Response to “a few questions for atheists”

Tue, Jun 23, 2009


Nestafan made a comment on this article that I felt deserved a post by way of response, as it involved a number of interesting questions meriting detailed responses, and I didn’t want them buried in the comments. I’ll address them on a per-question basis: Nestafan’s text is in bold and my own is in default type.

A few questions for aetheists[sic]:

1. Aren’t you saying people who believe in a higher power are idiots because science can explain why we’re here? Hypocritic[sic].

No? I’d be the first to admit that any number of men of extraordinary genius have believed in a “higher power”. I’d add that science (in terms of “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation”) doesn’t concern itself with the metaphysical moral sense of ‘why’–this is the proper province of Ethical philosophy, in both its secular and religious flavors.

2. How do you know what’s right and what’s wrong? If there is a moral law, why is there not a moral law giver? Who determined morality, scientists?

The first question is a good one, and deserves lengthier treatment than it’s reasonable for me to give it here. If I were to elaborate upon it, though, I would at least not have to do all the heavy lifting myself, as thousands (perhaps millions?) of man years worth of thinking and writing have gone into the study of normative ethics (moral theory), the branch of Philosophy which attempts to address this question. A large number of workable non-theistic ethical systems have been proposed; you may wish to look into them.

Parenthetically, the fact that an enormous corpus of fairly robust non-theistic moral philosophy exists partially informs the irritation experienced by many atheists when they are accused of not being “ethical”, or having no “moral barometer.”

The second part of this question will have different answers for different non-theistic ethical systems and  interpretations of the word “law”. Suffice to say, no non-theistic ethical system requires a “moral law giver” in any traditionally anthropomorphic sense, and the word “law” may refer to anything from “government legislation” to “accepted custom”.

For the third part of this question, see my response to question 1.

3. Aren’t these scientists and evolutionary theorists dead?

If this question is meant to continue on from “Who determined morality, scientists?”, then I’ve already addressed it.

4. How do you explain death?

In terms of what it is, “the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism” works for me. In terms of why I think death’s a good idea, well. A constantly changing environment would have been a real evolutionary stumbling block without it (and its logical complement, reproduction.)

5. There is archaeological proof that Jesus did indeed walk this earth some two thousand years ago. Is there any proof that we evolved from some intergalactic comet?

I don’t recall denying the existence of Jesus as a historical entity. Based on the available evidence, I think it far more likely than not that Jesus did exist. Whether or not I think he was a divine being with magic powers who rose from the dead is a separate debate.

The idea that comets might have been responsible for bringing simple organic compounds to Earth’s surface in the distant past is only a relatively minor component of one of many current abiogenetical theories. Check out some of the others. Most don’t require comets.

6. Wasn’t the constitution (which protects your rights) based on biblical principles?

There is no unequivocal statement in the Constitution specifying the importance of Christian principles or morality; Christianity is never singled out as the basis of anything claimed by the text. (For an extended discussion of this often-heard claim, read this.)

7. Do atheists marry? If so, why?

The answer to the first part of the question is obviously “yes”. I can’t speak for all atheist couples, but I’d imagine they get married for many of the same reasons that theists do. Legal, social, emotional, and economic stability; the formation of a family unit; procreation and the education and nurturing of children; to be perceived as “legitimizing” their sexual relations; as a public declaration of love.

8. If believers only “pick out” the good points in the bible, don’t atheists only “pick out” the bad? Who’s right?

I’ll answer these questions with a question: to what authority or standard are you appealing when you use the terms “good”, “bad”, and “right” here?

9. Isn’t it easy to oversimplify or discount something when you already have a preconceived notion about it? Okay Steve Harvey called atheists “idiots,” that’s a bit heavy-handed; but Bill Maher said the same thing about believers. Who’s right? If you say atheists are, how do you know this?

To the first part of this question I would respond: “Sure, I guess?”, to the second: I’m not familiar with the specific context of Bill Maher’s statement (a reference would be appreciated), but were I to take his reported utterance at face value I ‘d say that I thought both Harvey and Maher guilty of making bigoted statements. I don’t think people who believe in God are necessarily idiots, but I do think atheism represents a superior conceptual system, of course. Otherwise I wouldn’t be one.

10. We are not born understanding right from wrong. Inherently, like animals, we are more prone to do wrong (ex. breaking your mom’s favorite vase at aged-three, then denying it when she confronts you). How, then, do we learn that violating someone and lying about it is wrong? How did we become separated from animals? Who’s to say it isn’t right to get yourself out of a fix? We know murder, rape, theft, etc. are wrong, right? Well, who says?

I don’t know about “wrong”, but if we don’t figure it out independently (or are genetically defective enough to not have developed empathy) we soon learn that raping/murdering people or stealing their property is a bad idea when doing it gets us killed/beaten/put in jail for a decade.

And I don’t believe we are separate from animals in the sense of “not being animals”. Why do you believe that we are?

Without morality, there would not be six billion people on this planet, because we’d all destroy each other. And, someone had to be the moral law giver as I said earlier. Oh, yeah, it was those evolutionist dudes, right? But wait, aren’t they dead? n Mensa members can’t even figure out how to stop death.

Your statement is a confused one. It presupposes there’s no good reason outside “getting laws from a moral law giver and abiding by them” for humanity not to want to completely destroy itself. Self-preservation is the most important instinct for any life form to develop. Not developing this instinct would make a life form autodeleterious.

I fail to see the relevance to your argument of the observation that “those evolutionist dudes” are dead and that “Mensa members can’t even figure out how to stop death”.

“God is like the sun; you can’t look directly at it, but without it you can’t look at anything else.”

Cute. Here’s one I like: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

Feel free to comment below on any of the points raised by this post. I’ll do my best to respond to specific criticisms.

23 Responses to “Response to “a few questions for atheists””

  1. Geoff Costeloe Says:

    Thanks for this. Its a very well thought out explanation of atheism. I think that the question of morality is probably one of the biggest for atheists and theists alike.

    I believe that almost all people have relatively good instincts about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Certainly, a young child hasn’t read any religious text and likely hasn’t had any serious thoughts about God(s). Regardless of this, they are able to make distinctions between good and bad fairly consistently. We don’t need a religious text or God(s) to tell us what is right or wrong at that age.

    As we grow older society through its laws, traditions, and culture cements a set of guidelines in us.

    The real question is how do you know that the ‘good’/’bad’ guidelines laid out in a religious text are correct? What if the Bible/Koran/Torah/Thor’s Hammer was written by the Devil and we’ve all got it wrong?


    • mike Says:

      This explanation is really idiotic i stumbled on to this site and after giving it some time i realize how ridiculous it is and how stupid your response is, morals are clearly societal ,any first year philosophy student can tell you , your comment is so stupid it made me leave this page and made me a little bit less intelligent , shame on you you ridiculous religious waist of skin.


    • mike Says:

      this article is so pretentious and full of it self it makes me sick , the burden of proof for A god is on the believer NOT the Atheist , and the so called agnostics that are defending this rubbish can stay in there corner, we as rational thinkers DON’T NEED THE INSECURE AND IRRATIONAL ON OUR SIDE ,you are all silly little people .


  2. Doug Alder Says:

    Nice summary/response – myself I would certainly take exception to his claim in #5 as outside of a few 2nd and 3rd hand references such as by Josephus long after Jesus’ supposed time there is no written record dating from his supposed existence that confirms he ever existed.


  3. James Greenwell Says:

    Thank you for sharing your clarity. I lack the literary prowess to express myself in such detail, and enjoy it thuroughly when those who can, do. I especially liked your responce to #10
    again, thank you.


  4. Kmuzu Says:

    The only issue I have with atheist is they believe there is no God. As an agnostic I don’t believe in belief. Either I know something or it is speculation. Unlike evolution, God can neither be proved or disproved therefore both the religious and the atheist are incorrect.


    • Susan Stanko Says:

      Most atheists are agnostic atheists. They will start believing in god once it is proven. Knowledge and belief are two different things. Not even Dawkins claims with absolute certainty that god doesn’t exist.


      • Travis Says:

        Susan, your definition of an atheist seems to be “one who knows, with 100% certainty, that there is no God.” This is not the generally accepted definition – certainly, at least, not by atheists.

        To use an example which I did not create, I don’t believe there are invisible, intangible unicorns running around me right now. However, I can’t prove that there aren’t. Although my certainty of the non-existence of these unicorns approaches 100%, I cannot, as a reasonable person, say that I know, with 100% certainty, that they aren’t there.

        Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic as to unicorns simply because of this incredibly small degree of doubt. Similarly, I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic as to the existence of God despite harboring a small degree of doubt.

        Admittedly, my doubt as to unicorns is smaller than is my doubt in the existence of a supernatural power of some sort. But even so, I consider myself an atheist, not an agnostic.


        • Susan Stanko Says:

          Did you not read my response. Or were you referring to the OP? I never said that atheists believe with 100% certainty. That was the OP. I explained how an atheist can be both an atheist and an agnostic


  5. Crusader Says:

    Five gold stars! Thanks very much.


  6. shishkin Says:

    atheists have got nothing to prove – the burden of proof rests 100% on the side of “the believers” – good luck to them!! =P


    • danfearnley Says:

      Ah, but atheists have precisely nothing to prove in more than one sense. There is no burden of proof on either side until a person with a belief in something or in nothing starts attacking someone else’s belief. If you really want proof before believing in anything, you’d probably be better off being an agnostic rather than trying to prove an unprovable negative.


  7. Martin Says:

    “Unlike evolution, God can neither be proved or disproved therefore both the religious and the atheist are incorrect.”

    This is incredibly stupid. How can both be incorrect? They both believe to have the right answer, yet either answer could be correct (ie: there is a God, or there is not). And since they represent completely opposite viewpoints, one MUST be correct (if there is no God then the theists are wrong and the atheists correct, and vice versa). Agnostics are those who refuse to make a decision at all, because they are convinced there is no way to know which is the right answer. Pure and simple.

    “As an agnostic I don’t believe in belief.”

    This is also EXTREME bullshit. You have a belief in everything around you. You believe your perception of reality to be accurate, you believe your memories to be true, you believe that your agnostic viewpoint is the most accurate. As Descartes says, besides yourself there is absolutely nothing in this world you can prove, so everything is based on belief.

    An agnostic does not reject belief at all, an agnostic simply leaves the argument completely claiming that there is just no way to know.

    Which is a total cop out by the way.


    • danfearnley Says:

      Or an agnostic is someone who refuses to answer the question based on an assumption. If something is unprovable (and logically whether or not there is a god is not dependent in any way on whether the theory of evolution is correct or not), then any answer is not based on proof, but on belief. Surely most of us have enough of an imagination to come up with at least three possibilities where evolution might be true and there is a deity. If it’s unprovable, it’s unprovable.

      I don’t hold with agnostics who don’t believe in belief, because pretending that there is no bias or human tendency to act on the basis of an assumption is hypocritical. But leaving an unanswered question open is not only agnosticism, it’s good science.


  8. Tom Says:

    Well, I find that this is certainly a good set of answers.

    I find that when Dawkins addresses the issue of morality in chapter 6 and 7 (I think) of the god delusion, he makes a good statement about the idea of moral absolutes. You touch on it in here, but it’s not quite clear enough, I think. Moral absolutes are kind of silly because there is no real way other than god to justify it, and when a moral dilemma arises, they are immediately invalid because you’re dealing with moral gray zones. then you’ve got at the most basic level two ways to deal with it: Kant’s categorical imperative or a more utilitarian/consequential approach. Fine examples of such gray zones are the infamous ‘runaway train’ scenarios.

    The choice is yours in the end on how you chose to act in any given situation. Doing the morally ‘right’ thing is favorable because you earn your place at the top of a hierarchy through trust. People want to be trusted (for obvious Darwinian reasons: trusty individuals are socially accepted and are then more likely to pass on their genes), so they will likely do what is moral.

    That is why it is evolutionarily favorable to be moral, and why absolute morals as those given by a god, are illogical to abide. the given answers are good, but I think these are better.


  9. danfearnley Says:

    One idea I’m toying with at the moment is whether, regardless of the question of current morality, we would be where we are in social morality without religion — whether we could have developed all the imaginary social constructs of our current mythos without having passed through religion at all.

    For example, I was pondering he optimistic idea of everything turning out all right, the bad guy getting punished and the good guy winning in the end. It underlies our conception of justice, which is more than simply human legal antics. But in order to develop a sense of this absolute construct which is completely unprovable, intangible and fictional, at some point did we have to believe in ages past in some force of being that was supposed to make things turn out all right? After all, when we get to human cases, away from the imaginary vague absolute, we quickly realize justice is a very subjective idea. Yet the “everything will be all right in the end” idea pervades our fiction, our self-help genres and our aphorisms.


  10. Brad Hart Says:

    I have to disagree with your interpretation of #1. Belief in a higher power is a foolish idiotic belief. Rather than waffling over the issue you should confront it with yes you think the belief in god, something there is absolutely no evidence of, is foolish. Science, even unproven and incomplete theories have a basis in provable facts. You can demonstrate any theory or at least show how you arrived at that conclusion with things that can be demonstrated without saying “It’s Divine Magic.”

    Secondly science doesn’t have to explain why we are here. Its a ridiculous question to start with. What science can do is show through hard physical evidence and proven theories how we got here. If you put the discussion in the realm of why rather than how you might as well be discussing the existence of faeries.


    • admin Says:

      To refer you back to the actual question:

      1. Aren’t you saying people who believe in a higher power are idiots because science can explain why we’re here? Hypocritic[sic].

      I’ve met and read about any number of highly intelligent people who profess a belief in some flavor of “higher power”, ergo I’d be an idiot myself to say that “people who believe in a higher power are idiots”.

      The belief itself may be “foolish” (for some appropriate definition of the term), but certainly that doesn’t make the people who believe it necessarily “idiots”.

      And as stated, I don’t think “why [are we] here” in the metaphysical moral sense is the proper province of Science. As you indicate, “how did we get here” certainly is.


  11. JohnK Says:

    Since when did A-theists have to argue their position? I am an A-theist, that is, I do not believe in God. That’s it. No further explanation required. It is for those who DO believe in a God to prove their position, which of course they cannot. So, wouldn’t it be better for believers to just keep it all to themselves instead of trying to belittle/decry/criticize those of us who do not believe and just want to get on with life.


  12. Bill Says:

    What the hell was that article about? It seemed senseless garbage. Waste of time reading it.


  13. Jim Smith Says:

    Actually it’s rehash of the most absurd, ignorant of the theist’s claims about atheism. It does nothing but poke fun at how ridiculous the theist thinking is. The replies are hardly original and would be totally ineffective against a “true believer.”

    Then again, nothing is effective with someone that openly stated that “nothing will change my mind.” The irony is that same person will then accuse atheists of being “closed-minded.”



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