Ask an Atheist: Volume 1

Without an absolute moral standard, on what do you base your morality? Don’t you believe that your parents (as pastors) made you the person you are because they walked with Jesus?

The first question is a common question, but a very simple one to answer.  First, I contend that there is no absolute moral standard. For anyone.  Including those who think that they’re using the bible as their moral standard.  Why do I know this?  Because the bible commands a lot of things that most people just ignore, or attempt to explain away.  For instance, most Christians would have no problem with a woman preaching in their church, even though the bible is pretty vehemently against this (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-12).  However, before the secular women’s rights movement in the early 1900s, churches all over the country had no problem subjugating women and refusing to let them speak in church, and even during the movement, many pastors spoke out against the “immoral” idea of a woman being given the same opportunities as a man.  What I’m trying to point out, is that you’re okay with women speaking in church because of the results of a secular civil rights movement, not because the bible tells you.  And I’ll bet if you heard of a church that did have a problem with women speaking, something about that would seem wrong to you.  Why?

That’s precisely my point.  Humans construct their morality based on their perception of how the world should be.  I don’t kill anyone, because I would not want to live in a world where humans kill each other all the time, even though I do believe there are rare exceptions when it is morally justifiable to kill.  I don’t steal for the same reasons.  My morality is summarized thusly: any human being should have the right to do whatever makes them happy, so long as they are doing no harm to anyone else.  That’s the kind of world I want to live in, therefore that’s the way I live.  It’s the Golden Rule (which, by the way, was around centuries before Jesus).

The bible doesn’t contain sacred rules handed down by an almighty god.  The more one reads it objectively, the more obvious that becomes.  It’s a book written by men, and contains all the same mistakes and outdated rules that one would expect to find in such a book.  Some of it is morally laudable, but a lot of it isn’t, and I think it’s time that religious people should stop looking at secular values as “godless values” or “immoral values” and start seeing them for what they are; human values.  Humans made gods, and humans made those gods good.  Which means humans are perfectly capable of being good without those gods.

In fact, I think I’m a better person now than when I was a Christian, because I no longer have the “Jesus forgives me” method of absolving myself from responsibility for my actions.  I am my own judge and jury now, and so when I do something wrong, I feel real guilt at having not lived up to my own standard, and this real guilt inspires me to take responsibility and improve myself so it doesn’t happen again.

Too many religious people behave like it’s okay to do something they know is wrong, as long as they’re doing it for their god.  I believe it’s never okay to do something that’s wrong.  Who’s more morally upright?

And as for the second part of the question, I’m glad my parents did not raise me under strict biblical principles.  Otherwise, they’d have been forced to stone me when I cursed at them (Matthew 15:4), or would have taught me that polygamy is okay (Deuteronomy 21:15-16), and that rape is okay as long as I marry the woman afterward (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). They raised me to be a good human, because they’re good humans, and they had the common sense to know that some parts of the bible (Old Testament and New) shouldn’t ever be practiced literally or taught to your kids.  They, like most modern Christians, realize that the bible has to be taken into social context for it to have any chance of being a good moral guide.

Is it okay for an atheist to listen to music with a clearly religious or spiritual message, or is this hypocritical?

Absolutely, it’s okay.  I can look at the Sistine Chapel or the statue of David and be in awe of Michelangelo’s artistic vision even though I don’t share his religious beliefs. In the same way, a Christian can admire the Taj Mahal without sharing the Muslim beliefs of the people that built it. Art is art.  Music is powerful because of the music, not because of the beliefs behind it.  At least to me.  In fact, just the other day I was listening to The Imperials, an old Christian group from the 70s, and I was actually singing along to the lyrics.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  There’s nothing wrong with singing “One love, One heart, Give thanks and praise to the Lord” if you aren’t Rastafarian.  For crying out loud, I went to a Catholic church with my fiancée one time, and they were singing “From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee,” written by none other than Martin Luther.

Music moves people.  Music even has the power to convince people that they’re being possessed by a spirit.  And different people feel different things from different music.  The idea that one group of people holds exclusivity to a specific type of music, and that no one else should be able to enjoy it, is absolutely ludicrous.

How do atheists explain spiritual possession?

There have been many neurological and behavioral studies on the subject of trance states, spiritual possession, and glossolalia (better known as “speaking in tongues”).  In short, every single instance of being “touched by the holy spirit” can be explained as a perfectly natural euphoric altered state of consciousness, and it happens in nearly <em>all</em> world religions.  Usually the presence of a crowd of like-minded people acts as a catalyst for this effect, and biologically, it’s no different from what happens to the brain during a heavy fever, sleep deprivation, oxygen deprivation, starvation (you may call it “fasting”), or the ingestion of psychoactive drugs.

Here’s a very good PDF article on glossolalia, if you don’t mind reading a scientific study. And here’s a summary of a study done by Dr. Andrew Newburg of the University of Pennsylvania.

Demon possessions are also not real, and there are a number of scientific explanations for them: untreated mental illness (i.e. schizophrenia or bipolar disorder), epilepsy, dissociative identity disorder, or just plain old-fashioned faking.  There haven’t been many studies done on demon-possession (probably because the explanation for them is so obvious) but my guess is you’re smart enough that if you see someone being “possessed by demons,” you’ll have the common sense to see it for what it really is.  One good tip: just try to look at it with the same skepticism you’d utilize when observing some other religion.

How do you explain miracles? How do you explain [insert random biblical miracle here]?

There are no miracles.  I don’t know why people have the propensity to look at such ordinary occurrences as “miraculous” or “heaven-sent,” but apparently this is a human tendency that seems unwilling to let in the light of reason.  And some people find it so hard to believe that I wouldn’t believe in miracles, but I assure you… miracles do not happen.  Unlikely things happen occasionally.  Very rare things occur sometimes.  But coincidences are not miracles.  With such a massive yet limited quantity of potential events, it would be a miracle if coincidences didn’t happen.

I guess a lot of this depends on how you define “miracle.” This is kind of a tricky word, and even theists disagree on this key component of their beliefs.  But by any real, widely accepted definition of a miracle, there has never in the history of testable science been an example of an actual miracle having occurred. Never.

And before you say it, anecdotal evidence (i.e. the bible) is not evidence.  Well, we don’t really have anecdotal evidence in the bible do we?  No one who wrote about Jesus actually met Jesus.  Neither did Paul.

Look, think of it this way.  Take any biblical report of a “miracle” as an example.  Let’s say you saw a man you thought was dead coming back to life.  If you witnessed an event like that, you would immediately have a choice to make in your head: either the physical laws of the universe have just been altered in my favor, or I’m under a misapprehension.  That’s if you saw it yourself. But if you’re only hearing about this event, through second and third hand accounts, written in corrupted texts that do not align with any verifiable historical events, I’d say that anyone who accepts this event as having actually happened would be advertising a willingness to believe in absolutely anything.

I am amazed by the things I read sometimes [in the bible] and the effect it would have on so many people. The question to you Marc is, have you wondered why are we here? Why has no one seen anybody else in another planet? What keeps this planet from not overflowing with water when we are surrounded by it, and what holds us down so we don’t walk in the air? Why do we have gravity and other planets don’t? Why do we breathe fresh air when we have to wear oxygen equipment in another planets? Why is earth so different?

This is known as post hoc reasoning.  Allow me to illustrate.  Take a full deck of cards and shuffle them however you want and as many times as you want.  Go ahead.  Really do it.  I’ll wait.

Did you do it?

Okay now note the order of the cards.  Fun fact: the odds of those cards ending up in that particular order is about:

80,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1 (that’s an 8 with 67 zeroes)

So by your reasoning, because of the unlikelihood of you shuffling those cards into that order, it’s therefore impossible that you’re holding those cards in that order.  And yet you are.  See, it’s easy to see something after the fact and conclude that you can’t imagine how it would have ended up that way without the intervention of some intelligent being.  But that’s a logically unsound conclusion.

But in reality, our existence in such a vast and expansive universe isn’t so unlikely at all.  It’s just not true that the Earth’s conditions are the only conditions where life will form.  We don’t know that to be true.  The universe is so incredibly huge, and there are so many billions upon billions of other galaxies, each with so many thousands of billions of other planets, that most astronomers and cosmologists would place the likelihood of there being intelligent life on another planet as very likely; and the likelihood of there being any kind of life somewhere else in the universe is nearly a mathematical certainty.

The Argument from Incredulity (“I can’t understand how X could have been caused by anything other than Y, therefore Y is true”) presents a completely backwards view of life and evolution. The Earth doesn’t contain all this oxygen because we’re here… it’s the complete opposite; the Earth contained an abundance of oxygen, therefore oxygen-breathing lifeforms were able to evolve.  God doesn’t keep the water from overflowing and killing us; the right amount of water was already here, and was low enough to allow the land required for land-dwelling mammals to evolve.  Saying “what are the odds that this planet would fit us so perfectly” is just like saying “what are the odds that the Mississippi River would have formed in exactly the same shape as the western border of the state of Mississippi.”

It’s also not true that we’re the only planet that has gravity.  All planets have a gravitational pull that’s directly proportional to the mass of the planet, and inversely proportional to the object’s distance from the center of mass of the planet.  It’s one of the physical laws of the universe.  If the gravitational pull of this planet were somehow different, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we wouldn’t be here.  It just means we would have evolved differently.

And if you’re so impressed by the affect that written scriptures would have on so many people, why not convert to Islam, the second-largest and the fastest-growing religion in the world?  Surely they’re on to something, if their scriptures seem to be convincing so many people at such a high rate.  Or how about the Book of Mormon?  Mormonism started in the good-ol’ United States of America and boasts almost 14 million followers.  Surely 14 million people can’t be wrong, can they?  Put it this way; also on the list of best-selling books are Harry Potter, The Communist Manifesto, and Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong.  So maybe you want to think twice about how much truth-stock you want to put in best-sellers.

In short: a best-selling book that reaches a lot of people does not make the things written in the book true.  End of story.  Most of the things theists believe there are no explanations for actually have very good, natural, scientifically-sound explanations.  And theists usually reject these explanations, either by twisting the facts, misinforming, or simply by refusing to educate oneself.  Why?  To preserve belief?  Is that really a good reason to believe?  You may think so, but I feel that any belief system that can’t stand on it’s own two feet, without relying on gut-feelings or intuition as so-called evidence, isn’t a belief system worth investing so much time, energy, and money on.  And so far, there isn’t a single religion that has proven itself able to withstand even the weakest criticism.

That’s all for this edition of Ask an Atheist.  If you have a question you’d like an atheist to answer, please e-mail it to flipthefinger@me.com, and I’ll try to answer it in a later edition.

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