Questions! Questions for atheists!

Ahem. Sorry for the slight overexcitement. Another person has posted a list of respectfully-asked questions that at least seem to be aimed at a general discussion rather than just point-scoring, and this is catnip to me. You know, I should have thought of giving this as an answer last time a Facebook friend of mine asked for things that made us unreasonably happy; in my case, it’s questions from people who want respectful debate. All right! (rubs hands) Let’s get to it!

Is Your Atheism Based on Study or Experience?

Study. I spent a great deal of time looking at arguments for or against God’s existence, and eventually had to conclude that there just wasn’t any evidence for God that stood up to examination.

Do You Have Purpose and Destiny?

Second, would you say that even as an atheist, you still have a sense of purpose and destiny in your life, a feeling that you were put here for a reason and that you have a mission to accomplish?

I included part of the follow-up clarification because I wanted to comment on a bit of (most likely unintentional) question-begging; I don’t feel that I was ‘put here’, full stop, so asking whether I was put here for a reason is kind of a meaningless question. I was certainly conceived for a reason, the reason being that my parents wanted children, but I don’t think that’s what Michael Brown was getting at. In the same vein, I’m not sure that ‘destiny’ makes much sense here, since that kind of implies someone/something having some sort of destiny in mind for me, which I don’t think is the case (and, my goodness, it sounds rather grandiose!)

However, the answer to whether I have purpose is ‘Yes’. In general, I’m trying to live a good and useful life that gives back to the world. In terms of missions to accomplish, mine are to go on being a good doctor who helps patients, to be a support to my children and do what I can to raise them to have happy and hopefully fruitful lives, to speak up against dishonesty or injustice where I can, and to get all the damn excess clutter cleared out of my life. Works for me.

Does God Exist?

Well, by definition an atheist is obviously going to answer ‘No’, but from the follow-up clarification it seems that this wasn’t actually your question:

Third, would you say that you are 100% sure there is no such being as God — meaning, an eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing being? Or would you say that, for all practical purposes you have concluded that this God does not exist, although it is impossible to prove such a negative with absolute certainty?

The latter. Although, in this context, I think it’s worth pondering the question that made me realise I should be an atheist rather than an agnostic; why is it that the various versions of the above question only get asked about God, and not about beings such as fairies or ghosts that are believed in by some and disbelieved in by others?

Can Science Explain the Origin of Life?

Fourth, do you believe that science can provide answers for many of the remaining mysteries of the universe, including: how the universe began (including where matter came from and where the Big Bang derived its energy); the origin of life; and DNA coding?

Again, these questions are not intended to “stump you” or prove that science can’t answer everything. Instead, I’m genuinely wondering if you feel comfortable saying, “We may not be able to answer all these questions now, but over time, we’ll get the answers — and we won’t need a God to fill in the gaps.”

Since science has an excellent track record with answering questions that once seemed unanswerable, yes, I think it’s a very fair assumption that scientific investigation will provide us with more and more answers over time, just as it’s already provided at least partial answers for some of the above. But I also think it’s worth adding that, even if science doesn’t answer every question (and in fact I think it’s pretty fair to anticipate that it won’t), then that still won’t mean that the answer has to be ‘Because God’. It’s hardly uncommon for us not to know the precise cause of something that clearly wasn’t divinely committed – we don’t assume that every unsolved murder has to have been God smiting the victim – so unanswered questions aren’t a good reason to assume a divine being as the answer.

Have You Questioned Your Atheism?

Fifth, have you had any experiences in life that caused you to question your atheism?

Now you come to mention it… no. I’ve done plenty of questioning along the way, but by the time I started identifying as an atheist, I’d been actively looking at the whole question for something like fourteen years (during most of which time I’d considered myself an agnostic). So, by the time I reached the point of ‘OK, it makes more sense to be an atheist’, I’d spent a lot of time looking up and considering basic arguments and going through the questions, the what-ifs, the ‘is God trying to speak to me?‘, the ‘well, let’s give God the benefit of the doubt here and think about ways in which this particular issue could still be compatible with the existence of a divine being…’. I don’t want to say “I’d done the questioning” because that phrasing frames ‘the questioning’ as something that can be completely over and done with and relegated to the past, and I don’t think that should ever be the case. But in practice, since moving to “well, guess I’m an atheist” I just haven’t seen or thought of any pro-theism arguments that have not been at most a variation on a theme of ones I’ve already exhaustively seen, considered, and eventually concluded don’t hold up.

Are You Materialistic?

Sixth, are you completely materialistic in your mindset, meaning, human beings are entirely physical, human consciousness is an illusion, and there is no spiritual realm of any kind?

Whoa, I think that phrasing should be ‘are you a materialist?’. ‘Materialistic’ means someone who prioritises getting money and possessions! Anyway… I don’t think it makes much sense to say that consciousness is an illusion, and I think a more accurate phrasing of the materialist position on consciousness would be that it’s the product of material things/physical laws. (As are illusions, come to think of it.) But other than that, yes, this sounds correct.

Would You Be Willing to Follow God?

Seventh, if you were convinced that God truly existed — meaning the God of the Bible, who is perfect in every way, full of justice and mercy, our Creator and our Redeemer — would that be good news or bad news? And would you be willing to follow Him and honor Him if He were truly God?

Depends which part of the Bible you’re talking about when you say ‘God of the Bible’.

From reading the earlier part of the Old Testament, I remember a god riven with petty jealousy, orchestrating hideous mass deaths, with archaic views on rape and slavery and some strange gaps in his scientific knowledge. The existence of this god would be bad news.

In the later part of the Old Testament, I glimpsed a different and better kind of god; the god of Ezekiel 18 and similar passages, expecting us to take personal responsibility but also willing to see our virtues and our efforts and to judge us fairly. The existence of this god would be good news, and, yes, I would follow and honour him.

And in the New Testament, we get the most hideous god of all; the one who condemns all non-Christians to an eternity of torment, who blames the Jews for sticking to the laws that he himself strictly instructed them to keep to forever, who expects us to overlook the ways he acted back in the early books, and who tries to convince us that all these things are really signs of great love and concern on his part. The existence of this god would be terrible news. And, to answer your other question, I could never honour such a god, and while I suppose I’d follow him because ‘Or burn in hell’ isn’t really much of a choice, it would never be willingly.