Wednesday, May 4, 2011

An Atheist Catechism: Part One, The Questions Christians Ask

Christians who object to atheism usually demand that atheists answer the questions that they think their religion answers for them.  I imagine believers in other traditions do the same but I haven't had much experience with them.  Catholicism set the trend with the Catechism - questions and answers for young Catholics to learn. 

There are two problems with the dialogue between Christians and atheists.  The first is that Christians define the  terms and control the territory.  They have well-worn traditions behind them, but little experience asking the questions they should answer.  They only "answer" the questions they have been taught to ask.  There's also some psychological projection going on, in my opinion.  They have so little idea of how others think that they can't conceive of their preconceptions not being shared, only that the conclusions differ.  They seem very concerned about atheists' souls, as if they can conceive of not believing in a god but they can't imagine not believing in a soul.

They want us to have a list of answers that would be parallel to their Catechism (Even if they're not Catholic, they have one of sorts).  So I've decided to give them one.

I've come up with some answers to their (often stupid) questions.    Most of these are questions I've been asked, but I've also seen a lot of the same questions over and over on the interwebs. I think we've all been faced with most of these if we've been at all open about our atheism. My favorite online source for Christian stupidity is the archive of the Atheist Experience call-in cable access show.   (Check out the Atheist Experience blog too!) They get some loop-dee-loos, and they have great answers for the loonies that call in.  I bet there are plenty other zingers out there.  Feel free to add to my list in the comments section.   Part Two will be the questions I'd like to see Christians answer.

Q:  Where do you go when you die?
A:  When you're dead you cease to exist, so you don't go anywhere.

Q:  Aren't you worried that you might be wrong and you might go to hell?
A:  Everyone could be wrong, including Christians.  I don't find the Christian stories convincing, so no, I'm not worried about Hell.

Q:  How can you be moral without God?
A:  The same way that everyone else who isn't a Christian can be moral, and Christians too, for that matter.  Society dictates morals, not holy books, or else Christians would be stoning children that have been raped and giving all their money to the poor.

Q:  You're really just angry with God.
A:  You can't be angry at something you don't believe exists.  That's like being angry at the Easter Bunny.

Q:  You're really just angry at the abuses of the Church
A:  The church's behavior has sometimes been atrocious (so much for belief instilling morality) but whether the church is naughty or nice has no bearing on whether a supernatural deity actually exists.

Q:  The church has been responsible for great works of art.
A:  So has Greek mythology.  So have other religions.  So has opium.  Artists will be inspired by whatever stories they find in the culture around them.

Q:  How do you know the Bible isn't true?
A:  There's very little evidence to validate it, and what little there is merely validates a few names and places, not the presence of a supernatural deity.

Q:  Isn't it arrogant to presume you're right and all those Christians are wrong?
A:  Not any more arrogant than Christians believing they are right and all the people in the other 2/3 of the world are wrong.  And anyway, which is more arrogant?  Not believing in something unverified, or believing oneself capable of sorting out the truth from the non-truth of thousands of untestable claims?

Q:  You think you know everything, don't you?  (also: You think you have all the answers!)
A:  Atheism is defined as not believing in stories of deities.  It's not defined by what is known.  Some atheists are quite knowledgeable, which probably isn't a coincidence.  Many of us know the Bible better than Christians, and we know more about science than evolution deniers.  (Granted, that's not difficult to do)

Q:  Science can't answer everything.  What about love?
A:  Actually, neurosciences have established quite a bit of knowledge about love.  Like other emotions, love exists within the brain.

Q:  How do you explain the human need to believe in God?  God made humans different from the animals.
A:  While I agree that humans are different from other animals (humans are animals), the belie in god doesn't qualify as a sound reason for believing in the supernatural.  Evolution explains a lot of strange behaviors.  In the case of religion, there are several theories, mainly about social control and cohesion.  Check out this reading list or the books of Michael Shermer.

Q: What about the miracles of the Bible?
A: What about the miracles of all the other holy books of the world? They are myths, propaganda, lies, and even trickery. They are stories without confirming evidence.  Christians blithely dismiss the claims of other religions but are gullible regarding their own.

Q:  [insert seemingly miraculous prayer story here]  How do you explain that?
A:  Prayer has been proven not to work in medical settings, yet people continue to believe prayer can heal and protect.  Anecdotes about a person's prayers being answered are the result of the human tendency toward confirmation bias.  You will remember the "hits" and forget the "misses."  (or rationalize them away)  Not to mention, the people who were in life-threatening situations, prayed, and then died are not around to tell anyone that prayer didn't work for them, which creates a sampling bias.

Q:  Christianity has been around for 2,000 years.  How could it survive if it were false?
A:  The same way that Judaism can survive for 3,000 years and Hinduism can survive for 4,000 years.  It's a social system, with a lot of purposes besides telling the "truth."  Children are indoctrinated from a young age and the society is so steeped in the traditions of the religion that few people question the premises.

Q:  There are millions of Christians.  They can't all be wrong.
A:  Yes, they can.

Q:  Nothing can exist without a creator, so the fact that things exist proves there's a God.
A:  This is the "First Cause" argument.  Things come into being in nature without an intelligent being pulling the strings every day, so the premise is false.  Even if the premise were true, that would mean that there couldn't be a God because God would have to have had a creator.  And if God could exist without a creator, then so could the universe.

Q:  You can't prove that God doesn't exist.
A:  Of course you can't!  You can't prove a negative about anything.  So therefore, the burden of proof is on the theist to prove that there is a God.  What theists offer as "proof" is not very compelling:  heavily edited "holy" books, unverifiable personal experiences, and admiration for nature.  Atheists can feel confident that the odds of Christian claims being false are high enough to be virtual proof.

Q:  If you're an atheist doesn't that mean that you don't believe in anything?
A:  Not necessarily. First, do you mean "anything supernatural?"  It's possible to be an atheist and yet believe in a soul, or ESP, or some other supernatural idea.  Atheism is merely not believing in a god... any god.  Most atheists also happen to be non-believers about all claims of the superntural because those claims are as weak as religious claims, so you are partly right.  There are many natural things to believe in:  love, beauty, society, family, honesty, altruism, etc.  There's nothing supernatural about any of those.

Q:  If you don't believe in God, that means you want to be God.
A:  I don't believe in the Easter Bunny, and yet I don't want to be the Easter Bunny (at least not without collecting a fee from whoever wants me to wear a costume at the Mall).  You don't believe in Thor, and I bet you don't want to be Thor.  This is shorthand for the argument that you can't be moral without God the Big Brother eavesdropping on your thoughts and looking over your shoulder 24/7.  It's just plain false.

Q:  You just left the Church because you want to sin
A:  If I really believed in the concept of "sin" the last thing I would do is leave the Church!  Unless you're hinting that you can game the system and run around sinning until the very last moment then accept Christ as your Lord and Savior and have it all erased.  What has been considered a "sin" has changed so much over the history of the Church that almost anything a person does over the course of the day could have been considered a "sin" at some point in history by some religious group.

Q:  So then your life has no meaning
A:  Sure, it has meaning.  It has more meaning than yours, in fact, because the time I spend on Earth is all there is, so I want to make the most of it.  I value the people around me because we're all in this together.  I empathize with their suffering and I celebrate their accomplishments.  Those things have value in themselves without any kind of supernatural meaning attached to them.


Infidel753 said...

Q: How can you be moral without God?

Actually there's growing evidence that morality is an inborn trait that evolved from primate behavior, just as most other human behavior patterns did.

Q: There are millions of Christians. They can't all be wrong.

Hah. There are 1.4 billion Muslims and several hundred million Hindus. If they can be wrong, so can all those Christians.

Q: So then your life has no meaning

It's a great relief to me that my life has only the meaning I myself choose to give it -- it's not cluttered up with some "higher purpose" imposed by a supernatural dictator.

LadyAtheist said...

Thanks to youtube and the viral video phenomenon, we have seen many many examples of altruism in other species.

My life has meaning for me not some superbeing who only cares whether I kiss his ass!

krissthesexyatheist said...

That's a good one "I" ur life has no meaning. When that is asked I think we can assume a lot of things about that person. "L.A." wow, wow, WOW. Great post. I think you also coined a new term, "Atheist Catechism." Awesome


LadyAtheist said...

Thanks Kriss. I've been wanting to do this for a long time!

themaverickjester said...

Q: You think you know everything, don't you?

Actually, no. The older I get the less I think that I know. That might seem strange but when I was young I thought I had all the answers. At some point, life occurred. My perfect parenting methods didn't always work on my ADHD son. Christinaity had taught me that I should honor my parents but I couldn't both protect my children and have my abusive mother in our lives. So, I had to cut contact with her.

As I have moved away from religion, I have come to realize how little that I do know and that has made me humble. I don't know everything and that is all right. I can live with some uncertainity.

Besides, it is Christians who claim to have all the answers. I've been told that all I need is Jesus. Well, Jesus didn't pay my bills or help me save my marriage. I did that, along with my husband.

Blamer .. said...

Great post, LA.

Most of my answers matched yours (I tried not to cheat) just these 3 were a little different...

Q: How do you know the Bible isn't true?

The same way we know The Odyssey and The Iliad isn't true. It contains untruths. Historians discovered it started as an oral tradition and that the attributed author is fictional.

Q: Isn't it arrogant to presume you're right and all those Christians are wrong?

Everybody presumes they're worldview is right. More important than certainty is remaining flexible with your levels of confidence and doubt.

Q: You think you know everything, don't you?

Not everything is knowable, but mankind has learned a lot about this physical world, including a lot about humans.

Anonymous said...

Oh no, Lady Atheist, you aren't angry.

No ma'am.


Anonymous said...

Q: How can you be moral without God?
1) "Moral" is such a vague concept, how is it defined? Many people believe that I am "immoral" because I am gay, which is ludicrous because there is no "good" or "bad" in just IS. It's the way I'm wired.
2) But if you mean general right & wrong...ummmm, I was raised moral by my parents? No god in the picture, was just raised with love and good examples of what is right and wrong. I will never understand how people believe that you can only be good and "moral" out of fear of punishment for doing something "bad".

— Jay

LadyAtheist said...

If fear of punishment worked anyway, would there be people in prison?

themaverickjester said...

If fear of punishment worked, very few people would be on death row.

Anonymous said...

On the contrary, Maverick, there would be even MORE on death row if it didn't work.

Anonymous said...

"You can't prove a negative about anything" Mmm. That's not true. To take a random example, no even number that is larger than two is prime, that's easy to prove.

ex-minister1 said...

Another excellent post. Your responses are wonderfully concise and on point.

Anonymous said...

Thank you sooo much for posting this! :)

T. Ray said...

Q: So then your life has no meaning
A: Correction, my life has no supernatural (or false, or fairy tale, or lie for a...) meaning.

Q: How do you explain the human need to believe in God?
A: Hyperactive pattern detection. Hyperactive agency detection. Fear of the unknown. Preference for easy answers.

Q: How can you be moral without God?
A: How can people be immoral with god? One reason is that there is no magic morality conferred by belief. Another reason is that people's morality is independent of their belief in a god. (But they may be referring to the existence of a god rather than the belief in one.)

"Morality" is a tricky word though. I use it to represent intrinsic instincts that balance selfish and ostensibly selfless motivations. Others use it to represent social or civil behavior. Arguments from the religious almost always rely on faulty premises (including false dichotomy), and/or equivocation. I feel obliged to ask "what do you mean by..." for one or more terms in just about any claim or question.

Q2: How can you be moral without God?
A2: Are you suggesting I'm not or do you really not know how?

Q: What about the miracles of the Bible?
A: What about the miracles of Penn & Teller? What about the miracles of Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill?

Q: You think you know everything, don't you? (also: You think you have all the answers!)
A: I presume I'm at least a little bit wrong about pretty much everything. Too often I've discovered that I have been naive or ill-informed. I place as much value on how I know something as I do the actual knowledge. I assume I am wrong and seek to be less so by discarding information that lacks support and/or fails scrutiny. Why don't you?

Q: Isn't it arrogant to presume you're right and all those Christians are wrong?
A: Which christians? There are so many denominations and flavors of christianity (not to mention personal interpretations) that don't agree with each other it would be impossible for most of them to be right.

Q: Science can't answer everything. What about love?
A: That which can't be answered by science relies on logic, math or imagination.

Q: Nothing can exist without a creator, so the fact that things exist proves there's a God.
A: This is speculation as no human "creator" has ever created anything physical. The best we can hope for is to rearrange existing bits of matter/energy in some new, hopefully meaningful, configuration.
A2: To say that a god god can "create something from nothing" is to admit *something* can "create something from nothing." Why is it that that *something* can only be a god?

Q: How do you know the Bible isn't true?
A: Which version? Bible scholars agree that the first five books of the old testament are heavily revised. Neither Peter nor Paul claim claimed at their trials to ever have seen the jesus. Their belief was based on what they felt to be true. Why would anyone think it is historically true, aside from wishful thinking, tradition, orthodoxy and social pressures?

RustyBrown said...

Great little post. Those of us who are athiest get these silly assed questions all of the time. And, generally answer them. At this point in my life I really don't give a shit whether people agree with me or not, I'm to busy having a wonderful life...without any god, Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The atheistic view is is founded on several words and without these words the ideas crumble. For example, take the word(s) Random, Chance, Luck. Consider the implications and necessity of these word on science and a naturalistic world view. Now, can you give me 1 observable example of randomness, chance or luck in our World? No you cannot. These words have been instituted and create to describe that which we do not fully understand. Unfortunately, most doctrines of science will pass these words off as fact and element of our world. i.e. Quantum Randomness and its Incomputability. Just because we cannot compute, measure or predict it does not make it random.

LadyAtheist said...

Atheism is defined as lack of belief in a god. Those are the words you need to analyze.

Allusive Atheist said...

Anonymous is so close to a revelation... but not quite there. If there is a definitive atheist perspective it is that supernatural explanations, especially theistic explanations, are unfounded at best, and possibly obscene or ridiculous. It is not necessary to invoke randomness to dismiss supernatural claims. Using your very logic: Can you give me 1 observable example of supernatural cause or intervention?

Assuming that the most likely explanation for something that is not understood is an unobservable supernatural source or entity, is irrational.

Mandy said...

If what you believed were wrong, would you want to know it? Truth does not change, regardless of what people may choose to believe.

Anonymous said...

I see your struggle.

It would be nice to see some real answers that don't have "theory" strapped on them somewhere.

Allusive Atheist said...

On the subject of "theory":

On the lay use of "theory":
If you have an area of expertise in your life, in which you've been exceedingly competent for several years, you've probably hit several milestone that triggered a thought something like: "Just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about this subject I realized there was a whole other layer beyond."

It would probably be nice to have simple answers for everything. But that's not the world we live in. Even things we tend to take for granted can be rocked by nuance or probability.

Anonymous said...

(Not the same Anonymous)
"Now, can you give me 1 observable example of randomness, chance or luck in our World?"

Wow. Of course I can. Ever rolled a pair of dice? Probability and statistics actually work, as Nate Silver proved recently. Perhaps you should spend more time at the casino. Randomness is a complicated matter, but it's very real.

Dano Russell said...

In fairness, both randomness and probability, like MOST other concepts in the universe, are *relative.*

Not "relative" in the sense that uneducated people misuse the term (as in "just believe what you want to believe, itʻs ʻrelative.ʻ", but relative in its true sense: that is, the semantic content and range of a concept depends on its context.

True randomness may not even exist (I suspect it does not), but if it does, there are probably only a relatively small number of things in the universe (or superverse) that can be said to be truly random.

However, the universe is like an onion. In each layer of the onion, there are seemingly random events that are only random relative to that layer. If you move to a deeper causal layer, those events are no longer random. The die example is a good one. When you roll a die, its outcome is only random relative to the layer in which you are not observing the hand that flung it, and the air friction, and the millions of surface molecules it brushed on its journey to finally stop. All of those factors (part of a deeper layer of causality) make the die produce a non-random outcome, so long as you take that layer into account.

The discussion of randomness has, like most other concepts, confused humans for thousands of years because they think in absolutes in a universe where almost everything is relative. Thus, their human constructs are largely nonsense.

It is the complete rejection of any concept of randomness that a religious person craves that leads them to reject a universe without a God. However, all they need to do is understand that randomness is relative.

The deep question is: is there a deepest layer of causality in the which true randomness exists since there are no deeper layers? (I doubt it. I suspect these layers loop back on themselves).

Anonymous said...

I know you are very proud to be an atheist and many intellectual people are atheists because they believe in their own power. I don't have problem with that but there is also the power of God which is higher than ours, you can call that power by different names but that power is God. I pray that you know the Truth because only the Truth can set you free. We can use all our intelligence to explain a certain miracle but that is God manifesting his power, i don't want you to accept what I say but I would keep you in my prayer because God wants me to and because God loves you . Human beings can provide you temporary happiness and I have seen that happening in my life, the treachery , vengence, greed all that but it is God who would not leave you and that you will understand gradually but for now I pray for you