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.

Comments

  1. anat says

    Regarding #20, I’d say for something to matter it by necessity means that it matters subjectively, as there has to be a mind to experience the ‘mattering’ for it to happen. The only difference between the atheist view and the theistic view is that theists also consider mind(s) of divine beings. That is ‘X matters to this god/dess(es), therefore it matters to someone regardless of whether all, some or any people agree’. The ‘mattering’ is still subjective.

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