I’m very much not a regular reader of Today’s Christian. In fact, I’d never heard of it until Steve Shives provided his own answers to the titular 10 questions. But, since their questions elicited strong and interesting responses from him, I thought I’d take a crack at them in my own time. Originally these answers were to be part of a video, but neither of my Youtube channels really lends itself to this sort of discourse. Besides, I’m still a print guy at heart.
Anyway, here are their questions and my answers. I’ll post Steve Shives’s video afterwards so you can compare and contrast. Some of the answers are similar. Some aren’t. Atheist readers should feel free to try their own hands at this in comments.
1. How Did You Become an Atheist?
As long as I can remember, I’ve been skeptical of religious claims. It started with my grandmother’s dragging me and my cousin to Christian Science Sunday School, which was the price we paid for getting to ride in her Porsche to her place in Pacific Palisades for beach fun, hot dogs, and the other manifold delights her home and company held in store. I memorized the Scientific Statement of Being and “Saw Ye My Savior” and recited them on demand, but I also knew that faith in Christian Science had led to a lot of needless suffering and premature death in my family.
Later on, I was exposed to Mormonism, and I had an even harder time taking it seriously. You know what the miracle of that religion is? That a guy in 19th century New York found a single sane person to swallow his stories about finding gold plates buried in his backyard and translating them with a stone in his hat.
It’s evidence that human beings evolved to spot suckers the same way lions evolved to spot limping zebras.
Still, this only covers two religions. Surely, in a religious buyer’s market like America, I’d have found something to appeal to me. But no. Though I liked the politics or religious ethics of some faiths more than others—the imperative in Catholic Social Doctrine of helping the poor and distressed always struck me as right neighborly—no one ever made a convincing case that the God they adored actually existed and did things in the world. So when I was a teenager, as my grandmother died of a disease she never allowed a doctor to diagnose, I came out as an atheist.
2. What happens when we die?
Literally? Our oxygen is cut off. Our brains, starved for oxygen, quickly begin to malfunction. The mental models that permit memory, consciousness, and identity break down, and the world looks to us much as it did before we were born. Does something of our identity or consciousness survive death? I’d like to think so, but I know that the universe is under no obligation to behave as I’d like to think it does.
3. What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
And heaven isn’t in all caps because…?
Any god worth admiring would, I think, be forgiving on this point. After all, there’ve been over two thousand different religions practiced on Earth during recorded history. (Never mind the multitudes from pre-literate cultures whose religious practices are lost to time.) All of them were equally sure they were right, and any god who’d greet them with “Whoops, gotcha” and condemn them to suffer eternally is no god I’d want to meet.
So, I’d like to think a god greeting me in heaven would be big about my atheism. If not, and god is instead an asshole about it, at least I get to spend my time in hell knowing my life wasn’t wasted sucking up to that holy prick.
But, since I don’t think I’m wrong, and I don’t think there’s a heaven or a hell, there’s not much use in my acting as if there were. I think a God would know if I was just sitting through church as a means of hedging my bets. And how would I know I’d picked the right church anyway, or if any of the currently extant churches are right? For all I know, the true God was only just revealed on a planet orbiting Rigel and we won’t hear the good news about Him for another 900 years.
Fat lot of good all my psalm singing would have done me then, eh?
4. Without God, where do you get your morality from?
The same place you do, from my empathy with, and sympathy for, my fellow human beings. I think moral sentiments arise from those emotions, which we later seek to explain and justify through moral and ethical reasoning. Some of those justifications, to be fair to the religious folk, do come from texts that claim divine inspiration. The Golden Rule and turning the other cheek do strike me as defensible moral positions, regardless of whether a God actually inspired them. A universal brotherhood of man strikes me as a worthwhile aspiration, whether or not the Son of God endorsed it. But my moral sentiments begin with sentiments that I later look to philosophy to justify.
5. If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
Let me turn this question around. If I proved to you that God doesn’t exist, would you decide to go out on a kill-crazy rampage? If all that’s stopping you is the idea that God would disapprove, I worry about you.
But no, we strongly disapprove of rape and murder for perfectly sensible reasons: we don’t want to live in societies where such behavior happens at all, or goes unpunished when it does. We make laws and develop complicated justice systems to try to curb people who act that way. So no, you’re not free to commit any crime that amuses you–at least, not without expecting a rebuke from the people you share the planet with.
As for good deeds going unrewarded…well, that does happen sometimes. Life is a bit like show business. Some people are given more than we think they merit, while worthier others struggle more than we think they ought. Sometimes virtue, and the doing of it, has to be its own reward. And sometimes the bad guys win.
If you’d like that arrangement to be more equitable, I’ll tell you, so do I. Because I don’t think there’s a God to do anything about it, it falls to us to try to make the world more just for more people.
6. If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
It depends on the scale you’re talking about. In a cosmic sense, it probably has none. When the Sun swells up in 5 billion years, it’s likely to take almost all traces of me and everything I’ve done or cared about with it. So it goes.
But if you’re talking about my relationship with my family, my loves, my friends, and the people who’ve read my works or laughed at my jokes, or seen my videos, or taken my advice, I suppose my life has had meaning, one that I, and the people I’ve interacted with, have created. It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing either.
7. Where did the universe come from?
The Universe as we understand it began as a highly dense, folded over region of space and time that started rapidly expanding about 13.7 billion years ago. Eventually certain types of energy released during this growth spurt interacted with the Higgs field, slowed down, acquired mass and became the building blocks of what we, billions of years later, would regard as ordinary matter. The spread of this material in the universe was not precisely uniform, so clumps of hot material attracted other clumps via gravity to form increasingly large structures, including the quasars and protogalaxies. Over time, the earliest stars burned themselves out, creating through fusion heavier elements before blowing themselves apart. Through several generations of stars, enough heavy elements were made that planets like ours could form, and on at least one such planet, over billions of years, complex creatures developed, including us.
That’s admittedly a thumbnail sketch, but that’s more or less how we got here. And so far as I can tell, no deity is required to explain it. Of course, you could try to stump me by asking what happened before space/time started. And what I’ll say is that I don’t know for sure. I’m not even sure that’s any more sensible a question than asking what’s north of the north pole. Maybe the whole thing was the result of a quantum fluctuation in a larger multiverse breaking the symmetry of this one tiny, folded over bit of space-time and starting the unstoppable inflation of our universe. Or maybe cause and effect, as we understand it, doesn’t apply in the same way when we’re dealing in larger-than-universe scale systems. Whatever the case, I don’t think answers promulgated by several generations of Bronze Age religious and political hustlers will help us solve the mystery.
8. What about miracles? What [about] all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?
The thing about miracles is that uncanny events happen all the time in the world. There are a lot of us walking around, and though there are lots of events that are unlikely to happen to any of us, given enough time and enough people, they’re bound to happen to someone. So it is with inexplicable disease cures or improbable turns of fortune.
As for feelings of connections to Jesus or visions of saints or angels, I’m sure the people who experiences these things believe in them. And I’m not just humoring them. Experiences can feel real without being true.
My Dad suffered a stroke in 2011. In the months that followed he started seeing CIA men lurking outside his house. He also heard piano music from the second floor—the house had no second floor, or a piano. Sometimes, he’d demand we bring him his gun so he could fend off the CIA guys. We didn’t oblige him, obviously.
Did my Dad really see those things and hear those things? Yes. They were as real to him as anything I’ve ever seen is to me. They were, however, the result of trying to think with a damaged brain. Our brains can fool us in all kinds of ways, some of which we’re only now discovering. We needn’t have suffered a severe insult to our brains to see what isn’t there. Hypnagogia is a kind of hallucinating that many people experience, in which they see lost relatives, ghosts, angels, or aliens. (In my case, I hallucinated that I was paralyzed, which wasn’t fun.)
So while I think that people who believe they’ve seen angels or demons or aliens are often sincere, I also think that it’s far more likely that they were having a lucid dream (or experiencing some other kind of temporary hallucination brought on by stress), than that they were meeting the supernatural.
9. What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
It’s complicated. I admire Dawkins for his contributions to science and his work in educating the public about biology and debunking creationists. I didn’t come to atheism via his work, but I do find much of value in The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker. I also admire some of Christopher Hitchens’s writing, though as the years passed his political sympathies and mine diverged quite a lot, particularly over Middle East policy. Harris I consider to be the runt of this particular litter. He’s an able polemicist whose views on the Middle East policy, particularly where torture is concerned, leave me cold.
Dawkins and Hitchens’s attitudes about gender equality are also huge disappointments. (With Harris, it’s less so, if only because I never liked him as much to start with.) It seems that the only sexism that’s ever bothered this trio is the kind inspired by religion. They ignore or defend their own. Altogether, they strike me as men who believe in free inquiry, so long as this free inquiry never results in a woman telling them they’re wrong.
Still, one of the best things about atheism is that we don’t have authority figures we have to follow. I can take what I think is valuable from Dawkins or Hitchens and leave the rest where I find it. We can part company on issues without anyone coming to me and demanding I defend myself. Religious adherents in the U.S. often aren’t so lucky.
10. If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?
Because we’re pattern seeking creatures hardwired to see objects in the world as having been deliberately laid out according to plan. This isn’t a bad trait. It allowed our ancestors to recognize when potential food, or a potential predator, had left traces in an area. (In fact, evolution probably rendered us oversensitive to patterns in nature, because false positives cost less than false negatives when tigers or lions or hostile neighbors are involved.)
So when our ancestors looked at stars it’s understandable that, in absence of good information about them (which was only available very recently, historically speaking), they’d tell themselves stories about how the Milky Way was the road to heaven, or the Backbone of God. They imagined that the constellations took the shapes of mortals that the Gods wanted them to remember. They’d convince themselves that the mountain whose top was shrouded in mist and hard to get to was where their God or Gods lived, and that the flood that came and wrecked their crops did so because the God that controlled the river, or the ocean, was pissed off at things they’d done.
That these patterns in nature gave rise to different stories in different cultures shouldn’t surprise us. We’ve loved telling stories to ourselves ever since our species learned to talk, but we all tell ones that speak to our own times and cultures. There’s profundity to be found in that, but that doesn’t mean that any of the stories we tell ourselves, or that we’ve heard from our ancestors, are true.
The fables of our great-great-grandfathers don’t prove that the stars are anything other than what we now know them to be, spheres of hot hydrogen, fusing and emitting radiation, whirling around galactic centers, in a universe far larger and grander than any holy book can encompass.
And seriously, give these questions a try for yourselves and post your answers in comments.