A fairly typical email

Nothing extraordinary here, no comedy, no ridicule. This is just a typical sort of message that we receive on a regular basis, and today I decided to give it a thorough reply. I thought I’d blog my answer today because it is a long form version of a conversation that lots of you probably have often, if you’re an out atheist who knows some theists.

The original message is in block quotes; my replies follow each section.

I’ve been watching clips of your show on Youtube, and I have to say you’ve done a pretty good job in debating with theists thus far. It’s a shame many of the ones I’ve heard on there don’t slow down enough to think for a moment. Many of the points you guys have made appear to make sense to me as well.

Glad to hear it. We’d always rather be reaching out to a receptive audience with some disagreement than exclusively “preaching to the choir.”

To start off, I’m going to say that I consider myself an agnostic theist; I believe in God or the possibility thereof, but in no position to make the assumption that there is one with no doubt. So I’m relying on the whole faith thing, which can only do so much for you.

Personally, I’d go farther than that. Not only can faith “only do so much for you,” but deciding to maintain faith in something that can’t be demonstrated is very likely to mislead you. I think there should, at a minimum, be a basic standard to decide whether something is likely to be really true or not. This isn’t the same as “absolute proof,” just some sort of reasonable evidence.

You might’ve answered this question in one of your episodes, I don’t know, but you’ve repeatedly asked for evidence in proving the existence of God, which I perfectly understand and agree with. My question to you is what evidence would you need that would convince you to believe in “God”, or better yet, just know without doubt? I don’t expect you guys to know, as I wouldn’t even know for sure.

Carl Sagan used to say that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If someone came to you claiming “It rained every day in Seattle last week,” you’d probably be comfortable believing them just on their word. If someone said “It rained every day in the Sahara Desert last week,” you probably would not believe them until you looked up more information (corroborated news reports from multiple sources, pictures, etc). The more unusual the claim, the more information you need to confirm it.

With “God,” at least in a traditional sense, we have an infinitely powerful being living outside of time and space who creates entire universes by saying a few words, tracks the lives of every human being on the planet, answers their prayers, and bends the rules of time and space to suit his will. I think you’ll probably agree that if people didn’t grow up assuming that being existed, they’d find that quite an extraordinary claim to process. It would need some pretty impressive evidence to back it up.

I confess I do not know exactly what sort of evidence that might be, although I would point out that God, being omnipotent, would probably know what to do if he existed. In the Bible, God does all sorts of impressive tricks: appears in front of people, performs miracles, parts seas, turns folks to salt. Unfortunately, the only source we have for the claims that those things happened is a very old book of questionable origin, so that doesn’t help us much today.

If those sorts of things happened on a regular basis, it would help. Some atheists would say that even that’s not enough to demonstrate INFINITE power, but I say it would be a good start. An example I always use is that if the stars one night spontaneously rearranged themselves in the sky, spelling out “I am the lord thy God, you fools, everything in the Bible is true” that would be a good effort. Arthur C. Clarke wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so we couldn’t really rule out the possibility that superintelligent (though not actually omnipotent) aliens were messing with us. But I still say I would be much more willing to consider the possibility that it’s a god.

This is all academic speculation, however, because the evidence that people give for believing in God is nowhere near that interesting. As you said, people generally rely on “faith,” which obviously wouldn’t be necessary if there was anything approaching a good reason to believe in God. When they do try to present convincing evidence, it tends to be of a very mundane sort: They couldn’t find their car keys and then they turned up; an earthquake happened in a place full of people they don’t like; somebody was very sick and then got better; and so on. It’s not enough. Not even close.

I think you’d have to start off with figuring out what exactly God is and work from there, which is difficult since there are so many interpretations that assume to be true. If I had to toss a theory for the sake of debate, I would guess “God” is just energy, which would explain the whole “eternal” or “always existing” part since it cannot be created or destroyed, according to the Law of Conservation of Energy. I won’t add on the idea that this energy or “God” has to have a self-thinking conscious, which seems to be what many of us like to attribute when discussing the concept of a “creator.”

Okay, if that’s what you want to call “God” then you’re welcome to do so. I think it’s unnecessary, though. We already have a perfectly good word for energy. It’s “energy.” Why call it God? What new information does that label convey? If the god you’re envisioning isn’t intelligent or purposeful, then in what sense is it useful to apply such a loaded term? How is a universe where all energy is God different from a universe where energy is just energy?

I might’ve just gave the answer you would give (or a variant thereof), but if you have a different response, I’m curious to know, via email or on-air. Like you guys, I seek to know the truth, whatever it may be.

I don’t see any reason to try to define God myself. If even the billions of people who believe in the concept can’t agree on what it means, then why would I spend time trying to define something I don’t believe? For any individual God claim, I’ll be happy to discuss whether it seems to have any merit or not. What I’ve found so far is that the most impressive and specific definitions of God have no evidence for them; and for dull and uninteresting meanings of God (such as energy) I would say they may exist, but so what?

Viewer Mail: Are There Other Gods?

I’m not posting the writer’s full letter because he is an atheist who wrote to ask how we might reply to a theist he encountered. I provide sufficient input to give you an idea of the claims he said were put forward:

>…[to an atheist] there are no concepts of evil and suffering.

Well, that’s just stupid. Evil may be self-defined, but that is what a “concept” is–an idea you hold. An atheist may say “I don’t use the term evil because it’s too ambiguous,” but he could hold “X” as a criteria of evil and accept X is evil. Meanwhile “suffering” is less ambiguous. While we can talk about what constitutes suffering, anyone who has ever broken a bone or burned themselves or lost a loved one understands suffering–both physical and emotional. Even animals understand suffering–we know, because when they’re given choices to avoid it–they take those non-suffering options. If a dog can understand it, why not an atheist?

>To an atheist, there is no difference between a tree falling over and crushing a bees nest and an earthquake causing a building to collapse and kill a group of human beings.

In-group bias exists in all social species. Wolves, for example, hunt prey–but how often do you see them hunting wolves? This person is trying to give god credit for biologically derived realities. Bees are not people. And we are biologically geared to care about other humans, because we are human social animals. This is why you don’t see cultures that routinely raise other humans for food–anywhere on the planet. All people, all wolves, all chimpanzees, see a difference between members of their own species and animals that are not members of their own species. Again, a wolf can get it, but a human can’t–without god?

>Seeing as all living things are just random matter, what’s the difference to an atheist?

Seeing as all people are depraved and deserve death and hell, why does a Christian care if a building falls on other people? Didn’t they deserve it?

>He claims that only biblical faith offers objective standards of good and evil

Actually, it doesn’t. Euthyphro shredded this years, and years, and years, ago. You can either personally understand why X is wrong, in which case you are using your own moral judgment, or you can’t understand why it’s wrong, and you’re nothing but a trained monkey who does X because he’s been taught to, with no employment of moral judgment. Following orders is not a morality and requires that I exercise no understanding whatsoever of moral thinking or behavior. Beyond that “Thou shalt not kill” was followed by god ordering the killing of people all over the place. How is that objective? Is killing wrong? Is slaughtering your neighbor, his wife, and his toddler sons–but keeping his (most likely underage) daughter as a “wife” (i.e., sex slave)–the sort of objective morality he means?

>Atheists have no reason to feel pity for anyone or anything.

So, rats empathize, but not people. What a sick view of humanity–we don’t even have the natural emotional range of a rat?

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/5373379/Animals-can-tell-right-from-wrong.html

>he said there that there have never been any other gods.

What about the Ugarit god “El” that the Hebrews borrowed to create the god he worships today? Pantheons have been demonstrated in Egypt, Greece, Rome…the idea there are no other gods is so demonstrably false (if we mean gods people believed in and worshiped) as to make his claim ridiculous. Even Ba’al and Ashterah and Sophia are mentioned in his own Old Testament. Sophia (the goddess “Wisdom”) even gets a speaking part in the Book of Solomon:

http://northernway.org/sophia.html

Ashterah was the wife of El (another name for Yahweh), and was worshiped by the Hebrews alongside Yahweh (because both El and Ashterah were borrowed from the Ugarit pantheon). King Hezekiah abolished the worship of the wife of El, according to the Old Testament:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asherah#In_Israel_and_Judah
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asherah

Ba’al is mentioned all through the Old Testament:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugarit
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal (see the box on the right for more Ugarit gods)

>and are not really gods because they exist within the Universe, not outside it.

He doesn’t get to define what people call gods. If there are so many gods that don’t fit his personal definition, he can’t argue they’re wrong, only that he doesn’t personally consider these as gods. But he can’t say nobody else did or does. They are gods. They are worshiped. They do exist as legitimate concepts of gods that stand in glaring and direct opposition to his claim.

>Only Christianity has ever had the idea of an eternal, infinite creator God.

Let’s say that’s true. So what? What if I found only Egypt ever had the concept of a god with a hawk head…so what?

>Any religions younger than Christianity have copied it…

Wow, how can he claim to know what every religion after Christianity has taught? That’s a bold claim, and one I doubt he’s informed enough to make. But funny he worships a god borrowed from Ugarit by the Hebrews, while he claims other religions don’t fly if they borrow from his?

>But I just wondered what your guys thoughts were?

I think he’s ignorant about animal psychology and the roots of his own religion and instead of informing himself, he stays ignorant so that he can use his ignorance as a springboard to claim support for his beliefs–which shrivel and die in the light of actual information.

-th