Monday, January 24, 2011

An atheist response to the big questions of life

I have never posted anything like this before, but will do so today.  A friend of a friend who is an atheist has decided to answer three questions that I posed for him.  The three questions revolve around origins, the resurrection, and morality.  I wanted to post this in order to stir debate.  I encourage all who would like to respond to do so.  My friend's friend runs a website called "The Atheist Revolutionary" and obviously views reality differently from myself.  I will copy the response from Mike below.  If you choose to post please keep your comments on topic and address one another in a respectful manner.  Thanks Mike for answering my questions, and I'm sure I'll respond when time permits.

This article follows from a personal FaceBook post I made to a friend and discusses three specific questions concerning an Atheist view on how the universe was created, thoughts on the resurection and the question of morality sans a or The God.

Pose I These Questions Three: Question the first... and so on.

by Michael Tippets

Let me first state that I have never done this before (I’ve wanted to, and have actively been working toward it as evidenced by the page you find yourself viewing now). But I am not (yet) an atheist apologist if the two words can be used in conjunction. I have not ever taken the time to put down my views on atheism or more directly the particular questions you posed Shelby (Shelby Cade). I am just a normal guy who likes to read a little bit who tends to critically view things, and I like a challenge. I’m happy to participate in your blog if you see fit, and I can assure you that I am a civilized individual and as such I am capable of keeping an argument reasonable even when the topic itself defies reason. So I’ve written the following answers to your questions in my standard way of writing as opposed to just talking to you. Hopefully it makes for an entertaining read since the subject matter will most likely have you chomping at the bit. But read it through, no skimming ;)

Kevin, our mutual friend, mine of 25 years, probably knows I was raised in the church, but not even remotely to what extent. While most people were sleeping in on Sunday I was up before the sun, showered and dressed in my Sunday best to either walk or bus to church. EVERY Sunday. Mind you; I did not just show up for Sunday services, I participated in the church from my earliest memories: I sang in youth and regular choirs, I ministered to my peers and just like Jesus I ministered to the adults who listened with rapt attention, I carried the torch both figuratively and literally as an acolyte, I held the lifeblood of the church in my hands as a giver and taker of communion and as an usher, I have not only attended but have been a full ‘jumped in’ member of churches ranging in size from 30 people to as many as 1,000 for a candlelight mass. I have attended regularly: Baptist, southern Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and even Catholic services in my life. My name is privileged to be on the register in the 100 year cornerstone time capsule at Trinity United Methodist. I've attended outward bound and a dozen different Christian and similar youth retreats, and I’ve even represented my God at an international bell ringers’ festival. I helped start the Turnabout program, a Christian run program to help street people here in Denver when I was 12. Long gone now. By the time I was 16 I knew more about the bible, and the church, than most people will ever know. And through all of it I can say without question that religion does not hold a monopoly on morality.

"How did the Universe come to be?"

I hate this question because it is always used as a circular trap. But here goes… Bang. Big one so I’m told. But how did the bang happen? What was before? Most people get the idea that it must have been nothing, particularly as the bible never really addresses the issue at the time of creation. But I don’t believe that this is the scientific view because in fact; nothing, from the human perspective, is an absence of everything but it is also understood to be a lack of cohesion of otherwise recognizable parts of a future something. Imagine a pile of Legos before you have assembled them. To the scientific mind this says that yes, there was this vastness, not a void. Within this vastness existed the things necessary to create a universe but they didn’t actually realize that potential within that vastness, not a void, until they collided, collapsed, expanded, went bang. That is how the universe was created.

But now comes the trap, the infinite regress argument of; “well where did that stuff come from? “ And I will address that question thusly; we can argue this circularly back and forth all day when I throw back the requisite question, “where did God come from?” because he is subject to the infinite regress argument as well. But I’m not interested in playing that game so I’m going to keep it super simple and try to present a notion that doesn’t dismiss God but rather creates a plausible situation that does not REQUIRE God.

The creation story in Genesis as I remember is about God giving the earth form, and then he added day and night, followed up by plants and life on the earth. And somewhere in between the day, night, plant animal stuff, it is mentioned in passing that the heavens and waters are separated by the firmament on which said plants and animals would make their home. Depending on how you read the first two verses of Genesis, one might be lead to believe that the components for creation existed, at the very least, alongside God. Let me explain. Where some people read the beginning of the bible like this; Dear reader, God created the heavens and the earth and it was without form or void (after he created it) so then he went to work giving it such. But one could just as easily read the intro to the bible like this… Dear reader, God created the heavens and the earth. He took this stuff without form and meshed it all together and viola. Do you see the subtle difference?

Nobody can reasonably explain to me the existence of a God outside the laws of our universe except as a supernatural existence, not even Thomas with his five proofs. But my argument here does not ask you to believe anything more than the existence of the components necessary to create a universe as even the bible seemingly may suggest.

I’m going to answer your 3rd question next because I’m saving the important question of where morality is derived from for last.

"How do I explain the resurrection of Jesus and the spread of early Christianity?"

There are so many real reasons for a real Jesus figure and the cult that followed that it is hard to find a place to begin so I’m gonna pick a starting point and just try to make a quick hit on as many important notions as I can without turning this into a novel. Jesus is just a name, anyone could have it. So, a rose by any other name... And just as the name Jesus can be given to many individuals, so too can: the story of the virgin birth, the stars, the wise men, the stable, the life of teaching in the temple, the death, the resurrection, the empty tomb, the disciples, the battle of light vs dark, good vs evil, all of these had been told in as many as 30 different cultures for at least 3,000 years before Jesus is said to have existed. I’m not talking about just some vague references to a Solar Messiah (SUN of God) or 12 signs of the Zodiac (the 12 apostles). I’m talking: nearly every single aspect of the Jesus mythology existed pre Jesus. There’s almost nothing new under the SON. Sorry for the bad PUN. Just take any one of the previously motioned aspects and do research on the history of it, start with virgin birth (but that’s not important I’ve been told) Yet even the bible itself sets up the precedent for core belief of virgin or otherwise miraculous births (Isacc, John the Baptist, and Moses to name a few) as well as the resurrection of at least nine others including Elija and Lazarus before we ever get to it happening to Jesus.

So frankly the resurrection of Jesus is just old hat, been there done that as the kids used to say. It’s certainly nothing special in theory and given the ‘fact’ that it happens quite regularly in the religious world (over); it’s not real special in practice either. As Jesus hangs dying from the cross he cries out in such pain over having been forsaken and his dying breath causes the ground to shake, the veil of the temple to split in half, and the tombs to open unleashing the bodies of dead saints to roam the city streets and scare the people, not ghosts, raised bodies. "And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,And came out of the graves after his resurrection , and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God."

I highlighted the above two portions because every version of the bible seems to say basically the same thing; which in and of itself is something of a miracle. But if you read that passage again; where Matthew succeeds in failing to cause his interpreters to disagree, he masterfully succeeds in contradicting himself. Matthew very clearly states that the guards are watching this happen while Jesus is on the cross next to them after having just died, and at the same time calls Jesus resurrected? Should I refuse to argue this point because I’m told by the religious scholar that it doesn’t matter[1] while he evades the actual question? And that because Matthew doesn’t clarify, even though it is written inline, the events actually PROBABLY happened after every single one of the following events, even though it is written before them all? Evening falls, Joseph of Arimathaea goes to Pilate to ask for the body to prepare it, body is prepared and placed in the tomb, Joseph rolls the stone in place, the Pharisees ask Pilate to place a guard at the tomb, the Mary’s come to the tomb, earthquake again, guards die, angel shows the Mary’s that Jesus is missing, and finally on the road to tell the others the Mary’s run into a resurrected Jesus. A guy who two verses before is really very extremely and most clearly dead. You think that I’m wrong? Then just exactly whose body is Jesus resurrected in while his body is still hanging on the cross and yet to be subjected to all that was mentioned? Mel Gibson and another version of the Christian religion seem to think that Jesus spent the next three days in hell. Am I supposed to believe that too or instead? Well I can answer that one by reading the book too. No, it is not biblical, from what I can tell. Jesus’ own words contradict the notion of him going to hell when he clearly says to one of the others being crucified that he would be in heaven with Jesus on THAT day. For the record, Mathew does not tell that part of the story and leaves us to believe that both the thieves mocked him just as the people and the priests did.

I mention this simply to make one overall point. Gibson aside, just exactly who and what am I supposed to believe with this confused and rambling narrative? Why is it that the witnesses who authored the accounts don’t even agree with themselves let alone each other? Which bible author gets it right? I challenge Christians to read the gospels again for the first time with an eye toward the differences instead of the similarities. They hardly agree on much beyond the fact that the man was called Jesus. I’m only slightly exaggerating.

I’m not an anthropologist so I would miss what may seem to others as obvious language or ideas in explaining how something like Christianity spreads but I’ll try to lay it out in short so we can move on to the last, best question.

How big was the world in Jesus’ time? In a real sense it was just as big as it is now but not as many people, and, who knows how they lived without it, no Fox News Channel. In a very real other sense, for exactly the same reasons, it was tiny. Most people knew nothing of the outside world and never ventured beyond the borders of their own town. Many, if not most people could not read and relied on the word of trusted learned others such as religious or political figures for the bulk of their hands off learning. And don’t forget the influence of mom, she was raised with even less knowledge than child was and is already (you’ll hate this word) indoctrinated with the current religious fad, or view if I’m trying to be nice about it. I today have science, archeology, anthropology, and hundreds of personal perspectives as actual so called scientific evidence, but the Christian will be presented that evidence and still choose the supernatural explanation of life in many if not most instances. So my point is that while pervasive, the rise of Christianity and subsequent influence requires nothing more than mans’ own nature. We don’t need Gods help to spread ideas, good or bad.

"Where does the sense of moral obligation come from?"

And at last we arrive at the most important question. Not the question of life the universe and everything. That’s right, 42. Rather, last is the question of morality: can, would, could, should man be a moral creature without a God to show him how to do it? Let’s weigh the evidence and see what we get.

First, Kevin, I want you to know that I did not purposely avoid the question of morality, the fact is I too am guilty of having skimmed Shelby’s post, but in my defense; my skim is better than most people’s full on attention, I simply just didn’t catch it to address it. So to continue… I think the specific question posed contains extraneous language and should be rephrased to exclude the word obligation. I see no reason to insist that we are obliged to morality (unless there is fire and brimstone to face for failure to oblige morality) But since it is there, I will address it. I think it is much more accurate to say we are almost selfishly given to morality. In the case of so called morality questions: life, death, fair treatment of others, that sort of thing, it is without question in our best interest to behave in a manner towards others which is likely to induce similar treatment to ourselves which obviously helps to ensure our own individual survival.

It seems to me that the best place to start looking for biblically derived morality is the moral code of the bible itself, at least the most glaring example of it, The Ten Commandments.

I. Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me. Not about morality.

II. Thou Shalt Not Make Any Graven Image... Not about morality.

III. Thou Shalt Not Take The Lords Name In Vain. No moral issue there. Anyone see a pattern developing here (these are in order by the way)?

IV. Remember The Sabbath Day, Keep It Holy. Still all about God.

V. Honor Thy Mother & Thy Father. Ok, here we go half way in. Good idea here, but I didn’t need to be told this. We are born trusting those people anyway, and it follows naturally that one would honor, obey, believe, trust, those people until they give reason not to be treated thusly. I have always wondered if the argument is that, these people are infallible and should ALWAYS be trusted? Particularly since mommy and daddy are likely to be the first ones to tell me a fantastic tale about a bearded man who lives in the sky and who apparently really needs a loan (thank you Carlin) I’m just supposed to take it as read that it’s true?

VI. Thou Shalt Not Kill. Come on, this one is a ‘no-brainer’ and I could let it go as being easily accepted at our core, but I instead choose to examine just a bit further to bring the lack of any real morality home. Let’s restate this one for what it really means. Thou Shalt, in general, under most circumstances, involving people like yourself and of your own tribe and belief, when not decreed by me (God) or one of my speakers (do you really need me to point out examples?), Not Kill.

VII. Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery. Fantastic, but is it a moral imperative? And whose morality is it? There are many cultures and religions where such things are not frowned on. In the bible ‘One Flesh’ has been used to describe the special relationship between man and wife, but it is also used by Paul to describe sex with a prostitute. Does the latter demean the former? Maybe? There are religions that allow you to make legal exceptions to this rule and further the rule is often historically applied more heavily to women and often just so men can use it as an excuse to sever the relationship in order to start fornicating with someone else.

VIII. Thou Shalt Not Steal. More good advice. I would even go so far as to call it a good moral code to live by. Just the notion of an Eye for an Eye tells us that this may be one to heed. But that is Hammurabi’s code, not Gods. Did we really need divine intervention to bring this point home?

IX. Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor. I would argue here that while this is a great and moral approach to life; it’s been proven that often language like this meant literally the guy next door who is just like me. He is not from the other tribe; he is of my kind and therefore acceptable. It is perfectly fine and dandy in the bible and other religions to lie to anyone else. How moral indeed! This widely accepted fact of tribal superiority can unfortunately be applied to all the so called moral commandments.

X. Thou Shalt Not Covet... This is a weird one. There are a million reasons why this is good advice but as a commandment directing one toward morality it comes down as pretty Orwellian, something of a thought crime. An argument can be made that telling someone something is off limits, particularly a thought in their own head, can cause the individual to fixate on the forbidden to the point they are actually driven to partake in the taboo. That leaves me questioning the usefulness of pointing these things out as off limits. It seems almost as if God has purposely planted the seeds of our undoing just to sit back and see if we can navigate our way through the mines he’s left for us. That’s a game, rats in a maze for the master’s amusement and it just doesn’t fit with what the overall God of creation makes himself out to be. It is contrary to free will and reeks of man-ipulation and influence.

I could keep going but I’ve gone on long enough and all this typing is starting to catch up with me. I’ll just wrap this topic of morality up by leaving you with this idea. For every bible verse that describes an act of selflessness and morality there are two filled with hate and vitriol toward different minded, different looking, different sex peoples. Again I only exaggerate slightly.

I want to end by stating some points about atheism. Atheism is not synonymous with evil or tantamount to moral ambiguity. It is in fact very much the logical and natural answer to pretend good and false morality foisted upon us by ignorant predecessors and a religious establishment which tends to work more for its own survival than for that of its flock, all for questionable reasons of questionable origins. Atheists do not worship Gods of good or evil though because we deny God we are often directly associated with Satanists when in fact we laugh even louder at people who claim Satan as a God than we do at those who claim God. (Grow up Slayer) To the educated among us; Satan, the cartoon character in a red suit, is a late addition to the mythos and is clear evidence of a drive to enhance the God persona by giving our Super hero a Super villain to battle for over our souls. "And what about Stalin and Hitler?" A voice cries from the crowd as the house lights come on and the audience prepares to leave. "They were atheist." And so it would seem at least in the case of Stalin, Hitler’s religious convictions are arguable when he claimed up to the year of his death to be a good Catholic both in his words and the words of many of those who knew him best. But what of it? They are two of histories hundreds or thousands of world leaders many of which are personally responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths caused directly by their decree and their faith that God was on their side. No, religion holds no monopoly on morality.

[1]"And came out of the graves after his resurrection - The narrative of Matthew does not determine whether they came to life before Jesus rose, and remained in the tombs, or came to life after he died. The latter is probably the correct opinion. There is nothing said of the reason why they were raised. It is not improbable to suppose that it was, amid the other wonders attending the death of Jesus, to convince the Jews that he was the Messiah." –Albert Barnes

by Michael Tippets -Creator/Contributor


Shelby Cade said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks again for the answers. I don't have time to answer everything in full due to time right now, but will try to get the debate going by answering your blog in pieces. I have encouraged some Christian apologists to respond and I hope to post their responses in the future if they care to do so.

Today, I will just simply respond to your intro. concerning Christianity. I don't know your heart and your past commitment to Jesus growing up, but I did notice some statements you made in the intro. that I wanted to address. Being a Christian is all about a relationship with Jesus, by trusting that his death on the cross was a payment for our sins. I noticed how you had participated at several churches and had even started a service to others, but this does not mean you are a Christian, anymore than being in a garage makes you a car. Jesus said many would come to him and say, "Lord, Lord, look at what I did"(I'm paraphrasing here), but this does not qualify one for heaven. I believe there are some that actually show up every Sunday for church, but will be turned away, because they never really committed their lives to Jesus.

Again, I'm not questioning if you were Christian or not at some time in the past, I'm only saying that attendance in church and even knowledge of Scripture does not necessarily make one right with God.

Shelby Cade said...

Where did the universe come from?

You totally punted on this question. If there is a circular trap it's because you are only approaching the question from one direction - a naturalistic explanation. We all know that Bang's have bangers. A beginning has to have a cause. Causes have causers. So, I will challenge you once again to explain the cause of the universe. I will respect an I don't know answer, but don't try a Stephen Hawkins explanation by saying the universe just popped into existence

K. Turner said...

Mike, according to your response you suggest that morality is a suggestive influence that is in the best interest of our species survival. I not only find this very improbable but also easily tested. If morality was an acquired trait, established by adaptation for species survival, then we would see more species with moral behavior. From my observations it seems that less intelligent groups resort to survival of the fittest. The dominant male gets the mate, the weak are left for dead, and males often eat their young to bring the females in season. Why is it that humans care for the noncontributing? Why don’t we eat our young? You say that it’s in our best interest, but I strongly disagree. If morality is only a suggestive influence then our species would not be a success. Morality, which I believe is an obligation, is a gift from God to encourage us to look beyond mere survival.

Shelby Cade said...

Mike says this concerning the creation of the universe, "Depending on how you read the first two verses of Genesis, one might be lead to believe that the components for creation existed." Wrong! Verse one says, " In the beginning God created..." This is ex nihilo creation or creation out of NOTHING. The Hebrew word for created is "bara" and literally means creation from nothing. Where did the universe come from Mike?

Shelby Cade said...

Hi Mike,

I want to start pecking at so e of your resurrection statements. You said, "I’m talking: nearly every single aspect of the Jesus mythology existed pre Jesus." While it true myths exist pre-Jesus, the claims of Christianity are historical and not myth. What you need to do is explain the known empty tomb, the individuals who claimed to have encountered the risen Jesus, and finally explain how individuals were willing to spread the news of Jesus, knowing that it would probably cost them their lives. This is something you have not done. Until you can explain away those three aspects, I am justified in accepting the evidence of Jesus resurrection.

william said...

SO why is an infinite regress of causes for the natural world problematic? I think that's a psychological fact for some people, and has nothing to do with reasoning or rules of inference.