January 2007

Firstly I want to say that I will understand completely if you do not reply to this, for there may well be a lot of questions in here that are unrelated to each other, but I will appreciate it if you do. And I also would be willing to reply if you reply with any questions of your own.

I stumbled upon your website and browsed it for a bit, and a few things caught my eye which compelled me to send a comment. One of the things being the hate mail you have recieved. I have heard of numerous atheists who generalise religious-folk as those who hold their beliefs, but when questioned they get angry and start insulting people and make themselves look stupid. After seeing your hate mail and posts on other websites, at times, I find myself reluctant to label myself as a Christian, but I am not the kind of person who attacks anyone with other beliefs. Secondly I have read a few of your replies and you seem mature in your responses compared to some of the athiests I have met, like those who consider believers instantly stupid, and it would be nice to have the answer of an intelligent and mature athiest who probably understands that the existance of a God is a possibility at least.

The following are a few questions I would have liked to ask for sometime, but have never found a person who would give me an answer that wasn’t along the lines of “that’s just stupid” and such. One of them is against a usual reason why people are atheists – the usual “I’ve never perceived God and therefore I don’t have a reason to believe in him”. However, I believe that there are a lot of atheists who have faith in other things which they have never percieved. One example I could give is the fact that I have never percieved America. I have never been to America myself, never touched it or seen it (aside from TV, but I’ve seen Santa Claus depicted on TV and I don’t believe in him), and so I have absolutely no proof that America even exists, yet I believe it in. I would tell someone that I was 100% sure that America exists even though I do NOT really know. Of course you might say that you’ve been told by people that America exists, but I’ve been told by numerous people about God and his influence in people’s lives and how he changes them. So I guess my first question is: if you say you cannot have faith in God due to lack of evidence, why do you have faith in other things?

My second question is slightly related to the first, but with a different slant I guess. I studied ancient history at college and a few of them thought the idea of God stupid, and yet they believed in Julius Caesar. Now, as far as I know, there are more writings concerning God than there are talking about Julius Caesar, and yet they were more willing to believe in Julius Caesar. Now, I guess this is because Julius Caesar was a normal human being who (aside from being deified after his death) did nothing as ‘unbelievable’ as things mentioned in the Bible. Why is it we (well, a lot of us, I’m sorry if you don’t) believe in what a lot of history books tell us, but when we get to a part that contains something we don’t deem as possible we rule it out. The Bible supposedly (I’ve not researched it that much) contains a lot of factual events that historians verify as being historically true to what happened at the times, even the death of Jesus is written in Tacitus’ work (it s peaks of him being put to death by Pontus Pilate), and yet when it comes to other things we consider them as obviously untrue. This is very hypocritical, because I know myself that I do not believe in everything that is written down, but I accept the possibility, as often I have to do in history, that when I take a writing to be false it could well be true. My second question, then: Why believe in things which have less evidence for them? And when is the point where the Bible turns from historical document into mythical text?

Sorry if those previous questions aren’t relevent to you, but I obviously have to make assumptions because I don’t know you. However, this next part is not really a question, but it’s in response to something you typed about in part of your response to the guy who talked about his girlfriend. You said, “If her faith does not believe that there can be salvation through living a good life… how her religion believes God to be good when he will eternally punish a moral individual just because that person has no (or has the wrong) religious faith.” Okay, I’m going to make a simple point here, and it is this. Let’s just say for a moment that there was something which was all-powerful, do you think that you could understand it fully? Personally I don’t think I could, and therefore I accept that what we, as human beings, perceive as good might NOT always be what this all-powerful being thinks is good. I don’t really think that humans even know the meaning of the term ‘good’ (philosophists have been asking their question for years and years and not arrived at an answer), so how they can suggest that an all-powerful being (still assuming such a one existed) is wrong while they are good is beyond me.

I apologise for the length of this, and if anywhere it seems I might be insulting in anyway it was not meant that way. I appreciate your answers to these questions, and if you have questions of your own (I’m sure you know of lots of questions which I couldn’t answer), feel free to ask them. I do have other questions, but they can wait for another time – I’ve gone on for long enough. Thanks.

I’m going to answer your questions and address your points briefly as best I can (which, it turns out, isn’t very briefly at all ).

Don’t let the hate mail I (and other atheists) receive make you worry about calling yourself a Christian. There are plenty of people — both atheist and religious — who are obnoxious, unthinking, judgmental, or all of the above. This isn’t the fault of belief or lack thereof, it’s the fault of the individual. It has nothing to do with you, although trying to be a good example to counteract the idiots who say that they represent your group is certainly a good idea.

I do understand that the existence of God is a possibility. However, I should point out that I consider this to be a very, very remote possibility. In my opinion, there are many other more likely explanations for the universe.

You ask an interesting question about atheists having faith. To answer, I would first like to point out the difference between faith and trust. As I use the word, faith is believing in something without evidence or in spite of evidence. Trust is believing something because experience has shown that the source of the information is reliable. I trust that when I think I see a cat there really is a cat there, because my eyes have never deceived me to that extent. I have faith that the universe exists, even though I can’t test that statement, because other options make less sense.

It’s also common to trust a source for one type of information and not another. I trust medical information from my family doctor more than I trust it from my philosophy professor. I don’t trust what I see when I’m asleep.

I live in the United States, so let’s talk about my belief that Japan exists. I have met people from Japan who say it exists, I have seen atlases that show where Japan is, and my sister says she’s been to Japan. For me, these are trustworthy sources for information of this type, so I think they are sufficient evidence that Japan exists. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift writes about Japan. However, because most of the places in that book are obviously made up, I would not believe that Japan exists just because of Swift’s writing — I don’t trust him on this subject.

God is such a huge concept that I can’t imagine believing in Him just because someone said He existed. I trust you to tell me if you believe in God (since you are an expert on what you believe), but that does nothing to prove to me that God exists. It is not uncommon for people of all intelligence levels to sincerely believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. If I took their word for the existence of God, I’d have to take their word about all sorts of things, and that would complicate my search for truth unnecessarily.

So, because I don’t trust anyone’s expertise on the subject of God’s existence enough to take it as the final word on the subject, I must see convincing objective evidence of His existence. I have not seen this evidence, so my only other option for believing in God is to have faith that God exists. I do not feel that God exists, and I do not see that having this faith is my best available choice (as having faith that the universe exists does), so I have no faith that God exists.

So, to sum up, I agree that everyone has faith (as I define it) in some things. The goal should be to have faith in as few things as possible as a defense against unnecessary or incorrect beliefs.

Your second question is another complex one.

For the belief in Julius Caesar, you are correct that less evidence is required to believe in his existence than to believe in the existence of God. This is because the more extraordinary a claim is, the more evidence is required to support it. Scientists used to believe the thought that meteors fell from outer space was ridiculous, but after enough evidence was amassed, they changed their minds. They would need significantly more evidence to be convinced that meteors fell from outer space because God was throwing them at something, because introducing the concept of God massively complicates the issue.

The Bible does contain some historical facts (although not as many as some would like), but it also has a lot of things that are pretty obviously legendary (such as the Tower of Babel), or that should be considered extraordinary claims because they violate science as we know it (such as many miracle stories). I wouldn’t say that these things are obviously untrue, but I would say that I would need a lot more evidence before I considered them to be proven true.

Some argue that there is so much historical accuracy in the Bible that we should consider it accurate on all subjects. I do not believe that this logically follows. A biology text from the fifteenth century might have a lot of correct information in it, but that doesn’t mean I should consider it accurate by modern standards. Also, religious texts are unreliable (from my perspective) because their standard of truth and mine may not agree. For example, someone might say that they saw Jesus, when what they mean is that they saw Jesus in a vision. To me, these are not the same thing. Also, a religious person might argue that event X happened because it was prophesized that X would happen when Jesus was born, prophecies are true, Jesus was born, and therefore X must have occurred. This statement might have religious veracity, but it does nothing for me.

Let’s take another example. Homer’s Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War. There is now evidence that this war took place, and that some of the military facts in the Iliad are correct. The Iliad also says that the War was caused by the gods, that the gods took an active hand in it, and that warrior Achilles was invulnerable. How much evidence for the Iliad’s accuracy about the Trojan War would you need before you believed that it was sufficient evidence for the existence of the Greek gods and magical invulnerability? I assume that complete military accuracy would not be enough.

There are many, many examples like this. Another one: the Japanese used to trace their emperor’s ancestry back to the sun god. No matter how many hundreds of years of accurate ancestry they had, without a lot of additional proof I’m going to assume that the list of ancestors becomes inaccurate at some point before the deity is named. And I seem to recall reading about an Egyptian military monument on which was written that the Egyptians had completely wiped the Jewish race from the face of the earth. No matter how much we rely on such monuments for our history, we obviously can’t rely on this one.

At one point does the Bible turn from a historical document into a mythical text? There is no point at which this happens. The Bible mixed history and religion, and individual facts must be judged on their own merits. In some cases, the truth is not yet known because there is not enough evidence. All historical documents should be treated in this way, to one extent or another.

In the discussion of good, you make some excellent points. I agree that the term “good” is hard to define, and in fact I discuss this at length in some other conversations on this Web site. I also agree that if there is an all-powerful being, I can’t know its mind. Might this being and I disagree about what is good? Sure. But that doesn’t change the fact that I might consider its behavior not to be good. For example, an infinite being might believe that it can do whatever it likes for its own enjoyment with creatures it created, and that obtaining entertainment in this way is “good.” I would disagree. This does not mean that my definition of good is wrong, only that this deity and I have divergent moral systems.

Even if we can’t rigorously define good, I think that most people these days would say that not killing innocents is good and torturing the guilty is bad. Many religious people would say that these are things that are not good if people do them, but are good if God does them. In that case, we shouldn’t refer to God as good in the same way that we would tell an individual to be good. Things get even more complex when religious people refer to God as “infinitely good.”

But at the root of the argument, all this is irrelevant. My question was about how a particular religion defined God to be good under these circumstances — not about whether God really has these qualities. If their answer, akin to yours, is that God is good and we can’t say otherwise, then they are just defining “good” as “whatever God wants good to be,” and I’d say that this is a pointless definition.

By the way, in my experience, most religious people I’ve heard address this issue in a coherent way generally say that anyone who doesn’t believe in God is specifically showing hatred for God (whether they admit it or not), and that such hatred deserves eternal punishment even from an infinitely good, infinitely loving, infinitely forgiving deity. I don’t buy this argument at all.

Thanks for all the great questions. Nothing insulting here at all. If you have anything else to ask or wish to discuss any of these topics in greater detail, let me know.

Now, I have a question for you (and it’s a big one): If you don’t mind my asking, why do you believe God exists?

Posted on January 31, 2007 at 11:44 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: About atheism, Discussion, Evidence

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