A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: atheism & gods

29 Sep 2000 

First, let me thank you for devoting so much time to cataloguing and refuting many of the more destructive myths of the modern world. I find the Skeptic's Dictionary extremely interesting and valuable, as much as a tool of understanding scientific practices and thought as for the specific information it contains.

Let me preface the following by saying that I do not believe in god, and tend to alternate between atheistic and agnostic thought. I read today your article on atheism, and was somewhat surprised at it's contents. It seems to be the only writing in the Skeptic's Dictionary that is not particularly skeptical. In fact, it seems largely to be an apology for atheism, and an attack on the belief of god, rather than skepticism about atheism. I believe that there is the same lack of empirical evidence for the non-existence of god as there is for the existence of god. I would submit that while there is no problem with taking the non-existence of god as an article of faith (as I do), it may be somewhat misleading to include it in a body of work called The Skeptic's Dictionary. Again, thank you for providing such a good resource.
Peter Darley

reply: As I say on the front page of the SD: we have skeptical definitions and essays on occult, paranormal, supernatural and pseudoscientific ideas and practices with references to the best skeptical literature. I state in the Introduction that "The reader is forewarned that The Skeptic's Dictionary does not try to present a "balanced" account of occult subjects." If you want a book skeptical of atheism, logic, scientific methodologies such as using controlled experiments, empirical and materialistic philosophies, common fallacies of reasoning, naturalistic explanations, etc. (all of which have entries in the SD), then write it yourself.

14 Jul 1999
I am writing to you concerning your article regarding atheism. I wish to comment on the arguments that you presented against the existence of God and furthermore the way in which you approached the topic.

1. God is metaphysical, and as such, if he does exist, it is impossible to empirically prove his existence. It is therefore ridiculous to claim that he does not exist because there is no empirical proof.

reply: I have a feeling this is about the only thing we are going to agree on.

2. the whole article was written from the perspective of an atheist, and thus most the arguments tended to come from the perspective of an atheist attempting to justify their position. This is a poor technique to adopt, as it attempts to win the debate not by arguing, but rather putting down your opponents. After reading your article someone who was undecided about the existence of God would probably be swayed against belief in his existence, not by the power of your arguments, but by patronizing believers.

reply: Read the introduction to the SD. My purposes are stated there. As to your evaluation of how a reader would respond: is that how you responded? I don't think so. What does that imply?

3. the claim that we are imperfectly designed is not valid for two reasons. Firstly relies on the claim that we know the purpose for which we were designed, a claim which can not be substantiated. Secondly it assumes that we know what all the parts of an individual organ are for (to use the example of the ear, a long time ago people might have questioned what was the purpose of some of its components for an organ that was required for hearing. We now know that the ear also is responsible for maintaining balance).

reply: God is inscrutable. We can't know why he does anything. Yet, we can be sure that he has a purpose for everything. How? If we can't know the mind of God, then how can we know that there is a purpose to everything? Logically, the inscrutability of God implies that we can't have a clue as to God's purposes or lack of purpose. All these messages and signs that humans think they are getting from God may be nothing but delusions. God may really have nothing to do with your team's victory. In fact, God may not give a hoot about sports. God may not have saved your child. God may not be rational, if we allow that God is inscrutable. However, if we can't assume that God should be at least as nice and as intelligent as a moderately moral human of average intelligence, then we might as well abandon the topic of God and purposes.

4. science will never be able to determine the origins of this universe. This universe must have begun at some stage, therefore firstly space had to be created, and secondly matter had to be created. This means that something had to come from nothing, which violates one of the most basic laws of physics. Whilst this does not prove the existence of God (who being metaphysical, can not be empirically proved), it does make one less sure in their atheism.
Duncan Gill

reply: Your concept of space is very naive, but let's cut to the chase. If God is something and nothing can come from nothing then who made God ... ad infinitum. It may be mind boggling to you to imagine a world without a beginning, but it should be no less difficult to imagine any other thing, God included, as existing without a beginning.

Mr. Gill replies:

The idea that something supernatural did not have a beginning is not nearly as mind boggling as this universe not having a beginning. Mainly because one must rely on a scientific standpoint which states that the laws of physics remain constant over time (and therefore something couldn't have come from nothing), or must say that the laws of physics can change overtime, a claim that presents rather large problems for science seeing as one of the main aims of science it to have retest reliability, and furthermore opens itself up to the problem of what causes the laws to change? Which then leads us back to something external from the universe.

reply: Your logic escapes me. But if there is a God, what caused God to be and what causes God to create, etc.? You say God is uncaused and created the universe. Yet, God is immutable. How can an immutable being, who by definition is everything that is, bring anything into being without bringing about change? If God is unchangeable, then creation is impossible. Obviously, if there is a God, God is mutable. Nature is mutable. Who needs God to explain anything? 

Metaphysical entities are necessarily subject to "time" in the same way as entities in the physical world are. There is nothing to suggest that a metaphysical entity such as consciousness has a beginning - the only thing that can be claimed is that we remember being conscious up to a certain point in our past. Therefore it is not impossible that a metaphysical entity could have always existed.

reply: Is Mickey Mouse or Hamlet "subject to time", whatever that means? Every birth of every conscious creature proves (it doesn't just suggest) that consciousness has a beginning. Your concept of time is as naive as your concept of space.

What is a "metaphysical entity"? Do you mean non-physical being? If so, your point has already been granted: any kind of being could have always existed. Nature could have existed for eternity; God could have existed for eternity. We can't ignore the existence of Nature. We have no need to posit the existence of God.

11 May 1999
It has been awhile since I last emailed you, and I have finished my book, "And God made a mop, and it was good!"

I have put together a very strong (logical) argument for the mind of God, and the spiritual influence of God's mind on us through love and knowledge. Please consider the following:

1. Particle physicists allow for existence of virtual particles based solely on their effects as observed in particle accelerators. No different than the mind of God as seen through Alcoholic's Anonymous and its growth and proliferation into numerous spiritual treatments for obsessive behavior and continued mental health after the behavior is under control.

Reply: I beg to differ. The two cases are quite different. They share only the superficial similarity of being explanations. We have empirical methods of evaluating scientific explanations and eliminating the vast majority of them. We have nothing analogous with metaphysical claims. (Both types of explanations can be eliminated as unreasonable if they are logically flawed, i.e., self-contradictory or contradicted by experience.)

2. Quantum theory allows for matter to exist in multiple states, and the state depends on the method used to measure. The mind of God as measured by individuals will always reflect the state of the individual's mind. Therefore, God's effects are not individually and scientifically repeatable, but on a macroscopic scale generalizations can be made about the direction that God moves both individuals and society.

reply: Your analogy to quantum theory is inappropriate. That theory is proposed to account for what is actually observed under different conditions and for what seems to be implied by other (accepted) notions in physics. Believing that there is a God and that God has a mind are unnecessary hypotheses for the explanation of anything. The claim that any human idea of God is subjective is true but trivial. In this sense, every idea anyone has is subjective. Your conclusion seems to me to be a non sequitur. 

Proof: changes in individual behavior after spiritual experiences that are out of the norm (assumes only physical human intervention is accepted as normal). Peace felt by parents after death of a child. Both parents independently received telepathic communication from dying child while in hospital telling them that she would be OK. Proof: commonality of religious beliefs. Proof: Commonality of society's desire to organize in govts. Proof: Social movements by spiritual leaders like Ghandi or Martin Luther King.

reply: Proof of what? That people believe they are in communication with spirits? We already knew that.

3. Statistical results from Ganzfeld type experiments open the door for the brain to be a source of perception independent of the physical senses. Quantum teleportation proves that the vehicle for tremendous knowledge transfer exists in minute states over infinite distances. Thus, the mind of God can communicate directly with the individual human brain, and supply information that is not directly available to the individual through their own perception. Proof: the death of my mom over 400 miles away!

reply: ? Are you saying you killed your mom by paranormal means?

4. Tremendous amounts of moneys spent on Alternative Therapies only validate man's gut feeling that spirit-mind-body connection is real. Mind body connection is already accepted through relaxation and stress reduction techniques and their resultant influence on the immune system. Spirit mind connection is established above. So why doesn't it makes sense that the knowledge and love that God can provide would promote physical healing if a good relationship between man and God exists. My college experience is proof. My body was paralyzed as I carried on a telepathic conversation with God. No scientific theory exists to explain that other than the obvious. The voice was not of my own making, and I was not in a hypnopompic (whatever) state. I was totally conscious except that I could not move, and I had free will to choose to say whatever I felt. The brain has a tremendous capacity to create all sorts of chemical reactions in the body, so it only makes sense that if a force external of us can affect the brain then our health could be affected too. Fraudulent faith healings, crystal therapy, etc. clouds the spiritual argument with a lot of noise, but logic can see the spiritual influence in the human experience.
Ray Wilcox

reply: It seems that from your own comments you recognize that all the phenomena you attribute to God could be due to nothing more than biochemistry. 

15 Apr 1998

This is in response to many of the entries I've read in your Skeptic's Dictionary regarding religion vs. atheism:  I am glad being an atheist brings you comfort because that is one of the main purposes to beliefs, in my opinion.  That is why I don't quibble, as many Christians do, between the branches of Christianity.  If a person feels like they have a more comfortable relationship with God in a Catholic Church than a Protestant Church, a Baptist Church than in a Pentecostal Church, or a Methodist Church rather than a Lutheran Church, then who am I to tell them they are worshiping God the wrong way?  How am I supposed to know which way God prefers?  We will all find out the "truth" for ourselves when we die and I have faith that God is forgiving and merciful, just as the scripture promises.

reply: I don't know what gave you the idea that I find comfort in being an atheist. I find neither comfort nor discomfort in atheism. You are apparently not alone in believing that one should choose his or her beliefs according to how much comfort they provide. I don't subscribe to this view. I have a feeling that many of your fellow Christians would chastise you for encouraging people to relate to Christianity in whatever way feels comfortable.

As I'm sure you can tell by now, I am not comforted by the idea that everything is an accident and there is no purpose to life.  Please allow me to explain the method to my madness, or delusion if you prefer.

I don't understand how there can be morals when there is no God.  I don't understand how a person can determine a "right" or a "wrong."  You seem to believe these concepts exist since you have written that pornography that teaches men that women enjoy being raped and mutilated is a lie. Why does a lie offend you?  Why does it even matter whether or not it is a lie?  Why does it matter what women or anyone else in the world enjoys?  What makes it matter?

reply: It is for people who believe as you do that we have laws. You apparently would not refrain from murdering children unless you believed God ordered you to refrain from such behavior. Even if God unequivocally peeked through the clouds and revised the ten commandments to allow murder and theft, our laws would still require you to refrain from such behavior. Or do you think that the only reason we have such laws is because God requires us to honor other people's lives and property?

You obviously are not a student of philosophy or you would know that the majority of ethical theories and arguments in Western philosophy are not based on a belief in God. In fact, most of them have been developed specifically to establish moral values on non-religious grounds. This is not the place to try to explain Aristotle's ethics, or Bentham and Mill's Utilitarianism, or Kantian ethics, etc. I suppose I find it just as difficult to understand why you or anyone needs God to define morals for them. Would you really not be offended by rape if God said it was ok? Would murder not seem wrong to you if God did not forbid it? Could you live in a world where lying was as valued as telling the truth, even if God permitted lying?

You may think you are living according to God's word when you "love your neighbor as yourself" but it is you who has to put an interpretation on those words in a specific human context. It is you who decides how to act in a concrete situation. Such rules, even if they come from God, don't interpret themselves. You have to take full responsibility for how you act. If you want to believe that God inspires believers to interpret the rules "correctly" then you will have to explain why so many people who claim to be inspired by God contradict one another and often seek each other's destruction. In the final analysis, all moral rules are interpreted and applied by humans, which makes them human rules, whatever their origin. Your view makes it sound like we are all children who have to be told right from wrong because we will never grow up and figure it out for ourselves.

Whether a person believes that God took up clay and breathed life into it or amino acids were mixed together in the primordial soup, either way all life on this planet is dirt. Living matter is made up of iron, carbon, calcium, water, all elements found in the earth.  So if a person is an atheist, and believes that it is purely chance that life exists, then what does it matter what these elements feel?  It was purely chance that these elements were imbued with feelings in the first place, who cares if they are hurt?  A person is just going to die and go into the grave and become nothing but elements again anyway, why does it matter what they did or what was done to them when they were alive?

reply: Life may be dirt, but it is not only dirt, any more than Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is only sounds or the Grand Canyon is only rocks. The sperm and egg which gave rise to your existence came together purely by chance. Do you think that had your parents been atheists they would have thought less of your uniqueness? The sentiment you express--that since none of us gets out of here alive we might as well just kill ourselves--doesn't make sense to me.  If this is all there is, then why not make the best of it? You might as well argue that since we all live forever, what difference does it make what we do while we are alive? If you believe this is all there is, it makes it all the more special and deserving of our interest.

What does life matter?  It was an accident.  It's not a gift.  It's not a right.  It just happened.  So what makes murder wrong?  A person is going to die anyway.  What does it matter if it's today or 10 years from now?  What does it matter if it hurts their family?  Their family is just breathing dirt and they will die and not have feelings any more either.

reply: If the only reason you are not harming people is because you believe God forbids it, then I encourage you to continue in this "comforting" belief. Don't ever change. But consider that the family is no more just breathing dirt than a galaxy is just atoms. Life may not be a right, but neither is the taking of life. It may not matter to you whether I die today or ten years from now, but it matters to me. Just because something does not matter to you, does not give you the right to destroy it. 

It has been my observance that many people, perhaps even most, will try to get away with anything they can if they believe they won't get caught.  So if there is no God keeping an eternal tote board, if we are just elements that accidentally started breathing and thinking, then what does it matter what we do?  It doesn't matter if a baboon steals another baboon's food, it doesn't matter if a guppy eats its own babies, why should it matter if a human being does the same things?  What makes it wrong if there's no God to tell us it's wrong and punish us?

reply: You must hang around with a rough crowd. My experience has not been that most people do whatever evil they can get away with. I would be the last to say that most members of the human species are saints. Most are neither great sinners nor saints. It might give you comfort to believe that all the cruel and evil persons on the planet are atheists and all the good ones are theists, but your belief is false. By the way, where does God say "Thou shalt not eat thy children"?

We're supposed to be better than animals because we have a conscience.  The guppy doesn't care if she swallows all her offspring.  The baboon doesn't care if his neighbor starves.  We're supposed to be above that.  Why?  Why does our conscience matter if there is no soul attached to it that will be made to pay for its wrongs?  Why should anyone feel guilt?

reply: It is true that we don't usually think other animals have moral obligations because they don't have the ability to understand right from wrong or the power to control their behavior. But there is no need to posit a soul in order to understand either conscience or guilt. These are socially and biologically induced. Sociopaths and psychopaths, who behave as your baboon or guppy, are not to be explained by their lack of souls or lack of belief in God (some of them even think they are divine themselves). The answer is more likely social and biochemical than theological.

You can argue that an atheist doesn't commit "wrongs" because he doesn't want someone to do the same things to him ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," in other words), but why does an atheist care what happens to him?  Why is self-preservation important?  It was an accident that he is alive, that he has feelings, and he's going to go into the grave where he won't have feelings or memories of what caused them anymore.  How egotistical to care about yourself when you are just dirt.

reply: I can't speak for other atheists, but I know why I don't want others to harm me: it hurts and I don't like being hurt. Do you only refrain from killing yourself because you believe God says suicide is a no-no? Such a belief hardly seems comforting.

That's my opinion, anyway.  If life is an accident, then we are just like rats and cockroaches.  Rats and cockroaches don't care for each other, just as we don't care for them.  We have a conscience, but it must be an accident too if there was no God to lay down the guidelines for "right" and "wrong."  If we have no soul or God keeping track of us, then humans aren't any more important than rats and cockroaches.  Why should we care for each other then?  Rats and cockroaches will probably outlast human beings, why not emulate them?

reply: In a very real sense, humans aren't more important than rats and cockroaches. Every living thing is an equal, evolutionally speaking: we've all proved we are fit to survive. We are like rats and cockroaches in the way you mention: we're all the result of accidental and purposeless processes. But, unlike rats and cockroaches, we can choose to make our lives meaningful or not. Life is meaningless, but lives are not. How meaningful your life is depends on you and the choices you make. Why would you think that your life could only be meaningful if you were created to play a role in a Divine Comedy?

I read on your web page that Christians are egotists.  It seems to me that atheists are egotists as well.  Atheists don't have a "higher power" or anyone to answer to but themselves.  They are the centers of their own universes.  Please tell me if you honestly think I am wrong.  Please explain to me the basis for the atheist moral code.  Please explain to me how anything can be important if everything is just an accident.  Please tell me how you can stand the idea of an existence that will culminate in nothingness.  I don't think I could get out of bed in the morning knowing that, upon my death, I will live only in the memories of people who knew me, and when they die I will cease to exist altogether.  Then why even bother living?  In the vain hope that I accomplish something great that will immortalize me in the history books?  How egotistical.  Please tell me, what is your motivation to live if you are going to be dust?

reply: I think you may be referring to my claim that concern for one's own eternal salvation as the ultimate goal in life is the ultimate in selfishness. The goal of existence is to achieve eternal bliss for oneself. On the other hand, I don't see how it follows that because atheists do not recognize a higher power we must believe that we are each the center of our own universes. I take you to think that this means that we only care about ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. Atheists have families, jobs, communities, interests, etc.

You ask about my own personal motivations for not killing myself. I'll die soon enough. I have a lovely family. I have a job I find very satisfying. I enjoy writing pieces like this one. I enjoy the company of a good book or a good friend. I have many interests and find many things very interesting and enjoyable. Do I ever stop and ask myself, why don't you kill yourself right now, since you're going to die anyway? No, I can't say that such questions plague me.

I doubt you will persuade me to adopt your beliefs any more than I will persuade you to adopt mine.
(name withheld by request)

reply: Well, we agree on one thing at least.

1 May 1998
I have read your point of view on Atheism and God.  You defend your points well.  However, your "imperfect universe" argument doesn't seem to hold water.  Like Nitzan Herzog said, God would know what the best design of systems is.  Your counterargument was that you "don't try to disprove the existence of God by pointing out inefficiencies and imperfections of design."  This seems to a weak response, sort of a cop-out.  You respond that we are "abandoning reason" by saying that God uses different standards.  Why is that abandoning reason?  I imagine my standards on good music and beautiful women are different than yours. Why does this argument bother you?  At the very least you should give some reasons why the "imperfect universe" argument is still a convincing argument for atheism.  And if it's not ... I recommend you remove that portion from the page.

reply: I grant that a perfect Being would know what is the best design of a universe. If God is perfect, then anything emanating from God must be perfect. Maybe God is not perfect. Or maybe God does not exist.

On a different note, what is your view on Jesus Christ?  You probably agree that he was a man who preached, etc. in the first century, so I'll take that for granted, although I suppose you could believe he never existed.

reply: My view does not differ substantially from Bertrand Russell's ("Why I Am Not a Christian").

According to your arguments, all of his miracles must have been delusions by all who viewed them.  He claimed to be God - since you don't believe in God, you must believe he's a liar.  So do you think Christ was a creator of mass delusion?  A master of deception?
Donald Lowe

reply: If he claimed to be God, as you claim he claimed, he could have been deluded or he could have been a liar. But I don't think he claimed to be God. He did claim that the end of the world was at hand, and he was wrong. If anyone was a creator of a mass delusion, it was Paul of Tarsus. As for my view on miracles, see my entry on miracles.

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