of those spectrums, and the journey has not been smooth, but we are making that progress: human rights, regardless of race; women’s rights; animal rights; and a continued effort to develop these ideas. And we have gotten here with honest and frank discussion. We got here by questioning the authorities that claimed to know, and finding the answers for ourselves.

We have our humanity. It’s evolved, either by product of us being social or by product of us understanding our environment through a brain that is universal simulator capable of understanding conditions and perspectives we have not directly experienced. And that humanity and compassion is the spark of a conversation worth having: a conversation about what is good.

  1. Where do you think the universe came from?

I don’t. It’s not my place to speculate about such things and I have had to rapidly increase my humility in this area.

We have to look more carefully at what science is reasonably confident about and what it is not. The very (very!) early universe, from the first fraction of a second onwards, science is able to make some very sound claims about. High pressure physics, quantum mechanics and cosmological studies help us to understand ‘the Big Bang phase’. This is the rapid expansion of the intelligible universe from an immensely dense state, around 13.8 billion years ago.

The moments immediately before this—the unintelligible universe (for now, at least)—is highly speculative and there are many ideas about it, of which the famous singularity is only one; an even more dense point. Others ideas include hyperinflation and quantum field fluctuations, loop-quantum gravity and many others. I’m not a specialist, so I have only feint ideas.

  1. What’s your views on Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens?

Primarily, I think they are intentionally misunderstood. I think Harris is a good example of someone who makes very frank points that people twist so that they don’t have to deal with them. By distorting Harris’ views so that they can be called ‘Islamophobia’ or hateful, commenters absolve themselves of having to face hard truths about the content of Islam.

Hitchens, I think, is the pinnacle of what my brother calls a ‘social talker’. He would try to avoid making demonstrative claims, with facts and figures, but to try to appeal to the social element of the human discussion. This is why he was so powerful as a speaker on the morality of a God: he could convince a person to turn their otherwise uncritical eye on God and the ethics that underpin morals that come from God. I think Hitchens didn’t like to deal with the question of whether a God was real, but preferred the line of argument that “God is not Great”. He defended that claim so well, that if greatness is part of your definition of a God, I think you have a real problem.

Dawkins I know less about. I have read a lot of his biology based books and ‘The God Delusion’. But I have very little to say about him. He flits between being highly articulate and oddly ill informed (the latter often happens on Twitter, and it’s quite possible he’s just inarticulately trying to understand something and not offering the criticism it appears he is).

I like a lot of what these three thinkers produce. I don’t agree with all of it, but I like the way they defend themselves, with reason and evidence and logic and without claiming special rights to knowledge or to be unreasonable in their beliefs.

  1. Do you consider yourself a weak atheist or a strong atheist?

These are strange prefixes to need. I don’t believe in a God.

The extent to which I don’t believe in a God or to which I believe a God doesn’t exist depends very much on the form of the God that has been presented to me. I am a completely different type of atheist about pantheism and panentheism to the atheist I am about Christianity.

I can’t really claim to understand pantheism and panentheism, as they sound like metaphors for reasons to be truly reverent about the universe but their adherents tend to assure me the use of the word “God” is not metaphorical: that, literally, the universe is God or within God (respectively). I don’t understand that, and so I don’t believe it either.

Whereas, the Abrahamic God is stated to be loving and good, while Its biography is one of genocide and torture and arbitrary rules and spite and jealousy. These are contradictory, and therefore the story cannot be true; God either has the biography as described and is not good, else is good and has a different biography (assuming It exists at all). And so I believe this God isn’t real.

  1. How can you prove that God doesn’t exist?

To rebut the idea that I need to “prove that God doesn’t exist” I can simply ask how you can prove Santa doesn’t exist. There are arguments you can put forward, like that no one over the age of 20 sincerely believes, but they all succumb to some kind of fallacious thinking. The fact no adults believe in Santa is simply an argument from popularity, and is faulty thinking. To say that we know the Santa story is a myth is to commit the genetic fallacy; ‘by knowing how the belief came to be, we can dismiss it’ is also a fallacy.

One sensible way of dealing with this would be to use rules like Hitchens’ “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. I told you earlier that I am the Minion that Kevin the Minion was based on. You don’t set out to disprove that claim, you await good reason to believe it.

  1. Do you believe in miracles?

I think, again, we are about to get steeped into philosophy. What is a miracle? I have a Samsung phone and tablet (and Chromebook, but an ex-girlfriend has it at the moment) that would be considered miraculous by civilisation even just 50 years ago. But, this technology isn’t miraculous. Of all the literally billions of way my duvet could be strewn up on my bed at the moment (and there are literally billions, or infinite, if you consider all motion to be continuous) my duvet is actually strewn up in exactly the way which it is; this highly unlikely occurrence is also not a miracle.

I think of miracles as occurrences which study of cannot give us knowledge of the natural function of a system. If I give my phone to a civilisation 50 years ago, there is potential for them to derive knowledge from it, thus is it not miraculous. Careful enough study would even reveal some knowledge to a 500 year old civilisation (although, we are highly unlikely to come across with person with the brain required). The state of my bed actually creates knowledge and sufficient study would tell you something about the system in which it exists. Although these two phenomena, my technology and duvet, hold the characteristics often claimed to define miracles, very few people would claim them miracles. I think ‘knowledge creation’, or at least its potential, is the distinguishing difference.

Contrast this against the instantaneous turning of Lott’s wife into salt. No amount of study could reveal to us a mechanism by which this happened.

This is not a unanimous definition of a miracle. Kent Hovind, for example, thinks we can derive natural knowledge from the flood: knowledge about a vast store of water above the Earth. (This is scientific illiteracy for numerous reasons.) However, Hovind thinks the flood is a miracle because it is a highly unlikely event that comports to God’s plan. I reject this definition because God’s plan is unknowable, and thus everything could be said to be a part of it. Even the exact wording I am using to answer these questions, or how I found them in the first place, could be said to be a miracle.

As for whether I believe in miracles, as defined the way I defined them: no, I do not believe in them. There’s no reason to.

  1. Do you have a support group/system?

I haven’t had to really test this out, yet. But, my friends and family.

  1. Do you try to get others not to believe?

This is contentious. I both do, and I do not. What I try to argue against is bad thinking. If one can think clearly and consistently and still believe in a God, I have no issue with that. I haven’t found these people yet. And I don’t really know how to argue against people who are happy with bad thinking.

I argue against bad thinking for a variety of reasons: I like the philosophical challenge, but I also think the progress of our civilisation depends on building as much correct knowledge as possible as accurately as possible. For that, we need good thinking.

It is worth noting that in ethical terms I often come up against people who I disagree with. Sometimes they’re using inconsistent thinking, sometimes I am (and I try to change my mind), but sometimes it is simply the case that we have fundamentally different ideas or values at bottom. I can disagree with these people without friction. In questions of more immediate or physical worlds, if a person has a fundamental value that they don’t care what is true, what is a person to do?

  1. Do others tend to view you differently when they discover you’re an atheist?

Mostly online. I’m British, and I have met very few people who are strongly religious or that have received the normal anti-atheist propaganda I’ve noticed in American media. As a white, British male atheist, I am exceptional only in my sheer abundance.

There is so much accidental and intentional baggage associated with the word “atheist”: wickedness, immorality, amorality, nihilism, militancy and aggression. By knowing I’m an atheist, a lot of people just assume those things about me. But I only notice that online.

  1. Do people tend to try to convince you that your views are wrong?

Yes.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t come back anymore; their departing words were akin to ‘don’t talk science with me, I’m an old lady’. It’s a defence I don’t like, because it assumes reasonable thinking is somehow offensive. That can only be true if one is explicitly proud to be an idiot.

I met some Latter Day Saints on a train once, and they emailed me back and forward for a bit. That just stopped. Both of these groups have been cordial and polite.

Then there’s the blogosphere religionists. They are a mixture. But so many of them now have rhetoric that depend on the denigration of atheists and the intentional misrepresentation of atheism, instead of defending their own point. Those people and that narrative is bullying. It doesn’t bother me too much, because I live in a society that can see the bullying for the inane wailing that it is, although it’s sad to see that is changing at the moment. But in America, where religion and public perception are so closely tied, the denigration of atheism is dangerous.

And then there’s the cry-bullying regressive left who are so hell-bent on protecting ‘protected classes’ from imagined slights and feigned offence that they rally together for the suppression of free speech and freedom of expression.

So, yes. I have been told I am wrong for valuing facts and that I am morally wrong for not believing and that I am lying to myself if I don’t consider God self-evident. (Nothing is self-evident.)

  1. How does your family view your beliefs? Are they supportive?

My family is filled with atheists, apa-theists (a term I think Bill Maher made up, meaning they’re just apathetic and disinterested in the whole question) and agnostics. My grandma is religious, but she doesn’t talk about it. Also, there’s nothing really to be supportive of; there’s no real hardship encountered in the UK as a result of atheism.

  1. What are your views on Madalyn O’Hair?

Who? I know literally nothing about her. I Googled her, and I found a lot of religious blogs that called her the archetypical atheist, and that painted her to look like a bigoted, unreasonable hateful woman. But I don’t know her views well enough to know if those bloggers are being fair. Seeing the extremity of the distortion of Harris’ views I have seen, I have no reason to be trusting of the blogs.

And, to be honest, I don’t care. Just as I thought it was weird to wonder why my thoughts on Dawkins, Harris and Hitches, I do ponder what my thoughts on Madalyn O’Hair matter. She is not me; I don’t know her well enough to know whether I agree with her.

 

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5 thoughts on “Questions from a Student”

  1. You are more brave(?), certainly more patient that I. I would ask “Why do you ask?” if asked all of these questions. I would want to know how they came to those questions. Are they shilling for their religious group or are their questions honestly their own.

    Considering the falsehoods that are preached in many churches today (about evolution, morality, etc.) I am not surprised that such questions are asked. Questions like “why are there still monkeys?” drive me nuts. Abysmal ignorance coupled with curiosity is not a becoming mixture.

    1. That’s true, and a constant frustration. Sometimes you meet people who seems to have slightly more insightful questions and when you can actually give an answer, they resort to the ‘everything came from nothing’ and ‘you’re a money’ style rhetoric. I think they’re the most infuriating.

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