Six questions to ask an atheist: Part 1

This is the first installment to “Six questions to ask an atheist.”  There are actually far more than six questions.  It’s more like six categories of several questions.  I will attempt to answer each section, one at a time.  The questions are in bold; the answers are in standard font. 

If there is no God, “the big questions” remain unanswered, so how do we answer the following questions:

Why is there something rather than nothing?  This question was asked by Aristotle and Leibniz alike – albeit with differing answers.  But it is an historic concern. 

I’m only going to say the Big Bang and leave it alone.  My understanding of physics is terrible.  Still, why not something?  Honestly, I’m not that interested in the question.  If you want more, you’ll have to ask someone else.

Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet, and is there any meaning to this life? 

Conscious, intelligent life on earth evolved this way, through a slow, progressive, unplanned course.  I don’t understand evolution that much, but I know that it doesn’t happen by design.  I also know enough about our bodies to know they certainly aren’t well designed.  My back, for instance (which is fairly typical of a middle-aged, human back), is quite poorly designed.  Really, if someone were going to design a good, bipedal creature, the least he/she/it could do is give it a decent back, like, oh, maybe that of an early cylon.

Now that’s a back to be proud of designing; a back that wouldn’t need physical therapy to get through middle age. My back is better suited for traveling on all fours, or better yet living in water.  Yes, I have the back of a fish.

There are many other poorly designed parts to humans, other animals, and plants.  I won’t go into great detail, as there are too many examples for me to cover here and I’m no expert on evolution.  However, I find the example of the giraffe’s laryngeal nerve to be quite interesting and even bizarre.  The laryngeal nerve connects the brain to the larynx (voice box) by descending down into the chest and looping around the aorta before coming back up again.  It’s a terrible design for a giraffe with a 5-8 foot neck, as that nerve can be up to 16 feet long, when it’s beginning and end are only a few inches from each other!  In fact, it’s not even a good design for other mammals with shorter necks.  However, it makes sense from an evolutionary sense as the route is much simpler in fish, who essential have no necks.  Unfortunately, evolution doesn’t have the advantage of a designer.  It simply moves forward, unable to plan, so often we are stuck with poor designs. Not that we were designed.  We evolved, incrementally, with many flaws, as the stages before didn’t always effectively flow to make the best, next design.

This is why I don’t get angry about my lousy back.  If I thought a designer did it, I might be pretty angry.

As far as why humans developed consciousness and intelligence?  I don’t know.  It was working, advantageous to our species.  Sometimes…I’m not so sure it still is.

If there is meaning, what kind of meaning and how is it found? 

For me, meaning is found in living life to the best of my ability.  It’s in loving others and being loved.  I find meaning in learning and teaching and learning some more.  I find meaning in grappling with questions I don’t really understand, but accepting that I can’t understand all the answers that are available and that there are many unanswered questions.  I find beauty and awe in the recognition that the more I know, the more we all know, the more there will be to learn.  It doesn’t end.  This is beauty.  I don’t need to give it an explanation given to me by a priest, a rabbi, a sage, a king, or a savior.  I accept that I don’t know and revel in the wonder of that.  I find that far more awe-inspiring than acceptance through faith.  I look for explanations for life’s experiences and when I have none, I accept that, finding using gods, kings, priests, rabbis, saviors as limiting.  I accept no limitation accept that of human, including my own, knowledge.

Does human history lead anywhere, or is it all in vain since death is merely the end?

Human history has certainly gone a long way so far, so I expect it will continue to do so.  Where that will be, I don’t know, nor do I need to know.  Is it in vain?  That’s not a relevant question to me.  I hope to lead a good life and to have positive effects on others.  To me wanting more, expecting more, desiring more is vain (ooops, different vain).  A more interesting thing to fathom is how amazing it is that I am alive.  That out of all the combinations of eggs and sperm throughout the generations of my lineage, most of which didn’t survive, that here I am, the result of a combination that did make it and that I have a moment to live, to give, to grow,… this is truly amazing and much more interesting to me than focusing on death and what might come after.  Instead, I focus on the amazing fact that I am here at all.

How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier?  If these concepts are merely social constructions, or human opinions, whose opinion does one trust in determining what is good or bad, right or wrong? 

This is interesting, as I believe most Christians are perfectly capable of determining right and wrong independently of the Bible.  If they didn’t we would see a lot more stoning of disobedient children in the village square.

 Deuteronomy 21

21:18 If   a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the   voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they   have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:

21:19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out   unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;

21:20 And they shall say unto   the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not   obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.

21:21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and   all Israel shall hear, and fear.

It occurs to me that if my parents had been better Christians, I would have been stoned before I reached 20.  Then, I bet my parents wouldn’t have lived to childbearing age, if their parents had been better Christians.  Thank goodness the generations before me were able to decide right and wrong without simply looking to the Bible.

If you are content within atheism, what circumstances would serve to make you open to other answers?

I am content as an atheist and I am entirely open to other answers.  Like other areas of my life, I would want those answers to be verifiable, repeatable, and able to make predictions. I believe that neither Christians (nor other religious people) or atheists know for certain if God exists or not.  Christians take their belief in God on faith and do not seem open to other answers, as that goes against faith.  Atheists take their beliefs on what is known, what has been proven through the scientific method, and do not rely upon faith.  Personally, I’m pretty comfortable with not knowing.  Atheists are open to changing their opinion, just as they do about other areas of life when evidence is presented that is verifiable, repeatable, and can make predictions.

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10 Responses

  1. i had to defend your response that a good christian would stone their children……..jesus spoke to this…

    John 8: 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

    2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

    But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

    9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

    11 “No one, sir,” she said.

    “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

    p.s. i absolutely know that the Trinity exists……..

    p.s.s. i often ask God why He had to give me such an overly ample bosom and knocked knees….lol….and He replies you are still beautiful to me……………..

    keri

    • Keri,
      So Jesus says God was wrong?
      How do you know, absolutly, that the Trinity exiss?
      And, lol, of course you’re beautifu, just poorly designed. 🙂

      • first i am not a scholar of the torah…..as you admit not being a scholar in physics, etc……but as simple as i can make this jesus was teaching the pharisees about grace………someone could not be put to death unless there were at least 2 to 3 witnesses………when the pharisees left realizing they too were sinners……there was no one to condemn the woman and she was free…..thus jesus did not break the law he was getting people to think differently about the law and their own motives………..the mosaic law was about obedience and purity……

        i am actually pretty amazed at my design……..just envious at other models/versions…lol

        and the absolute truth about the trinity……i don’t think there is anything i could say or write that would convince you i believe in their absoluteness…..but i do…in fact i believe in them more than i believe that 2+2=4………

        i would ask you if you derive some of your meaning of life from loving others and being loved where does love come from? a fish?…is love evolutionary?…….just some questions…………..

        keri

      • i realize my “love” question is a pretty basic question for atheists….just like many adoptive parents get “are those your real kids” but i truly believe love is more than a a chemical reaction in the brain……..and just wondering your perceptions……

        keri

  2. I do think love is evolutionary. It is vital to any intensely social species, especially those that need to spend so much time raising their young. I don’t think that animals that lay eggs, leave them, and never see their young feel love. I suspect most primates and many social birds feel love.

  3. From what I gather on your answer to Question 2, “Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet, and is there any meaning to this life?”, you seem to argue that the reason for your atheistic position is because you feel that there are apparent flaws to the human design (e.g. a back that needs physical therapy). I don’t know if you realize this, but by making this argument about the flawed human design, you are in essense providing support for the theistic worldview. In other words, you are basically saying because I don’t like the way humans were created or fashioned, therefore, I don’t want to believe in the creator. Making this statement in a sense is acknowledging the concept of a creator. An athestic worldview does not allow you to make a value judgment about the design or creation because there is no designer nor creator. There is no value judgment. It is what it is. It evolved. It is neither good or bad. From a debate point of view, you are using the theistic worldview position to argue an atheistic worldview position. You cannot do that. It is contradictory if you know what I mean.

    • Actually what I said, is that we were not designed and was pointing out the flaw of the idea of intelligent designer. If there was an intelligent designer, we, and other creatures, would have better designs. You are right, in evolution there is no room for value judgement. I am only assigning value when criticizing intelligent design, not evolution. If I believed God did it, I’d pray, asking for a better plan for the future. That and for the Americans to do well in the Olympics and my family to be healthy and happy. Instead, I expect us to take personal responsibility for these things.

    • Use of the word design

      The definition of “design” as used in this context is “the combination of details or features …” Perhaps one of the words “form”, “structure”, “organization”, or “layout” may have been a better choice. However, any of them can also be interpreted to imply the existence of a entity to play the role of creator of the form, structure, etc., if one is intent on doing so.

      The use of the word “design” does not indicate that we hold a belief in anything theistic, any more than the use of the word “chance” ( as in “I’ll take a chance on that”. “The chances of …”, “A game of chance”, etc) implies that you believe that your life is governed by random events and that no supernatural entity (God, “The Designer”, Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc) have any role in determining what happens to you.

      The crux of the argument is that a intelligent designer would have used different designs for horizontal and vertical backs, while evolution wouldn’t because it can only use variations on what already exists. That’s why humans have the same basic back design as a horse, mouse, elephant, whale, snake, turtle, or fish. Evolution cannot make a quantum leap to an entirely new design. It must always work off of what currently exists. A designer has no such limitation and is free to try anything they can think of, even a completely new, off-the-wall radical idea. After all, a designer doesn’t build a skyscraper by standing a bridge on end.

      So the structure of the human back is consistent with evolution might produce, but not with what an intelligent designer would.

      Value Judgements

      The following are some definitions from http://www.thefreedictionary.com.

      judge –
      1.To form an opinion or estimation of after careful consideration: (ex: judge heights; judging character)
      2.To determine or declare after consideration or deliberation.
      3.To have as an opinion or assumption; suppose: I judge you’re right.
      4.To form an opinion or evaluation.

      Evaluate –
      1.to ascertain or set the amount or value of
      2.to judge or assess the worth of; appraise

      We can certainly form an opinion of something’s value based on how well it performs a function independent of the existence of a creator/designer. We can also make the judgment that the structure of a human back is poorly suited to the task of supporting an upright posture. This judgment is on how well it works (i.e. performs a function), not whether it is intrinsically good or bad (which you seem to be equating with good or evil). We can also say that it is a bad design (as in not very effective or suitable) and that any competent designer could have done a better job, let alone an omniscient and omnipotent one. What we can’t do, in the absence of a designer, is make a judgement on whether something is morally good or bad/evil), since those concepts don’t apply. But then again, we can’t always do that even with a designer.

  4. Taking your position on the flawed human design, I would describe it using a metaphor of purchasing a car. Let’s say you and your husband decide that it’s time to trade in your old car. So, you head out to dealership and start looking around. The salesperson takes you around and shows you all sorts of different models. As you know, each model is unique and has different features and accessories. Can you say that you like every model in the showroom and in the lot? Unless you are completely ambivalent about cars, we all have preferences – some stronger than others. “I have to a black sports car with stylish rims.” “I need a MP3 player with surround sound.” You hear these comments all the time at a dealership. Right? But, you’ll never hear anybody say, “Because I don’t like this model, therefore, there is no designer, there is no manufacturer, there is no Ford, GM or Toyota.” Yes, you may have a problem with the design, but that it in itself doesn’t deny the existence of a designer. The same can be said with it comes to the universe, our world, and humand beings. We may not like what we see, but that in itself does not support the argument that there is no God. In fact, the Christian worldview will tell you that all of creation supports God’s very existence. Romans 1:20, the Apostle Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” I will talk about this in a separate post later on.

  5. Before I delve into the issue of why I personally believe in the concept of intelligent design, I think that it’s important that we at least try to best agree on a standard of judgment that we use to evaluate the various worldviews. What I meant by this is that folks often use a different standard of judgment or burden of proof which often leads to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and thereby different conclusions.

    In today’s post-modern era, there are those who take a position that unless you have complete and absolute certainty about anything (aka – beyond the shadow of a doubt), they are simply going to not going to believe it. Most post-modernist will tell you that unless you provide absolute convincing evidence that God exists, he/she will not believe in God. Any one question mark about the evidence or lack thereof immediately causes the individual to take the default position that God’s doesn’t exist. “You don’t have sufficient evidence!”, the post-modernist would say. I’m not sure that this is realistic or even practical in our discussion. In our day to day life, we often make decisions and value judgment without the luxury of absolute certainty. And, how do you know that taking the view of unbelief as the default position is the correct one? Is the post-modernist so certain that that is the correct position to take?

    On the other hand, you have those that take a position without any serious evaluation of evidence. We can call this blind faith. Unfortunately, many Christians and non-Christians fall into this category which undoubtedly has hurt our credibility. I remember a few years ago, when I served as jury foreman for a car accident case, I was shocked that several members of the jury had already made up their minds even before deliberating the evidence that was presented. We were supposed to be objective and unbiased and evaluate the evidence accordingly. Well, that went out the window. Fortunately, we only needed a majority vote one way or the other to decide the outcome of the case.

    So, as we debate these issues, I think that it’s important that we don’t fall into one of these two extreme positions – beyond the shadow of a doubt and blind faith. We definitely need to have a standard of proof, but that standard can’t be so high that we put ourselves in a no win situation. There’s no point debating if we have already made up our mind.

    In our legal system, different standard of judgments or burden of proof are used depending on the nature of the case.

    In most civil cases, the most common standard of judgment is called “preponderance of evidence.” This lowest legal standard is met if the proposition is more likely to be true than not true. Effectively, the standard is satisfied if there is greater than 50 percent chance that the proposition is true.

    “Clear and convincing evidence” is a higher level of burden of persuasion than a “Preponderance of the Evidence”. Clear and convincing proof means that the evidence presented by a party during the trial must be highly and substantially more probable to be true than not and the trier of fact must have a firm belief or conviction in its factuality. In this standard, a greater degree of believability must be met than the common standard of proof in civil actions, “Preponderance of the Evidence”, which requires that the facts as a threshold be more likely than not to prove the issue for which they are asserted. To prove something by “Clear and Convincing Evidence”, the party with the burden of proof must convince the trier of fact that it is substantially more likely than not that the thing is in fact true. This is a lesser requirement than “Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”, which requires that the trier of fact be close to certain of the truth of the matter asserted, but a stricter requirement than proof by “Preponderance of the Evidence,” which merely requires that the matter asserted pass the 50% threshold of being more likely true than not.

    The highest legal standard in US courts is “Beyond a reasonable doubt”. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof of such a convincing character that you would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation in the most important of your own affairs. However, it does not mean an absolute certainty. The standard that must be met by the prosecution’s evidence in a criminal prosecution is that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
    If the trier of fact has no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, or if their only doubts are unreasonable doubts, then the prosecutor has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty. The term connotes that evidence establishes a particular point to a moral certainty and that it is beyond dispute that any reasonable alternative is possible. It does not mean that no doubt exists as to the accused’s guilt, but only that no Reasonable Doubt is possible from the evidence presented.

    I believe that the preponderance of evidence is too low of a standard. Maybe, for some people, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is too high of a standard. I’m actually okay with it. But, for the sake of argument, taking the middle road of “clear and convincing evidence” may be the best approach.

    More to follow…..

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