Can atheism stand the test? The Cornerstone Church Kingston has a list of 10 Questions for Atheists they believe atheists need to be able to answer if atheism is to be taken seriously.1 So, I have provided serious answers to their questions. Since I have already answered some questions at length in earlier articles, I have linked to those articles where appropriate. The ten main questions appear as the main section headings, and follow-up questions appear as subheadings.
Note that this is not my first time answering ten questions for atheists. I have previously written Answering 10 Questions for Every Athiest, in which I answered a different set of questions from a different Christian website.
1. How do you know there is no God?
Right out of the gate, this question presumes that atheists all deny that God exists. But this is not true. All that makes someone an atheist is not believing in any sort of deity. Denying that God exists is optional. This is explained in more detail in my article Atheist or Agnostic?. Putting that aside, there are many conceptions of God, and I do maintain that some of them are not of anything real.
How can you be sure?
To know that there are no black swans you need to know about every swan that exists. To say that there is no such being as God similarly seems to require that you know everything about the universe and beyond.
Let me turn that around on you. How can you be sure there is only one god? Given that you already believe in one god, what’s to stop you from believing in more than one? Wouldn’t you have to know everything about the universe and beyond to know that there are no other gods?
If you don’t think this is a good point in favor of polytheism, then you may begin to understand that there is a problem with your black swan analogy. Black swans are well within the realm of possibility, and they even exist. So, it’s not unreasonable to check for them if you have never seen one. But let’s try this line of reasoning with some other examples than black swans.
Saying the same thing about intelligent aliens seems reasonable. They could have evolved on other planets, and until we have checked every planet, we may not know for sure that they didn’t. But let’s now switch to aliens who, like Superman and other Kryptonians, are like us under a red sun but gain incredible superpowers under the light of a yellow sun. Here are some reasons why this is too far-fetched to give any credibility to:
- Without exposure to a yellow sun environment, the potential to possess superpowers underneath a yellow sun would not provide an organism with any actual advantage. So, natural selection would not favor it.
- The potential to have superpowers in a yellow sun environment would exact some kind of cost to an organism in an environment where those powers were useless, and natural selection would select against this.
- If the light of a yellow sun could supply the right kind of organism with superpowers, it is far more likely that such an organism would evolve underneath a yellow sun than underneath a red sun, yet no organisms on earth exhibit powers like Superman’s.
- The alleged differences between the properties of yellow sunlight and red sunlight that would account for Superman’s powers have no basis in actual science and have been made up as a pretext for increasing Superman’s powers beyond what coming from a higher gravity world can account for.
One more example to replace black swans with is a square with only 180 degrees. Surely, I don’t have to survey every geometric shape to know that there is no such thing. Since squares have four right angles, and a right angle has 90 degrees, a square has 360 degrees. Therefore, any shape with only 180 degrees, such as a triangle, is not a square.
Concepts of God are generally more like those of Kryptonians or squares with 180 degrees than they are like concepts of differently colored swans. Also, some concepts of God, such as God is love, are of real things I would not identify as a deity. In my article Does God Exist?, I go over various conceptions of God, explaining why each one is impossible, implausible, or just not something I would identify as God.
Can you be sure it’s not just that you’ve never met him?
Yes, as explained above, I have good reasons for not believing in Superman that go beyond never meeting him, and God is a similar case. There are also plenty of people I do believe exist despite never meeting them. These include authors of books, YouTubers, celebrities, and historical figures, among others.
Or maybe because you don’t want to know?
No, one of my primary motivations in life has been to understand how the world works. When I was very young, I thought the Bible explained things. When I grew older, I found that philosophy and science could explain things better. See my autobiographical essay From Religion to Philosophy for further details.
2. Where did everything come from?
Why is there anything rather than nothing? What started it all? How does something come from nothing?
This is just as much of a puzzle for people who believe in God as it is for those who don’t. You can’t explain existence by the existence of something in particular, such as God. That is just illogical. Whether the first thing to exist was God or the universe, the question of why there is something rather than nothing still remains. I have addressed this in more detail in my article Must We Presuppose God to Account for Existence?.
Why are things ordered and regular?
The short answer is natural selection, first for stability, and then for survival and reproductive capability. I cover this in more detail in my article Is God Needed for Scientific Laws?.
Can such a universe as ours really be simply a product of chance?
While chance has been a factor, it is important to understand that natural selection is not random. I cover this in more detail in my article Evolution is Not by Mere Chance.
3. Why are there human beings?
Why are we here? Can we really be a product of chance?
Human beings evolved by natural selection, which is not a chance process, as I just mentioned above. I have gone over this in many articles tagged Evolution. There are also plenty of books and documentaries on this subject. Here are some books I recommend on the subject:
- The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel E. Lieberman
- The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong
- Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett
Why are there beings who are conscious, who understand, and who produce scientific discoveries and explanations?
Intelligence aids survival, and this has caused natural selection to favor increases in intelligence for eons. In general, worms are smarter than amoebas, fish are smarter than worms, reptiles are smarter than fish, mammals are smarter than reptiles, primates are smarter than other land mammals, apes are smarter than other primates, such as monkeys and lemurs, and humans are smarter than apes. The bigger question concerns why the other animals have not evolved to be as intelligent as humans.
At least two factors affect this. One is that intelligence is only as useful as what you can do with it. If you have no limbs and crawl slowly through the dirt like an earthworm, extra intelligence won’t do that much for you. Conditions that increase the usefulness of intelligence include mobility, senses, the need to hunt prey, the need to escape from predators, the need to adapt to changes in the environment, social hierarchy, cooperation, and the ability to manipulate objects. Many of these conditions had already allowed our pre-human ancestors to benefit from increases in intelligence. With the ability to walk upright and use hands for manipulating objects, all of these conditions came together for early humans. Additionally, tool use and language created new opportunities for increases in intelligence to benefit humans.
The other factor is that increases in intelligence exact a cost. As a species grows more intelligent, its brain requires more nourishment. Gorillas, who graze on vegetation most of the day, need to devote more resources to digestion, leaving less for the brain. Chimpanzees, who are omnivores like us, are more intelligent, because meat packs more nutrition than leaves, fruits, and vegetables. To grow significantly smarter than the other apes, humans had to reduce the cost of having a larger brain.
They did this by processing food outside the body before eating it. This would include things like cutting, crushing, and cooking food. Doing this digestive work outside the body reduced the cost of intelligence. This allowed humans to evolve smaller digestion systems and larger brains. Also, this work made use of intelligence, which increased selective pressure for intelligence in humans.
This kind of work also required cooperation, and humans began to depend on cooperation even more than other animals did. Since it is easier to cooperate when you can communicate, humans started to evolve a capacity for language. Language helped humans cooperate much more effectively than other animals could, and it helped them pass on knowledge to future generations so that they weren’t always starting over like speechless animals do.
By building on what their ancestors taught them and working together, humans started to develop culture and civilization. Instead of just improving through biological evolution, humans started to improve their capabilities through cultural evolution. Humans who made better tools or weapons could teach others how to make them, and this would give an advantage to future generations without any biological evolution involved. The same principle held for skills, knowledge of the world, and whatnot.
One of the tools that caught on big time was written language. This helped people learn from the dead or speak to people not yet born, and it enabled communication across a larger distance, which enabled the growth of larger communities and civilizations.
As civilization grew larger, there was more division of labor, and people didn’t always have to hunt, gather, or work the land to feed themselves. This gave people leisure to turn their intelligence in other directions. And some people started applying their intelligence to questions concerning the nature of the world. By writing their ideas down, they gave a head start to future generations dealing with the same questions. Instead of starting from scratch, future generations could build on what past generations had already learned.
Eventually, people came to realize that they could formulate and test hypotheses about the world, and doing so allowed people to make greater progress than just speculating about how things worked. After Francis Bacon (1561-1626) formulated the scientific method, scientific and technological progress started to happen at a much quicker pace than it had previously.
What makes us special? Or are we really no different from animals?
We are animals, but we are more intelligent, self-aware, and cooperative than other animals. Biologically, this is due mainly to the neocortex, a layer of the brain which evolved in mammals and most especially in humans. Unlike other animals, we have used our special talents to build culture, civilization, and technology on a grand scale. And unlike them, we can speculate about the universe and be aware of it in a much deeper way. We know that stars are not just points in the sky, and we know about things other animals have no knowledge of, such as atoms, planets, and galaxies. We are also able to craft and enjoy works of fiction about imaginary worlds other animals have no inkling of. For more on what makes us special, see my answer to "What is a Person?" below.
4. What is the point of life?
From an evolutionary perspective, it is to survive and reproduce. This applies to all life from bacteria to us. In general, life evolves to be able to survive and reproduce in certain kinds of habitats or environments. See my answers to the previous question for further details. However, you may be asking this from a more existential perspective.
What is the purpose of my life?
A purpose could be extrinsic or intrinsic. An extrinsic purpose comes from outside. Your job might give you an extrinsic purpose, or your parents might have had a specific purpose for having you. However, an extrinsic purpose might not be as meaningful to you personally as an intrinsic purpose would.
An intrinsic purpose is one that comes from within yourself. It is why you do the things you do. I agree with Aristotle, who has said that we seek happiness for its own sake, and we do other things for the sake of happiness. For example, you may be a Christian, because you believe this will assure you eternal happiness in Heaven. For the sake of your future happiness, you may be willing to put up with hardships in life. It is the same for atheists except that they pin their hopes on happiness in this life rather than the next. So, whether atheist or religious, people normally do what they do for the sake of happiness.
Why am I here?
Evolution. See above. For more specifics, ask your parents.
What does it mean?
If nothing else, it means the universe is able to become aware of itself through you. What your life specifically means to you is a subjective matter, and you will have to do some introspection for that answer.
What is the significance of my existence?
You’re able to experience your life as a positive value. Not everything can do that.
What hope is there in life?
You can hope to enjoy life and be happy. You can also hope for others to do the same.
Where do I get hope from?
From your capacity to enjoy life and feel happiness.
Why do we value life?
Life is the precondition that makes all other valuing possible. It is natural to value things that enhance, promote, or sustain your life. If I didn’t value my own life, I would have no basis to value being fed, comfortable, or healthy. Since organisms who take care of themselves live longer, natural selection has favored self-concern. In humans, this has led to a natural impulse to desire what is good for us, such as food, shelter, and companionship. While we do sometimes desire what is not good for us, this is usually because it make us feel good despite being harmful, or because we don’t know better. For a further elaboration of this idea, I’ll direct you to my article If you don’t believe in God, why live?.
5. What is a person?
This can be a psychological, moral, or legal concept, but it is not a biological one. While human beings are the paradigm example of persons in our experience, we have conceived of many non-human persons. These include gods (such as Thor, Isis, and El), spirits (such as ghosts, naiads, or demons), fairies (such as pixies, gnomes, and goblins), mythological creatures (such as centaurs, mermaids, and gorgons), monsters (such as dragons, ogres, and vampires), space aliens (such as Martians, Vulcans, and Galifreyans), robots (such as C-3PO, Data, or Bender), talking animals (such as Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny), fantasy races (such as feegles, orcs, and hobbits), and animated objects (such as Galatea, Pinocchio, or Raggedy Ann). If person were a biological concept, we could not conceive of all these different types of beings as persons, yet we do.
When conceived of as persons, these various types of beings are normally portrayed as possessing capacities for self-awareness, self-valuation, and moral responsibility. It is these capacities that I think distinguish a person from a non-person. Let’s now unpack what these mean.
Self-awareness includes the ability to have personal experiences, to distinguish oneself from others, and to regard oneself as an individual.
Self-valuation is more than just a survival instinct. It includes the ability to regard one’s life as a positive value to oneself and the desire to maintain and further one’s own welfare for one’s own sake.
Moral responsibility includes awareness of oneself as a moral agent and the ability to reason about moral issues. Besides logical and mathematical reasoning, this includes the ability to think of others as separate individuals with their own moral concerns and to think in terms of how others behave and in terms of what others need. It also includes the ability of self-discipline, which includes the ability to conform one’s behavior with moral principles and the ability to shape one’s character to be more virtuous.
But even if we agree that these three criteria are what distinguish a person, they’re not always easy to measure, which leaves room for controversy. Since we cannot quiz animals or unborn children on these things, it is unsettled whether they should count as persons. Some people are opposed to eating meat on the grounds that animal lives are morally equivalent to our own. Likewise, some people support abortion rights on the grounds that unborn children are not yet persons. In science fiction, we may get additional controversies over whether robots or replicants (as in Blade Runner) should count as persons.
What is a relationship?
It’s when two persons know each other and maintain some kind of connection with each other.
Why is there love?
Unlike newly hatched reptiles, newly born mammals are dependent on their mothers for a period of time during which they normally drink milk from their mother. In fact, mammals are so-called for the mammary glands used to dispense milk to their young offspring. During this period of dependency, newly born mammals depend upon care from their mother. Because of this, mammals started to evolve feelings that would lead mothers to want to take care of their newborn children.
Among carnivorous or predatory mammals, there was a greater need for maternal care and for cooperation. Newborn herbivorous mammals can find vegetation to eat without much assistance from their mothers. But animals who eat meat usually can’t hunt right away, and in the meantime, they must depend on parents to bring them meat or teach them how to hunt. This additional time to feed and teach their young puts more pressure on predatory mammals to develop maternal love. Additionally, some hunt together in packs, which requires cooperation. This need to work as a team put additional pressure on them to develop feelings of fellowship or camaraderie. It’s no coincidence that the animals humans love the most, cats and dogs, are both carnivorous predatory animals. Man’s best friend is descended from wolves that would hunt together in packs.
While more omnivorous than carnivorous, humans were also hunters, and they relied on work and cooperation to feed on vegetation that wasn’t immediately edible, such as roots or shell-covered nuts. So, humans were subject to the same kinds of pressures for developing love that carnivorous mammals were. But besides these issues, a new factor was extending the length of infant dependency in humans. The human brain had started to grow too large to make it through the vaginal canal. Because of this, natural selection started to favor premature births, as these gave a greater chance of survival to both child and mother. With humans being born earlier, their period of dependence on their mothers grew longer. So, natural selection started to favor stronger and more enduring feelings of maternal love, for these would help motivate mothers to care for their children until they could take care of themselves.
Since humans walk on their hind legs, pregnancy was more disabling for human women than it was for mammals who walk on all fours. In humans, pregnancy upset the center of balance, making it harder for pregnant women to get around. This and the longer period of dependency of children on their mothers made human mothers more dependent on their mates. So, natural selection started to favor men who cared about their mates and children. It can be expected that women were also selecting men who would take care of them, which meant there was also sexual selection for men to become more caring.
More generally, humans were growing dependent on working together with other humans. Lacking the fangs, claws and other assets they needed to take care of themselves completely on their own, the main strength of humans lay in communicating with each other and working together in teams. This put another selective pressure on humans to develop feelings of love, because love would make people more willing to cooperate together.
In a world where survival of the fittest rules, what gives me the capacity and need for friendship?
As described above, human survival depends on cooperation. Therefore, it makes sense that humans would evolve the desire to seek out cooperation and the inclination to provide it. Friendship increases cooperation between people, thereby increasing the survival of people with friends. Putting it in terms of fitness, friendship makes people more fit.
Additionally, persons like to associate with people who recognize their individuality, their value, and their moral agency, and this is something that friends do for each other.
6. Why was Hitler wrong?
How can anything be really right or wrong?
Let’s start here, and then return to the main question. If you take a Philosophy class on Ethics, you’ll find out that there are various theories, and they mainly fall into these categories: consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, social contract, and rights-based theories. Since you could spend a whole course, or even multiple courses, learning about these different types of theories, I may not be able to do them justice here. All the same, I will try to briefly summarize some of the differences between them.
Consequentialist theories may be split into act consequentialist theories and rule consequentialist theories. The former judge individual actions on the basis of their specific consequences, and the latter prescribe a set of rules based on the general consequences of following those rules. Which consequences matter depends on what has intrinsic value. Since I just spent the previous section going over what a person is, I’ll add that what I think has intrinsic value are the lives, wellbeing and happiness of persons. I have already argued along these lines in these two articles:
Deontological theories prescribe rules based on rational considerations. Kant proposed a categorical imperative, which in one form proposed that we act only on those maxims that we can universally prescribe to everyone. This is a call for consistency in our moral principles. The idea behind this is that we should not give any right or privilege to ourselves that we would not grant to others, and we should not impose any duty or responsibility on others that we would not impose on ourselves. In another form, it said that we should treat other people as ends-in-themselves and not as means only. This means that moral behavior includes considering what is good for others and not merely exploiting them to reach our own goals.
Virtue ethics focuses on developing virtuous character traits that will put us in the habit of doing what is right. Aristotle proposes that a virtue is a mean between two extremes, one being an excess and one being a deficiency. So, maintaining a virtue is sort of a tightrope walk between two opposing kinds of bad habits. I get into some examples of these when discussing The Seven Deadly Sins.
Social contract theories propose that we all agree in some way on the rules of society. John Rawls proposes imagining that we are behind a veil of ignorance that hides from us any knowledge of who we are or what place we have in society, and then he proposes that we come up with the rules that should govern society. Doing it this way would remove the incentive to create rules that favor special interests. He also recommends using the maximin guideline, which is to create rules that maximize how well off the least well-off people are.
Rights-based theories maintain that people have certain rights, and we should not do anything to violate them. Rights may be considered to be positive or negative. A positive right is a right to have someone do something for you, and a negative right is a right to have someone not do something to you. Negative rights are less controversial, and some advocates for rights, such as Ayn Rand, advocated only for them. They include rights such as the right to not be murdered and the right to not be robbed. Positive rights are more controversial, because they may be thought to conflict with negative rights. For example, if people have a right to a minimum income, then other people do not have the right to keep all their money.
In general, morality is more complex than any one of these theories in isolation from the others. Each one touches on something important and provides us with moral considerations we should take into account. Consequentialism teaches us that one of the main purposes of moral action is to bring about good consequences for all involved. Kant’s deontological ethics teaches us that we should not base our actions on double standards. Virtue ethics teaches us about the importance of living a good life and the role virtue plays in that. Social contract theories teach us about the importance of maintaining a social order that is agreeable to the people living in society. And rights-based theories teach us that there are lines we should normally not cross.
It’s also important to note that all of these moral theories give a pre-eminent position to the value of persons. Consequentialist theories are normally about doing what is good for people. Kant’s theories assert that all people have equal moral worth and we should not exploit another person for the sake of our own ends. Virtue ethics is about what kind of moral character will help a person live a good life. Social contract theories are about how persons should agree to behave to live together in a way that is peaceful, fair, and harmonious. Rights-based theories are about how persons are so important, there are things you should not do to them or perhaps should do for them. In each case, the common denominator is the value of persons.
When these theories all agree that a course of action is right or wrong, we can be confident that this judgment is correct. One example I’ll bring up is the example of Sophie’s choice. Out of some twisted sense of sadism, a Nazi tells the woman Sophie that he is going to kill one of her children, and it is up to her to decide which one. If we run through these theories, we can conclude that this has terrible consequences, not only in terms of life lost but in psychological harm to Sophie, he is applying a standard to Sophie that he would not want applied to himself, he is acting in a cruel non-virtuous manner, he is not following a societal rule that he would pick from behind a veil of ignorance, and he is violating the rights of Sophie and her children.
Why is wife abuse or child abuse wrong?
In light of the types of theories mentioned above, let’s run down some of the reasons:
- It has harmful consequences for the people abused, and it also harms the relationship the abuser has with them.
- The abuser would not want other people to follow the principle that it is right to abuse other people, because that might lead to people abusing him.
- The abuser is giving into anger instead of controlling his temper.
- The abuser is not abiding by a fair social contract that anyone in his family could agree to.
- The abuser is violating the rights of his wife or children to not be abused.
What made Hitler’s crimes wrong?
As I did above, let’s run down how various types of theories could apply to what Hitler did. Hitler uprooted and destroyed the lives of many people.
- Hitler’s actions resulted in lots of suffering and death, which are direct reductions in human welfare. Since human welfare is an intrinsic value, his actions resulted in direct reductions in intrinsic value.
- He treated Jews and other people as means only and not as end-in-themselves. He prescribed that Germans should round up and murder Jews, but he would not have prescribed that it was okay for Jews to round up and murder Germans.
- Hitler behaved in an excessive way, pandering to fear and hatred to keep his hold on power. He gave into vices such as anger, paranoia, and inhumanity, and he encouraged the Germans to follow his example.
- Instead of running German society to maximize how well-off the least well-off were, he sought to minimize how well-off some groups of people were by rounding them up into concentration camps, where they lived horrible, squalid lives until he had them killed. If he were behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing his own identity or place in society, he would not agree to allowing society to do this to some groups of people.
- He violated the rights of people on a massive scale, taking away their property and livelihood, forcing them into horrible living conditions, and killing them.
Why is it not Ok to disagree?
It is okay for people to have moral disagreements. While there are many areas where different moral theories agree, there are also areas where they do not. Sometimes, people give different weights to different moral values, and there are conflicts of good vs. good rather than good vs. evil. This is explained in more detail in John C. Beck’s book Good vs Good: Why the 8 Great Goods Are Behind Every Good (and Bad) Decision.
However, some issues, such as genocide, are a bit more black and white than others, and it is important to keep some very bad ideas from spreading. See my article Bad Ideas vs. Bad People for further details.
Is morality just a matter of opinion?
No, morality has certain purposes. These include the following:
- Living a good life.
- Enabling others to live good lives.
- Promoting a fair, stable, and peaceful society in which people can trust each other and live their lives on their own terms without undue interference from others.
What will best fulfill these goals is not a mere matter of opinion, but it isn’t always obvious either. But even when something isn’t obvious, some opinions will be more correct than others. For example, opinion may be divided on whether there was once life on Mars, but there is still a fact of the matter even when we don’t know for sure what it is. The same goes for morality, and it is up to moral agents to figure out what that is.
The main difference for atheists is that we don’t believe in a supreme authority who can answer all our moral questions for us. So, we have to think about morality ourselves and figure it out on our own. This is just as well, since many groups of people who believe in supreme moral authorities still disagree on morality and have even more arbitrary morals than even atheists do. From an atheist perspective, this is because those moral authorities don’t actually exist, and different religious leaders have used the idea of a supreme moral authority to promote rules that are self-serving or arbitrary. For more details on this, see my article The Hijacking of Morality.
7. Why are you scared of death?
Because I enjoy life and want to continue living. Once I’m dead, as far as I know, I won’t get to do that anymore.
What happens when you die?
Since I haven’t died yet, I have no firsthand experience in this matter. While channeled works and reports of NDEs suggest some kind of afterlife, these are not fully reliable. Based on what we know about human biology, it seems reasonable to expect that consciousness will cease with death.
Is death the end?
It may well be. It’s not like we’re in regular contact with dead people like we are with living people over the internet.
Why does it matter?
Because I don’t want my life to end, and I like various things about the life I have.
8. Why do people need to believe in God?
Do they? It’s not like I do. Perhaps you should ask people who actually do feel this need.
Why are there so few atheists?
Although atheists have been growing in numbers, they do remain a minority. But do you think that the majority opinion is always right? I don’t. There is a logical fallacy known as argumentum ad populum. It tries to persuade people of a belief on the basis that it is more popular. But sometimes a belief is more popular for reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not it is true. Belief in God is a good example of a belief that is widely held for reasons other than its truth.
One of the biggest is religious persecution. For centuries, the Catholic Church persecuted people who believed differently, such as heretics, Jews, Muslims, and atheists. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press that the Catholic Church started to lose its grip on public opinion. It was thanks to the printing press that Lutheranism became a real rival to Catholicism. Even so, some form of Christianity normally remained the state religion in European countries. To this day, Anglicanism is the state religion in England. Although Britain allows freedom of religion, the ruling monarch, whether king or queen, is the titular head of the Anglican Church, and 26 bishops have reserved seats in the House of Lords.
It was the United States that first took the lead in giving people freedom of religion. One of the founding fathers of the United States was an Englishman named Thomas Paine, whose book The Age of Reason was very critical of the Bible. The first amendment to the US Constitution established freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, which were all important conditions for allowing atheism to grow more popular. Even so, Paine’s rejection of Christianity did not sweep America by storm, and most Americans remained Christian.
During the time of the Revolutionary War, it was more common for critics of Christianity to be deists than atheists. Paine was a deist, and so was Ethan Allen, an American Revolutionary war hero whose book Reason, The Only Oracle of Man was also critical of Christianity. In France, Voltaire was a deist. Deists believed that God created the universe but then left it alone. So, they believed in God but not in revealed religion. The reason for preferring deism over atheism was that science had not yet provided a viable alternative to creationism.
This did not happen until Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace each came upon the idea of evolution by natural selection in the late 19th century. This shook the foundations of Christianity so much, many Christians have been denying it to this day. This implied that God was not required to create the world and that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden never happened. Since this story also explained the fall of man, which the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were supposed to fix, the implication that it never happened undermined the core tenets of Christianity. As the scientific community came to accept the truth of evolution by natural selection, it became more common for people to be atheists than deists.
Around the same time, some European philosophers were becoming more critical of Christianity. Friedrich Nietzsche was very critical of it, but it was Karl Marx who had the biggest effect on increasing the number of atheists. Thanks to communist revolutions in Russia, China, and other countries, atheism became a lot more popular in those countries. But these revolutions did not turn as many Americans and Western Europeans atheist, since they were mainly in other parts of the world. After World War II, the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union helped polarize Americans against atheism. Although there were vocal atheist critics of Marxism, such as Ayn Rand, the general idea was of god-fearing Americans vs godless communists.
Despite the challenges to belief in God from evolution, Marxism, and some freethinkers and philosophers, Christianity continued to maintain a grip on the population by being passed on from parent to child and by instilling people with fear of damnation if they gave it up. Unlike Christianity, atheism did not provide people with any hope of an afterlife. So, many people probably followed the logic of Pascal’s Wager in choosing Christianity over atheism. Also, many people were not scientists or philosophers, and they found it easier to go along with what they were taught to believe than to seriously evaluate its merits.
Also, Christianity has been much more evangelistic than atheism has. Christians actively seek to convert people to Christianity, because they believe that Christianity offers people important things like forgiveness of sins, a blissful afterlife, or divine assistance in life. Atheism doesn’t offer people any of these. So, there is not as much incentive to spread or accept atheism. Atheists don’t normally shout on street corners knock on doors, or send missionaries to other countries to convert people to atheism. Atheism also doesn’t offer much sense of community. While atheist churches have sprung up in some places, they are not very common, and atheists generally don’t find the same social opportunities in atheism that Christians find in Christianity.
One more factor is that people get more social acceptance from being Christians than from being atheists. It is widely, though falsely, believed that morals come from God and that people who don’t believe in God must have no morals. This sows distrust in atheists. Although atheism is not officially persecuted by the United States, Britain, or other western nations, there remains social and economic pressure to be religious. Moreover, various religious groups teach their members to think less of unbelievers. So, it’s not uncommon to find Christians who have a very low opinion of atheists.
While I have been speaking mainly of Christianity, I should note that Islam persecutes atheists even more than Christianity does. In Saudi Arabia, for example, atheism is considered treason, and you can be put to death for it. So, atheism still faces persecution in some parts of the world, and it is mainly in western or Communist countries that atheism has started to grow more common.
How could humans come up with such an idea?
Before science could explain the world, people wondered how the world operated. One explanation that seemed natural to people was that other people were pulling strings behind the scenes. These people might have been thought of as fairies, nature spirits or deities. Since no one found these beings at work in the world, people started to imagine that they were fewer in number and more remote from everyday experience. As the number of people held responsible for running the world decreased, the power attributed to them increased. Eventually, people got to the point where they attributed the running of the world to only one being. Since this one being would require immense power and knowledge, they held that it had these qualities. For further details, I’ll refer you to my article The Origins of Religion: Predisposing Factors.
Why is it so important to so many people?
Christianity and some related religions tell people that their eternal reward is tied up with believing in God. That makes the question of God’s existence a really big deal. Many religions also use fear and manipulation to induce people to share and hold onto their religious beliefs. For some examples of this, I’ll refer you to my article What is a Cult?.
9. What is the Bible?
It’s a collection of religious writings that Christians generally take to be canonical. The Old Testament includes writings that Christians and Jews both generally agree are canonical, and the New Testament includes writings that only Christians usually take to be canonical. Some Bibles also include the Apocrypha, which Catholics give more credence to than Protestants do.
Who wrote this book?
Many different people, most of whose identities are lost to history. In general, the Old Testament was written by Jews, and the New Testament was written by Greek-speaking Christians. Some books of the Old Testament have been credited to religious figures like Moses, David, and Solomon, but they were probably not by these authors. One of the identified authors of the New Testament is Paul, who claimed to have visions of Jesus after his death but never knew the guy before he died. Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John were probably not written by the people they were named after, and none of them tell first person accounts that could be traced to a particular author.
Why does it have a common overall theme?
It doesn’t, though many people have tried to read it as though it does. It is an assortment of different writings by different authors from different time periods with different perspectives. This is why there are so many different religions that claim the Bible as a source but interpret it differently. Insofar as it has unity, it is because it is a collection of books selected by members of a common religious community.
What makes it different to all other books?
Is it? I haven’t read all other books. I know there are other books of religious scriptures. For example, Hindus have the Vedas, Zoroastrians have the Zend Avesta, and Muslims have the Qur’an. How much is the Bible different from these books? The main thing distinguishing the Bible is that it is the most popular collection of religious scriptures. This is just to say that there are more Christians than Muslims, Hindus, or Zoroastrians, among others. But the Bible’s greater popularity is an extrinsic difference, not an intrinsic one. It tells us nothing about how the Bible differs from other scriptures.
Can it all be a mistake?
The Bible is in fact riddled with mistakes. These include contradictions, scientific errors, historical errors, moral errors, and mythological mumbo jumbo. In my article What Happened on Easter?, I go through various apparent contradictions between the Easter stories, explaining away those that I can in order to sift out the genuine ones.
The following book details numerous contradictions and other errors in the Bible:
- The Cure for Fundamentalism: Why the Bible Cannot Be the "Word of God" by Steve McRoberts
This book covers how various stories and details in the Bible may have been based on myths from other religions:
- Bible Myths and their Parallels in other Religions Being a Comparison of the Old and New Testament Myths and Miracles with those of the Heathen Nations … Considering also their Origin and Meaning by T. W. Doane
Not everything in the Bible is a mistake, though. It accurately mentions that the sun and moon are in the sky, it mentions several real places, and it mentions some real historical figures and events. However, it portrays the world about as accurately as Marvel and DC comic books do.
10. Who is Jesus?
He was either a real historical figure who got mythologized or a mythological figure who came to be regarded as a real historical figure. I lean towards the latter, though it is hard to say which, and this is a real debate among atheists. Agnostic Bible scholar Bart Ehrman maintains that Jesus was a real historical figure who was probably the leader of an apocalyptic Jewish sect. The late Acharya S (a.k.a. D. M. Murdock), who was a Gnostic rather than an atheist, maintained that he was a mythological figure based on various sun gods. Richard Carrier has put forth the idea that Jesus was probably the central figure of a Jewish mystery religion and not a real person. I have gone over the issue in more detail in my article Who Was Jesus?.
What makes this man different?
This presumes that he was real and that something tangible can be known about him. But it is unsettled whether he was real, and even if he was, he is so layered in myth that we can know hardly anything about him.
Jesus claimed to be the Son of God.
Having searched the New English Translation for the phrase son of god, I find that in the synoptic Gospels, it is only other people calling Jesus the Son of God. John 10:34-38 has Jesus make some reference to being the Son of God:
34 Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?
35 If those people to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ (and the scripture cannot be broken),
36 do you say about the one whom the Father set apart and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
37 If I do not perform the deeds of my Father, do not believe me.
38 But if I do them, even if you do not believe me, believe the deeds, so that you may come to know and understand that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
First of all, he is not directly saying "I am the Son of God." Rather, he is speaking of other people saying he said that, though there is some suggestion that he has said it. Curiously, he is justifying the idea that he is the Son of God on the grounds that previous prophets were called gods in the scriptures, which suggests polytheism rather than the usual monotheistic interpretation that he is the only begotten son of the one true God.
In John 19:7, the Jewish leaders accuse Jesus of saying he is the Son of God:
7 The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he claimed to be the Son of God!”
Finally, in John 20:31, the author of that Gospel asserts his own belief that Jesus was the Son of God:
31 But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
In general, the Gospels do not record Jesus directly saying that he was the son of God. As shown above, Jesus brings this idea up only once in the Gospels, and it’s still in reference to what other people are saying about him. The only direct report in the Gospels that Jesus said this comes from accusers seeking his death. So, it remains an open question whether Jesus claimed to be the Son of God.
He said that his mission was to pay the price for our sins by dying on the cross and being raised to life.
I’m not aware of any verse from the Gospels in which Jesus says his mission was to pay the price for our sins. As far as I’m aware, this is a Pauline doctrine and not something that Jesus is reported to have said.
In searching for verses from the Gospels that are used to justify the idea that Jesus died to pay the price for our sins, I came across Luke 24:45-47:
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures,
46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day,
47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
While this mentions his death and resurrection immediately before forgiveness of sins, it says nothing about his death paying the price for our sins. Instead, the only condition it gives for forgiveness is repentance. This makes sense, since repentance is normally what we expect before extending forgiveness. Repentance is also an acceptance of moral responsibility, which is a crucial step in moral self-improvement.2 After all, you are not as likely to turn away from wrongdoing if you don’t see yourself as a wrongdoer or you blame others for your wrongdoing. To change your ways, you must acknowledge your wrongdoing and turn away from it.
Nor is this the only place Jesus calls for repentance. The need for repentance is one of the most consistent messages in the synoptic Gospels.3 Furthermore, he is teaching them what the Jewish scriptures say rather than teaching them something new, and as far as I know, the Jewish scriptures do not mention anything about the Christ (or Messiah) dying to pay the price for our sins. As far as I can tell, this is a new idea introduced by Paul and never brought up by Jesus. But if there is a verse I’m missing, please find and report it.
He promised that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.
This echoes John 3:16, and it does seem to be a common theme in John. Notably, John portrays Jesus as more divine than the synoptic Gospels do, and unlike them, it never mentions repentance. As mentioned in the previously quoted John 20:31, believing that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God is what John says is important.
Can he really be who he claims he is? Or is [he] just a fraud?
As an atheist, I don’t believe in God. If there is no God, then there is no Son of God. If someone claims to be something that doesn’t exist, then he is either mistaken or lying. So, if Jesus did claim to be the Son of God, I do not accept this claim as true, and I would be inclined to think that he was either mistaken or lying. Since there is too much we don’t know about Jesus, including whether he even existed at all, I cannot say for sure whether Jesus was a fraud, a delusional religious leader, a misrepresented historical figure, or a fictional character.
If he’s not who he claimed, then who was he?
As just mentioned above, he was either a fraud, a delusional religious leader, a misrepresented historical figure, or a fictional character. However, there is too little reliable information on Jesus to determine which of these he was.
But if he is, will you put your trust in him?
Even if he is, I have no way of knowing this, and contradictory and highly mythologized stories from a collection of writings nearly 2000 years old do not fill me with any confidence.
Thanks go to Emma Thorne, whose 10 (Bad) Questions for Atheists: Answered video made me aware of this list. ↩
For more on the importance of moral responsibility, see my Ph.D. dissertation The Evil Person. ↩
My search for the word repent in the New English Translation got 7 results in Matthew, 4 in Mark, 14 in Luke, but none in John. These included results for repentance, repented, and repents. ↩