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?


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.

… 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.


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.

Laying down the homeschooling burden

Today is the second anniversary of my move to FTB. Being offered a blog on here would have been great news under any circumstances, but, as it happened, was a particular light in the darkness at the time, because life right then was very, very stressful. My son was in his final year of what had been an extremely turbulent time at primary school, and, although he was finally settling down at the excellent school we’d managed to get him into that year, his history meant that no local mainstream school felt able to take him. The local available options for autism specialist education were not particularly good, and, in particular, not good options for Jamie. This meant that my husband and I were in the midst of a lengthy struggle with the local council as to the best course of action for his secondary education.

To cut a very long story short (which is something I wish I could have done with the reality) we eventually reached an uneasy compromise whereby I would homeschool Jamie for the next year with the help of a budget from the council which we could use to hire tutors. This had its advantages, but it was also a massive and stressful job. With an interested and involved child, homeschooling can work very well. With my son, it was a constant uphill struggle that absorbed endless hours of my time and energy in trying to come up with lessons he would do. This school year, we’ve been trying to arrange his return to mainstream education, and it has not been easy.

Finally, the struggle is over. On my second blogging anniversary, it gives me enormous pleasure to announce that we have a confirmed and funded place for my son at a specialist school for autism about a forty-minute drive away with an excellent reputation, and he will be starting at the beginning of next term. While our lives aren’t going to be plain sailing from now on by any means, one huge source of worry has just been lifted.

Having fulfilled what seems to be an unintentional yearly tradition to type up my anniversary posts in a mad rush while about to be late for dinner, I’d better go. Happy blogging anniversary to all those bloggers who started at the same time as me, and I hope all of you are having similarly good things in your lives to celebrate.