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Speaking of God

Ask The Atheist - Sun, 2009-04-19 00:49
Question:Your question on how to convince an atheist there is a God reminded me of another question I have been meaning to ask. **The necessity to have a childlike faith seems to hold true if one is to believe, as it seems the scientific approach will never lead there even if there is a God. (Well, maybe after xxxxxxx years of gained knowledge.) **My question is, what is your opinion of why humans find nature so pleasing (if it was not something planned)? The type of thing that makes me want to lean toward belief is how we really enjoy the sound of the birds, they way the sky looks, etc. It seems extraordinary that chemical reactions, light reflextion, and random life happenstance is often so pleasing to our senses. **Though I am sure you will mention numerous unpleasantries, I am wondering if you ever feel the same way in that it seems there is a certain harmony to the world the points to some sort of intent. ?Atheist Answer

The scientific approach has thus far been very good at finding alternative and, importantly, useful explanations for the supposed actions of gods. Once these explanations are known, to reject them completely without contrary evidence is unsupportable, and not just childlike but childish. (I'm not suggesting that you've done so, Celia.)

Which is easier: for nature to be shaped over millions of years just to be superficially pleasing to a single future species, or for that species itself to develop an appreciation of nature at its calmest and least threatening?

We find scenes of blue skies, green plant life and twittering birds pleasant because they usually indicate a non-threatening state of affairs. We've learned to distrust grey skies because they might sweep us away in a flood, or snow down and freeze us to death. If the plants are anything but green, something is killing them (drought, fire, disease, etc.) and might kill us too if we don't move away. Birds don't sing if they think there's anything around which might want to eat them, so their song tells us certain predators are absent and gives us a deep down feeling of security.

There is a certain harmony to mostly untouched ecosystems, and it is indeed fascinating, but it's based upon a set of life forms each of which has developed ways to survive the others. As you thought I'd mention, and as Darwin wrote, "Nature is red in tooth and claw," no matter how green it appears. That's why I used the word "superficially" above; many levels of violence are always just below the surface image.

- SmartLX

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Ask The Atheist - Sat, 2009-04-11 04:47
Question:Alright, so I'd just like to say how much I love this site and the rational answers behind each question. I am an atheist myself, and I'm pretty well-read on the topic that is the existence of God. Until someone asks me about evolution. My question is what is the proof of evolution other than just fossils? I suppose I believe in it; it seems to make sense. But I would just like a few more facts to support WHY I should believe in it.Atheist Answer

You've got plenty to work with, never fear. There are so many different kinds of evidence that even the Wikipedia article is monstrous.

I'll let you read that to get yourself started, but here's a rundown of the basic categories:

- The fossil record, of course.
- The genomes of all living things, especially the similarities and specific differences between given species.
- Comparative anatomy: common features, new features and vestigial features.
- Comparative physiology and biochemistry: like comparative anatomy, but more in depth.
- Geographical distribution of apparently related species.
- The steady decline in the effectiveness of any given antibiotic or pesticide against rapidly developing organisms like bacteria and insects.
- The success of recent attempts to recreate the process of evolution virtually.
- Observed events of beneficial mutation and even complete speciation.
- Interspecies infertility, another indicator of important differences between creatures.

Go chew on that lot for a while. There's a wealth of information for each online. Have fun.

- SmartLX

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Adaptation VS Evolution

Ask The Atheist - Sat, 2009-04-11 04:32
Question:Just wondering if adaption is a reality in terms of evolution. Are the changes always a random mutation or do living creatures actually adapt to their environment? I recently saw a blip about cuttlefish on the nightly news ... very interesting the way they can willingly change their skin to match any background; even something outside of nature. This made me think about adaptation on in a general sense. Does that happen?Atheist Answer

Living creatures can adapt radically to suit their environment during their lifetimes, but such adaptations are not reflected in their DNA and therefore are not passed on genetically. Only recombination (during sexual reproduction) and mutation cause genetic change.

The idea that deliberate adaptations become hereditary is the central idea of a rival theory to Darwin's, namely that of Lamarckian evolution. This theory actually is the way creationists tend to think of Darwinian evolution: unsupported by the evidence, discredited by contrary evidence, and almost entirely dismissed by the scientific community.

That said, Darwinian evolution does allow for some developments that might appear Lamarckian in nature. While deliberate adaptations are not passed on genetically, they can be passed on by instruction and example. If a new skill is deliberately taught to the young for many generations, it may actually affect the selection process; mutations which benefit that skill may be favoured. Therefore it's possible for adaptations to eventually be reflected genetically, but only in a roundabout way.

- SmartLX

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Same-Sex Marriage

Ask The Atheist - Wed, 2009-04-08 22:06
Question:Fundamentalists of most major religions are against same-sex marriage on religious principle; they believe it is against the will of their deities. However, is there any merit to the other, non-scriptural arguments they present to outsiders?Atheist Answer

I felt like weighing in on this issue after seeing the new campaign and site by the National Organization for Marriage in the US.

The lobbies and congregations that make up the Christian Right have realised that those who are less religious than they are (i.e. the majority) will not accept the dogmatic arguments from Scripture with which they have convinced themselves, and are using broader approaches. This is reasonable, and is the best way for religious organisations to pursue their interests in a secular society, if the replacement arguments are actually valid. If not, it's a form of deception.

I'm about to summarise the non-Scriptural arguments against same-sex marriage (SSM) by paraphrasing the site above. I'm doing my best not to create any straw men with this approach, but if I do so anyway, tell me off.

1. Same-sex marriages deprive children of either a mother or a father.

This is true, but that mother or father is replaced with either another father or another mother. In principle, the number of adults caring for the children is the same, and the proportion of men and women raising the children depends very little on the parents themselves. Children without mothers for example can have aunts, grandmothers, big sisters, cousins, nannies, friends of the parents and so on.

In practice, no significant difference in development, social life or even sexual tendency has been found between children with same-sex parents and children with different-sex parents. Anti-SSM literature appears to focus entirely on studies of children of single parents, who are missing a mother or father for very different reasons. Such research, while important, is irrelevant to the issue of the gender of existing parents.

2. Public and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage will reduce religious freedom. Believers, churches and religious charities such as the Salvation Army will be unable to practice unless they endorse same-sex marriage.

Individual religious freedom and that of churches will be unaffected. It's already illegal in the USA to discriminate against homosexuals, but the right of evangelical Christians and their pastors to believe, announce and advertise that homosexuality is sinful is protected by free speech and, importantly, "freedom of religion".

What will be curtailed is individual freedom to discriminate in practical ways, as has already happened with progress in racial equality and gay rights. The central example is the staff at artificial insemination clinics and adoption agencies: some of them don't want to be forced to give kids to gay couples. If their reasons for this are religious, their faith is about to conflict with their current jobs, but they are free to find work elsewhere in their respective industries. If instead their reason actually is reason 1 above, it's not a good reason.

Finally, religious charities and other organisations have nothing additional to worry about. They're already in trouble if they discriminate against gays. I don't see why they would discriminate against children of gay couples, because
a. the kids' upbringing isn't the kids' fault, and
b. if they really think same-sex parents are worse, they would conclude that the kids need more help.

3. If we change the definition of marriage, what's to stop us from changing it further to allow polygamy, marriage to animals, underage marriages, etcetera? (Paraphrased from a point on the site's .pdf handout, Why Marriage Matters. To be fair, these guys only mentioned polygamy.)

There is indeed an extremely small minority which would like marriage to be further expanded in these ways. Some, like those in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, go ahead and practice polygamy without looking for endorsement. Many others have less formal "open marriages".

The difference is in the practical benefits of each change. Once same-sex marriage is allowed, every adult will be allowed to marry a consenting adult of their choice, with whom they can have a happy intimate relationship, and raise a family in accordance with their common human desires. This gives everyone an ability that was once only available to some, and so negates a now-arbitrary piece of discrimination.

Other changes to marriage do not confer similar benefits, and carry additional drawbacks. Polygamy does not extend the chance for marriage and a family to anyone who doesn't already have it. Underage marriage and marriage to animals are cruel to the partner who is unable to consent.

This is why it most benefits humanity to extend marriage so far and no further, and why no one need be afraid that the floodgates will open, so to speak.

Since it does appear that the secular arguments presented by the anti-SSM movement have little value, the only reasons left are the Scriptural ones they are so eager to keep in the background. Once those are the remaining line of defense, they have no place in the political sphere, at least in a country which has declared church and state separate. For the rest of the world, though, it's a bit muckier.

- SmartLX

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Supernatural Occurence?

Ask The Atheist - Sun, 2009-04-05 17:11
Question:When I was 14 years old and about to fall asleep in my room, I was laying upright on my bed when I heard a horrible screeching sound (like a pig squealing VERY loud) and saw my cup fly off my desk (horizontally) as if thrown across the room and hit the opposite wall of an approximately 10 yard wide room. There were no fans or air currents on. The cup was an empty large sized plastic cup .The lights were on, I had not yet begun falling asleep. I was old enough to make logical conclusions and not let my imagination run loose. And I have never had any mental illnesses or head injuries (just for the question’s sake). And it was not a prank, only child, no one else in the room. I am also not trolling just trying to create a difficult situation for you to answer. I was agnostic at the time, did not believe in any supernatural occurrences. As you can imagine I ran out of my room absolutely freaked out. Ran up to my dad told him the whole situation, he was playing computer games and pretty much didn’t care. So I stayed awake for another two hours watching TV and eventually went to bed in the same room…removing the cup and hoping it wouldn’t happen again, which it thankfully didn’t. I acknowledge the dangers of people labeling unexplainable events as supernatural (a popular past-time in the dark ages). And I do not want to be mirroring this ignorant hobby. But I am also tired of doubting what could have happened that night. Maybe it was a freak scientific fluke or magnetic field of the house, something VERY rare that could be described scientifically. Or could it possibly be a supernatural occurrence? By supernatural occurrence I am talking about energies relating ghost or psychic abilities. I hear stories about it all the time and every one I hear I ignore as a fluke. But is it possible that very rarely such occurrences are true? It may be inaccurate to immediately label the situation on something humans have no hard evidence about .But since there seems to be lots of modern accounts of this happening, most of them probably exaggerated, but I have a definite personal experience, this is the only explanation I could think of…or maybe just a freak scientific occurrence? I’m pretty confused on this subject, what does this sound like from your position? (Sorry for the long letter, I wanted to be thorough) Atheist Answer

Is it possible that you had a supernatural experience? Sure. We'll never rule them out completely, because there are an infinite number of mechanisms we can and can't imagine by which they could happen. Is it likely, though? Probably not, because the number of possible natural explanations is just as large.

You heard a screech, and then saw your cup flying across the room as if thrown. My first thought is that it was thrown, or at least struck, by a wild animal who got into your room. If you didn't have the fan or the air on, you probably had the window or the door open. If not, perhaps it got in earlier, and escaped when you ran out to your father. Would you have noticed as you freaked out? (Possible test: describe the squeal in detail on a wildlife forum as if you heard it outside, then listen to the suggested animals on YouTube and see if they ring a bell.)

Coming up with natural hypotheses is fun, but considering the supernatural alternatives is fun too. Say the cup was deliberately thrown by a ghost or other ethereal entity. (Note: the "aether" is actually a long-discarded scientific concept, not just a story.) Why? And why only once? Did you manage to discern some sort of message from the action? Did the cup have any significance, or the place it flew to? Since the entity would probably realise you didn't get the message, why didn't it try again?

I applaud you for the wealth of good skepticism you've already applied to this event. I know it's frustrating when you're still left without an explanation, and the prospect remains that you'll never really know. I hope I've made you a little more optimistic that there is a natural explanation to be had, even if you don't find it.

Good luck in any case.

- SmartLX

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How does science explain the human conscience?

Ask The Atheist - Fri, 2009-04-03 04:23
Question:I'm 15, a recently converted Christian to Agnosticism. It's taken me a long while of thoughtful consideration to fully drop some Christian philosophies from my conscience, such as heaven and hell, breaking down the concept of good and evil down into black and white, and the expectation that everything that happens to me is just another bump on the train track that some divine order has set up for me. Still, I've never quite lost the idea that there was a creator (and possibly even a designer) to the universe, simply because I don't think any natural scientific explanation for the origin of the universe, or even the origin of species, can explain what gives what used to be just matter and energy, a conscience., a primary influence on me to stop being a Christian, has always asserted that there is no soul, and that all we are is walking chemical reactions. If that's true, and that all it takes to have life is for chemical reactions to repeat themselves, then what do we call everyday chemical reactions in nature? Are they all living too? Just short bursts of life and conscience that go away because there isn't another reaction to follow? You could say that it was the nature of the universe to develop life (and thereby life with a conscience) wherever it was possible, but that holds one problem for me: It makes too much sense not to have a driving force behind it. Obviously it would be completely pointless to have a whole universe out there with no life to experience it, so the nature of the universe is to create life wherever possible. But what gave it that nature? Something had to be behind it. If it was just randomization, why let it make any sense at all? After all, there's no-one to say otherwise. Atheist Answer

I think what you actually mean is human consciousness. If not, let me know and we'll talk about conscience.

Just because all fathers are men doesn't mean all men are fathers. Likewise, just because all life is chemical reactions doesn't mean all chemical reactions are life. The complete consensual definition of life uses several advanced processes as criteria, for example metabolism, growth and reproduction.

Consciousness in the materialistic view goes beyond the chemical, because it's augmented by the bio-electrical. Thoughts literally zap around the brain when they're active. The rest of the time they're stored chemically in the brain cells. The rest of the body also uses small amounts of electricity (there's a reason we need to consume electrolytes), but it's doubly important to the brain.

The nature of the universe does not appear to be to create life wherever possible. Firstly, there are very few types of place in the universe where life is possible, so it's not easy. Secondly, since all known life shares genetic material and is therefore related, it appears that even here on Earth life only emerged once, and never again. I'm not saying we're the only life in the universe, but life seems so rare and unlikely to arise in any given place that the next occurrence of it is probably several galaxies away.

It does seem pointless to create a universe with nobody to experience it. It seems almost as pointless to create a universe and put nearly all of it completely out of reach of the observers, so our presence isn't exactly a masterstroke in the efficient use of the cosmos. It's exactly as if we are just here, and we can see what we can see simply because it's close.

Hope that lot is food for thought.

- SmartLX

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Taking a couple of jabs at evolution

Ask The Atheist - Thu, 2009-04-02 22:08
Question:1) Evolutionst claim that we are cousins with apes. But we are very different than apes. For example, we have 100 Billion Neurons (all evolved, of course) yet chimps only have 6 Billion (and our common anscestor had even less than 6 Billion). So they respond by pointing to the fossil record which shows that there were many (more than twenty) humanoid species. (Let us ignore, for the moment, that Stephen J. Gould said that ALL of the fossils can be explained as being either human or ape, not proof of an intermediate species. For example, retarted humans have MUCH smaller brains.) According to evolutionists, we descend only from one of these twenty humanoid species. Ask the evolutionist where these species live today? He will respond that they all, somehow, became extinct. Are they looking for the truth or not? 2) Did you know, that a large blue whale has more cells than the number of seconds that have elapsed since the earth was formed? All evolution, of course. I would rather trust Sir Ernst B. Chain, a nobel-prize winning biochemist, who concluded that he would rather believe in fairy tales than evolution.Atheist Answer

I note your expression "the evolutionist", singular but referring to all who accept evolution. It's an insidious grammatical variation which implies that since they are all alike, there is effectively only one to consider. Historical parallels include "the savage", "the Jew" and "the Hun". Consider the prejudices of the people who used those.

1) Here is what Gould meant. The division between human and ape is arbitrary, based on a consensus of zoologists. They drew a line in the progression and called everything after it "Homo". Just this side of that arbitrary line is what we would call a very apelike human. Just the far side is a species considered a very humanlike ape. Every species on the line can be considered a transitional species between those either side of it. (I'd like to know what your definition of "transitional species" is, by the way.)

We are immediately descended from only one of the humanoid species, in the same way that an individual can only have one set of parents. Though some of them like Neanderthal Man split off as our umpteenth cousins, many of the species found are our direct ancestors, and the ancestors of our immediate ancestor species.

The current estimate is that 90% of all species of anything which have ever lived are now extinct. It happens, especially when a species very like you but somehow better is suddenly sharing your resources. Through competition and natural selection, each species on the timeline is likely responsible for the extinction of the one before it, including Homo sapiens. The other apes survived by diversifying to the point where they weren't in competition with our ancestors anymore. For example, some came down from the trees and some didn't.

2) Blue whales are very big, and they grow quickly. Cells are very small, so if a big lifeform grows quickly, a lot of cells are created very quickly. If cells multiply and increase at a rate faster than one cell per second, then it is reasonable that something with more cells than seconds since the Earth's formation (1.5 * 10^17) could fully form in the time since the Earth's formation.

As it happens, the rate of increase of blue whale cells easily exceeds 100 million per second during childhood, which allows an individual blue whale to grow to adulthood in a matter of years. Is there an actual problem with this, or does it just strike you as amazing and therefore impossible without divine help?

Ernst Chain's objections to evolution (as told by the Institute for Creation Research) have been answered many times, though not necessarily here.
- He saw evolution as a chance process, which thanks to the mechanism of natural selection it is not.
- He doubted the efficacy of change through mutation, which has been repeatedly demonstrated, most recently by Richard Lenski's e.coli experiment.
- He contrasted "classical Darwinian ideas" with the function of genes, knowing that Darwin and his contemporaries had no idea what genes or DNA were. Post-genetic neo-Darwinian theory, which was available to Chain if he wished to study it, takes genetic function into account very well.
- He saw the development of mathematics, poetry and other exclusively human abilities as the result of a "divine spark", whereas evolutionary psychology has excellent explanations for their development.
- He wrote that evolutionary theory "does not allow the development of ethical guidelines for human behavior," assuming as many religious people do that anyone would want to use it for that purpose. There's enough secular empathy, convention and philosophy to do that already, without also trying to exploit a simple scientific explanation of a physical phenomenon, thankyou very much.

If there's no particular reason why Chain did not support evolution which stands up today, invoking him is simply a shallow appeal to authority. If that's all you're going for, fine, but it's an authority in the minority.

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How can an evolutionist not be a vegan?

Ask The Atheist - Wed, 2009-04-01 19:07
Question:An evolutionist thinks that humans are just another rung in the evolutionary latter. We are no better than apes, or even bacteria. The atheists have all sorts of (faulty) explanations regarding where they get their morals (I would not want to be alone on an island with an atheist). If they do indeed have an morals, why do they not apply those morals to animals? Why is it OK to kill an animal but not a human. We are merely a more develped animal. Qualitatively no better than apes. Their answer will harp on the differences between humans and apes. Whatever they answer will then allow them to murder any retarted human, who is no smarter than an ape. Yet, few atheists are vegans. (I did not respond to your other comments because it is ultimately the reader who will decide who is more right). Atheist Answer

Why only apply your idea of evolutionary logic to fellow animals? We're related to all living things on the planet. "Qualitatively", if we've got nothing on apes then we're no better than any of them, so we oughtn't to kill or harm anything at all. You know why we don't think like that? Because if we ever had, our ancestors would have starved and we wouldn't be here.

I must mention that in your first paragraph, you've made a very sweeping statement in a very small parenthesis. Just consider how much more obviously offensive it would be if you had said, "I would not want to be alone on an island with a black man," or, "I would not want to be alone on an island with a Jew."

I assume you subscribe to the school of thought that because atheists have no absolute authority on which to base their morals, their morals are effectively baseless. I parry, very simply, by saying that in the absence of any moral absolute which we (humans, not just atheists) actually know exists, there are many valid objective bases which serve us well, especially when used in concert. I counter by wondering out loud whether it is worse to be without a perceived absolute moral basis than to use a false moral basis, as in the case of followers of all but one religion (or, of course, all of them).

Back to your actual question: the psychological ability to kill animals and eat their meat has nothing to do with atheism, and little or nothing to do with personal concepts of evolution. Rather it is determined by an effect of evolution: empathy. The more we are able to identify with a creature, the more difficult it is to hurt or kill it. This served us well in the early days before concrete laws, when helping others usually resulted in reciprocation and made everyone happier.

The differences between us and apes are not as important as the similarities between us. In case you haven't noticed, orangutan isn't on the menu at your local restaurants. Neither is dog or cat, for that matter. The idea of killing these animals, or especially causing them pain, makes everybody uncomfortable. That's because we identify with them. Apes on television are eerily similar to humans, and while dogs and cats are more distantly related, in our culture we've come to see them as little friends.

After the most familiar creatures, there's a sliding scale of empathy. We're much more comfortable with the idea of eating sheep and other cattle, but we like to be assured that they were treated well on the farm and were killed humanely. (Contrast this with the religious concepts of "kosher" and "halal", which demand that these animals are killed in ways that cause them brief but terrible pain.)

At the far end of the scale are alien-looking creatures like mosquitoes, which we casually hunt down and brutally murder before they have a chance to feed on us. Once we leave the animal kingdom and consider plants, fungi and bacteria, we generally cannot identify with them at all (for example, we can't understand any mechanism whereby they might feel something like pain) and thus we slaughter and devour them without a second thought for their welfare (beyond working to prevent their extinction).

Those who are vegans for emotional reasons are in that small minority which empathises fully with all animal life, but they still kill their plant relatives. Those on the low end of the compassion meter, on the other hand, might not feel bad about killing even dogs or apes. I doubt very much that this group contains a disproportionate amount of atheists. Perhaps there is some research on the subject.

- SmartLX

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Why hasn't life evolved on other planets?

Ask The Atheist - Tue, 2009-03-31 19:53
Question:According to atheists, evolution is bound to happen given enough time (4.5 billion Years, or 100 Qaudrillion seconds). If so, why have we not been visited by aleins from other planets? Surely, at least one of 10(24) stars (quite a large number, it is a billion times more than the number of seconds that have elapsed since the big bang) contains a species which is interested enough, and technologically advanced enough, to visit us. Yet, they never have. Why?Atheist Answer

What we have here is a case of large numbers vs other large numbers, preventing a clear-cut case for high or low probability.

A simple version of the Drake equation applies here. The probability that we will be contacted by aliens is:

A. the probability of intelligent life evolving on at least one other planet, multiplied by
B. the probability that a given intelligent species will develop interstellar exploration, or intergalactic exploration as the case may be, before it becomes extinct, multiplied by
C. the probability that a given species with interstellar/galactic exploration will actually find us before we become extinct ourselves.

(I say "exploration" rather than "travel", because the aliens might not have to be in our vicinity to find and contact us.)

If you remove the "other" from A to make, "the probability of intelligent life evolving on at least one planet," its probability becomes 1 (certain), as our existence proves it has already happened. If it happened here, nothing prevents it happening elsewhere, so A is indeed very close to 1 and very likely indeed. In other words, they're probably out there.

B is where the trouble starts. Interstellar or intergalactic travel or communication within reasonable timeframes (say, between any two stars in a galaxy within a lifetime) might actually be impossible, if the universe's inherent speed limit of 300,000km a second cannot be circumvented. B could be zero, and therefore alien contact might simply be impossible.

If instead there is a way to cross the cosmos which we haven't discovered yet, we won't know how long that takes until it happens. The danger is that it requires a species to spend a very long time working from a baseline of technologies with which it might inadvertently destroy itself. We're at that stage right now; our theories of deep space travel stem from some of the same research and the same minds as our atomic weaponry. The terrible risk of this particular period in a civilisation's existence appears to lower B considerably.

Finally, C is a function of A and the possibly infinite size of the universe. If every intelligent species which will ever arise has an volume of space to itself so big it will take the rest of its lifespan to explore (likely so far, since we've found nothing in the places we can see properly), no two may ever cross paths. Since the universe is expanding, the chances of contact are shrinking all the time, especially if the species are in separate galaxies, clusters or superclusters.

Tragically, the most likely case appears to be that there's intelligent life all over the universe, forcibly segregated by the tyranny of time and distance. Of course, ET could show up tomorrow and waggle a glowing finger at our flawed view of the universe.

- SmartLX

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Open Universe?

Ask The Atheist - Tue, 2009-03-31 17:20
Question:Most cosmologists believe that the universe is open and non-oscillating. This means that the universe will eventually become cold and dark. According to these scientists, before the big bang the entire universe was condensed into a tiny speck. This speck does not have a beginning. It always existed. If so, why did this speck suddenly explode into a big bang? You might respond that, somehow, it is in the nature of this speck to eventually explode. My question is, then, if this speck always existed why did it not explode into the big bang infinitely earlier? In short, my question is if the universe is infinite how could something which can only happen once (the big bang) EVER happen?Atheist Answer

Firstly, and I'm not assuming that you intend a creator god to be the preferable explanation (though of course many do), the same question can be applied to that god. If one always existed, he/she just sat there for an eternity before acting. Why?

Secondly, models of an open, non-oscillating universe generally imply that time as we know it did not exist before (or as one apologist put it, "ontologically prior to") the Big Bang. As one part of Einstein's theoretical combination "spacetime", it was wrapped up with everything else in the singularity (speck) and its apparent forward flow began when the expansion did. Going by this type of model, it wasn't possible for anything to happen "before" the Big Bang. Stephen Hawking likened the question to asking what's north of the North Pole.

Thirdly, it's possible that there are systems of time and space outside the universe we know, and our universe was set off by one of these. There are various models of a multiverse, collectively infinite in both time and matter, where universes regularly beget other universes. There are also slightly simpler models of a single external mother universe or "metaverse" which spawns the others. These are speculative, of course, but at least the extra entities being posited are objects we know exist in at least one case, i.e. universes.

Finally, new evidence is emerging which may challenge the singularity's perceived lack of a beginning. It may be best to wait and see.

- SmartLX

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Why did Matthew and Luke use Mark as a "source"?

Ask The Atheist - Sat, 2009-03-28 07:25
Question:SmartLX here - I've moved the whole question into the first comment, and I'm answering it in the next. It really, really needed to keep its HTML formatting, and that doesn't work in the question field. Atheist Answer

As I said, see the second comment.

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What do you do when

Ask The Atheist - Sat, 2009-03-28 07:19
Question:A good friend of mine hangs out with another woman she met in classes at a local Community College. This woman is quite strident in her opinions about anything (As am I) which led me to a rather gob-smackingly uncomfortable space between the rock and hard place recently. It all started with an innocent discussion about a rainstorm that was coming and the prospect this woman was facing with possibly being cut off from work if a creek flooded by her house. A sample of a possible conversation between her and her boss included the assertion of her only knowing 1 person who could walk on water. I was prepared to let that go for amity's sake but she then stared straight at me and says" But I don't suppose you would agree since I hear you're an atheist". She went on to say that it was ok though, she would be happy staring down from heaven laughing at my pain and misery in hell. Now I have come to understand that Christianity is a mental illness so I can forgive such a crass proclamation out of hand. The real surprise was my supposed friend who never got closer to religion than slamming the door in a Jehovah's Witless's face pipes up and says "He would be just fine with that, all his friends would be there". Do I still have a friend? I mean, what do you say when you find out you really don't know who a person is. I can't just stop being friendly because we have kids together but I can't quite make myself trust her anymore.Atheist Answer

There's some doubt. Whether you give your friend the benefit of that doubt is up to you.

Consider the obvious: your friend knows you don't even believe there is a Hell, so might simply be joking in a way she thinks won't offend you or the Christian. Just working from this one anecdote, I can't confirm definite enemy action here. You never know, she might regret saying it after thinking about it.

Do think about asking her directly whether your atheism is a problem. You might well avoid a whole bunch of Seinfeld-style conversations where the one important thing is never stated. She is still ostensibly your friend. If there is a problem, maybe you can work it out, perhaps by dispelling a myth or two about self-declared atheists.

As for your Christian, my heart goes out to you. That was one sadistic sentiment about laughing while you burn, even if she does actually have a god behind her. Holy schadenfreude, Batman.

- SmartLX

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Ask The Atheist - Sat, 2009-03-28 07:05
Question:I've been a Christian all my life and have recently started thinking otherwise. I am not sure what I am Could you please give me some reasons as to why Atheism is the way to go!Atheist Answer

Begin by reading around the site, where I address many of the reasons people are Christians. If you've use any of those, there's a start.

Simple stuff to get you thinking: there are many religions, and adherents to each are just as convinced they're right. Why is one lot right and another wrong? How many possible gods are there, and therefore, what are the chances you've got the right one?

To distinguish between agnosticism and atheism: if there is no particular reason to believe in any particular god, why believe that there is something at all?

This is essentially what I do when I want to make more atheists. I ask people why they believe. That's what happened to me: as it turned out, my reasons for believing sucked, and I realised the fact.

- Alex

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Talking to Children about Atheism

Ask The Atheist - Sat, 2009-03-28 07:00
Question:First, thanks for creating this site - I have been really impressed by the clear, calm, logical answers that SmartLX provides. On to my question. After being raised Catholic and majoring in comparative religions in college, I've finally come to embrace atheism. But my question is about how I can best raise my two children (currently ages 6 and 9) to be skeptical and perhaps someday atheists, themselves. My husband still believes, and the kids go to church with him occasionally. More importantly, they attend an otherwise excellent Christian school where they have daily devotionals and there is much talk about Jesus. My concerns are threefold: First, they are being indoctrinated at a young age by people they respect, and it would be a big deal for me to contradict all the teachings of the school. Second (and admittedly selfishly), if I were to share my non-belief with my kids, they would be shocked and horrified. Third, if I were to somehow transform them into little atheists, they would be in for a really tough time at school - probably more from the students than the teachers. (Just for the record, there are plenty of Jews and Hindus and a few Muslims at the school, but somehow I feel like atheists would be viewed differently). So I guess I'm asking for any advice you may have on how to raise my kids to be skeptical and hopefully someday agnostic or atheist without completely rocking their world and without turning them into social pariahs. I've thought about starting with just enhancing their skepticism (any good kids' book recommendations?) and letting it develop naturally. Thoughts?Atheist Answer

Ta for the compliments.

Always keep in mind how long it took you to come around. I know you want better for your kids, but perhaps they need to take the same path you did.

Think a step further: why would they be shocked and horrified to find out you're an atheist? Partly because of the stigma attached to us by the religious, but ultimately they would be afraid for you. You reject God, so you're going to hell, that sort of thing. The most important thing when it comes out, and it will, is to let them know that you are not afraid yourself. (Another little fact which might help is the idea that not everyone who claims to be religious really is.)

At that, they'll either ask why not or argue with you. You'll then have a line of communication open, and it's up to you. Expect your husband to get involved, and make no attempt to make this happen behind his back. Just be open, and listen to them all.

I grew up religious too, as you might have read in another answer of mine. What first set me on the road to doubt was the fact that my father was an atheist. He didn't talk about it AT ALL, he just told me once and that was it. I wondered why, and later, I found my own reasons.

As for kids' books, I recommend the children's and young adult books of Terry Pratchett. A humanist himself, his books often encourage critical thinking despite having fantastical premises. A favourite of mine is The Wee Free Men. Later, perhaps they'd enjoy his other Discworld books.

Incidentally, I just watched Happy Feet and the anti-religion message in that is fairly obvious.

- SmartLX

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