Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ten questions, ten answers

I got an anonymous email yesterday, from an address I didn't recognize, with a link to a YouTube video called "10 Questions Atheists Can't Answer," and no other text.

Whenever I get something like this, I always get the feeling that the sender expects me simply to retreat in disarray.  I also have the impression that the people who put together videos like this are being disingenuous -- I wonder very much if they've actually talked to any atheists, or if they just came up with a list of things for which their explanation is "God did it" and they can't imagine anyone would have a different answer than that.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Notas de prensa, Confused man, CC BY-SA 2.5]

So I don't think the sender actually intended me to respond (although I might be wrong about that).  But in the spirit of being a good sport, here are the ten questions, along with my answers.  See if you find 'em convincing.

1.  Do people really believe that science is the only answer to all of life's questions?
Well, no, no one really thinks that, atheists included.  Atheists (and even worse, atheist scientists) don't spend their entire time doing science.  Like everyone else, they have hobbies, fall in love, get angry, play with their pets, feel sad, and experience all the other thousand things that are part of the human condition.  None of these are especially scientific, but it would be a rare person -- atheist or otherwise -- who would say they were unimportant.
And another thing.  The question, as it's phrased, embodies a misconception, and that is that science itself is a belief.  Science isn't a belief, science is a method.  It's the use of evidence, data, and logic to determine understanding.  And we atheists are hardly the only ones who do that.  The religious generally only have a problem with science when it leads to a different answer than their religion does on a particular topic; they're perfectly happy to use the scientific method every day, on everything else.

2.  Why do atheists care if I worship God?
Simply put: I don't.  I don't care even a little bit.  You can believe the universe is ruled by a Giant Green Bunny from the Andromeda Galaxy if you want to, and I still don't care.  What I do care about  -- a lot -- is when people start telling me what I'm supposed to believe.  Or using their religion to shoehorn unscientific explanations into public school science curricula.  Or pushing religion-based legislation that denies rights to a subset of people they think are "evil" or "an abomination in God's eyes."  Then you can expect me to fight like hell.
Otherwise, believe whatever you want.

3.  Can nothing create something?
I presume you're referring to the Big Bang Theory here, and I have some advice; don't frame scientific questions in such a way that makes it clear you haven't bothered to learn what the scientists are actually saying.  All that shows is that you can't be bothered to do even a half-hour's research on Wikipedia, but would rather come up with ridiculous straw-man arguments than have an intelligent, thoughtful conversation.

4.  How do you know that God doesn't exist?
I don't.  I find the lack of evidence in favor of a deity strongly supports that conclusion, but as with anything, I might be wrong.  That's the nice thing about a scientific approach; if the data contradicts your previous theory, you don't ignore the data -- you change the theory.

5.  What is the origin of life?
As with question #3, there are some really fascinating scenarios as to how this might have happened -- it looks like organic molecules are quick to form abiotically as long as there are raw materials, a source of energy, and no strongly oxidizing chemicals around to rip them apart as fast as they form.  After that, there are a great many scenarios that are possible, and biochemists are looking into them with great interest (one reason being that what they find out could give us a lens into the possibilities of life on other planets).  So once again, you might want to do a little research about the scientific explanations before you conclude science doesn't have one.

6.  Where does our morality come from?
My morality comes from a desire to care for the people around me, care for the environment, and in general, not to be a dick.  The reason I have those morals is because I much prefer it when the people in my life are happy and healthy and I have a clean and habitable planet to live on.  The interesting thing is that there's good evidence that a lot of other animals have at least the rudiments of moral behavior -- reciprocity exists in a lot of primate species, elephants, and even some birds (such as crows and ravens); dogs show an understanding of fair play; and a surprising number of species form strong emotional bonds, and go through profound grief when their loved ones die.  Social species, in general, do whatever it takes to make the social order cohere, so it's perfectly understandable that they wouldn't engage in lying, cheating, stealing, assault, and so on.  No deity required.

7.  If you had evidence of God, would you become a Christian?
Cf. question #4.  If I had incontrovertible evidence of the existence of God, I wouldn't have any choice but to accept that I was wrong and alter my worldview.  But you might want to ask yourself if you'd change your beliefs if you got incontrovertible evidence of a different god -- say, Odin or Zeus or Ra.  If the answer is "of course not, I'm a Christian and that's that," then this question is just more evidence that you're being disingenuous.

8.  If evolution is real, then why are there no transitional forms in the present?
What does this even mean?  From the perspective of someone ten million years from now, all of the life forms on Earth today would be transitional forms.  If you're asking about transitional fossils, then this once again shows you need to do your research.  There are thousands of transitional fossils.  Go talk to a paleontologist, and then we can have the discussion. 

9.  Do you live according to what you believe, or do you live according to what you lack in belief?
Okay, at this point I think you were just running out of ideas, because once again, I have no clue what the fuck this question is asking.  How can you live by a lack of belief?  Do you live according to your lack of belief in unicorns?  Because frankly, I don't give my lack of belief in unicorns much thought, and I suspect you don't, either.

10.  If God exists, will you not lose your soul when you die?
Again, I suppose that's a possibility, if I'm wrong.  Based on what I know, I don't think I'm in much danger, frankly.  And even if there is an afterlife, and the universe is being run by some kind of all-knowing power, I'd think he/she/it would be forgiving of someone who used the brain (s)he was provided with and came to the best and most consistent answers (s)he could.  Frankly, I suspect even the Christian God would prefer an honest, kind, compassionate atheist to a narrow-minded, bigoted, hateful Christian.  (Nota bene: I am in no way saying all Christians are like that.  However, a subset of them are, and I've found that those are the ones who are most convinced they're going to heaven.)

So there are my answers to the ten unanswerable questions.  To the anonymous link-sender, I hope you read my responses with thoughtful consideration.  Not that I'm trying to change anyone's mind, but a little mutual understanding goes a long way.  Certainly better than mischaracterizing an entire group based on faulty assumptions, then proceeding as if that judgment was the truth.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a really cool one: Andrew H. Knoll's Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth.

Knoll starts out with an objection to the fact that most books on prehistoric life focus on the big, flashy, charismatic megafauna popular in children's books -- dinosaurs such as Brachiosaurus, Allosaurus, and Quetzalcoatlus, and impressive mammals like Baluchitherium and Brontops.  As fascinating as those are, Knoll points out that this approach misses a huge part of evolutionary history -- so he set out to chronicle the parts that are often overlooked or relegated to a few quick sentences.  His entire book looks at the Pre-Cambrian Period, which encompasses 7/8 of Earth's history, and ends with the Cambrian Explosion, the event that generated nearly all the animal body plans we currently have, and which is still (very) incompletely understood.

Knoll's book is fun reading, requires no particular scientific background, and will be eye-opening for almost everyone who reads it.  So prepare yourself to dive into a time period that's gone largely ignored since such matters were considered -- the first three billion years.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


  1. I admire you for seriously answering questions presented with answers in mind.

  2. I enjoyed this post wholeheartedly. You are so clear and positive in your replies. Hope the one who asked the questions has a good listening ear. It never ceases to amaze me that believers (of any stripe) often think that you have to believe in God for morality to exit. In Christians, I guess it's the original sin business. Humans are simply depraved without divine intervention. Guess that's why so many parents I know start attending church when they begin raising families. Heaven help us--no, no, I don't mean that! Thanks, Gordon.