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Questions the ex-Christian needs to answer

06 December 2012, 08:32
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Do you know the answer to that question? If you say, “Yes, because God created the Universe”, then you have simply replaced one mystery (why the Universe exists) with another, even greater one (a “God” exists, and has the capacity to “create” the Universe).
In any case, even if you could show that somehow “God” was necessary in order to explain existence, at best you would have an argument for the Deist sort of God, and you have all your work cut out for you to get from that point to belief in a personal, loving, omniscient God who moreover is uniquely revealed in Christianity and continues to intervene in the world.

How do you explain the amazing complexity of life, the existence of the beautiful world we live in?
Well now we are on solid ground here. The best explanation for the development of complex life is found in the principle of evolution by natural selection; this is a wonderful theory that also happens to be established by lots and lots of irrefutable evidence. So we know how life came to be, and the world makes much more sense when you accept the scientific view than trying to squeeze, for example, a billion years of evolution into the Biblical account which seems to take only around 6,000 years.
If you mean the separate but related question - how did life begin, or arise from inorganic chemical processes, i.e. abiogenesis - then I would invoke the anthropic principle. This simply says that no matter how statistically unlikely it may be for life to arise, given a large enough sample (billions of galaxies each with billions of planets and stars), it is unremarkable that it should arise somewhere; moreover, from the point of view of any conscious life that does arise in that particular time and place, it will seem that the Universe is uniquely arranged to support its existence.
As for this beautiful world - yes, it is beautiful. And also horrible, at times. It is full of joy but also incredible suffering of living things. None of this is surprising for an atheist; by contrast, the theist has a lot of explaining to do.

Don’t you look up into the sky at night and feel a sense of awe and wonder? What do you ascribe that to?
Do you actually have any idea of the scale of what you’re looking at? Human beings evolved to deal with things on a human scale; we actually cannot comprehend the size of things on a cosmological scale, and so we need mathematics to model it because it just doesn’t fit in our tiny minds. It is, in fact, astounding arrogance to picture the entire Universe existing purely for the benefit of us tiny mammals clinging to the surface of a floating speck of dust in an insignificant corner of an insignificant galaxy... My sense of wonder and awe is much greater, I would argue, than yours, since yours is based on a picture of a loving “Daddy” sitting just above the clouds watching over things on Earth, whereas my view of the world throws off any comforting fairy tale and faces up to reality for what it is, as far as any honest person can understand it.
I can experience awe, wonder, even gratitude, without reference to a supernatural being called “God”.

What then is the purpose of life?
Why do you assume it needs to have a given purpose? We are here because we evolved to be here. We are lucky enough to be born. If we want a higher purpose, why not find one (or many) worthy of our time and energy?

But how do you tell what is right and wrong? Why live a moral life?
Well, firstly, I could ask you the same question. Where do your morals really come from? Don’t tell me they come from Scripture, because I think that, to a large degree, they do not come from there. To take a simple example, do you think slavery is acceptable? If you say, “no”, then you are in clear disagreement with the repeated and consistent stance taken throughout the Bible. No, you get your morals from elsewhere, just like everyone else, but you tell yourself that they come from the Bible. And you pick and choose a few principles that you like and reject others.
In any case, are you only good because God tells you to be good, and is going to punish you if you don’t obey? Do you honestly mean to say that if there was no God, you would have no reason for doing any good in the world? You would have no reason for refraining from evil? If so, then you are an immoral person.
I do good because I want to do good. Is that such a bad thing? I do good because it is the best, most sane way to live; I recognise that there are other conscious beings in the world who experience joy and suffering and everything in between. As far as possible, I would like to increase joy and reduce suffering, and in doing so I am likely to feel more fulfilled and happier myself. On a social level, morality is something we agree to for mutual benefit. We develop a consensus about it, and the good ones amongst us do our best to live by what we deem to be “good”.
The great thing about this view of morality is that it recognises that the consensus can also change over time. Kings and princes used to be able to lord over everyone; now we elect our leaders democratically. Slavery was once accepted; now it isn’t. Women were once thought of as inferior to men; now we do not think that way. Homosexual people were once condemned; now we recognise that their behaviour is quite natural and have seen that they can live ordinary, happy, moral lives like all the rest of us.
Incidentally, on each of the above examples, religion (specifically Christianity) has at various times been the main obstacle to moral progress.

What about death? Aren’t you scared what happens when you die?
Firstly, fear is not a good reason to believe something that you have every reason to suspect isn’t true. You can’t believe in something just because you want it to be true, because you find it comforting. That is a childish attitude; it is wishful thinking, and it does us no good.
Any why fear death? Death is something we will never experience ourselves. We may legitimately fear suffering in life, or deprviation, or loss, but our own death will never be experienced by us precisely because it is by definition the cessation of our experience. We weren’t around for billions of years before our birth, and that has never bothered us, so why should we be particularly concerned about not being around for billions of years after our death? Arguably, the only preparation we need to make for death is that which addresses the loss that others will experience once we’re gone.
Is there something “beyond” death? Does our identity, consciousness, etc. continue after the moment of physical death? The best evidence seems to suggest that nothing of the sort happens. People die all the time. We bury them in the ground or cremate them all the time, and that seems to be the end of it. We also know that our consciousness is clearly connected to our brains, which do not function after death.
However, we could reasonably remain agnostic on this issue, and say we don’t really know what happens “after” death. But then Christians don’t know either. They claim to know, but asserting knowledge is not the same thing as demonstrating it by appeal to evidence and reason.
Besides, this is a morbid preoccupation. We are incredibly lucky to be alive at all. The best evidence we have is that this is our one and only life. So we ought to make the best of it. An atheist is thus far more inclined to take responsibility for the life he has; a Christian tends to let it slip by undervalued while he stares off into the misty afterlife for which he has no good reason to believe exists anyway.

What about hell? What if you’re wrong?
What about Allah? What if he is upset that you didn’t accept the prophet Mohammed and didn’t become a good Muslim? What about Tartarus and what if Zeus isn’t pleased with your lack of sacrifices made to him? What about the ancestors and what if they are upset that you didn’t seek their counsel throughout your life? What about Jehovah and the fact that you didn’t become a Witness?
You happen to believe in Christianity, the Christian God, and the Christian idea of “hell” (though many Christians seem to disagree about this stuff anyway). The statistics say overwhelmingly that you believe in this particular religion because of where you happened to be born. You need to tell me why I should take this awful scenario of “hell” seriously, not try to scare me into accepting a myth to avoid a danger that doesn’t exist. You would refuse to live your life in terror of Allah, so why should I live my life in terror of Yahweh? We are both atheists, you and I, when it comes to every god that has ever ceased to be worshipped in the history of humanity and every god that is currently worshipped except for the Christian one; I just go one God further and add the Christian one to the list of gods I disbelieve in.
Besides, what is this awful “hell” idea anyway? Is there anything that your own children could do (including “not loving you”) that would make you feel justified in locking them in a dungeon and torturing them for ever? No? So then how can you even conceive of the absurdity of a supposedly all-loving God doing the same? I’m not saying God is evil; I’m saying that the idea is so self-contradictory (and obviously abhorrent) that I am happy and relieved to declare that there is simply no evidence that the scenario exists. And every reason to believe that God is in fact imaginary.

What about Jesus and his claims? What about the resurrection?
Well, firstly, what do we really know about this Jesus character? We have four anonymous Gospels written, at best, decades after his death, which were selected out of a huge range of other candidate “gospels”. We have no independent contemporary accounts to provide even evidence that Jesus existed, let alone establish any other facts about him. The three “synoptic” Gospels are more or less copies of one another, in fact word-for-word copies in many passages, so they are not independent at all. The fourth Gospel is so utterly different (especially theologically) that even many Christians have had a hard time reconciling it with the others (even Luther called it a “spiritual gospel”, reflecting some anxiety about its historical reliability). All four Gospels contradict one another on substantial points both in terms of narrative points as well as theology, and all have been shown to have serious factual problems when compared with other historical evidence about the period in which Jesus supposedly lived. And they have all the hallmarks of mythologising (and, frankly fictionalisation) so using them to establish historical “fact” is dubious at best.
In any case, the stuff they relate includes all kinds of incredible miracles and bizarre stories (zombies walking Jerusalem after the resurrection, fig trees being cursed, etc.), which if we heard someone relate today of anyone else, we would dismiss them as crazy. All sorts of other religions and movements, ancient and contemporary, also have incredible stories of miraculous events. Why do we take these particular stories, written nearly 2,000 years ago, more seriously than any others?
Mainstream scholarly opinion (those that don’t have an evangelical or fundamentalist bent) is pretty unanimous that the Bible tells us very little about “Jesus” as a historical person and at best tells us what some (not all) early Christians believed about him. There is not a single contemporary eyewitness account of anything about his life (remarkable, when you consider what he was alleged to have done), and he left behind no writings of his own, so we are left with hearsay. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

What about the experiences I have had where God answered prayers and performed miracles?
Do you not know that people of just about every religious tradition claim exactly the same? Muslims also think God answers their prayers. Hindu followers of certain modern-day gurus also witness “miracles”. New Agers meet spirit guides. Catholics have visions of the Virgin Mary. Crazy preachers in my country claim to cure HIV with prayer.
Claims of miracles are hardly unique to your religion or particular brand of Christianity. I cannot obviously question your personal experience as such; it is your experience and only you have access to it. But I must ask that you at least consider the possibility that childhood indoctrination, confirmation bias and even wishful thinking might possibly have played a role? If you are still confident about your faith, then I must ask you to acknowledge that personal experience is not enough; the claims you are making supposedly apply to me and every living person as well - so we can only go on what you say is true. Do you automatically believe anything someone tells you? Especially if what they are claiming is highly unusual and appears to even break the known laws of nature? So it is not enough that you are convinced. Some people are convinced that aliens come to visit them at night and conduct hideous experiments on them. You still need to explain why everyone else needs to take your particular claims seriously.

How are you going to teach your child morality?
It is you, the Christian, who ought to be concerned about your child's moral development. Christianity today is a huge obstacle to moral development. Firstly, it bases morality on a dubious and outdated source, the Bible. This is a book that promotes slavery, for example. An imaginary God is responsible for ordaining the moral precepts. Where the Bible is unclear on a particular matter, or indeed silent, Christians must then rely on all sorts of dubious intuitive spiritual feelings about how to interpret moral issues, and this leads to all sorts of abuses, conflicts and silliness.
My child, on the other hand, will build a moral sense based on empathy, a modern understanding of psychology and society, and will have no recourse to dubious outdated moral codes from ancient middle eastern cultures, dimly reinterpreted for modern times; nor will he be able to invoke the will of God to support his less than well-considered prejudices. He will not be morally perfect. But then, neither are you.
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