Ask a stupid question countdown... One

TodayChristian.net posted a list of Ten Questions for Every Atheist. Since I count myself as one of the "every" and I'm far too snarky to leave rhetorical questions alone, I thought they would be interested in my responses. I'll tackle one a day, counting down from ten to one. I'll also be unpacking the questions so not only do I address them directly but also some of the hidden assumptions and fallacies behind them.

Before reading the answer, keep in mind that they have the rather absurd lead-in:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

Someone out there imagines that no one ever thought to answer these, and I'm guessing from the general tone, they think they are unanswerable. So with my apologies for busting your bubble, here are honest answers:

1. How did you become an atheist?

This is a slightly misleading question since it has the faulty assumption built into it that all people must start as theists - that is, they believe in a personal god who created the universe, has a "plan" for them and might even be talked into granting the odd prayer here and there.

I cannot honestly say I was ever a theist. Although I may have done so when I was younger and didn't know what I was talking about, I can't say I've ever tried to pray to a deity. I've certainly never had any kind of magic water sprinkled on me (so many jokes... so little time) and never feasted on the blood and body of a first century zombie for Sunday brunch.

So why was I so lucky as to not be sucked into any of these odd beliefs? I suppose paramount thanks go to my parents for ensuring that religion was never part of my early life. Although many of the official holidays in Canada are Christian holidays, we weren't Christian children, we were just children. And of course there were Jewish children, who were exactly the same as regular children except they had the advantage of having a few extra days off from school.

I'm sure I must have found my way into a church for a wedding or a funeral, but there was no indoctrination. All religions realize, and most will admit openly, that indoctrination at an early age is a central part in any religious recruitment plan. There are a lot of important ideas that would just not take root if you tried to push them on an adult whose brain had finished developing and picked up a little science and logic.

So in the absence of indoctrination, atheistic children tend to remain atheists. I was also helped along from some outside sources in the entertainment I sought. First, the way god was portrayed in the media. My favourite shows were distinctly secular.

The Simpsons, while stopping short of mocking god outright, clearly didn't take him all that seriously. God and the devil are always comedic characters. No kids walk away fearing god.

Star Trek was the late Gene Roddenberry's vision for a utopian future. Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, I found out much later, god was intentionally absent from the Star Trek universe. No one solved problems by praying. It was human ingenuity and human compassion that solved problems. The other message that was abundantly clear is that we are one human species. It was a world where national and cultural divides had evaporated and we were all in it together.

Douglas Adams, was my favourite author as a child. He wrote many of the few books which made me stop my reading so I could laugh out loud for several minutes. He was also an outspoken atheist and that bled into his books (it was much easier to be an atheist in the UK, no one cares quite as much.) In fact, it was probably with the release of the Salmon of Doubt (I was seventeen) which contained an interview which is probably the point at which I learned that atheist was the right label for what I was.

Richard Feynman - the Nobel prize winning physicist gave many talks later in his life that were more philosophical in tone. That was how I came to understand what the scientific method really was (I was reading this stuff in high school, I was pretty odd) and how to think critically about things. I learned how to deal with claims of UFOs and claims of miracles. I learned what constituted good evidence. He was a little too polite to tackle the god question explicitly but if you just switched out "aliens" for "god" the arguments still made exactly the same amount of sense. That was where I learned the cardinal rule of science:

If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.

Scott Adams is widely known for creating Dilbert. Dilbert was a great source of comfort for me as I found myself working for a woman who was the personification of the "Pointy Haired Boss". But he also wrote a book that no one seemed to take notice of (in fact I found the first one at the top of a remainder bin by sheer luck) God's Debris (the sequel was interesting but nowhere near as profound). It was a Socratic discourse between and old man and a UPS delivery boy and they were talking about religion. That was where I learned that people could say they believed something and maybe even believe that they believed it but by looking at their actions you could tell they didn't actually believe it. And equally important, that most people believe things without actually checking to make sure what they believe makes sense. We just sort of assume we understand what words mean and proceed on a kind of autopilot. Page for page, it probably has the greatest density of "holy shit" eye opening moments.

By seventeen, the floodgates were wide open. After that, everything was just more and more evidence that we lived in a godless universe. But more impotently, we lived in an understandable universe. If we want to convince someone of something, saying "God said so" just won't do. If we want to solve a problem, we have to solve it ourselves because there's no one "upstairs" to refer it up to.

But how did... ?

Most objections to atheism come in the form of arguments from ignorance, or arguments from limited imagination.

"How can you possibly explain X without a god?"

Now the majority of us are extremely quick to admit that there are things we don't know. We're usually quite explicit about our own areas of ignorance. But a brief look through history is enough to show that this argument can in no way be seen as compelling.

Rewind to some point in the past, perhaps a hundred or a thousand years, and think of the things that were not understood at that point but are understood now. It may be a long list or a short list. But one thing which should be obvious is that the number of times god shows up in the explanations is zero. Whenever we do find explanations for things, we invariably find them to be not god.

But what if you're wrong?

I recently completed an entire full evening show called The Uncertainty Project. One of the things I wanted to sneak in, without being to philosophically dull, was the notion that we do not have access to certainty in any area of our lives. There is always the chance that at some future date, some new piece of evidence will materialize that will force us to reevaluate our beliefs. This is a fact of life and admitting it is just ordinary honesty.

The late Christopher Hitchens once mocked the term faith:

"I am a person of faith... I am a person who will believe practically anything on no evidence at all."

I think a good description of a rational person is:

"I am a person who will believe absolutely anything... provided you bring me good evidence."

But there's a dishonest twist. Because many faithful mistakenly think that their beliefs are correct with absolute certainty. They may in fact honestly believe this, but this is just bad philosophy and (a recurring theme in these answers) we know it's not that difficult for people to believe things and be wrong about it. Then they take this mistake a step further

  1. [Atheist] is willing to admit we might be wrong and new evidence could change our minds.
  2. [Theist] is not willing to admit they could be wrong, that they must be right.
  3. Therefore [Theist] must be right and [Atheist] must be wrong.

Some will take a softer conclusion than (3) and say something like

"They can't be certain we're wrong, so they have no basis for saying we're wrong."

This form of argument appears so often, I'm curious if the logical fallacy has a name. If anyone knows, please let me know.

Thanks for your patience

Well that was about thirteen thousand words to answer ten questions that they didn't even want an answer to. If you were able to slog through it, thank you. Hopefully you learned something new or interesting. I actually had a great deal of fun getting these answers typed out. It was an enlightening chance to reflect on all the mental flotsam that's been jostling about in my head in recent years.