February 12, 2009

Answering “Questions For Atheists”

Posted in Atheism, Questions For Atheists tagged , , , at 12:18 pm by Andrew

One of the things I plan to do on at least a semi-regular basis on this blog is read, review and analyze popular apologetic books and other works. If you’re a Christian and you have a good work of apologetics you recommend, please let me know in the comments.

While that’s in the works, I thought I might take a look at some efforts to engage atheists online. If you google “questions for atheists,” the first link that comes up is a place called Spotlight Ministries that has a “Questions for Atheists and Sceptics” page. (I’ve numbered them for convenience.) It’s reasonably representative of the kind of arguments I hear from Christians, so let’s take a look at what they have to say:

Spotlight Ministries asks:

1. If we live in a purely material world then how do we account for the many supernatural experiences that people have, such as encounters with God, ghosts, spirits, etc (obviously, exactly what all of these encounters actually are are all interpreted by different people in different ways but the fact remains that people encounter things that do not fit a purely naturalistic world view). Are we really to conclude that all of these people are delusional, deceptive, or mad? Or could it be that people are having real encounters with real supernatural beings not explainable through purely scientific mediums?

I think I answer this directly on my Subjective Experiences page. I do not assert that we necessarily live in a “purely material world” and I think many supernatural experiences may be genuine in the mind of the person experiencing them. Thus, I would not say that anyone who claims to see God or ghosts or whatever is necessarily “delusional, deceptive, or mad.” Unfortunately, those experiences are evidence only for the person experiencing them — for me, they’re just hearsay. Finally, I note that within the criteria of Christianity as set forth in the Bible, these sorts of experiences are not supposed to be evidence of God.

2. Where does all of the incredibly complex information come from that is stored within DNA? Information doesn’t just appear by itself. Someone has to put it there.

I don’t really know what the author means by “information” — this is a common problem among Intelligent Design (ID) creationist arguments. But in the colloquial sense, information does indeed appear “by itself” all the time; for example, tree rings convey information to us (how old a tree is) through an entirely naturalistic process. Similarly, in the northern hemisphere, moss generally grows only on the north side of trees, thus providing critical information to lost hikers. None of this information “has to be put there” by an outside agency.

3. Why does humanity seem to have an innate desire and need to worship something, or someone? Why is there such a universal religious sense within humanity?

This is actually a great question, and the honest answer is: “we don’t fully know.” Personally, I am intrigued by the field of evolutionary psychology, in which the transmission of memes plays roughly the same role as the transfer of genes does in biology. A great layperson’s introduction to this topic is Robert Wright’s Nonzero.

From an evolutionary perspective, something doesn’t have to be true to nevertheless be useful, and thus evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that religious belief may have been useful to our early survival in a number of ways:

a) We know that human survival and evolution was driven by the fact that humans are social animals; we hunt in packs and derive strength from numbers. Religion may have evolved as an early adaptation for life in the group.

b) Relatedly, we also know that social animals require social norms. For example, when one member of the group is sick or unsuccessful in hunting, the other members share their food with the unlucky one as a form of social insurance, knowing that such generosity will be reciprocated if they come up short one day. (A cool-but-disgusting example of this can be seen in vampire bats, who literally share blood with their least-fortunate members before digesting it!)

But with social cooperation comes the risk of free-ridership, where one bat (say) decides to sit at home and do nothing all day and all of its pack-mates do all the hard work. To police against free-ridership, social animals develop norms that govern cooperation. Thus, for example, a bat that frequently receives but rarely shares hunted blood develops a negative reputation among the group and is shunned. These norms can be complex even among small-brained animals, and this is one evolutionary explanation for moral concepts such as honesty. Religion, then, may be a by-product of these complex social rules.

c) Finally, the early development of religion likely strengthened social cohesion among in-groups, while simultaneously excluding non-members (and making it difficult for nonproductive loners and non-members to join the in-group). This would provide the religious in-group with a competitive advantage over a non-religious group that takes on all comers and has less cohesion — and is therefore less likely to fight to the death with outsiders. This cultural group selection may have participated to the early growth of religion.

Of course, these are just some of the theories that are out there; we still don’t know for sure. But these sorts of unanswered questions are part of why I enjoy being an atheist; it’s because there are no easy answers to the hard questions in life that people are driven to new science and new discoveries.

4. Isn’t it a bit extreme to assert “God does not exist”? To make such a statement you would have to have complete knowledge and to have been everywhere in the universe. Maybe God dwells somewhere in the universe you don’t know of or have not been to? Is that possible?

I answer this in the Summary Case for Atheism page. Whenever any person says that something does or does not exist, that person is doing so with the implicit qualifier that their assertion is tentative and based on the knowledge he or she currently possesses.

One could ask a similar question of the good folks at Spotlight Ministries: do you believe in leprechauns or purple-and-green-striped penguins? I suspect the answer would be “no,” even though Spotlight Ministries has not (yet) sent missionaries to every corner of the known universe.

There are some atheists who believe that the various postulated attributes of God are logically impossible on the order of square circles or married bachelors; the most well-known argument in that category is the logical problem of evil. I, however, prefer to use an evidentialist and probabilistic argument claiming that God is not impossible but simply unjustified given the current state of our knowledge.

5. What about the evidence of design in all of creation? It is obvious that anything that is designed has to have an intelligent creator. For example, a computer never came about by mere accident, but had to have been thought out and planned by an intelligent designer. It is the same with creation, and more so, as the natural world is far more complicated than anything humanity can create.

There are a lot of assumptions in this question, so let’s unpack them a bit.

a. First, the question asserts that there is evidence “of design” in all of creation. This strikes me as inherently contradictory. Intuitively, we tend to recognize something as “designed” either by comparison to an undesigned object. The most famous example here is William Paley’s dropped watch in the woods — we recognize the intricacy of the watch and therefore infer design as opposed to the undesigned rock. But the question asserts that “all” of creation — including simple rocks — is equally designed! If so, then “design” is an empty concept.

b. Second, the question asserts that anything that looks designed requires an intelligent creator. This is plainly not so: beavers build dams, spiders spin webs, potter wasps build tiny little pots to trap water, and so on. These things not only look designed, they serve the exact same function as human-intelligently-designed dams, nets, and pots. But the beaver’s dam, the spider’s web and the wasp’s pot are obviously not intelligently designed (unless we want to strain the definition of intelligence to the breaking point). The sandbar is “designed” to provide a break in the current and facilitate access to the water; that’s why beaches have lots of artificial ones — but sandbars form naturally as well. And so on.

c. Third, the question asserts that computers don’t happen “by accident.” This is actually two unfounded assumptions — (i) that living things are directly analogous to computers; and (ii) that life evolved “by accident.” The first assumption is question-begging, and the second is a basic misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Evolution simply does not say that complex living organisms are here “by accident.”

d. Finally, the question says that the natural world is far more complex than anything “humanity can create.” This is true (for now, anyway!), but irrelevant: nobody is suggesting that humans created the world!

The bottom line is that the assertion that the world requires an intelligent designer is simply not justified.

6. Where does all the matter in the universe come from?

I’m not a physicist, but as far as I can tell, after the Big Bang, the weak nuclear force catalyzed an asymmetric decay between matter and antimatter that gave rise to matter in this Universe. A (reasonably) readable explanation of this phenomenon is described here.

I suspect that Starlight Ministries meant something more by this question; however. If what they really meant to ask is “what caused the Big Bang,” physicist Victor Stenger gives a nice explanation here; essentially, “nothing” is less stable than “something.” Stenger also shows that the universe can have formed from nothing, in complete chaos (maximum entropy), and have order form spontaneously, without violating any known principles of physics.

If what they really meant to ask is: “why does the weak nuclear force produce an asymmetric preference for matter over antimatter” or “why are any of the laws of the universe the way they are,” then the answer not only is that we don’t know, but that it may be unknowable even in principle because the Heisenberg uncertainty principle excludes knowledge about the universe prior to the Planck time, 1.61 x 10-43 seconds.

7. How do you explain the changed lives of millions of people throughout history who testify to a life changing experience with Jesus Christ?

The same way Christians explain the changed lives of Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, and so forth.

8. How do we account for the historical Person of Jesus Christ? He has made such an impact upon history that we even measure our calendar by Him. 2000 years on and millions still follow Him.

a. Many people, including Earl Doherty and Robert M. Price, deny that there was a “historical person of Jesus Christ.” Although the mythicist position is a minority view among Biblical scholars, it is nevertheless a serious, scholarly one, and Spotlight Ministries are wrong to simply assume Jesus did, in fact, exist.

EDITED TO ADD: Price posted a concise summary of his mythicist position on TheologyWeb.

In any event, even if Jesus did exist, the New Testament documents simply do not give us reliable information about his life.

b. The balance of the question is non-unique; there are a billion Muslims and a billion Hindus in the world today. After the death of Mohammed, Muslims quickly conquered virtually the entire civilized world. Obviously, I think Spotlight Ministries would agree those things don’t make Hinduism or Islam true.


  1. shamelesslyatheist said,

    These are all excellent answers. I would not add much to this, with a couple of exceptions.

    To the first question, any time we sense something, a feeling of being watched or the so-called Third Man Effect or some other trick of the mind, and can not understand its source, we have a tendency to ascribe some form of pseudoknowledge in lieu of a real explanation. As a species we positively hate not knowing the answer to something. It’s no surprise, since knowledge gives one an advantage in survival. So, in my view, assigning a fictitious supernatural entity to things we can’t understand is substituting knowledge we can’t possibly have in order to avoid the hated ‘I don’t know’. I see you have no such fear.

    For question 8, I do not think that the question of whether there was a historical Jesus is relevant. Rather, it is whether there was a biblical Jesus. He’s out. There are just too many problems to overcome (no contemporary historical accounts (the usual example, Josephus, wasn’t even born till after Jesus was supposedly crucified), no eyewitness accounts (the gospels not having been written till decades after the fact and are generally thought to be several levels removed from Jesus and eyewitness evidence isn’t exactly extraordinary evidence by any means). The question implies argumentum ad populum, which is hardly a compelling.

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