November 10, 2015

Dear Christians: Answers to questions for atheists, agnostics, and non-Christians

This week, I ran across an old blog post by Shawn Nelson. You can check out his post here.

In the post, Shawn shares a handful of questions that he would ask nonbelievers, and I thought that it would be fun to answer them too. These are questions that evangelists are encouraged to try out, and I thought it would also be informative for those of you that are interested in ministering to us to hear how an actual atheist would respond to these questions.

So here it goes. Enjoy.

1. Are you absolutely sure there is no God? If not, then is it not possible that there is a God? And if it is possible that God exists, then can you think of any reason that would keep you from wanting to look at the evidence?

I've touched on this in the past, but no, I'm not sure that there is no god.

Atheism is not a claim to knowledge. It's a claim to belief--or rather, the lack thereof. As an atheist, I'm not saying, "There is no god." I'm saying, "I believe there is no god." For me, I take it a step further: "I believe there is no god, and I have found no compelling evidence of the existence of a deity, especially one that reconciles with my Christian upbringing."

Of course, this does mean it's possible that there is a god. And no, I can't think of any reason that I wouldn't want to look at the evidence. Indeed, I've made promises to several important people in my life that I would continue to look for new evidence that might change my conclusions.

2. Would you agree that intelligently designed things call for an intelligent designer of them? If so, then would you agree that evidence for intelligent design in the universe would be evidence for a designer of the universe?

Yes, and no.

I don't find evidence for a compelling argument for intelligent design. There's a wide variety of creatures, just in our world, that could have been designed differently, in ways that make them immensely more effective. Would an intelligent designer, for instance, fashion the recurrent laryngeal nerve in such a fashion that, for a giraffe, it would run all the way down the length of the neck, and then back up again, when it could simply go straight across? That's a lot of extra nerve to use!

And really, that's just one example. Eyes are another. Eyes are very poorly formed--so why make them that way? Why not make them more effective? Especially human eyes, man. Heck, ospreys have better eyes than we do--ospreys!

Consider the fact that, prior to modern medicine, childbirth was one of the leading causes of death for women--if not THE leading cause of death. The very activity that we needed to sustain our species by bringing new members into the pack was killing us. That's a pretty poorly laid out plan, if you ask me. I would have some serious issues with the quality control department of that intelligent design factory, personally.

3. Would you agree that nothing cannot produce something? If so, then if the universe did not exist but then came to exist, wouldn’t this be evidence of a cause beyond the universe?

Yes, and no.

Because I don't understand what was there before doesn't mean that God did it. This "God of the Gaps" argument is one that even professional Christian apologists encourage Christians not to use. At one point, we didn't know where the sun came from--so God did it. We didn't know what the stars were, so God did it. We didn't know what caused illness, so demons did it, and in a roundabout way, God was the explanation there too. We didn't know why plants grew or where the seasons came from and went to or why natural disasters happened, so we assumed, in all of those instances, that God did it.

Now, we understand that all of this is part of the natural order. As that happens, it actually weakens the argument for God, and that is why apologists recommend not using it.

When it comes to the idea of the Uncaused Cause, or Prime Mover, a common response is, "Why is there a God versus nothing?" You're really substituting one unknown for the other. Then in applying Ockham's razor, I find myself compelled to the more simple explanation: the universe is, and we don't know why (yet) and we may never know why. That we don't know, as already mentioned, doesn't equate to proof of a deity.

4. Would you agree with me that just because we cannot see something with our eyes—such as our mind, gravity, magnetism, the wind—that does not mean it doesn’t exist?


5. Would you also agree that just because we cannot see God with our eyes does not necessarily mean He doesn’t exist?

Yes. I think I already explained this point in the first question.

6. In the light of the big bang evidence for the origin of the universe, is it more reasonable to believe that no one created something out of nothing or someone created something out of nothing?

This is, in my opinion, a false dilemma.

In a false dilemma, the rhetorician indicates that there are only a set few choices for a given issue. In this case, Shawn is defining the options as two: No One Created Something From Nothing or Someone Created Something From Nothing.

These are not, however, the only two options that exist in this situation. Indeed, there may be a limitless number of options that we haven't even begun to explore yet. So I would have to answer this question with a "No.". It's not the perfect answer to this, because it's a multiple choice (so to speak), but it accurately conveys my feelings on it. We don't know how the universe spawned, but again, assuming that a deity was involved calls to mind that "God of the Gaps" argument from before.

7. Would you agree that something presently exists? If something presently exists, and something cannot come from nothing, then would you also agree that something must have always existed?

Yes and yes.

But again, that something may have always existed doesn't prove the existence of a deity. We keep circling back to this point, which Shawn seems to think is really profound--but it was refuted hundreds of years ago, and has been revisited in the wake of the evidence for the Big Bang and again found wanting.

8. If it takes an intelligent being to produce an encyclopedia, then would it not also take an intelligent being to produce the equivalent of 1000 sets of an encyclopedia full of information in the first one-celled animal? (Even atheists such as Richard Dawkins acknowledges that “amoebas have as much information in their DNA as 1000 Encyclopaedia Britannicas.” Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: WW. Norton and Co., 1996), 116.)

No. I'm having trouble figuring out if these questions are meant to standalone, or build off of each other. We're bouncing back and forth between the idea that the universe must be created and the idea of evolution--these are two distinct concepts. They intertwine and touch on each other in places, but altogether, they're very separate.

Evolution is not spontaneous. Amoebas didn't suddenly wake up one day with an immensely complex DNA schema. These changes happen gradually, over many ages and generations.

Consider this: for the majority of our species' history, humans couldn't drink cow's milk. Yet 12,000 years ago, a genetic mutation allowed for digestion well past our juvenile age. This gene conferred such an advantage that only 5% of people from northern European descent are lactose intolerant today. It took twelve millennia, but that the gene would distribute itself at such a prevalence indicates it conferred a significant advantage over lactose intolerance.

That's how evolution works. A random mutation confers an adaptive advantage. Over time, those mutations are stored, resulting in additions to DNA, some of which is useful, some of which isn't. I'd think that there would be significantly less useless stuff if a designer was behind the entire scheme.

9. If an effect cannot be greater than its cause (since you can’t give what you do not have to give), then does it not make more sense that mind produced matter than that matter produced mind, as atheists say?

This...doesn't really make sense to me, honestly. But I'm going to try.

Okay, so an effect can't be greater than its cause. I'd refine that: an effect can't be greater than its inputs. Inputs can include potential energy that already exists in a system, as well as the action that is causing the output.

Think of an explosion. If I light a match in a natural gas reserve, I'm going to have a really bad day. The simple action of me striking the match will light the whole reserve, despite me using minimal energy. The effect is much greater than the cause of me striking a match.

That difference is explained by the potential energy stored in the system. Natural gas is volatile and highly flammable and so it is easy to transfer that potential energy into a different state--in this case, thermal energy in the form of the explosion that really wrecked my five year plan in this example.

If you look at the entire system of matter, it makes no sense to argue that matter can't produce the mind. There's a ton of potential energy and information, and the idea that such could convert into a mind isn't far-fetched at all. I'd argue that it makes much more sense than just arguing that a mind existed, and then matter existed. The matter provided a framework for the mind.

10. Is there anything wrong anywhere? If so, how can we know unless there is a moral law?

Yes, and we can't.

11. If every law needs a lawgiver, does it not make sense to say a moral law needs a Moral Lawgiver?

No, it doesn't. The first issue in this question, the most important, I suppose, is whether or not God is moral. I think Elizabeth Anderson addresses this quite well in "If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?":

I find it hard to resist the conclusion that the God of the Bible is cruel and unjust and commands and permits us to be cruel and unjust to others. Here are religious doctrines that on their face claim that it is all right to mercilessly punish people for the wrongs of others and for blameless error, that license or even command murder, plunder, rape, torture, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. We know such actions are wrong. So we should reject the doctrines that represent them as right.

This question always makes me curious though, and I'd be most likely to respond: Is something moral because God says it is moral, or is does God say it is moral because it is moral?

An affirmative answer to the first question makes me wonder, then, if God says it is moral, can he say that anything is moral? Rape, murder, ethnic cleansing--can God make all of these moral? If you accept the Old Testament of the Christian Bible as the inerrant, inspired, literal Word of God, then yes--God can call anything moral.

But we know that rape is not moral. We know that murder is not moral. We know that ethnic cleansing is not moral. Therefore, we have to assume that even God cannot make these things moral. They are inherently immoral. That indicates a source for morality outside of God.

An affirmative answer to the second question indicates the same conclusion: a source for morality outside of God.

If I'm applying that razor of simplicity, I'm forced to say that, because we come to the same conclusion regardless of which of the questions we affirmatively answer, we should select the simplest explanation, which is that morality comes from us.

12. Would you agree that if it took intelligence to make a model universe in a science lab, then it took super-intelligence to make the real universe?

No, I would not.

This morning, the first thing I did after I turned off my alarm, before I ever got out of bed, was check the weather app on my phone. The forecast that I viewed (in mighty hopes that it would not rain yet again today) was generated using models of weather patterns for my area. These models are hopelessly complex for me--I don't understand them or how they are made.

What I do know is this: intelligent people make and interpret said models, and they are often right (much to my chagrin with the number of times they have predicted rain recently).

What I also know is this: Despite the fact that it required intelligent people to design those models, there is no intelligence required to design the weather they are predicting. We understand the mechanisms behind weather patterns. We know what happens when a cold front meets a warm front at a certain point. We can model the paths of hurricanes. We can predict tornado conditions.

None of that is designed by an intelligent designer, and yet the models are, so I don't find models of the universe a compelling argument for the design of the universe itself.

13. Would you agree that it takes a cause to make a small glass ball found in the woods? And would you agree that making the ball larger does not eliminate the need for a cause? If so, then doesn’t the biggest ball of all (the whole universe) need a cause?

For the first question, maybe.

This is a version of the Watchmaker Argument: If you find a manmade object in the natural world, shouldn't you then assume that it has a designer.

But there's a small flaw. When I look at a manmade object, I am able to divine evidence of that design. I can find toolmarks. I can see that it is not made from materials that are readily available where I am.

That's not true of the natural world. There's no evidence that it needs a creator at all. There are, if you will, no toolmarks. Even the evidence proffered in past ages for design we are now beginning to understand in terms of natural causes and processes.

14. If there is a cause beyond the whole finite (limited) universe, would not this cause have to be beyond the finite, namely, non-finite or infinite?

No....I don't even understand how one would make this leap, honestly.

Why does the cause have to be infinite? Let's assume that you have a cause. Okay. What's to say that cause isn't also caused? What's to say the cause that caused that cause wasn't also caused? What's to say that cause that caused the cause that caused the caused that was caused wasn't also caused itself?

This is an attempt, I think, to stave off the idea of Infinite Regression, but in doing so, it really defeats itself. It's again set up as a false dilemma: There either is a cause or isn't a cause, but if there is a cause, it has to be infinite. That's simply not supportable.

15. In the light of the anthropic principle (that the universe was fine-tuned for the emergence of life from its very inception), wouldn’t it make sense to say there was an intelligent being who preplanned human life?

I actually don't accept the anthropic principle, so this whole last question is a bust for me.

The anthropic principle argues that life exists because the universe was fine-tuned so that life would exist. I have a few problems with this idea. The first is that it seems like an immense waste of resources and energy to focus on one small speck in one small solar system on one small arm of one small galaxy. It makes no sense.

The second is the assumption the the universe was fine-tuned at all. I'm sure many of you have heard of the puddle analogy, but it's an apt description. If you come upon a hole filled with water--a puddle on the ground--is your first instinct to believe that the hole generated around the water or that the water filled the hole that already existed? This is assuming, of course, that you are a typical adult and not a child, whose first instinct is to screw thinking about where the puddle came from and jump in it instead...

Naturally, the puddle filled the hole. That's a pretty safe assumption to make. The hole was not fine-tuned so the water would fit. The water filled the gap that was already there. It's very analogous to the existence of life: we're not here because the universe was created for us, we're here because we fit a niche in the universe.

My third issue is that there's no proof for the anthropic principle. People will argue that there are "parameters for life", but that's not accurate. There are parameters for life as we know it, and those parameters are wide. Indeed, some creatures on our planet can even survive in the vacuum of space. Others can survive in environments that are widely different--desert plants, ocean bottom dwellers, whales (mammals that live in the water? say what?), single-celled organisms in immensely hot geysers or even volcanoes. Life can exist in such a wide variety of environments that it makes no sense to argue that it is fragile and must be handled with designer kid gloves. Life is resilient and it finds a way to persevere in seemingly immense odds.

Overall, I like Shawn's approach. I think that these questions are great because they are a dialogue (this, of course, being heavily dependent on the person doing the questioning), and dialogues are, in my opinion, fantastic. Talking to people is the best way to begin to understand their point of view.

What I would really recommend for aspiring evangelists is a good review of the basic concepts of logic and argumentation. Might I suggest Logic for Dummies? I am not being facetious there; I love the For Dummies series myself, and it's often the place that I start exploring new topics because it gives such a wide overview and lets me connect with different sources to explore further.

Anyway, this is one atheist's response to these questions. I'm by no means the spokesperson for worldwide atheism. I'm not Dawkins or Harris or Hitch or Dennett or any of the others that spring to mind when you think of atheists.

I'm just one nonbeliever, speaking my truth. I hope it encourages more dialogues along the way.

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