Dear 1585:

    Thank you for replying.  Do you mind if we continue our correspondence?  It is rare enough that I get to have a civil, meaningful intellectual conversation with another Christian.  But a civil, meaningful intellectual conversation with an atheist?  That is too tempting to pass up, not to mention the joy that comes from working to reconcile you with God.  I understand from your “Frequently Misused Terms” section that you are open to the idea of God and even wish that there is a God.  I will provide you, to the best of my ability, with the arguments needed to convince you that there is a God.  And I will do so without personal attacks.  Personal attacks are analogous to the use of torture in interrogations.  The people that use these are not effective in achieving their desired ends, give themselves a bad name, and only serve to give their target audience a reason to hate them.  Though having said that, I will admit that I am not perfect and sometimes do not live up to the standard I have set for myself.  If you feel I have offended you in any way, please let me know and I will immediately apologize for the offense.  Also, please keep in my mind that I'm not an expert in Christianity.  I am still learning every day.  There are many things about my faith that I do not understand, namely how a man could gather two of every animal into a wooden ship built far beyond what we could build today, but I understand enough that God must exist.  I will also keep an open mind and consider your arguments against my faith.  I’m sure there’s a quote in the Bible that backs that sentiment up, but I’m not nearly well versed in the Bible as I should be.  Nevertheless, as I understand it keeping an open mind to ideas different from my own is part of loving my neighbor as myself, so until I’m provided with scripture that says otherwise I will give your arguments the same thought as I would expect you to give mine.

    I should have clarified in my last email that when I said “I am a Christian Apologist” and opened with the argument that nothing comes out of nothing I did not mean to imply that this argument alone proves that Christianity is right.  I merely wanted to establish the basics—that God exists.  And then move on to proving this God is Christian.  I'll get back to you on that argument after I do some research.

    I don't know what nothing would be... for now I regard it as the supernatural—as in being above my natural understanding—or the metaphysical, if you prefer.  You’ve gotten my interest risen in this “spacetime” stuff and that it behaves in certain ways.  Do you have a link or a book in mind that goes more in-depth?  I’m always interested in learning more about the universe.

    You asked me if I believed if God was a divine force like love.  This view doesn’t make sense to me because love is an ideal.  Ideals only exist within a mind and are represented in one’s actions.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “Many people find [this philosophy] attractive because it gives the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the consequences...  You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you [with morality].”

    Speaking of morality how would you, as an atheist, define it?  If you do not think it exists, and our “morals” are a collection of our instincts overpowering one another, then let me offer you this to think on.  I am walking home and see a frightened kid running from a guy with a knife.  I have two instincts in my mind now: one is the herd instinct and it tells me to confront the guy with the knife, the second is the instinct for self-preservation because I don’t want to get knifed.  Disregarding which of the two instincts are stronger, there is a third voice that advocates for the one that upholds the Cardinal Virtues and attempts to suppress the desire to run away.  They are, according to C.S. Lewis: prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude.  In other words, it tells me to stop being a pussy and stand up for the kid.

    You may have noticed that I do not quote the Bible and that instead I invoke C.S. Lewis.  I do this because I think it’s circular logic to attempt to prove something that the Bible says by pointing at the Bible itself.  It’s like trying to prove the existence of Superman by pointing at a comic book.  You won’t accept anything that the Bible says until I establish its legitimacy and I won’t do that until I prove the existence of God.  Besides like I said earlier, I don’t know nearly enough scripture to be able to teach someone its morals.

    All the best,

    P.S.:  I am happy as all get-out that Obama won the election.  I was simply mortified that someone like Sarah Palin could have been a heartbeat away from being Commander-in-Chief.  I too find it strange to be elated about our government.



    I am glad to hear from you again.  I never intended the Reader Mail section to be a forum for ongoing debates, but then, I never ruled it out either, and since you took the time to write to me again, and since your concerns—or rather, your misconceptions about atheism—are common ones, I’ll go ahead and address your second e-mail as best I can.

    You open by remarking upon the rarity of “a civil, meaningful, intellectual conversation with an atheist.”  I hope what you mean by this is that you simply don’t know or interact with many atheists, rather than that we are typically unwilling or unable to engage in such conversations.  Because if it is the latter, I’m afraid I can’t let that go without pointing out that it is flatly untrue.  Though there are lots of different types of people who are simply “not religious,” those who actually bother to self-identify as atheists are, in my experience, far more willing to engage in philosophical debates than the average person—and not only about religion, but about virtually anything.  I am not alleging that this is a result of atheism, but rather the reverse: it was putting this original personality trait into practice that first caused us to question, and eventually reject, religion.  (In the cases of atheists who are the children of other atheists, yes they may technically have been “raised atheist,” but this largely just means being raised with a premium placed on philosophical inquiry, evidence, the scientific method, etc.—to say nothing of the extent to which such personality types, and indeed the intelligence that usually attends them, are heritable genetically.  Since our position is simply the absence of your position, there is no way for us to have “dogma” in the same sense—i.e., our “dogma” is simply explanations of the flaws in your dogma, and hence not dogma.)

    Now, please don’t worry, based on the space I just devoted to that point, that you have “offended” me.  I do not get “offended” per se.  The way I see it, there are claims I believe to be true, and other claims that I believe to be false, and when someone makes a claim that I believe to be false, I explain what I believe to be the problem with it.  I think that placing too much emphasis on what is or is not “offensive” clouds the fact that what is really at stake is true vs. false.  For example, although racist beliefs are indeed “offensive,” it is even more important to point out that they are not true.  Simply labeling a claim “offensive” does not provide anyone with a reason not to believe it—only with a reason not to say it out loud.

    The fact that you devoted the space you did to announcing that you are prepared to apologize if you offend me, and will not use personal attacks, to me highlights the flaw in how you are coming to these questions: You seem to think that these are matters of (to employ the traditional metaphor) the heart rather than the head.  It was very kind of you to specify these things, and personally I appreciate that, but technically, what you specify and what I appreciate on this level has nothing to do with which one of us is right.  If you claim A and I claim B, and either A or B must be true, then the claim that is true will still be true regardless of whether we converse politely or whether you call me a devil-worshipper and I call you a retard.  It will be more pleasant for us to argue the first way, but this is irrelevant to the worth or lack thereof of our respective positions.

    It is, of course, also true that other people are reading this, and that those readers will have strong impulses to want to believe the person they feel they like better.  This is, as I have just said, not a valid reason to believe someone, but it is the way the world works.  It is also an example of a situation where—to touch upon the concerns from your fifth paragraph—what you regard as your “morality” (your argumentative politeness) conveniently happens to be in your self-interest.

    Does this mean that I think, as you asked, that morality does not exist?  Of course not.  This is a common misunderstanding between people with religious views of human existence and people with scientific ones.  When we posit evolutionary explanations for a certain trait, religious people often interpret that as meaning that we think the trait in question is an “illusion” or “doesn’t really exist.”  Take love, for example.  I believe that there is an evolutionary explanation for love (because, obviously, I believe that there is an evolutionary explanation for everything about human beings, which necessarily includes love).  We evolved a chemical response to a certain combination of physical appearance, common interests, etc.  This happened because it increased the odds that the male and female concerned would work together for a while, which increased the chances of survival of their offspring (which got more food, more protection, two pairs of eyes watching them instead of one, etc.).  In other words, the people whose brains were set up this way outcompeted the people whose brains were not set up this way.  Does this mean I think love “does not exist?”  No.  Plainly, it exists, and I experience it just as does any other human, and this is only the explanation for why it does.  There is also an evolutionary explanation for why my body needs Vitamin D to survive—does the fact that I believe this mean that suddenly my body doesn’t need vitamin D anymore, and my bones won’t get screwed up if I don’t get enough?  No.  My body still works the same way regardless of what facts I have or have not learned, and so do my psychological needs (psychological needs simply being brain chemistry, and hence actually part of the body).

    There is also no reason why a trait that evolved for one reason needs (in either evolutionary or ethical terms) to continue to be used that way.  Gay couples experience love just as M/F couples do, and this has nothing directly to do with raising offspring (just as it doesn't in the cases of M/F couples who choose not to have any).  So the capacity for morality may have evolved as a bet-hedging quid pro quo instinct, but that doesn't mean that's what it still is, or needs to be, or "should" be.  That would be like saying that, because we evolved the capacity to run in order to get away from lions, we shouldn't ever run marathons because there aren't any lions after us.

    In short, the problem with your question (“If you do not think it exists, and our “morals” are a collection of our instincts overpowering one another…”) is that these positions are not actually mutually exclusive.  Morality exists, and it is a collection of our instincts overpowering one another.  We have evolved a distaste for murder, punching random people in the face, etc.  Some people do not have as much of a distaste for those things as others, and we regard those people as having something “wrong with” them (you may believe that there is something wrong with the soul of a sociopath, whereas I believe there is something wrong with his brain, but we agree that this is not the way people are “supposed to” be).  There are some visions of morality that radically depart from the instincts of the majority—for example, a religion that believes that it is just as wrong to swat a fly as to kill another human—but these tend to have an uphill battle in terms of disseminating their ideas.  Instinct, of course, is a vague ballpark that can be significantly influenced by argument and the influence of argument on custom.  A thousand years ago, almost everyone regarded slavery as, if not necessarily morally good, at least morally excusable and “normal.”  Now, we regard it as horrible on a par with rape and murder.  Currently, vegetarians who believe that killing a pig or cow for food when other food is readily available just because the pig or cow tastes good is morally indefensible are increasing their ranks at a significant rate.  Maybe in 200 years the entire human race will look back on you and me as monsters for eating meat, just as we look back on slaveowners, and maybe not.  What does my instinct tell me about eating meat?  Well, I am not proud of it exactly, but neither do I regard it as a “big deal” in the grand scheme of things.  I have some vague moral math going on that could be influenced by argument one way or the other.  The moral positions of the human race are currently in flux on lots of other issues too, like gay rights and the death penalty.  In all of these debates, both religious and “logical” arguments are regularly made in support of both sides.

    The problem with your C.S. Lewis example is that it reduces morality to “being brave enough to do the obvious right thing” vs. “being too scared to do the obvious right thing.”  This is, of course, a problem because moral issues where there is an “obvious” right thing that everyone agrees upon are a slim minority.  Elections and wars are not waged over the question of whether you should run into the burning building to save the baby.  

    Right now, I am spending my one day off from work indoors writing a painstaking response to some guy I don’t even know in defense of a position of which I will almost certainly not convince him, even though outside it is the first warm and beautiful day we have had in over four months and I could be playing Frisbee with my friends in the park.  Does this make me a hero?  Perhaps to atheists it does (I am so devoted to the truth that I place it above my own happiness).  Conversely, to Christians, it makes me seem even more twisted and villainous (I am so against God that it has perverted me away from positive, “normal” human emotions and desires).  What do I think?  Well, all I can say is that remaining indoors to write this all day is simply what I have chosen to do.  To assume I know why I have chosen to do it would be to assume that I understand my own psyche well enough to answer every question about why I do things.  Some questions about myself I can answer easily enough (“I eat because I am hungry,” “I watch 30 Rock because it makes me laugh”), but not all.  I could point out that it would have bothered me if I had gone outside to play Frisbee instead, thereby getting into that old argument about whether altruism actually exists…  But then again, I received your second e-mail some time ago, and am only responding today, so clearly there have been many other days on which it did not bother me to do something else—and yet, for some reason, today it would have.  There could be moral explanations for this (“on a day when I was not in the mood to write, I would have written badly, and so done less good because my writing would not have been as persuasive”), or these explanations could only be my retroactive attempts to come up with a reason for what I already did just because it was what I happened to do.

    Am I saying that there is no such thing as Free Will?  No, just that it may make more sense to apply that term to the big picture instead of the small ones: as a general rule, I think religion is both factually false and harmful to society, and so I choose to write things that will convince others of this.  But why do I end up doing this on one particular day instead of another?  I have no idea.

    You asked how I, as an atheist, would “define” morality.  I actually define it the same way you do—it is our beliefs about what is right and what is wrong.  What I think you meant to ask was where I think it comes from.  And the only difference between us in the respect is that you think you got it from scripture, but actually you didn’t.  If you really got your moral beliefs from scripture, you would think that it was wrong to eat shellfish, that people who worked on Sunday should be stoned to death, and that it was okay to own slaves as long as those slaves were not the same religion as you.  Certainly, some scripture agrees with your moral predispositions (just as some scripture does with my own), but you can say this about anything.  Some of the moral positions expressed in the Qu’ran or the Bhagavad Gita would coincide with your own as well—as, for that matter, would some of the moral positions espoused in a Jane Austen novel or on a randomly chosen episode of The Simpsons.

    At this point, I have digressed into philosophy on the nature of morality, and am not really talking about the non-existence of God.  This is because, frankly, your second e-mail did not really address the vast majority of the points I brought up in my first response.  You had initially opened with the “nothing from nothing” argument, to which I returned a number of valid counters, and now you appear to be changing the subject to the nature of morality.  I was happy for the opportunity to explain where we atheists get our morality from (actually, it’s where everyone gets their morality from—you guys just don’t know it), but as for the existence of God, I’m afraid we really can’t progress on that front until you address the arguments from my previous e-mail.  And, to be blunt, I really don’t think there is any way for you to do so.  If the existence of God—much less the specific God of any religion—could be proven with logic, then someone would have done this by now, and all the “logical” people like me would believe in God (because, if proven, then God would just be a part of science, like if we discovered a giant, all-powerful animal of some kind).

    You seem to have derived a glimmer of hope from the fact that I am “open to the idea” of God, and “even wish” that there were a God.  These things are indeed true, but please do not misunderstand what they mean.  It would be equally true to say that I am “open to the idea” of Bigfoot, and “even wish” that there were a Santa Claus—in other words, I will be perfectly happy to believe in the existence of Bigfoot just as soon as someone produces some evidence that he exists (ditto the Loch Ness Monster, el chupacabra, Leprechauns, etc.), and I think it would be cool if there were a Santa Claus (ditto Superman and Jedi Knights).  You spoke of attempting to “reconcile [me] with God,” but I am not mad at God, just as I am not mad at Bigfoot or Superman.  You and others like you have posited that a certain thing exists, and I and others like me do not believe that it does—that is all.  It is not an emotional matter (at least, not for us).

    You say you are not an “expert in Christianity,” but it would little matter if you were.  It is a bunch of stuff that people have made up, and so it would be no different from being an “expert in” Lord of the Rings or Star Trek—i.e., it would mean only that you have memorized a great deal of things that other people have made up.  It is not necessarily pointless to do this, of course.  For example, I am an “expert in” Shakespeare, and the events of Shakespeare’s plays are “made up” too (though often based on history, as was the Bible).  The fact that they are made up does not mean that they are not brilliant, or do not have valuable psychological insights to impart about what it means to be human, and even moral ones about how to live.  But unlike in a religion, I do not need to believe that there literally existed a weaver named Bottom whose head was temporarily replaced with that of a donkey by a magic spell (although I do believe, because it is confirmed by many other reliable sources and does not conflict with any other facts, that there literally existed a Roman dictator named Julius Caesar who was assassinated in the Capitol on the Ides of March).  I could be the foremost Shakespeare scholar in the world, and this still would not qualify me to overrule someone who points out that there are no such things as Fairies (and as for the historical plays, I do not actually get my history from Shakespeare—for example, Richard III was probably not as bad a guy as Shakespeare, who was living under a queen descended from his enemies, made him out to be… but it is still a great play).   

    You are clearly brighter than most of the Christians I have argued with.  Your point about Superman comics is an accurate example of circular logic, and the fact that you comprehend Lewis’s quote about the problems of defining God as love (which I, as Lewis, was making fun of doing, by the way—please re-examine my last e-mail) and could use it appropriately in an argument is also impressive.  I do not understand why you are choosing to use your intelligence in defense of an idea you must surely know somewhere deep down is absurd.

        Thanks Again,

    P.S.:  The book I recommend as far as understanding spacetime and so forth is the same as it was in my last e-mail, The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking.

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