Sunday, September 24, 2017

Objective vs. Relative Morality

[The following is something I came up with after being told for the umpteenth time that atheists can't be moral or can't have a basis for judging "right" from "wrong" because they can only rely on "relative" moral standards.  Unlike theists, of course, who get their "objective" moral standards straight from God.]

Morality — the system or method by which we determine whether actions are “good” or “bad” — can either be “relative” or “objective” (a.k.a. “absolute”). Objective morality is morality based on universal principles that everybody agrees on, whereas relative morality is determined differently by different groups and is subject to change over time and in different places and cultures. Now, theists and atheists alike claim to be be able to determine right from wrong, good from bad, but what type of morality can each group actually claim to have? Objective or relative?

Let’s start with atheists. Now most atheists get their sense of “right” and “wrong” from the realization that other people are human beings the same as they are, and are therefore deserving of the exact same rights and respect as themselves. “People are people” may sound like a simple tautology, but it’s objectively true and it’s the core principle that provides atheists with the objective morality that lets them condemn slavery, murder, robbery, lying, etc. Now, this isn’t to say that all atheists are good people, since we all have free will and can decide whether to be good or bad, but at least atheists have something objective by which they can make value judgments in the first place.

What about theists? Well, they tend to rely more on wholly relative morality to make value judgments for the following reasons:
  • Different theists believe in different Gods, each of which is said to have given different moral laws for us to follow. So, right there, theistic morality is wholly relative according to which God you believe in.

  • Even within a single God belief (Christianity, say), there are tons and tons of different denominations and sects who all interpret the supposed “word of God” in different ways from a purely doctrinal standpoint. So, once again, even within the Christian faith, theistic morality is wholly relative according to which particular sect or denomination you belong to.

  • Even within a single sect or denomination, it’s pretty much guaranteed that different preachers or even individual members will have their own specific interpretations as to just what their God wants them to do. Should you shun homosexuals or welcome them? Should you donate money to homeless people or is that just encouraging bad habits? Do women really need to be subject to their husbands’ will or not? Is it enough to just accept Jesus into your heart, or do you actually need to do good deeds and repent for your sins? Is it really harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, or is that just a metaphor? Does “turn the other cheek” mean you can’t own a gun for self-defense? Did God really just promise to “answer prayers” (and sometimes the answer is “no”) or did he actually promise to give “whatsoever we ask for in faith”? Is lusting after a woman in your heart really the same as committing adultery, or was Jesus just being metaphorical again? What’s the best way to “love thy neighbor as thyself” while still preventing transgender people from using the bathroom they feel most comfortable in? Is it OK to vote for somebody who claims to share your values if he talks about sexually assaulting women, mocks disabled people and lies all the time? What, actually, would Jesus do? And so on and so forth. Thus, theistic morality is wholly relative according to the individual beliefs of each particular theist.

  • For theists that claim to get their morality from holy scriptures written thousands of years ago, many of the oldest commandments and moral codes from those books no longer apply today. The explanation for this is usually that those commandments were given for a specific group of people, that the culture and socio-economic conditions back then were different than they are today and/or that some sort of “new covenant” made those old commandments obsolete. It was OK to own slaves back then, but not today. It was commanded that disobedient children should be stoned to death back then, but we don’t need to follow that commandment today. Jews were required to keep kosher, but later Christians didn’t need to. All of which is to say that theistic morality can actually change over time and is wholly relative to the particular people to whom the moral commandments were given.
Now, keep in mind what I said earlier about atheists basing their morality on objective principles. Because these principles are objective, theists are capable of perceiving them as well. In fact, this is what allows, say, Christians to decide which parts of the Bible to follow in the first place and which parts should be ignored or reinterpreted away. The problem is, though, that many theists allow these objective moral principles to be overwhelmed by the teachings of their particular religion to the point where they are willing to discriminate against other people simply because this is what they have been taught is correct. Without the teachings of their religion they may never feel it right to, say, kill an infidel, or deny homosexuals the right to marry or treat other people as property. But because they have been indoctrinated to accept the relative morality provided by their religion, they end up chucking objective morality right out the window.

Now this isn’t to say that all theists are bad people or incapable of making moral judgments. After all, just because a moral principle is relative doesn’t mean it is wrong. But it does mean that their sense of right and wrong is at the whim of their religious indoctrination and this is why a lot of otherwise good people can be convinced to do some very bad things (or, as Steven Weinberg once put it, “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” In other words, without a source of truly objective morals to rely on, theists can only do what they are told is right, regardless of whether it actually is right.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What Constitutes “Evidence” of God

A common refrain from atheists, especially when asked to explain why they don’t believe in God, is that there is just no evidence to support a rational belief in God. Not that there’s no proof, mind you, but no evidence. And this seems to cause quite a lot of consternation for many theists who like to think of themselves as rational and who are quite convinced that there is, in fact, plenty of evidence to support their quite rational belief in God.

[Now, granted, there are some theists who are perfectly willing to admit there is actually no evidence for the existence of God, but they don’t care since for them it’s all about faith. But that’s a topic for another day.]

So, how do we reconcile this conflict between the claims of evidence vs. the claims of no evidence? Surely it’s a binary proposition and there either is or there isn’t evidence for God’s existence, right? And therefore, one side must be right and the other side must be wrong, right?

Well, not quite. It all comes down to what somebody actually accepts as evidence in the first place, and this includes how one defines the term as well as how high or low you set the bar with your standard of evidence. It's probably better to say that atheists lack belief due to an absence of good evidence rather than an absence of any evidence, despite the fact that some atheists refuse to even concede this much and claim that any evidence that doesn't meet their standards doesn't even count as evidence in the first place.

Regardless of whether the issue is what constitutes “good” evidence or what can even be considered evidence in the first place, though, the underlying requirements are the same:
  • Good evidence is objective in the sense that it is or can be experienced by anybody equally, given the same circumstances. As such, personal spiritual experiences do not constitute good evidence since, by their very nature, they are personal and cannot be directly experienced by others.

  • Good evidence can be independently verified and replicated. As such, so-called “anecdotal evidence” such as stories of miraculous occurrences and third-hand accounts does not constitute good evidence since they can't be verified.

  • Good evidence provides affirmative support for a proposition and doesn't just attack supposed counter propositions. As such, any of the many supposedly logical arguments for the existence of God do not actually constitute good evidence for the existence of God insofar as they take the form of “Science doesn't have a comprehensive explanation for some phenomena (the origin of the universe, the origin of life on earth, the apparent design in nature, etc.) and therefore it's more likely that God did it.” For more on this point, see Lack of a Better Explanation Is Not Evidence for Your Explanation.
Again, some atheists will claim that any evidence that doesn't meet these criteria isn't “really” evidence at all. And some theists will claim that these criteria are arbitrary or unimportant and their “evidence” is just as valid. But the point of this post is to point out that when theists and atheists argue about evidence they may not actually be talking about the same thing.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Lack of a Better Explanation Is Not Evidence for Your Explanation

I have touched upon this in previous posts (see God of the Gaps and The Argument from Design, for example), but time and again we see theists offering as evidence (or even as “proof”) for the existence of a god of some sort the supposed fact that science is unable to explain something. Whether it be the origin of the universe itself, the origin of life on this planet, the apparent complexity of life, the existence of consciousness, or what have you, the argument is made over and over (and over) again that this supposed inability of science to explain something somehow “moves the needle toward,” “provides evidence of” or even “proves the existence of” some sort of creator or designer.

Now, aside from the fact that most people who make these sorts of assertions are typically ignorant as regard to what science actually says about the supposedly inexplicable mysteries and are instead just parroting talking points they have heard from other theists, the crucial point that gets ignored by these people is that the simple fact (if true) that science cannot currently explain something, whether it be the origin of the universe, the origin of life on earth, how consciousness works, or what have you, does not, by itself, in any way whatsoever “point to the existence of a creator,” since we have absolutely zero independent evidence whatsoever that a “creator” actually exists or even could exist.
Claiming that our inability to explain something is somehow evidence of some other explanation for which there is no independent evidence is the very definition of the Argument from ignorance fallacy. For example:
  • “I saw a shadowy figure out of the corner of my eye that science can’t explain — it must be a Ghost!” Wrong, unless you can first show that ghosts do, or at the very least possible can, exist. If you have no independent evidence for ghosts, there’s no way that ghosts can be the best (or even a possible) explanation.

  • “I saw a light in the sky moving in a manner that science can’t explain — it must be an alien spacecraft from another star system!” Wrong again, unless you can first show that aliens from other star systems are, or at the very least possible could be, visiting are planet. If you have no independent evidence that aliens from other star systems are visiting us, then there’s no way that aliens can be the best (or even a possible) explanation.

  • “Life originated on earth some 3.5 billion years ago and science can’t explain how it happened — it must be the result of God who created the universe!” Wrong, wrong, wrong, unless you can first show that such a creator does, or even possible could, exist in the first place. If you have no independent evidence for such a creator, there’s no way that a creator can be the best (or even a possible) explanation.

  • Etc., etc., etc.
To reiterate, lack of an explanation cannot, by itself, be evidence for some other explanation if that other explanation has no other evidence to support it.




On a related note, those who assert a god of some sort as the best explanation for something fail to understand that they are actually just offering a proposed answer to the problem and not actually an explanation. If “God did it,” how did He do it? Where did God come from? What is God made of, if not matter or energy? What does it actually mean to exist “outside of space and time”? What is it, exactly, about God that lets Him be the “Uncaused Cause” or “Prime Mover”?

No explanation. Just an assertion that leads to lots of additional unanswered questions.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sorry, Deists — Your God Doesn’t Exist Either

In most of my discussions about God and whether or not there is any good reason to believe God exists I have focused on the various concepts of God that people actually worship, since those concepts of God are described as having specific characteristics and as having done and promised to do specific things. As such, those concepts of God make testable claims that we should be able to verify and for which there should be an abundance of reliable and objective evidence, so the complete lack of reliable and objective evidence and the fact that the various claims can and have been proven to be false is, in itself, compelling evidence that those concepts of God do not, in fact, exist. See, for example, Absence of Evidence IS Evidence of Absence. 

With such a focus on evidence and counter-evidence, however, I have often more or less given a pass to the concept of the so-called “Deist” God. The Deist God is described as the Creator of the Universe (as with most theistic concepts of God), but with the qualification that this Creator simply set the universe in motion and then let it run on its own ever since with absolutely no further interference whatsoever. This means that the Deist God has never revealed itself to humanity in any way, does not perform miracles, does not provide moral guidance, does not promise salvation, etc. And the reason I have more or less given a pass to this concept of God is basically because it seems to be a wholly irrelevant concept. I have even gone so far as to say that, while I am an atheist with regard to standard concepts of God, I would consider myself to be agnostic with regard to the Deist God, since there’s neither evidence for nor evidence against a God who, by its very nature, does not interact with the universe in any way.

Well, that was then and this is now. After giving the matter a lot of thought, I’m finally ready to assert that I know that the Deist God does not exist to the same extent that I know that all other concepts of God do not exist (which is to say, as much as I can claim to know anything in life, including that I am a conscious being, that I only have one head on my shoulders, that the earth is round and rotates, etc.). Some of the reasons for why I know this are included in another recent post (No, I Don’t Need to Explore the Entire Universe to Be an Atheist), but I thought it would be helpful to put them all into a post of their own and expand a bit on my reasoning. And please keep in mind that the following is not offered as any sort of “proof” that the Deist God does not exist, but simply to explain why I can now feel confident that I know that it does not exist, to the same level of confidence that I claim to be able to know anything.

First of all, many modern Deists like to claim that Deism is wholly separate from the ancient superstitions that produced every other concept of God, whether it be the Sumerian gods, the ancient Greek and Roman gods, the Egyptian gods, the Norse gods, or even the God of the Bible. “Those gods are all based on ignorant superstition,” they like to say, “but our concept of God is derived from wholly logical and rational considerations of the universe.” Except, this claim is not actually supported by the history of modern Deism:
Deism gained prominence among intellectuals during the Age of Enlightenment, especially in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. Typically, these had been raised as Christians and believed in one God, but they had become disenchanted with organized religion and orthodox teachings such as the Trinity, Biblical inerrancy, and the supernatural interpretation of events, such as miracles.
In other words, Deism was clearly a response to the prevailing concepts of God that were rooted in ancient superstitions and not some sort of de novo theology that came up with the idea of God from first principles and careful consideration of the universe. Or, to put it yet another way, when Deists realized how untenable it was to assert belief in something for which there was no good evidence (and for which there was plenty of counter evidence), they decided to argue for an impersonal and undetectable creator God rather than abandoning their faith all together. As a result, if we can dismiss all the mainstream theist concepts of God as the product of ignorant superstitions, we can also dismiss the Deist God for exactly the same reason, despite all the pseudo-intellectual gloss that has been applied to the underlying concept over the years.

Second of all, since the Deist God — by definition — does not interact with the universe in any detectable way whatsoever, the only way in which Deists can claim to know that such a God exists in the first place is through various logical and philosophical arguments. And every single one of those arguments is flawed. Every single argument in favor of there being a Deist God is based in an Argument from Ignorance (or “God of the Gaps”) fallacy. Whether it be the so-called Teleological Argument (a.k.a. the Argument from Design), the Cosmological Argument, the Fine-Tuned Universe Argument, or what have you, they all basically claim that since we [supposedly] cannot explain some facet of the universe, the only possible explanation is a supernatural creator who exists outside of time and space and is somehow able to interact with matter and energy despite not being composed of either. Aside from the fact that we actually can now explain many of the things that used to be inexplicable (the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, for example, now perfectly explains the apparent design in the natural world), the lack of an explanation cannot, in itself, be evidence of some other explanation for which there is no independent evidence.

There have been many, many refutations of the various Deist arguments for the existence of God over the years, but here are some of my own personal attempts:
To quote the late, great Christopher Hitchens, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” Deists acknowledge that there neither is nor can there be any direct observable evidence for the existence of their God, and all of their philosophical arguments are based on flawed premises that by necessity lead to incorrect conclusions.

Finally, even if the Deist God weren’t rooted in the same ignorant superstitions as mainstream theist concepts of God, and even if the various Deist arguments weren’t fatally flawed, the Deist God requires a belief in a logically impossible “supernatural” being of some sort that somehow exists “outside of space and time” and that is made made of neither matter nor energy (yet is somehow able to interact with matter and energy at least with regard to creating both). Can I “prove” that nothing supernatural exists? No, but I assert that the term itself is meaningless (a “one word oxymoron” as some have been known to say) and therefore I know (again, to the same degree that I claim to know anything) that the Deist God does not and cannot possibly exist. For more on this, see:
Of course, your mileage may vary, but this is what I know to be true and why I feel confident saying that I know it to be true.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

No, I Don’t Need to Explore the Entire Universe to Be an Atheist

One odd question that occasionally gets asked by theists is how one can possibly be an atheist when science hasn’t yet (or can’t possibly have) explored the entire universe. The presumption being, apparently, that atheists shouldn’t be so confident that God doesn’t exist when there are distant parts of the universe where, what, God could be hiding? Well, let me just say this about that:

First of all, the majority of atheists don’t actually claim to know that God doesn’t exist, only that they don’t believe God exists. This lack of belief could be the result of never being exposed to or raised with a belief in the whole God concept in the first place, it could be a rejection of claims made by theists due to a lack of convincing evidence, or what have you. To be an atheist you don’t need to know or claim to know that God doesn’t exist, just not believe that God exists. But, hey — there are certainly some atheists who are confident enough to say that they have considered the evidence for God’s existence, as well as the evidence against his existence, and are as sure that God doesn’t exist as they are sure about anything else in life (e.g., that they are conscious, that the earth rotates and revolves around the sun, that they only have one head, etc.). I should know, since I am one of these atheists.

Second of all, even if you are only talking about atheists like me who claim to “know” that God doesn’t exist, the God we are talking about is the exact same God that all the various world religions talk about. You know, the God that actually is described in various holy scriptures, the God that supposedly performs miracles, the God that supposedly provides objective morality, the God that answers prayers, the God that rewards us for following his word and punishes us for not doing so, etc. In other words, the God that — regardless of your religion — actually manifests itself right here where we all happen to live in this incredibly vast, vast universe. Whether or not there is some being that could somehow be described as a “God” in some distant corner of the universe, perhaps even wholly outside the observable universe, that “God” could not possibly be the God that we are talking about here.

But what about the so-called “Deist” God that merely created the universe and then left it (and, by extension, us) to its own devices? Shouldn’t we hard-core atheists withhold judgment on that God since it actually might be hiding somewhere out there? And the answer is a resounding “no” for a number of reasons:
  • The “Deist” God has it’s origin in the same holy books and religious traditions as all the theist Gods. It’s just that, when Deists realized how untenable it was to assert belief in something for which there was no good evidence (and for which there was plenty of counter evidence), they decided to argue for an impersonal and undetectable creator God rather than abandoning their faith all together [“Deism gained prominence among intellectuals during the Age of Enlightenment, especially in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. Typically, these had been raised as Christians and believed in one God, but they had become disenchanted with organized religion and orthodox teachings such as the Trinity, Biblical inerrancy, and the supernatural interpretation of events, such as miracles.”].[1] Which is to say that if we can dismiss all the theist concepts of God as the product of ignorant superstitions, we can dismiss the Deist God for exactly the same reason, despite all the pseudo-intellectual gloss that has been applied to the underlying concept over the years.

  • Speaking of pseudo-intellectual gloss, every single argument in favor of there being a Deist God is based in an Argument from Ignorance (or “God of the Gaps”) fallacy. Whether it be the so-called Teleological Argument (a.k.a. the Argument from Design) argument, the Cosmological Argument, the Fine-Tuned Universe Argument, or what have you, they all basically claim that since we [supposedly] cannot explain some facet of the universe, the only possible explanation is a supernatural creator who exists outside of time and space and is somehow able to interact with matter and energy despite not being composed of either. Aside from the fact that we actually can now explain many of the things that used to be inexplicable (the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, for example, now perfectly explains the apparent design in the natural world), the lack of an explanation cannot, in itself, be evidence of some other explanation for which there is no evidence.

  • Aside from being wholly irrelevant and unnecessary, the Deist God is also, by definition, wholly incapable of being detected. Which is to say that, even if there were such a being, it wouldn’t matter if we did explore the entire universe since such a God would not be able to be found.


[1] Deism - Wikipedia

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Atheism and Evolution

As evidenced by probably half of the questions posed to atheists in various public forums, many theists seem to think that atheism and the theory of evolution (or “Darwinism” for those who want to imply that evolution is just some sort of cult of personality that atheists belong to based solely on faith) are inextricably linked. Apparently, either all atheists believe in evolution as their religion instead of believing in God, or else a belief in evolution is what caused people to become atheists in the first place.

In this post I want to try and unpack this a bit. First, to explain what atheism really means and what the real relationship between atheism and evolution is. And second, to try and understand why theists keep insisting on a relationship that isn’t there.

First, the facts:
  • Atheism is neither a belief system nor a community of like-minded individuals. There is no official atheist doctrine, there are no appointed atheist leaders, and there are no requirements to be an atheist other than simply not believing in God. Or gods.

  • Yes, many atheists accept the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, but not all do and you can certainly be an atheist and not accept it. Just like you can be an atheist and think the world is flat or that aliens are regularly abducting people or that world leaders are being replaced with lizard people. Being an atheist is not the same as being a scientist or a rationalist or a materialist — it simply means that you do not believe in God. Or gods.

  • And, while many atheists do accept the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, they do so for the same reason they accept, say, the theory of gravity. It’s a coherent, well-established theory that explains observed phenomena that has been supported by observable evidence and is backed up by numerous other fields of study. And, keep in mind, the “theory” of evolution is the current best explanation for the observed fact of evolution, just like the “theory” of gravity is the current best explanation for the the observed fact of gravity.

  • It’s important to note that many theists also accept the theory of evolution for the same reasons many atheists do. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most theists accept it (although some still want to include God as the ultimate driving force behind it). The whole denial of evolution thing is really just limited to a very small number of Christians and Muslims world-wide who take their scriptures extremely literally and feel threatened by anything that could be seen to contradict those scriptures in any way (more on this later).

  • Finally, while it’s certainly possible that some atheists lost their faith after learning the details of the theory of evolution (e.g., because their faith was based on an assumption that God was required as an explanation for why life on earth is the way it is), the vast majority of atheists were not looking for an explanation regarding the diversity of life on earth in the first place and didn’t choose to replace their religious beliefs with the “religion” of evolution. They simply lack a belief in God, whether because they were not raised to believe in God in the first place, because they were taught about God and found the notion to be rather silly, because they carefully considered the evidence for God’s existence and found it lacking, or any of a thousand other reasons.
Second, the theories:
  • As stated above, many (if not most) theists in the world have no trouble accepting the fact that all species — including man — have evolved over long periods of time to reach their current state. They do not take their scriptures to be 100% literally true and are fine with that, focusing instead on the principles and promises made in those scriptures. A small subset of theists, however, acknowledge the hypocrisy involved in only believing in part of holy scriptures and therefore take an “all or nothing” approach. And, since the holy scriptures clearly state that God created man in His own image and gave him dominion over all other creatures on earth, acknowledging the fact of evolution (and accepting the validity of the current theory of evolution by natural selection) would be to deny the validity of the scriptures and the very foundation of their faith.

  • These theists who take their scriptures literally know full well that most of what is written in those scriptures either cannot be verified by modern science or is directly contradicted by modern science, whether it be archaeology, geology, cosmology, anthropology, physics, chemistry, biology, or what have you. But the whole concept of evolution in particular bothers them, since it undermines the whole idea of humans being uniquely special creatures in God’s eyes. OK, so maybe the world wasn’t really created 6000 years ago and maybe Noah didn’t really have an ark full of animals and maybe Moses didn’t really part the Red Sea, but we sure as heck didn’t come from monkeys!

  • As a result, for those theists who take their scriptures literally and whose world view revolves around the notion that humans are special, it is only natural to assume that everybody else’s world view revolves around the fundamental question of how humanity got here and what is humanity’s relationship with the rest of the universe. Thus, since their worldview revolves around “God did it,” atheists must have a worldview that revolves around “God didn’t do it.” And, since a belief that “god didn’t do it” requires some alternate explanation, that explanation must be “Evolution”.

  • So, in the eyes of these theists, it is incomprehensible that somebody could simply not believe in God (especially their God) without having an alternative belief system in place. And, since these theists acknowledge (whether explicitly or implicitly) that their belief system is fundamentally based on faith (belief without evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary) and a reliance on the testimony (anecdotal stories) of others, they assume that atheist must also base their belief system on faith and testimony.

  • This false equivalence leads to two separate phenomena. First, there is an ongoing attempt to argue that atheism is no better than theism since both “isms” are equally reliant on “faith” and “testimony” and therefore atheists have no right to feel at all superior to theists (and theists are perfectly justified for not feeling at all inferior). Second, there is an ongoing attempt to undermine the theory of evolution in the mistaken belief that doing so will somehow convince atheists that the explanation for how humanity got here must actually be “God did it” after all.

For more of my musings on the subject of evolution and religion, please see the following:

Accepting Evolution
The “Theory” of Evolution
Evolution and Why Labels Don’t Matter
Another Evolution Analogy
 
For more discussion of what, exactly, it means to be an atheist, please see the following:

What is an Atheist?
No, Atheism Is Not a Belief System
Why “I Don’t Believe God Exists” Really Is the Same as “I Believe God Doesn’t Exist”

No, Atheism Is Not a Belief System

One common claim that some theists like to make is that atheism is some sort of “belief system,” presumably to compare it to their own belief system and to imply that both systems are therefore equally valid. Atheists usually respond by saying this is ridiculous since atheism is a lack of belief and therefore cannot possibly be a belief anything, let alone a belief system. Now, it’s certainly true that calling atheism a belief system is ridiculous, but the reason is slightly more nuanced than simply “a lack of belief can’t be a belief system.”

As mentioned above, most atheists like to claim that atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in God, while many theists like to claim that it’s actually an affirmative belief that God doesn’t exist. And, depending on the atheist, there’s actually some truth to both views, as I discuss here:


and here:


Which is to say that, no matter how much some atheists want to deny it, there are atheists who strongly believe that God doesn’t exist to the point where they are willing to claim that they know — as surely as they know anything — that God doesn’t exist.

However.

HOWEVER!

Whether an atheist lacks a belief in God or whether they believe God does not exist, there is no way at all that this represents any sort of “belief system” whatsoever. There is simply no system involved, and it does not make up any sort of worldview.

Theists tend to have a belief in God as their foundational worldview, the lens through which they view all of life. Where did we come from? From God. Why are we here? God put us here to worship Him. Where are we going after this life? It depends on whether we obey God’s will or not. Where did the universe come from? God did it. Why is there suffering in the world? God has His reasons. Why is nature so amazingly beautiful? Thank God (“How Great Thou Art”)!

As a result, theists naturally assume that atheists must also have some sort of foundational worldview, some sort of lens through which we view all of life. And, since their worldview is based on a belief that God exists, our worldview must be based on a belief that God does not exist.

Except, this just is not the case.

If you ask atheists where did humans come from, they may have an answer based in current scientific theories or they may have no answer at all, but they won’t just say, “We didn’t come from God” as if that explained anything.

If you ask an atheist why we are here on earth, they may or may not have an answer, but they won’t just say, “we weren’t put here by God” as if that explained anything.

If you ask atheists what happens after death, they may or may not have an answer, but they won’t just say, “it depends on whether we disbelieved in God” as if that explained anything.

If you ask atheists where the universe came from, they may or may not have an answer, but they won’t just say, “God didn’t do it” as if that explained anything.

If you ask atheists why there is suffering in the world, they may or may not have an answer, but they won’t just say, “because God doesn’t exist” as if that explained anything.

And if you ask atheists why nature is so amazingly beautiful, once again they may or may not have an answer, but they won’t just say “God didn’t do it” as if that explained anything.

What is an Atheist?

Time and again there seem to be disagreements as to what, exactly, it means to be an atheist. Most atheists usually want to define atheism as nothing more than a lack of belief in any sort of god, while many theists want to define it as an affirmative belief that no gods exist or even some sort of assertion that no gods exist.

Often, the way somebody defines atheism depends on the particular agenda that person has when defining the term. Theists, for example, may be trying to rebut the assertion by many atheists that theists are irrational for believing in something without evidence by claiming that atheists also “believe” in something (i.e., the nonexistence of God) without evidence. Atheists, on the other hand, may be trying to completely avoid providing any justification for why they don’t believe in God.

The minimum requirement to be an atheist, however, really is just to lack a belief in any sort of god or gods or God. Which is to say that, to be an atheist, you don’t need to hold any affirmative beliefs or make any additional claims with regard to God or gods. Now, from a practical standpoint, as I discuss at Why “I Don’t Believe God Exists” Really Is the Same as “I Believe God Doesn’t Exist”, most atheists who engage with theists here on Quora in order to rebut supposed “proofs” of God’s existence do hold an affirmative belief in the non-existence of God instead of just merely “lacking a belief” in God. But such an affirmative belief is not required to be an atheist.

So, what is an atheist? An atheist is any of the following:
  • Somebody who simply lacks a belief in any sort of god whatsoever is an atheist.

  • Somebody who affirmatively believes there is no sort of god whatsoever is an atheist.

  • Somebody who lacks a belief in any sort of god whatsoever, but is willing to admit there’s no way to know for sure whether or not any gods actually exist, is an atheist.

  • Somebody who affirmatively believes there is no sort of god whatsoever, but is willing to admit there’s no way to know for sure whether or not any gods actually exist, is an atheist.

  • Somebody who lacks a belief in any sort of god whatsoever and also believes that, if any gods actually did exist, there would actually be a way to know for sure that they did, is an atheist.

  • Somebody who affirmatively believes there is no sort of god whatsoever and also believes that, if any gods actually did exist, there would actually be a way to know for sure that they did, is an atheist.

  • Somebody who believes so strongly that none of the traditional gods worshiped by major world religions exist that he feels it is something he knows as much as he can know anything, but is willing to admit that there could possibly be some sort of totally useless “Deist” god that started the universe rolling and then completely failed to interact with the universe since then, is an atheist.

  • Somebody who thinks the whole “Deist” god idea is just as unsupported by evidence as any other concept of God and believes so strongly that there is no sort of god whatsoever that he feels it is something he knows as much as he can know anything, is an atheist.

  • And, finally, somebody who just really doesn’t think anything about God or gods one way or another, who neither believes nor disbelieves and honestly just doesn’t care one way or another, is an atheist. It’s like asking people whether they think stamp collecting is the best hobby or not, and for some people it just isn’t a meaningful question since they have never actually spent any time thinking about stamps whatsoever.
Or, to put it another way, a theist is somebody who believes in a god of some sort. If that description does not apply to you, regardless of what you may or may not believe, you are an atheist. Period.

The Note Paper of Barry

  1. Behold, this is the Note Paper of Barry.
  2. For verily, it was written by Barry.
  3. Now, I say unto you that Barry is all-powerful, all-knowing and utterly infallible.
  4. Yea, and everything written by Him is completely true.
  5. "But," the fool might ask in his heart, "how can I know that Barry is all-powerful, all-knowing and utterly infallible"?
  6. Behold! This Note Paper says He is, and everything written on this Note Paper is completely true.
  7. "But," the unwise might ask in his heart, "how can I know that everything written on this Note Paper is completely true"?
  8. Verily, I say unto you, this Note Paper was written by Barry, who is all-powerful, all-knowing and utterly infallible.

[Just in case anybody doesn’t get the joke, some Christians claim that the Bible is the infallible, perfect word of God, which we can know is true because it says so right there in the Bible. Oh — and we know that God is infallible and incapable of lying because it says that in the Bible as well. So if we know the Bible is true because it is the word of God, and we know it is the word of God because the Bible says it is…]

The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

I have previously discussed some of the classic arguments offered to “prove” the existence of God, including The Argument from Design, The Cosmological Argument, The Fine Tuned Universe and Pascal’s Wager, so I figured I should briefly touch on the so-called “Ontological” argument for the sake of completeness. I have avoided talking about this argument in the past because (a) as originally formulated the argument seems so laughably inadequate that it really doesn’t bear much discussion and (b) modern formulations of the argument add so much jargon and technical word-play that it can be very difficult to even understand what the argument actually is by the time you finish reading it. I will admit, however, that the original ontological argument was seen as significant enough in the past that numerous famous philosophers such as Kant, Hume and even Saint Thomas Aquinas took the time to object to it, so perhaps it’s not as laughably inadequate as it appears to me.
As originally formulated by theologian and philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), the ontological argument is as follows:
  1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
  4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
  6. Therefore, God exists.
He later restated this same argument slightly differently:
  1. By definition, God is a being than which none greater can be imagined.
  2. A being that necessarily exists in reality is greater than a being that does not necessarily exist.
  3. Thus, by definition, if God exists as an idea in the mind but does not necessarily exist in reality, then we can imagine something that is greater than God.
  4. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God.
  5. Thus, if God exists in the mind as an idea, then God necessarily exists in reality.
  6. God exists in the mind as an idea.
  7. Therefore, God necessarily exists in reality.
As we all know (or should know by now) an argument is only as good as its premises, and a perfectly valid argument can be completely unsound if the premises are not actually true.

The first premise of the ontological argument is that, by definition, God is the greatest possible being that can be imagined. This sinks the entire argument right from the start, since it is defining God as “the greatest possible thing that can be imagined” without actually providing any empirical evidence that this is the case. It is also setting up a wholly circular argument by arbitrarily defining God as a being that embodies the very characteristic that will later be used to prove His existence. You might as well define “unicorns” as “the beings responsible for the color blue” and then claim that the existence of the color blue is therefore proof that unicorns exist. This is simply defining God into existence, since we don’t actually know what God is like even if He were to exist and it basically amounts to an argument that states, “God, by definition, exists; therefore He exists.”

The second premise that a being that exists (or “necessarily exists,” if you prefer) is more perfect than one that doesn’t exist is yet another assertion without any evidence to support it. How does one even define “perfect” in the first place? If I want to go all Platonic, should I start claiming that the “perfect” concept of a chair, to which all actual chairs are merely compared to in our mind, must somehow actually exist somewhere or else it can’t actually be “perfect”? Of course not. “Perfection” is, in many cases, an ideal that does not actually exist and there is no requirement to think that something must exist in order to be considered perfect. Just asserting that something that exists is “more perfect” than something that is only a concept doesn’t make it so.

Aside from the fact that this entire argument is nothing more than an attempt to define God into existence, however, this argument suffers from the same problem as many of the other arguments I mentioned above. To wit, at most all these arguments can possibly prove is that some sort of supreme being exists and not the actual “God” that is actually worshiped by those who would use these argument to prove their God’s existence. The God supposedly proved by these arguments is not the God that answers prayers, performs miracles, provides revelation, rewards the faithful, punishes sinners, gives us a set of objective morals, tells us the way to live our lives, etc. It is a nebulous description of God that could apply equally to the God worshiped by any religion, and therefore cannot be used to prove the existence of the God worshiped by any specific religion. It’s the ultimate bait and switch.

Which is Easier to Believe, that Life Was created by God or by Chance?

OK, this question gets asked a lot by theists in a lot of different ways. At its core, it’s simply a form of the classic “Argument from Design” that I addressed here:


But let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective, shall we?

Time and again, we see theists claiming that it is just too improbable or inconceivable to imagine that life could have originated “by chance” and therefore the most reasonable explanation is that it was created by the omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving and perfect God described by the particular religion of which they happen to be a member.

Unfortunately for theists, the life we see on earth is far from what we would actually expect to see if it were actually created by an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving and perfect God, the way we would expect to see a finely crafted watch from a master watchmaker. Instead of perfection and fine craftsmanship, we see eyes that have blind spots, vestigial organs that occasionally burst open and kill us, cells that periodically start reproducing uncontrollably (cancer), a propensity for genetic flaws that cause all sorts of diseases such as Downs Syndrome and Tay-Sachs disease, a whole system that gradually breaks down as you get older, etc., etc., etc. So much for “fine craftsmanship,” eh?

And that’s just the human condition! Sure, it’s pretty amazing that plants and animals so closely depend on each other for survival and it’s so cool that bees are attracted to beautiful flowers who need the bees to spread their pollen. What a great design! How perfect! But then you also have the fact that there are parasites that have to lay their eggs in living hosts so their larva can hatch and eat their way out to survive. Not quite so beautiful and perfect. And then there’s the whole predator/pray relationship where some animals have to brutally kill other animals to survive (and the prey animals have to be brutally killed in order to not overpopulate and starve to death). And don’t forget that the rest of the animal kingdom also gets nasty diseases and suffer accidents and experience pain and agony. Oh, look — A Tasmanian Devil with face cancer:

[Where’s the perfect design in all of that?]

As a result, theists find themselves in the position of coming up with a whole bunch of additional justifications and rationalizations as to why life is so flawed when it was supposedly created by a perfect being, including one or more of the following:
  • All of nature used to be perfect before Adam sinned and caused the entire universe to enter a fallen state. Which means, what, God is a sadistic bastard who set up a system whereby ALL OF NATURE would need to suffer for the sins of one person instead of just punishing that one person?
  • God specifically gave us these flawed bodies to provide us with obstacles in life to be overcome or to test our faith or some other reason known only to him because he works in mysterious ways. And I guess all those cute, furry animals that die horrible agonizing deaths also have important lessons to learn as well, huh?
  • It doesn’t matter whether life is flawed right now, since life is but a twinkling of an eye compared to all eternity and we’ll all have perfect bodies in the next life.
  • “You are assuming the human body can be better designed under these circumstances. Maybe it can’t. You are also assuming it is not a work in progress. You can probably imagine the first watches were not fine tuned machines.” [An actual response I received from a theist, who apparently thinks an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving and perfect being needs theists like him to make excuses for His shoddy workmanship and who doesn’t understand what “omnipotent” actually means.]
It doesn’t matter what your personal favorite justification is. The point is that, despite what theists claim, the evidence of our senses does not automatically give us reason to believe in the sort of God that most theists claim to believe in (omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving and perfect) and theists MUST tack on other conditions for which there is no evidence.

Naturalism (or “atheism”, if you insist), on the other hand, requires no such additional caveats and conditions and justifications to be believable. We know from observation that there are natural laws that govern how the universe works. And, although we may not have perfect knowledge of every natural law, there is no reason not to believe that those laws can explain every single observed phenomenon, including the origin of life itself.

So, which is easier to believe? That the natural world evolved to be the way it is — warts and all — due to purely the natural processes that govern the universe, or that the natural world was designed by an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving and perfect God who, for some reason we can’t quite figure out, decided to make the world look as if it had evolved to be the way it is — warts and all — due to purely the natural processes that govern the universe? My money is on the former.



One final thought. To many theists, there are only two options — either life was created “by God” or else it happened “by chance.” And “by chance” apparently means completely randomly, entirely by coincidence, etc. This is a false dichotomy, however. “By chance” in this context simply means without being directed by any sort of intelligence, yet still according to natural laws that guide and constrain the outcome.

Is God’s Will Simple to Understand?


[Recently, on a forum I frequent, somebody asked, "Would God require scholars and complicated texts to understand him, or is his will so simple anyone can understand?" Most of the answers I read seemed to assume that the person asking the question was specifically referring to the Christian God, and they all talked about how it was very simple indeed to know God’s will and proceeded to provide the key Biblical scriptures that one needs to read in order to understand God’s will (ironically, each answer quoted different scriptures).

Anyway, rather than assuming which God the OP was asking about, I thought I’d give a slightly broader, more nuanced, response. In my own inimitable style, of course…]

Of course God’s will is simple to understand! After all, He loves all of us and really wants us all to know His will so we can return to Heaven and worship Him for all eternity, right? What sort of monster would require us to know His will in order to avoid eternal torment and then not make it simple to understand His will?
Anyway, here are the six easy steps to know God’s will in all things:
  1. First of all, you just need to decide which of all the many gods worshiped throughout human history is the one true God in the first place. Zeus? Odin? Amun-Ra? Marduk? Quetzalcoatl? Ba’al? Amaterasu-Ōmikami? Tāne? Vishnu? Ahura Mazda? Jehovah (a.k.a. Allah)? Each God has different attributes and offers a different path to salvation (not to mention has different holy books written about Him/Her/It), so it’s vitally important you select the right one. OK, so it’s probably not one of the Gods worshiped by ancient civilizations*, but at the very least you will need to pick between the God of the so-called “Abrahamic” religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the God of Hinduism, the God of Zoroastrianism, the God of Sikhism, etc. Still, it’s probably whichever God your parents just so happen to believe in**, so that’s easy enough.

    * We all know what a bunch of ignorant and superstitious people those ancients all were, am I right?

    ** What an amazing coincidence!

  2. Then, once you've figured out which is the one true God, decide which of the various religions worshiping that God is the one true faith in that God. If you’ve opted for, say, Jehovah/Allah, then you would simply need to decide whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam is the one true faith. Each main religion has very different ideas of what their chosen God wants us to do, so once again it’s vitally important to pick the right religion. After all, what if you pick Judaism and it turns out that the bit about Christ was true after all? Or what if you pick Christianity and it turns out that Muhammad actually was God’s final prophet? What if you dutifully pray toward Mecca five times each day and it turns out that God really wanted you to observe the Sabbath once a week instead? Again, though, it’s probably whichever God your parents happened to believe in, right? Lucky you for being born into the right family and the right culture and the right country, eh? Pity about everybody else who wasn’t so lucky, but what can you do?

  3. Next, once you’ve figured out which is the correct religion, decide which of the many, many denominations of that religion is the correct one. If, say, you picked Christianity as the one true faith, just figure whether the correct denomination is Catholics, Episcopalians, Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormonism), Baptists, Born Again Christians, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Shakers, Quakers, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Church of Christ, etc. Keep in mind that each denomination interprets the holy scriptures in a different way, and one denomination’s “salvation comes by grace alone” is another denomination’s “faith without works is dead.” A little harder here, since people do tend to convert from one denomination to another and you may not be able to rely on the denomination your parents belonged to. But, still — it can’t be that hard to know which one is the right one, can it? No pressure, though — it’s not like the fate of your everlasting soul depends on it or anything*.

    * Oh, wait…

  4. OK, now that you’ve figured out which is the correct denomination of the correct religion of the correct God, you may also need to decide which particular sect of that denomination really knows what God’s will is. For example, if you selected Baptist as the correct denomination of the correct religion of the correct God, you will now have to decide whether the correct sect is Southern Baptist Convention, National Baptist Convention, Nigerian Baptist Convention, National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, National Baptist Convention of America, Baptist Union of Uganda, Baptist Community of Western Congo, Baptist General Convention of Texas, Baptist Convention of Tanzania, Brazilian Baptist Convention, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Baptist Bible Fellowship International, American Baptist Churches, Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, Baptist Community of the Congo River, National Primitive Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Myanmar Baptist Convention, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Baptist General Association of Virginia, Baptist Convention of Kenya, Council of Baptist Churches in Northeast India, Nagaland Baptist Church Council, Korea Baptist Convention, Samavesam of Telugu Baptist Churches, Orissa Evangelical Baptist Crusade, National Baptist Convention (Brazil), Church of Christ in Congo–Baptist Community of Congo, Baptist Convention of Malawi, Garo Baptist Convention, Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches, Ghana Baptist Convention, Union of Baptist Churches in Rwanda, American Baptist Association, Baptist Missionary Association of America, Conservative Baptist Association of America, National Association of Free Will Baptists, Convention of Visayas and Mindanao of Southern Baptist Churches, Manipur Baptist Convention or Baptist Community in Central Africa. Again, each sect is bound to interpret the main doctrine of the denomination in a different way unique to their own culture. I know this sounds daunting, but I’m sure if you pray to God and ask Him (or Her or It), She/He/It will be happy to let you know. Just make sure you pray sincerely (just like everybody else) and I’m sure God won’t steer you wrong*.

    * Just because God apparently steered wrong everybody who picked a different sect than you doesn’t mean He would ever steer you wrong. After all — you’re special! Billions and billions and billions of people on the earth since the beginning of time and all desperately hoping to know what God’s will really is. But they weren’t all special like you are, so it’s OK.

  5. Now that you’ve selected the correct sect of the correct denomination of the correct religion of the correct God, go pick the congregation you think has the most knowledgeable preachers and teachers. After all, the Southern Baptist church down the street may be full of budding heathens and atheists or just ignorant folks who don’t really understand the word of God. At this point, you’re almost there, so you can be sure that God wouldn’t steer you toward the wrong congregation. Just go with whichever one makes you feel the most comfortable and be assured that God has directed you (and you alone, among all the billions of his children, because you are just so danged special*) to the right place.

    * Did I mention just how very special and lucky you are? I mean, just think of the odds! Seriously, you should go out and play the lottery right now.

  6. Finally, once you’ve selected the right congregation of the right sect of the right denomination of the right religion of the right God, all you need to do now is figure out which of the many preachers and teachers within that congregation actually understands what the holy book of that religion actually means. Sadly, each individual preacher or teacher will likely have their own interpretation, so it’s vitally important that you only listen to the one who has it 100% right. Should you shun homosexuals or welcome them? Should you donate money to homeless people or is that just encouraging bad habits? Do women really need to be subject to their husbands’ will or not? Is it enough to just accept Jesus into your heart, or do you actually need to do good deeds and repent for your sins? Is it really harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, or is that just a metaphor? Does “turn the other cheek” mean you can’t own a gun for self-defense? Did God really just promise to “answer prayers” (and sometimes the answer is “no”) or did he actually promise to give “whatsoever we ask for in faith”? Is lusting after a woman in your heart really the same as committing adultery, or was Jesus just being metaphorical again? What’s the best way to “love thy neighbor as thyself” while still preventing transgender people from using the bathroom they feel most comfortable in? Is it OK to vote for somebody who claims to share your values if he talks about sexually assaulting women, mocks disabled people and lies all the time? What, actually, would Jesus do? And so on and so forth.
See? Easy as pie!

Doesn’t the Beauty and Majesty of the Natural World Prove that God Exists?


A question that gets frequently asked of atheists is how we can possibly look at all the wonders of the natural world and not believe in God? Now, sure, this is partially just a restatement of the classic “Argument from Design” (which I cover in detail here), and it also involves a fair amount of arguing from ignorance or incredulity (“I can’t personally imagine how such a thing is possible without God, therefore it must not be possible”). But I think it actually goes a little deeper than that.

After all, once upon a time, we really did have no idea what caused sunsets, how mountains formed, how rock structures came to looked like they were carved into interesting shapes, etc., so it only made sense to think that such things were specifically created for our benefit. But now we obviously are able to explain how all these things are caused by purely natural forces and principles, so this question can’t just be due to sheer ignorance of how the natural world works. There must be more to it than that.

But hey — maybe all this means is that God created all the natural laws in the first place and therefore is ultimately responsible for it turning out the way it has. Sure, God didn’t personally sculpt the amazing rock formations seen in Utah’s Zion National Park or the Grand Canyon, but can’t we still give Him the credit for creating the rocks and wind and water and setting up a natural system whereby rocks can be eroded by wind and water? And sure, maybe God doesn’t personally paint every single beautiful sunset by hand, but we can still praise Him for creating the water cycles that causes clouds to form and making it so that sunlight refracts when it strikes water droplets, etc., right? And, OK, so maybe God didn’t personally cause those majestic mountains to rise out of the crust and get covered with snow, but we can still worship Him for coming up with the idea of plate tectonics and snow in the first place, right? After all, God created the entire universe from scratch, and therefore every beautiful and awesome and great thing we see in that universe must therefore be the result of God’s will, right?

So, maybe the argument is not simply about how could all these things exist without God but instead why would they all be so majestic and beautiful and awe-inspiring without God. Surely God must have set things up so that the end results would be so amazing, right?

OK, let’s play that game. The natural world is full of amazing, beautiful, wonderful and awe-inspiring things that prove that God exists and loves us enough to share all this beauty with us. Gotcha. Now let’s take a look at all the things in the natural world that aren’t so great shall we? Let’s look at the volcanic eruptions instead of just looking at the majestic mountains. Let’s look at the vast dust storms instead of just looking at the pretty sunsets. Let’s look at the floods and earthquakes and droughts and lightning strikes and tornadoes and hurricanes and tsunamis instead of just looking at the amazing rock formations. And then go look at the children dying of genetic diseases and the ugliness of things like Ebola and smallpox and parasitic infections and flesh-eating bacteria. Care to look at some picture of people with half of their face eaten off? Seriously — go ahead and do a Google image search for flesh-eating bacteria. It’s OK, I’ll wait for you to finish vomiting at the sight and come back here.
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Still with me? Wonderful. Now, after looking at all that ugliness in the world, you go ahead and tell me that it’s all a testament to just how depraved and sadistic and cruel God is, since He created the universe from scratch and therefore every horrible and ugly and terrible thing we see in that universe must also be the result of God’s will.
  • No, you can’t claim that the ugliness is just random stuff not under God’s direct control or all the work of Satan.
  • No, you can’t claim that all the bad stuff is the result of man’s exercise of free will, since I didn’t even mention anything related to man’s inhumanity to man.
  • No, you can’t claim that Adam and Eve sinned and somehow caused the entire universe to enter a “fallen” state since (a) that would mean that a supposedly loving God decided to punish the entire universe for the sins of two people and (b) it would also negate all the previously “great” things that you previously gave God credit for. I mean, seriously — either the world is full of ugliness because it is in a fallen state or else it is full of beauty and greatness because of God. You can’t have it both ways.
So, please. Go ahead. You admit that all the ugliness in the world is evidence that God is a sadistic bastard (or, perhaps doesn’t exist at all), and I’ll admit that the beauty in the natural world is evidence that He does exist and loves us so much that He wants to share His glory with us. You don’t get to just look at the good and ignore the bad and claim that it somehow proves something.

Having said all that, let me just make it clear that I do think there are many beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring sights in the natural world, both here on earth and out in the rest of the known universe. And no, I don’t think the entire universe is a dark and depressing place just because there are also many ugly, hideous and scary things as well. I take the good with the bad and understand that this is what happens when you have a universe that operates on impersonal natural principles and that wasn’t designed specifically for our benefit.

No, All Theists Do Not Worship the Same God


Despite the fact that there are many thousands of different religions and sects within those religions, each with their own unique take on what, exactly, “God” is and how He acts (or what, exactly, “gods” are and how they act, for the various polytheistic religions out there), time and again I keep seeing people claim that “it’s all the same God” or that “all theists worship the same God, even if they call Him by a different name.”

Now, growing up as a Christian (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder-day Saints) and being taught that the Bible was literally true, this claim was pretty much required in order for the religion as a whole to make any sort of sense. After all, the Bible clearly talks about one God who create the Earth and everything else, so there can’t possibly be any other gods out there. And, since the Biblical timeline is supposed to trace back to the beginning of human civilization, the only choice is to assume that every other ancient religion (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sumerian, etc.) was actually somehow a corruption of this original true faith in the one God of the Bible. Historical and archaeological evidence to the contrary be damned, that’s our story and we’re sticking with it, since to do otherwise would be to admit that other civilizations talked about completely different “gods” long before the events in the Old Testament (including the creation of the world) ever took place. OK, so while this view is not actually supportable by evidence, I can understand why people would cling to it.

A completely different claim, however, is often made that the three so-called “Abrahamic” religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) all worship the same God, despite the fact that most of the actual devout members of each of those three religions would probably not agree with this claim. All three religions, the argument goes, all have their roots in the Old Testament, each one building upon that basic concept of God and therefore all actually worshiping the same God when you get right down to it. In fact, it is often said, the word “Allah” in Arabic simply means “the God” and this is a reference to the God described in the Bible.

Except… this really doesn’t make much sense. Just because all three religions have a concept of God that can be traced to the same root, the interpretations and extra information added on by each religion is so great as to render the resulting concept of God wholly unrecognizable from one religion to the next. Yes, both Christians and Muslims claim to worship the God described in the Old Testament, but they have changed the core definition of that God so much as to produce an entirely different concept of God.

One big is example is the core Christian concept that Jesus Christ is divine (i.e., that Jesus is, in essense, an aspect of God). You can’t have Christianity without Christ, and the fact of Jesus’s atoning sacrifice is what evidences the divine mercy that is an essential part of God’s very nature. Jews, however, will absolutely not accept that Jesus was the literal son of God, let alone that he is actually an intrinsic part of God. The Jewish concept of God simply will not allow God to have a human component, and the idea of an atoning sacrifice to provide salvation to humanity is a foreign concept. As soon as Christians took the Jewish notion of God and added Jesus to that notion, it ceased to be the same God. Similarly, the fact that Muslims do not accept Jesus as divine (“just” another prophet) means that they do not actually worship the same concept or description of God, regardless if they claim that their belief derives from Biblical sources.

[Thought experiment: Take a 2010 Honda Civic coupe. Chop the frame and add some steel to lengthen it. Hack at the body and rework the pillars until you can fit two more doors so it’s now a sedan. Remove the 4-cylinder naturally aspirated gasoline engine and replace it a 6-cylnider supercharged diesel engine. Convert it to all-wheel drive. And then remove all the badges and replace them with ones that say “Smith Motors.” Now, take this car and put it side-by-side with a brand new 2017 Honda Civic Coupe and try to justify claiming that they are basically the same car. Sure, they can both trace their roots to the same original model and style of car, but are they really still the same?]

So, then, why do people keep insisting that all Abrahamic faiths do, in fact, worship the same God? Well, some of these folks are legitimate scholars of comparative religions and are merely pointing out the historical fact that each later religion claimed to be based on the previous ones. But that’s not really the same thing as “worshiping the same God,” though, is it? Or that each religion has the same understanding of God’s essential nature? As far as I can tell, the answer is no, and that’s because legitimate religious scholars (many of whom aren’t even religious themselves) often don’t have an agenda or an axe to grind.

In my experience, however, there is another group of people who make the claim that all Abrahamic faiths worship the same God, however. These are not serious, impartial religious scholars, but instead appear to be deeply religious individuals, usually of the Christian or Islamic persuasion. And their assertion that all Abrahamic faiths worship the same God seems to be a direct response to the issue raised time and again by atheists that, since there are so many different Gods worshiped by so many different religions, the likelihood of any one God being the true God is not very high. “It doesn’t matter that there are so many different religions,” they will claim, “since they all basically worship the same God.” And this appears to be nothing more than an attempt to perpetuate the false “theist vs. atheist” dichotomy I explored in a previous post:


As long as these believers can argue that all theists are somehow presenting a unified front when it comes to a belief in God, they can ignore the vast differences among the various religious beliefs and avoid needing to justify why their particular God concept is the only one worth talking about or needing to defend their beliefs against, not just atheists, but every other belief system that contradicts theirs.

The issue Isn’t “Theists vs. Atheists” but “Theists vs. Everybody Else”

In just about every debate regarding the existence of God, the opposing sides are usually theists (those who believe in God) and atheists (those who do not believe in God). Similarly, here on Quora, theists of all stripes typically post questions directed at “atheists” (or “agnostics,” under the mistaken belief, apparently, that an atheist is somebody who claims to know that God doesn’t exist while an agnostic merely is unsure). As a result, the issue in question is usually framed in terms of “There is a God” (or, perhaps, “It is rational to believe in God”) vs. “There is no God” (or, perhaps, “It is not rational to believe in God”).

However, this presumption that the issue is always (or even primarily) between theists and atheists involve a massive amount of hubris on the part of the theists. It requires the theist to assume as an absolute given that their particular concept of God, among all the many thousands of concepts of God throughout all of human history (including the many thousands of concepts of God held by religious people of all stripes in the world today) is the only concept of God worth discussing. When a Christian asks a question about why atheists don’t believe in “God,” or when a Muslim or a Hindu sets out to prove the existence of “God,” they don’t even bother to define the properties of the God they are discussing. For that matter, when a Baptist or a Born Again Christian or a Catholic or member of any other Christian denomination sets out to prove the existence of “God,” they never ever acknowledge that their understanding of God may be unique to their particular denomination of Christianity, let alone to Christianity in general. It’s always, “I know that [my] God exists, why can’t you atheists agree with me?”

This is, of course, why many atheists respond to questions posted by theists by first asking, “Which God?” And this seems to annoy many theists, who just can't seem to grasp the idea that there are billions of other people who have a different understanding of God (or gods) and who are just as sincere in their beliefs. “Obviously,” these theists seem to be saying, “all of those beliefs are just ignorant superstitions. We’re talking about my God who, unique in all of human history, just happens to be real.” Did I mention the hubris involved in such an assumption? Devout Christians are just as convinced that their concept of God is the right one, as devout Jews are convinced that their concept of God is the right one, as devout Muslims are convinced that their concept of God is the right one, as devout Hindus are convinced that their concept of God is the right one, as devout Zoroastrians are convinced that their concept of God is the right one, etc., and within each major religion the numerous sects are all equally convinced that their concept of God is the right one and that everybody else has got it wrong.

So, yes, it would be nice if theists would specify exactly what sort of “God” they are talking about when asking questions or attempting to make arguments about “God” instead of just assuming that (a) everybody knows what their concept of God is and (b) their concept of God is the only one worth discussing. And then, rather than framing the debate as a discussion as to whether “there is a God” (the theist side) or “there isn’t a God” (the atheist side), the theists should be forced to acknowledge that what they are really arguing for is the proposition, “My personal concept of God is the correct one and every other concept of God ever held throughout the entire history of humanity, including the belief that there is no God, is wrong.” And then they should be forced to defend that proposition instead of just using the same tired “logical” arguments to “prove” the existence of some sort of nebulous “creator” that applies equally well to most of the concepts of God worshiped by various religions.

Is America a Christian Nation Founded on Judaeo-Christian Values?


Time and again, when ostensibly devout Christians here in America want to exercise their right to discriminate against those who do not share their beliefs, they trot out the well-worn nostrum that “America is a Christian nation” or “America was founded on Judaeo-Christian values” as a justification. This “foundation on Judaeo-Christian values” bit is so important, in fact, that some people even think its appropriate to put large stone monuments commemorating the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

But was America or its laws actually founded on Judaeo-Christian values (to the exclusion, presumably, of all other values)?

Well, to start with, we have the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states in part:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…
So, given the fact that the founders certainly could have specifically stated that America was a Christian nation founded on Judaeo-Christian values and instead chose to state that would be no official state religion, it certainly seems as though the founders at least didn’t think that their new country was a Christian nation founded on Judaeo-Christian values. But maybe that was just an oversight on their part.

Well, what about Article Six of the very same Constitution, which states in part:
[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Again, the founders could have stated that only good, God-fearing Christians would be eligible to serve in public office, but instead chose to say that it essentially didn’t matter what religion (if any) somebody belonged to. Still, maybe they just assumed that all Americans would be Christians and this was to prevent bickering between, say, Catholics and Protestants. Hey — it’s possible, right?
And then, of course, we have the famous “Separation of Church and State” as described by Thomas Jefferson:
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
But surely Thomas Jefferson was an outlier, right? One wacky “deist” in a sea of devout Christians, obviously. Surely the rest of the founders and early Americans were confident that America was, first and foremost, a Christian nation and were not afraid to announce this fact openly, right? Well, not according to the Treaty of Tripoli, which was submitted to the Senate by President John Adams, received unanimous ratification from the U.S. Senate on June 7, 1797, and states in part:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
But, hey — maybe they were just lying for the sake of getting the treaty done. Not that lying is exactly a “Christian” value, mind you, but that’s politics for you.



OK, so depending on your point of view, it’s either blindingly obvious that the founders of this great country did not think that America was founded on Judaeo-Christian values or else it’s blindingly obvious that none of the facts provided above have anything whatsoever to do with the issue and can be safely ignored (“Nothing to see here, folks, move along”). Fine. For those in the latter camp, however, how about we explore exactly what these supposed “Judaeo-Christian values” actually are and see if they do, in fact, form the foundation of our laws.

First up, of course, is the Ten Commandments, which is seen by many American Christians to be the foundation of U.S. law, to the extent that some would erect statues of the 10 Commandments right in the lobby of courthouses, as mentioned earlier. There are various versions, but here’s the most common list:
  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. [Hmmmm… I don’t see that enshrined anywhere in the Constitution or other laws of the United States. In fact, as mentioned above, the First Amendment of the Constitution specifically says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” You’d think that if America were indeed founded on Judaeo-Christian values the first and arguably most important commandment would be called out somewhere, right? Interesting…]
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. [Hmmmm… Again, I don’t see anything about this mentioned anywhere in the Constitution or other laws of the United States. And it’s kinda ironic that somebody would fight to erect a large graven image of the 10 Commandments in front of a court of law, doncha think?]
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. [Nope, still not seeing it. One could argue, by the way, that putting “In God We Trust” on our money is a direct violation of this commandment. There’s a reason why observant Jews write “G-D” instead of “God”. Ah, well… moving on!]
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. [Ah, yes — this must be why we have all those laws prohibiting football games and NASCAR races on Sundays. Oh wait, never mind. As an aside, did anybody else find it hilarious when, after 9/11, everybody started singing “God Bless America” at sporting events held on Sundays? Just me, huh? OK, fine.]
  5. Honour thy father and thy mother. [You know, the Old Testament was really explicit about this one. In fact, Deuteronomy 21:18-21 specifically states that if you have a disobedient child, you need to take them outside and have them stoned to death. Gotta love those old time family values! Regardless, I’m not aware of anything in the Constitution or other laws of the land dealing with this. ]
  6. Thou shalt not kill. [Bingo! We have a winner! This one is definitely in the Constitution. Isn’t it? OK, so it actually isn’t. We do have the nifty Second Amendment right to bear arms, though, so I guess it’s OK to kill in some circumstances. But, what the heck — let’s give this one to them, since there are plenty of English common law statutes dating back hundreds of years that prohibit murder.]
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. [Um, yeah. Sorry, no laws against adultery. Which is good, I suppose, since most of the politicians would be in jail. Remember back in 2012 and the only Republican running for president that hadn’t had more than one wife was the Mormon? Good times, good times.]
  8. Thou shalt not steal. [Again, not in the Constitution, but plenty of examples from English common law. So we’ll give it to the Christians. That’s what, 2 out of 8 so far? Hmmmm… In other news, it’s a darn good thing that “steal” doesn’t include manipulating the tax code to avoid paying ones fair share of taxes to contribute to the common good, right? I mean, am I right, or am I right?]
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.[Not really sure about this one, to be honest. Nothing in the Constitution (again), but plenty of laws regarding perjury in a court of law. That probably counts, so that makes 3 of 9 so far. w00t!]
  10. Thou shalt not covet (thy neighbor’s house, wife, servants, animals, or anything else).[OK, I’m going to go out on a limb here and call this commandment positively un-American on its face. I mean coveting your neighbor’s, well, everything, is what capitalism is all about and is what makes this country so great in the first place, capische? Well, maybe not quite, but there still ain’t any laws against it, and that’s a fact!]
OK, so the final tally from the Ten Commandments is a pretty poor showing of only 3 out of 10. Maybe. Not looking so good for this myth so far, but let’s see what a selection of values described in the New Testament can tell us:
  1. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. [Nope, just a restatement of the first of the 10 Commandments. Nothing to do with the U.S. And remember, according to the Biblical account, Jesus said this was the most important commandment of all, so it seems odd not to have it actually enshrined anywhere in our laws.]
  2. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. [Nice enough sentiment (and in no way original to Christ’s teachings), but not really enshrined anywhere or officially part of U.S. values.]
  3. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world [Interesting how so many conservative Christians think we need laws to prevent gay marriage and abortions due to “Bible principles” and yet rail against government programs that “force people” (via taxes) to care for the poor, the widowed, the orphans, etc. Suddenly, it’s a bad thing for the government to “force” anybody to follow Biblical principles (when it’s a principle they don’t actually want to follow themselves, of course). I’m just saying…]
  4. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. [Well, seeing as how the United States spends more on its military than, what, the next top ten countries combined, I’m going to give this one a big fat “NOPE!” There’s also that pesky “right to bear arms” enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution to consider. And as for giving people more than what they ask for if they sue you, well, that alone would put more than half the lawyers in this country out of business, wouldn’t it?]
  5. Judge not, that ye be not judged. [Well, there goes our entire legal system down the drain…]
And so on and so forth. Yes, one could try to abstract the “Judaeo-Christian values” into some sort of core beliefs like “treat individuals with respect” or something, but that’s just a modern gloss on what the scriptures that form the basis of Judaeo-Christian values actually state.
And please, don’t even get me started on all the other Biblical laws that most modern-day Christians wholly write off as not applicable. I mean, it’s vitally important that gay people not be allowed to marry since the Bible says that homosexuality is wrong, but divorce? Eating shrimp? Owning slaves (OK, sorry, that one actually was in the Constitution to start with until the 14th Amendment came along…)