Tough Questions for Atheists

As you’ve probably guessed already, this is a post by Tim (general rule: Tim’s posts are about philosophy, religion, or science, whereas Kathryn’s are about Eden or recipes and have pictures).  Hope you enjoy this one and that it makes you think about the deeper issues in life!

There are many people who think that Christians live by faith and atheists live by facts, but anyone who has examined the two belief systems in any detail whatsoever knows that this is simply not the case. When I was in high school, and even throughout my first year or so of University, I’m going to be honest: I would have loved to be an atheist. There are so many appealing factors about atheism: no need to go to church or follow silly religious traditions, apparent freedom from conviction and guilt as a result of – what Christians would consider to be – immoral behaviour, basically no obligation to do good to others (outside of one’s own personal desire, which is generally very little)… the list could go on, but when it comes down to it the most appealing thing about atheism for me was freedom from the constraints of religion.

I’m not going to get into why all these perceptions of Christianity vs. atheism are fundamentally false, but I would like to point out some of the barriers to atheism for me. These are what I found to be a few of the tough questions; the ones that made me realize that plunging in would require at least as much faith as committing my life to Christ. Atheists – I welcome you to defend your beliefs in response:

  1. WHY does anything exist? It’s one thing to come up with various theories on how the universe came to be, from a physical, historical perspective, but that’s an entirely different question. Atheism (or naturalism, we’ll say) is grounded in the belief that truth can only really be known via factual evidence, repeatable experiments, etc. It’s basically an extension of the scientific method to the entirety of existence. What gets me though, is that one of the most basic principles of scientific reasoning is that of “cause and effect” – nothing just happens without a cause. In order to cause a change in the trajectory of a moving object, for example, there must be some kind of intervention. So why (not how) did this vast expanse of matter we call the universe come into being in the first place? What could have initiated it from the state of nothingness that preceded its existence? As far as I can tell, to believe it just happened requires as much blind faith as believing it was intentional; in fact, the former belief strays further from basic reasoning than the latter, in my opinion.
  2. Genetic mutations lead to improvements? Seriously? I don’t believe DNA is a conspiracy or sinister invention of ‘evolutionists’, but I just can’t wrap my head around the concept of mutations being the basis of improvement (or, to be less subjective, of increases in the complexity of organisms, since naturalists could easily argue that humans do not represent an improvement over cyanobacteria). Here’s how I see it: we already have names for the effects of genetic mutation: most commonly disease and disability. Genes are highly specific sets of instruction for the production and assembly of each of our bodily components; when they become damaged, by errors in transcription, UV (or other) radiation, etc., depending on the location of the error on the gene and which aspect it was coded for, the result is generally (can I say always?) loss of intended function. Loss of function results in disability, disfigurement, disease (e.g. cancer), and so on… if this is the best explanation we can come up with for advancements in organism complexity, I’m not buying it.
  3. How can we explain the changes you see in peoples lives when they come to faith in Jesus? Becoming a Christian often leads to pretty radical changes in the lives of new believers. People are often ‘delivered’ instantaneously from addictions, crippling guilt, various kinds of spiritual oppression, etc. Some are miraculously healed (either upon conversion, prior to, or sometime afterwards). Sure, there have been plenty of scams and fakes out there over the years (Jesus anticipated that people would try to use his message for profit), but this stuff really does happen and it’s amazing. I personally know people who have been healed from physical ailments through prayer. I actually was healed once myself, much to my disbelief, as discussed in a previous post (on my old blog). If the basis of science is accepting the most reasonable conclusion based on observed phenomena, doesn’t this evidence speak for itself? What else can you do with this evidence? You can’t say, “well there are some things we just don’t know the answer to yet” – that’s exactly the stance that Christians are criticised for by atheists, only we hope to hear it from God one day when we meet face-to-face, whereas naturalists wait to hear the answers from men. If you do accept that there are some things that may never be understood, you are indeed placing your faith in your beliefs.

I suppose I could go on, but I’ve already written enough to make my point and (hopefully) provoke some discussion. If you’re agnostic – that is, you think we can never know one way or the other, so you’re just sitting on the fence – I don’t want to hear about it, because you’re effectively an atheist. When it comes down to it, everyone has to decide where they stand, and not deciding really is deciding in the end, since your lifestyle will be the evidence of your beliefs.

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6 thoughts on “Tough Questions for Atheists

  1. Heya Tim! It’s your cousin John here. I’ve been athiest/agnostic ever since a couple years after starting university; getting away from the powerful indoctrination environment I went through growing up, meeting lots of people who think different, and improving my critical thinking skills.. it’s a wonderful feeling to be free let me tell you =)

    I’ll make some brief responses, don’t want to write a book here!

    1. WHY does anything exist?
    If you can be comfortable with the answer “no reason, and/or we don’t know” then you have achieved a kind of peace, don’t you think? It just is. It’s not consequential to my life. We like to learn about it because that’s what science is all about, understanding, but it’s not a requirement for living. Saying “I don’t know” is not faith based.

    2. Genetic mutations lead to improvements? Seriously?
    Yes. They lead to improvements in fitness, disadvantages in fitness, and inconsequential changes all. Evolution (natural selection and genetic drift) is a strongly supported as gravity and thermodynamics. It’s as close a thing to “fact” as science has. This is seriously not a tough question at all.

    3. How can we explain the changes you see in peoples lives when they come to faith in Jesus?
    As much as some might want, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” The scientific establishment would be happy to have a peer reviewed, objective, properly constructed and executed study showing evidence for things like this. I’m not aware of any personally. As for myself, escaping Christianity led to pretty awesome changes in my life, so there’s my anecdote.

    P.S. I still feel the effects of my religious indoctrination once in awhile. Such as now: when I read your post and was considering responding, the adrenaline got my heart pumping and it still is.. questioning the church, now there’s a fight or flight response! The indoctrination is deep, and really annoying, but I can now recognize when it’s affecting me, and just deal with it.

    • Hi John!

      Fair points (and quickly assembled, suggesting that these are well thought-out issues for you!). It is hard not to write a book about these issues, but I think you did a great job of summarizing your points. Of course, I still feel that point #1 is faith-based in the sense that it involves trust in the absence of proof. It’s interesting to note that, in both instances, there comes a point at which peace is derived from being content in not knowing all the answers.

      The mutation issue is perhaps the weakest one presented here. I completely understand the theory and studied it pretty extensively in the course of my geology degree; however, we (humanity) just haven’t had the time (and arguably never will) to observe “improvements” – as you know, I use this term loosely since from an evolutionary perspective it’s subjective – due to mutation on a measurable scale. I think it differs from gravity and (some aspects of) thermodynamics in this regard… maybe I’ll just always be a skeptic!

      Anecdotes are not data, but disregarding anecdotes can be equivalent to disregarding data in some cases; after all, we are human beings, not simply data processors, and life is a series of anecdotes in a way, not a sequence of calculations (I’m sure some people would argue otherwise though!).

      My fight or flight response also set in while writing, posting, and now responding to this. It’s an issue close to the heart, and one that brings into question the very way we define ourselves… now I’m wondering, does that mean we’ve chosen to fight? Haha. I don’t think so… anyway, I’ll leave it at that for now, but thank you for responding! I will consider your points further when I get some time to sit and ponder.

  2. Not an atheist, however i find these questions interesting.

    Why does anything exist? Personally I have no idea, I cant answer that. However why does God exist? Just because he always has and always will is the same kind of rationalisation that atheists use, everything exists because of some natural phenomena. Both sides are saying ‘just because its like that’, which i dont like. We have no concrete proof of either, however science is good in that it keeps trying to find evidence to support theories. So who knows, maybe one day science will have an answer… maybe not. Maybe God will come along and explain it someday, maybe not.

    Evolution, or genetic mutations next. Well, look at various animals. They look like they are simply designed perfectly for their habitat. The shark is streamlined to be fast in the water so it can catch its prey. The bird is aerodynamic to fly. The hummingbird can hover to get difficult to reach flowers. Its all amazing, these animals fit perfectly into their habitat. Its almost like they are designed specifically for their place in life right?

    Well animals arent perfect. If animals were designed by Go you would assume they would have a perfectly simple and functional body.

    Have a look at this video

    In it, you see how the giraffe has an entirely unecessary long laryngeal nerve. Why would that happen if a creator created a giraffe from scratch? To put it bluntly, its a mistake. Theres no reason for it, its not really harmful but it is in no way helpful. So why is that nerve so long? Like the video said, evolution has no foresight. Its pretty much due to chance.

    Genetic mutations are not always an improvement. Thats the weird thing about evolution. You said genetic mutation causes disease, and you are completely right. Many diseases are hereditary, which means that they are passed down through your genes. Whats teh point of passing on diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mental handicaps, etc etc etc. It makes no sense right? Well genetic mutations are really just chance. Theres no foresight, theres no planning. Some mutations dont work, and they make things worse. Our bodies even fight off mutations to a certain degree, however not entirely. Some sneak through.

    Genetic mutations sometimes do improve an animal. Hypothetically, say you have a herd of cows in a field with little to no plant life because theres been a draught. A newborne calf has a genetic mutation where it produces an enzyme that allows it to digest bugs (meat) properly. Well if this field has a lot of bugs, that cow will have far more nutrition than the rest. It nibbles on a piece of grain that has several bugs on it, it gets more nutrition than a cow that eats the same grass without the enzyme. One cow gets stronger on the same amount of food.

    This is of course hypothetical right? How about a real world example of mutations helping species to survive, or evolve.
    http://www.livescience.com/12897-fish-evolved-survive-ge-toxins-hudson-110218.html

    This is about as clear an example as you can have. According to the article they literally discovered the genetic mutation responsible for giving them an immunity/resistance. Now these fish have a new ecosystem to live in, whether it works or not is another matter. So far it seems to be. Seems like genetic mutation did something good there.

    And your last point, you said about the changes people experience. Well study enough psychology and you realise how easily people change. You can imagine someone (just a person) who has changed the way you though about life at one time. Of course God can do the same. Yes religion helps people for the better and can change people. However sometimes it makes them worse, just look at Westboro baptist church.

    Yes it can also heal people, cure a sickness, repair injuries. However theres something in medicine known as the placebo effect. Give someone a sugar pill and tell them they will feel better and theres a good chance they will. People are really really strange this way. I have a family friend that claims she willed herself better after a fight with cancer. She had no chemo, didnt want it, and she simply claimed she ate healthy, and concentrated (willed) her body to heal. No idea how you would go about doing that, but she claims it works. She was cured without any treatments. She also is a devout atheist, almost annoyingly so.

    Im not saying God isnt real, im just trying to explain some of the things from a scientific standpoint. The great thing about science is that it makes mistakes, and tries to fix those mistakes.

    Feel free to shoot down anything I said thats wrong. Im not an expert in this area, I am just explaining things as I understand them.

    • Great questions, Mel (I’m interested in how you found our blog, by the way – was it twitter?). First thing, I’d like to say that “science” doesn’t try to do anything, nor does religion – it’s individuals who try to understand the world, and both religious and non-religious people ought to consider facts and interpret information with sound reasoning. Religious people have certainly made mistakes, and those who are wise admit them and move on, and many of us do seek to fix our mistakes and continually strive for the most accurate understanding of reality.

      I suppose the ‘Christian’ response to why God exists is just that he does, like you say – in a way, I guess it is the same way that atheists look at our own existence, having no reason and needing none. However, I believe that our existence can be explained as a natural consequence of God’s inherent creativity. Just as humans – who, according to the Bible are created in the image of God – often feel compelled to compose music, write literature, paint works of art, etc. simply out of a desire for self-expression, so God’s desire for expression came out (in this instance) in the existence of what we call the Universe. You could say that it’s an extension of his creativity, designed to bring him pleasure and a venue for expression.

      As for apparent mistakes in animals, there may be more to this than meets the eye. The recurrent laryngeal nerve argument is actually disappointingly weak, as you would find after doing even a brief bit of research (I say disappointingly because I thought Dawkins would base his cockiness on stronger points than this). A quick read of the wikipedia entry for Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve reveals that there is much more to this situation than is presented in the video. I did not consult any Christian apologetics website for this response, just simply looked it up and found the following. The ‘Path’ section of this entry contains the following text (italics are mine):

      “The left laryngeal nerve, which is longer, branches from the vagus nerve to loop under the arch of the aorta, posterior to the ligamentum arteriosum before ascending. On the other hand, the right branch loops around the right subclavian artery. As the recurrent nerve hooks around the subclavian artery or aorta, it gives off several cardiac filaments to the deep part of the cardiac plexus. As it ascends in the neck it gives off branches, more numerous on the left than on the right side, to the mucous membrane and muscular coat of the oesophagus; branches to the mucous membrane and muscular fibers of the trachea; and some pharyngeal filaments to the superior pharyngeal constrictor muscle.

      The nerve splits into anterior and posterior rami before supplying muscles in the voice box — it supplies all laryngeal muscles except for the cricothyroid, which is innervated by the external branch of the superior laryngeal nerve.”

      Dawkins made it sound like the entire purpose of this nerve was to supply the voicebox, but this was a blatant lie. Does the above sound like a useless route to you? If this nerve supplies so many areas within the neck, and even a portion of the cardiac plexus (which innervates the heart), does it not make complete sense for the loop to exist? After all, some nerve or other has to pass down that whole length and innervate those areas, so it might as well exist in that configuration. I think Dawkins has looked at the issue far too superficially to pass such snide remarks about it, and use it to – let’s call it what it is – evangelize people about atheism.

      Regarding the fish example, it’s an impressive argument for adaptation, but there was no increase in information represented here (the only aspect of evolution that really bothers me). This fish actually LOST a certain function due to mutation – the ability to take PCB, dioxin, and related chemicals into the cell – which in this case was to its advantage. The offspring of these fish will probably never regain a functioning version of that receptor, and in the end that may be to their detriment. An example of what I need to see is something like a fish developing (via mutation) a new enzyme that allowed it to metabolize PCB and dioxins. No thinking Christian denies that adaptation (even speciation) of animals as a result of their surroundings occurs; in fact, I believe many regard it as an impressive design feature 🙂

      The hypothetical cow example doesn’t work for me either. It’s easy to understand how this change could benefit the cow, but an enzyme can be an incredibly complex molecule that is perfectly suited to perform (speed up) one action and one action alone. What are the chances that a mutation, of all things, would generate a new, functional enzyme that benefits the animal in that particular circumstance? I don’t have the numbers, but I bet they’re too small for my mind to fathom anyway.

      I’m also aware of the placebo effect, but sugar pills and changes in psychological state do not cause peoples backs to straighten out from severe scoliosis, or cause uneven legs to grow to equal length instantaneously (both examples from people I know, not things I’ve read on the internet). Besides, my personal experience which I referred to couldn’t have had anything to do with placebo effect, mainly because I wasn’t even seeking relief from the pain I had been experiencing. I had no reason or desire to delude myself, the change just happened. And, like I say in the old post, I was so surprised when it did happen that I couldn’t even believe it myself for weeks; I kept feeling the part on my arm every day, many times a day, before I even told anybody about it besides my wife.

      It’s awesome that your atheist friend’s cancer went away, maybe in part due to an act of will. We do know that emotional state and diet can affect the body’s overall ability to cope with illness or stress, so it could very well have played a part in her recovery. I have nothing to argue with on that point, other than to say that it might have been a relatively non-aggressive cancer that would have gone into remission anyway. Likewise, I suppose, one could argue that the nerve pain in my own arm (the blog post I referred to above) could have just gone away coincidentally at that very point in time, so if you want to believe that then go ahead.

      I hope my tone throughout this response hasn’t come across as anything but earnest and considerate. The thing is, if you are a Christian I want you to know that there’s no reason to doubt God’s abilities or to allow “science” to undermine him. Just keep in mind, science is merely a collection of information, and it’s our privilege and duty to interpret that information in a way that is truthful. I don’t have all the answers either, and I’m not “shooting down” your points so much as offering an alternative interpretation of each of them. Sorry for being so verbose 🙂

      • My favourite but simple thoughts on God existing is, He is like the wind. I cannot see it, but I feel it. John 3:8
        The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

        Hebrews 11:1 (Amplified Bible)

        Now Faith is the assurance (the confirmation, [a]the title deed) of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses].

        That’s just my two cents 🙂

  3. Pingback: Faith & Willingness « K & T

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