Monday, February 21, 2011

Peter Says Stuff: Did Jesus Exist?

Peter Says Stuff: Did Jesus Exist?: " First I would like to start off with a disclaimer, I am writing this to put forth the idea and compile information, if I missed anythi..."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Response to "Atheism: The Lie of the Century"

Dear Miss Raissa, I recently read your post, Atheism:  The Lie of the Century.  I was taken aback by some of the inaccuracies in your piece, and so I would like to offer the following as a correction.  For those of you reading that have not seen Miss Raissa’s original post, you can find it here:  


Atheism is not, as you say, ‘willful rebellion against god’.  That would be something like Satanism, where adherents recognize the existence of the Christian god, but choose to rebel against him anyway by worshipping his rival.  Atheism is different—it is the absence of a belief in a god.  What atheists would say is that there has never been any persuasive evidence to support the existence of a god.  And, in the absence of any positive evidence, it is only prudent to withhold belief. 


Very few atheists will make the claim that, because Darwin was an atheist, evolution proves that a god does not exist.  Darwin’s personal beliefs have nothing to do with the implication that his discovery had.  Rather, what we say is that evolution by natural selection is the only feasible explanation for the diversity of life that exists on Earth that does not involve a designer.  Other explanations might be intelligent design (guided evolution) or creation (all species are made to suddenly pop up from nothing by a creator.)  Evolution by natural selection, though, is the only one of these explanations that is actually supported by the evidence.

Because the only explanation for the diversity of life that is supported by the evidence is also the only explanation that does not involve a deity of some kind, atheists feel confident asserting that evolution is evidence of a kind for the absence of a god.  After all, if a god can create life using any method he wishes, why do it using the only method that doesn't require that he to do anything? 


Your basis for claiming that atheists cannot be moral is that morality ‘comes from god.’  To prove that this is not the case, I need only to ask you a simple question—could god be bad?  Or is he bound to be good?  That is to say, is whatever god says good simply because god says it, or does god make a choice to be good?

If you answer that god could not be bad—that everything god does is good simply because god is god and whatever he says goes—then you have accepted the moral position that might makes right.  This eliminates the need for the word ‘morality’ altogether, because now morality is not behavior that is good, it is just behavior that is consistent with the will of the most powerful thing imaginable.  All you need to describe that is the word ‘obedience.’ 

The other option is that god could be bad but chooses to be good.  His power is not what makes him good, rather it is his choice.  If God chooses to be good and not evil, then that choice must be based upon an external, abstract concept of right and wrong.  We can imagine a ‘scale of goodness’ that god chooses to sit at the top of.  It is by this ‘scale of goodness’ that we can analyze god’s goodness or badness and discover that he is maximally good.  Because the behaviors that would be the most conducive to the well-being of other self-aware beings are all exhibited by god—behaviors like unconditional love, a respect for free will, a desire for us to be fulfilled by entering his kingdom—we can conclude that the Christian god is a maximally good god. 

However, this ‘scale of goodness’ (or however else you might like to imagine it—it is an abstract concept, not a physical entity.  Sam Harris uses a landscape with peaks and valleys to illustrate a similar point) must, by necessity, exist outside of god.   The scale must be applied to god so it cannot be part of god, otherwise the reasoning would be circular. 

Therefore, if god could be bad, and is not bad, morality cannot come from god.  If god could not be bad, then morality could not come from god because all that morality would be is obedience.  Either way, we have to define morality in some manner that does not relate to a god, which allows atheists to be moral just like any other group.


This really does not have anything to do with the objections raised by atheists regarding religion.  In order to be an atheist, one does not have to hold any view on any subject other than to lack a belief in gods.  Someone can be pro-life and be an atheist; someone can be pro-choice and be an atheist.  I know pro-life atheists and pro-choice Christians. 

Abortion is a very difficult issue with strong arguments on both sides—the pro-choice and the pro-life side.  However, you can no more say that “atheists are pro-abortion” than you can say “black people are pro-gun rights” or “white people are anti-financial regulation”.  It’s an unfair and unproductive generalization about a group of people.

Hopefully this clears up your obvious misconceptions about atheism.  I would expect that in the future, before you decide to write anything else about atheists or any other group, you would do the necessary research on what exactly it is that you are criticizing.

Thank you,

Ben Doublett

Friday, February 11, 2011

Response to Rabbi Adam Jacobs

On February 10th 2011, Rabbi Adam Jacobs published an open letter to the atheist community on the Huffington Post website.  The letter, in its condescending entirety, can be found here: 

Below is my response to Rabbi Jacobs.

Dear Rabbi Jacobs,

Thank you for acknowledging the burgeoning atheist community with your recent letter.  For decades in America, the religious have ignored or ostracized atheists, regarding us as outsiders who are uninvited to sit at the table of public discourse.  Now that the numbers of the nonreligious in America have swelled to somewhere between fifteen and twenty percent, though, it seems the religious are more and more willing to engage us. 

In that engagement, it would behoove both sides to follow certain rules of etiquette so that we can have a conversation, informed by evidence, without either side feeling personally affronted.  With that in mind, I will make mention of a few violations of that etiquette your letter seemed to make.

First, it is typical of the religious to approach nonbelievers with condescension.  Your letter was no exception.  When you say something like, “Having spent a sizable portion of my life as an atheist, I understand your perspective,” it may seem to you that you are trying to relate to us, but from our point of view it seems like you are talking down to us—as if nonbelief in your holy books is just a phase that some people go through.  In fact, the religious have no right to condescend to nonbelievers, as studies like this show that nonbelievers tend to be more intelligent and polls of the National Academy of Sciences show that of the most elite scientists in the nation, over ninety percent disbelieve in a personal god.  I do not bring this up to assert that atheism is true simply because high intelligence and personal accomplishment correlate with atheism.  The only reason I bring this up is to show that the condescending manner in which you and other religious people approach nonbelievers is unjustified and unwarranted.  You are, decidedly, not better than us. 

The second breach of etiquette your letter makes is to present a straw man.  You claim to have read the works of many of the popular atheist authors, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have taken the literary world by storm in the past few years.  I will take your word for it, but I can only assume you did not absorb much of what they wrote, otherwise you would not have said in your letter:

The first point I'd like to explore is that there really are no true atheists. It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is no God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe - seen and unseen - and I don't think any of you guys are ready to make that claim.”

It is repeated, ad infinitum, by all of the popular atheist authors (with the notable exception of Victor Stenger) that no one claims knowledge or certainty of the nonexistence of a god.  Rather, we claim that no one, in the history of religion, has provided a compelling reason to believe in the existence of a god.  Lacking any evidence to suppose that a god exists, we must also lack a belief in a god.  Atheism is not the claim that no god exists.  Rather, since theism is the belief in a god, and the prefix a- means “an absence of” or “a lack of”, an atheist is simply someone who lacks belief in a god. 

The great philosopher Bertrand Russell demonstrated this point with his famous celestial teapot analogy.  Imagine that I were to claim there is a teapot in orbit around a star in the distant Andromeda galaxy.  You would have no way of disproving this claim.  However, if I were to ask you to believe this claim without any evidence except my word, you would almost definitely default to the position of disbelief.  This should be our position on the existence of a god.  I know of no way to disprove definitively the existence of a god; however I cannot hold a belief in a god until I have some evidence to support that belief. 

The third breach of etiquette you make is when you assert that atheists, unlike the religious, have no business advocating for our position.  You assert that atheist organizations, unlike churches, should not be buying billboards to advertise our presence.  You assert that atheists, unlike believers, should not be networking with one another on the internet.  I can assure you that secularists and atheists have just as much a right to compete in the market place of ideas and share our beliefs (or lack thereof) in the public arena as any group.  And, if recent census data and the New York Times Bestseller List are any indication, we have been quite successful so far. 

The fourth breach of etiquette you make in your letter is the false equivocation between the various communist dictators of the twentieth century and the long history of religiously motivated evildoers.  It is important to recognize that the Northern Ireland conflict, the Kashmir conflict, the conflict in the Balkans, the attacks of 9/11 and many of the other religious atrocities and wars that we site are directly motivated by religion.  People in all these situations kill each other not for personal gain, but because they believe the creator of the universe has given them a divine mandate to do so.  They believe that murder and war is their God-given purpose with as much sincerity as you believe it is yours to teach and mentor members of your community.  And they have about the same amount of evidence to support that belief as you do. 

Now, were dictators like Pol Pot, Mao and Stalin motivated similarly by their atheism to commit their atrocities?  Of course not!  There is no way for an atheist to believe he or she has a divine right to do anything.  What motivated these monsters to their evil acts was not their atheism, but their religious-like devotion to the communist ideology, which took the place of religion in their regimes. 

Remember, we are not simply playing a game of “who has the most bad guys?” where we each count up the number of evil people on the other side and whoever has the fewest wins.  What we are doing is analyzing whether believing that there is a creator of the universe who has a favorite race or nation of humans will cause more or less violence.  History, both ancient and modern, has shown that it causes more. 

Also, let us be clear on this once and for all—Adolf Hitler was not an atheist!  He was clearly a Christian as anyone who has read Mein Kampf can tell.  Numerous times he called himself ‘saved’ and Jesus his ‘personal savior.’  I have no more reason not to take Hitler at his word that he was ‘saved’ than I have any other Christian who makes this claim.  It would have been very easy for Hitler to repudiate the Christian religion as being based on Judaism, but instead he refused to ever admit that Jesus was Jewish.  Here is a brief excerpt from one of many speeches Hitler made in which he asserts his strong Christian faith. 

"My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.”  (De Roussy de Sales, 1973)

Finally, the last breach of etiquette you made was to present another straw man—to say that atheists believe that religion has contributed nothing to human history.  Of course, this is not true.  Atheists recognize the civilizing force religion played in early human history (as comedian Patton Oswald parodies in a bit called ‘Sky Cake’ here:  We appreciate, like any other person, the art and literature and civic discourse that religion produced in times gone by. 

However, recognizing that religion played a not-entirely destructive role in our history does not mean that it has a place in our future.  The only role religion plays in today’s world is to warp our ethical sensibilities to the point where we believe protecting a zygote is more important than curing Alzheimer’s Disease, to provide artificial cultural barriers that prevent us from establishing a truly global civilization, to stand in the way of equal rights for women in the Middle East and gays in the West, and to prevent almost half of all Americans from recognizing that the history of the universe extends back more than six thousand years. 

The negative effects of religion in today’s world are so voluminous that I could fill a book with them, but I can think of no single positive thing that religion gives us that we could not acquire from some secular discipline or endeavor. 

In summation, while I am glad that you decided to reach out to our rapidly growing community, Rabbi, I hope that in the future you will do so in a more informed way. 

With this in mind, I hope that you continue to encourage discourse between believers and nonbelievers.  


Ben Doublett
Fool of Psalms blog 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Godless Purpose

The question of purpose is one that religious people of all stripes raise when confronted with an atheist.  “If God does not exist,” they ask, their faces aghast, “then why are we here?”  When confronted with this question, I am often tempted to refer to the famous exchange between the British Prince Phillip and scientist Peter Atkins.  Prince Phillip, upon hearing Atkins speak about science, said (with all the haut of royalty,) “You scientists are awfully good at answering the ‘how’ questions, but what about the ‘why’ questions?”  Atkins, with a keenness of wit that I can only dream of one day possessing, responded, “Sir, the ‘why’ question is just a silly question.”  

While this poignant response stopped the British royal in his tracks, I dare say that it may not suffice for everyone.  After all, we do have an inherent urge to make our lives mean something.  Can this intrinsic desire be ignored so easily?  Can we really assign our lives to meaninglessness?  I believe we cannot.  A deeper purpose is needed for most humans and at least a partial fulfillment of that purpose is requisite for happiness. 

I believe, however, that we can find such purpose without pretending that imaginary things exist.  We do not have to fool ourselves into thinking that we are the playthings of some dictator in the sky in order to have meaning in our lives.  As with almost all things, the answer to the question, “why are we here?” can be found in science.  In this case, we can look to the process that took us from a single, simple, self-replicating cell to the intelligent, creative, loving beings that we are today:  Evolution.  

Deriving Purpose from a Purposeless Process

Evolution by natural selection is a cold, cruel and heartless process.  It works by allowing only the most fit to survive solely on the basis of their genetic predisposition to reproductive success.  It works like a machine—without intention, it morphs beings over time into plants and animals adapted for their circumstances.  It is the last place one would think to look to find meaning in life. 

And yet, one can infer some measure of purpose from an understanding of it.  One has to look at humans in the context of evolution and realize what we are.  Everything that makes us human, our fingers, our vision, our appearance, our posture, and most importantly our brains—8ilbs supercomputers that allow us to make decisions, feel emotions, perceive the world around us and reason through problems—have been crafted by this process, pitiless though it may be, so that we may more effectively protect the genetic information that constitutes our DNA.  Remember, the human is not the information; the human is the brain and the body that contain that information.  In a way, the human can be considered the protector of that information—a guardian that has been built, over millions of years in extremely small increments generation-by-generation, to protect it.  We are like Olympic runners, carrying the torch that is our precious DNA for a short time until we can pass it on to the next runner who will continue to carry it forward. 

When evolution is viewed in this context, it becomes very clear that, in the absence of an intelligent creator, humankind does have a purpose.  Our purpose is to survive and to ensure the survival of those who also carry our genes.  This includes all members of our species, but most importantly the focus is upon our off-spring, the ones within whom our own precious information lives past our individual deaths and who give us some sense of immortality. 

This purpose manifests itself in a host of beautiful and meaningful ways.  Romance is one such manifestation—the joy we feel when we find a partner who is willing to share themselves with us.  The ecstasy and nourishment of sex, the act of creating the next runner in the Olympic relay of life, is a pleasure that is incomparable and irreplaceable in the human experience.  But most of all, the unconditional love we feel for our children, the fierce desire to protect them and ensure that they survive and thrive long after we are gone. 

These powerful emotions are the result of nature selecting those beings most capable of living long lives and producing viable offspring.  So even though evolution by natural selection can seem to be a capricious and wasteful process, we can also see it as the method by which the strongest and deepest human emotions were created and infer a validation for the romantic and paternal impulses that constitute the best in all people. 

Objective and Obligatory

Religious readers will be quick to point out that the purpose which evolution imbues us with, while clearly objective—insofar as it crosses cultural boundaries and applies to all humans regardless of national, religious and historical boundaries—is not obligatory.  Despite the fact that we have a biological impulse to love our spouses and our young, we are not required to do so.  They may point out that we have other, less pleasant biological impulses that we feel morally obligated to control, like the impulses towards tribalism and belligerence.  If we are naturally evolved rather than created, then we are no more obliged to follow our altruistic instincts than our destructive ones. 

They would claim that, if the god of Christianity (or Judaism or Islam or Mormonism, etc.) exists then there is a purpose for humanity that is both binding and obligatory.  Most theologians claim that this purpose is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  It was for this purpose, they assert, that god created all of humanity and therefore that is the purpose of each of our individual lives. 

This may seem like a satisfying answer, until you actually think about it.  Once you realize what it really implies, you understand that this would be a very unsatisfying answer indeed!  I for one am very glad it is not true.  The best illustration of this point is made by Christopher Hitchens when he compares the god of Christianity to the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il. 

Hitchens writes about his experience in a rare visit he was permitted to North Korea.  There, upon waking every morning, children are taught to thank the Dear Leader for allowing the sun to rise again.  Every day, the people of North Korea sing the praises of their dictator and their entire lives are spent working for his benefit. The North Korean government is not “for the people,” the North Korean people are for the government.  If anyone dares to rebel against Kim Jong Il, they spend the entirety of their lives in a work camp, suffering one of the most miserable existences imaginable. 

Your choices are servitude to someone who appears to be your moral inferior (but claims otherwise) or a life of inescapable suffering and torture.  Nothing could be more similar to the view espoused by Christians.  Eternal subjugation in Heaven to a celestial dictator who is beyond all petition or eternal torture and suffering in Hell.  In fact, the only difference I can see is that at least you can escape North Korea by death!  The god of Christian scripture offers no such mercy. 

The notion of a purpose that we may not wish to pursue and to which we are inescapably bound is one of the most despicable and undesirable ideas I can imagine.  It would be the ultimate cruelty. 

Furthermore, the very notion that we were all created so that we could have the opportunity to become devout Christians is undermined by the fact that this option has been made unavailable to the vast majority of people throughout human history.  Remember, humans have been on this Earth in our current state for approximately 200,000 years.  Out of this, the self-proclaimed benevolent god of Christianity has offered people the opportunity to have a relationship with him, through his human form, Jesus Christ, for a mere 2,000 years.  So all humans who lived in the 198,000 year period prior to Jesus, except for the small, exclusive desert tribe that Yahweh defined as his ‘chosen people’, were denied knowledge of the purpose of their existence! 

Not only this, but, as I observed in The Salvation Paradox, knowledge of the god of Christianity was withheld from the vast majority of people on the Earth after god decided to turn himself into a human and sacrifice himself to himself to get around a rule he made himself.  Knowledge of their supposed purpose in life was withheld from Native Americans, for instance, until European settlers arrived in the 1600’s.  It was withheld from Australian Aborigines until the 1700’s.  Surely if there is some objective purpose to life, some reason for why we are here, that knowledge should be apparent to all people, not just the small minority fortunate enough to be born in the right place and the right time.  If we look to evolution for an objective purpose, we find that this is the case—all people, regardless of race, religion, nationality or place in history, have the opportunity to find their purpose in creating, caring for and protecting their offspring.  If we look to religion for an objective purpose, we find the knowledge of that purpose confined to a select few throughout history.   

Subjective and Voluntary

So, we can infer a purpose for everything that makes us human from evolution.  We are under no obligation to pursue this purpose, but we should not wish for a purpose to be obligatory in the first place—that would be very unpleasant indeed.  But I think the thing that can give most humans the most satisfaction would not be an objective purpose, but a subjective one.  One that they can determine for themselves.  No one likes to feel that their life is outside of their control, so we cannot think that some dictate of purpose, whether it comes from nature or from a god, would be enough to satisfy anyone. 

What we need to realize is that we determine our own purpose.  While our minds and thoughts may not be the arbiters of reality or fact, they are the arbiters of meaning and value.  We can decide what pursuits we want to spend our life on.  If you decide that you want to make the purpose of your life the advancement of human understanding of the cosmos, you can do that.  If you decide that you want to make the improvement of the lots of others the purpose of your life, you can do that.  If you decide that you want your life to be about having as much fun as you can with the people who you love, you can do that, too.  You control your own purpose. 

At the end of the day, we have to realize that life has a purpose in the same way the pantry in your kitchen has a meal.  All the ingredients are there, but if you want it you have to make it yourself. 

Blog Wars! Round 4: The Closing Argument

The following is my closing argument in the four-round debate with theology student and Christian blogger, Cody Cook.  My previous arguments can be found here:

Round 1:  Opening Statement--
Round 2:  Rebuttal--
Round 3:  Cross Examination--

Let us recap what we have heard in this debate.  In the first round, I gave three reasons to believe that an atheistic worldview is more capable of answering the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” than a theistic worldview:

  1. The something that exists was clearly not designed for humans.
  2. Our scientific narrative does not involve a god.
  3. We have no reason to believe a god would exist instead of nothing. 

In the first round, Mr. Cook claimed that something, existing out of necessity, was necessary to create the universe.  This something required a will because the universe began to exist at a certain point in time. 

However, in the second round I demonstrated that the universe most definitely did not begin to exist at a certain point in time.  The Big Bang created space and, therefore, time.  If this seems confusing, just remember a little bit of physics from high school: 

Therefore, Time=Distance/Speed 

Time requires distance to exist.  Distance requires space.  No space means no time.  Without the Big Bang, we do not have space—even empty space—and therefore we do not have time.  The beginning of the universe was not an event in time; it was the beginning of time itself.  Hence, no will is necessary and physical laws without a will are capable of bringing the universe into existence. 

Mr. Cook also asserted that a god exists necessarily.  He has provided no justification for this, other than to say that the presence of a god is necessary for the existence of the universe.  This reason can be dismissed because that god would have to have existed prior to the universe and would need some other reason for its necessity, otherwise the existence of god would also be contingent upon existence of the universe. 

That which can be asserted without justification can be dismissed without justification so I could dismiss Mr. Cook’s assertion of god’s necessity out of hand, but I have provided two good reasons for my dismissal:

  1. The omnipotent nature of a god would contradict the necessity of a god.
  2. The god of the bible has traits, like human emotion and thought, which are contingent. 

It is up to you, the reader, to decide for yourself who has won this debate, but I think the answer is clear:  An atheistic worldview can provide an answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  A theistic worldview cannot.

My opponent's closing argument can be found here:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Conversations with a Christian

I had an interesting exchange with a Christian recently that highlighted for me the absolute lack of respect for reason and evidence amongst the religious.  It is interesting how willing the religious are to contrast their belief in god against reason and evidence themselves.  It is very rare to find a Christian who believes that reason and evidence can actually be used to support the existence of a god.  I felt that this was an important thing to share, so please check it out below.  What I have posted is just part of our exchange, because the rest is largely irrelevant.  Also, all spelling and grammar mistakes in the selection attributed to him are his own: 

Christian:  It seems our discrepancies come over what we are willing to take leaps of faith for. You're willing to believe that everything can be explained by human logic and put your fiath in that, whereas I believe that man cannot fully comprehend everything and put my faith in God. Also, you are starting with the logic as you have laid it out and from there are, point by point, explicating how God could not exist due to each. However, I start out with the existance of God as my absolute truth and pick apart the arguments from there. In your case, logical arguments are bigger than God and so God cannot exist within them. In my case, God is bigger than logic and so has power over the logical arguments and turns their absolute truths into fallacies. If you take a step back and open your mind to the fact that we as humans are only wired to understand a very small crossection of the greater universe, be it light, distance, sound, time, or what have you, then you may be able to realize that no human can fully define the laws of the universe or its existance.

Me:  I think your argument really fell apart for me, though, when you said, “However, I start out with the existence of God as my absolute truth and pick apart the arguments from there.” If you presuppose your conclusion, of course you will arrive at it. This is a fallacy and therefore not a legitimate way to analyze a claim.

My aim is not to disprove the existence of a god with certainty. If you state that a god exists but has created humans and the universe in such a way that if we apply a logical and evidence-based analysis to the world around us, we will find that this god does not exist, I know of no way to disprove that statement. You have constructed an un-falsifiable claim that is inherently illogical.

Imagine if we did this with another issue, say politics. I tell you that I believe a careful study of economic principles and history shows that the supply-side policies advocated by Republicans will produce superior results to the demand-side policies advocated by Democrats. According to your logic it would be okay for you to reply, “Well, if you start off by using economics as the arbiter of economic truth, then yes, you are right. But I choose to use the Democratic Party platform as the arbiter of economic truth and then go back and decide what economic model works based on that. You and I just have different ways of approaching the problem.” This is absolutely not a legitimate way to think and analyze problems. A conclusion cannot be your starting point.

As I said, my aim is not to definitively disprove the existence of all gods by all possible definitions. My aim is simply to show that there is no good, positive reason to believe that a god exists when one analyzes the question objectively without presupposition in favor or against the existence of god. I also aim to show that there are good reasons to believe that the god of Christianity does not exist.

Given two thousand years, Christianity has failed to produce a single argument for the existence of a god that can withstand the rigors of logic and evidence, but atheists have developed many arguments such as the ones I have given to believe that this particular god does not exist.

The only recourse left for Christians such as yourself who wish to perpetuate their belief in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence is to denounce reason and logic themselves. As Martin Luther famously said, “Reason is the greatest enemy faith has.” When you contrast my acceptance of logic with your belief in god, you confirm this.