todaychristian-net

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.

Ask a stupid question countdown... Two

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:

2. What happens when we die?

This is a very odd question to ask to "an atheist". It reveals that they're not actually interested in the answer. You would think if you were honestly interested in knowing what happens at death, they would ask an expert - someone in the field of biology, medicine or neuroscience. Instead this approach of asking random people what they think, as if their opinion mattered

But since they asked, I'll give my answer by analogy. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett has pointed out, we can make large strides in understanding consciousness and the brain by learning about how computers work because while they are certainly far from identical, we have discovered many many things that minds can do which can be imitated successfully by computers. So treating a person as an uber sophisticated robot/computer can be instructive.

Imagine taking your old computer and doing something analogous to what would happen when a human dies. For starters, you would turn off the power. That means the computer is non functional, but large amounts of information are stored in memory so the computer can be reactivated in the future. But instead you simulate death further. You subject the computer to some kind of pulverizing process which breaks it up into many, many pieces and scatters the pieces. It's not correct to say that the computer was destroyed because all of its pieces are still around in other places, just as when we die, all our pieces are still around, either in boxes or as food for some small organisms. But our intuition, which I think is correct, is that there is nothing left of the computer; the computer is gone.

The same thing happens to us. All of our parts are broken down and go other places and there is nothing of us left. There can't be a heaven or hell for us to go to because there is no meaningful piece of us that is able to "go" anywhere.

Dementor

The contrary Christian position depends on there being some piece of us that escapes, usually called the soul. It's the thing that Dementors try to suck out of you and the thing that tries to sneak out when you sneeze. However we have a complete absence of evidence for the existence of soul as separate entities, not part of the normal periodic table or standard model. This is probably an accident of language and history since we always had separate words for "mind" and "brain" (and a strange notion that pops up constantly about the "heart" which seems to imply that the heart is more than just a muscle for circulating blood and actually does some kind of "thinking"... I've always been curious as to whether the people writing these ancient texts actually thought that or if they were aware they were speaking metaphorically). But we now understand that, in a fairly straightforward correspondence, the mind is what the brains doesIf you disassemble the parts of the brain, the mind ceases to exist.

We've also known since the time of Descartes that the transcendent soul of Christian substance dualism isn't even internally consistent. It's important to remember that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

The general tone of the question makes it sound like this is a bad thing. If I don't get another eternal life after this one, what's the point of this one? These people never stop to consider that if that view of reality were correct than this non-eternal first life would not have a point to it and dedicated Christians would be rushing off to die in holy wars by the millions in as much hurry as possible to get this pathetic existence over with and get on with the good bits.

Quite the contrary; if you only have one life to live, then it's special... even meaningful. It's because there is only a finite amount of time we have, that makes what we do matter more.

Stay tuned for question one... this could take a while.

Ask a stupid question countdown... three

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:

3. What if you're wrong? And there is a heaven? and a hell!

I'm not sure what you're hoping my answer would be, but it's not that interesting.

If I'm wrong, I'm wrong.

As I mentioned under question five, part of being a grownup means making decisions in the presence of incomplete information and living (or after-living) with the consequences.

When it comes to this sort of question, I have put my money where my mouth is and quite literally bet my life. If I'm wrong about all this Christianity-god stuff, when I eventually die I will be in hell. I mean, I'm a full blown heathen. I blaspheme, I work on the sabbath, I watch pornography, I praise the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I practice witchcraft, I sleep with men, I've made graven images and drawn pictures of Mohammed (hedging my blasphemy)So my level of confidence that the god-heaven-hell stuff is made up is really high and I've made some major life decisions based on that belief.

So why am I so confident?

Let's unpack all the things I'd have to be wrong about before this question had any credibility:

  1. A god (as yet undetected) exists
  2. This is a personal god and not a deistic god
  3. This is the god described in the bible (or possibly the Qur'an)
  4. The revelations from this god about how the world works have been accurately transmitted through two thousand years (in spite of hundreds of known errors and redactions)
  5. Heaven and hell are (as yet undetected and unvisited) actual places
  6. Humans possess an (as yet undetected) immaterial soul that survives the body at death.
  7. There is an (as yet undetected) mechanism for the soul to go from the body to either heaven or hell.
  8. The mechanism for deciding whether it's heaven or hell is one of the (mutually inconsistent) ones explained by one of the denominations of Christianity.

That's a lot of layers of "what if?"

Now for the sake of argument, say I grant all of premises one through seven. Eight is just about the maximum amount of absurdity it's possible to pack into a single belief.

First of all, none of the historical divine communication about how to get into heaven or what to expect when you get there is clear. I gather there's lots of praying and worship, but I'm not sure who that's supposed to be any fun for.

Some have said that it's the pure bliss that comes with being in the presence of god. Now I know me and I won't even get a tattoo because I know there's nothing I can get that I won't be sick of in three months. How long before that bliss wears off? Two thousand years? Five thousand maybe? After that, I'll be ready to move to the after-after life, I'll be so bored out of my disembodied mind.

And how exactly do I get into this wonderful place? By doing good deeds? By advancing the collective knowledge of mankind? NO! I have to believe that a man (who was also god but not entirely) was tortured and killed to make up for the sin of a pair of people (whose mere existence contradicts empirically established facts of biology) created by god with so little foresight he created them down the path from a talking snake advertising tree with fruit capable of cursing an entire species (because eating fruit changes the DNA you pass on to your offspring) because that was the best solution he could come up with, and he still managed to cheat his way out of it because he undid the killing of himself by resurrecting himself three days later all so we could be saved from the hell he created for us for when his plans screwed up.

If I'm not mistaken there's other stuff in there like engaging in symbolic cannibalism  for weekly brunch and having some water sprinkled on you at some point.

Wouldn't it be more likely that the way to get into Heaven was by leading a virtuous life of open and free inquiry? Why does my ability to trust untrustworthy books matter more than what I actually do?

I've kept my language rather tame through this series. But seriously guys... What the fuck?!? Could you please try to limit yourselves to threats that make sense?

Stay tuned for question two...

Ask a stupid question countdown... four

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:

4. Without God, where do you get your morality from?

I love this question because it's one that desperately needs to be answered more often. There are certainly good answers out there but the answer is complicated. I can't offer up short silly appeals to authority like "You should do X because god commanded it." The arguments that explain where a secular morality come from are usually fairly long and involved, and to do it convincingly you need to build the argument gradually from the ground up. So you typically find them in books (The Moral Landscape, The Moral Animal, Non Zero and Sense and Goodness Without God spring to mind) out of reach of people who crave soundbites. I'm unaware of a justification of secular morality which is both convincing and short.

The short answer to your question is:

We get our morals from the same place you do, we're just more honest about it.

Religion is not a source of morality, but rather a mechanism for solidifying the morality which already exists in society around it. Religion is merely a storehouse of morality it didn't invent. Unfortunately (as discussed in part ten) it also brings along a substantial amount of harmful superstition for the ride. Religion absorbs morality from society at large. When we saw a large "Christian" force pushing for the abolition of slavery in recent centuries, that wasn't a Christian movement. The central text of Christianity explicitly encourages the keeping of slaves and this is a period of history when god wasn't making any revelations (unless you count Joseph Smith and even he didn't get that memo). This is Christianity absorbing new moral lessons from the enlightenment and putting them into practice. So while the people making this moral progress happened to be Christians, this shouldn't be considered a Christian initiative. So we ought to go directly to the original source of morality so we can cut out the middle man.

Besides, it's not like religions have a stellar moral track record. They use holy books which enshrine all manner of barbaric practices including slavery, racism and sexism. They can be found throughout history committing horrible acts of violence to help convert people to the "right" religion. The vicious anti-gay laws spreading through Africa are directly descended from American Evangelical Christianity. The Catholic Church is on a constant crusade in the developing world to reduce women's rights and access to contraception. And I'm not going to bring up accusations of naughty priests but you can just assume that I would have.

To begin with, we need an agreeable definition of morality. Whereas I like Richard Carrier's working definition "Morality is that which we should want to do above all else" it takes a fair amount of philosophical wrangling to get from that rather abstract definition to our intuitive definition of morality. Religions do a very bad job of defining their terms (the better to evade and obfuscate when their beliefs come into question) so it's hard to pin down exactly what they're talking about. The best working definition I've ever been able to come up with from a religious perspective is "morality means doing what god tells you to do, or your best guess of what you think god would want you to do". This is a useless definition, first because the very existence of god is in question and it's difficult to do what a fictional character tells you, but also because even if he does exist, we still don't have a clear method of communicating with god and the scant revelations we have from him in the forms of holy text are vague and contradictory so no reasonable person can be expected to know what god wants him to do with any degree of certainty.

Instead I'll use what is basically the definition from The Moral Landscape: Morality is that set of behaviours that enhances the wellbeing and flourishing of conscious creatures. You can defend why this is a good definition at some length (in fact Sam Harris wrote an entire book about it, well worth your time) but I'll be a little stubborn and say that if you want to object to the definition, all you have to do is find something we ought to value more than the wellbeing and flourishing of conscious creatures and then we can have a discussion. Until then, if you don't find this a valid and useful definition, you're probably not sitting at the grownup table.

Even the religious should accept this definition. The existence of a god and the various after-life options that come with him just affects how we calculate well being. We can keep the same definition and just factor in the joy of hell and the torment of heaven into our reasoning. But for the moment, I can safely ignore them for reasons that will become clear in question three.

With the definition, you can start to build a moral code. I'll construct it from my own point of view, but you should be able to see how it works for you. You have to begin by observing some empirical facts about the world around you. In particular some facts, which I hope will be non-controversial:

  1. I exist
  2. My wellbeing is affected by the world around me
  3. Other people in the world exist
  4. Other people in the world are (in broad terms) extremely similar to me. We have many common needs (oxygen, water, food) and many common desires (not dying, not being sick, not being in pain, not being raped, not having our freedom restricted, ability to pursue individual interests) so the things that meet my needs and desires (increased availability of food, better quality medical care, laws that prevent killing people) are likely to meet those desires for other people as well.
  5. For whatever list of things that I might want (finding a suitable mate, learning quantum physics, having a cell phone, owning a house) the single most important thing that will lead to me having those things is being part of a society where I cooperate with those other people. (After all, I'm not smart enough to reinvent the wheel on my own.)

That's it!

You have the ingredients for a complete moral code. All the basics fall out of it with hardly any effort at all. You want to have a society that encourages cooperation and discourages things like murder, theft, rape all by making observations of the world around you and applying a little enlightened self interest.

But there's one more ingredient required for a truly robust secular moral code. It's called Game Theory. It's a field of study in economics which is centred upon how to make decisions with incomplete information. The reason they look at games is because in a competitive game your opponent is unlikely to announce what his next move will be in advance.

The most fundamental study in game theory is the legendary and terribly named "Prisoner's Dilemma". It's framed in terms of punishments but it can be reframed in terms of rewards and could be called the Cooperation Game™.

Imagine two players working on a project. Each one has two options: cooperate or cheat. This leads to four possible outcomes: coop-coop, coop-cheat, cheat-coop and cheat-cheat. The worst outcome for both is cheat-cheat, since nothing gets done. The best overall outcome for both is coop-coop. However there is a serious problem. If one cooperates and the other cheats, the other can reap the reward without any work. This could be anything from not doing your share of the work on a science project to killing the team members on the science project and taking the credit. So there is a motivation to cheat. And both players have a motivation to cheat. So the "logic" of the game seems to push both players into cheating and therefore towards the worst possible outcome.

This is the reason the questioner probably has such a hard time imagining a secular morality. The desire to cheat is so obvious and so tantalizing. Plus the logic seems so airtight but for one important fact: This is not the way the world works. People don't come together for a single interaction and never meet again. We see the same people over and over again in our lives. And those people can talk, gossip... share information. So the costs and benefits of the game change. Because if you play the game and cooperate, that will gain you access to more opportunities to play the game. And if more people are cooperating, more people will be reaping the benefit of the cooperate-cooperate outcome. And those people will talk and will be avoiding those people that chose the cheat option because it's much better to play with known cooperators.

This is a gross oversimplification. Assuming you had the patience and a strong math background, you could work it out for more options including varying degrees of cooperation or even not playing but the basic framework should be clear:

The longer and more often you plan to play the game (the more people you plan to interact with in society and the longer you plan to live) the more you should prefer to choose the cooperate option and want to avoid the cheat option.

This is the perverse truth about morality which is deeply upsetting. Moral behaviour is firmly grounded in selfishness! This means the prescriptive rules that come out of it (do your best to avoid killing, raping, stealing and lying, don't try to own other people, get over your obsession with anal sex) are extremely robust.

But why?

I hope you found my (very brief and very rough) outline of secular morality at least vaguely compelling. One point of curiosity is it rests on fairly recent innovations. Game theory is only a few decades old. We've had these moral codes (with their flaws) for thousands of years. How did our ancestors develop these codes without the benefit of these sophisticated tools?

The answer is evolution - the ultimate trial and error machine. Because the fact that cooperation works is woven into the laws of physics and leads to real survival advantages in the real world, evolution was bound to discover it eventually. We can see the evidence of primitive versions of these characteristics present in our closest primate relatives who got them without the benefit of language, philosophers or divine revelation. If the behaviour is beneficial, evolution will favour it over time. Teamwork is beneficial. There you are.

This is an important point to clarify - one that I think many people get wrong. Evolution is not the source of our morality, it's merely the mechanism through which we discovered our morality. The source of morality is a deeper physical principle which is so deep it basically underpins all multicellular life: if you want to survive and flourish, you need to assemble cooperatively in groups.

What about all that other stuff?

There are lots of questions that Christians consider central to morality like gay marriage, maintaining a series of repressive rules surrounding sex, and trying to find ways to force other people to pray to their god in various public places.

The unavoidable consequence of tuning into this more refined view of morality is noticing all the parts of morality that religions get wrong. So things like telling other people who they're allowed to marry, telling women they shouldn't have access to certain jobs, educational opportunities or wardrobe choices, or placing ridiculous restrictions on how to have sex can immediately be seen as immoral. They may have seemed like a good idea at the time and gotten accidentally included in some book or other, but a simple examination of evidence bears out the fact that they are harmful.

This is why I think religious apologists object so fiercely to the possibility of a secular morality. Not only do they have to admit that they were wrong about the source of morality, they must simultaneously admit their own immorality. It's a tough thing to have to admit, but we'll continue pushing gently but firmly.

Stay tuned for question three...

Ask a stupid question countdown... five

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:

5. If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

Because there's obviously no way of phrasing this question which is less loaded and provocative (!) or more grammatically correct, let's push on.

The short answer is yes... with a very long follow up.

Of course it's equally true if god does exit that we can do what we want, and are free to murder and rape.

Returning to the theme of learning to be a grownup, most people realize that actions have consequences, both intended and unintended. Most of these hypothetical moral discussions take place in a kind of fantasy causal vacuum where we can ignore the consequences we don't like and leave with our desired position appearing much more rosy than it actually is.

It is a central tenant of most forms of monotheism that god has given humans free will. So we are accountable for the consequences of our actions. I'm free to kill anyone I want (within the limits of the laws of physics - there are probably some serious obstacles to surmount if I wanted to assassinate the President of the United States so to say I'm "free" to do something I could never reasonably succeed at doing can wind up confusing people). What I'm not allowed to do is construct a fantasy world where I can kill people but not have them hold it against me, or worse try to kill me back. I will pay the price, which means I risk retribution, imprisonment, being treated as an outcast because most people have realized that living in a society that allows murder is not conducive to human happiness. I suppose I could be "free" to go to an island somewhere and start my own society where murder is ok but we'll see how long that lasts.

If I'm a reasonable person with some knowledge of how the world works, I should work these potential consequences into my decision making and stop to wonder if this hypothetical wanting to murder and rape people is really in my best interests.

The only thing the existence of a god changes is the nature of the consequences. If I would grant the rather long chain of what ifs that gets the existence of god, the existence of heaven and hell, the existence of some postmortem judgement and the rather absurd conditions this god has placed on getting into either heaven or hell, it only extends the list of consequences I should already be considering to include the post-death ones. I just add divine reprisal to real-life reprisal and the logic remains unchanged.

I'm not sure what the original inspiration for free will was but currently it's used as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for God. The presence of suffering or theodicy is at odds with a god who is both good and powerful. If we have freedom of will to go against god's wishes and we're outside of his control, then he can no longer be blamed for bad stuff that happens, even though he must have known it was going to happen that way. This may seem to make sense at first. After all, if we're going to go around killing and raping each other we deserve the bad things that happen to us. However it's unclear at one point god also decides he needs to leap into the mix and throw tsunamis at us and give children bone cancer.

It's worth noting there are varying kinds of free will which are defined differently and we know that the kind of free will necessary for the above argument to hold water doesn't exist. But a thorough discussion of this will have to wait for another time. You may want to investigate two of the authors mentioned in part nine, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Harris picks apart the kind that doesn't exist and Dennett defends the version that does.

I'll end on that sentence fragment turned question: While good deeds go unrewarded?

Here I'll simply state my opinion that the questioner is out to lunch and blissfully unaware of the world around him. Good deeds are plenty rewarded. My good deeds get rewarded very often. Certainly not all the time and not with a hundred percent accuracy, and I'm not expecting the sort of eternal reward offered by Christianity (you should go looking for what the reward is, it's actually pretty dreadful.)

Stay tuned for question four...

Ask a stupid question countdown... six

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:

6. If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

This is another one of those questions which is "not even wrong" (see part seven). It has three separate levels of hidden assumptions built into it which need to be unpacked.

It begins by completely skipping the question which must logically precede it:

Do we have good reason to believe our lives actually have an external meaning?

The reflexive response probably sounds something like:

Of course our lives have purpose; don't ask stupid questions... Think of how awful it would be to have a life that had no purpose.

It's the sort of thing we've been trained to say all our lives without really thinking about it. Notice the wishful thinking hiding just under the surface. We ought to believe our lives have meaning because not having meaning would make us feel bad. Deciding on the answers to factual based on how they make us feel, in stead of what's actually true is the hallmark of the religious mindset. How foolish would it be to ignore a message saying a friend was ill or that someone had stolen your car because believing it would make you feel bad. Part of being a grownup means being prepared to accept facts that you don't want to be true.

There is also the presumption that if there is a god, then our lives do have a purpose. This is far from clear. If you read the holy books of the world's major monotheisms, the alleged purpose is that we are created to serve and worship a god that is so powerful and beyond us that she requires neither service nor worship. So a god creating us (or more accurately setting up a universe in which we would develop after several billion years following the application of certain laws of physics) seems to be about as logical as hiring someone to sort your M&Ms by colour for you before you eat them... and then randomly tossing all the blue ones into a lake of eternal fire. Theres a piece of the logic missing

So under Christianity we really don't have a purpose, at least one that makes sense, and without Christianity we don't seem to have a purpose - at least not one that comes from outside of us.

However, it's not so bleak as it seems. We are conscious creatures and we can endow things with purpose. The petroleum underground didn't "have a purpose" until we repurposed it for fuel. Precious metals don't "have a purpose" until we decide to use them as symbols of love and status. Pluto doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose, and it seems to continue along on its orbit just fine. So is it that much of a stretch, if we can give things purpose and even change the purpose of things, to believe that we can give ourselves and each other purpose? I don't think so.

If I were to take a rough stab at assigning myself a purpose, it might be something like "doing as many of the things that I enjoy for as long as possible." I could probably do better simply by being more specific. But I think the most important part of answering these questions is to show how silly they were to start with. It is sufficient to show the stifled imagination of the questioner, after which it's quite easy to at least start to answer them on your own.

You might interrupt to ask what happens if the things I enjoy are harmful to myself or others. That question is a valid one, but it will have to wait for the next couple of questions with have to do with morality.

Stay tuned for question five...