Atheist Tim Interviews Christian Tim Part 2

Part 2 of the interview between current me and Christian me…

Atheist Tim: Do you think that people who have never been exposed to Christianity have a moral or spiritual gap?

Christian Tim: Probably not. Maybe they have a moral gap. I know a lot of people who would argue that. But I suppose people can be simultaneously non-Christian and content with their life

AT: Interesting about the moral gap. Do you feel that Christians are more moral than non-Christians?

CT: Yes and no. Clearly there are a lot of religions that have a strong correllation to violence, but then again, Christianity is not innocent in that

AT: What do you think about the notion that the Christian bible provides a source of moral authority?

CT: To the extent that it provides the 10 commandments and other things like that, I guess that’s probably true. And if I believe that Christians are more moral, then I suppose that must mean that something about Christianity is more moral. That difference might as well be some interplay between the teachings in the bible and their relationship to God.

AT: What about passages in the bible that seem to advocate slavery, murder, rape, and genocide?

CT: Doesn’t most of that stuff happen in the old testament? That’s what Christianity is for

AT: But the bible says that Jesus believes entirely in the old testament

CT: Well, maybe the bible is not the ultimate source of morality

AT: Then what is?

CT: I guess it’s our own internal morality plus what we learn as kids plus our relationship to God.

AT: So why do we need the bible?

CT: Maybe we don’t. If the bible advocated slavery and rape anywhere, then I must be more moral than the context of those passages.

AT: So why do you need Christianity?

CT: It still describes God.

AT: What about God is important to your life?

CT: If you believe in God, then you believe he created everything, and gives us our internal compass

AT: But you just conceded that the bible isn’t necessary for morality

CT: That doesn’t prove our morality isn’t given to us by God. It also doesn’t prove that God didn’t create the universe

AT: So the bible isn’t necessary to describe God?

CT: I suppose that’s what I just conceded.

AT: If we’re given a moral compass by God, do you really need Christianity or the bible?

CT: Not if we can remember to practice good behavior throughout the rest of human existence

AT: Are there any ways to compel morality without religion?

CT: Laws, social conventions, teaching empathy

AT: Do you believe a religion-less society that has laws, social conventions, and a lot of empathy can be just as moral as a society that derives its
morality directly from the bible?

CT: Probably

AT: Why do you believe God is necessary for our existence here.

CT: I suppose we could be here without a God, but that seems really unlikely. I can’t even imagine how that could have possibly happened.

AT: Would you agree that there are things you don’t understand, but are simultaneously logical and well-understood? How about things that all of humanity
fails to understand, but are still logical and discoverable?

CT: Yes and yes.

AT: So why couldn’t it be the case that the beginning of the universe and life was simultaneously complicated and did not involve God?

CT: I suppose that could be, but God seems like an easier explanation

AT: Would you say it was an easier explanation that the sun and all the planets revolve around the earth?

CT: I’d say it was more convenient

AT: Was that a correct description of the solar system?

CT: No. Look, even if God didn’t intervene in humanity, he could still exist as the enforcer of the natural laws of the universe

AT: Oh like deism or pantheism?

CT: I guess. I’m not familiar with those concepts

AT: Deism is the notion that God exists but does not reveal himself. Pantheism is where God is intertwined in all the workings of the universe

CT: That sounds good. I don’t know how you could argue against that.

AT: Is there any way to distinguish between a god who exists but doesn’t reveal himself and a universe where there is no god at all?

CT: Maybe in a situation where there is no god, the universe would all fall apart.

AT: Do you deny the possibility that there could simultaneously be no god AND have a universe that functions under the same laws and processes as the one we
have now?

CT: I don’t know.

AT: What do you think about hell?

CT: It seems to exist…at least in Christianity. I think other religions believe in versions of hell, too

AT: Do you think a God who would punish someone with eternal hellfire is worth worshipping?

CT: It is pretty messed up

AT: What would you do if you made it into heaven, but none of the people you knew while you were alive did?

CT: That would be really sad

AT: Do you think the standard for behavior is well-defined for entry into heaven?

CT: Do good things and praise God.

AT: What if you’re practicing a religion that is inconsistent with other religions and their standards for entry into heaven? And what if the real god has
1-and-only-1 religion that is the correct way to get into heaven?

CT: Then I guess I’m either right or wrong, and the odds are I’m wrong. It would be a shame that so many people spent their whole lives worshipping to the
wrong god or learning the wrong ways to get into heaven. I hope that’s not the case though.

AT: Do you think these odds merit practicing any religion?

CT: I am a Christian.

AT: What if you’re wrong?

CT: Then I’d better get used to high heat.

AT: Do you think that bad people can get into heaven?

CT: That’s what I hear

AT: If a person asks for forgiveness and professes their sins?

CT: Bingo

AT: Don’t you think it’s interesting that God needs you to profess your sins? Couldn’t he just read your mind?

CT: I guess so

AT: Do you think that good people can get sent to hell?

CT: I suppose that’s true, too.

AT: So, in some people’s version of Christianity, murderers, rapists, and child molesters can get into heaven, but a person who missed church a few times or
a kid whose parent didn’t get them baptized can go to hell. Does that seem like loving concern for humanity?

CT: No.

AT: Has the thought ever crossed your mind that an entity who has the capacity to stop the most evil and barbaric things, but doesn’t do so, might be
deficient of morality?

CT: Not really.

AT: Would you stop a rape or molestation or murder if you had the ability?

CT: Yes, of course.

AT: What would you think about a person who refused to stop such a thing?

CT: I’d think they’re a fucking monster.

AT: But you don’t think that about God?

CT: I’m sure some religious people have worked out why that is. Isn’t that the problem of evil, or something like that?

AT: Or it could be that people who pray are just inventing an invisible father who does nothing except for failing to exist. Do you believe religion is a
force for good in the world?

CT: I think it has its good parts and bad parts.

AT: What are the good parts?

CT: It creates a framework and streamlined process for charity.

AT: Is there any moral thing religious people can do that atheists can’t?

CT: I suppose not.

AT: What are some of the bad things religion does?

CT: You name it. Crusades, terrorism, genital mutilation, violent suppression of scientific progress

AT: If you were to build a statistical model to predict a person’s religion, how important would you say the person’s parent’s religion would be in that

CT: It’s probably the most important variable

AT: Do you think that model would hold in predicting religions other than Christianity or religions over the course of history?

CT: Almost certainly. There are probably exceptions, though.

AT: Do you think some religions are more logical and reasonable than others?

CT: Probably, although my religion has a guy who walked on water and turned water into booze, so I’m not sure reasonable is a nail I want to hang my hat on
– no pun intended.

AT: Do you think it says anything that no matter how irrational, a person will adopt their parent’s religion?

CT: I don’t know


Atheist Tim Interviews Christian Tim

I took a quiz about questions atheists should answer, and it got me thinking; despite it being sort of an asshole quiz to concoct, I understand the sort of desperation a person goes through trying to rationalize religion in the face of very illogical claims. I did these intellectual jumping jacks for decades before finally rejecting it.

I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to devise a quiz for all theists, because that’s not what this blog is for, and I don’t think that conversion or deconversion can honestly happen over the course of a few questions for most intelligent people. But I think I’m close enough to my original Christian
mindset to have a conversation with my former self about the problems inherent in my former belief system.

So even though this might be an exercise in frivolity, I thought it might be fun to imagine having a conversation with my former self. Honestly evaluating questions like these might have saved me a lot of pain and illogical monkey business. I don’ know if my Christian counterpart would have answered exactly this way. I suspect I’m engaged in a bit of self-serving confirmation bias, but I tried to think about these questions from both perspectives, and did try to answer honestly from both. Here it goes…

Atheist Tim: Why do you believe what you do, in terms of your Christianity?

Christian Tim: I don’t know. I suppose it’s because I was born in a Christian household, God seems to exist, and because I promised I would be a Christian for the rest of my life

AT: How old were you when you made that promise?

CT: 13.

AT: Do you think you were emotionally and intellectually prepared to make a committment like that when you were that age?

CT: Probably not, but it’s not like I’ve been forced to make any sacrifices because of it.

AT: Do you think 13 year olds ought to be allowed to get married or enter into contracts?

CT: No. Maybe some contracts are ok with parental supervision, but definitely not marriage.

AT: What is it about 13 year olds that you don’t think they’re ready for marriage?

CT: 13 year olds aren’t even physically mature yet…some haven’t even started puberty. Most have hardly experienced any life or significant dilemmas at all…I certainly hadn’t. You learn a lot between the ages of 13 and 20, and maybe even more between 20 and 25. Being married implies all sorts of things that 13 year olds should not be forced into doing or accepting, and I don’t believe the large majority of 13 year olds have the intellectual tools to recognize that. Being a kid ought to be about learning and experiencing, not about slavishly abiding by arbitrary and rigid social conventions that are best reserved for adults who consciously decided to do something.

AT: Do you see a difference between being forced to do something and knowing that you would be forced if you refused?

CT: Maybe a bit, but they’re not exactly the same thing

AT: Do you think rape victims see the two things as different?

CT: It’s not the same thing. I’d say it’s more like cleaning your room. Either you do it or you drag your feet, but either way, it’s going to happen

AT: If you had doubts about your faith at 13, would you have felt safe to voice those doubts?

CT: Probably not. I’m sure some kids do, and I’m sure they ask for spiritual guidance, but honestly, I think even at 13, if I had doubts, I would have recognized that doubts about faith deserved skeptical analysis and devil’s advocate, even if I wouldn’t have articulated it that way when I was 13. I didn’t
have a lot of doubts at the time, because it all seemed self-evident. To be honest, I was probably too scared of going to hell to even imagine questioning my faith; and even if I had, I don’t think my family would have gone for me refusing to get confirmed

AT: Why do you think that a church would ask a person to make that sort of committment when they’re so young and before they understand basic tenets of

CT: I see where you’re going with this. You’re trying to say that kids get brainwashed. There’s probably some truth to that, but there’s also a problem of waiting too long, because 20 year olds can’t be forced to attend church by their parents the way 12 year olds can.

AT:  Do you think forced marriages are ok?

CT:  No.  I think some forced or arranged marriages are worse than others, in terms of how bad of a situation one (or both) parties enters into, but in general, I think that forced marriage is one of the cornerstones of lack of freedom

AT:  So, you don’t believe that people should be forced into major life commitments, you believe a person should be free to make their own decisions, and you believe that the bulk of these decisions and life commitments should be reserved for adulthood, but you’re ok with forcing 13 year olds to adopt a particular faith?

CT:  Hmm.

AT: Are there any compelling reasons why you think Christ was the person the bible claims…son of God, and that sort of thing?

CT: The bible says so. Isn’t that reason enough?

AT: If I rolled a standard, 6-sided die, but didn’t show you the result, would you believe me if I said I rolled a 7?

CT: No

AT: Why?

CT: There are only 6 discrete values. 1 through 6

AT: What if I could roll the die 10 million times?

CT: Still no. 7 is not a valid outcome. Don’t try to fool a computer programmer. I understand enumerations.

AT: So why do you believe Jesus Christ could do things that are not natural outcomes for humans (walking on water, magically healing lepers, rising from the dead)?

CT: The bible says so, and a lot of people believe it. And because Jesus was the son of God.

AT: If a lot of people believed that jumping off a bridge was a good idea, would that make it so?

CT: No.

AT: What if the bible said that jumping off a bridge was a good idea? Would that make it a good idea?

CT: No.

AT: If one part of the bible said it was good to jump off a bridge, but another part said it wasn’t, would you still say that not jumping off the bridge is better?

CT: Yes?

AT: Why?

CT: Not jumping off a bridge is more reasonable. It is harmful to jump off the bridge.

AT: How do you know that?

CT: Common sense and collected evidence

AT: So why is common sense and a reasonable standard of evidence the most useful strategy for evaluating the biblical bridge claim, but not useful in evaluating whether Jesus Christ did what the bible claims?

CT: Because I’m a Christian. I promised that I believe.

AT: If you had never heard about Jesus Christ until now, would you believe all the claims the bible makes about Jesus?

CT: Probably not.

AT: Why not?

CT: Because there are a lot of logical and historical inconsistencies in the bible. And not all of it seems moral.  And I have a higher standard for what I accept as evidence as an adult.

Null Hypothesis, Statistics, Science, and The God Question

By definition, a null hypothesis can never be proven.  We describe our confidence in a null hypothesis by building mathematical equations to determine probability.

For instance, if we’re testing the effectiveness of a drug, the hypothesis might be laid out like this:

Hypothesis[null]:  Effect of drug = Effect of Placebo
Hpothesis[alt]:    Effect of drug != Effect of Placebo

We go to great lengths to build mathematical strategies for testing a hypothesis, and some hypothesis testing strategies are demonstrably better than others.

Our hypothesis test frames probability in terms of the null hypothesis.  For instance, a probability of 0% means that we reject the null hypothesis.  A probability of 95% (or really anything greater than 5% or 10%) means we *FAIL* to reject the null hypothesis.  In other words, we never say that we’ve *PROVED* the null hypothesis, but corroborated tests revealing consistent failure to reject a hypothesis might give us confidence that the null hypothesis is correct.  But, the null hypothesis would also need to accurately predict outcomes or build a statistical model.  We also need to make sure we’re testing the hypothesis well.  If we can’t test the hypothesis, how could we ever assign a probability to it?

Then there’s always the problem of sampling bias:  maybe the tests you’ve run are not representative of the natural distribution.  Good science means remaining skeptical, even when some preliminary data supports a position.

In statistical models, some variables are more important than others.  For instance, we could build a model that predicts a person’s religion (a person’s religion would be the target variable).  The input variables we could use to predict a person’s religion might include their parent’s religion, their geographic location, their peer group (and majority religion), their freedom to practice a religion, whether they attended a religious school, and their favorite food.

It’s easy to see why a person’s parent’s religion is more important in the model than what their favorite food is.  Of course, if a religion bans pork and the person’s favorite food is pork chops, that may elevate the importance of the variable on that particular person.  But for aggregate data, a person’s parent’s religion is almost certainly the most important variable in this model, followed distantly by their geographic region, and their freedom to practice this religion.

The prerequisite condition to building a model is that the model can be tested with some reliable method to assess probability that the input variables are meaningful.  Our confidence in the overall model depends on its ability to predict outcomes.

Of course, science or physics might hypothesize that some unknown field or phenomenon affects some outcome, but there are couple reasons why this is different than assuming God:

1.  They build tests to gain more clarity around the unknown field or phenomenon
2.  The phenomenon usually has a consistent effect
3.  The ignorance about the unknown thing is usually temporary
4.  People work to create rigor around building definition of the unknown thing
5.  The unknown thing helps to improve the predictability of a model

God’s existence is not testable, and therefore we can’t really assign it a probability.  I think we have a responsibility to assign something probability before it’s worth talking about in terms like these, which is one of the reasons why I rejected religion.  A person can talk science all they want, but the plain and indisputable truth is that we take an inappropriate logical leap by assuming there is a God, and this does not allow us to predict outcomes with any accuracy.

The Pope and His Donkeys

Pope Francis received 2 donkeys as a gift, and sometime after that, proclaimed that all God’s creatures go to heaven.

It’s been my experience that my favorite dog breed (Golden Retrievers) are superior to humans in almost all ways that matter. So, aside from my warm and fuzzies about my dogs’ positive prospects for ascent into heaven, the atheist in me can’t ignore the several absurdities.

First, when you flirt with anti-theism, it occurs to you that all of the pope’s “profound insight” into God’s nature is, in reality, just some guy making shit up. Millions of people cheer and hang on his words, but sorry Catholics, it’s all bullshit.

Second, it really is self-serving and narcissistic. I’ve never given the pope much thought, because I grew up in a Lutheran household, and a lot of Catholic rituals always seemed cultish, even when I was a Christian. With eyes open, the cult behavior is even more obvious.

I don’t know if people really believe the pope has a deeper and more personal relationship with god than everyone else, but if they do, its obvious to me why it’s so hard to deconvert people – if you can believe all this pope stuff, you can literally be convinced of anything.  Brainwashing is a powerful tool

Ideas and Ridicule

“The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.” -Thomas Aquinas

About 10 years ago, I worked at a small company that had 6 or 7 employees.  It was my first real job after graduating from university.  My political ideology was somewhere in the neighborhood of liberal, and my coworkers were more conservative than me.  This sometimes led to interesting conversations, but for the most part, we had civil interactions, and I would describe it as a functional and professional work atmosphere.

One of my coworkers was quite zealous about his religion, and one day, he alluded to me that he suspected the reason why the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen) referenced Bealzabub (the devil) was because members of the band made a pact with the devil, trading their souls for mainstream success.

I asked if he was serious, and he said yes.

“Really?” I asked.  “Yes,” he replied.

“You really believe,” I said, “that a band traded their souls for success, and that one of the terms of the trade was that they mention the devil in a song?”

“Yes,” he said again.

Even when I was a Christian, this was batty.  It seemed at the time, and more so now, breath-takingly, mind-numbingly stupid.  Though I saw it as a benign position at the time, I don’t believe this mindset is harmless anymore.

It is born out of the same vein as witch-hunts and inquisitions, and borrows from the strategies of generations earlier by inventing an arbitrary moral framework that makes uncompromising demands and punishes infinitely.

He managed to invent a holy war that no one else was fighting and invented facts to justify his war.  It’s the cheapest sort of character assault, and gives moral justification to zealous believers to suspend their logical faculties and commence mob mentality.

Religious indoctrination exploits this device by creating an unnatural standard of behavior, forcing us to question our innate capacity to tell right from wrong, creating a suspicious and inconsistent framework for assessing morality, and then employing a carrot and stick system to selectively reinforce the standard when it’s convenient.  If someone has the audacity to violate this standard, the faithful are justified to employ punishment.

My coworker’s idea deserves ridicule.  It doesn’t deserve respect, and it doesn’t deserve to be put on some pedestal as an example of a faithful believer willing to suspend reason for the sake of defending their religion in the face of (non-existent) persecution and moral depravity.

Ideas like these are dangerous, not simply because they’re the intellectual fodder for religious extremism, but because the doctrine that gave rise this nonsense celebrates its own intellectual dishonesty, and builds movements around it.  It’s what extremism looks like.  In this case, my coworker integrated religious extremism into a popular culture reference, and called it a reasonable conclusion, while presupposing moral authority.

The fact that my co-worker was willing to share this idea at all, let alone in a workplace environment, raised serious questions in my mind of whether he was fit to remain unmedicated, let alone play an integral role in the small business for which we both worked.  As it turns out, the business did not remain a business for very long (for reasons outside both our controls).

As a non-confrontational midwestern Lutheran, I let my coworker’s claim slide, and vowed to steer clear of conversations like that in the future.  I wish I had it to do over again, because I might have raised the issue that his claim looked a lot like the preamble of some witch-burning manifesto.  Or maybe I’d challenge his arrogance in spouting extremist nonsense about a person who wasn’t even alive anymore.  Or maybe I’d explore to see what other things he’d invented to suit his agenda.  Or perhaps I’d question his inclination to raise such hogwash at work.

I think it’s important to push back against this nonsense, because it’s not right, it’s not decent, and it’s not moral.  People who say shit like that are hypocrites, and this extremism amplifies when people have the luxury of isolating themselves in like-minded communities.

Honestly Assessing Claims

Cognitive Dissonance:  the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values

Motivated Reasoning:   refers to the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs

Confirmation Bias:  the tendency to search for, interpret, or remember information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses

It doesn’t matter who you are, how smart you are, or how open you are to new ideas.  People are hardwired to hold on to existing information and to internalize beliefs.  We get a glimpse of this by listening to people’s subconscious speech patterns; for instance, when an atheist says “Oh my god”.

There was an evolutionary advantage to this internalization and inclination towards patterns, even though these internalized assumptions might have been incorrect.  The advantage was a simpler framework by which to understand the world, life-saving risk/benefit analysis, and more accurate memory.  For instance, pattern recognition would have been helpful when remembering that a member of your tribe died after they ate a certain fruit or were bitten by a particular insect; therefore, it’s very important to stay away from that fruit or insect.

If I’m in a conversation, either in-person or online, and I’m forced to defend a position, I often end up making sloppy arguments because I am in a hurry to talk about the points I want to make; in the process, I reveal some of the “shorthand” I perform in my brain, and these shortcuts do not always translate to well-formed arguments.

In order to honestly assess a claim, and not just engage in motivated reasoning for the sake of confirmation bias and to avoid cognitive dissonance, I think there are a certain number of questions one must consider.

1.  Does this claim appear true?
2.  Is this claim logically sound?
3.  Does this claim reveal weaknesses in my own beliefs?
4.  Does this claim reveal weaknesses in the underlying ideology it supports?
5.  Is this claim, or its implications, significantly different from the beliefs I have?
A.  If yes, have I evaluated the truth value of this claim?  Am I confident that my evaluation was an honest one?  Does it merit re-evaluation?
B.  If no, then determine if there are any details to learn from my counterpart

I’m sure there are more questions to consider when honestly considering a claim or position, but these are the ones on the top of my head.

It’s hard to honestly assess the claims people make.  It requires a lot of thought and a lot of processing, and a lot of examination of deeply held and internalized beliefs that you currently hold.  This is nearly impossible to do in the heat of the moment, when multiple claims are being put forward in a short time span.

It doesn’t help that we have internal mechanisms, both social and physiological, that make us disinclined to admit we’re wrong.  It is indeed a matter of personal growth to not only recognize when your position is faulty, but also to admit when your position is inferior to your opponent’s.

But this internalization can reveal our willingness to trade reason for dogma.  For instance, consider debating religion with a person who literally believes they will spend eternity in hell if they accept your position.  The more internalized a belief is, the less likely a person will honestly assess their belief.

This is the reason why religion is so motivated to indoctrinate children.  There is no better way to internalize ideas than to force children to accept them.  It’s easy, too, because most children don’t have the intellectual toolset to challenge the absurdity of the claims you make – they trust adults.  You can literally get children to believe anything – Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy, The Easter Bunny, Chocolate-delivering leprechauns.  The list goes on and on.

As I’ve gotten to think more about the problems associated with institutionalized religion, I’ve come to see it as a malignant force – a cancer on humanity.  When we put such an emphasis on indoctrinating children based on faith, we undo their natural capacity for skepticism, logical thought, and the ability to reason.  And we replace these tools with blind faith and decreased confidence in their built-in moral compass.

Answering a Stupid Quiz Part 3

This is the third installment of the atheist quiz

6. Do you believe free will to be illusory? If so, can the punishment of crimes be ethically justified (and does the word “ethical” have any real meaning)?
In other words, is free will a real thing?  A few minutes ago, I decided I wanted some coffee, so I poured myself a cup, and am now drinking it.  I suppose I was free to do that.  I understand that this question is designed to lock respondents into some metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but I consider questions like these to be armchair matters that don’t really contribute much to honest debate.

To address the second part of the question, is the questioner really asking if we can justify immorality because of free will?  That seems absurd, but I guess I’d take my version of ethics and morality over what the Christian bible encourages, for instance, justification for keeping slaves, sacrificing and murdering babies, women, and children, genital mutilation, and slaughtering members of the neighboring village.  At least I can feel good about treating people as well as I can without supernatural intervention that commands me to be bad to other humans.

That’s all I’m going to respond to this question, because I think the questioner presupposes Christianity provides a moral highground.  I think that Christians had better start appologizing for all the harm they’ve done to the world and others in the name Christianity before they start asserting that their religion gives them any sort of monopoly on morality.

7. Does objective morality exist? If so, what is its source…and how do you define “objective”? If not, do you concede that concepts like “justice”, “fairness”, and “equality” are nothing more than social fads, and that acts of violence and oppression must be regarded merely as differences of opinion?
Social fads?  I don’t think I’d characterize it in terms of “social fads”.  That’s reductionist, and I don’t think most reasonable people, regardless of political or religious position, would be so bold as to characterize how we treat people as a fad.  There seem to be reasonable and logical ways to behave that result in moral behavior, such as the desire to minimize harm.

We do have the capacity to collect information and exercise empathy, and all that is perfectly explainable without referring to the supernatural.

Maximizing well-being also seems to contribute to this paradigm.  This is objective to the extent that we can define universal well-being for all humanity, which is a big task, and might not be an all-to-useful exercise.

We create frameworks for justice because most cultures agree that it is best for everyone if we have a collection of rules that minimizes harm, attempts to maximize well-being, and gives people some amount of flexibility to commit errors.  There may be illogical implementations of these frameworks, or tendencies to favor the well-being for some people or groups over others, but that is a function of societal acceptance of such a paradigm.  Societies that refuse to accept that particular families are chosen by God to rule over the country are more inclined to abolish or disempower monarchy.  But clearly, what’s acceptable to any given society is fluid and changes a lot over time.

As far as whether there is objective morality, I don’t know.  I think people tend to care about certain things, and those things vary greatly across different cultures.  Therefore, there does seem to be subjectivity in how we discern right from wrong, but this is not unique for atheists.  There is a great deal of disagreement over a number of matters in and out of the church – think war, abortion, civil rights, slavery, etc.

I think that some of the morality espoused in the bible is a good enough reason to reject the bible as a moral authority, so if that’s what the question is getting at, then I’d probably err on the side of there not being objective morality, because well-being doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone.

Fairness, equality, and justice are relative to the culture, and this has been true forever.  There is a self-defeating mechanism that exists for humans, in that if we kill everyone, then there won’t be any more humans, so there would have always been some logical, or self-correcting mechanism to recognize this.

By the way, fairness is not exclusively human.  We see empathy, sharing, and non-violent behavior across many species, including bonobos, who behave remarkably similar to humans.

8. In what terms do you define the value of human life? Is the life of a human child more or less valuable, for example, than that of an endangered species of primate?
There is a biological reason why parents protect their children:  parents are biologically responsible for their children’s lives until their children are old enough to defend for themselves.  This is not unique to humans, nor are humans the most zealous defenders of their children’s lives – there are plenty of animals that are equally or more defensive of their offspring’s safety than humans.  We seem to have inclinations to create rules (laws) that serve to create a shared social responsibility for children’s well-being, and that is somewhat unique to humans, although we see plenty of species that will work to the well-being of infants they did not parent.  These behaviors are reinforced by various chemical and hormonal pathways across many species.

If I’m erring on the side of there not being objective morality, I think it’s hard to answer whether a human child is more or less valuable than an animal of any other species.  Certainly, humans tend to give more value to human children than almost any other living organism, and this is quite explainable via our biology and hormones.

Basically, I don’t think this is a very useful question, because I don’t see a lot of “Sophie’s Choice” situations where we have to quickly give value to humans and other species, and then use that value in terms of how to save both.  I don’t see humans as more important or special than other species, except to say that humans seem to have capabilities that other species don’t have as a result of a larger brain.  But there are some species that have abilities that humans don’t have, such as the ability to fly or how well they see in the dark.

9. Much attention has been given to alleged cognitive biases and “wishful thinking” contributing to religious belief. Do you believe that similar biases (for example, the desire for moral autonomy) play a role in religious nonbelief? If not, what specifically makes atheism immune to these influences?
I think that atheism doesn’t specify any rigid codes.  A good atheist ought to be pragmatic, looking for best practices based on observed outcomes.  We recognized that slavery and genocide are wrong, so we don’t do it anymore.  The bible never corrects those errors it committed.

Wishful thinking, presumably, is the absence of honestly evaluating a claim.  If your hypothesis doesn’t agree with reality, it’s wrong (paraphrasing Richard Feynman).  So, yes, atheists might be hopeful that they can cure cancer via scientific strategies, but it doesn’t make absolute claims that science cures these things the way that religion does.

I think humans have a tendency to be over-confident at times, and are very prone to committing all sorts of moral and logical errors.  For some, this inclination decreases as they get older, and for some, this inclination never goes away.  So, to the extent that religious people engage in wishful thinking, that is simply an artifact of their human errancy.

We have methods that demonstrate themselves to be effective at distinguishing fact from fantasy, and it ought to be our obligation to learn and practice those methods the best we can.


10. Do you believe religion (speaking generally) has had a net positive or a net negative effect on humanity? If the latter, how do you explain the prevalence of religion in evolutionary terms?
I think that’s an appeal to popularity, which is a logical fallacy.  Every single person in the world can believe something, and they can all be wrong.  Just because religion has been a staple over the course of human evolution doesn’t prove anything either.

If religion were harmful to the extent that it were causing too many deaths, then either religion would go away, or people would go extinct.

Religion has not been harmful enough to cause humans to go extinct, but there’s still plenty of time for that.

11. Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?*
No.  It’s profoundly irrational, yet we do it all the time.  We have the capacity for empathy, and the ability to consider and estimate potential outcomes

based on behavior.  If I don’t push someone out of the way of an oncoming bus, they might die.  Some people might be more inclined to self-sacrifice than others, and I would leave it to psychologists to answer why.  It still doesn’t prove God.


12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true? What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Christian life?*
Been there, done that.  Religion and Christianity don’t work for me, because practicing it requires a consistent dishonesty and suspension of logic that I’m no longer willing to do.

If it happened that Christianity was true, I would be quite puzzled, because there are boatloads of immorality that go all throughout the bible, and countless deaths have come because of it, including the religious crusades, the Spanish inquisition, the death and destruction of native people in America, the discouragement of condom use in Africa, the cruel and unusual torture to which homosexuals have been subjected to over the millenia, etc, etc, etc.

I don’t know how one can reconcile the evil that Christianity has caused over history, and I reject the bible as a source of moral authority.  Cherry picking phrases does not an ideology make.  Just because something in the bible, or something that religion says, seems correct for our situation, that does not mean the whole thing is correct.