Atheology Part 1: God Doesn’t Exist; We Do

Two decades ago a friend asked me to write a description and analysis of my atheism, an “atheology.” I wrote an essay in response, and that “atheology” may still reside on some shelf or 3.5-inch floppy. Maybe sometime I’ll track it down and see what, if anything, has changed from the irreligious beliefs of a single Lake Herman twenty-something libertarian Republican fresh off his first round of grad school to the irreligious beliefs of a married Aberdeen dad and liberal Democratic blogger.

I am an atheist. I use the word simply and literally: a- means not, and theist means believing in God. I do not believe in God, gods, or any supernatural entity or force.

I’ll admit that I’m not 100% sure that nothing supernatural exists. Some people suggest that if I can’t take Pascal’s Wager (I think I’ll give that a post of its own), I might at least save myself some bad press and call myself an agnostic—a- for not again, gnostic for knowing… in this theological case, knowing whether God exists. Apparently lots of people find a Socratic shrug less scary or intolerable than outright rejection.

I choose not to ride the agnostic fence. As with questions of science, I recognize my beliefs may be wrong, and I stand ready to change those beliefs if presented with sufficient evidence to the contrary. But the bulk of evidence so far has led me to believe that the world is really just the natural world—chemicals, forces, atoms, photons, quantum probabilities that we interpret as matter and energy—and that the supernatural not only does not exist but is not necessary to explain our daily lives.

Many people with whom I’ve discussed these philosophical matters think that a world consisting of nothing but atoms must be a morally barren, pointless place. We’re random sheep with no shepherd (but be careful of that metaphor: shepherded sheep ultimately get fleeced and eaten). We live, we die, and nothing matters.

Yet while I’ve been able to recognize that possibility of pointlessness. I’ve also woken up every morning with a sense that some things do matter. People matter. Earth, our fragile and thus far unique home, matters. Art, literature, science, law, and all the human institutions that make humanity—not mere biological existence, but thoughtful, purposeful, moral life—possible matter. Promises matter… and foremost among those promises are the promises we make to protect each other and to protect the planetary home and the human institutions that make it possible for future humans to enjoy the life that we have enjoyed.

I do not yet know where that sense of purpose and moral commitment to humanity comes from. Breath of God, evolutionary advantage of social moralists over egotistical nihilists, moral algorithms coded into our brains by alien bio-engineers like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics—there are many possibilities. But the origin of our moral impulses does not seem to affect the reality or validity of our moral impulses. We do the good because it is good, not because of who (natural or supernatural) said it is good or what reward we may get for doing that good.

God doesn’t exist. You and I do. The supernatural doesn’t matter, but humans and humanity do. That’s my atheology in a practical nutshell.


68 Responses to Atheology Part 1: God Doesn’t Exist; We Do

  1. Why should the supernatural be expected to reveal itself through observations of the natural world (i.e., the “evidence” you speak of)?

  2. Bob Newland

    Neal (and anyone else who cares), the supernatural should only be expected to reveal itself if the supernatural wants us to worship it and believe it is loving and merciful. It’s possible we owe our existence to a “creator,” but if that creator created us “in his image,” then it is natural to expect that our curiosity is part of that image.

    Given our curiosity, then, a sane creator would give us something on which to hang our faith in his mercy and love. What we are given is constant reminders that life, death, injury, wealth, health and pain are distributed arbitrarily among the faithful and non-believers alike.

    I reject the somewhat popular notion that all this is part of a supernatural “plan.”

  3. I originally found this blog years ago by Googling “atheist South Dakota”. Been back nearly every day since.

  4. mike from iowa

    Seems to me the majority of a certain political party that professes to love their lord and saviour do so only to help cover their usual mistakes and sins. Being pious is not a get out of jail free card. Those that wear religion on their sleeves forget a most important message-pray in your closet so only your lord hears what you say.

    Those that don’t liked being mocked for their beliefs should keep their beliefs to their selves.

  5. Porter Lansing

    Thanks for the intro to Pascal’s Wager and a worthy examination of the utility, rationality and morality of the many athiestic and theistic choices we humans have. It matters less than little what I think of your atheology because no on can judge another’s. That said, I find yours highly valid, non-threatening, peaceful and rather charming.

  6. Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God. – C.S. Lewis

  7. Bob Newland

    In the case of C.S. Lewis, that paragraph is obviously true.

    Nothing Lewis wrote is decipherable, or useful in a discussion of the existence of “God.”

  8. Porter Lansing

    It requires no belief in God to develop thought. Schlesinger (1994) offers this principle: “In cases where the mathematical expectations are infinite, the criterion for choosing the outcome to bet on is its probability.”, meaning that the process of thought is a repetition, adherence and multiplication of what has worked before and has thus evolved since the beginning of brains.

  9. I now think it [the evidence] does point to a creative Intelligence almost entirely because of the DNA investigations. What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together.

    If you had an equation detailing the probability of something emerging from a vacuum, you would still have to ask why that equation applies. Hawking had, in fact, noted the need for a creative factor to breathe fire into the equations. – Anthony Flew

  10. Ultimately, courts are god in the USA unless someone uses nukes or the 2nd amendment goes berserk.

    As president of the United States, Trump’s past litigation experience—and his own self-assured view of what he learned from those experiences—has resulted in a miscalculation of potentially serious political consequences. President Trump has underestimated Mueller while simultaneously overestimating his own ability to restrict the level of scrutiny that can be applied to a president.

    The president is used abusing the process, to overpowering and overwhelming his legal opponents, but Mueller – who ran the FBI for 12 years and oversaw the transformation of that agency in the aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11 – is unlikely to be intimidated. Mueller’s team appears to be methodically examining the Russian government’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 election, and it borders on axiomatic that his team will uncover whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin in any way

    There is no one who can just make this situation “go away.” There is no deal to be made, no financial settlement that can resolve the matter. The investigation will find what it finds

    Perhaps McCain has been “struck down” in his dispute with Trump, but God will likely have no dog in trump’s downfall. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/07/21/donald-trump-bob-mueller-215403?lo=ap_f1

    Another vein is the “left” the right fears in recent protests…that the left will come at us with THEIR GUNS, thus perhaps there could become a new god in town, but like the rest of the right’s ludicrous ideas for you to fear, with no god, no guns and no nukes, there won’t be much to fear except immaturity. http://guns.news/

  11. I and my good friend Bob agree with you, Mr. H. God is a character in a book that drives a number of cults’ behaviors.

    God drowned in a bowl of cereal quite a while back.

  12. Darin Larson

    “God is dead.” Nietzsche, 1882.

    Nietzsche is dead. God, 1900.

  13. Darin Larson

    Cory, since you admit that you are not 100% sure about your position. I’m curious if you have you done a “cost/benefit analysis” so to speak of being a believer. This should be an intellectual exercise that is right up your alley.

    A perfunctory analysis on my part would put the benefit of everlasting life with our Creator on one side of the equation offset by the costs of some time and money spent in church on the other side of the equation. If you come at this issue from purely an intellectual perspective and you are not sure of God’s nonexistence, wouldn’t there be a powerful argument that the chance that there is a God who can provide everlasting life in heaven outweighs the relatively minor and certain “costs” of developing one’s faith?

  14. While it is not possible to prove or disprove the existence of God, I simply stay open minded.

    Just because a guy is not a self proclaimed Christian – doesn’t make him exempt from our shared human moral obligation to understand each other’s differing views, and hold each other accountable to our stated values.

    So when, for example, conservative Alt. Christians start pushing the opposite veiw(s) of Jesus Christ, it’s important for all people (including atheists) to hold these religious folks accountable for their hypocrisy. You don’t have to be a Christian to read the New Testiment in order to proclaim your expertise on Christ and leverage it against those who misrepresent their very own God.

    When a self proclaimed Christian actually thinks that, “greed is good,” the social consequence should be a figutative tar and feathering.

  15. “figutative” – LOL – I meant figurative.

  16. In terms of what exactly? It’s not inconceivable to think that there was a flood of the known world, especially since stories of a flood of such magnitude are corroborated by other cultural traditions. Animal migrations aren’t inconceivable in the prelude to any major catastrophic event, and human capability to work with animals or large building projects isn’t exclusively limited to an era of modern technology.

  17. Bob Newland

    Darin, you’re cute, but I see problems with conducting the analysis you suggest. The most obvious is in determining what the “benefit of everlasting life with our Creator” is.

    The only benefit thereto ever described is that of not burning for eternity in Hell. Granted, one would want to escape that fate, but is that it? No one has ever really described the alternative. For that matter, no one except Dante has ever described Hell, and even Dante would probably admit that his description was largely drawn with great literary license.

    Without quantifiable benefit to compare the admittedly quantifiable cost, no analysis makes sense.

  18. Sheldon Osborn

    Whether there is a God or not is an open question. But if there is, he or she or it has an extraordinarily bad sense of humor.

  19. Bob Newland

    Yes, Sheldon. Rather morbid, in fact.

  20. Our denial or questioning of the existence of God strikes me as an attempt to vainly assert that we are in control of our own lives.

  21. mike from iowa

    What or who exactly did Noah’s meat eaters eat during the duration of the flood when all else was wiped out? I would assume all human culture was wiped out as well, except there are records of civilizations that have existed during the period of Noah’s flood.

  22. Porter Lansing

    I believe humans have partial control of our lives because God grants us free will. Certain fundamentalist groups try to degate God’s gift by imposing onerous restrictions on Women’s Rights and on Terminal Patient’s Rights. How highly arrogant to hold your opinions above God’s design of our free will. God controls fate and needs no help from self-righteous religious fundamentalists.

  23. As far as Noah, I know I’m not wise enough to have all the answers as far as how everything happened. Not unlike how gaps in the fossil record leave questions of how some species came to be.

  24. Brooks Briscoe

    Darin Larsen, your “cover your back” argument is interesting, but by that logic why not worship the Hindu god or the Muslim god? Or better yet worship the land and sky like the Native Americans. Cory, if you do decide to renounce your atheism I would steer clear of gods that display petty human emotions like jealousy and anger.

  25. Mr. Birks. Stuff just happened. The weak minded pretend it all is a result of some sort of god. Bob and I, we debate the good stuff but agree about your god most of the time. This weekend has been the odd one where Bob and I disagreed about any god’s involvement. Ditchweed is proof that god exists and loves us, says Bob. Beer, I say, is the creation of man and is a purely selfish substance which we heathens do enjoy.

  26. By 2018, we should all finally be beyond how much control of our own lives we a actually have, if God exists, then He truly does help those who help themselves.

    When atheists cop out on speaking with God believers, even in hypothetical terms, about God – it’s just lazy abd apathetic.

  27. Let me ask this of you religious libbies and the other nut jobs out there: If there is a God, why did he let Mr. Trump get elected? Was it to test us or to punish you libbies?

  28. Porter Lansing

    That’s an easy one, Barber Gru
    Trump didn’t win. He cheated.
    Next question…..

  29. Men cease to think when they think they know it all ~ Horace

  30. What are we up to now? A trillion galaxies and counting? A big bang started it? And we are the 3rd rock from the sun? We are made of some of the same matter as the stars? That is some wild stuff. I like the lakota belief of ‘the great mystery’ because when you study all this wonderful science, nobody has yet to find the beginning of the beginning.

  31. Crudnick just wants to see what sticks to the wall.

    The premise of his question implies he’s never considered that if a God exists, why God would ever let seemingly bad things happen.

    I would hope only a very, VERY, young man just hasn’t been alive long enough to think about that. What a lazy SOB.

  32. I bet God ‘gave’ us Trump to put an end to the Republican Party. Suck on that, Crudnick.

  33. Ben Birks writes:

    Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking… But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism …

    Many atheists actually apply this reasoning to Christians, suggesting we only hold religious beliefs because religious beliefs have provided some evolutionary advantage. They never get around to explaining why their own minds are reliable.

    What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together.

    The unfathomably complicated cellular machinery that reads genetic information is itself built using genetic information. The information is useless without the machinery to read it, and the machinery can’t be built without the information, as if the only instructions for building a DVD player were encoded on a DVD. Atheists never explain which supposedly came into existence first, much less how.

    Then there’s the strong historical evidence that Jesus Christ publicly recognized the Hebrew Bible as true, and the even stronger historical evidence that He rose from the dead.

    “mike from iowa” writes:

    What or who exactly did Noah’s meat eaters eat during the duration of the flood when all else was wiped out?

    The Bible doesn’t say exactly what kind of meat they ate, and I’m wondering why you’d suggest it’s important.

    I would assume all human culture was wiped out as well, except there are records of civilizations that have existed during the period of Noah’s flood.

    Those who reject the Bible conveniently dismiss Israel’s historical records as “myths” and embrace the myths of pagan civilizations as “records”…

    Porter Lansing writes:

    I believe humans have partial control of our lives because God grants us free will.

    You’re entitled to your opinion, Porter, but the Bible says Christians have been “predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). If God works “all things” after the counsel of His will, then His predestination obviously applies to every man and every angel and everything else in all creation.

    Whether those ideas are compatible with “free will” depends on how free will is defined. Uncoerced, voluntary behavior isn’t the same as metaphysical free will. In other words, we generally have the freedom to act voluntarily according to our desires, but that isn’t the same as the metaphysical freedom to determine them.

  34. Porter Lansing

    @KurtEvans
    Proverbs 16:9
    A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.

    Men have intelligence. They set goals and plan the means to achieve them. Irrational creatures cannot do this; they only react by instincts to stimulus. But the creator God sovereignly manages the details of actions, so that you are dependent on Him, for He may bless the good man with a favorable outcome and turn the evil man’s plans upside down. –
    “We have free will to choose a path but where we end up isn’t within our control.”

  35. mike from iowa

    The Bible doesn’t say exactly what kind of meat they ate, and I’m wondering why you’d suggest it’s important.

    Let’s see, Noah only took two of each critter and meat eaters had to eat meat, I’m guessing meat eaters ate all the other animals, or, this whole story is pretty dumb and unbelievable. What was the purpose of this ark being built?.

  36. Evans: They never get around to explain why their own minds are reliable.
    Atheists don’t say why their own minds are reliable, and I’m wondering why you think it’s important.

    Evans: Atheists never explain which came into existence first, much less how.
    The one that came into existence first is the one that came into existence first, and I’m wondering why you think it’s important.

    What an intellectually lazy and arrogant argument.

  37. Robin Friday

    Seems to me that the answer is that your brain (and body) and mine and everyone else’s are the result of evolution/natural selection.

  38. Robin Friday

    Ben Birks, the fact that nature is complex and amazing does not demand or require that I believe that intelligence was involved. Complex + amazing + incomprehensible does not = intelligent design.

  39. we’ll agree to disagree then. The older I’ve gotten the more convinced I am of the awesome power & majesty of the God of the universe & His Creation.

  40. bearcreekbat

    As for the argument that belief in religion or God is required to give human life “meaning,” the argument seems to leave some questions open.

    Assuming, arguendo, that a God exists, and that any or all of the religious texts are correct, what sort of “meaning” does that give life?

  41. That life is more than just a long string of equations & random chance. That there’s some purpose to my life beyond some purely utilitarian dictum. that the forces of evil in a broken world exist but are not more powerful than the God of the universe.

  42. That seems circular and unsatisfying. It seems like you are saying ‘God existing gives meaning to human life, and that meaning is that God exists.”

    If your view on life requires the existence of a devine artist to appreciate the beautiful complexity of our universe, fine, but that doesn’t appear to provide any meaning to life.

  43. bearcreekbat

    Ben, I agree with Ryan when he says this seems circular. When you say “That there is some purpose to my life,” what is the purpose you perceive? Can you elaborate and explain what “meaning” this purpose gives life?

  44. For Christians, it’s much more than that. Our lives have meaning because God became man, died at the hands of men, and rose from the dead. We live and love because He first loved us and has asserted dominion over all since the beginning of time.

  45. Robin Friday

    Ben, I’ll agree that there’s awesome power in the universe, and call it majesty if you wish. Just doesn’t add up to God or gods creating it or “planning” it or managing it on a day-to-day basis. I believe the meaning in life is to do good for people, not for profit, or for personal “salvation” but because it’s right and it’s the best way to live my life. But it comes from within, not from anywhere else.

  46. bearcreekbat

    Ben, I can understand why you might appreciate what you believe God did for humanity through Jesus, but that still doesn’t answer the question of how that sacrifice gives our lives any more “meaning” today than our lives would have absent such a sacrifice. How does such a sacrifice make our lives meaningful?

  47. The sacrifice is meaningful because it showed God’s power over even death. Without the sacrifice and without God, we are slaves to a cruel and merciless world.

    if I’m the master of my own morality, then how is my morality better or worse than anyone else’s and by what standards? by accepting the existence of God, I accept that humans don’t have all the answers. I accept that God has dominion over all and has also granted us free will. I don’t believe that the events of my life are simply random chance or the result of my own volition.

  48. bearcreekbat

    Ben, the sacrificial views you describe are powerful and emotionally satisfying, but they don’t address the question of how believing all this makes ones life today more “meaningful” than it would be without believing in these sacrifices by God/Jesus. I wonder if this “meaningful” analysis mixes up a particular view of history, which deserves an appropriate “appreciation” of a sacrifice, with the concept of what makes one’s current life “meaningful?” Positive intentions by historical figures (including the supernatural) are well worth admiration, but the connection to a “meaningful” life today remains elusive.

    Having something to believe in, to have faith in, certainly can make our lives more satisfying and comfortable, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. As for making our lives “meaningful,” however, the connection seems absent. With reflection, although not necessarily deep, I would think that our lives are “meaningful” simply because we are alive.

  49. mike from iowa

    I can tell you god wasn’t policing Ragbrai riders yesterday. Some rode the gravel loop past me from the wrong direction and many others stayed a mile east of me and cheated/saved themselves some gravel road riding.

    They broke the Sabbath and some cheated as well. Where was that guiding hand when riders needed to be straightened out?

  50. Roger Cornelius

    48 comments later is why I avoid religious discussion and debates religiously.

  51. Bear,

    I agree with you. Every life has meaning just because it is alive. We are “human beings” and not “human doers” or “human thinkers” etc.

    I think the disconnect between you and Ben is language. Ben is describing matters which prescribe either belief or an openness to belief. For instance, before you can buy into Christ’s sacrifice or Jesus is God, you have to accept there is a God. To your ears, talk of Christ’s sacrifice sounds like gibberish.

    Let me try to address the same concepts differently.

    If my granddaughter is crying and needs a bottle, I can technically do everything perfectly and make sure her hunger is satisfied. In fact, you can feed my granddaughter just as perfectly. But, I can do it with a deeper love where caresses and kisses and humming of songs is filled with a love for her you can’t do vbecause you don’t love her as I do. Imagine if everything I do is at its core an expression of my love and appreciation for my Creator and Savior. Wouldn’t those things I do be more meaningful with that loving approach vs. a sense of obligation?

    If you get birthday card bought at Walgreens with just a name at the bottom and one from a granddaughter who drew pictures, talked about what she loves about you, and drew a picture of her on your life, which would you think more meaningful? You and I can both look at the same mountain range, watch the wild life, listen to the same sounds and marvel in its beauty. But, if I look at and also see the sight and sounds as a gift of love to ME personally from my Creator, might my view be more meaningful?

  52. Reports from some of Mr. PP’s spies say that Mike, who is from Iowa, sold nearly $18 worth of lemonade from his stand.

  53. Troy, no. You are just deluding yourself.

  54. “mike from iowa” had asked:

    What or who exactly did Noah’s meat eaters eat during the duration of the flood when all else was wiped out?

    I’d replied:

    The Bible doesn’t say exactly what kind of meat they ate, and I’m wondering why you’d suggest it’s important.

    “JonD” writes:

    What an intellectually lazy and arrogant argument.

    That wasn’t an argument.

    “mike from iowa” writes:

    Let’s see, Noah only took two of each critter and meat eaters had to eat meat, I’m guessing meat eaters ate all the other animals, or, this whole story is pretty dumb and unbelievable.

    Some scholars suggest that carnivores may have eaten salted meat or reconstituted dried meat, or that extra animals may have been taken onto the ark for food. The Institute for Creation Research published a roughly 300-page feasibility study in 1996, and my understanding is that it devoted a chapter to this topic, but I haven’t read it.

    What was the purpose of this ark being built?

    It was built to keep Noah’s family and the animals alive during the flood.

  55. Porter Lansing

    Can we extrapolate that Pascal would conclude equal risk of gain and of loss between a large group of non-Christians chanting loudly that God doesn’t exist and to prove it, it won’t rain for three days and a large group of believers praying for rain, and to prove it, it will rain within three days? What would this experiment conclude?

  56. Chuck-Z! I’m glad you found me and keep finding reason to come back for more. Interestingly, I check your Google terms today, and there I am, second search result, a link to my August 2015 post on the SF atheist conference. I try the same search terms in Yahoo and my third post in this atheology series coming up as search result #17, the second atheology post at #37, and this November 2014 Madville Times post on Indians and atheists as Dem base voters as #59. All prime numbers on Yahoo… hmmm….

  57. I gave Ben Birks guff for the Lewis quote on Facebook. I’ll refute by drive-by linkage here with this Patheos blog response from 2016.

    As for Flew, well, see the Patheos writer’s Lewis response on spilled milk and maps of London—why is it necessary to imagine a creator behind an equation’s ability to accurately describe the physical world?

    Notice also that my essay is mostly descriptive, not argumentative. I describe what I believe without offering refutation of what others believe. I offer just one truly argumentative sentence, prefaces with an admission that I stand ready to be proven wrong: “But the bulk of evidence so far has led me to believe that the world is really just the natural world—chemicals, forces, atoms, photons, quantum probabilities that we interpret as matter and energy—and that the supernatural not only does not exist but is not necessary to explain our daily lives.” Yet that one mild statement of belief sends Ben into great quote efforts to argue that my belief is wrong.

    Amazing, improbable things happen. The more atoms and eons we have, the more chance those amazing, improbable things have of happening. Roll the dice enough, you can get double sixes. Play the game enough, and you’ll get those sixes when you need them most. That doesn’t prove that God exists, much less that God approves of your gambling habit.

  58. Porter notices Pascal; Darin recasts it in his first comment. Instead of a separate post, I’ll just tackle it here.

    Darin, you know I love cost-benefit analysis. I performed a sort of romantic analysis at SDSU: I figured during my undergrad days that there were maybe 4,000 female students, 2,000 of whom were married, engaged or otherwise unavailable; 1,000 who were sufficiently Christian that they would flatly refuse to date an atheist; 900 who were Christian and would try dating an atheist but eventually would hit some insurmountable barrier to continuing the relationship or would prove to have some sloppy inconsistent Christianity that I couldn’t tolerate; and 90 who adhered to other religions which I would find incompatible with my values. I figured that left ten atheists, of whom I was willing to bet that nine were crabby or gloomy. I figured that last atheist, the one well-adjusted female atheist on campus, would probably turn out to be really ugly. I never met that last prospect, but I could have vastly expanded my potential dating pool at SDSU by adopting Christianity… or at least lying about it.

    Seven years later, a fellow SDSU graduate proved how wrong this math major’s calculations were.

    Mathematician Pascal spoke of cost and benefit: disbelief ultimately provides nothingness at best, eternal damnation at worst; belief provides nothingness at worst, eternal heavenly bliss at best. Earthly benefits (including dating hot Christian singles) are trivial in comparison. Why not choose the belief that offers the best mathematical cost/benefit ratio, on earth as in heaven?

    Pascal wasn’t writing about picking up ladies. He also wasn’t writing about lying to Nazis about the Jews in your attic. If I have Jews in my attic and Nazis at the door, I lie—“Keine Juden hier!” The moral benefit of saving the Jews and fighting Nazi tyranny is worth the lie.

    But taking up Pascal’s Wager requires lying not to the Nazis but to myself. I can’t just say there’s a God, I have to believe there’s a God, because, unlike movie Nazis, God will not be fooled.

    Pascal’s Wager brings me to this metaphysical question: to what extent is belief a choice? And to what extent am I (or is any of us) open to a choice that reverses a belief?

    Belief doesn’t seem to be as simple as looking at which position is more immediately or afterlife-ly beneficial and taking the path of least resistance or greatest reward. I wonder… is there any other belief where we actually apply an analysis like Pascal’s Wager, where the facts of the matter are sufficiently unclear that we justify our choice of belief based on what we get from that belief?

  59. Also, thinking about Bob Newland’s response, I can imagine that life in Heaven could be really boring.

  60. And Ben’s suggestion that atheism is merely arrogant over-assertion of human control—I can easily word-game back that theism is an at best useless and at worst harmful attempt to dodge responsibility. Belief in God leads some politicos to justify taking no action against climate change, since they are sure God promised not to flood us out again. We don’t control everything in the cosmos, and we may or may not be able to change the course of a changing climate, but we have a lifelong obligation to use our brains and muscles to help each other and make life better… an effort in which supernatural beings don’t have a good record of being demonstrably helpful.

  61. bearcreekbat

    Cory, Bob missed a pretty interesting description of life after death in Heaven by Julian Barnes, in a segment titled “The Dream” in “History of the World In 10 1/2 Chapters.” Your comment “I can imagine that life in Heaven could be really boring” is addressed through the protagonist’s experiences in what ultimately turns out to be Heaven. (Spoiler alert – stop now if you are planning to, but haven’t yet, read the essay) The last two sentences are worth considering:

    ‘So … even people, religious people, who come here to worship God throughout eternity … they end up throwing in the towel after a few years, hundred years, thousand years?’

    ‘Certainly. As I said, there are still a few Old Heaveners around, but their numbers are diminishing all the time.’

    https://boydfuturist.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/the-dream-by-julian-barnes-in-history-of-the-world-in-10-12-chapters/

  62. Darin Larson

    Cory says “Belief doesn’t seem to be as simple as looking at which position is more immediately or afterlife-ly beneficial and taking the path of least resistance or greatest reward.”

    I agree. (As to resistance, one could argue that an atheist that “keeps their head down” may face less resistance from society than that encountered by a Christian who puts themselves out there to do “what Jesus would do” in the face of an ever increasingly secular world.) The point of my suggested cost-benefit analysis was that given the magnitude of the stakes, shouldn’t a person continually examine whether faith can somehow grow from a spark to a flame and be an important part of their life? What are you out if you keep asking the big questions in life that revolve around faith? What have you gained if you develop faith and it turns out your faith was well placed? To be clear, I’m not suggesting you “fake it until you make it.” I’m suggesting you keep an open mind and keep wrestling with these issues.

  63. Darin Larson

    Back to the substance of the issue of the evidence of the existence of God:

    If there is no God, then how was the universe created? If there was a Big Bang that created the universe, then how were the ingredients created that led to the Big Bang?

    It seems to me that Physics tells us that large events can happen from seemingly infinitesimal amounts of matter or that an extraordinary amount of energy could be released from a tiny sliver of matter in space in a fraction of time. However, in these seemingly supernatural events there is always some particle of energy or matter that existed at the beginning of the story of how the world was created. If God didn’t create the unit of energy or matter that existed at the beginning of the Physics equation explaining the beginning of the universe, then how was it created? It could be Higgs boson or any other aptly named “God particle.” Where did the Higgs boson come from?

    Positing that Higgs boson came from nowhere and nothing seems to me to be as fanciful as Christianity seems to an atheist.

  64. Cory writes:

    Amazing, improbable things happen. The more atoms and eons we have, the more chance those amazing, improbable things have of happening. Roll the dice enough, you can get double sixes. Play the game enough, and you’ll get those sixes when you need them most.

    According to the second law of thermodynamics, the more time passes, the less order exists in the universe. Roll the dice enough, and they’ll disintegrate.

    If I have Jews in my attic and Nazis at the door, I lie—“Keine Juden hier!” The moral benefit of saving the Jews and fighting Nazi tyranny is worth the lie.

    I’d say there are two problems here. The first is the assumption that the lie would ultimately help the Jews and reduce Nazi tyranny, and the second is the assumption that it would be worth it if it did. I’m not aware of any situation in which trying to outsmart moral law has done more long-term good than harm.

    But taking up Pascal’s Wager requires lying not to the Nazis but to myself. I can’t just say there’s a God, I have to believe there’s a God, because, unlike movie Nazis, God will not be fooled.

    Great point, Cory. The time Christians spend saying, “You’ll be better off if you believe Christ is divine and rose from the dead,” might be better spent talking about the evidence that Christ is divine and rose from the dead.

    Pascal’s Wager brings me to this metaphysical question: to what extent is belief a choice? And to what extent am I (or is any of us) open to a choice that reverses a belief? … is there any other belief where we actually apply an analysis like Pascal’s Wager, where the facts of the matter are sufficiently unclear that we justify our choice of belief based on what we get from that belief?

    The respective answers to your questions are none, none, and nope. As legendary theologian “bearcreekbat” wrote at the Madville Times three years ago, “… that is Pascal’s wager in a nut shell! The problem is, belief is not a choice. One can claim to believe, as you note many purported religious people do, but if the belief is not sincere it counts for nothing.”
    http://madvilletimes.com/2014/07/when-does-life-begin-before-conception-says-howie/#comment-344929

  65. barry freed

    So, racists, murders, thieves, liars, and child rapists, who ask Jesus for forgiveness, go to Heaven regardless of how many times they have sinned and asked for forgiveness. When they get to Heaven, how do they recognize each other? Is it strictly by looks? Do they look the same after their hearts and brains are cured? What would Gurdz look like without a scowl and fetid heart?

  66. Barry Freed writes:

    So, racists, murders, thieves, liars, and child rapists, who ask Jesus for forgiveness, go to Heaven regardless of how many times they have sinned and asked for forgiveness.

    Yes, traditional Protestant Christians believe the blood Christ shed on the Cross paid the full penalty for our sins, and one genuine request for forgiveness is enough to demonstrate faith in Him. After that, He no longer sees us as racists, murderers, thieves, liars, rapists, or whatever other kinds of sinners we’d been previously.

    When they get to Heaven, how do they recognize each other? Is it strictly by looks? Do they look the same after their hearts and brains are cured? What would Gurdz look like without a scowl and fetid heart?

    The Bible says God will give each person who gets to Heaven an imperishable body: “It is sown a perishable body; it is raised an imperishable body. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory…” (First Corinthians 15:42-43). That suggests to me that anyone who gets to Heaven is going to look much better than he or she did here, and I’m not sure how people are going to recognize each other.