Hello. I noticed this article by a British doctor asking Atheists "Twenty Questions Atheists Struggle To Answer." I always enjoy a challenge so I answered them and emailed the following letter to him with my answers.
1. I would appreciate any comments, critiques, proposed revisions, additions, deletions YOU think would make my responses stronger/better.
2. These questions, some more so than others, may help you formulate your own responses for both your own edification, critical thinking skills and to assist others to "break the spell."
Kind regards to all.
Dear Dr. Saunders:
I apologize for being so late to the "game" but I only noticed your article playing "20 questions" today. Despite not being a scientist (retired trial attorney) I wanted to respond to your questions , not to attempt to persuade you of anything, but to see whether I should rethink my lapse from Christianity and rejoin the faithful. Any help you can provide would be genuinely appreciated. I am a seeker of truth and you believe you have some to offer. Please do. My answers are beneath each of your twenty questions. Please note that scientists DO struggle to answer many questions, including some you have posed, because science does not presume to know everything. Why and how the absence of perfect knowledge supports your belief in a triune deity despite no evidence thereof (unless you believe there IS such evidence, which would appear to contradict the very foundation of all religious belief, i.e. faith), is unclear to me. Hopefully, you will be kind enough to explain.
I would genuinely appreciate your answers to your questions or, if you deem them unanswerable, the reasons you believe the inability to answer these questions supports belief in a deity, especially YOUR deity, since you will agree there are others worshipped with equal faith, albeit incorrectly in your view, by others.
"Twenty questions atheists struggle to answer" (Your title, I believe)
1.What caused the universe to exist?
A. Nothing. See "A Universe From Nothing" by Lawrence Krauss. The explanation contained therein is subject to falsification as all scientific theories are. Feel free. Assuming a cause is required (you do based on your question. I do not, but I could be wrong), what caused your God? If your God does not require a cause, why does the Universe?
2.What explains the fine tuning of the universe?
A. Not sure. Science is still working on that one. I would point out that what you and others call "fine tuning" is simply human language attempting to describe what IS, as best we humans are able to describe what we OBSERVE in our universe. I enjoyed reading "Six Numbers" even though I did not understand a lot of the technical jargon. But I do understand that science has given us more meaningful answers in just the past one hundred years than all the religions of the world have given us throughout human history. Do you disagree? Science cured polio, hundreds of other diseases; observed that the Sun, not the Earth, is the center of our Solar system; "expanded" our universe to hundreds of billions of galaxies; and continues to make human life on Earth better and better. Any reason you can think of why Jesus, God himself according to you, never mentioned any of this valuable information while he was here saving us from "original sin" and "demons"? It's a fair question, right?
3.Why is the universe rational?
A. This appears to be two questions: Is the Universe rational? And, if so, why? I accept that humans are rational, or, at least capable of reason, but I have no idea what it means to refer to the Universe (by which I mean EVERYTHING there is) as rational. I am not an engineer but I understand we cannot build much of anything complex without the assistance of irrational numbers such as pi and the square root of negative one. If I am correct, that suggests to me the Universe is NOT rational, at least not in all respects. Regardless of the answer to this question, I do not see how gods enter into it.
4.How did DNA and amino acids arise?
A. Not sure if science knows the answer YET. But if it doesn't, it will someday. The answer will produce yet more questions even more difficult to answer. Do you really want to support your belief in God based on the "gaps" in human knowledge? The "god of the gaps" is so Nineteenth Century, don't you agree? I don't mean to "change the subject" on you, but are you a Biblical Literalist? Do you spend as much time questioning the Bible as you do science? Slavery? Genocide? Misogyny? Are you okay with these or am I misunderstanding the plain language of the Bible? Couldn't God have written his revelation in clear, unambiguous language?
5.Where did the genetic code come from?
A. See answer to 4.
6.How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?
A. See answer to 4. Also please recall that realizing the Earth revolved around the Sun was "irreducibly complex" for a long, long time AND flatly contradicted by the Bible. You do agree the Earth revolves around the Sun, right?
7.How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?
A. "116"? Really. Not 115, or 117? We have discovered precisely 116? You are being silly, either intentionally or unwittingly. Human language has been evolving for thousands of years and continues to do so. When did Latin disappear and French, Italian, Spanish, et cetera begin? Which came first the chicken or the egg? THIS kind of analysis convinces you there MUST be a god? Please explain.
8.Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?
A. Am far more interested in YOUR answer to this, than whatever archeology, anthropology and other sciences have to say. Do you believe this somehow demonstrates God was involved? Is the answer staring me in the face in the Bible? Please explain the significance of this ASSUMPTION (My understanding is that cities existed long prior to 3,000BCE).
9.How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?
A. Sorry. I really do not see the apparent inconsistency you see. Science still working on how we think, but we DO think. Independently? My thoughts certainly APPEAR to be independent of your thoughts. The world is NOT "ruled" by anyone or anything other than "e=mc2" until someone comes up with a better theory. God don't enter into it. BTW, any reason God has not "revealed" anything since New Testament codified ? When do you contend God's latest revelation took place? Does NT tell us everything we need to know? If not, why not? When you medically diagnose patients, do you use the Bible? If so, how? If not, why not? Just curious.
10.How do we account for self-awareness?
A. That's a tough one, isn't it? Synapses? What is your answer? "God gave it to us." Do you really find that helpful and informative? I think I'll wait for science to observe, experiment and REASON its way to an answer.
11.How is free will possible in a material universe?
A. Who says we have "free will"? How do you even define it? We make choices every day. Do we REALLY have a choice? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? THAT is religion trying to be profound. But it isn't. Religion is on the silly side of this question, not science or Atheism. We have brains and we do not fully understand how they work. What we DO understand comes from science, reason and "worldly knowledge." Do you find it ironic that the Bible contains not one word praising human knowledge? You should because we've accomplished quite a bit by opposing god-myths and superstition masquerading as revelation. Do you believe a snake/serpent spoke to and tempted Eve? Your answer will tell me a lot about you.
12.How do we account for conscience?
A. see answer to 11. Also, evolution. Helping others, avoiding harm to others had significant benefits to everyone, i.e. it was a "selfish" act to be "unselfish." We did not need a god to tell us that. It works.
13.On what basis can we make moral judgements?
A. Is "judgements" with an "e" a typo or a British thing? Either way, we make them based upon our common experience over time. That's why morality changes. Slavery was ALWAYS evil but it took us time to figure that out and come to a consensus. If we listened to your God, slavery would still exist worldwide and would be perfectly moral, as would genocide and misogyny and polygamy. I prefer modern morality to Biblical morality. My meme is winning, albeit not fast enough.
14.Why does suffering matter?
A. Terrible phrasing by you but suffering is to be avoided whenever possible because it opposes human happiness. This is the only life we get (as far as we know) so that making it as pleasant and free from suffering as possible just makes sense. We should also be concerned about the suffering of our fellow species even though god, if he existed, clearly was NOT concerned about it. "Suffering" evolved with the "food chain"/predator and prey/et cetera. No loving god would have designed nature in so bloodthirsty a fashion. Except, apparently, YOUR God. Please respond as you deem appropriate. Nature is not moral. Nature wants to reproduce itself. You know, The Selfish Gene, written by your favorite Atheist.
15.Why do human beings matter?
A. For any and all reasons we decide we matter. You can find NO reason why we matter without God? Look at your wife, your children, your friends. Of all the claims implicit in your twenty questions, this is the most offensive, if not the most evidencing ignorance masquerading as religious ideology. Shame on you.
16.Why care about justice?
A. Because the only alternative (which has been tried) is anarchy and resulting chaos. "Justice" helps to keep us from killing/hurting each other. Blood feuds are costly to society. "Justice"/law codes provide a measure of confidence that people will be treated fairly and, therefore do not need to exact justice on their own. Human justice much better than God's justice. We no longer kill people for picking firewood on the Sabbath; disobeying and being unruly to parents; fucking your aunt, et cetera. We have a long way to go but we have come quite far thanks to contradicting the Bible rather than following it. I would love to hear any disagreement you may have.
17.How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?
A. Human desire for answers in a pre-scientific world unable to provide very many. Unfortunately, this was exacerbated by ascendance of Christianity after Constantine in 309CE. It kept us in the Dark Ages for more than a thousand years and would love to take us back there. Not going to happen. BTW, there is no belief in a personal god/supernatural among most Chinese. Ergo, Belief in Supernatural NOT almost universal, and decreasing at an accelerating rate, but, living in Britain, you are well aware of that fact.
18.How do we know the supernatural does not exist?
A. Technically, we don't. BUT, only technically, because you cannot prove a negative. If gods existed, at least one of them surely would have shown herself to us by now--clearly, unambiguously--"Here I am. This is what I want." Instead, we have myths and folk tales collected hundreds of years afterwards and promulgated as revelation by persons wanting to control other persons. Tough to argue with words/laws given by God himself. Nothing more than a clever and effective control mechanism. What else do you believe without evidence?
19.How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?
A. Easy. We will all die and find out. Has anybody spoken to you from the grave?
20. What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?
A. Assuming facts not in evidence. Gospels are not evidence of anything other than a new iteration of a then three thousand year old myth: Osiris/Mithras/Dionysius. You should know this. Justin Martyr, early church apologist acknowledged these "similarities"/borrowings from long-existing pagan cults/religions and explained them away as "diabolic mimicry," that is, he said the DEVIL pre-planted these myths into history because the DEVIL knew Jesus was coming and wanted to trick people. Clever Devil, huh?
There is NO contemporary evidence Jesus/Yeshua ever lived. There was no resurrection. All three synoptic gospels, written roughly 70CE, 80CE and 90CE, decades after Jesus allegedly lived, tell the story with irreconcilable contradictions--except to believers who do not care about contradictions. "Everything is possible with God."
Finally, the church was quite small and inconsequential until Constantine had his vision and made it the unofficial state sponsored religion in 309CE. That explains its subsequent growth. It also explains why the first Church "Histories" (and I use that term loosely because they made it up as they wrote it down) were written at that time. There was money and power to be had by being part of the State supported Roman Church. "Follow the money" works here as everywhere else to provide explanation and motive.
Are you really arguing that "size matters"? The Mormons are one of the fastest growing religions in America. The FASTEST growing category worldwide is: No religion. But again, living in Britain you already know this.
I have enjoyed responding to your questions and did not find them particularly difficult to the extent I understood them. Compared to trying to defend the Bible, they were a cakewalk. Please let me know how I did.
Richard Dawkins was just selected by Prospect Magazine's panel of distinguished experts as the most impactful knowledgeable person in the world. Not a single Christian apologist made the list.
I hope to hear from you.
Alan, there were once only linguists. There are now linguists and paleo-linguists, and even "machine" linguists studying the severely limited capabilities of computer languages.
Way back in the late 1960s, linguists at the University of Texas in Austin invited me to one of their meetings to tell them what I knew of largely context-insensitive languages such as I was using. I think the little I knew disappointed them.
I suspect we know more than four percent. Do the estimates of traditionalists differ from those of non-traditionalists?
Which linguists accept the "grunt-and-groan" explanation as part of the known range?
I trained a couple of German Shepherd dogs. We human semi-sapiens are not the only language users.
Tom, Once upon a time the people interested in language were mainly philologists and etymologists, concerned with the historical relationships (newly-discovered, 18th century) between the better-known and written-down languages of Europe and those of the subcontinent, most of which seemed to have a common ancestor.
Then linguist/anthropologists like Edward Sapir and Franz Boaz began exploring the notion that, lo and behold, the languages of illiterate native populations had grammar too, just as complex as Greek and Latin!
The 4% was just a take on Tyson. I just know that we know very little compared to what there is to know.
Before written records started to appear, language was around for millennia. I don't know that anybody has any solid data or compelling theories on how language originated and developed from primitive signalling systems.
My guess is that nouns appeared first, accompanied by gestures. Then came verbs and grammatical relations. Like evolution itself, this process must been incredibly slow, though groups with more fully developed languages had a tremendous advantage over those who didn't. My #1 pick for a time-travel visit would be to see primitive humans communicating - but that's just me.
We still have traces of the connection between sound and gesture: when given the nonsense words kiki and moomow (or something like that), subjects predominantly guess that the former refers to a sharp object.
There are important, qualitative differences between human language and the way computers and animals communicate (I too was doing computer-syntax research in the late 60s). Briefly, computers have no consciousness or awareness of context or purpose, and animals seem not to have evolved beyond emotional cries and (perhaps) elementary symbology.
Over the years, I've followed attempts to teach chimps to speak (including one waggishly named Nim Chimpsky); the animals have a very hard time getting from naming to the simplest syntax.
Mathew T. I respect your opinion about Tyson and know you are not alone in your assessment of his qualities, or lack of. He does have a way about him that turns some people off, but have you seen the eyes of kids when he talks to them about astrophysics? I think there are going to be some fine young scientists coming from his playful ways. He probably isn't liked by those who like the absent minded professor type ... there are plenty of them for people to watch.
I'm glad to read your assessment. Thanks.
Your answers are very good. I doubt Dr. Saunders will actually take time to consider them. These questions are really just tired theological justifications, the same ones trotted out by half-scholars like William Lane Craig, formulated into questions. I am amazed that anyone with half a brain is fooled into thinking that these are such devastating questions that they will just leave us atheists stymied and ready to race over to the nearest church. One note on "fine tuning." The fine tuning argument always rests on the proposition that the supposed "constants" needed for the universe to support life are independent; hence, supporters of the fine tuning argument will say something like "If you change one constant just a little bit, the universe falls apart." The reality is that these are dependent constants, and if one were to change one, the others would change or one (if one were a god busy turning the dials of the cosmic tuner) could adjust the others so that the universe would still be coherent and supportive of life. Besides that, the constants are not really constants, not in a mathematical sense, but narrow-parameter variables, again dependent upon each other.
Thank you David. And thank you to EVERYBODY who has turned this discussion into such a fascinating learning experience for me! I haven't gone back to figure out the first mention of Dr. Tyson, but have thoroughly enjoyed the various viewpoints. What I find interesting is that virtually everything the commenters are saying here about Dr. Tyson was previously said about Carl Sagan. ALL famous people who discuss science are subject to controversy. Look at the Christian apologists who trot out Einstein's quotes about "God." I just watched one on Youtube the other day and Sam Harris made a fool out of him.
Finally (at least for now!), I like the fact that WE have 97% of scientists on our side and Xianity has William Lane Craig and Neo-Nazi popes on their side. I concede we're not winning fast enough but we are winning! Keep the Fai. . . oops! HAHAHA
David Layton, No, I don't think Dr. Saunders will answer any questions. But really, who cares? I like very much our statement, "These questions are really just tired theological justifications, the same ones trotted out by half-scholars like William Lane Craig" It amazes me that anyone pays attention to what this Craig fellow says,
he impresses me as a wax museum man with a recorded message that is more babel than debate.
"The fine tuning argument always rests on the proposition that the supposed "constants" needed for the universe to support life are independent; hence, supporters of the fine tuning argument will say something like "If you change one constant just a little bit, the universe falls apart." The reality is that these are dependent constants, and if one were to change one, the others would change or one (if one were a god busy turning the dials of the cosmic tuner) could adjust the others so that the universe would still be coherent and supportive of life. Besides that, the constants are not really constants, not in a mathematical sense, but narrow-parameter variables, again dependent upon each other."
Let me see if I understand what you say. The universe consists of "narrow-parameter variables" that depend on each other. That means, correct me if I am wrong, that forces of nature are dependent on each other. If one force is changed, others will change.
Would climate change be an example of which you speak? If humans pump more CO2 into the atmosphere than the planet can absorb, it will change the ways patterns of weather occur and thus change the balances that have been maintained for several centuries?
It often seems to me that these questions are really as difficult for the Atheist as they are for the believers. They often can't see past their beliefs to understand any other world view.
Very well done Jack!
Christy, thanks for trying.
Your replies beat the sox off those I heard in Catholic schools.
Now will start the fining tuning here.
Be kind to y'self,
Cat #### in the herd.
As to language development, when I was a very small child, my month older cousin called our grandmother "Mambo" because she couldn't say grandma. Five other younger cousins all called her Mambo as they came along. Everyone understood the meaning of the name and even adults called her Mambo. Thus language changes.
I remember the first time I called her "Grandma" I was afraid because I thought something bad would happen to me. I can't remember what.
I have real concern about the younger generation. Many want and expect the kind of lives we have created since the end of The Great Depression and WWII, and it is just not going to happen. It is all too clear, the numbers of people wanting work, and the number of jobs just do not match and probably never will again. After the war, we had a shortage of labor, but no more.
Waging war, hoping to give more people paid-work, only compounds the problems, leaving behind wounded and dead bodies and destroyed cultures who are mad at us already.
Robots and technology take many jobs away from workers, lack of solid education in math and sciences and technology, and ill-prepared applicants will only lead to more unemployment and more discord. My real fear is a despot will exploit the frustration of unemployed and underemployed, and a worse political system will emerge, facilitated by silly superstitions of a savior coming to relieve their stress.
This is why we have to awaken a sense of wonder in our Earth and universe, inspire interest in math and science, even as the liberal arts can reveal the wonders of what is and what is at risk by our consumer mentality. We are at a tipping point, religious mythology is only one part of it, but one that has to be challenged.
For those who want to be accommodationists, they lack the sense of urgency.
For those who are militant, such as myself, we do more harm than good; people run toward security if they are afraid, only prolonging the agony.
For those who can take a stand, defend it, be persuasive, and who can offer a more reasonable alternative, there may be some progress.
If we do nothing, Mother Nature will solve the problems for everyone and just get rid of us
Joan, I have a slightly more optimistic view of the future. It's based in part on Winston Churchill's saying that democracy is the worst form of government there is, except for all the other kinds we've tried.
Having chosen to have no offspring I am less personally invested than most people. Because I think I was gifted (or burdened with) more than my share of empathy, some of what I foresee pains me. But only some of it; much encourages me.
Have you ever heard of economic / political / social change as humankind's slowly coming up from the slime of our pond scum past?
I think it a valid metaphor. For one instance of many, the short period of progressive change in the early 1900s made differences in the lives of my own parents: child labor laws, pure food and drug laws, and much more.
Yeah, the current crop of Repubs want to take America back to before those reforms. I regularly tell Repubs I know that they want to restore the law of the jungle (which exaggerates somewhat). Depending on my opponent's commitment to restoring that law, I might add that we came out of that jungle because rulers feared assassination (which also exaggerates somewhat).
American capitalism is indeed cruel; I believe our offspring will remedy its cruelties with employee ownership and operation of their workplaces. It's well along now; something more than 11,000 businesses are owned and operated by employees. The profits, instead of going to Wall Street gambling addicts and sociopaths, will go to the employee-owners.
Yes, frightened people will seek security. Unfrightened people will seek progress.
Ma and Pa Nature won't "just get rid of us."
They will rid the world of many of our offspring, perhaps in another mass extinction, but it won't start and finish in 24 hours.
Enough for now.
We need stories, based on reality and critical thinking to replace delusions of religious fears and hopes. There are so many interesting and inspiring stories in science and physics, especially as told by Brian Cox, a British particle physicist, a Royal Society University Research Fellow, PPARC Advanced Fellow and Professor at the University of Manchester. Wikipedia
Cox, Brian + In Search of Giants (in 15 parts)