Answers to Matt Slick’s ‘Questions for Atheists’ – Part 3

This is the third part of my responses to Matt Slick’s Questions for Atheists list from the CARM website. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

22. Do you believe there is such a thing as evil? If so, what is it?

I believe that extreme badness exists in the world. I don’t believe in an external source of evil (i.e. a ‘devil tempts us’ type of philosophy).

23. If you believe that the God of the Old Testament is morally bad, by what standard do you judge that He is bad?

It’s a long time since I actually read the OT in detail, but, as best as I can remember, I didn’t at the time judge God to be bad. Jealous to a petty degree, yes. Worryingly homophobic, yes. Holding some very concerning ideas about women and sexual consent, yes. But, you know, not really bad at heart or anything.

(With hindsight, I have the feeling that I may have been rather too ready to overlook some very egregious behaviour, including the odd hideous massacre along the way. What can I say? I was naive, not very good at being skeptical, and somewhat primed by society to believe that God was supremely wonderful and so if God said it it must be Right.)

The God of the New Testament, on the other hand – that was a God who truly horrified me. Bad stuff on earth I could go a fair way to gloss over, but a God who would choose to condemn humans to an eternity of torture, purely for believing in the wrong religion, was a God that even my naive childhood/teen/twentysomething self couldn’t come to terms with.

In anticipation of your follow-up question: I judge that God to be bad by the same standard I’d judge anyone else to be bad. Namely, the standard that says that torturing people for eternity is wrong. (As, for that matter, are homophobia, jealousy, rape laws based on the principle that the only important issue in rape is the prospect of a husband or future husband being bothered about trespass within the vagina that’s supposed to be his sole property, and the ordering of massacres.)

24. What would it take for you to believe in God?

25. What would constitute sufficient evidence for God’s existence?

26. Must this evidence be rationally based, archaeological, testable in a lab, etc., or what?

(Again, I’ve grouped these three together as they seemed to be effectively three parts of the same question.)

What it would take is implied in this post; I would need the same sort of level of evidence that exists for the people and things that I experience each day. I don’t need laboratory or archaeological evidence for the coffee table next to me or my husband and children or Matt Slick; I have the evidence of my senses. If God communicated with us in some way that we could unequivocally, objectively sense in the same way as we see or hear or touch the things in the world around us (1), and that everyone else experienced similarly (2), then I wouldn’t have a problem in believing (3).

(1) Which wouldn’t have to be via our existing senses, necessarily; no reason why we couldn’t have another sense or senses solely for the purpose of experiencing God. But it would have to be something that carried that same quality of transmitting external data, data that feels qualitatively, noticeably different from the inner workings of our minds.

(2) ‘Almost everyone else’ would still be good enough. After all, in the world currently there are people who have problems with their existing senses and can’t see or hear properly, or people who, for various reasons, hallucinate things that aren’t there but seem real to them; and these blips in the universality of sensory experiences don’t interfere in practice with our ability to discern that the people and things we encounter actually exist.

(3) Well, I wouldn’t have had a problem in believing if things had been that way from the start. I think that if a god suddenly started doing this now, it would be natural to wonder why on earth he or she hadn’t been doing this throughout the history of humanity and to want some answers, and I for one would wonder whether these communications might in fact be due to something like aliens trying to influence the human race (which may of course simply mean I’ve spent too much time watching Doctor Who) and would still be skeptical for a while before believing. Still, if a being started communicating with us in this sort of universal unequivocal way and consistently continued doing so over time, I’d find that to be sufficient evidence.

27. Do you think that a society that is run by Christians or atheists would be safer? Why?

I don’t think it would be very safe to base the choosing of our leaders on their personal beliefs about religion, regardless of what those beliefs might be.

If I absolutely had to choose I’d say atheists, as they’re less likely to base general bans on personal beliefs. (Not saying this couldn’t happen, just that it’s a lot less likely with people not driven by a belief system telling them that the Divine Being In Charge Of The Universe requires society to be run a particular way.) But I’d much rather have a society in which the personal beliefs of the people in charge are irrelevant and what matters is how well the person is actually doing at running things.

28. Do you believe in free will? (free will being the ability to make choices without coersion [sic]).

Yes.

29. If you believe in free will, do you see any problem with defending the idea that the physical brain, which is limited and subject to the neuro-chemical laws of the brain, can still produce free will choices?

No, and this objection always puzzles me – this idea that the fact that your choices come from a brain with particular abilities and limitations is somehow an infringement on free will. Surely, for free will to mean anything, there has to be a self, a ‘me’, that makes the choices? Whether you continue that self to consist of a complex web of interconnected neurones or a God-given soul, surely it has to consist of something that differentiates the free-will choices of that individual self from the free-will choices of any other individual self? Otherwise, surely you don’t have an individual making meaningful choices, but more of a random number generator?

30. If you affirm evolution and that the universe will continue to expand forever, then do you think it is probable that given enough time, brains would evolve to the point of exceeding mere physical limitations and become free of the physical and temporal, and thereby become “deity” and not be restricted by space and time? If not, why not?

I think it’s unlikely. Firstly, I don’t even know if teleportation/time travel (which seems to be what Slick is talking about here) are even theoretically possible. Secondly, even if these abilities are theoretically possible, then there’s the question of how they could develop via evolution. For that to happen, there would have to be intermediate stages of development of those abilities that provided some sort of survival or reproductive advantage, and it’s hard to see how that would be the case. However, it certainly can’t be ruled out.

31. If you answered the previous question in the affirmative, then aren’t you saying that it is probable that some sort of God exists?

I didn’t, so this is a N/A. But this also makes me think I misunderstood the last one; this sounds as though Slick was actually talking not about teleportation/time travel, but about minds becoming free of the confines of the physical brain altogether; which strikes me as even less likely to happen.

I’m curious, though, as to why Slick would find it important if we did believe this? After all, even if human beings did develop these god-like attributes, while that would mean they could be described as gods in some sense they certainly wouldn’t be the God that Slick believes in, so I’m not sure how this is relevant to anything he’s arguing.

 

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More on Sabrina Hout

This will hopefully be the last of what seems to have turned into a three-part response to Dr Peter Saunders’ post Three new worrying conscience cases – Christians must be prepared to pay the price for obeying God in the face of legal threats. Saunders gave examples of situations that he believed to be worrying infringements on the religious freedom of others, of which the two that I’m discussing – Sabrina Hout and Kim Davis – both involved officials with religious opposition to gay marriage. In my first reply, I objected to the idea that religious freedom could allow discrimination against others, and in my second reply I discussed Davis’s case further. This post, therefore, is to discuss a few details of Hout’s case.

Sabrina Hout’s case is rather a bizarre one. Although Saunders claimed, in his post, that she has been sent to court for ‘refusing’ to perform a same-sex marriage, this is not strictly speaking true. What actually happened was that she let the couple think that their marriage had gone ahead legally despite not properly performing it.

According to what I’ve been able to find, Hout (fraudulently) signed the register to say that the marriage had taken place, and then slipped out of the room and let one of the other officials carry out the ceremony despite the fact that he was not legally authorised to do so and this would mean that the marriage was not legal. (I have no idea why the official in question didn’t immediately point this out; it seems an important point, but isn’t answered in the articles I’ve been able to find on this case, which hasn’t been nearly as notorious as the Kim Davis case.)

This doesn’t seem to have been a calculated attempt to be obstructive – more of a panicked ‘I can’t decide how to deal with this difficult issue! Maybe if I just wave my hands around and ignore it really hard it’ll all magically disappear!’ reaction – but it’s hard to tell. Whatever the reason, the result was that the couple in question went away believing they were married when in fact they weren’t.

Luckily this was picked up a few weeks later, meaning that, although they had to face the painful discovery that their joyful day of sharing their lifelong commitment with their friends and family had in fact been a sham, at least they didn’t face the kinds of legal and financial problems that could potentially have ensued if they’d gone on incorrectly thinking they were married and making plans on that basis. However, they were understandably very unhappy with the situation, and this is why they are suing Hout. That’s not some kind of unfair infringement on Hout’s freedom of conscience, as Saunders would apparently have us believe; it’s what typically happens when you defraud people.

Now, this sort of behaviour (this was fraud, for goodness’ sake) is so difficult to justify even if starting from the premise of ‘Gay marriage is wrong because Bible!’ that I’m wondering just how it ended up in Saunders’ blog post in the first place. Even if he believes that officials should be allowed to discriminate refuse to perform marriages they don’t approve of, I doubt he actually wants to argue that they should be allowed to trick people like this. So what exactly happened? Was Saunders so convinced that anyone acting for religious motives must be in the right that he didn’t bother reading the basic details of the case? Or what?

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More on Kim Davis

On Friday, I posted a reply to a blog post by Peter Saunders in which he claimed that Kim Davis and Sabrina Hout shouldn’t be facing legal action for their choice to avoid involvement in gay marriage, as they were (according to Saunders) only exercising their freedom of conscience by so doing. I pointed out that freedom of conscience does not excuse discriminatory behaviour, which was what was going on here.

What I want to do now is to write more about the details of the two legal cases, since this whole claim that it boils down to ‘they shouldn’t have to violate their religious beliefs by doing X!’ is a considerable oversimplification. This post was meant to cover both cases, but it ended up being longer than I’d planned for, so I’ll make this one about Kim Davis and write about Hout in a separate post.

Kim Davis, for anyone who hasn’t already heard about her, is a Kentucky county clerk who underwent a conversion four years ago to Apostolic Christianity, a branch of Christianity that believes gay sex, and hence gay marriage, to be wrong. As of June 26th last year, this brought her beliefs into conflict with her job requirements; when the Supreme Court declared state laws against gay marriage to be unconstitutional and void, she found herself faced with the requirement to issue marriage licences to gay as well as straight couples.

Although I find Kim Davis’s homophobia and intolerant form of religion repugnant, I do, believe it or not, have some sympathy for the dilemma she then found herself in; her beliefs, as ghastly as they are, are her beliefs, and it is not easy to find yourself in a situation where you are faced with a choice between violating your beliefs and giving up something else that means a great deal to you. And there is no doubt that Davis’s job means a great deal to her; she was actually the successor to her mother, who held the post for 37 years, during 19 of which Davis worked under her as her deputy, and it was clearly a very moving moment for Davis when she herself successfully ran for the post and was elected in November 2014. It must have been a great blow to her when, less than a year later, she found that the job to which she was so deeply committed now contained a requirement to do something that she believed to be wrong.

Nevertheless, however hard the choice between her beliefs and her job must have been for Davis, as of June 26th that was the choice she was faced with. Regardless of what any of us might think of her stance on gay marriage, I can’t see any way in which it can be ethically justifiable to continue taking taxpayers’ money for a job in the knowledge that you are going to refuse to carry out the full requirements of the job. Davis did indeed have the absolute right to avoid signing licences for marriages for gay couples – by resigning from the job that now required her to do this.

Davis did not do this, nor did she sign the marriage licences. Any marriage licences. Following the Obergefell ruling of the Supreme Court, she stopped signing marriage licences altogether, claiming that this was to avoid discrimination (I’m not clear on the logic of an “if I refuse to sign any marriage licences while making it quite clear that this is because of my opposition to gay marriage” approach being non-discriminatory, but this is what she claimed). The ACLU therefore filed a class action suit against Davis on behalf of four of the couples (two gay, two straight) who had been denied licences.

On August 12th, Judge Bunning (who, by the way, is a committed and practicing Christian himself, which throws something of a spanner in the “this is all just discrimination against Christians for their religion!” argument) issued his official ruling. In twenty-eight pages of analysis of the issues, he concluded that, yes, the taxpaying residents of Rowan County were entitled to expect their elected clerk to perform the services her job required her to perform, and no, Kim Davis’s religious beliefs did not get her out of the obligations of her job as Rowan County Clerk. In arguing the latter, he quoted from a previous case, Cantwell vs. Connecticut; the full passage from which he quoted runs as follows:

The constitutional inhibition of legislation on the subject of religion has a double aspect. On the one hand, it forestalls compulsion by law of the acceptance of any creed or the practice of any form of worship. Freedom of conscience and freedom to adhere to such religious organization or form of worship as the individual may choose cannot be restricted by law. On the other hand, it safeguards the free exercise of the chosen form of religion. Thus, the Amendment embraces two concepts — freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute, but, in the nature of things, the second cannot be.

(Cantwell vs. Connecticut pg 301 US 303 – 4, quoted in part by Bunning)

Or, to put it more simply; your freedom of religion in the USA covers an absolute right to believe whatever you want to, but doesn’t give you a blanket excuse to act however you want to.

(By the way, the Caldwell vs. Connecticut ruling involved two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were soliciting money door-to-door without a permit and who were playing recordings to Roman Catholics that insulted their religion and offended them, because they believed both of these actions to be acceptable in light of their own religious beliefs. Once you start using ‘Because belief!’ as an excuse for any action regardless of its potential harm, it opens the door to a hell of a lot of dodgy stuff.)

When Davis ended up back in front of Judge Bunning again a few weeks later for her continued refusal to issue licences, he actually offered her another solution; she could let the deputy clerks in the office issue licences without having to be involved herself, and he would allow this. She refused. She was, she made clear, going to prevent other clerks in the office from issuing licences as well.

Now, apart from the obvious fact that this meant that she would be continuing to prevent an important public service from being carried out while at the same time taking public money to perform the public service which she was preventing, this seems to me to raise another important point: What about the deputy clerks’ right to freedom of conscience?

From what I’ve been able to glean, it seems that this is not actually an issue; five of the clerks are also against issuing licences (though four of those five have reluctantly agreed to do so in accordance with the judge’s order) and one of them (who is now signing all the licences) appears not to be too bothered either way. But let’s suppose that one of Davis’s deputies had a strong anti-discrimination stance and believed that issuing licences was the right thing to do. Would Davis respect that clerk’s freedom of conscience? Or would she still be insisting that he or she should refrain from issuing licences in accordance with her religious beliefs?

It’s worth, at this point, noting something that Davis stated in an interview when talking about why she did not, in fact, choose to leave the job she couldn’t bring herself to do:

“I would have to either make a decision to stand or I would have to buckle down and leave,” she said, pondering her choices. “And if I left, resigned or chose to retire, I would have no voice for God’s word.”

So, in fact, this goes way beyond whether she herself should or shouldn’t have to sign marriage licences; She also wants to use her job as a public official to promote her own particular religious views. (In blatant violation, I might add, of her country’s overriding principle of ‘separation of church and state’.)

And that’s the ironic twist in the story. While Dr Saunders and many others see this as an issue of religious freedom, it appears that to Kim Davis it’s actually the reverse. Kim Davis does not, from what I can see, want religious freedom. What she wants is for people to have to follow her religion. And her actions are aimed at doing what she can to bring that about, regardless of how others feel about the matter or how it affects them.

So that saga (plus the fact that she’s an elected official and can’t simply be fired, which is what would happen to almost anyone else who was blatantly refusing either to do their job themselves or delegate it to someone who could) is why Kim Davis ultimately ended up spending five days in jail for contempt of court. It’s not because she holds the beliefs she does. It’s because she refused to do her job or let others do theirs, and abused her position in order to push her beliefs on others in a way that was harmful and discriminatory.

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No, Dr Saunders, religious freedom does not include the right to discriminate against others

Dr Peter Saunders, the CEO of the UK’s Christian Medical Fellowship (1), has written a blog post entitled ‘Three new worrying conscience cases – Christians must be prepared to pay the price for obeying God in the face of legal threats‘. Hmmm, I thought when I read this; I wonder if by any chance he’s including Kim Davis as one of the cases in question? He is indeed; not only that, but another of his three cases is a similar one:

The second case involved a French Muslim registrar who was sent to court for refusing to perform a same-sex marriage. The Marseille penal tribunal will render its judgment on 29 September. The maximum penalty for a registrar who illegally refuses to give access to a legal right is a 75,000-euro fine and 5 years’ imprisonment.

In the third case a Kentucky county clerk has already been jailed for refusing to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

These are, according to Dr Saunders, worrying cases of ‘people getting into trouble for exercising freedom of conscience’ and he leaves us no doubt about where he stands on the matter:

But Scripture is equally clear that if laws which discriminate against Christians are passed, and obeying such laws involves disobeying God, then there is a place for civil disobedience. In fact when we are forced to do something wrong it is a Christian duty.

And he goes on to provide us with an illustrious list of Biblical characters who provide us with shining examples of such noble behaviour; the Hebrew midwives refusing to kill babies, Rahab refusing to hand over innocents, Daniel fighting for his right to pray in the way he believed to be right, and so forth.

Of course, you may notice one other thing that all those people have in common; none of them were fighting for the continuance of an unjust state of affairs that was harming others.

Kim Davis, on the other hand, is fighting to prevent people who love each other from getting married. She is trying to return to the (very recent) days when gay couples who loved each other and wished to share the rest of their lives were not allowed to do so on the same terms as heterosexual couples. She wants to go back to the time when couples in love could be denied not only the joy of celebrating their commitment in a legally and socially recognised union, but the numerous and significant legal protections and benefits that were available only to married couples – and be denied these rights and protections solely on account of their sex. And, although I do realise that Kim Davis’s particular brand of religion is sadly bigoted enough to require that of her, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a law that hurt and disadvantaged a lot of people.  That’s the law Kim Davis wants to bring back, and that she’s working so hard to uphold.

The analogy here isn’t with Rahab or Daniel or the apostles. The analogy is with the bigots who, just a few decades ago, used their interpretation of the Bible as an excuse to uphold laws against interracial marriage.

Dr Saunders, you and others should indeed have the freedom to follow your religious convictions, and I will happily stand up alongside you and fight for that… right up to the point where your religion starts harming someone else. Your rights of religious freedom do not include the right to trample on the rights of others. That’s not ‘discrimination’ – that’s expecting you to follow exactly the same laws as everyone else, including the laws that say that you don’t get to discriminate against others.

And I would also like to add, as a non-Christian, that when you describe this sort of bigotry as ‘normal Christian behaviour’ and claim that laws for equality ‘discriminate against Christians’, you are not doing anything to convince other people that the God in whose name you act is loving, fair, or wise.

 

(1) In fairness to the CMF, I would like to point out that Dr Saunders wrote this article on his own blog, which is independent of the CMF; he was not acting in any official CMF-related capacity when he wrote this, and I do not know the stance of the CMF on this issue.

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Answers to Matt Slick’s ‘Questions for Atheists’ – Part 2

This is the second part of my reply to Matt Slick’s Questions for Atheists, from the CARM webpage. Some tough ones here; do excuse the number of “don’t know”s. I’ve also grouped two questions together in a couple of instances where they logically seemed to belong together.

11. If you were at one time a believer in the Christian God, what caused you to deny His existence?

N/A

12. Do you believe the world would be better off without religion?

I honestly don’t know. That’s like asking whether the world would be better off without ambition, or stubbornness, or any other trait that can potentially be turned to either good or bad and that is in any case so inherently a part of humanity that it’s impossible to imagine where we’d be today without it.

13. Do you believe the world would be better off without Christianity?

Wow, that really is an interesting one; again, I don’t know, but I’d love to see a historian write it up as a counterfactual. Would Islam, with no other monotheistic and pro-conversion religion to counteract it, have swept across the Western world unchallenged? Or would polytheistic religions have remained much more dominant in the West? We’d certainly have avoided the Crusades and the Inquisition. On the other hand, it would have taken far longer to institute the idea of a compulsory rest day each week for even those beings considered to be of lesser importance (servants, slaves, animals).

I think on the whole we very likely would have been better off overall; other religious beliefs would have filled the vacuum, so we wouldn’t be looking at the loss of the positives that religion can bring (emotional support in times of trouble, potential strengthening of growing communities) in the same way as we would with the previous question. But it’s speculation; we’ll never know. I’m really tempted to e-mail Richard Carrier and ask him if he’d be interested in writing it up as a counterfactual speculation.

14. Do you believe that faith in a God or gods is a mental disorder?

No.

15. Must God be known through the scientific method?

No; no more than you use the scientific method to figure out if your friends or work colleagues exist.

16. If you answered yes to the previous question, then how do you avoid a category mistake by requiring material evidence for an immaterial God?

N/A (though that link raises some interesting potential discussion; must write a post on that at some point).

17. Do we have any purpose as human beings?   18. If we do have purpose, can you as an atheist please explain how that purpose is determined?

Yes. We have the purpose that comes from enjoying our lives, interacting with others, and reaching out to improve the world for others as well as ourselves.

19. Where does morality come from?

From our understanding that others have feelings as we do and that they, like us, feel pain and joy and the wish to be treated as agents in charge of their own lives. From that knowledge, we extrapolate the understanding that it is important to treat all people (ourselves and others) in such a way as to avoid causing them pain, bring greater joy and pleasure to them, and allow them have decision-making rights over their own lives. (Obviously, these interests often conflict, leading to grey areas where we can dispute which of those issues should have priority; however, that understanding is the basis for our discussions and our beliefs about morality.)

20. Are there moral absolutes?  21. If there are moral absolutes, could you list a few of them?

Another tough one, because so many exceptions are possible. The only one I can think of is the rule against sexual assault. (It’s possible to think of emergencies in which killing or theft or lying would be justified in order to save another; I can’t think of any circumstances in which you’d be required to sexually assault someone in order to save someone else.) I think this one is open to a lot of discussion.

 

Answers 22 – 31 to follow when I have the chance.

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Replies to Matt Slick’s ‘Questions for Atheists’ – Part 1

Aaaaaand…. that pretty much completes the background of why I’m an atheist. If you read through it, thanks; I hope it was of some interest. And now, on to other topics.

There are, I have found, quite a lot of people out there with lists of questions for atheists, and I thought that answering some of these might make for interesting discussion. I decided to have a shot at this list of questions, from an evangelism group called CARM (the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry), run by Matt Slick. It’s a long list (and he has two more after that!) so my plan is to break it down over multiple blog posts.

1. How would you define atheism?

Nonbelief in any form of a god or gods.

2. Do you act according to what you believe (there is no God) in or what you don’t believe in (lack belief in God)?

I don’t understand what the difference would be in terms of my actions. I mean, the only effects my atheism has on my actions are that I don’t join any form of religion and that I’m writing this blog, and both of those are ways I’d act with either belief.

3. Do you think it is inconsistent for someone who “lacks belief” in God to work against God’s existence by attempting to show that God doesn’t exist?

Again, I’m not quite sure I follow the question. How would it be inconsistent for someone who lacks belief in God to attempt to demonstrate the reasons why they believe that? And what does ‘work against God’s existence’ mean? Did you mean ‘argue against God’s existence’? (I’m not trying to be awkward here; I just want to avoid a situation where we end up tied up in knots talking past each other because I’ve tried to interpret something you’re asking but misunderstood it.)

4. How sure are you that your atheism properly represents reality?

Probably about as sure as you are that your Christianity properly represents reality, although obviously for different reasons. 🙂

5. How sure are you that your atheism is correct?

I don’t understand how this is different from the previous question. (Unless I misunderstood the previous question and you were actually asking me whether I’m sure I’m really an atheist? In which case, the answer to question 4 is that, yes, I’m sure I’m really an atheist, and the answer to question 5 is the one I gave to question 4.)

6. How would you define what truth is?

‘That which is both honest and correct’ is the best definition I can think of.

7. Why do you believe your atheism is a justifiable position to hold?

I think the best way to summarise that is that I don’t believe that any of the reasons for believing in the existence of a god actually stand up to critical scrutiny. If you’re interested in a bit more discussion of my reasons, this post explains why I identify as an atheist rather than as an agnostic, and these two posts discuss reasons why, more specifically, I don’t believe in the God that people in Western culture/religions typically mean when they use the term.

8. Are you a materialist or a physicalist or what?

Hmmm. I’ll go with ‘what’ as I think that best sums it up.  🙂

9. Do you affirm or deny that atheism is a worldview? Why or why not?

I’d say it’s a position that may contribute to informing a worldview, but isn’t a worldview in itself. I mean, one person might develop the view that life is meaningless as a result of becoming atheist; another might feel that this made it even more important to create the best life possible on earth; still another might not care very much or find it particularly important, being more focused on day-to-day tasks and finding those the important things. So, in each case, you’ve got a different worldview, with the person’s atheism being at most one of the factors that help to form it.

10. Not all atheists are antagonistic to Christianity but for those of you who are, why the antagonism?

I find the idea of a god who would doom millions of people to eternal hellfire for not following the correct religion, and who can forgive sins (even the most minor and trivial) only through blood sacrifice, to be reprehensible.

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Evolution and theism (or, another reason why I don’t believe in the God you’re probably thinking of)

During my years of wrestling with the question of whether God existed or not, one thing that didn’t faze me was the idea of evolution. I was never tempted by Biblical literalism, and had no problems at all with the idea of a God who used natural selection as His mechanism for creating humans, restricting His input to setting the whole process going and giving the DNA the odd tweak here and there along the way. Of course, the existence of evolution also seemed perfectly compatible with the non-existence of a God, so I chalked that whole part of the issue up to the ‘neutral’ column. Eventually, of course, I found other reasons to disbelieve in God and the point became moot.

So, when I read Peter Ackroyd’s The Beginning a few months back (a delightful little book giving a simple, readable account of the history of life on earth, starting with a prologue sketching out a brief account of the universe’s development from the Big Bang to the development of the Earth and then continuing on through Earth’s history up to the development of Homo Sapiens) I obviously wasn’t expecting it to have any impact on my atheism either way. I read it because it looked interesting and I liked the idea of learning more about how everything ended up being the way it is. What really struck me as I read the book though, in a way that somehow it just hadn’t before, was the sheer mindboggling timescale of the whole thing.

Hundreds of thousands of years for even the first atoms to form. Almost a billion more to get to the point of galaxies appearing. Billions and billions more before meteorite-pelted molten rock formed into the earliest stages of what would eventually become the Earth we live on. (What would a God even be doing all this time? Twiddling His thumbs?) And then, once life did get started, billions of years worth of new species originating almost at random and lasting for various lengths of time (hundreds of thousands of years, in some cases), only to – in most cases – die out or be wiped out in a wholesale extinction.

There were patterns to it, of course; the ones you’d expect to see from the laws of physics (the formation of smaller atoms into larger atoms, dust into galaxies) or biology (good ol’ natural selection doing its thing and preserving the more successful species for longer). But what was conspicuously absent was any sign of a deliberate plan driving the whole thing towards the eventual development of the human race.

As I read, I asked myself: hypothetically speaking, what kind of god might have been in charge of this? And the inescapably obvious answer was ‘One with no particular interest in humans.’

Traditional Western ideas of a creator-God have always included the assumption that God’s reason for creating the universe was to have somewhere to put humanity. Whether the story is that God brought things magically into existence over six days or that he did it via physical and biological processes over billions of years, the narrative keeps the focus firmly on us as the culmination of the Grand Plan, the whole raison d’etre of the universe, the goal that God had in mind from the Big Bang or ‘Let there be light’ onwards. And I think that in a way the traditional evolutionary teaching in schools actually reinforces that; we get the simplified stripped-down fish-amphibians-reptiles-mammals-monkeys-apes-human progression, with side branches of lesser importance at each stage.

But, when we take a step back and look at what actually went on, that isn’t at all what we see. There is nothing at all about the development of the universe to indicate any guiding hand steering it with any haste or eagerness to the point where living creatures could begin to develop on this one particular planet. There is nothing at all about evolutionary history that objectively differentiates the particular branches and sub-branches that happened to lead to us. Other than our own natural desire to see ourselves as the star of the show, there is simply nothing to make us stand out as anything more than yet one more species that has chanced to appear over the billions of years in which new species have been developing.

That, of course, is quite consistent with what we’d expect to see if there is no God. It’s possibly consistent with what we might expect to see if there is a God or Gods who created the universe for reasons utterly unrelated to the expectation of humanity’s eventual existence within it, and if we then evolved as a lucky but unanticipated by-product. But it is hopelessly inconsistent with what we’d expect to see if a God set out with a deliberate plan to create humanity. Yet again, the facts simply don’t fit with the God that Western religions try to preach.

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