Thursday, February 5, 2009

Questions That Atheists Should Answer?

I use Google Alerts to get news about subjects that interest me. One of these alerts is a search for "atheist", because, in case you don't know already, I am one. I do see a lot of news articles, but the search also includes blogs. I have toyed with the idea of excluding blogs from the searches, since many of them are just people like Ray Comfort, painting caricatures of atheists with their outrageous stereotypes, putting words in our mouths that many of us--the atheists I know, anyway--would never say.

In any case, I ran across a video from a young man who had five questions he believed atheists should answer. He wanted a YouTube video response or a response in his comments, but I don't think my responses would fit in one comment, I don't want to post several, and I'm definitely not doing a video at this hour--but I thought I'd answer his questions. I will be posting this link in his comments, so I hope he'll run across this page.

Question 1: "Atheists believe that the universe began millions and millions of years ago. Now, how would you know this for a fact, or is it just a guess?"

Greg's Take: Let's parse this question first, because I have some issues with it.

First, there's the "Atheists believe" part. I have been hanging with Atheists long enough to know that we're as diverse a group of individuals as any other group can be; the only thing we have in common is our rejection of theism. There's no worldview that you can assign to all atheists. Some Atheists know very little about cosomology and don't care. Many Atheists don't know a thing about evolution, either, and don't care. They leave these things to astrophysicists and biologists, respectively.

Secondly, there's the word, "believe". Many of us reject the word, "believe", for its implication of acceptance without evidence. I know I do. I have no place for faith in my life, and "believe" is something I'm trying really hard to remove from my vocabulary, because it doesn't do justice to the amount of research I put into the things I know.

Thirdly, there's the idea of the universe beginning. Scientists don't know if the universe had a beginning. They don't. Seriously. All they know for certain is that the universe expanded. How do they know? You know that famous telescope named Hubble? That telescope was named after the scientist who, through the discovery of a phenomenon known as red shift, found out that everything in the universe appeared to be moving away from everything else, and on a certain trajectory. Everything seemed to be moving away from a center.

Fourth of all, it's not "millions and millions", but "billions and billions". The universe started to expand about 13.7 billion years ago.

Finally, no, it's not a guess. Red shift is real. The universe is expanding and has been. Scientists--notice that I didn't say "Atheists", because not every Atheist is well-versed in physics/cosmology--know that the universe is at least 13.7 billion years old because a) the speed of light is a constant, b) we can measure the distance from Earth to the stars we can see with Hubble, c) light had to travel the distance necessary for us to see it, and d) no plausible alternative explanation backed by evidence can explain how light could reach us without traveling this distance. In order for light to be here from where the universe began to expand, it would have had to travel faster than light. I repeat: light would have to travel faster than light.

Question 2: Why are atheists like Richard Dawkins actually afraid of admitting to the fact that they could possibly be wrong and that there is a god?

Greg's Take: Let me begin by answering that there are no Atheists like Dawkins. He's an international Atheist celebrity. He's a household name. There are a few with his level of fame: Hitchens, Harris, Madelyn Murray O'Hair, some comedians (e.g., George Carlin), but not many with his knowledge of biology, his soft-spoken manner, and his intellect.

I would argue that Dawkins would say--actually, he has said--that he is 99.9% sure that there is no designer, like a good scientist would say about anything. He also says he's 99.9% sure there are no fairies. Scientists do not rule out possibilities, but science deals only with what can be observed and quantified, so things people accept on faith are outside the realm of scientific thought.

For my part, I say that the burden of proof is on those making the claim that their god exists. Bring on your evidence, because I haven't seen any. It always comes down to faith.

Question 3: Why do atheists think that it is illogical for Christians and religious people to believe in god, because they can't see him, feel him, hear him, et cetera, believe that we don't have proof of god, when apparently, atheists believe and have faith in the big bang theory and evolution? Atheists love to preach it and teach it in schools, so wouldn't that make atheism a religion?

Greg's Take: We come back in this question to the mistaken noting of Atheists believing things. Think of it more like this: Atheists, for the most part, from what I've seen and experienced, trust scientists. At least, those among us who know science (or are scientists ourselves! Not me--I'm an IT professional) trust scientists, because scientists deal in what is observable, quantifiable, and verifiable. I will admit that many Atheists get overzealous in their defense of evolution and the big bang (which I prefer to refer to as the expansion of the universe as we know it) and go a little far, taking liberties with what science is actually available, but as a former biology major and someone who really enjoys science, as someone who reads journals and science news, I can tell you that evolution is a fact, that it is inevitable, and it takes more knowledge than I can impart to you in this blog entry to understand how it works.

To simplify evolution as much as I possibly can, it's all in the genes. To expand just a little, I can say with certainty that during reproduction, a little bit more information is added to DNA. This addition is an observable, verifiable fact. With additional DNA, there is a possibility that different genes will be active in the next generation of a species, which explains population genetics, but I won't go into that at the moment. What I can say is that when you add mutation (which is the only mechanism creationists seem to think exists for evolution; it's not) and gene-crossing to the mix, you have all sorts of possibities that open up.

I can expand and expand and expand, but unless you've taken a few courses in biology at the college level, you're not going to get it. Evolution is a fact; it's the theories regarding evolution that are not 100% proven--but they are 99.9% there. Evolution has so much predictive power in science. For example, you know the flu vaccines that are administered every year? Scientists know how to make these vaccines because they can predict the evolutionary path of viruses--and it is a statistical fact that people who get flu shots are less likely to get the flu, and more likely to recover faster from it if they do get it.

I already touched on the Big Bang theory, so I won't go over it again. I would just advise you to think of it as an expansion of the universe, because nobody knows what happened before 13.7 billion years ago. Nobody. There are some educated guesses, but there is no certainty.

Oh, and no, atheism is not a religion. If Atheism is a religion, bald is a hairstyle. The reason evolution and the Big Bang are taught in schools is because science must be taught in science classrooms. It is unfair to students who want a career in the sciences to waste time in science class on things that are not science. Creationism is a matter of faith, and does not belong in a biology or physics classrom. What you learn in science classes has everything to do with the body of knowledge that scientists have built, and has nothing to do with popular opinion or debates between people of faith and people of no faith.

Question 4: If the big bang theory were true, then how did everything in the universe come to be designed the way it did? Like for example, how could the Earth be in the perfect position for the sun to give it light, and if it moved by an inch or so, we wouldn't have light like we have now, and the Earth is the only planet with supplies for human life? [I tried to correct for grammar here, but you get the gist, right? I gave up because I hate playing the grammar police.]

Greg's Take: First of all, the Earth moves much more than inch toward or away from the sun, depending on where it is in its orbit. Secondly, how do you know that Earth is the only planet that can support human life? It's a big universe out there, and there could be thousands, millions, or billions of inhabitable planets in it. We just don't know. The odds are good that there is some more life out there in some form, given the number of stars, and given the number of solar systems with planets astronomers are now discovering.

Life has always been a struggle on Earth. While life begets life, life also eats other life. Life has to contend with climate changes and natural disasters, geographic separations and limitations on food sources. Species after species forms and dies. Warm-blooded species last an average of twenty-five million years; cold-blooded species last around three hundred million. I should say that the genus lasts that long, because there is a blurry line where the species becomes so different that it can no longer breed with creatures like its ancestors. Given what geneticists know now about the amount of information that is added with reproduction to DNA, enough change will occur over a twenty-five million year period to make the descendents become very different from their ancestors.

To say that this life is "fine-tuned" for life (which is how it is usually worded) is to have it backwards: life struggled and thrived due to adaptations that allowed it to live under the conditions that existed already. This planet was uninhabitable 3.5 billion or 4 billion years ago; whatever the first life was had to have the correct adaptations to allow it to survive under the conditions that existed then. I am fairly certain that more than one combination of self-replicating proteins appeared, but only the combination(s) producing the characteristics giving it survival advantages thrived.

Question 5: When Christians like my brothers and sisters in christ and I spread the word of god in a loving and perfect way, why do you have so much hate towards us when we share with you about the gospel of our lord and savior jesus christ, when he came to this world to save sinners, he died on the cross for our sins, and was risen from the dead?

Greg's Take: I can't speak for all Atheists. No Atheist can. What I can say is that I do not hate you. I don't know what reactions you're receiving that you translate as hate, but I can guess, because when I first rejected religion, I was angry, frustrated, and alone. I knew a precious few people who were Atheists, and when I came out to my Christian friends, they just wouldn't leave me to it. They felt that I was "lost" and that my "soul" needed "saved", but they--and you--have no idea how condescending that sounds to someone who has just undertaken an intellectual journey away from religion. I read the Bible at least twenty-seven times through during my life, referring to various versus hundreds, perhaps thousands of times during the course of my journey. I studied ancient religions, I studied philosophers and apologists--rejecting faith wasn't something I came to lightly. For people I once considered friends to treat me as though I was being foolish, going through a phase, or as if I had lost my way somehow was disheartening and annoying. That's probably one of the perspectives you're meeting.

I'm well beyond that point now. I'm not angry as much anymore, though I do get passionate about defending kids from being ostracized from their religious classmates, or when a town turns against a family for wanting to keep religion out of government, or when Atheists are painted as hateful, bitter, morally corrupt people. In any case, toward individual Christians, I am pretty much done being angry, but it can get a bit annoying, hearing the same thing over and over. Having debated with Christians since 1991, I can tell you that I haven't come across anything new in about ten years. Sure, there are new spins on old arguments, but it always comes down to the same thing: you have faith, you have ancient texts, and you have artwork. You have no real evidence to prove that your Bible is true, you have no evidence that your god exists, and Jesus is just mythical as any other figure in your anthology of myths. You truly believe that Jesus performed all of those miracles, that he was born of a virgin, that he rose from the dead; I can't buy into any of it. There's scant evidence that he was even a historical person, let alone this magical man-god that your Bible makes him out to be.

Do you really believe Jonah could have survived in the belly of an ocean-dwelling creature? He wouldn't have drowned, asphyxiated, or been digested over the three days he supposedly spent in there?

Don't even get me started on Noah's flood. If you believe that story, please build me a boat with those dimensions that will float--without steel supports, entirely of gopher wood (whatever that is). The longest wooden boat ever built without steel supports was less than three hundred feet long. The reason why was a phenomenon known as "keeling". Essentially, the wood would crack and the boat would sink. Never mind explaining how all of the salt water and fresh water life survived, how algae could have survived without sunlight for forty days and nights, or any other of the long list of things in that story that just aren't possible.

I don't hate you; I just get a bit annoyed by the constant attacks on physics and biology by people who have, at best, a limited understanding of the subjects. Do you know the complexity of the math involved in physics and biology? Have you taken an advanced chemistry class? These subjects aren't ones just anyone can take; science involves heavy mathematics and logical thinking. It's not surprising that most people aren't scientists, but it is surprising how many people reject science out of hand when they haven't taken even the freshman level courses at the college level, if they even took the very basic high school level ones.

I don't hate you, but your Bible bothers me. I don't like being called filthy, foolish, a liar, and an antichrist. I don't like the execution orders your Bible gives regarding Atheists in at least four verses. I don't like how your Bible treats women as the property of men. I don't like its support of slavery. It bothers me that the only way your god character could think of to absolve human beings of sin was to make a humiliating blood sacrifice of his only begotten son (if I would even go as far as to accept this myth, which I don't). It also bothers me that this concept of original sin was born of a myth about a man and woman who didn't have the knowledge of good and evil, but were expected to know that it was evil to disobey your god when they were punished for eating fruit (!) that somehow gave them this knowledge.

Conclusion: I hope I've answered your questions to your satisfaction. Feel free to ask follow-up questions.


Brent Rasmussen said...

Nicely done, Greg. I really enjoyed reading it.

One small quibble, though. The basic fact of evolution is very easy to understand - even for a layman. It doesn't require anything other than a simple explanation.

Evolution is "change", basically. Alleles change from one generation to the next. That is the basic meaning of evolution. Change. Small, incremental, not-always-"forward" or "upward" or "more complex" change. *Any* change in alleles from one generation to the next is evolution, by definition.

The "advanced science degree" problem comes into play when you have to explain the mechanisms by which the fact of evolution occurs. THAT is where the disconnect usually happens. That and the unfortunate tendency that people have to treat the word "evolution" as a synonym with the words "atheism", "science", "progress", "increasing complexity", etc.

For example, the phrase "more evolved" is literally nonsense. Evolution is not an upward progression on a scale from "less evolved" to "more evolved". Even us laymen with the barest scientific knowledge know that.

But English-speaking people use that phrase *all the time* in common usage. It translates to "more complex", or even "more intelligent".

It isn't correct - but the ignorant folks who use the phrase don't care.

In any case, again, great response. The guy will NOT, by any stretch of the imagination, understand what you are so plainly and patiently explaining to him - but I'm guessing that you already knew that when you wrote your post. :)

Keep up the good work!

Greg Reich said...

Brent, thank you for your comment and clarification. I should point out that from what I know about creationists, many believe in what they call "microevolution", but not "macroevolution", so the small, incremental changes you're talking about--which ultimately lead to the big changes, sometimes with more rapidity (relative to geologic time) due to survival-limiting factors--are something some of them will accept. The Answers In Genesis folks have asserted that there are around fifteen thousand "kinds", and that many of the animals we consider separate species are of the same "kind", and look as they do because of "microevolution".

Your point about evolution not being about progression is one that is lost on so many people. They don't realize that bacteria have been around for an estimated three billion years, for example. Survival is determined by what species are able to reproduce succesfully, not by how complex the species happen to be. If conditions change, it could be to the detriment of us sentient beings, leaving the insects and microorganisms to inherit the Earth.

One thing that you're pointing out here is a point that I didn't make and should have: I do not have to accept a single scientific theory to reject theism. I hinted at it, but I should make it clear. I don't have to know a thing about science to be an atheist, and when I'm asked about something scientific, I am perfectly free to say "I don't know."

After all, I didn't become an Atheist because of science; I became an Atheist through reading the Bible and through research. I reject some of the Bible because it contradicts science (like the story of Noah's flood), but my arguments regarding science and the Bible came long after I reject the Bible itself.

thubbard29 said...

You wrote:

I have no place for faith in my life, and "believe" is something I'm trying really hard to remove from my vocabulary, because it doesn't do justice to the amount of research I put into the things I know.

Can you give your definition of faith and belief?

Greg Reich said...

My definition of faith is belief without evidence. Please do not mistake faith for conditioned response. Expecting to see the sun on the eastern horizon every morning is not the same as faith; I've seen it every morning since I can remember seeing, so I am conditioned to expect it.

One Christian author compared the expectation that people will stop at red lights to faith. That's a poor analogy. For one thing, as someone who drives a lot and who has been hit by other drivers thirteen times in my life, having avoided hundreds of other accidents, having witnessed several, I have no firm expectation that people will stop at red lights or obey any given traffic rule at all times. People make mistakes; people break rules on purpose; people drive will impaired by mind-altering substances. However, people should expect most people to follow the rules most of the time, because all of us have to learn the rules, pass a written test on them, then take a practical exam that shows that we can drive within the limits of those rules. Breaking the rules brings consequences such as fines and jail time. These are real, tangible consequences in this life, the only life we know, and cannot be compared to a belief that there are eternal consequences after we die that we can never prove while we live.

You also asked about my definition of belief. Belief is the acceptance of something as true without evidence. It's a bit different than confidence and trust, because those things can be based on evidence. It would be fair to say I know a bit about science, having been a biology major at one time, and having kept up on the literature to some degree. I have seen science in action. I have taken chemistry and physics. I know that many scientific principles are backed up by mathematics and direct observation. As such, I have confidence in science. That said, I still will say that I don't know when someone asks me about something scientific which is outside of my experience, unless and until I research it.

Now, delusion is belief in spite of evidence. There is a mountain of evidence that the Earth is old, to the tune of a few billion years (4.5 billion is the figure I hear the most). If someone believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old in spite of this evidence, they're delusional. If they haven't examined the evidence, they're simply ignorant--or worse, misled. After all, Answers In Genesis and other sources publish all sorts of misinformation about science, often demonizing it, but always getting it wrong.

thubbard29 said...

Thanks for your response.

What term (rather than the term belief) would you use for accepting something as true because of evidence? (You mentioned confidence and trust)

At the risk of being extremely simplistic, how do you define, and/or what do you accept as evidence?

From your response it seems there are two things, what you call conditioning and that of knowledge from some third party.

What criteria do you use to accept or reject a given evidence?

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