creation

Ask an Atheist (or Christian) Series – Please Comment With Your Questions

“If you don’t believe in God, why be good when nobody is watching?”

“What would it take to convince you that God exists?”

“I just can’t imagine anyone believing that God doesn’t exist. How does that happen?”

One of our primary goals for this blog is to increase our understanding of those with opposing views in a friendly, respectful environment. What you see above are a few of the more common questions that I’ve heard recently (in person by the very few people who know my stance) regarding my atheistic position. They are sincere questions and I’ll attempt to seriously answer each them in my next few posts.

Your turn

Pascal and I have a great friendship and have enjoyed learning from one another in the back and forth discussions encompassing (a)theism, science, skepticism, the Bible, meta-physics, theology, meta-cognition, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, epistemology, how to live/love/reason, etc. His recent posts on Romans have been matched by a steady growth in blog followers – probably mostly Christians. As such, I’d like to formally welcome our new readers (Welcome!) and invite you to comment with questions for Pascal (the Christian) or Russell (the atheist). We’re both interested in addressing sincere questions from you. It is the real questions from real readers that impact our hearts the most. We take you seriously, and we learn when considering our answers and your responses.

  1. If you’re an atheist or agnostic, is there something you find unreasonable about Christianity or theism in general? Pascal has a heart for skeptics and doubters and is both kind and humble enough to respond honestly and seriously to questions about his faith (see Why I Respect Pascal).
  2. If you’re a believer, is there anything you don’t understand, don’t find reasonable, or are just curious about regarding atheism?

You can comment anonymously if you prefer. You’re safe here. Welcome. 🙂

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Renouncing/refining my arguments

My arguments for God are not always good.  One  argument that I often felt, seldom expressed, was that atheists do not have the same sense of awe that theists do.  I was wrong.  I’ve learned that from friendship with Russell and it is very well expressed in this article by an atheist scientist.

640px-Sunrise-near-Tava-Reservoir-By-Lovleet

Loveleet Jain, CC license

I’m going to refine my argument based on the feedback of my friend and a thoughtful author.  Atheists are indeed awed by nature.  They have no one to thank for it.  Gratitude for me requires an object, and gratitude has been one of the most redemptive emotions that I have experienced.  Is my need of gratitude driving me to God?  I think it is a big part of it.

Pascal

–1:16

 

What if ?

What if Genesis told the story in a way that pre-scientific man could understand?  Could Adam and Eve be man and woman with sentience?  Can creation and evolution be used in the same sentence without angering believers and skeptics alike?  If God chose the Jews to be his people and to bless the world, would that anger a pagan gentile like me, or would I be glad to be included?

640px-Nicolas_Poussin_041  347px-Selection_Types_Chart

What if the flood was local?  Again told from the perspective of the ancients who did not know the heliocentric solar system or spherical earth.  Am I married to literal interpretation?  Am I allowed to consider the evidence of geology without accusing God of deceit or fantastic existence?  Will the skeptics hold me to a literal interpretation of all scripture when I don’t view it that way myself?  Can I ask these questions in church?  As a student?  As a teacher?

Jebulon own work CC640px-Quebrada_de_Cafayate,_Salta_(Argentina)

What if my childish question about Babel was right thirty years ago?  “Could a tower reach to heaven when heaven is not a physical realm?”  What if the story resonates with the neo-Babylonian ziggurat?  What if the story of language confusion is an allegory to explain pride and our disconnection?  Is God offended by me interpreting the story in nonliteral terms?  Are the skeptics handing me a revolver, compelling me to shoot, then insisting that I commit intellectual suicide every day I believe the Bible?  Are my questions welcome in the church?

640px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited640px-Ancient_ziggurat_at_Ali_Air_Base_Iraq_2005

What if the Nebuchadnezzer II that I read about in the book of Jeremiah actually existed in ancient Iraq?  How would I know if old books, written by fallible men, could not be trusted?  How do I know he destroyed Solomon’s temple?  Was I there?  When does story end and history begin?  If he existed, then why would I believe the writings of one who claimed to be a Hebrew prophet?  Why trust any writing at all?

Fotothek_df_ps_0002472_Innenräume_^_Ausstellungsgebäude Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon Nebukadnessar_II

Too many questions.  Here’s my answer.  I love history although I can’t test it all scientifically.  I love science although I can’t verify it all historically.  I love people, even when I disagree with them.  The Bible can be true and not be subject to the straightjacket of literal interpretation.  How can I avoid going too far?  That is a question that all thoughtful believers must ask.  The scripture is one of my four cornerstones of faith because it tells a story that I can believe – – man created, fallen, and redeemed.  It has immense explanatory power.  I realize that ancient religions were asked to explain phenomena that we now understand as natural.  But for the deeper questions – – the very nature of nature and love and hate and who I am and how I should treat you –  I still look to God.  In the few decades I have left on this earth, that is unlikely to change.

Pascal

–1:16

*all photos and illustrations; wikimedia commons, under public domain or CC license, generosity of the contributors much appreciated

The Slippery Slope

Slippery Slope Jonathan Billinger

Dear Russell,

We’ve talked several times since your last series of posts that explain your difficulties with the Hebrew & Christian scriptures.  You know that I’ve wrestled with this in large part because you are wrestling with it.  Several of your points have affected my thinking.  I’m not going to quote you but rather address the questions that your writing has raised for me.  Other readers will have different questions.  If we can help them, we will.

What is the effect of my upbringing in scripture and how can I compare that to what others have experienced?

My parents were older when they had me.  They were both 36.  By today’s standards that’s not that unusual.  40-odd years ago, however, it shaded to the right of the bell curve mean.  There are both benefits and challenges to having older parents.  One benefit – – by the time I was four, both parents had both feet firmly planted in middle age.  They, like me, were different people at 40 than they were at 20 – – mostly better for it.  One challenge – – they were not fit and active.  That, of course, can often be mitigated.

Mom was a new Christian – – about 10 years into her walk.  Dad was raised in the faith.  I still have my mother in the flickering light of dementia.  Dad died from cancer about five years ago.  I’m writing to his sister now to find out more about him as a younger man.  She is so gracious in her replies.  We actually use papers, envelopes, and stamps.  Mom adopted a charismatic faith in the 1970’s – – listening to Derek Prince, Oral Roberts, and Kenneth Hagen.  Dad was raised a Baptist.  My aunt is still strong in faith and I’m eager to find out more about how they were raised.

Why this mini family history?  It has occupied my thoughts and journal more of late.  Where did I come from?  Why am I the way I am?  Surely my parents contributed both the DNA and the environment that so strongly influenced me.  What was the scripture in my house?  I saw different things from Mom and Dad.  Dad read the Bible stories to me and had a regular quiet time.  Mom devoured the scripture for herself and encouraged me to read each day as soon as I could.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

We are different ages when we realize the humanity of our parents, different ages when we learn to forgive them, still different when we gaze into the mirror and see their flaws and glory.  How did the scripture survive when they inevitably fell off their pedestals?  How will it survive in my children when I stumble off mine?  So much had to do with the content of the message.  For better or worse, the message of the Christian scripture is that man is broken and needs forgiveness.  That was a concept that took early in my life and insulated me from the inevitable disappointment of human frailty.  It has helped me to be gracious to others and to receive the grace that I need.

I try to read 20 books each year outside of my profession.  In many ways, I’m remediatiating a broad education as my work tends to be more technical.  I’m on pace this year to meet and even exceed the goal.  My stagnancy in updating the list is not disinterest.  I’m close to finishing two 1200 page + tomes.  One is A Suitable Boy by  Vikram Seth.  The other is Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer.  I think about what we write here as I learn by reading.  In A Suitable Boy, I just finished a chapter relevant to this discussion.  What if I was raised with different scriptures?

The first book is the story book that my father used – – I began reading the scripture on my own in primary school, probably at the age of 8 or 9.  The entire Christian bible (hebrew scriptures old testament + new testament) is about 1000 pages depending on font and pagination.

Taylor's Bible Story Book Shia Children's Book children's ramayana

 The next two would be used by Muslim or Hindu parents to teach their children.  A Suitable Boy is set in post-partition India in the time before the first general election.  I have many Indian American colleagues in my field, often first or second generation, and the culture of India fascinates me.  I didn’t realize until reading this book that there even was a partition.  Pakistan and India became independent of British colonial rule on consecutive days in August 1947, forming independent nations.  Why split the subcontinent?  What is Pakistan’s capital since the 1960s?  Islamabad.  Pakistan and India were partitioned to separate Muslims and Hindus.  Muslims stayed in or moved to Pakistan and vice versa.  Minorities of both faiths remain in each nation, but minorities they are.  There are proportionally more Muslims in India than Hindus in Pakistan.

In chapter 15 of the book, I was introduced to both Hindu and Muslim traditions, prophets, and gods who were unfamiliar to me.  What if my first children’s book had been book two or three above instead of book 1?  I would then view the world through that lens.  Is it fungible?  Can you ever erase the indelible imprint of your childhood?  Can you ever examine it as an adult with tools of metacognition and logic?  I think you can. So many of my skeptical friends (yes Russell – – the list has grown) or friends of other faith have.

Can you choose to keep your childhood faith and make it your own or must it always be rejected?  I offer that it must always be examined and that doubt is not sin.  Every believer and every skeptic must understand why she believes or doesn’t and she must construct the answer in a language that resonates with her own personality, intellect, and experience.  She can’t borrow too heavily from me, John Piper, Russell, or Sam Harris.  Her belief or disbelief must be her own.  And if disbelief is the choice – – a choice that you know I respect – – a positive construction must follow.  Must?  Of course not.  The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  Should.

Slippery slope?  I don’t mind them.  A good trail run to me often involves a muddy face or bloody knee.  The Bible is precious to me.  As I’ll explain in the next post, however, I’m not off put by learning of concordant creation or flood accounts.  I’m also not offended by scientific evidence that proves the world is old or that a flood was local.  I’ll explain why.

Why are my children’s stories more reasonable than the others?  I can only answer that as an adult – – with gentleness and respect.  But, I’m not able to now – – I’m just too ignorant.  Learn with me.

Pascal

–1:16

photo:  by Jonathan Billinger, CC license

Confessions

Dear Russell (and welcomed guests who join us),

This will be personal.  It won’t be an attack.  We know each other too well for that now.  Eighteen months have multiplied at least twice as many hours of face to face conversation that focus on our similarities and explore our differences.  It won’t be an attack because I don’t find you or your words offensive.  As we said yesterday, I think this dialogue is healthy for Skeptics and Christians alike.  I capitalized skeptics not out of grammatical convention, but out of respect.

Why have I been evasive?  I can honestly admit to asking myself that question before you or CC pressed the issue.  I had a sense of anticipation, even apprehension when you foreshadowed your concerns about biblical contradiction.  I’ve been reading the Bible for thirty five years now.  What would you point out that I had missed?  Did I see the differences in genealogy in Matthew and Luke?  Yes.  I remember asking a trusted teacher in middle school.  Did I question the sequence of Paul’s conversion in Acts and Galatians?  Yes.  High school.  Did I know about Deuteronomy 20?  Dear God – – this is genocide – – how could you be good?  College.  Did I know about Hebrew Scripture wrath and Christian New Testament grace in apparent conflict?  That probably harkened back to childhood at the feet of my mother or in my father’s lap as he read Taylor’s Bible Stories.  How I loved that book, rebound with duct tape, and the father who read it to me.  What would you say?  Gays or abortionists deserving special hell?  Post-college angst.  Creation supposedly versus science?  Five years.  Election supposedly versus free will?  Twenty years and not done.  Thankfully you haven’t gone there yet.  I will.

Why do I still believe and why have I not met you tit for tat, query for answer?  I’m in love.  There.  I said it.  The Bible has always been a love letter to me.  Even if, especially because, it argues with itself.  Thats a very Jewish, very Christian, very human thing to do.  I’m in love.  The wizard carpenter of Nazareth is so real to me that I call him big brother God.  And being in love I know that I may not be thinking clearly.  Is that metacognition?

Your approach is that of rationalism.  I would suggest that you are employing strong rationalism.  By that I mean that you are applying the requirement of empiric proof.  Hypothesis generation, appropriate testing, collection of data, interpretation of results, conclusion yielding hypothesis refinement and generation.  What work of philosophy or history survives this approach?  We can’t even talk about Socrates or Aristotle.

I can and will accept the arguments of science for the questions that science answers.  That includes age of the universe and earth.  That includes evolutionary biology writ large.  But I disagree with Hawking that philosophy is not necessary.  I know that I am at risk of taking his quote out of context.  Please forgive me.  I do write and think differently from you.  I read and derive, digest and integrate, and then write with the risk that I got it wrong.  Necessity has never been the arbiter of truth.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and perhaps that points to our wrong turn.  We do need philosophy – – love of wisdom – – and we act like, live like, we do.  You have a philosophy.  I just don’t know what it is yet.  Science was never a philosophy.  It was and is a method seeking explanation.  Philosophy seeks meaning.

To CC who wants to know why I like NT Wright – – what do I think of his writing and why?  I accept the question as fair and I’m honored to know that my opinion matters to you.  I’ll start with this as I start my third book from him.  He loves Christ and he writes like the controversy surrounding inerrancy and infallibility doesn’t surprise him.  He writes like a worthy interlocutor of Professor Erhman.  I realize that I am not.  So I’m happy to read Wright (insert homophonic pun here) and report.

Russell – – I’m only going to quote and answer you once in this post.  I am going to do my best to slow down and take your questions about Romans 1 seriously – – just not in this post.  Here is the quote that I’ll challenge.

There’s nothing for which an natural explanation is not far more likely and more plausible than a supernatural explanation.

The first five words of the Bible claim something – – In the beginning God created.  I disagree with you that the natural explanation is more likely than the supernatural claim.  My specific, small belief, is this.  God is.  Past, present, future – – defying time and bending the bounds of my intellect.  God spoke.  Bang.  The haunting question of who and what happened before the Bang has captured my imagination since second grade.

You are probabilistic in your beliefs as am I.  You might argue that we’re all that way whether we recognize it or not.  If you argued that, I would agree again.  But here we reach an important distinction.  You acknowledge that:  (a) you might be wrong and will not claim epistemological certitude (I agree and the same applies to me), (b) we still have to decide if beliefs are to be useful and operationalized (I agree and the same applies to me).

Here’s my straw man that only you can knock down:

1)  You do not believe in a supernatural

2)  I do

I realize that I’ve stripped the nuance from your probabilistic epistemology.  If I am wrong about number 1, demonstrate my error empirically by replying with one supernatural belief that you currently hold (more likely true than untrue).  Your humility inspires me and I want to imitate it.  Your life inspires me and I want to imitate it.  Come clean.  Do you currently believe that a supernatural is more probable than not?  We can and will continue if you answer either way.  It just frames the discussion better for us and for our five readers.  And maybe I’m proposing an inappropriate binary branch point.  A complex fractal algorithm may be better.  But I don’t exactly know what that is.  Insert wry smile.

Back to Romans – – I will circle back and answer your several posts line line by line later.  For those interested in Romans 2, it will be a while before we go there.

I love God.  Scripture is precious to me because it has changed me.  That was a miracle – – not a bending of the laws of physics or quantum chaos, but a reshaping of my nature and the genesis of hope when I was hopeless.  I love God with my whole heart, whole mind, whole soul (energy or ethereal).  I love him and I know that my love could have blinded me.  Is scripture reliable?  Yes.  Do I think it contradicts?  It appears to sometimes.  Is it absurd?  Never.  As we go deeper I’ll explain why I view paradox and contradiction differently.

I love you too.  You’re like the brother that I didn’t have.  Lets both bless our families with engaged husbands and fathers this weekend.  You for very good non-theistic reasons, me for very good theistic reasons.  You’ve given me enough to think about for a long time.  I’ll be back in a few days.

Pascal

–1:16

 

Romans 1:18-20

 

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.  Romans 1:18-20 (ESV)

I consider Romans 1:16 to be the fulcrum of the first chapter of a letter that encapsulates Christian theology.  That said, I constantly reference the life of Christ in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) as I read Paul.  Paul’s words would mean much less to me if I didn’t have a chance to meet Jesus.  I suppose that all philosophy, civil or religious, is trying to both define and answer a question.  Is there a problem?  What is the problem?  Is there a solution?  What is the solution?  Although there must be people who say there is no problem, I have not yet met them.  My skeptical friends argue, sometimes rightly so, that the religious are the problem – – words say love, actions say bigotry.  My religious friends will decry the godless atheists (ironic, no?) and militant gay agendists.  Surely the kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven if only the abortionists and gays would go away.  No.

Is there a problem?  Yes.  What is the problem?  According to this passage of Romans, the problem is that God is angry at our actions that suppress the truth.  Is he angry at us or our actions?  Without semantic gymnastics, I am uncomfortable separating the two.  I remember angry mother, father, teacher or friend and find a difficult time in recognizing if it was me or my actions that received the wrath.  So – – the text says that I am not godly and not righteous – – and that by my unrighteousness I suppress the truth.

How do I suppress the truth?  Pause here to recognize the difficult assertion that there is capital “t” Truth.  Consider that in respect to what Russell has recently written about the solutions of science.

I suppress the truth by not acknowledging God.  How can I know anything about God?  There are two threads in Romans 1 and in fact in Christian thought – – words (scripture) and creation.  Russell and I know scripture well and we’ll open the discussion about reliability here.  Are these the words of God given to man?  Billions of people feel that way about very different words in different religions.  Let us only agree now that words have power for humans.  I would place spoken and written language in the top 10 accomplishments of evolution and technology.  Pascal – – why did you locate creation and evolution in the same paragraph?  Keep reading.

I believe (true or false belief I acknowledge) that God created this universe.  I also believe that truth with a capital “t” is truth.  Can I have it both ways – – specially pleading for God’s truth and science’s truth?  Not if I want to be consistent.  I desperately want to be consistent – – and I ask that from you.  So, in my philosophy, truth is truth.  If God is the author of truth, then science is not the Devil’s Workshop.

How old do you think the earth and universe is Pascal?  Is that not the shibboleth of the authentic Christian?  Do you find your answer here or here?  Who made it?  How?

For question 1, I answer with the truth of science and start with Google.  For question 2, I answer with philosophy and start with Genesis.  For question 3, I honestly go to both – – more on that later.  According to Romans 1, what can be known about God by pre-scientific man?  His invisible attributes:  eternal power and divine nature.  Thats not a lot to go on.  But somehow I get it.  I’ve seen stars away from city lights.  I’ve hiked a 14,000 foot peak.  I’ve felt so small at the edge of the ocean.  Either I am a happy accident, or I was a part of created plan.  How insecure of me to desire the latter.  How human of me to have desires at all.  Welcome to my wish fulfillment Dr. Freud.  More about my Daddy issues soon.

Pascal

–1:16

 

iMultiverse

The 5th grader noticed one of his apps had auto-updated on his quantum iPhone 72, so he opened it.

He watched as multiple fluctuations began to appear and disappear randomly in all shapes and sizes — sometimes bumping into each other and merging, sometimes exploding. He zoomed into one of the isolated bubbles and saw nothing but emptiness. In another bubble he saw white hot plasma. Time sped up and he watched it cool and dissipate into nothing as the bubble disappeared. Many more bubbles began to form. One expanded and collapsed again, causing part of the bubble to grow back out the other side. Some bubbles expanded so quickly some of the simulated energy cooled to form superheated matter, which eventually cooled further and began to clump together. He zoomed into one in time to see countless clumps collapse into beautiful stars which exploded into heavy elements that coalesced into planets. Eventually a chemical on some of the planets replicated, and in time, living things emerged. The small life forms evolved and some became intelligent and self-reflective like him. One of them wrote a speculative blog post about him and his app. He smiled, intrigued. His bus arrived at school. “Time to go”, someone said. With a small grin still on his face, he thought, “I’ll play it again on the ride home”. As he popped the bubble, trillions of virtual creatures ceased to exist. He closed iMultiverse and walked to class.

In another reality, fingers moved, and the bubble the fifth grader was in left the screen. The creature was excited to see that some of the bubbles on her app had developed life forms that could create virtual worlds of their own. However, the creature was heartbroken at the mindless loss of life. Did they not realize the simulation was real to those inside each bubble?! She suddenly froze, captured by a thought. Am I in a simulation, too?

Somewhere else, a smile formed.

Author’s comments…
What did the smile belonged to? Perhaps another simulator in an infinite regression of simulators? An uncreated creator with the special ability to create events in an existence that has no events? Nothingness itself? A random fluctuation in the first uncreated eternal nothing? An entity with a mind in an original uncreated eternal universe? Something else?

One point of this post is to illustrate that the cause for our universe could be eternal, or there could be no meaning to asking about a first cause if time/events once did not exist, or any number of things could exist outside it and causally before it. This story is one example of many potential a-priori realities in which a creator does not have to be all-knowing, all-good, etc. The events in any reality outside the universe we live in are not necessarily subject to our laws of causality (which, incidentally, may not even be laws in our universe). All we can have confidence in is the things that exist at scales we can measure in the known universe. We can know nothing of what might exist outside our universe.

Questions

  1. Is it justifiable to be absolutely certain about the cause of the Big Bang (assuming such a cause is even meaningful or required)?
  2. Are “an eternity of nothing” or “an all-knowing, all-loving God” the only options? Is that a false dichotomy?

We welcome your thoughts.

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

P.S. Here is the app’s skeleton code for my fellow geeks


defaultStateOfRelationalExistence = nil; // set the initial state to nothing, 0, void

while appOpen { // keep running this loop until the app closes

   function universeGenerator() {
      return (totalFluctuation + totalOscillation + totalInstability + totalExcitation + totalOpposition + totalForce + totalCharge + totalPotential); // etc; basically the sum of all values for all relationships between all real and potential forces in the default state of the default environment
   }

   function checkStatusOfUniverse(previousStatusOfUniverse) {
      return previousStatusOfUniverse * defaultStateOfRelationalExistence;
   }

   function continueUniverse(relationalExistence) {
      while (relationalExistence) { // keep repeating the loop until the value of relationships exactly equals 0
         refreshScreen(relationalExistence); // displays interesting patterns to the iPhone screen
         relationalExistence = checkStatusOfUniverse(relationalExistence);
         continueUniverse(universeGenerator()); // if a new instability exists at any reference point, recursively call continueUniverse

         if (relationalExistencePoppedByUser) relationalExistence = nil; // if the user pops a bubble, remove all its relationships
      }
   }

   do {
      defaultStateOfRelationalExistence = universeGenerator();
   } while (!defaultStateOfRelationalExistence); // keep repeating the loop until at least one relationship emerges in the default environment

   continueUniverse(defaultStateOfRelationalExistence);
}