Ask An Atheist

Courtesy of an idea from Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist, I’ve decided to create this page specifically to field questions regarding atheism. While his idea, implemented through the Secular Student Alliance, aimed at manning stations on campuses for a particular day (April 13th,) I decided to simply leave this page in place semi-perpetually. Nothing will be censored or removed save abject spamming, nothing will go unanswered unless I get overwhelmed. And believe me, I enjoy challenges, so fire away!

Bear in mind that this will only be, naturally, one person’s perspective (though if any others want to chime in, they should feel free,) and thus should not be taken to represent the unified front of Atheism, Inc. – there is no such thing. Opinions may vary.

Also, short questions sometimes require longer answers, so have at least a little patience. I was going to throw in the caveat that the questions be honest, something that you actually want an answer to, but you know what? That’s not necessary – if you think you can stump me with a “deep” question, throw it down!

If your question doesn’t show within a few hours, send me an e-mail through the Contact Page – it probably got snagged as spam somehow, and I’ll correct this.

You may also want to look at some of the things I’ve posted in the past, which may answer the questions you have. It’s not necessary – I’ll link to them if they fit your questions ;-). But it might save us both some time:

  • But How?, an ongoing series of posts dealing with what a scientific standpoint can tell us about aspects of belief and behavior;
  • Many of the posts in the Reference category, because these usually address common arguments and should be found easily;
  • But what if I’m wrong?, a post about Pascal’s Wager – see also the follow-up, Bigger stakes than that;
  • On belief, part one, part two, and part three, examinations of what forms religious faith seems to take fairly often;
  • Science and religion, and why the debate about compatibility is ill-advised;
  • Does science lead to atheism? A common question that isn’t as simple as it sounds, and the answer follows suit;
  • Evolution issues, which examines why evolution seems to be the whipping boy among a significant majority of religious folk;
  • Changing the rules, illustrating why many atheists find discussions of religion to be too narrow in focus;
  • Not as I do, on accommodationism and stridency;
  • Hooray! I scored a “Not Negative!”, about the curious concept of negative evidence;
  • People actually study this?, examining the approach of virtually all theology;
  • On the plus side, response to a challenge to name the positive aspects of atheism.
  • Otherwise, fire off your question in the comments below!

    To get things started and illustrate the format, the first question is simply a repeat of an extremely common one that, amazingly, still gets asked.

    11 comments to Ask An Atheist

    • Random Lurker

      How can evolution possibly work by random mutations? Isn’t this like a tornado passing through a junkyard and constructing a 747?

      • Al Denelsbeck

        Evolution isn’t entirely random – that’s what the “natural selection” part indicates. And the assembly of inanimate materials isn’t a good analogy for reproducing cells reliant on chemical energy exchange.

        The first key factor is reproduction: cell division, like what bacteria and amoebas do. This allows the “plan” of the life form to continue through the offspring. The second part is the ability for changes to take place: gene mixing in sexual reproduction, and mutations in both sexual and asexual reproduction. This allows offspring to be different from the parent. No materials in a junkyard possess such properties.

        The final factor is time. No collection of changes, such as the assembly of a functioning aircraft, take place all at the same time, and no one has ever proposed that it has – except for creationists ;-). Instead, very small changes occur at any given generation, and the selection process weeds out those changes that are detrimental to the organism – not precisely, and not every time, but over a statistical average of a certain number of organisms. This is why evolution takes place in populations, not individuals. When the changes prove to be either beneficial or neutral to the organism, they can be passed on much more effectively than detrimental changes, and over time, they can build up in number.

        Thus, the 747 analogy fails to account for what is actually occurring, as well as the key factors of evolution in all aspects, so it’s a pathetic analogy. No one with the faintest understanding of evolution would consider it remotely applicable, and its continued existence (since it has been answered countless times now) is only evidence of the intention to mislead.

    • The Manatee

      As long as we’re asking questions that are “classics”, how about commenting on evolution and the second law of thermodynamics.

      • Al Denelsbeck

        I’m sorry, Watson, we have disallowed that since it is not in the form of a question.

        I could let this one slide, because my goal is to answer questions rather than field the commonly promoted misconceptions, but I figure if I get the common ones out of the way, maybe the questions will stay more in the realm of honest questions and not those “triumphant sound bites”?

        So, okay. The Second Law is variously quoted as increasing entropy and the tendency towards disorder, which is typically misunderstood anyway. Overall, what is actually says is that energy will not flow from a body that is cooler (less active) to one that is warmer (more active). A hot pan removed from the stove and placed on a cool surface will not rob heat from the cool surface and become hotter itself. Instead, the pan will become cooler, the surface will become warmer, until equilibrium is reached and both are lukewarm. Energy flows from hot to cold. This process results in both of the named factors above, too. As molecules lose energy to cooler atoms, they lose binding energy, and can eventually break down, resulting in greater disorder and the eventual heat-death of the universe – this will take a while.

        Some arguments say that it requires a closed system, and we’re not in one of those, but this is misleading – a closed system is only necessary to demonstrate it locally. The sun, the exception to the closed system, is still a victim of entropy, and will die eventually, as will all suns/stars.

        But the argument is used against the complexity of life on Earth, which could not arise according to the Second Law, or at least, this is usually claimed. But complexity isn’t prohibited by the Law, it just isn’t sustainable – patterns of “complexity” can and do arise, without the necessity of destroying the Law or resorting to intelligent guidance. The key is, the Law is still governed by both Gravity and the Interactive (Atomic) forces, capitalized here because they have specific scientific meanings.

        Look at it this way: a hydrogen atom has a certain amount of energy. Gravity draws it closer to other hydrogen atoms, and they meet. They have the same heat/energy, so no change, no flow of energy from warmer to cooler. Until you get enough of them, whereupon Gravity forces them ever tighter together and starts affecting both Interactive forces – and a star is born. A star is not creating energy, it is simply a collection of it concentrated, where it can now dissipate through other exchanges, like shedding energy through electromagnetic radiation – “visible” light, infrared, ultraviolet, cosmic rays, et cetera, all born from the Interactive forces dictating how atoms bind and what happens to their binding energy.

        The Earth, nearby in galactic terms, absorbs a tiny percentage of this energy and produces short term “complexity,” which is really only energy exchanges from the very small percentage of complex molecules that had been created in stars in the first place, which still lost much of the initial energy from hydrogen when created. They use small amounts of energy from the sun to perform exchanges, which is really all that life is, but lose some of it to their surroundings too. As complex as life and Earth seem to be, they’re using only a small fraction of the energy the sun puts out and dissipating it into open space, very slowly, but inexorably. When the sun dies, so will the planet.

        We only have this situation because space (or space/time if you like) is expanding, so the energy within has more room to dissipate into, and will become more and more spread out across this space. Should it continue indefinitely (as most current theories have it now,) then it will result in uniform coldness across space, or close enough to count, and even the binding energy of hydrogen atoms will equalize and cause them to break down. This is a ways off (actually, a number of years so big it defies comprehension by us puny mortals.)

        In the meantime, however, we benefit from the interactions of simple physical Forces because the universe is small enough to let them play with each other. The “complexity” of life is nothing more than a temporary state made possible by proximity, and is a transient phenomenon that can only take place for a short while, relatively speaking, within the universe.

        The best part about such Second Law questions is that anyone thinks physicists would have missed the implications of it, or that it is not demonstrable – it’s not a guess, or a pronouncement, it gained Law status because it works every time and constantly. Any deity named would be a violation of the Second Law as well. The Law only came about because of our observations on how things work, and if/when it becomes violated, it will simply stop being used in favor of the new observations. Science, which is only about learning, would accept a deity just fine, with appropriate evidence. But the Second Law (and others) are what we have in its place, and explain the energy exchanges that we call “life” very dependably.

    • troy

      okay so what is your view on the statement “religions role in reducing religiously inspired conflicts?”

      • Al Denelsbeck

        As in, “What should the role of the religious play?” [Okay, I finally got tired of having this mangled sentence up here - change it to either "What role should the religious play?" or "What should the role of the religious be?"] I think such things pretty much have to come from within, and it should be a matter of self-control, ensuring that one’s own behavior (or that of their own church/sect/etc.) is focused on reducing or avoiding conflict wherever possible, rather than trying to police the behavior of others. The latter has too much of a tendency to come off as either religious persecution, or the type of “do as I say, not as I do” approach.

        There are limits, of course, since there is no control over what the other person does, or how they might spin or twist such behavior to make it appear as something other than it is – we see enough stories of muslims saying that other religions are “trying to destroy islam.” It’s not hard to find examples that could be construed this way, either, such as the growing emphasis that US military be decidedly christian, not the best message when we’re playing world police.

        What we see too much of right now is the insistence of the religious to wield their faith as authority, rather than personal guidance, and moving away from this can only help. While religion has lots of affects, one prominent one is creating demarcations, “Us vs Them,” which helps those conflicts along. Few of us concern ourselves with who likes what kind of music or food, and certainly we don’t get into conflicts over it – these are personal decisions. So is religion, and as long as it remains that way, there is little to create or exacerbate conflict.

        This isn’t likely to happen until/unless congregations feel comfortable correcting their leaderships, either. I can’t speak for the internal conflicts this might create, because atheists see the priests/pastors/etc. as just another person, without divine authority – makes it easier ;-)

        As long as none of this is happening, however, there are those that will be excoriating such conflict-inducing behavior, and it’s usually the so-called “New” atheists. While this might seem hypocritical (trying to correct other peoples’ behavior, despite recommending against it above,) our society needs controls, including, when necessary, someone on the “outside” pointing out what isn’t working. Atheists have a small advantage with this, in that there’s no “competing religion” aspect – we gain nothing by creating converts ;-) It just seems we’re the only ones who feel comfortable with pointing out the flaws within religion.

    • The Manatee

      Given the following stipulations: Religion has some inherently bad characteristics and some (large number of) people need its good characteristics – How can these opposing issues be resolved?

      • Al Denelsbeck

        Okay, you actually phrased this in an interesting form when you used the word “given.” I don’t know if you intended to put this as a philosophical posit or not, so I’ll do both, starting with the posit.

        I’ve touched on this before, in a couple of posts that I’m too lazy to look up right now, but the key lies simply in the distinction between “good” and “bad” characteristics of religion. If we have the ability to make this distinction (and we do,) then it’s really not an issue – do the good stuff, not the bad stuff.

        We fall outside the posit when we consider it from the point of whether anything in a particular religion could be considered “bad,” or whether all of scripture, for instance, is good by definition of being god’s word. The atheist answer to that is to go with the former and say, “Yes, of course there’s bad parts within scripture.” One can talk to a theologian for a counterpoint, but while you’re wading through the obfuscation, I’ll simply ask if you have ever, anywhere, met anyone who followed scripture precisely. If not (I certainly haven’t,) then you must realize that the question is moot – we choose what parts of scripture we want to follow. And always have, throughout history.

        The issues come when scripture provides support, even halfassedly, for something that we wish to engage in, but could be considered “bad” from a different standpoint – homophobia, for instance. It’s possible to find scripture calling homosexuality a sin, but if we have to support the standpoint without the aid of scripture, it’s much harder to do. It starts to appear to be a personal decision, not one that could be said to benefit the species or society as a whole. In fact, it becomes completely irrelevant to concern ourselves with, just like concerning ourselves with not wearing clothing woven of two kinds of material – coincidentally, a decree from the same source.

        I’ve also made the point that most of the benefits of religion aren’t really any such thing. The Ultimate Reward System™ isn’t a benefit, only a promise, and in actuality bears the onus of being a threat/punishment should any mortal fail to adhere to the strict rules – this is not just a potential consequence, but a source of anxiety and social judgment. The comfort over loss also bears the same weight, as well as not really functioning against our sadness anyway. The meaning to life that it provides seems to consist entirely of, “There is one,” and never seems to touch on what it actually is (save worship, which certainly drives me along from day to day.) I can even make the case of how it encourages pointless “good” activities such as prayer, rather than performing some action that results in distinct benefit (almost none of which prohibited by scripture anyway.) The benefits of religion seem to boil down to, “Be good,” which isn’t exactly advice we should need in the least. Even if we were born entirely antisocial (we aren’t,) we could manage to impart such wisdom as easily as we tell our children to wash their hands.

        While atheists are often considered immoral (wonder who started that idea?) the reality is, atheism doesn’t impact morality in any way. Morality sits all by itself, and requires considering our choice of actions from the standpoint of how it affects others. That’s really what “good” and “bad” are, and it’s not a difficult thing to tackle.

        • The Manatee

          Following up on my previous question, What if you can’t (as you say) “do the good stuff, not the bad stuff”. From an individual perspective, suppose you have a person who is so afraid of the unknown that they literally cannot get through the day without relying on a higher being. Yet, this need, translated over a population creates all the problems, dogma, and divisiveness that you’ve frequently addressed.

        • Al Denelsbeck

          [I want to make a brief observation: While I had intended this page to offer an atheist's perspective, in counterpoint to a religious one for instance, these questions strike more along the lines of how to correct common problems. While I won't shy away from them, I will be the first to admit that I'm not in any way qualified to offer psychological advice, nor do I have some kind of grand solution. One person, talking out of his ass - just bear it in mind.]

          I see this issue as being a long road, since it would involve overcoming the elaborate facade built up around religion over the centuries. A lot of what I’ve posted about has to do with the various factors that maintain this facade, such as group dynamics, simplicity of decisions and labels (“god=good”,) and the emotional supplication angles. As such, I don’t see any one approach being effective; numerous foundations have to be weakened. Perhaps the worst thing is that every individual is different, and will respond to different approaches.

          Too, this usually has to be subtle. It’s easy to understand that most christians, for instance, will never read Dawkins’ The God Delusion because they see it as evil, or satanic, or simply wasting their time; their minds are already made up and not open for such input. Any approach that seems to bear a resemblance to this will be treated the same way. As an example of avoiding this, one might deal only with the immediate issues that arise rather than the overriding attitude – if someone speaks about preventing gay marriage, the response could be annoyed dismissal (“I really think there are more important things to worry about”) or even a wry observation (“Isn’t it funny how a respected institution becomes a criminal act only for specific people?”) Both of these not only impart some form of perspective, they indicate that the topic isn’t held in high regard, while avoiding any sides of the religious debate. Sometimes, this very demonstration of disagreement damages the “group-think” perspective that many churches promote. Lone voices of dissent sometimes work very well.

          As might be obvious, I greatly favor getting people to question assumptions, and examine motivations – but this does require being able to engage them in the first place. My open atheism herein is perhaps not the best approach, because too few of the people that I’d like to reach will stay on the blog for ten seconds; because of this, I understand those who eschew such labels.

          Something that might be of some insight is the Converts’ Corner at the Richard Dawkins’ Foundation site, http://old.richarddawkins.net/letters. This is a collection of letters, both from those who have converted from religion, and from those who have not. While I have occasionally found a clue about how people think from their rants, the letters from those who have changed, that relate key turning points or arguments, may be of more use.

        • Al Denelsbeck

          A small addition: One of the things that I found the most damning, that I’ve seen too few people contemplate, are the myriad religions throughout the different cultures (and times) across the earth. Very often, “religion” means, “my religion” to the devout, and they never consider what separates theirs from others. How do they know the others are wrong? What criteria are they using? If so many people are delusional about the god(s) they follow, how does one determine authenticity?

          And advice that I’ve imparted in other forums, but perhaps not often enough here: Don’t expect to see change. No one ever converts abruptly, and humans are very hesitant to admit they’re wrong. Plant the seed and let it grow. If you’ve presented an argument or point that goes unanswered, that’s progress. That’s the most you can hope for.

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