Dialog with an Articulate Atheist

Last week, an editor asked to republish my article “A Christian’s Apology To Atheists”. My tweet of that news yielded quite a response from atheists on Twitter and as comments on this blog.

A thoughtful atheist by the handle of @CosmoBrony wrote such an articulate response to my post that it deserved more than just a threaded comment. So, I’m going to interact with his comment here in hopes of continuing a positive dialog. @CosmoBrony’s words are quoted before my responses.

I was compelled to write an answer to your post because I had the feeling that [you] grossly misunderstand and misrepresent the Atheist position.

@CosmoBrony, I very much appreciate your careful and intelligent response to my article. I am grateful because I received many other responses that suggested I should be locked up, get medical help, and other things I won’t mention here. Courteous, productive dialog is so lacking in our culture, especially in dialog between Christians and atheists, that I welcome the chance to interact with you in a positive way.

I also appreciate your willingness to help me understand your position. Having only been an atheist as a teenager, I don’t have a comprehensive or personal understanding of the reasons most people become atheists. Your articulate response is one that can spark a very helpful discussion that may help both of us come to a deeper understanding of one another.

Your whole post is based on the assumption that most if not all Atheists reject a religious view of the world because they are scared off by the eternal punishment in hell that Christianity “officially” teaches. Disregarding that this point ignores that there are numerous other religions who both teach and DON’T teach such punishment for sin – which tells me that you are consciously or subconsciously equate Christianity with religion, which I find somewhat egocentric – I can tell you that that is HARDLY a reason why people become or are Atheists.

I certainly recognize that not all atheists cite the traditional teaching of endless torment in hell as the primary reason for their atheism. In any belief system, there are many reasons people come to their conclusions. My assertion is not without basis, however. There are many atheists who, while they may not cite endless torment as their primary reason for rejecting the Bible, it is a factor. Others do cite it as a significant reason.

Bertrand Russell, noted 20th century English philosopher, in his “Why I am not a Christian”, says this: “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” Russell’s first moral argument against Christ is that he believed that Christ held the traditional view of hell, based on what he had heard from Christians in his day.

The famous author, Anthony Flew, was an atheist most of his life until he became a deist in his eighties. He is quoted in the NY Times as saying: “the God in whose existence I have belatedly come to believe [is] most emphatically not the eternally rewarding and eternally torturing God of either Christianity or Islam but the God of Aristotle that he would have defined.” Even though Flew ended up citing the evidence of design as a reason to believe in a Designer, he could not bring himself to Christianity in large part because of the “eternally torturing” God that Christians proclaimed.

Disregarding that you present as fact what is clearly belief – I don’t want that! I actually, consciously, do not want that. I don’t want the universe to be ruled by a all-powerful madman who thinks he has to torture and kill his son/himself just to forgive people who broke HIS OWN RULES! Why not JUST FORGIVE THEM?! “A tooth for a tooth”, or what?

I agree with you, and I don’t know any Christian who wants the universe to be ruled by an “all-powerful madman.” If things are the way you described, then I’d still be an atheist myself! If Christians have misrepresented God to you in this way, then you are right to reject that message.

The thing is, Christians don’t always represent God well. So you might ask, if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t he do a better job of managing his message so that it is more clear to everyone, and keep obnoxious “Christians” from distorting doctrine so significantly?

My belief is that the all-powerful God is content to allow human free will to play out as we desire it to play out. The Bible says we asked for the knowledge of good and evil in a way that God didn’t proscribe. We seem to be getting what we asked for. I believe God preferred that we learn good and evil without having to experience it as we do today. But alas, we are immersed in the effects of our good and evil choices all the time. More evil is done in the name of God than in many other names. Is that God’s fault? Or, is He giving us what we wanted, allowing us to see what grows from the seed we wanted to plant?

In Jeremiah 29:13, the Bible says: “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” What does “all your heart” mean? Does it mean pushing past the foolish talk of people who speak for God to find the real thing? Could it mean looking beyond the hypocrisy of people who say they believe and yet behave very differently?

And I certainly don’t want to live eternally – I can think of nothing more horrible than that. Live long – yes. Forever – never! Sometimes the concept of heaven seems even more scary to me than hell. Think about it – a perfect, eternal life! Nothing could change, nothing could improve, you could not learn anything new, you could not help anyone because everything is perfect already. Eventually, after 100, 10000 or a googolplex years, you’d get bored – but you still have eternity before you. You’d get MAD! No, thank you!

Amen! If eternity is like that, “no, thank you” is right! If the impression you have of eternity is derived from movies that have people in white robes playing harps on clouds forever, that would be very boring. Christians haven’t done much to refute that idea, making it possible that our anemic teaching on heaven is confusing as many atheists as our errant teaching on hell.

Please indulge my Bible quotes. They may not mean much to you, but I use them because they show where I’m coming from. In 1 Corinthians 2:9, it says “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him.” The last book of the Bible, Revelation, in very symbolic language describes a future filled with the complete renewal of the heavens and earth. The eternity that is to come has no crying, pain, or death.

God would not go to all the trouble to create humans, invite them to freely choose His good ways, and then offer them an eternal life if it was going to be mind-numbing, boredom-inducing madness. Instead, the Creator who made everything we see and cannot see offers us eternity to join with Him in enjoying and learning and yes, helping each other to grow over all eternity.

Our best technology allows us to see galaxies that we cannot begin to fathom. A future era where only good things are done, where no evil exists, and where no dying or sickness exists, will bring about more learning, growing, adventure, fulfillment, and excitement than we can imagine.

I WANT to die eventually. And I WILL. That realization makes every second on this planet so much more precious and wonderful, every day you get up, every time you eat, every time you hug someone, kiss someone or meet someone new is such a invaluable thing because it will end one day, because it is limited. Every of your accomplishments is so much more valuable because if you’d have infinite time on your hands, you could theoretically do EVERYTHING (like, everything)!

There is good in what you say here. Time is limited. The Bible describes this life as a vapor that passes away, that is here for a moment and then gone. Many people forget this. We live like things will go on as they are forever, and we take people, things, health, opportunities, and life itself for granted. Your expectation of certain death, while I believe is a little short-sighted, drives you to a positive view of life, and that is to be commended.

And that is supposed to make me feel better than the view that I just die, skip the middleman and immediately go to the endless death part HOW? I’m not even going to mention how disgusting and repulsive the idea of an all-powerful, cosmic judge, who deems physical or psychological punishment – outlawed by most western cultures – an acceptable form of punishment, is!

Well, since you did mention this, it seems like it deserves some kind of response. I think your idea of God is disgusting and repulsive because you don’t know Him. If somebody told me something like, “@CosmoBrony is the kind of person who likes to torture small animals for fun,” I might be justified in not wanting to let you babysit my dog. But if that person is lying, then how would you feel if I base my belief about you on such a lie?

And I don’t want a “loving” god above me. I want to be the master of my own destiny. I want humanity to decide what it means to be a human being on its own. And want humans to decide what is good and bad on their own, without such “truths” being dictated from above. The idea of a loving “father” might seem consoling to many, but to me it is like a golden cage taking away our freedom and the yearning for it seems like the admission that humanity is weak, immature and needs guidance – to stupid for its own survival!

Your honesty is welcome, and your clarity is commendable. I like the saying “there are only two religions in the world: either God is God, or Man is God.” You have accurately described the “Man is God” option. It is an understandable view. May I ask: while you may not want Him now, what if He wants you? Could this dialog be a part of His call to you?

But here comes the kicker.

If you’d knew about the Atheist position, you’d realize that all the things I mentioned so far are not actually “reasons” for rejecting religion. No, they’re more like “assets”. If they’re reasons for something, they are reason for fighting religion and wanting to end it. But for being an Atheist, there is actually only ONE, valid reason:

There is not the tiniest amount of factual, scientific evidence for the existence of a deity.

This. That’s it. Period. I’d go so far as to assert that a vast majority of Atheists – more than three quarters – are nonreligious because of this solitary reason.

No evidence for X – no reason to hold X as true.

Thank you for so clearly explaining your own reason for being an atheist. While I don’t know you well enough to know that you can speak for 75% of atheists yourself, I do respect that it’s your view and likely the view of many other atheists.

I have been a professional software developer for over twenty years. Science, math, electronics, and computers have consumed most of my life. Reason, facts, evidence, and reality are at the core of my being.

As a teenager, I decided I was going to be an atheist because of the lack of scientific evidence. However, circumstances caused me to take another serious look at Christianity. During that evaluation, I refused to do or believe anything fake. I was compelled by my scientific mind to only accept what I understood to be reality.

After reading and considering things for some time, I realized that coming to accept any view requires some level of faith. You can stare at a chair for a long time, analyze its construction, engineering, and observe others using it, but until you sit on it yourself, you cannot know for certain that it will hold you. Sitting on the chair the first time takes a “leap of faith”.

Atheism also takes a great deal of faith. It requires you to believe that you have seen all of the possible evidence, and have interpreted all of that evidence accurately. You have to be certain that you are in no way deceived, and that the apparent silence of the deity or his invisibility means, conclusively, that no Creator exists.

Years ago, I helped a client set up an instance of an open source genome database. I was struck by the complexity of the data. Hundreds of megabytes are required to store the human genome, which is among the most complex natural data structures humans have observed.

As a programmer, I often make changes to other programmer’s work. I open a source file, make an intentional change, and the program behaves differently. Genetic scientists do the same thing in their work. They alter genetic structures in an attempt to make the genome produce a different output. I can confidently say, with over 20 years experience, that genetic modification is programming.

Bottom line: just as every source file I have ever edited was written by a programmer, every genome ever modified by a geneticist was designed by The Programmer.

I know there are numerous attempts at naturalistic explanations for the existence of the incredible order in creation. The desperate attempt to explain creation without a Creator requires a tremendous amount of creativity, ironically.

Where you see no evidence, I see overwhelming evidence. Have you ever seen a self-reproducing, self-healing system with countless symbotic sub-systems that didn’t have a designer? Computer simulations of possible explanations are just that, computer simulations! They were programmed by a programmer who made assumptions and directed the simulation’s design. Are these simulations evidence that undirected chaos produces the design we observe? No matter how many millions of monkeys you had writing code over millions of years, none of them would ever write, let alone design a living, breathing organism.

How much faith does it take to believe that naturalistic explanations will eventually overcome all of the “gaps” in our understanding? You have to hope it’s just a matter of time before all of the “magic” becomes provable by science, eliminating a Creator. I’m sorry, I don’t have enough faith for that. Instead, the more we learn, the deeper we go, the more evidence for a Designer is revealed.

What am I left with? Overwhelming evidence for X, overwhelming reason to believe X.

Now, like Flew, even if you were to accept the evidence for a Creator, it doesn’t necessarily lead you to believe that the Creator’s Son is Jesus Christ. That road is too long for a single blog post. But, as you know, that is what I believe, and I do so because of reasonable, factual, scientific reasons that are more plausible than any alternative I have yet discovered.

That simple. Everything else is secondary – the religious values, which are either obvious (kindness, generosity etc.) or disgusting (sin, salvation, all-powerful madman, …); the enormous political and social power churches gain from their “flock” which they almost always misuse; the continuous hindrance of scientific progress that lasts to this day (“Teach the controversy”, anyone?); the enormous and almost uncrossable gap that religions create between people – all secondary.

Organized religion has often been the biggest stumbling block for faith over the millennia. I submit to you that this is not God’s fault. We may decide that we know what God should or should not do to correct what is done in His name, but alas, if He is God, we must expect that He may do things we don’t understand now.

Your apology seems sincere, and I think [sic] you for the effort of wanting to cross the gap between the religious and the nonreligious. But I think that you’d be much more effective at it if you would not grossly misrepresent the position of the side you are talking to.

I think most people are religious because of the moral guidance, social function and emotional support it gives and not because of the “truths” about the universe which it teaches – which are provably wrong. And the question whether or not one or more Gods exists is a matter of fact, not of emotion, preference or belief. When it comes to facts, science is our most powerful tool, and if there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a deity, then everything except nonbelief in such a thing is nothing but delusion at best, and madness at worst.

As I misunderstood your reason to be atheistic, you have clearly misunderstood my reason for faith in God. I hope that as I am working to understand your views, you will also work to understand mine. I reject the notion that I am “religious” by your definition, or by the definition of those who have misrepresented the Creator. Instead, I live my life by the reality I understand and experience. As you said, the question about whether God exists is a matter of fact, and I experience God’s existence as fact.

I would say that you are showing as much disregard for intelligent, thoughtful, rational, and scientific people of faith by asserting that they believe for weak reasons like the need for comfort, support, and social gatherings as you accuse me of “gross misinterpretation” of your atheistic convictions. I ask you for the same courtesy and consideration of my views as I have given yours in this response.

If you want to be a good person, you don’t have to swear eternal allegiance to an invisible cosmic force. If you want to be a good person, just be a good person.

True, and well stated. Although, this begs the question: what is a good person? Where does the understanding of what is good come from? Why is your definition of what a good person is superior to mine? If you are interested in honest inquiry, I recommend C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, where he makes the arguments about the definition of a good person much more articulately than I can do now.

Again, @CosmoBrony, thank you for your thoughtful comment on my previous article. I hope my response to your comment becomes the start of an ongoing, positive, and respectful dialog that results in mutual growth.

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