Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Four, part 1

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

Chapter 4: Test Your Witnesses: Don’t Get Fooled by Your Witnesses!

Chapter Four! Six months after I started this, we are actually onto Chapter Four! Storming along here! It felt pretty exciting to slide that Kindle page across, I can tell you. And, hey! We may have solved the skateboard mystery! I know you must be all on the edges of your seats.

Daniel has a sister called Lacey who is ten years older than him, which immediately makes me wonder what the backstory to that one was. Large family? Fertility difficulties? Accidental late pregnancy? Whatever the reason, it means that Lacey might have been at their school at the right time to have known the skateboard owner. Daniel realises this and asks her, and she was! And she thinks she can remember him! That’s impressive – I sure as hell wouldn’t remember seeing a particular skateboard with a particular person, ten years later. Or ten minutes later, for that matter, so probably it’s just that I’m not very observant about skateboards, but… seriously, would someone remember this? Oh, well, maybe Lacey loves skateboards and so it stuck with her.

Anyway, Lacey tells Daniel that she thinks the owner was a boy called Lincoln Singleton, who was three years older than her, moved away about five years ago, and always wore what I initially read as ‘blackboard shorts’ but was actually ‘black board shorts’. Which was not much less confusing to me as I’d never heard of board shorts, but my daughter figured out they must be something you wear to go skateboarding, which sounds logical. Daniel and Insert Character go back to the skateboard shop (‘back’ because they went there in the last chapter; it was so boring I don’t think I bothered writing about it) and the owner thinks he remembers seeing a boy who fits Lacey’s description.

But! We have a discrepancy! Lacey remembers this boy as being very tall, but the shop owner doesn’t! Fear not, readers; when they report back to Jeffries, he assures them that eyewitnesses never agree entirely. He also points out a logical answer for the discrepancy here; a boy who looks very tall to a short child three years younger than him is not necessarily going to look tall to an adult. More generally, of course, the point is that we don’t expect eyewitnesses to agree on every point.

You know where this is leading, don’t you? If your answer was “To an assurance that it’s quite all right that the gospel writers disagree with one another” then well done; you are quite correct. We get another of those grey insert boxes, reiterating the point about witnesses disagreeing and then giving us this gem:

So, when you see that two gospels describe something in a slightly different way, don’t panic.

Because, of course, panicking is exactly what a child is going to do when seeing a contradiction in the gospels. Thank goodness we have Wallace to reassure us, is all I can say.

Meanwhile, before we get to discussing the gospels, Jeffries lists four questions we need to ask to find out whether a witness can be trusted.

“The first question,” Katie declared, “is if they are evil. Because if they are evil, I don’t think they can be trusted!” Not a bad question, actually, but the actual four questions were:

  1. Were they actually there?
  2. Can we verify what they say in some way?
  3. Have they changed their story over time?
  4. Do they have some reason to lie?

I’m looking forward to seeing what Jeffries has to say about the gospels as far as those last two items are concerned. I’m also curious as to whether this is based on any sort of official list of police or legal guidelines, or whether Wallace made it up. It does seem to be missing a couple of important points; how accurate were the witness’s observations in the first place (i.e., was this event something they spotted in passing and had a vague impression of, or did they check lots of details, or what) and how well does the witness remember them (including the question of how long a time period elapsed between the event and the witness’s report)?

There is a brief discussion of the two witnesses of the elusive Lincoln Singleton, in which Jeffries and the cadets agree that it is fair to conclude that these reports of memories of something unimportant to the witnesses that they saw approximately ten years ago can indeed be counted as trustworthy. It’s at times like this that I feel really reassured as to the quality of the investigative efforts going on in the US police forces.

Back to ‘the case for Jesus’; Jeffries apparently asked Jason to do some research last week, and Jason read the gospels. (All of them? That’s pretty impressive, especially for a child to manage in one week’s worth of spare time.)

“I read the four Gospels and I see there are places where the stories don’t seem to be entirely the same. But now that I understand what eyewitnesses are like, I guess that’s not all that surprising.”

I wonder what he thought about the places where they’re entirely different? Or the places where one of them mentions something so amazing (a man being raised from the dead after four days, a nationwide darkness with the dead rising out of their graves and walking) that you’d expect all four gospels to put that one in, and yet none of the rest do?

Jeffries, of course, agrees with Jason, and then says:

“Now let’s ask our four questions to see if the witnesses mentioned in the Gospels pass the test.[…]”

…except that we have absolutely no direct reports from any of the ‘witnesses mentioned in the Gospels’. (In fact, when it comes to the resurrection accounts the Gospels can’t even agree on who exactly the witnesses were.)

So this situation is simply not equivalent to assessing the validity of a witness statement. All we know here is that four (unknown) people have reported that various people witnessed Jesus do various things, including getting killed and turning up again a day and a half later, and that one of them (Luke) assured his readers that he has ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning‘ (Luke 1:3) but without giving us any further details of what reports he received from whom, what measures he took to check their accuracy, and what ‘carefully investigated’ actually means to him here in terms of how much care, and more importantly how much impartiality and analytical thought, he brought to the investigation. With this sort of knowledge base, asking these kinds of questions about the witnesses’ trustworthiness is meaningless.

This seems like a good place to split this chapter. Back soon with more!

 

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Three, part 3

My daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. All posts in the series are collected at the end of this post.

Quick recap: This is the chapter in which Wallace presents his evidence for the existence of his God. In the first part of my review of this chapter, I discussed at some length the problems with the lack of direct evidence for God and how this lack is actually strong evidence against the Biblical god. In the second part, I wrote some not-very-consequential stuff about Jeffries’ drawings, and Katie invented potato-worship. In this part, I hope to actually answer the points put forward. We can dream…

The rest of the chapter consists of Jeffries going over the evidence for God’s existence, which he divides into four categories:

  1. The need for a First Cause
  2. Fine-tuning
  3. DNA
  4. The moral argument.

Here are my thoughts on each of those (I don’t have much from Katie; she was still focused on potatoes).

 

1. First Cause argument

“First, we’re in a universe that began to exist, just like we talked about before. What made it begin? Whatever it is, it would have to be something outside of space, time, and matter. We know that God fits that description.”

This… is about as logical as saying “We need an explanation for crop circles. Whatever created them would have to be something with great technological abilities. We know that aliens fit that description, so this counts as evidence for the existence of aliens.”

You can’t demonstrate the existence of a hypothetical being by simply declaring that it could have been responsible for such-and-such. If you want to go down that road, you have to demonstrate that this being was either the only thing that could have caused such-and-such, or, at the very least, that it was significantly more probable than any other possible options. I’m going to add here that Wallace is a police officer; I assume he knows full well that you can’t prove someone committed a crime purely by saying that they could have done it, and still less can you solve an unsolved case simply by hypothesising the existence of someone who could potentially have done it.

Wallace may of course have meant to argue that there are no other possible causes for the universe. If that’s what he was getting at, however, it’s on him to show that this is the case.

 

2. Fine-tuning

“Next, scientists tell us that the universe is incredibly fine-tuned for the existence of life.[…]”

Whoa there, cowboy. For years I was reading apologetic books assuring me that one reason I should believe in God was the utter unlikelihood of life having developed on this planet without someone to create it, and now suddenly an apologist is trying to tell me that the universe is incredibly fine-tuned for life? Get your stories straight here, guys.

The fine-tuning argument, for anyone who hasn’t previously run across it, is based on the finding that various physical constants of the universe (gravitational force, electromagnetic force, strong atomic force, weak atomic force) all need to fall within a very narrow range in order for a) the universe to continue to exist at all, and b) stars and the different kinds of atoms to come into being. All these constants do in fact fall within the necessary ranges (as you can probably deduce from the fact of our existence), and apologists will often use the odds against this to argue that it’s incredibly unlikely that our universe could have come into being without being deliberately designed and created.

Various problems with this argument have been raised. The main one, from what I’ve read, is that a couple of other well-established theories in physics seem to point to the likelihood that our universe is actually part of a multiverse containing unlimited numbers of ‘pocket universes’ with infinitely varied physical laws. However big the odds against any one universe having a workable combination of physical constants, in a multiverse with infinite pockets there are going to be universes that hit the sweet spot.

(Some versions of the fine-tuning argument also include claims about the incredible improbability of finding the correct planetary conditions to support life. The flaw in this one is hopefully even more obvious; this universe contains colossally vast numbers of stars and planets, so it really isn’t that unlikely that at least one of that mind-boggling number of planets happens to have a combination of qualities suitable to allow the development of life.)

Scientists have no idea why this is the case,

That, as per the links I included above, is just flat-out false. Scientists do indeed have ideas as to why this is the case. They have an entire detailed theory – the multiverse, as briefly described above and described in more detail in the above link – as to why this is the case. You may of course disagree with the ideas/theories they have and want to argue against them in some way, but denying that those ideas and theories even exist is not accurate.

unless of course, the universe was designed for a purpose: to be the home for human beings like you and me.

The second part of that quote does not follow logically from the first half.

Let’s, for a moment, suppose that the fine-tuning argument was absolutely correct. Let’s suppose that the reason why our universe has physical constants that fall so precisely within the ranges they do was because it was deliberately designed this way by a god who wanted a universe that would last for billions of years and contain multiple different forms of atoms which would be able, eventually, to develop into solar systems. It… would also still be a universe in which it took hundreds of millennia to form the first atoms, nine billion years to form our planet, and over four billion years more to get to the point where humans developed.

A god who would deliberately design a universe in such a way is not a god who appears to be showing any particular interest in humans whatsoever. While it’s very natural that we want to think of ourselves as being the primary focus and concern of a divine being – his reason for having created the entire universe, no less! – this belief is not something that can be backed up by what we observe in the universe around us. Even if the fine-tuning argument is correct and this universe was designed for a purpose, it does not look as though this purpose has anything whatsoever to do with ‘human beings like you and me’.

 

3. DNA

Scientists also see signs of design in biology.

Er, no. Scientists see signs of evolution in biology. A small minority of scientists – usually those with pre-existing religious ideas regarding the existence of design – do believe there are signs of design there, but it’s very misleading to talk as though scientists as an overall group were looking at what they could see in biology and saying “Wow; signs of design there”.

Your body is incredibly designed

A flaw in one of the genes that code for Vitamin C, putting us at risk of scurvy when we don’t get enough Vitamin C in our diet and hence causing the suffering of countless people who could have easily synthesised the vitamin they needed if only that gene was working correctly.

A blind spot in our vision due to retinas that face the other way from what even basic common sense would suggest.

Incompatibilities in head and pelvis shapes that not only make childbirth horrendously painful for women, but have led to millions of babies and mothers over the centuries dying in childbirth or suffering severe lifelong injury.

The human body is indeed incredible. I’m a doctor; I’ve learned a great deal about just how incredible it is. But it also has important flaws that provide very good evidence that we were not designed by a loving God aiming to get everything just right for us.

and you even have information in your body called ‘DNA.’

THAT FULL STOP SHOULD BE OUTSIDE THOSE QUOTES. Ahem. Just saying. Anyway, Jeffries goes on to explain to them that DNA is ‘an instruction manual for your body’, and tells us:

It contains more information than all the books in your school library, and information is a sure sign of intelligence.

No, it isn’t. To take an example that Wallace will be familiar with from his own working life; sometimes police officers will get called out to a death that turns out, on inspection, to have been due to natural causes. In those situations, the police officers will collect information from things like what position the body is in when it’s found and whether there are any signs of injuries. The information they get from these signs wasn’t put there by an intelligent being; if it’s a death from natural causes, then things like the position of the body also happen due to natural causes. It’s still information.

(To pre-empt a possible objection; Yes, in this example it takes intelligence to decipher the information. There are other situations where that isn’t true; for example, one-celled creatures can respond to different food sources in their environment, so they’re clearly detecting some type of information from the food sources and processing it in some kind of automatic chemical reaction that can take place without intelligence being required. More importantly, however, this wasn’t Wallace’s analogy here. He isn’t trying to argue that your cells are intelligent because they can read and act on the information in your DNA; he’s trying to argue that only an intelligent source can put any information there in the first place.)

We get another of Wallace’s grey insert boxes, this one giving us an unusually narrow definition of the term ‘information’: ‘A series of symbols, objects, or letters that describe a specific idea or request’. None of the dictionary definitions I looked up included a requirement for information to be expressed as ‘a series of symbols, objects, or letters’ in order to meet the definition, so Wallace seems to have manufactured a definition that fits with the belief he wants to get across.

Back to the skateboard, this time so that Jeffries can show the cadets the words ‘Made in USA’ printed on the base of the board as an example of information that couldn’t have got there by chance. Of course that information couldn’t; it’s expressed in a specific human language using a code (the written word) worked out by humans. Wallace seems to think that the coded groups of nucleotides in DNA that specify particular amino acids in proteins are analogous to this, as though the cellular machinery that manufactures proteins had to learn and check code books in order to do so.

Needless to say, that’s not actually how it happens; in fact, transcription of the DNA code is mediated by complex molecules of what’s known as ‘transfer RNA’, each of which links to a specific group of three nucleotides at one end and a specific amino acid at the other, meaning that, as the tRNA molecules link on to the chain of nucleotides, the amino acids carried by each of them will line up in a specific order. (It’s more complicated than that, involving messenger RNA and ribosomes just for starters, but that’ll do for purposes of this post.)

Of course, apologists will often then argue that this system is so complicated it can’t possibly have come about just by evolution, even given millions of years to develop (alternatively, a subset of apologists known as young-earth creationists will try to argue that our planet has only been here for a few thousand years and thus this system can’t have had millions of years to develop, despite truly colossal amounts of evidence to the contrary). However, this argument runs into the usual two problems:

  1. If you want to use this as an argument for the existence of a divine creator, you first have to prove that there is simply no way at all that this could have happened through natural causes. In other words, not just handwaving and talking about how it’s all just too complicated, but coming up with every possible pathway that could have led to the development of this system through natural causes, demonstrating why every single one of them couldn’t work, and demonstrating that there is no possibility that there might be another pathway that we just haven’t thought of yet. So, good luck with that one, guys.
  2. Even if you were to manage to do that, coming up with proofs so watertight they could survive being poked and prodded by the minds of the collective world of biology and biochemistry, you would still run up against the problem I mentioned above; that all you would have done would be to prove the existence of some type of divine creator, not the particular type of divine creator with a deep interest in and love for humans.

 

4. The moral argument

At this point, it’s mentioned that ‘some [of the cadets] look like they are ready to head out for the day’. Yes, I’ll bet they are by now. Jeffries gestures to them to keep paying attention and brings up the example of stealing being wrong:

“[…]Where does that kind of moral truth come from? Is it just a matter of opinion? Does it come from the state where we live?”

He gets them to conclude that stealing wouldn’t be OK even if there weren’t a law against it, and then gives them what is known in the logic trade as a false dichotomy:

“All right then,” continues Jeffries, “the truth about stealing seems to come from something other than my personal opinion or the state where I work. It’s bigger than all of us. God is also bigger than all of us, so God is the better explanation for the source of truth about stealing.”

…and, if you take the trouble to think about it instead of opting straight for ‘God did it’, our ability to empathise with others is a still better explanation, which Jeffries is completely ignoring.

Katie had wound down somewhat by now on the subject of potatoes, so I asked her what she thought about this argument. She was exceedingly unimpressed with it.

“Well, it’s kind of obvious,” she told me. “What if you’d just bought something for £50? If someone else steals it, that’s like £50 that’s been given to someone without their permission.”

I asked her why she thought this would be a problem. “Because it’s just like you’ve worked hard for that and they’ve done nothing to get it. It’s not nice at all.” I pushed her a little further, curious as to whether she’d be able to put any form of the ‘we wouldn’t like it if someone did it to us’ argument into words. “Basically I’m not happy about it because that makes no sense. It’s not my personal opinion that it’s wrong to steal. You literally just agreed with it! Either I’m missing something or these people are idiots!”

Jeffries, meanwhile, has finished his argument and his diagram and sums up, assuring the cadets that as long as you put only the most minimal effort possible into searching for other options clearly ‘God is the best explanation for all this evidence’.

“And science is the best explanation for all this other evidence,” Katie told me. “And the best explanation for all this evidence which makes sense for it is THE POTATO. BOW DOWN BEFORE THE POTATO! HE IS THE LORD AND SAVIOUR OF THIS WOOOORRRRRLLLLLLD!”

The chapter ends, we’re told, with the cadets looking around at one another and considering what Jeffries has just said. (“Did they think it was silly?” Katie asked me. I like to think that they were wondering when the hell they’d get to the bit of the course where they got to learn about fingerprinting.)

And that, dear readers, is not only the end of this chapter and of this probably excessively long blog post, but also of the bit Katie and I read together last October when we started this! Whoopee! We have finally caught up! It is no doubt a sad comment on my life to admit that I’m excited about moving on to the next chapter after all this time. I’ve been a lot more in my stride with blogging these past few months, so I’m hoping that getting through subsequent chapters won’t take nearly as long (for what that’s worth). We’ve already read the first part of the next chapter last night and I’ll start writing it up as soon as I can.

Why FOSTA might do far more harm than good

FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, is yet another example of a bill that was created with excellent intentions – to reduce the harm caused by sex trafficking – yet is likely in actuality to have a potentially very damaging impact on the lives of sex workers. It’s going to make it significantly more difficult for sex workers to advertise safely or to exchange safety information on dangerous clients. Here’s an article by Melissa Gira Grant, writer and former sex worker, on the problems it may cause sex workers:

Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Sacramento, said her phone had been ringing off the hook since the seizure of Backpage: “The fear is astronomical.”

One woman told her she was forced to return to an abusive client due to the lost income, she said. Others have resorted to taking on “managers” who have leverage over the women and their income and could exploit them, she added. “Very easily, you can lose control of your own life.”

“This bill is creating an actual market for pimps,” Calida said, adding: “People don’t know if they are going to be able to pay rent … how they are going to afford food.”

Another endeavour that, due to lack of consultation with the very group it’s meant to be helping, risks backfiring horribly and making life worse for them rather than better.

(This article is written in honour of one sex worker’s call for people to use Friday the 13th as a day to speak out in favour of decriminalising sex work. I didn’t have time to write a proper post, but this article is timely and was worth linking to. Meanwhile, as before, I support decriminalisation of sex work in the interests of sex workers themselves, who typically end up suffering more under paternalistic laws that are aimed at helping them without consulting them.)

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Three, part 2

My daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. All posts in the series are collected here.

 

Jeffries is about to explain the indirect evidence for the existence of God. Which he illustrates with diagrams. This cues a joke about ‘Better to be an artist than a con artist!’ which Wallace seems to have written so that he can put in one of his little grey inset boxes with the question ‘Some people think the disciples of Jesus were con artists, but is this a reasonable conclusion?’ No, Wallace, I do not think they had any good motivation to try a con that would have put their lives on the line and I do agree they believed what they were saying about the risen Jesus, but that does not mean they were right.

“You know,” Katie said thoughtfully of Jeffries “I think he might be a con artist, because he’s trying to trick them into being Christians.”

I…. couldn’t actually counter that. As previously mentioned, one probably unintentional effect of Wallace’s writing format for this book is that Jeffries is in effect presented as running a fairly blatant Christian evangelising class disguised as a police cadet class. I don’t think Wallace deliberately meant it that way – I think he’d probably be quite shocked if he heard it described that way – but that still is what the description in his book comes down to, and it’s really not OK.

Anyway, Jeffries assures the cadets ‘”This won’t be difficult to sketch out”‘ and proceeds to draw a line of falling dominoes (to indicate First Cause), which sounded quite difficult to sketch out as far as I was concerned. Katie, the family artist, assured me that for someone who was good at art it wouldn’t be that difficult, but pointed out that drawing it on a whiteboard, as Jeffries was, would be pretty difficult; whiteboards are hard to draw on. Jeffries goes on to illustrate his other points with pictures of a designer’s compass, a DNA molecule, a – you have got to be kidding me – a microscope, and two Ten Commandments-style stone tablets, so, excuse me, but I do not really buy this “This won’t be difficult to sketch out” line. #overthinkingit #seriouslysidetracked

Ahem. The indirect evidence? Ah, yes. Back to Jeffries’ speech:

“First, we’re in a universe that began to exist, just like we talked about before. What made it begin?

“A potato,” Katie suggested.

Whatever it is, it would have to be something outside of space, time, and matter. We know that God fits that description.”

“No, no, no, it’s a potato. But it’s a very lonely potato, so it made a whole universe so it can have friends.”

Jeffries draws a set of falling dominoes on the board….

HAIL THE POTATO! IT’S THE REASON YOU’RE HERE TODAY! BOW DOWN! BOW DOWN! BE FRIENDS WITH POTATO! I’TS WHY YOU WERE CREATED!!!!!!!

HE IS THE LORD AND SAVIOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

BOW DOWN!!!

…all of which was actually typed by Katie, who grabbed the computer from me to type about her new religion of potato-worship. I clearly wasn’t going to get much insightful conversation about the book that evening.

Having thus covered nothing whatsoever of use in this post, I shall end it here and move on to – I hope – actually answering some of the points properly in my next post.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Three, part 1

My daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review children’s apologetics book Cold Case Christianity For Kids, by J. Warner Wallace. The introduction to the series is here; posts in the series are being linked up there as I go along.

 

We’re on to Chapter 3! The full title of this one is ‘Think Circumstantially: Examine an Important Kind of Evidence!’ (exclamation mark Wallace’s). It begins with the reader’s insert-character clearly influenced by the classes;

During the week, you find yourself thinking “big” thoughts – thoughts about God and whether He is real.

Though not ‘about Gods and whether They are real’, I notice. Logically, the possibility that multiple divine beings exist should be one we consider just as seriously as the possibility that one specific divine being exists (however seriously that is). But apologetics books will frame these questions as being solely about whether their God exists; other possibilities are left unexamined. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ll continue to use the term ‘God’ throughout the rest of this post.)

You wonder if Jeffries might be able to help answer your questions,

Now, wherever did you get that idea?

but when you meet the following Tuesday, he’s more interested in the skateboard.

You’re missing your chance, Jeffries!

Anyway, the bit about the skateboard doesn’t actually move the skateboard investigation any further forward. (Of course it doesn’t; we’re only on Chapter 3 of an eight-chapter book and this skateboard investigation is obviously going to have to last us the full book. I’m guessing we’ll have a Big Reveal in the final chapter?) This particular skateboard investigation section is used to illustrate the difference between witness evidence, which is known as ‘direct evidence’, and indirect or circumstantial evidence (such as the evidence the cadets used last week to figure out the skateboard was old). Jeffries gives the example of a colleague who came in with drops of water on her hair and clothes, thus providing him with indirect evidence that it’s raining. (“She’s just had a shower. It’s sunny outside,” Katie quipped.) All this is, as usual, setting things up for the religious topic of discussion this week, which is – as you may have gathered from the chapter beginning – the does-God-exist question.

You speak up: “Can we talk a little more about the Jesus case? I was thinking about God and miracles this week. […]”

It’s a little ironic that Wallace starts this character’s query off with a request to talk about ‘the Jesus case’, because, in fact, this chapter isn’t going to mention Jesus at all; it’s going to be a general chapter about whether to believe in ‘God’. The particular God under discussion is of course the one broadly described in Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism rather than any other possible concepts of deities, but there’s no specific mention of Jesus, as as such. I don’t think Wallace could see past his own religion here to notice that theism and Christianity aren’t actually synonymous.

Jeffries is, of course, delighted to be asked this, and assures them:

“This is a perfect example for this week’s lesson. Indirect evidence can be powerful, and we do have indirect evidence for God. A lot of it, actually.”

I didn’t notice this on my read-through with Katie, but this raises a very interesting point. Is there a reason that Wallace/Jeffries feels he can’t offer direct evidence for God?

What would such evidence look like? We’ve just been told that direct evidence is the testimony of a witness, so, in this context, direct evidence would be the testimony of someone who has actually witnessed God in some way. There are, of course, plenty of people who believe that God has spoken to them, so it’s interesting that Wallace/Jeffries doesn’t offer this here as an example of direct evidence. I don’t know, of course, why Wallace made this choice; but I wonder if possibly he recognises that these claims are actually very poor quality evidence when properly examined. These supposed communications from God

  • typically feel very similar to our own internal experiences and thoughts (compare this to our experience of seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing things around us; we experience those sensations as coming to us from external sources)
  • are often flat-out contradictory in terms of what different people interpret as being God’s message to them.

The claims of communications received from God actually look like what we’d expect if people were very good at imagining that a divine being was communicating with them. And that’s fairly poor evidence.

There’s a point here so obvious it frequently tends to get overlooked; namely, that it is of course perfectly possible to communicate with human beings in such a way that we can clearly sense these communications as coming from external to ourselves. This describes all the communications that we, as humans, have with one another. When someone speaks to you, or you read a note that they’ve left you, or a book that they’ve written, or a comment they left on the Internet… then you’re not normally in any doubt about the fact that you’re receiving a communication from someone who actually exists. Most of the people reading this have never met me, but I’m guessing you’re not in any doubt that the words you’re reading were written by a real person.

So… suppose that a divine being actually did communicate with us in such a way that we experienced the communications as clearly coming from some external source. (This could be the traditional Voice booming out or letters of fire in the sky, but it could just as plausibly be via an extra sense other than the five we know about. All I’m hypothesising here is that we would clearly experience this communication as coming from a source external to our own minds, just as we do when someone speaks to us or we read something they’ve written.) If that were so… well, Wallace wouldn’t have needed to write this chapter in the first place, because everybody would believe in this god already.

While believers sometimes complain that atheists would just refuse to believe no matter what evidence was offered, in actual fact people generally do believe the evidence of their own senses. It’s also worth noting that there are many people who desperately wish they could get this sort of communication from God – they feel abandoned by God, or alone, or on the brink of losing their belief, or don’t believe and would very much like to – who would find it wonderfully comforting and satisfying to have such definite communications. Which means the next question needs to be why, given the benefits of communicating universally with humans in such a clear-cut way, a god would choose not to do so?

Well, there are a couple of fairly obvious possible reasons:

  • A god might have some kind of limitation in ability rendering him/her unable to communicate with us that clearly.
  • A god might have no interest in communicating with us. It’s a big old universe, and quite possibly even a multiverse; while we quite naturally tend to think of ourselves as the most important beings in it, it’s not hard to hypothesise that a divine being might have no interest in us whatsoever and have created the universe for completely different reasons.

So our lack of direct and clearcut communication from a god certainly doesn’t automatically equate to the non-existence of any god.

However, the problem here is that Wallace isn’t trying to argue for the existence of any god. He’s trying to argue for the existence of his God; the particular divine being described in the Bible. This God’s salient features, as described, most certainly do include a) vast abilities that do indeed include the ability to communicate with any willing individual (and arguably with unwilling ones, but I’ll keep it as willing individuals for simplicity) and b) a strong desire for every single person on earth to get to know Him.

It therefore makes no sense whatsoever that, if the God described in the Bible really exists, he would not communicate with humans in such a clearcut way. He has the ability; he has the motive. He has devoted followers who are, in at least some cases, begging him to do so; some of those followers will lose a previously strongly-held faith when they get no answer. The fact that we don’t get any such clearcut communications is, therefore, compelling evidence that the specific God described in the Bible does not exist.

Jeffries believes he has indirect evidence for the existence of (a) God. It will hopefully not be too much of a spoiler at this point if I tell you that I was not very impressed by the evidence, but that’s a subject for another post. The thing is… even if Jeffries had compelling indirect evidence for the existence of a divine being, the very fact that he can’t offer direct evidence is actually strong evidence against the existence of the particular god he wants to demonstrate.

Questions from Joel Settecase – Part Three

On to the final ten of Joel Settecase’s 30 Questions for Non-Christians. (Supposedly for non-Christians, anyway; as I commented in my last post, they actually seem to be aimed specifically at atheists in particular.) I notice Joel Settecase has actually put up a follow-up post letting his readers know about my answers and asking them to come over here and have polite respectful discussions, which I thought was very nice of him. (Well, all right, I’m not naive – I know he’s hoping that the result will be that I convert to Christianity – but I still felt it was a nice thought.)

On with the questions:

 

21. If no God, why is there so much good in the world?

Same reason there’s so much bad in the world; things happen for hugely varied and complex reasons that have nothing to do with any gods, and we as humans have perceptions of these things as good, bad, or indifferent according to how they affect us or other beings with whom we emphasise. I’ll add here that I’ve never seen the ‘Why is there so much evil in the world?’ argument as being a valid argument against the existence of a god, but I do think in fairness that the flip side of that is that this hypothetical god shouldn’t automatically get credit for the good things either.

22. If no God, how did our DNA get programmed with such incredibly complex language and instructions?

‘Get programmed’, in this context, seems rather question-begging; after all, the point is that we don’t believe it ‘got programmed’ by anyone.

As to how it happened; well, bear in mind that, according to colossal amounts of evidence from radioactive dating, this planet has been around for well over four billion years. Obviously even the simplest DNA molecule took some time to develop and wasn’t there from the start, but that still leaves billions of years of evolution. Copying errors happen now and again; some of those are actively damaging and thus die out, but some of them lead to benefits for an organism that in turn lead to it producing more offspring and to more copies of that improved gene being passed on. On top of that, every so often an entire stretch of DNA gets erroneously duplicated in the copying, meaning that there’s some ‘spare DNA’ there which has greater scope for undergoing mutations without killing off the organism. All of this, remember, is going on over billions of years – that is a lot of time, and a lot of copying of DNA, and a lot of chance for change and development, during which the unhelpful mutations die out while the useful ones get copied more and more. A few billion years of this is enough to give us vast amounts of complexity and detail in the DNA.

23. Is everything in the universe really just matter and energy?

As a couple of your follow-up questions partly demonstrate, there are also concepts that could be described as the results of matter and energy, or as descriptions of how matter and/or energy work and interact, or as categorisations. Might be others I’m not thinking of.

24. If you just thought, “Yes,” was that thought made of matter and energy?

Technically N/A, but in terms of answering the more general question of what thoughts are made of, I think it makes more sense to say they’re produced by matter (brain cells, neurotransmitters) and energy (passage of electrical impulses along nerve axons triggering neurotransmitter release).

25. The Bible says every good and perfect gift is from the Father above (i.e. God). To whom are you grateful for the good things in your life?

First and foremost, my parents. (Goodness – this is going to end up sounding like one of these Academy Award speeches. Oh, well, you did ask.) They did an amazing job of giving me a happy, secure childhood and paying for me to have an excellent education that has been invaluable in me getting where I am in life. And, although my father sadly died many years back, my mother is still in there giving me help and support. When I need it, she has absolutely got my back. That is a gift beyond price.

On top of that… let’s see. There’s my sister, who stepped up when I needed support, who introduced me to the wonderful world of Kindle ownership, and who fulfilled my lifelong dream of being thanked in an author’s acknowledgements (not to mention being an all-around pretty cool and awesome sister). There are the practice managers and work colleagues I deal with, who have been incredibly helpful and supportive with the various changes (sometimes at very short notice) I’ve needed to my work pattern over the years of juggling work with parenthood, especially given some of my son’s difficulties. There’s Aneurin Bevan and colleagues, for setting up the system that means that I’ve always had confidence that if I needed health care, I’d be able to get it with no worries about how I would pay for it (and that when I treat sick people, I don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay for it). There’s the lady at the local council who’s been dealing with the difficult problem of helping us find appropriate education for my son, who’s been exceedingly helpful with this fairly thorny task. There are the people on the medical forum to which I post who have offered helpful advice on issues medical and non-medical over the years, one of them recently saving me several weeks and over a hundred pounds by recommending a decorator when the one I’d originally booked with had a very long waiting list. There’s the taxi driver who, over half a century ago, said “Aren’t you even going to ask for her phone number?” to the young man in his taxi who’d spent a long journey chatting animatedly with the young woman who’d shared the taxi with him, and thus inadvertently ensured that my parents’ relationship didn’t end with one interesting conversation but moved on to what would ultimately be an incredibly happy thirty-four year marriage.

I’ve probably forgotten people, for which I apologise, but those are the main ones I can think of. On top of that, of course, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just plain good luck; I’ve had excellent health, fertility when I wanted it, I was born into a comfortably-off middle-class family, I’m not a member of various minority groups who face a lot of disadvantages that I don’t. I’m very happy about all this, but that’s not the same as gratitude.

26. Where do you think the laws of logic come from?

I think they’re descriptions, by human beings, of how some things in reality/thought processes work.

27. Are the laws of logic made of matter and energy?

No.

28. What evidence would actually convince you that Jesus Christ is God, the Lord, and the only Savior?

Good question. First of all, ‘only Savior’ is kind of meaningless unless you know what he’s supposed to be a saviour from, and, as I understand it, the answer to that is ‘From the afterlife of eternal torment that was originally designed by the very God of which Jesus is meant to be a part’. Even if I believed that theology, proclaiming anyone as Saviour in that context feels kind of… Stockholm-syndromish.

Secondly, when I was investigating Christianity to make my decision about it, I ended up reading the OT prophets in their entirety to see what they actually said when they weren’t being cherry-picked, and I’d already read a good part of the other bits of the OT… and, to cut a long story short, established that the teachings of the Jewish scriptures were flat-out not compatible with Christian teachings. I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a message from God (this was in my agnostic days) in which case Christianity wasn’t true, or I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a bunch of legends and wishful thinking on the part of the Jewish leaders of a few millennia ago and not a divine message at all, in which case Christianity also wasn’t true, or I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a deliberate attempt by a psychopathic God to trick the Jews into doing completely the wrong thing and ending up in hell, in which case Christianity might technically be true but this was a moot point as a God who would try to trick you like that clearly couldn’t be trusted anyway. But, given what I was reading in the OT, there wasn’t a logical way for Christianity to be a genuine teaching from a consistent, sane, and loving God.

So I suppose the answer to what evidence would convince me, would be that either Christianity would have to teach something completely and utterly different from what it in fact teaches, or Judaism would have to teach something completely and utterly different from what it in fact teaches. Which isn’t exactly helpful.

29. How much do you know about the heart of the Christian message, AKA the “Gospel” or good news?

Quite a lot, having spent years reading about it on and off.

30. Are you ready to learn more about Jesus?

If it’s actually something new and interesting – say, if something new comes to light about the culture of the time that sheds new light on something taught about Jesus – then sure. For example, I’ve loved Hyam Maccoby’s books because, despite their flaws, Maccoby looks at the Christian teachings from the viewpoint of a Jewish scholar who can pick up a lot of points that get missed by people without that background. If it’s just more Christian interpretations, then it isn’t anything I’d particularly trust, so no.

Questions from Joel Settecase – Part Two

As per my previous post, I’m writing a three-part reply to pastor and blogger Joel Settecase’s 30 Questions for Non-Christians.

I should really have noticed this when I wrote the last post, but that post title has just hit me; it specifies non-Christians, rather than atheists. Yet, from many of the questions, it’s clear that the list itself was directed at atheists (or possibly agnostics) rather than at non-Christians in general. The two groups are not the same by any means; atheists are only one minority subgroup of non-Christians. Joel, while I’m an atheist myself, I suspect that Jews, Muslims, theists unspecified, and polytheists probably don’t appreciate having their existence overlooked like this, so, out of courtesy, would you consider changing the title?

On with the next ten questions. (By the way, I’m just checking the preview for this post, and the ad currently coming up immediately below that line is giving a numbered list of items, which is giving a rather weird effect in context. No, the questions are not in fact ‘1. Quote Of The Day. 2. Social Work Internships’ and so forth. Sorry about that.)

11. The Bible says that objective moral values are based in God’s morally perfect nature.

…..in between telling us about how God commanded such morally perfect activities as wholesale massacre, forced marriages, and killing men for having had gay sex…

Without God, what do you think they are based in?

This is one I recently discussed. Short answer: At bottom, our understanding that the feelings of others matter. Four useful general principles that arise from this are:

  • Beneficience (it’s good to help others)
  • Non-maleficience (we should avoid harming others)
  • Autonomy, including bodily autonomy (which is the answer to why we can’t, say, simply harvest one person’s organs against their will even for the purpose of helping another person)
  • Justice (people should be treated fairly and with equal rights)

Moral codes consist of figuring out how, in the complex situations of day-to-day life, these four principles can best be balanced and applied.

12. Jesus’ disciples went from being terrified of death, to being willing to die for their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. If Jesus didn’t rise, what do you think changed their mind?

We’ll never know for sure; personally, I think the most plausible chain of events is that one of Jesus’s followers had some form of grief hallucination of the friend and leader he’d deeply loved (which is known to be a surprisingly common phenomenon among the bereaved), became convinced that Jesus had risen, and successfully fired up the other disciples to the point where they were also having religious experiences that seemed to them to be Jesus communicating with them in some way (or, if they weren’t, managed to convince themselves they were as they so badly wanted it to be true). I’ve no doubt they believed in the resurrection, but that doesn’t mean they were right.

But I do think, while we’re on the subject, that there’s an important point to be made about this whole ‘went from being terrified of death to being willing to die for their belief’ framing of the story; the disciples seem to have been already willing, at least in theory, to die for their beliefs. They were, after all, publicly following a Messianic claimant. If you got too loud about that sort of thing in Roman-occupied Judaea, it was seen as insurrection and you could be executed for it – as, of course, Jesus was. The disciples would have known there was a strong risk they’d end up dead… and they followed Jesus anyway.

If the stories about their reactions after Jesus’s execution are true, then, yes, it does seem they initially panicked when shit got real (if you’ll excuse the expression). But that doesn’t mean those moments of panic and denial were all there were to the disciples’ characters before they started preaching the resurrection. There were also those years of following a rebel who was setting himself up for a lot of trouble with the Roman authorities at a time when ‘trouble’ could get you horrendously executed. I think it’s a lot more accurate to say that the disciples went from being prepared at least in theory to die for their beliefs, to temporary panic when faced with the reality, to an ultimately stronger commitment to the thought of dying for their beliefs.

13. There are hundreds of varieties of unbelief. How do you know yours is the right one?

I’m not sure which ‘hundreds of varieties’ you’re thinking of here; I suspect this one is meant as a dig at atheists who ask believers how they know which of the hundreds of varieties of belief is the correct one. I don’t think there are hundreds of varieties of atheism, although there are some shades of agnosticism in there.

Of course, there are vast numbers of varieties of belief on all of the other subjects on which we could potentially have beliefs, so it’s fair to say that I’m bound to be wrong about many of the things I believe. (This just reminded me of Raymond Smullyan’s logical proof that people are either inconsistent or conceited; unless we’re conceited, we know that at least some of the stuff we believe is wrong, yet we believe it anyway.) In terms of how I know any individual thing I believe is true, I try to think carefully and analytically about why I believe it, and try to keep an open mind to the possibility that I’m wrong about it. That’s really as much as any of us can do.

14. Archaeology is constantly confirming the details of the accounts in the Bible. Why do you think that is, if the Bible isn’t true?

As I understand it, archaeology is also refuting some of the key accounts in the Bible, so that’s kind of a problem for Biblical inerrantists. But as for the details it confirms; I’ve never believed anything as simplistic as that ‘the Bible isn’t true’. I believe that plenty of the stories in it actually are reports of things that happened, or at least based on reports of things that happened, even though we can’t know whether the stories changed or varied before being written down. I don’t see it as in any way surprising that archaeological discoveries would confirm at least some of what we read there.

15. There is more evidence that Jesus Christ lived, died and came back to life than for just about any other event in ancient history.

Er… no, excuse me, but there isn’t. I’m not even a Jesus Myther – I’m happy that we have enough evidence to say that there was a real-life itinerant preacher by the name of Yeshu or Yeshua touring the regions of Galilee or thereabouts almost two thousand years ago and gaining a following – but that is not even remotely close to the best-evidenced event in ancient history. I’m not a historian – far from it – but even I know that we have events that are reported by named eyewitnesses rather than anonymous accounts, events that are reported by historians who show clear signs of impartiality and weighing up the evidence for the available facts, and events that are backed up by archaeological evidence. This makes very interesting reading. Or this. I’ll answer the actual question now, but I wasn’t going to let that blatant inaccuracy go by.

If God did not exist, or Jesus’ claims to be God were not true, then how would you explain his resurrection?

Isn’t that question-begging? Surely that should be “How would you explain the number of people who came to believe he had been resurrected?” As I touched on above, I think the most likely explanation is that one or more of his disciples started having grief hallucinations, formed a belief that these represented a miraculously resurrected Jesus who would come back to lead the Messianic movement they so desperately wanted, and were full enough of religious fervour and charisma that they managed to convince first the other disciples and then growing numbers of other people.

It’s possible, of course, that the actual explanation is different; barring time travel, we’ll never know. The thing is, the unknowns here don’t mean that ‘Jesus actually was miraculously raised from the dead’ is the only possible explanation for how, in a deeply religious and superstitious society in which very many people desperately wanted a Messiah, people ended up believing that the man they hoped and believed to be the Messiah had been miraculously raised from the dead.

16. What do you think makes so many Christians able to live radically different lives from the way they used to live prior to becoming Christians–even to the point of forgiving their abusers for terrible crimes?

For one thing, it’s very powerful to be able to believe that a divine being loves you, will take care of you, and forgives all your wrongs – and that’s what a converted Christian believes, regardless of whether or not it’s true. For another, many conversion experiences also involve trust and positive attention from others and acceptance into a social group, and that’s enormously important for human beings.

17. One of the most basic principles of science is ex nihilo nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”).

I’m a bit doubtful about that (the claim that it’s ‘one of the most basic principles of science’, that is, not the actual claim). Not that I’m a scientist, but I’ve done and/or read enough science over the course of my life that, if that really was considered one of the most basic principles of science, I’d expect to have come across it at some point. From what I can see, it’s actually a much more basic principle of science not to assume things like that but instead to investigate them. (By the way, I looked up the quote; apparently it actually comes from an Ancient Greek philosopher who was using it to argue that things had always existed.)

 Without God, how do you think everything came into being?

As I understand it, the main current theory is that the universe originated from something called the quantum vacuum. You’d find out more by asking a physicist, though.

18. The Bible says that we were created to live forever, and that death is an unnatural enemy, brought about by sin. If you are a naturalist who believes death is simply part of life, how do you explain why we feel like we ought to live forever, and why pain and death feel so unnatural and wrong to just about everyone?

As far as death is concerned, I think the main answer to that one is that, in the Western world, we’ve become very insulated from death and so it feels alien to most people when they encounter it. Most people in this society go through a large chunk of their lives before encountering death. For most of human history, that’s been very different. People have never liked the idea of death, but in most other societies throughout human history and geography they’ve been a lot more used to it than most people in our society.

As far as pain is concerned, bear in mind that the whole purpose of pain is to be an urgent warning signal; a ‘Get away from that possibly harmful stimulus NOW AS A PRIORITY!’ shriek from our nervous system. Pain feels wrong because it’s the signal our body gives us that something is wrong. (Unfortunately, it’s also a signal our body can give us even when nothing’s wrong, and also when things are wrong that aren’t particularly fixable, which sucks majorly for sufferers from chronic pain. But that’s a whole other story.)

19. If your brain is merely the unplanned result of evolution by natural selection, aimed at survival and nothing else, what makes you think you can trust your reasoning to discover the truth, rather than just whichever belief is best for survival?

To be pedantic, it’s not so much ‘whichever belief is best for survival’ as ‘whichever belief is produced by mental processes that actually evolved to optimise survival in a hunter-gatherer setting’, which is not necessarily the same thing. Either way, though, it’s a fair question. Humans aren’t naturally all that good at logical reasoning overall, and it’s important to be aware of this and to take into account the ways in which biases and logical flaws are likely to skew us. I try to consider my arguments from the point of view of ‘What would someone who disagreed with me say about this?’ and ‘If I had the opposite point of view, would I find this to be good evidence?’ (or, alternatively, ‘If this piece of evidence showed the opposite of what it does, would I feel the same about the quality of the evidence? If not, does this affect my argument?’) I think that’s important for everyone to do.

I’m curious, by the way, as to why you’re bringing this up in a list of questions meant for non-Christians’ Were you thinking that an approach of ‘whichever belief is best for survival’ would be likely to skew me inaccurately towards being a non-Christian/an atheist? If so, why? I would have thought that, if anything, the opposite would be true.

20. If no God, why would anything objectively matter?

I don’t think things objectively matter, in the sense of having some kind of quality of ‘matteringness’ that somehow exists independently of there being anyone for things to matter to. (If a tree falls in an unknown forest with no-one for it to matter to, does it still matter….) Things matter subjectively, a very great deal, to each of us. In addition, because we as humans care about the feelings of others, it also matters to each of us that things matter to other people.

Questions from Joel Settecase – Part One

I love these ‘question lists for atheists‘ thingys (within reason; not the particularly stupid or insulting ones) so I was thrilled to see a new list posted; 30 Questions for Non-Christians, by blogger Joel Settecase. Given the length I’ll split it into either two or three parts, depending on how I go.

1. Are you certain that God does not exist, or that you can’t know whether He exists?

I’m as certain that God does not exist as I am that, say, fairies or werewolves do not exist – in other words, I recognise it’s theoretically possible for me to be wrong about this, but none of the supposed evidence for the existence of God/fairies/werewolves stands up to examination and so for practical purposes I think it’s fair to say that God/fairies/werewolves do not exist.

I’m not quite sure whether the second half of the question is meant to be read as ‘Are you certain that you can’t know whether God exists?’, which would fit with what it actually says, or as ‘Do you believe that you can’t know whether God exists?’, which seems to make a bit more sense contextually. Either way, I suppose that technically the answer is ‘Yes’, as we can’t absolutely know whether or not some sort of god exists, but it’s still the case that I feel sure enough that no gods exist that I count myself as an atheist rather than an agnostic.

2. How do you know that?

Again, I’m not quite sure how to read this; it seems to be asking how I know that I’m certain that God doesn’t exist, in which case the answer is because my certainty is part of my mind and thoughts and hence is something I know about. However, I think it’s meant to be ‘How do you know that God doesn’t exist?’ in which case the answer is that I:

  • Spent a lot of time and effort reading the reasons of people who believed in God vs. those who didn’t, and found that the former (unexplained questions about the universe, religious experiences, our moral sense) all seemed to have fairly straightforward alternative explanations
  • Spent a lot of time and effort reading the Bible to see how Christianity held up (haven’t yet blogged about that, must do so some day, but the short version is that the OT isn’t consistent with the NT without a lot of cherry picking)
  • Also realised that the particular type of divine being you’re probably talking about when you refer to ‘God’ is normally described as having a) a deep interest in the belief state of each individual human and b) the capacity to communicate directly and unambiguously with each of us, and hence it seems reasonable to deduce that if that particular type of God existed then He would be communicating directly and unambiguously with, at the very least, anyone who showed an interest; and that, since this is clearly not happening, we can logically conclude that, at the very least, no divine being combining those particular attributes exists, meaning the particular God you refer to does not appear to exist.

3. Did you use your five senses to come to that decision?

Just my sight, as I use that to read and hence to absorb the arguments of others.

4. Given that God is by definition a Spirit, how much sense does it make to decide whether He exists using your five physical senses?

I don’t think there’s any logical reason why a god should necessarily be expected to be experienced via the five physical senses. However, as I said above, a god who combines overwhelming power and ability with a genuine desire to communicate with each individual human (both of which are attributes which the Christian god is meant to possess) would surely be expected to communicate with us in some way that’s at least as clearcut as the information we receive through our five existing senses, even if that means designing humans with an extra sense for receiving God-messages. While enormous numbers of people do believe themselves to have received messages from one god or another, these messages are (aside from being pretty contradictory) typically received in a way that’s much less clear-cut, and much harder to distinguish from our own internal experiences, than the messages we receive from our senses about the world all around us. This doesn’t make sense if we’re hypothesising a very powerful god who has both the ability and the desire to communicate with us, but makes perfect sense if we hypothesise that humans are very good at imagining that that particular type of god exists when in fact He doesn’t.

5. Did you use your reasoning to determine God does not exist?

Yes, as above.

6. How do you know your reasoning is working correctly?

While I can’t ever know for sure that it’s correct, the ways in which I’ve tried to check it are 1. by focusing on asking myself “Could there be any other explanations for this/ways to look at this?” and 2. by reading the arguments of many people who disagree with me, as well as those who agree with me, to see how those hold up (and by looking for flaws in the arguments of those who agree with me as well).

7. Did you use your reasoning to determine your reasoning was working?

Yes, in the ways described for the previous point.

8. Do you see the problem with that?

Sure. But as far as I can see, it’s still the best we can do. If you can think of a better method, I’m all ears.

9. The Bible says that skepticism about God is the result of a mind suppressing what it knows to be true.

Then the Bible, on that point at least, is wrong.

Have you ever tried doubting your doubts about God?

Sure. It didn’t get me very far, since my doubts were there for good reasons that weren’t addressed just by doubting them.

10. The Bible contains hundreds prophecies fulfilled hundreds of years after they were written. How would that be possible without God?

See, I disagree with you about this. When I started checking out Christianity, one of the things I did was to look up the OT verses that were, according to my Bible copies, supposed to be prophecies of things that happened in the NT. I also, as time went on, learned more about Jewish scriptures and the context and translation of many of the verses that Christians have interpreted as prophecies.  And I found, over and over, that the verses that were supposed to be a prophecy that such-and-such would happen had actually been taken completely out of context, and occasionally even poorly translated in ways that made them look as though they said something they probably in fact didn’t.. A couple of the prophecies I was directed to actually did seem to be intended as prophecies of future events (the Messiah coming from Bethlehem, the Messiah being descended from King David) but, in both of those cases, the NT accounts were so contradictory it seemed more likely that someone had simply made up those details in Jesus’s life to fit with the prophecies. I didn’t find anything (and I eventually reached the point of reading the Biblical prophets in their entirety to check this) that appeared to be a miraculously fulfilled prophecy that could only be explained by magic or divine intervention.

I haven’t made nearly as detailed a study of OT prophecies not related to Christian claims, but, from what I have read, I understand there’s a lot of doubt about those; apparently many just flat-out haven’t come true at all, and, although at least one in Isaiah does appear to have been fulfilled, there’s enough doubt about when the original was written that it’s easily possible that it was in fact written after the events.

There just don’t seem to be any cases in the Bible (or out of it, as far as I know, but that’s another story) where a prophecy was demonstrably written before the event it prophecied, with detailed enough description that it doesn’t appear to be just a coincidence that later seemed to match it, predicting events that couldn’t be predicted through sheer common sense or good luck, and was then shown to have come true in ways that couldn’t be people following the instructions of the prophecy in order to make it come true. Since that’s what would be needed to say that a prophecy’s fulfilment actually was miraculous, I can’t agree that the Bible contains hundreds of fulfilled prophecies.

An honest atheist’s reply to Ted Wright – Part Two

(This is – as people can probably figure out – the second part of my reply to a post by Ted Wright. This post, to be exact. The first part should be listed at the ‘previous post’ link at the top and bottom of this post, so I won’t bother to link it separately.)

So, Ted, the last post was my reply to your thoughts on the logical consequences of atheism. This, as promised, is my thoughts on the logical consequences of what, to borrow your term, we can call ‘classical Christianity’ (I do recognise that Christianity covers a wide range of beliefs and that there are many Christians – possibly including yourself, for all I know – who don’t share the beliefs I’m about to discuss below.)

The teaching of classical Christianity regarding the afterlife is that, while Christians spend eternity in a wonderful heaven, everyone else is doomed to go to hell and suffer eternal torment.

As I say, specifics of belief on this vary. (I recall a line I liked in Antonia White’s ‘Frost in May’; a Catholic says to a Protestant who laments the awfulness of this doctrine, “It’s only a dogma that Hell exists; it isn’t a dogma that there’s anybody in it.”.) There are many Christians who don’t believe in hell at all, and, among Christians who do believe it, there are differences of opinion on, for example, which of the following groups would end up there:

  • People who, for reasons of where or when they live, simply never get to hear about Christianity at all.
  • People who reject Christianity because they have, from childhood on, been taught a different religious belief that includes the teaching that Christianity is false and that God would be heartily displeased were they to convert to it, thus meaning that they sincerely believe that they are better pleasing God by avoiding Christianity altogether.
  • People who reject Christianity because, having carefully investigated it, they conclude it to be false.
  • People who never really get as far as accepting or rejecting Christianity because they believe the important thing is to lead good lives and help others, and hence focus their energies on this rather than on investigating the details of religion.

By Christian teachings, at least some of those people are, in return for no very great sin or crime, doomed to be eternally tormented in hell. According to Christian beliefs, good and kind people are facing this fate not for any wrong, but simply for being imperfect humans who either genuinely disbelieved in Christianity, or simply happened to miss out on whatever twist of chance and circumstance might have led them to Christian belief. This is happening as a direct result of the grand plan of the Being supposedly in charge of the universe.

That is a crushing catastrophe. That is a nightmare unbroken by a dawn.

That is also, I recognise, not a point that affects whether the Christian faith is true. I told you in the last post that I’ve striven to form my beliefs as honestly as possible, based on evidence rather than desirability, and that applies here as well; just as I tried my utmost to avoid allowing the desirability of other forms of afterlife to lead me into religious beliefs that I couldn’t honestly back up with evidence, so I tried my utmost to avoid allowing the horror of Christian teachings to put me off. I investigated Christianity in detail, as fairly as I could, and only rejected it once I truly felt I had enough evidence that Christian beliefs were incorrect. I knew that, if the evidence was that the universe really was run by such a monster – that life really was that hopeless – then I wouldn’t be able to change that reality, and would have to do my best to accept it. I tried my best to keep an open mind as I investigated, and I do believe I managed that.

But I hope the above explains why I’ve always found it rather ironic when Christians try to tell me what an awful worldview atheism is.

An honest atheist’s reply to Ted Wright – Part One

There’s a new Christian blogger in town; Ted Wright, founder of a group called Epic Archaeology, who has now set up a blog called Off The Map. He’s started off with a post titled Honest Atheism, of which the summary is basically ‘Excuse me, atheists, could I just point out to you that your worldview really sucks for you? Stay tuned to hear more about the comparative joys of Christianity.’

I thought I’d write a reply, which I’m splitting into two posts due to length. Content warning for talk of death and dying.

This is the first (real) post of my new personal blog, and it will be… to put it bluntly…disturbing and to some, depressing. This is intentional. My goal is simply to get people to really THINK about what it is that they believe, and to see the logical conclusions of what they believe about ultimate reality.

Why?

Let’s say for a moment that atheism really was as depressing a worldview as you believe. (I disagree, but set that aside for a moment.) What good do you feel it would do you to rub that in? Reality isn’t going to change for our benefit regardless of how depressing it is, and I assume (I hope correctly) that you wouldn’t advise anyone to choose their beliefs based on what feels good.

But, OK, let’s go for it – let’s both look at the logical conclusions of what we believe about ultimate reality. I’ll go first, since you wrote the blog post.

First, though, we have this:

Sproul taught that when all of the various worldviews are boiled down to their basic components, there are only two in the end for us to choose from – two views of reality in which all people must put their ultimate hope and trust: full orbed Classical Christian Theism or Atheistic-Nihilism.  I fully agree with this assessment. Like Sproul, I am also fully aware how how this understanding appears to commit either/or fallacy in logic. I don’t think it does. Either there is a God and all that Christian Theism implies (including miracles, the afterlife, and the resurrection of Christ from the dead); or there is NO GOD, no afterlife, and life is completely and utterly absurd.

Whoa, there. Are you planning a follow-up post to justify that claim? I hope so, because I think that anyone who’s going to dismiss polytheism, deism, agnosticism, Judaic theism, Islamic theism, and probably a few other -isms I’m not thinking of into the bargain as being so incorrect as to become somehow functionally nonexistent for purposes of consideration should darned well justify that attitude beyond a mere handwave.

(Also – yes, I have spotted you slipping in your opinion about atheism at the end of that as though it could be stated as objective fact. I get that you believe that if atheism is correct then ‘life is completely and utterly absurd’, and you’re welcome to that opinion, but do be aware that it is an opinion and that there are many people who don’t share it.)

Anyway, on to Ted’s thoughts on how awful atheism must be as a worldview and on how bizarre he finds it that atheists don’t seem to feel that way:

What I find quite interesting is that many atheists, as well as those who are a-religious, or hard agnostics, ACT as if life has meaning, significance & value

Because to us, it does.

They conduct their affairs and live their lives as if there REALLY IS ultimate meaning and significance.

No – just as though there’s meaning and significance. Because, as you point out a couple of sentences later, there is. Meaning and significance are not things which have to be ‘ultimate’ or eternal or God-ordained to exist.

Where does the meaning come from? What exactly gives it [sic] meaning?

Very likely from most of the same places yours does. I’d be surprised if the only thing you found meaningful in your life was your worship practices; it’s far more likely that your life contains at least some out of family, friends, some kind of meaningful work, enjoyable hobbies, and the chance to make a positive impact on others, all of which are very important potential sources of meaning.

Are they brutally honest with the implications of their atheism – of there being no God? Do they look down the road to see where it leads – so to speak?

I can only speak for myself here – and I’ll be interested to hear what any other atheists weighing in on this have to say – but, yes. I’ve always been well aware that, if there’s no god, then that means that a) there’s no higher power to help out in times of crisis, and b) it’s extremely unlikely that there is any form of afterlife.

(I put ‘extremely unlikely’ because it’s technically possible to believe in a godless universe where an afterlife still exists; after all, Buddhists manage it. It’s not what an atheist would typically believe, however, and it’s not what I believe.)

Unless I’m wrong about my beliefs, the ‘me’ part of me is going to wink out completely when I die. No reincarnation, no living on in a blissful afterlife, no nothing. And the same is going to happen to everyone else, meaning that, when I lose loved ones, I have no chance of ever meeting them again. Honestly, Ted… as much as these things might suck, they aren’t deep dark secrets about atheism, or obscure points that might have escaped our attention. They’re well-known, obvious facts. I’m going to be pretty surprised if you can find many atheists who, prior to you bringing this to their attention, were blithely unaware of the fact that no god = almost certainly no afterlife = when we’re dead, we’re gone with no do-overs.

Yes, I’d certainly have preferred it if all the searching I’d done on the matter (which was a lot, in case you’re wondering, and the posts at that link don’t even include all the considerable amount of investigating I did of Christianity specifically) had led me to the belief that the world was in the charge of some kind of benevolent higher power. I’d certainly have preferred to believe that I’d get the chance to live on in some pleasant and enjoyable type of existence after my death (my personal preference would be for reincarnation, but I’d have happily settled for some kind of merit-based afterlife). Concluding that neither of the above appeared to be the case wasn’t the sort of devastating abandon-all-hope experience you seem to think it would be, but it wasn’t something I was wildly thrilled about. But… that isn’t a good reason to choose a belief. I couldn’t in all honesty convince myself that the evidence supported belief in a god or an afterlife, and I didn’t want to be someone who based her beliefs on wishful thinking.

“[…]Yes, for the thoughtful atheist death must loom as a crushing catastrophe. Everything good, noble, beautiful experienced throughout life is about to vanish…

not simply for a week or two,

not for a century,

…but forever.

On the atheist’s premise death is a nightmare unbroken by a dawn” [Quoted from Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet]

Now, that strikes me as hyperbole. Yes, it sucks to know that we may well not get to do everything we want before we die. It sucks worse to know that, if a loved one dies before us, that’s it – we will never see them again outside our memories and imaginations. But‘crushing catastrophe’? ‘[N]ightmare unbroken by a dawn’? Death, from our perspective, is nonexistence. What Dubay seems to be saying here is that death itself will be a terrible experience to be endured, when, in fact, the very nature of it means that we won’t experience it (beyond, possibly, the seconds of actually slipping into death) at all. It’s not as though we’re going to be spending eternity lamenting the loss of all those good and noble and beautiful things we wanted to experience; we won’t be experiencing anything at all, and that’s that.

I also have to say that what you’re saying does seem to me to be a bit contradictory here. You’re saying (via Dubay’s quote) that the loss of existence is ‘a crushing catastrophe’ and ‘a nightmare unbroken by a dawn’. Surely, the implication of that is that existence is a good thing that is worth having. I’m… puzzled as to how someone can feel that way, value existence that way, and yet only feel able to enjoy existence if it’s going to be permanent rather than temporary.

Ted, you seem to be just as puzzled about the fact that I, and others, do feel able to enjoy existence even in the expectation that it’s temporary. (To the point where, in the comments, you’re accusing everyone who feels this way of not being ‘honest’. That, seriously, is out of order. There are people in the world who don’t share your views. That doesn’t make them dishonest; it makes them people who feel differently from you.) So, maybe, try this; think about things that we all know are temporary, but that we enjoy anyway.

What about the experience of bringing up children? While I’ll always be a parent to my two children, their time as children is not going to be permanent. The baby cuddles and the early words and the school days and all those wonderful stages of growth and development they go through… some of those have already passed forever, and all of the rest will as well. And I knew that would happen when I chose to have children. Do you find it absurd or incomprehensible that I and millions of other people choose to have children, knowing the experience of parenting children will, although wonderful and fulfilling, be temporary?

What about careers? I love my work as a doctor with a passion, to the point where I plan to go back part-time even after I retire; but, eventually, either death or sheer decrepitude will put an end to it. (And that’s true even on your worldview, by the way; I’m assuming you don’t believe that people who get into heaven or hell go on working at their careers there.) From what I’ve seen, I believe you feel the same way about your work in archaeology, which is also something you’re probably not expecting to keep doing in heaven. Do you find it strange that we both love and enjoy our work even in the knowledge that it will someday come to an end for us?

I hope that helps to give you some insight into why people who don’t believe in an afterlife can still find their lives purposeful, meaningful and enjoyable. If not… well, I’m afraid it’s simply a case of ‘agree to differ’. (In which case, I repeat; the fact that some people feel differently from you on this subject does not make them dishonest. It makes them people who feel differently from you. I hope you will, in future, be able to do others the courtesy of respecting this fact.)

I think that exhausts the logical conclusions of what I believe about ultimate reality. I’ll therefore end the post here and move on to a second post to discuss the logical conclusions of Christian beliefs about the afterlife.