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.

Comments

  1. says

    Dr. Sarah,

    I’m thrilled that you found my post and found it enjoyable to read. Thank you for the time and thought you’ve evidently put into responding to these first questions. I will be looking forward to reading the rest of your responses.

    Warmest regards,

    Joel Settecase (author of the 30 Questions for Non-Christians).

    • Dr Sarah says

      Hi there and thanks for replying! I was going to post a link at your blog once I’d finished all 30 answers, but looks like you’ve found it anyway – I see I’m the subject of a follow-up post! Will hopefully have next installment up soon. 🙂

  2. says

    Here are the answers I posted at Joel Settecase’s blog. I hope they are not too long for the comment section. I just typed them up over an hour, there may be gaps in reasoning. Here goes:

    I have been an atheist for the past thirty years. I must say I find the language and structure of some of the questions appalling dishonest, but I will give you my questions.

    1. Are you certain that God does not exist, or that you can’t know whether He exists?
    I find it very dishonest that you are supposedly asking a general question but already are presuming a single specific deity.

    Looking at the other questions I can see you are also presuming the Christian god without considering that there are hundreds of other god concepts that the human race holds, and millions upon millions believe and worship.

    I am however convinced no god or gods exist.

    2. How do you know that?

    I have seen no evidence.

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

    I used my mind. I decided there is no reason to believe in things my five senses and reason do not show to exist. I do not believe in the Lock Ness monster, or the tooth fairy, or banshees for the same reason.

    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 do not believe in things or entities that cannot be shown to exist. If something exists, it can have an effect on the physical world which can be seen or measured.

    5. Did you use your reasoning to determine God does not exist?
    Yes. I have seen no reason to believe in any supernatural entities or occurrences.

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

    Because I base it on fact-based evidence. Like the old saying goes “reality is what remains when you stop believing.

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

    Yes, and checking with my experience with reality.

    8. Do you see the problem with that?

    Not at all. What else should I base my reasoning on?

    9. The Bible says that skepticism about God is the result of a mind suppressing what it knows to be true. Have you ever tried doubting your doubts about God?

    The bible says, and the scriptures of the Buddhists say, and the scriptures of the Hindus say, and scriptures of the Taoists say, and the scriptures of Zoroastrians say, and the scriptures of the Muslins say. All are living religions all with followers who accept their religion as the Truth.

    Why should one old set of writings be held of more worth than any other? Why, except for yours, should they all be held false? And why should I take any notice of any of them? Why particularly should I pay any notice to what your scriptures say about me being skeptical? All scriptures are pushing the idea of THEIR deity and being unhappy about anyone who does not follow it/them.

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

    That’s just not true. Try researching on non-religious sites.

    11. The Bible says that objective moral values are based in God’s morally perfect nature. Without God, what do you think they are based in?

    Humans evolved as social animals. For all social animals, empathy, feelings of fairness, and cooperation are required for the group to function. Look into the behavior studies of wolves, monkeys, horses, dogs etc. There many, many such studies out there. All animal social groups have rules of behavior, and punishment for members who break those rules.

    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?

    Fanatics believe in a lot of things, and are often willing to die for them.

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

    No there isn’t. It is a yes or no question. Do you believe in a deity/deities or not? That it.

    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?

    No they are not. Stop reading religious sites and check out the actual work archaeologists are doing.

    A lot of the Israeli archaeology done in the 1800’s to about the 1930’s was done by Christian believers who went looking for proof of the bible. They even called it “Biblical Archaeology”. Modern work is finding there was a lot of bias and just plain amateur conclusions made at that time. Most of the work of that time has been discredited. It was on the level of “we have found the Ark!”,again, and again and again.

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

    First: No there isn’t. Except for accounts written from one hundred to two hundred years later, there is nothing. No contemporary accounts at all. Please don’t say Josephus, that was dismissed as a forgery in the last century.

    Really, have you actually read any history books? Do you have any idea how historians work?? This is an argument for very, very uneducated people.

    Second: This is just one of the many, many resurrection stories of gods of the Middle East, a tradition we can trace back at least to the Bronze Age, and which most likely goes back to the beginnings of agriculture.

    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?

    People change according to their adopted belief systems all the time. Do you not think there are people who say “Until Vishnu opened my heart I could not forgive”, or “Buddha showed me the way to enlightenment”, or even “ISIS showed me the truth and now I am willing to kill and die for it”.

    17. One of the most basic principles of science is ex nihilo nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”). Without God, how do you think everything came into being?

    First: “ex nihilo nihil fit” is NOT a scientific principle. It is a metaphysical principle proposed by a Greek philosopher named Parmedides (born 515 BCE). Stop being dishonest.

    Second: We don’t know, YET. Give science some time. It is only in the last hundred years we have any real knowledge of how the universe beyond our tiny solar system works. We do know that this particular universe (there are some physicists thinking about multi-verses) started with the Big Bang. There is lots and lots of work going on in physics and astronomy all over the world. We are also receiving ongoing data from the space missions that is giving new facts to work with.

    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?

    Speak for yourself. “Ought to live forever”? “Death is wrong”? Way to impose thoughts/feelings on others. We are alive, our genetics push our instincts to try to stay alive. As we are one of the animal species who have a concept of death, it bothers us on a basic level. That feeling is not proof of “being created to live forever”.

    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?

    What “truth”? That the whole universe was created by a Middle Eastern storm god who was powerless against iron chariots?

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

    Because I am alive, and this is the world I live in. And there are lots of other people I live with.

    21. If no God, why is there so much good in the world?
    See answer to #9.

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

    Nobody “programmed” it. Stop dishonestly using such loaded language.

    Random mutations occurred over billions of years. Non-adaptive ones either prevented the organism containing that mutation from breeding or (usually) just killed it. Mutations that either gave some tiny advantage, or were neutral were passed along. Try saying “what” not “who”

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

    As far as we know at the moment, yes.

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

    It is an electrical action taking place between my brain cells.

    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?

    Again, stop with the loaded language. I am grateful FOR things in my life. I am NOT grateful TO anyone.

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

    They are useful working principles humans have discovered about how reality works.

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

    No, they are “principles”, that is mental constructs humans use based on reality and experience. Are you saying mathematical laws are made of matter and energy? Is the concept of the number “two” made of matter and energy?

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

    What evidence would actually convince you that Vishnu is the Lord?

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

    I have read the WHOLE bible, every word of it, in four different standard English versions. I researched the history of the bible. I took courses in Christian Scholastic Philosophy during my studies for my Master’s in European history,

    I have also read/studied the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Book of changes, and the main Buddhist and Zen Buddhist. I have read the ancients beliefs and sacred lore of the North and South American native peoples. I have also looked at Shamanistic practices around the world, both ancient and modern.

    30. Are you ready to learn more about Jesus? Start here with the Gospel of John

    Already done that. Like a lot of atheists, I became a non-believer by reading the bible.

    • Dr Sarah says

      Thanks for these! Joel Settecase has written a follow-up post on his blog asking Christians to come round here and discuss my answers with me, so this could hopefully be interesting.

      You’re much quicker than I am – I take hours over these things. Then again, I’m very verbose. 🙂

  3. purrs says

    My favorite part about Jesus supposedly fulfilling the prophecy of the messiah being descended from David?
    He’s supposedly descended from David…by way of Joseph. You know, that dude who absolutely cannot be Jesus’s father if we’re expected to believe one of the fundamental principles of xtianity? That Joseph?
    Use some logic, please. And no, “faith” isn’t an adequate substitute.

    • Dr Sarah says

      And at one point Jesus seems to be arguing that the Messiah can’t be a descendant of David. Yup – it’s contradictory.

  4. DonDueed says

    The question about prophecy is one that can be turned right around against the Xians. The New Testament is absolutely riddled with prophecies about Jesus’s return. In many of those cases (including some attributed to Jesus himself), the time for that event was limited to within the lifetime of the listeners, i.e. sometime within what we call the first century C.E. or at most the second century.
    Still waiting.

    • Dr Sarah says

      Yes. And… you know how Christians often say that Jews refused to believe Jesus was the messiah was because they were expecting some glorious king who’d rule over a liberated Israel? Well, the reason Jews expected this was because that’s actually what the OT prophecies; a king ruling over a liberated Israel. If you start from the premise of biblical prophecies being correct, then the Jews were right to reject Jesus as a possible Messiah.

      Jeremiah 33:18 also prophecies that the Jewish sacrificial system will go on forever, which, again, puts the kibosh on the whole idea of God sending Jesus as a once-and-for-all sacrifice who was supposed to make the sacrificial system obsolete.

      Actually reading the bible prophecies was, for me, the confirmation that Christianity could not possibly be true.

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