Collateral Damage

Yesterday, the discussion on this thread got into the subject of the problems of evil and suffering. One of the participants in the discussion suggested that the dilemma could be resolved if God had reasons for allowing evil and suffering to exist, even if we don’t know what those reasons are. On the surface, this is not necessarily a bad suggestion. For instance, we’re familiar with the idea of enduring suffering when there is a larger payoff at the end: surgery and chemotherapy to remove a life-threatening tumor, or even something as mundane as the pain we feel from exercise, knowing it makes us stronger in the long run. There are even cases where we inflict suffering on others for their own well-being, even though they may not be aware of the benefits, such as immunizations for young children.

So is it possible that God uses some of the bad moments in our lives to teach us important lessons and help us grow as individuals? Well, it’s possible that someone could learn how relatively unimportant possessions are if he lost his home in a natural disaster, or spent some time living in poverty. Those experiences could help him grow into a better person. Or perhaps someone could overcome a severe illness, and through that, learn that she wasn’t spending enough quality time with her loved ones. Now, none of those examples are miraculous in nature, so they don’t require God’s involvement to happen. Nevertheless, I can see why some religious people view things like this as an explanation for the evil and suffering that exist in the world.

Unfortunately, examples like the ones above are not the upper limit of the tragedies that can occur in life. If God is real, what is his role when a child dies? Before you say that God doesn’t cause things like that, but only allows them because he’s given man free will, I have two objections:

First of all, children don’t just die because some person kills them. Many children die each year from “acts of God,” like natural disasters, house fires, and illness. God could stop all of those deaths without infringing on anyone’s free will.

Secondly, if God intervened in the murder of a child, he would not be infringing on the free will of the murderer, only on the outcome. The murderer would still have the ability to decide to kill the child, and even to put the plan into action. But just as God supposedly stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac just before the knife made contact, God could similarly act whenever a child is in danger. No harm to free will.

So when children die, is God teaching us a lesson? Are we learning how to become better people for it? Studies have shown that parents have a shorter life expectancy when they suffer the loss of a child (not that we probably need a study to tell us that). They’re more susceptible to illness and depression as well.

But beyond that, let’s talk about the ethics of killing a child in order to “teach the parents a lesson.” We see this kind of rationale in movies, sometimes. How many gangster movies have you seen where someone threatens a character’s family in order to make them do something? Is it the protagonist or the villain that typically does the threatening in those movies? In Gladiator, when Maximus’s wife and child are killed, does he then rally support by trying to kill the wives and children of his enemies? It would be hard to like such a character. We instinctively know that targeting someone’s family, especially their children, is the lowest, vilest act a villain can perform.

So why would Christians be willing to attribute such actions to God? If you think about it, the Book of Job does just that. In the first chapter, Job has 7 sons and 3 daughters, who were apparently all quite close to one another. But when God and Satan make their wager about Job, all of Job’s children are killed. But hey, not to worry, Job gets 7 more sons and 3 more daughters at the end of the story! Happy ending!

Such a story should fill us with revulsion. Don’t harm my children to teach me a lesson — I’ll gladly remain ignorant of whatever education you’re passing out.

But maybe such a story made sense to the people living at that time. There have certainly been other cultures that didn’t seem to value human life (even that of their own children) in the way that we do today. But this is just another reason to see the story of Job as a man-made fable, and not a literal, God-sanctioned event.

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistant that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.
— Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

When I see throughout this book, called the Bible, a history of the grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales and stories, I could not so dishonor my Creator by calling it by His name.
— Thomas Paine, Toward the Mystery

If we think about the level of evil and suffering that exists in our world, it makes the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God seem extremely improbable, if not impossible. And if he allows evil to occur in our world just so a few of us can “learn something” from the experience, then we can certainly cross out the “all-loving” quality. It’s possible that a God exists, but if he/she/it does, it’s not the version we find described in the Bible, so why bother hanging onto it? Yahweh and Jehovah belong in the ranks of mythology, along with Zeus and Thor.

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78 thoughts on “Collateral Damage”

  1. I think many Christians have an outlook on suffering similar to the late Mother Teresa. She tended to dying patients by praying as they starved and withered away in horrendous pain that she refused to medicate away. Why? So that they may relate to the suffering of Jesus when he was flogged, pierced and nailed to a cross. The irony of it all? Christ cries “It is finished!” Seems like suffering would have been apart of the “it”.

    I’d love for someone to tell me it’s the will of God if one of my boys were to die. I’d flick them off and give them a growling “fuck you!” Seriously, do Christians really think they’re evangelizing by telling others that God “needed him (the deceased) more”? When I hear that I picture a grown man sucking his thumb in a corner in heaven, making toddler like demands. Oh, yes, where do I sign up for that kind of ‘salvation’?

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  2. I hear you, Charity. You know, I think most Christians (at least those in Bible-belt regions) grow up never being exposed to non-Christians. So they take for granted that everyone around them is just like them: good, Christian folk. No need to worry about “them heathens,” because you never actually encounter any. So no need to worry about the bigger questions, either. Just trust that God has a plan.

    But I’m hopeful, as the ranks of the non-religious increase, that more and more people will start to think a bit deeper about the beliefs they cherish, but never really think much about.

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  3. First as one of your guests wrote yesterday, we consider things evil those that are inimical to our well-being or to other sentient beings. In essence one could successfully[tongue in cheek] argue that evil exists just as an opinion. Second, the theist can end the conversation even before it begins by reminding the atheist that he, the atheist, has no belief in the existence of god and as such need not raise an issue about evil. That said, I think the argument that god allows some suffering for reasons not known to us doesn’t help in tackling the problem for we are right in asking why would a loving god not be interested in informing his creation why they suffer. The question one is bound to ask is if god created man in his image, how is it that he chose not to give us the ability to understand his designs or better still, what image is this of god that man was created with?

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  4. Awesome post Nate my mate.

    This takes me to the story of Peter…

    “5 But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,

    2 And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

    3 But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?

    4 Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.

    5 And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things.

    6 And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.

    7 And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in.

    8 And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.

    9 Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out.

    10 Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.

    Oh! I thought that Jesus came, died for our sins. I guess lying isn’t included in redemption.

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  5. Excellent point, makagutu!

    After all, even in the example I gave of immunizing an infant, the baby may not understand what is happening, but we still try to comfort her and soothe her. We don’t just sit in the corner and watch the events unfold. If we could make the baby understand, we would.

    If God was able to talk directly to people in the past, why not continue to do so now? Why not help us understand what’s going on, help us find a path forward?

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  6. I saw a bumper sticker recently which said, “24,000 children wil die of starvation today, why do you think God will answer your prayers?”

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  7. Hi Nate, I tend to agree with you and commenters here that many christian responses to pain and suffering are insensitive and unappealing. Evil is evil, no denying it. I think of things like young children being trafficked into prostitution and abuse, civil wars in Africa and the Middle East, US drone strikes, the Indian ocean tsunami of a few years ago, etc, and they cause me grief. I don’t pretend to have an explanation, though I believe there must be one.

    But I also note that in saying “Evil is evil, no denying it.” I am making a statement about truth, right and wrong, which I don’t believe I could make if I didn’t believe in the christian God (or some similar God). The argument from suffering gains a large part of its its power from the christian morality that most of us here grew up with whether we were christians or not, and loses a lot of its force without it.

    Then there are the many other things that christian belief explains far better than non-belief is able to so far – how something came from nothing to create the universe, how it happened to be so amazingly and “finely-tuned” in its design, how an estimated 300 million christians worldwide claim to have received or observed a miraculous healing after prayer.

    I have been reading about the brain lately and neuroplasticity – the fact that our brains are more plastic than we might think, and our brains actually alter physically as we focus on things, form habits, etc, and our thinking changes – and I will be blogging on some of this soon. So if you focus on things like children starving, you will be training your brain to think atheistically, and if I focus on people being healed, I will be training my brain to think theistically – to some degree at least.

    So most christians have trained their brains to not think logically about suffering, as you point out when you say: “So no need to worry about the bigger questions, either. Just trust that God has a plan.” But you seem to be unaware that you may have done the same thing and have learnt not to worry about the bigger questions that your worldview struggles with.

    So if we want to be honest (as you and I both want to be), we have to recognise that we need to rise above that brain conditioning and try to consider both sides. I try to do that by admitting the force of the argument from evil and many other issues relating to the Bible and faith. I wonder whether you and your readers are willing to also enlarge their focus to avoid conditioning their thinking?

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  8. Good points, unkleE. I can’t really throw any stones at that. I don’t completely agree on the morality thing — I think we atheists can have good reasons for thinking that causing suffering is wrong, but I do concede that it’s hard to prove those reasons.

    I also wonder if we sometimes are asking the right questions when it comes to “something coming from nothing.” Perhaps nothing, as we understand it, is actually impossible. I don’t know! And sometimes the fine-tuning argument, while worth considering, seems kind of like wondering how that puddle of water so perfectly matches the hole it’s in. If this universe were incapable of sustaining life, we wouldn’t be around to wonder about it. 🙂

    BUT, all that said, I do agree that we all tend to have blind spots that we don’t always want to get rid of. No world view answers every question. To me, I find the Christian god utterly unbelievable, as I said in my post. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no god, or that there’s no realm beyond this physical one.

    So, in a weird sort of way, I actually agree with much of your comment. Maybe that’s a miracle! 😉

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  9. Nate,

    Out of curiosity and much ignorance, as I’m very new to this whole philosophical scene, how can you admit the possibility of god, while claiming atheism.

    Hope you don’t see this as an attack, I respect you immensely, I’m just confused on the terminology.

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  10. Again, why I enjoy this blog. I appreciated the points you made in our discussion, and this post. Always more to learn about how I think and talk about my beliefs.

    UnkleE-
    Really good points. Thanks for the thoughts.

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  11. I’m not sure unkleE’s present and past claims of morality being the child of Christianity are proven by history. Christianity has to be accountable for much of the evil that has occured since its inception. The crusades, inquisitions, etc In the name of love and mercy , a reign of terror and cruelty has been the norm for Christians for centuries. A man could without remorse, burn a fellow man at the stake for a mere technical difference in theology.

    unkleE says we should rise above the brain conditioning and try to consider both sides. I can’t understand a side that condones or looks past the atrocities of the Bible. Christians including my dear Mother view the atrocities of the bible as unexplainable. God’s ways are not always understood by us. We will receive the answers when we get to heaven.

    There can never be an answer that I would understand.

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  12. I wonder whether you and your readers are willing to also enlarge their focus to avoid conditioning their thinking?

    As one of Nate’s readers, I would absolutely like to avoid conditioning my thinking. I would love to strip away all of my biases and think about the big questions as objectively as I possibly can. Honestly, I think I spend way more time pondering the big questions then all of the people I encounter on a day-to-day basis. Most people are content to worry about commonplace things while I struggle endlessly trying to cram as much relevant information into my head as possible. I am dying to know whether there is a God or not. It wouldn’t matter if it loved us or had powers, I’d just like to know if one (or more) exists.

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  13. Thanks Josh!

    Mark,
    Great question, and I don’t view it as an attack at all! Thanks for the compliment too, by the way — I can assure you the respect is mutual. 🙂

    Some people view religious beliefs along these extremes (there are others, but this is just to keep it simple): theism, agnosticism, and atheism. Where theism is belief in God, atheism is stating that there’s no such thing as god, and agnosticism as a middle position.

    But as I understand it, the definitions for atheism and agnosticism are bit different. Atheism deals with belief; whereas agnosticism deals with knowledge. So someone that’s a true agnostic would be a person that doesn’t know if god exists and thinks that whether or not god exists is unknowable. An atheist is just someone who doesn’t believe in any of the various god claims, not necessarily someone who maintains that no gods exist. Does that distinction make sense?

    So because “atheist” and “agnostic” deal with two different things, you can combine them to get some subtle differences in belief. Like Nan said, I consider myself an agnostic atheist. So, while I don’t believe in any of the gods that the various world religions put forward, I acknowledge that a god could exist. I don’t think it’s possible to have a high enough level of knowledge to say with certainty that there’s no such thing as a god. I just don’t know for sure, even though I don’t actively believe in one.

    Similarly, there are some agnostic theists in the world. People who believe in a god, but have enough doubts and unanswered questions to know they could be mistaken.

    In my experience few people meet the definitions of a strict agnostic or hard-line atheist.

    Did any of that make sense? 🙂

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  14. I empathize with you 100% Dave. I honestly leap for joy when I find errors in my reasoning. If I go oo long without being proven wrong, I get depressed, I know it must be because I’m not seeking hard enough. Welcome to those who truly seek.

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  15. @unklee
    ”Then there are the many other things that christian belief explains far better than non-belief is able to so far – how something came from nothing to create the universe, how it happened to be so amazingly and “finely-tuned” in its design, how an estimated 300 million christians worldwide claim to have received or observed a miraculous healing after prayer.”

    What an absolute load of moronic drivel that clearly demonstrates you have no grasp whatsoever of the reality of what you are talking about.
    “The fine-tuning argument and other recent intelligent design arguments are modern versions of God-of-the-gaps reasoning, where a God is deemed necessary whenever science has not fully explained some phenomenon”.
    Stenger

    Christian belief is based solely on the erroneous claims concerning a man-god found within the covers of a collection of ancient scrolls that aren’t worth the vellum they were likely written on.

    There is NO evidence to support any miracle claim.

    You have a habit of stringing together a seemingly cogent reply buy in reality it is nothing but polemic. You are a dreadful excuse for a Christian as you are as hypocritical as you are blatantly ignorant and devious in your cherry picking and you have adopted this pose since you began leaving you pseudo intelligent comments.

    You have to demonstrate the divinity of your man-god before ANY claim you make is even given as much as a sniff, otherwise you are just a fraud.

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  16. kcchief1, you write I’m not sure unkleE’s present and past claims of morality being the child of Christianity are proven by history.

    Really? You’re really not sure history can provide compelling evidence of morality preceding christianity?

    Obviously, you’re not aware at all of, say, Greek philosophy by such little known authors as Plato and Aristotle? Really? Really?

    Come on. Of course you can be sure. Even a cursory glance at any pre-christian history shows evidence of human morality. This claim of deriving morality from christianity or belief in its tenets is one of the most stupid claims I’ve ever encountered, save the claim that fire derived from christianity.

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  17. We’ve even got the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu as examples that predate Judaism.

    Of course, kc knows all this — I think he was just being polite in his phrasing. And thanks to both of you for pointing out those problems, because I completely overlooked them in my comment.

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  18. ah, good points UnkleE. yes, I’d like as unbiased and unconditioned as possible. In fact, it was by considering these things that i was able to part was with Christianity.

    i still struggle with thoughts f whether I’m fooling myself or not. In these moments of self doubt, i try to step away from the table so that i can get a satellite’s view of everything. And while the bible does have some uniqueness, it’s the similarities with other religions or traditions that make me realize I cant fully separate it without stronger evidences. This of course isnt the full extent of that self examination, for times sake, I’ll leave it at that.

    although i will add, while Christianity “answers” all the questions, it really doesnt. God came from nothing. God created somethings out of nothing. Those things, and much more, raise more questions that many believers seem uncomfortable in asking. I think about this a lot too.

    is it fear of pissing god off by questioning “him” (although it’s really questioning human claims about god)? fear of hell? fear of god not finding a weak in faith person worthy of acceptance? fea rof missing out on the grand reward? Or something else? I dont know, but i do think fear is a big motivator.

    whether or not we agree on origins or religion, we can find common ground on at least trying to be objective, fair and unbiased.

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  19. Good point William,

    I too am constantly re-negotiating with myself the entire thing. One moment I feel so content in “knowing” it’s all a farce, the next moment I have twitching eyes and a quivering heart feeling like I’m just tellin myself what I want to hear so I can continue to live a lifestyle of sin and debauchery.

    The funny thing is, the more away from believing in Christianity I go, the less I seem to “sin”. I am more happy, and I have way more patience and understanding of my fellow humans condition. When I was a Christian I constantly battled lust, drunkeness, jealousy, pride, maliciousness, and a host of other “spiritual diseases”. Now that I am in (what seems a never ending) deconversion process, I find myself being much more satisfied with the things I have (much less than I use to need), I am by far more patient, and am growing more confident in myself. Rather than always being afraid someone may question my beliefs, I am now always hoping someone will.

    All I feel I can really do, since I dont really trust my mind or soul if I have one to be able to see the “truth” in an unbiased manner, is continue to check my intentions. If my intentions are pure, then all I can hope for is that the truth I find is the truth I’m meant to have.

    If there is a god, I will follow it till I cannot take another step.

    So far, the only god I see dwells in all things that are in this physical world. I see god in my cat. I am starting to believe that “god” could have possibly infused itself into all things and that is what we call life, and perhaps its our conciousness. Knowing god beyond that, seems entirely impossible for me.

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  20. ”I see god in my cat”

    I thought the exact same thing last week when one of our 11 cats, Mr. Nibbles, brought in a bird, a pigeon almost as big as him, and dumped it in the kitchen.
    I called the Missus and said,
    “Jesus Christ, look what the cat just bought in!”

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  21. UnkleE, you brought a very interesting point. I am looking forward reading more posts about this subject. Our brains do tend to condition according to what we focus. If I concentrate a lot on abuse, neglect, starvation, etc, I will most likely begin to question and even deny the existence of a loving God. Otherwise, if I focus more on the positive (favorable) things of this world, such as forgiveness, mercy, service, etc. my belief in God is strengthen. So, who is closer to the “truth”? Nobody really knows. As a mental health counselor, I am convinced that cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective ways of modifying our feelings and actions (changing thoughts —> changing feelings). So if I choose to think not only about evil, but also about the good, then my belief in a good God can remain intact.

    Arkenaten, I wonder why your comments are usually full of sarcasm and insults. I often see a list of civil, respectful exchange of ideas until I see your comments. I bet your response to my comment will confirm my observation. Peace.

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  22. Then I am happy not to disappoint,Noel.

    Not focusing on the evil perpetrated by and in the name of your god can be called a variety of things.
    Delusional comes readily to mind, and as a mental health counselor well versed in cognitive behavioral therapy you SHOULD be well aware of this. Although I am baffled why you do not apply this rationale to your self, re biblical interpretation. It isn’t as if you can ignore the heinous things your god did, now can you?
    Oh…wait a moment, in fact you CAN, and Christians do this all the time. Its called…and I shall write slowly as I know you must struggle if you are unable to figure out the meaning of words such as biblical genocide, global flood, annihilation etc.
    Cherry Picking….

    Positive thought is a wonderful mechanism to help set the mental faculties on a path to free thinking, common sense, building up self worth and many other unfortunate disorders.
    Tell me, I don’t know if those in your specific profession are obliged to take the Hippocratic oath , but considering the vile deity the bible don’t you fell just a twinge of guilt being such an enormous hypocrite?

    How was that? 🙂

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  23. Hi Nate,

    There was so many point, but I just want to touch about a small portion of your articles.

    I don’t look dying as something evil. Death is natural process, I will die, you will die, everyone here will die. Similar to sickness or illness. Everyone must have once having an illness. It sound not so popular and sound cruel but live with it. It was natural. Even you are an atheist, you can not run away from dying.

    We can just reduce or delay the process, not to stop the process.

    Baby, adult or elder, all can die. It doesn’t mean that you are young, you will die later. Statistically, most people die at older age, but it not necessary in such way. Dying is something painful, sad, but live must go on…

    The problem is method of dying – Killing, illness, accident, war, natural death.

    But what the meaning of “natural death”, is it die by lying in bed an looking peaceful that being propagate by movie? From what I know there was no answer of “natural death” but.. in medical term, there are a word called “death by natural causes”.

    So death itself is natural, but the question is why?

    When the baby die, it not about teaching the parent a lesson, (we can assume, it was) but it may not necessary in such way. The idea is we do not know… but what we know is death is natural.

    So, why discussing something that you do not and will not know? It not fruitful and wasting your time?

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  24. I notice I can’t comment on unkleE’s web site. Why might that be?

    Noel, if you attach the reality of god’s existence to your dependent mood, then surely this is a pretty good indication that your method contains a variable that is at best highly unreliable to describe anything independent of it. It is not reasonable to assume that conclusions based only on personally dependent criteria describes an independent causal agency. Yet a resulting observation (who is closer to the “truth”? Nobody really knows) is rather bold to be referred to a state of external existence that is independent of your mood! After all, it’s not a question of someone to determine the independent existence of a thing, an entity, an agency that causes effect; it is evidence from reality that is necessary to demonstrably link this effect to that particular cause. It is evidence from reality that is necessary to link the effect of rainbows and butterflies and sunsets to the causal agent: supposedly a loving god. And if it’s creative loving god, then one has to explain how ebola and tsunamis and the Ichneumon wasp fit into that model. In other words, if you want to include knowledge and people into some explanation, then you must be prepared to show that the model generally is true for everyone everywhere all the time. Your mood is not sufficient to produce knowledge. The method of science is.

    If one looks at the world and investigates its systems, one can find no evidence for any interventionist creative causal agency that affects the world. One can not find any evidence for a loving interventionist creative causal agency that affects the world. In fact, evidence that should be present if the claim fro such an agency were true is conspicuous for its absence. This matters when we use a spectrum to determine the reliability of knowledge between the possible and the probable. All the evidence gathered from reality shift the probability ever downwards making the possibility ever less. To then assert such a bold statement that ‘Nobody really knows’ fails utterly to deal with reality honestly, and the word ‘really’ is a qualifier to fudge the results towards uncertainty… as if there were evidence from reality to empower uncertainty! Yet there isn’t.

    My reality, which is identical to yours in every way, is not determined by your mood. It’s not determined by what I choose to believe. It simply is, and we have available to the both of us a method to find out about it that will produce identical results regardless of your mood, regardless of my beliefs. How cool is that?

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  25. Another question:

    As the post is about questioning God’s action and discussing about Bible (even not my expertise). A simple question:

    Why God can not take people life?

    Is there any reason behind it, did He promise that people will forever or something like that?

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  26. ah, good points UnkleE. yes, I’d like as unbiased and unconditioned as possible. …. whether or not we agree on origins or religion, we can find common ground on at least trying to be objective, fair and unbiased.”

    Yes, thanks, it is good to find things in common. The interesting thing for me is that these insights into neuroplasticity suggest it may be harder to remain objective than we think. If we focus on something enough, at the exclusion of alternative views, it seems that we may change how our brain is structured and thus how we think.

    Non-believers often criticise believers for ignoring evidence in favour of faith, and it may be that what is occurring is that the believers’ brains have become re-wired so that they are pretty much unable to deal with sceptical thoughts. But the interesting corollary of this is that of course unbelievers are just as prone to the same effect. If they focus on sceptical arguments and ignore contrary evidence, they may be re-wiring their brains also. And the same behaviour they criticise in believers will occur in them, and it is easily seen – they are unable to deal with contrary evidence and refuse to face up to it. You and I are therefore both subject to the same effects, and can only keep clear of them by refusing to close off lines of thought we don’t find congenial.

    There is one further corollary, I think. There is an interesting argument for God often called the argument from reason. It starts with the assumption that our brains have been shaped by evolution (i,e. natural selection) alone, and natural selection doesn’t select based on truth but based on survival to pass on genes. This means our brains have been formed by process that care less about truth than about survival, and therefore we cannot trust our cognitive faculties to be truthful and logical. Which means we cannot trust the reasoning that leads to the conclusion that our brains have been shaped by evolution alone, which is reductio ad absurdum.

    The naturalist response to this is to argue that truth in reasoning has survival value and therefore our brains indeed think truthfully. But neuroplasticity may undermine this, for while it may indeed be true that our brains have evolved to be capable of thinking truthfully or logically, we can clearly bias our brains by focusing on one side of a matter, and so we don’t think logically on that matter after all.

    I am still delving into this question, and I may end up with different conclusions, but I am finding it fascinating on several levels. Thanks for your comment.

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  27. tildeb — Excellent points! Thank you!

    Noel — thanks for the comment; it’s always great to see you here. I tend to agree with tildeb, though. Why can’t we examine both the good things in life and the bad, and then come to our consensus? When we do that, I find too many problems to believe in a deity like the one presented in the Bible. Is some other deity out there? Maybe. But I haven’t seen evidence of him/her/it yet.

    Hifzan — thanks for your comments! You make some really good points about the nature of death. Let me start with your last comment first (just to be confusing 🙂 ):

    Why God can not take people life?

    Is there any reason behind it, did He promise that people will forever or something like that?

    No, it’s true that God didn’t promise to let people live forever. But even if God created us, I don’t believe that gives him free reign to do whatever he likes with us. I have 3 children, but I should not have the power to end their lives whenever I want. Or to even abuse them or neglect them. They have certain rights that I can’t intrude upon, even though they wouldn’t be here without me.

    In the same way, if God created us, I believe it would be wrong for him to treat our lives frivolously. And if he loves us as much as most religions claim, then he shouldn’t want to see any harm come to us.

    And it’s true that we all die, but not all deaths are the same. Some people spend weeks, months, or years in agony before they finally die. Others are tragically cut down for no apparent reason. For instance, I know of a little girl that was killed in a farming accident not too long ago. It was just a stupid accident. It could have been prevented so easily. Of course, none of the people around her could have known it would happen. It’s only through hindsight that they see all the things they could have done differently. But if God’s real, then he would have known. When she woke up that morning, with her hair all askew from a good night’s sleep, he would have known what lay before her. When she laughed at some joke that her sibling made, or at something on TV, God still would have known what was coming. So many things could have prevented it, but it still happened anyway. If God is up there somewhere, and if he loved that child and her family, why did he allow such a horrible tragedy to happen?

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  28. “I notice I can’t comment on unkleE’s web site. Why might that be?”
    I’m sorry about this tildeb. There is no reason I know of why you cannot comment there. Can you tell me what happened when you tried?

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  29. UnkleE, you brought a very interesting point. I am looking forward reading more posts about this subject. Our brains do tend to condition according to what we focus. If I concentrate a lot on abuse, neglect, starvation, etc, ….. As a mental health counselor, I am convinced that cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective ways of modifying our feelings and actions (changing thoughts —> changing feelings).”

    Thanks for this comment Noel, I am interested to hear how a professional working in the field thinks. So far my main reading has been from or about researchers (Mario Beauregard’s book Brain Wars and Norman Doidge’s book The brain that changes itself – Doidge is a practitioner, but he writes mostly about research).

    I expect to post on this stuff in the next couple of weeks on both my blogs – the Way? and Is there a God?, so I hope to see you there and see your comments.

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  30. So, in a weird sort of way, I actually agree with much of your comment. Maybe that’s a miracle! “

    Hi Nate, I’m pleased with this response and not entirely surprised, because I tried to keep my comment as open as possible, and I know you well enough by now. 🙂

    We’ve even got the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu as examples that predate Judaism.

    Of course, kc knows all this — I think he was just being polite in his phrasing. And thanks to both of you for pointing out those problems, because I completely overlooked them in my comment.”

    But I disagree with your revision. The historical questions about ethics are quite irrelevant to the matter I raised, as can be seen by setting out the argument from evil, which looks something like this ….

    1. There is suffering and pain in the world.
    2. Much of this serves no useful purpose (i.e. it is gratuitous).
    3. Gratuitous suffering and pain are evil (= not good).
    4. If a good God exists, he would allow such evil.
    5. There no good God exists.

    Now I have already said that I find this argument very strong, but that is because I can well accept premise 3 – that gratuitous is indeed objectively evil. The history of moral codes has no relevance here, it is simply a matter of whether we can support #3.

    But how does an atheist support it? Of course atheists feel, or “know” it is true in themselves, but how do they demonstrate that gratuitous suffering is objectively evil (i.e. we should all agree)? I have never seen it done, and most atheists I have seen agree that ethics are subjective. But if so, premise 3 fails, and so the argument fails.

    So I conclude that the argument from evil can only have force for a believer, and is self contradictory for a non-believer. Thus I think your initial response (“I think we atheists can have good reasons for thinking that causing suffering is wrong, but I do concede that it’s hard to prove those reasons”) was exactly correct. More agreement!! 🙂

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  31. It really comes down to why we know certain things are wrong. Honestly, that’s anybody’s guess. Theists will say it’s because we can appeal to a higher authority who tells us it’s wrong. Or perhaps God created us to instinctively know it’s wrong.

    But in a way, I find this to be a “god of the gaps” type argument, because it really just boils down to “where did we come from?” Perhaps, instead of having our instincts wired by God, we evolved to have them. There’s some decent evidence for this, since more primitive species seem to have certain moral codes as well. Or maybe we’re just conditioned by living in our respective societies to know what would constitute a “sin” against the group.

    Why do we find murder to be evil? I can give some good, practical reasons, but in some ways, this is also like asking “why do I prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla?” There may not be a great way to explain why I do, but that doesn’t invalidate the fact that I feel that way.

    I feel like your objection to the problem of evil is kind of like playing word games. It’s like objecting to the theory of evolution because we don’t know exactly how life first began. It’s true that we may not know that part of it, but that doesn’t invalidate what we do know.

    In the same way, I can’t definitively say exactly why we know some things are evil, but that doesn’t mean I should pretend that there’s no such thing.

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  32. Hi Nate, I don’t want to drag this out. But is God of the gaps any worse than the atheist gap of the gods?? 🙂 God didn’t create the world but we don’t know how it happened. God didn’t design the universal laws but we don’t know what did. We know the world is too evil for a God even though we can’t say what evil is or how we can know it.

    My point is simply that there are arguments both ways, and neuroplasticity seems to indicate that the more you focus on one side, the less you’ll see the other. Meaning we have to carefully guard our objectivity or we lose it. It’s happened to so many people already, so I’d hate to see you join them! Best wishes.

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  33. Hey Uncle E,

    Welcome back – haven’t seen you in a while. I’m actually traveling for a few days so won’t be able to respond too much here. Wanted to give a quick response to some of your stuff here though (I hope that’s ok).

    First I think your points about neuroplasticity and the fact that we need to carefully guard our objectivity are excellent reminders for everyone. We all fall so easily into biased thinking. You may find this a strange statement for me to make given what I believe, but I don’t think that my struggle with my biases was stronger or weaker when I was previously a Christian compared to what I am now. I think I’ve always had to battle them to the same degree no matter what worldview I have held. Maybe I’m just biased by wanting to be fair to all sides though (how’s that for confusing?).

    Your points about the argument from evil not working for someone who doesn’t believe in objective morality sound correct at first, but on digging deeper I think there may be something else there. Think about it this way: Let’s say someone does not believe in objective morality, but they want to consider whether or not the Christian viewpoint is correct. So they go through in investigating what it would take to believe as a Christian. As they do this they see that Christianity believes in objective morality. Then they see the moral argument and find that the Christian viewpoint seems internally inconsistent, so because of that they decide to abandon belief in Christianity. They might then search for other worldviews that are more consistent with all the evidence even though they may not be sure which worldview is correct, but they at least feel they are being fair in abandoning belief in Christianity due to the internal inconsistency they see (or at least the versions of Christianity that fall into the problem of evil).

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  34. Hi Howie, it’s always a pleasure talking with you. I haven’t been commenting so much lately because after a while, I am just repeating myself.

    We all fall so easily into biased thinking. You may find this a strange statement for me to make given what I believe, but I don’t think that my struggle with my biases was stronger or weaker when I was previously a Christian compared to what I am now.”

    Yes, I think our susceptibility may be more based on personality type and experience than it is on viewpoint.

    on digging deeper I think there may be something else there.”

    Yes, I don’t disagree with you.

    (1) I said from the start that the argument from evil is a powerful argument against God (the only really powerful one in my mind). I contested Nate’s view of it not to disagree so much as to add another side to it.

    (2) I think the process often happens as you describe it. But when a person gets to the view of atheism (if that’s where they end up) they should be equally critical. But often they are not. Often they accept uncertainty (say about the beginning of the universe) where they wouldn’t previously accept uncertainty about why God would behave in a certain way. In my experience, many sceptics are only half sceptics.

    I suppose here I should come up with some witty (???) phrase like: “We’re both sceptics, I’m just sceptical about more things than they are!” But I won’t! 🙂

    Enjoy your travel!

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  35. There is never going to be a method that a believer can justify what they believe without it all resting on a god of the gaps premise.

    Unklee is probably the most disingenuous religious blogger I have encountered.
    He’ll present you with a jam sandwich but on it hide very tiny bits of broken glass.
    At least you know(or should know) that someone like Silenceofmind is simply a dickhead and you only discuss with his ilk if you want a laugh

    Almost every argument unklee has every presented in this regard is a god of the gaps story.

    If he had an ounce of integrity he would, once and for all, admit that he will never be able to demonstrate why he believes his god, Jesus, is the creator of the universe and that ultimately everything he believes is based on faith, pure and simple.

    That would be honest and any believer who stated this up front is at least deserving of a modicum of respect.

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  36. Nate,

    You mention about :I don’t believe that gives him free reign to do whatever he likes with us.

    That is your assumption of God should do or don’t but He never promise you anything like that. Your assuming based on father-daughter or family relationship. Any possibility that in Bible, God is something as daddy, father or husband to someone? I not sure of that, but I assume, the answer is No. Even in Greek, the word “Father” are not related to “family” relationship.

    You mention if God created us, I believe it would be wrong for him to treat our lives frivolously.

    Again, you believe it was wrong. So, it was another assumption.
    I would to raise 1 question, if death is created by God. Then who taking you life away? Apparently, it was God who taking your life. So, it just a process that have designed before hand.

    If God is up there somewhere, and if he loved that child and her family, why did he allow such a horrible tragedy to happen?
    If God create a life and sent to the world (in this meaning -earth). When He take back life from you, He just doing His job. From your point of view, it was a tragedy but for Him. He ust doing His job. Are you think, in His point of view, He doing wrong?

    Because, I write a comment in Atheist blog. some may think “Ohh, this is cruel” or “God is cruel” and so on. I want to write another version in “scientific fact” of poem as below just for sarcasm.

    Nature is about life and death, everything that lives a life will perish.
    Everything new will be decay and die. That is our nature.

    Everything that decay will give life to another life.
    A dying deer will give a hope to a pack of wolf to live.
    A lefty carcass will decay as soil.
    The soil again fertilized.
    Another grass grows to continue the survival.

    To called a wolf the evil, they just doing his job,
    To called a deer a saint, sometime they destroy the land,
    Which one is evil, which one is saint?
    We don’t know.

    A deer have a right to defend their life,
    A pack a wolf need to feed their family,
    Seem wolf also have a right,
    Which one is evil, which one is saint?
    We don’t know.

    Without wolf, grass will not grow,
    Without grass, deer can not survive,
    Without deer, wolf can not survive,
    Which one is evil, which one is saint?
    We don’t know.

    In Yellowstone, wolf once being called as evil,
    Hunters killed wolf, it almost extinct,
    The deer empowered, they eat almost everything,
    Yellowstones are dying,
    Now hunter know the duty of wolf,
    Which one is evil, which one is saint?

    Life or dying,
    That is the process of life,
    To sustain the stability of ecosystem,
    In the end, it not about who is evil, who is saint,
    It always about balancing the life.
    That is law of nature.

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  37. unkleE,
    Just a question out of curiosity: Many of us who are atheists view atheism as a “default” position, because most of us are not flatly saying that “no god could exist,” but rather that we’re unconvinced by all the god-claims that are currently out there. Do you agree that it seems to be a default position, or is there another position that you think qualifies better?

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  38. Hifzan, I like your poem! Thanks for posting it.

    I see the point you’re making, and I think it’s a good one. However, I don’t think it relates to God very well. For one thing, the wolf must kill in order to survive. But what does God need that would require a little girl dying in a farming accident?

    You also suggest that we shouldn’t question God — if he does a particular thing, then as his creations, we have no right to question him. But I’m not really questioning God so much as I’m questioning the Christian God. The Bible does say he’s our “heavenly father” and that he loved us so much he sent “his only son” to “die for our sins.” The Bible further describes God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good. So when I look around, I don’t see reality matching up to such a God. To me, that’s not questioning God, but questioning man’s claims about a god.

    Finally, if we want to say that all death is ultimately God’s doing, that’s fine. But no one can deny that some deaths are better or “easier” than others. As humans, when we have a sick pet and there’s nothing else we can do for it, we often put them to sleep. We do it humanely. If someone beat their dog to death with a lead pipe, they would be arrested — at least, here in the US they would. If God is more merciful and compassionate than we, why does he “kill” us in so many horrible ways?

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  39. UncleE, I do not think you understand neural plasticity when you say stuff like So if you focus on things like children starving, you will be training your brain to think atheistically.

    Cortical remapping (brain plasticity), is a term that refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. There are two main categories: functional (in response to damage) and structural (learning). You seem to be referring to structural, which is not tied to the solidity of specific or particular opinions or beliefs but to neural pathways used by the brain. New pathways can be created by learning, and the best description I’ve come across uses the analogy of water (experiences) following furrows in soil (neural pathways). The more water that flows through a particular furrow, the deeper it becomes while alternate routes dry out and fill in. This is the explanation why behavioural therapy (and talk therapy) works more efficaciously over time than chemical interventions (drug suppression), by getting the subject to practice through learned behaviour using a different furrow as an applied response, which will then strengthen ‘healthier’ neural pathways that direct such responsive behaviours. In a nutshell, then, the first important point is to remember that brain plasticity is about use through behaviour and not necessarily any kind of different brain functioning.

    Okay. So far, so good. Plasticity is partly about an effect on the brain’s wiring in response to its interactions with the environment in which it finds itself. Now let’s move on to the second point: efficiency.

    I may believe that a particular dance I do, for example, will produce rain. The more I practice this dance, the more easily (and with greater brain efficiency) I can perform it. This activity may have once utilized 40% of my brain processing when I began, and after years of practice I may utilize only 2% to accomplish the same behaviour. This efficiency is the result of brain plasticity called neural paring (and an important neural activity that occurs when we sleep). Note: this paring has nothing whatsoever to do with the claim that my dancing causes rain, and in no way connects the causal effect I claim between them. I do not ‘strengthen’ or ‘weaken’ my beliefs about the causal connection between my dancing and the arrival of rain and so it makes no sense to claim as you do that a negative or positive ‘focus’ strengthens theistic or atheistic thinking. That’s not what brain plasticity means in regards to structural changes over time through learning; it means changes to efficiency through behaviour.

    Why does this matter?

    Well, acting on beliefs matters because these behaviours cause real affect in the real world. Dancing, for example, causes real affect both in the brain and real affect in socializing depending on circumstances can be both positive and negative). But it is a mistake to link these effects to be evidence for the beliefs attached to them. Dancing, for example, can be done for many reasons, better reasons, evidence-based reasons that link directly to real physical benefits and aesthetic pleasure, than as ‘proof’ for causal effect in the amount of precipitation! In the same way, pro-social behaviours (morality) that improve the welfare of others is not evidence for god. Good works (ethics) can be attributed to belief in a god, but this is not evidence for god; the effects such behaviours produce are not evidence for the attribution. To assume otherwise is a thinking mistake. To assume thinking about starving children trains your brain to be atheist is a thinking mistake.

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  40. The issue of evil is problematic for the term ‘evil’. What does this term actually mean?

    The problem can be avoided by using the term (as Nate does) ‘suffering’ to reveal the disconnect between belief in a creationist loving god and the amount of unnecessary suffering produced in the world all around us every minute of every day… not just concerning humans (thousands of children will die of starvation while you read this comment thread) but amplified by the biosphere. It is obvious that the biological systems here on earth work constantly by predation. This is systemic. Any possible ‘design’ of the predator/prey system means it must have been designed this way to maximize suffering and cannot conceivably be presumed to be benevolent! Just ask the water buffalo trapped in a mud pit being eaten alive by hyenas. Look at the amount of pain generated by a nervous system designed to remain active until death. This is not benevolent. This is brutality. Look at the world of parasites; this is not benevolent but brutality. Look at the world of disease and lingering death throughout the biosphere: this isn’t designed benevolence but active and ongoing brutality. Why not a designed biological shut off valve or switch wfor nervous systems creating unbearable pain? Anyone who presumes some agency of overseeing benevolence simply isn’t looking at reality and refuses to address how reality actually functions. They are looking at metaphysical musings in correct logical form and assuming this is reflective of a reality better suited to their beliefs about it. May I suggest those people look instead to reality to inform their beliefs about it.

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  41. @Ark… a step back… do you mean back away from the crazy person slowly but carefully?!

    @Nate: thx. They can also be (and often are) categorized on sites allied with respecting theology (from which I am now banned) as ‘long-winded’, ‘verbose’, ‘ranting’, ‘militant’, ‘rambling’, ‘strident’, and so on. But I have found that my explanations for contrary opinions is not suitable to a few sentences but require paragraphs. Old school in the age of tw…ts, I know, but hey… sometimes people find them useful.

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  42. @Tideb
    No man, I am in awe. That’s why I put up one of your comments from John’s blog as a post.
    I want to see Unklee respond to this.
    I doubt he will as this is just a tad too near the bone for his liking and if you get a response it might well be along the lines of ”agree to disagree.”

    You can be as long-winded as you like as far as I’m concerned. Your stuff is always dead on target and you are one of the few ‘long’ writers that usually holds my attention from start to finish.

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  43. Thx Ark, although I feel a little uncomfortable being complimented because the ideas I express I think are not just mine but widely shared. Your opinions and mine, for example, are very often complimentary regarding theism not because you and I must get along personally because we’re both atheists but because we have arrived at very similar conclusions; we then express them differently in our own styles.

    Like many, uncleE presents ideas about reality as if true that I think are really quite questionable. I know you feel the same. Whenever I come across a claim about reality – especially regarding theology generally and religion specifically (like claims of causal divine agencies and their attributed effects) – I always ask myself two questions: Is this claim true? How can we know? That’s why I tend to write about how reality operates for everyone everywhere all the time is a pretty strong indicator of which direction explanatory answers can begin to be found for those questions… and many theists take what I say not on their merit but on a personal level as if revealing reality’s adjudication of these claims was the same as me militating against religious people. My comments (like those from many atheists) then tend to be taken as being intended to cause discomfort (rather than intended to provide reasons to inquire further) and often assumed to be a threat to those most in need (I think) of having their beliefs about how reality operates honestly questioned (the readers of the theist’s site). Of course, I almost always then get categorized as a malicious atheist troll and ‘moderated’ into oblivion where the echo chamber thus created can be better sustained without challenge… even though what I’ve written I think stands (or is intended to stand) on its own merits (regardless of who says it). In that same vein, then, receiving compliments from readers is really about the quality of those merits I’ve merely expressed, and so I feel gratified when readers ‘get it’. To me, this makes the effort time well spent. So, thanks.

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  44. If you look to idea of wolf is god, then you for sure can no see the idea. You must look into a big picture, The God is The Sustainer of Nature and its law.

    You can look this way, little girls dying is a “deer” and the farming accident is a “wolf”. The accident is a cause of death for girl because bleeding (just for example). When the blood are become less in human body, human die. The law to be sustain here is “No blood, human die” and “Human will die” at the same time God want to take her life. So it was 3 in one single action or maybe more.
    Here the law are not necessarily define as “Ten Commandment” only. The law here compromise everything, law of biology, physics, chemical, process, astronomy. Here, why we called God All Knowing.

    Questioning God? Example: A same case a dying girls and accident.
    God have a law that saying “Everyone will die” and at same time no one know when they die.
    God order to save guard you life and do not kill.
    So, God got His “job” (try to be literate here), we also have our job too.
    Our job is to go hospital when we sick, eat healthy foods, to drive carefully, maintain our life. His job is to take our life when it come or give sickness. All sickness and death have a cause and reason. Then, our job too look on the cause and reason, so we can have a better life and eat a better medicine. To question God is not so wise action because He already give a cause and reason to think.

    The only way you can question God by calling God. “Hello, why you killed the girls”. Is it stupid? Why not you just go and check the cause of death and learn from that.

    Your asking “If God is more merciful and compassionate than we, why does he “kill” us in so many horrible ways?
    In my religion, God giving his name “The Causer of Death; Merciful and Compassionate is another of His character.

    Horrible or not, it giving a cause of death. We may be sad. For us, we have lost a soul, for God, another life have return to Him.
    We do our job, He do His job.

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  45. unkleE,
    Just a question out of curiosity: Many of us who are atheists view atheism as a “default” position, because most of us are not flatly saying that “no god could exist,” but rather that we’re unconvinced by all the god-claims that are currently out there. Do you agree that it seems to be a default position, or is there another position that you think qualifies better?”

    Hi Nate. I don’t think “atheism” is the default position, but that is in part because of ambiguities about definitions.

    It is popular these days to define atheism as absence of belief in any god. Normally I would prefer to allow people to define themselves in whatever way they chose, but I am reluctant to do so in this case because:

    1. The philosophers still tend to define atheism as disbelief, though this is certainly not unanimous. I did 2 years of philosophy at university back in the 60’s, and that was how it was defined then. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it this way, as does Robin le Poidevin in his little textbook Arguing for atheism.

    2. I find in many cases (not necessarily you or others here) that the “lack of belief/default position” becomes an arguing tactic that can be used dishonestly to avoid giving evidence and reasons. Some atheists argue vehemently against the existence of God, but when you ask for reasons they retreat into “ours is the default position/you have the burden of proof/I just lack belief in one more God than you” etc. Then a minute later they are arguing against God’s existence again.

    3. I think the most useful way to clarify this is to imagine a continuum from +100% (“I am sure God exists”) to -100% (“I am sure no God exists”). I would be about +90% on this scale and Richard Dawkins has said he is about -90%. Clearly the true “default position”, the one “lacking any belief in or about God” would be 0% – the existence of God is an open question, awaiting further evidence.

    Now I wonder where you and others here would sit on that line? I would guess that you are about -50% – i.e. you think there are much better reasons to disbelieve than believe, but you are far from certain. I suggest some others here are even more strongly disbelieving. (You may like to consider posting on this topic and asking people to nominate where they sit on that continuum.)

    But it doesn’t matter. Most atheists are certainly not at the 0% position, and clearly therefore not in the default and not merely “lacking belief”.

    I conclude then that it would be clearer to call the 0% position “agnosticism” (meaning unsure either way) as it used to be, and that would be the default.

    What do you think about it?

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  46. I think my last comment has been somehow misunderstood. I did not mean to imply that my mood determines reality. However, our thoughts determine how we feel about reality. We all have slightly different interpretations (thoughts) about events that occur around us. Death can be interpreted as an awful experience, a liberating process, or simply an end of existence. No matter our interpretation and feeling about it, death simply occurs. It is up to us to accept it or fight it. We still do not fully understand it, which is why many times we choose to interpret it as “God’s will” to alleviate the horror that our interpretations can trigger.

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  47. HIfzan,

    I’m asking whether or not God even exists. You seem to be taking it for granted that he does. Not only that, you seem to take it for granted that he’s a particular god. How do you know that?

    Thanks,

    Nate

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  48. Hi unkleE, thanks for the response.

    I differ with you a bit on the definition thing, as I take atheism to be more absence of belief than disbelief. However, I don’t see a need to get way down in the weeds on that in this particular thread, so I’m okay with using your definition (and continuum) for the sake of argument.

    On your continuum, I’d sit very close to -100% when it comes to the Christian god (for some of the reasons I outlined above) and around -20% on the question of a spiritual realm or some “unknown” god.

    When I make more definitive arguments, I’m arguing against the Abrahamic god, not necessarily the general idea of a god. Does that distinction make sense?

    Thanks

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  49. Nate,

    For sake of discussion, let assume God doesn’t exist and the same event arise “A dying girls died horribly in car accident

    The best answer that I can think secularly: Doctor will diagnose the body, the police will examine the car. Report come out, cause of death is too much bleeding. So, the body will be buried. People take a lesson from that.

    That it… Right.

    But can you prevent death or dying horribly? No…
    But of course, when it happen to ourselves, it sad moments, we will cry, remembering the good this happen between that girl and us.

    I’m asking whether or not God even exists. You seem to be taking it for granted that he does. Not only that, you seem to take it for granted that he’s a particular god. How do you know that?

    Just for discussion,

    If REAL God exist, do you really think, it like tag team match as WWE matches. This century it shall be Zeus, next century it shall be King Jed, another century it will be replace by Jesus?
    He was there from the beginning…

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  50. If there’s no God, then yes, I agree with what you’ve laid out. In fact, I’d say it matches perfectly what we see in this life.

    As to the God question, if he’s real and wants to communicate with us, he could. The fact that we can legitimately question his very existence is awfully telling, in my opinion.

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  51. I don’t think you should worry about that.

    As I understand, if God really exist, everyone will meet Him. At that time, all of us will have Q&A session with Him legitimately.

    My reply may sound sarcasm, but I don’t know to make it softer.

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  52. UncleE, I do not think you understand neural plasticity when you say stuff like So if you focus on things like children starving, you will be training your brain to think atheistically. …. “

    Hi tildeb, you may well be right that I don’t understand neuroplasticity well, I am just learning about it. But when you say “I do not ‘strengthen’ or ‘weaken’ my beliefs about the causal connection between my dancing and the arrival of rain” you seem to be disagreeing not just with me but with author Norman Doidge.

    For example, he shows that habitual use of pornography changes brain structure and hence behaviour, by changing brain maps and replacing one set of images and behaviours with another. And psychoanalysis can help re-wire the brain, for example separating sex and violence in the brain maps of men where their connection led to harmful behaviour, helping them to believe differently about women and allowing them to feel better and act differently.

    Another example is OCD patients, who are trained to ‘relabel’ their fears so they stop believing what they think is happening to them (e.g. an attack by germs) and instead believe it is really an OCD episode.

    Then there are the examples of imagining an action developing the same motor and sensory programs as actually doing the act – so thinking is clearly affecting the brain structure.

    So what we focus on, repeatedly, can and does change the way we think and what we believe, and hence our behaviour. We strengthen the neural pathways associated with that thinking and belief, and weaken alternative neural pathways – as Doidge says, it is a case of “use it or lose it”. There may be reasons why this doesn’t apply to belief in God and the reasons we judge to be important or unimportant, but I cannot see why, and your explanation doesn’t seem to me to show it because it seems generally contrary to what Doidge says. If you really have evidence that I am wrong about this specific, I am keen to hear it because I am still learning.

    pro-social behaviours (morality) that improve the welfare of others is not evidence for god. Good works (ethics) can be attributed to belief in a god, but this is not evidence for god”

    I do not recall saying this, and I don’t believe it. I’m guessing you are equating pro-social behaviours = morality, but I don’t define morality that way at all. I usually talk about objective ethics, which are not behaviours at all, but standards or criteria of right and wrong.

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  53. I take atheism to be more absence of belief than disbelief.”

    I think this is still worth exploring, by way of two questions.

    1. Does “absence of belief” mean absence of any belief about God, either his existence or his non-existence)? If that’s the case, then we are describing the 0% belief – do you agree? Would you call that atheism?

    2. If a person said I lack any belief in God, but I have plenty of reason to believe no God exists, where would you place them on the continuum and what label would you give them?

    When I make more definitive arguments, I’m arguing against the Abrahamic god, not necessarily the general idea of a god. Does that distinction make sense?”

    Makes perfect sense. I don’t think it is always clear in your discussion, but that is partly because blog comments require us to be brief. In my terms, you are more of an agnostic than an atheist, because you disbelieve strongly in one definition of God (Abrahamic), and I daresay you also disbelieve (not just lack belief), as I do, in Zeus. I define myself by the one God I believe in, and I would think you should be defined by the -20% belief you have in some God (say a deistic God).

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  54. uncleE, let’s revisit what you wrote, which was your assertion that if you focus on things like children starving, you will be training your brain to think atheistically.

    Now let’s replace your belief in your god with the belief of another in, say, Huitzilopochtli. Does your assertion still make any sense? Is your non belief in Huitzilopochtli reinforced or mitigated by focusing on starving children? Are you, in fact, training your brain whatsoever in regard to this specific belief?

    Of course not. Specific beliefs have nothing whatsoever to do with brain plasticity; acting repeatably on this belief does, which in no way offers us any knowledge value about the veracity of the belief itself. Focusing on starving children does not ‘train the brain to think atheistically’ any more than focusing on puppies and kittens will train the brain to think theistically. What we can do is train the brain to think critically and non-criticially not by identifying specific beliefs we focus on that we may or may not favour but by repeatably practicing a consistent method of HOW we focus, HOW we approach a problem or event, HOW we inquire into reality. That’s why epistemology (how we think) matters a very great deal because this method determines ontology (what we think).

    I use exactly this approach when teaching anything, from math concepts (how to think utilizing numeracy) to reading comprehension (how to think using literacy) that the students of all ages and abilities and IQs and ethnicity and gender and food preferences and so on can then successfully apply to produce consistent, reliable, and trustworthy mapping of the world any way they want to (producing what they think). The relationship between, say, fractions, ratios, percentages, and probabilities is not understood by working with fractions of this particular denominator or that one; it is understood by approaching all of these ideas exactly the same way: of comparing this to that. The categories are simply different ways of expressing the same thing. Once students get it, they are off to the races and can utilize all of these notions interchangeably in ways that are quickly, easily, and consistently accurate (leading most people to exclaim that they should have been taught this way from the onset because it’s so easy to do). What we think is very much determined by how we think and this is where brain’s plasticity allows us to learn better ways, more efficient and accurate ways than assuming some kind of Oogity Boogity must be an active agent in the world because we don’t (yet) understand stuff.

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  55. Now let’s replace your belief in your god with the belief of another in, say, Huitzilopochtli. Does your assertion still make any sense? Is your non belief in Huitzilopochtli reinforced or mitigated by focusing on starving children? Are you, in fact, training your brain whatsoever in regard to this specific belief?

    Of course not. Specific beliefs have nothing whatsoever to do with brain plasticity”

    Hi tildeb. It sounds silly the way you express it, but you have ignored the context. What I said was that if you focus on the argument from evil, which connects suffering with disbelief in God, then you will be training your brain to think atheistically. The logic is simple. Focus in suffering and that will colour your belief about the world, and that, via the argument from evil, will strengthen the way you think negatively about God. If you want to remain open minded, you will have to spread your focus wider.

    Leave that context out and what I said is misrepresented.

    And this isn’t just my idea. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg is Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and he has studied the relationship between neuroplasticity and religion. He says:

    “The more you focus on something — whether that’s math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain.”

    It seems Newberg’s research supports exactly what I said. (BTW, he is not a religious believer.)

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  56. uncleE, you claim that your creative interactive god is benevolent and just. Along comes the argument that points out that because there is systemic suffering in the world, this stands contradictory to the notion of the claim, that there really is an omni-potent, omni-present, omniscient creative divine agent active in the world that permits this systemic suffering. Along come the apologists for this agency who wave their hands furiously and think their job done and then the metaphysicians who take up the reins and assume the real-world effects are really explainable by using more words, by formulating the issue to be a question of logical form… a method that produces just enough philosophical wiggle room if squinted at just right so that the plenitude of available contrary evidence is now sufficiently dealt with to make the claim seem reasonable… forgetting that if a person created such a system – guaranteed to sustain great suffering by sentient creatures – we would feel ethically justified to doubt the claim that such a person was a loving character over that creation.

    Now you come along and try to tell us that by focusing on aspects of this very real suffering, we are training our brain to think atheistically. This isn’t silly only if by atheistically you mean non theistically, meaning that we think about reality as it really is unsaddled by beliefs contrary to it, meaning reality really does contain suffering that really is inexplicable if created, overseen, and maintained by some all powerful interventionist agency, an agency you insist is able and capable of intervening and is known to be all-loving. The original claim that there isn’t a discrepancy between real suffering and a believed benevolent god, then, becomes the silly one.

    You then attempt to use brain remapping in support of your claim without thinking critically about what it is you are actually saying: as if the suffering is real only because we have trained our brains to see it, which implies that by training our brains to ignore it will make the suffering go away. I know you don’t think this but your reasoning is based in part on misunderstanding what brain remapping is and granting it power it does not possess: your beliefs do not define reality. But this is a very common methodological flaw in all theistic thinking, that in matters of theology faith stops being the vice it is when exercised in any other area of human endeavor (I believe your drains are clogged because you haven’t sacrificed your daughter to the god of plumbing, I believe my dancing causes rain) and suddenly becomes equivalent to reality (My claim is true because I believe my claim is true). This is why you and other theists insist that non belief is another kind of belief just like we find in theologies, whereas in reality no theist would dare try to argue that a non car is another kind of car (just because this is the only kind of transportation you can possibly imagine).

    You speak of context without appreciating how you border your thinking about reality by your religious beliefs you impose on it, and seem blissfully unaware of just how skewed is the product of your thinking from this broken method that erects these borders to begin with. Theistic thinking about reality (and the hidden agencies supposedly at work in it) reveals this problem inherent in theistic methodology: by producing not one speck of knowledge about reality. Ever. This is a clue too many theists, metaphysicians, and apologists utterly fail to appreciate busy as they are talking amongst themselves and waving their hands furiously. Because how we think affects what we think, an unbiased examination of all theological thinking shows us unequivocally that what theists actually believe is not supported by compelling evidence from reality when we allow reality to arbitrate these beliefs or the method would produce knowledge. It doesn’t. It never has. It doesn’t now. Believing it will in the future is the very definition of crazy: of doing the same thing over and over and believing that someday the results will magically be different.

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  57. ”The more you focus on something — whether that’s math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain.”

    I stand corrected here, but this seems to suggest that while you can make football or god your , reality it doesn’t alter the nature/state of the object of focus. Thus, while football is ,real, your god is merely something you make real.
    Just like Santa Claus, in fact.

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  58. Hi tildeb,

    It seems you may now accept what I said about neuroplasticity (which I expressed even-handedly as applying to believers and non-believers alike), and have raised much larger issues. I think I will pass on those for now, because I think the discussion would be never-ending. But thanks for the interaction.

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  59. I think unkleE’s continuum is a good way to explain our positions, but we should probably be more specific when using it. I would place myself at around -98% for the probability of the fundamentalist Christian God existing and around -70% for the liberal Christian god. These are areas I’ve done a lot of research into so I’m quite a ways from 0%. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to bulk “all other unknown possibilities” into a single category (deism). What about the possibility of two deities existing? or a hierarchy of deities existing? What if we are inside a matrix controlled by machine-like beings that don’t possess any feelings? Should we all be at 0% for these ideas? I’m not sure…

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  60. @unkleE, “So if we want to be honest (as you and I both want to be), we have to recognise that we need to rise above that brain conditioning and try to consider both sides. I try to do that by admitting the force of the argument from evil and many other issues relating to the Bible and faith. I wonder whether you and your readers are willing to also enlarge their focus to avoid conditioning their thinking?”

    I posted this 40 minute video on unkleE’s, le Ark, and JohnZ’s blogs. It is a documentary which reveals how people believe things which aren’t necessarily true. I’ve received no comments from those who are religious, yet. Maybe some will care to comment here. I hope you take the time to watch. It is fascinating and truly mind boggling at the same time but I think it explains much of what we discuss here.

    http://www.history.com/shows/your-bleeped-up-brain/videos/your-bleeped-up-brain-superstition

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  61. It will take me a looong time to go through the comments–so much material!

    I write this w/o first seeing the above just to give an example of the teaching I was brought up in (as I doubt there is another former member of my church commenting here):

    The Problem of Evil was solved through the “Seven Thousand Year Plan of God”. Short story is that when Adam and Eve sinned, God kicked them out of the Garden and cut humanity off from him…for 6,000 years (a day to god is as to a thousand years…6 days thou shalt do all they labor, but the seventh is holy to God…the Millennium being a thousand year reign of God’s Kingdom…you get the picture).

    So, God is keeping a Hands Off policy in order to prove to humanity how badly they need his Divine Rule and Instruction in their lives–6,000 years of history will Prove that Man cannot rule Man.

    Of course, I would say that this is a poorly set up Scientific Experiment, b/c Satan is still free to sway humanity nearly as much as he likes (though God won’t allow Satan to influence Humans to kill themselves off as that would interfere w/ God’s Plan). So, it isn’t REALLY a fair test, is it? Now if Satan couldn’t do anything either, then we’re talking good methodology…

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  62. I am maybe half-way through the comments now…

    Quick thing I want to respond to UncleE about, concerning the Problem of Evil only being valid for believers, for how else can there be “evil”?

    One argument I heard was that atheists “know”, and all people “know” what is Good and what is Evil b/c God created us and a Moral Code Detector (or whatever) is built in. Thus, even the CONCEPTS of Good and Evil are proof of God.

    As a counter (I’ve written about this on my blog a while back), what about the Moral Revulsion many feel at the genocides in the Old Testament (sometimes with the specific instruction to save alive all women who have not “known” a man)? If what God does is Good b/c 1) God did it and it is therefore de facto good, or 2) God would not do something Evil, then why does the Moral Outrage center of our brains ring an alarm? True, for some it doesn’t, but similarly whatever Moral Outrages the Prophet Mohammed committed would bother us Infidels (Christian and Atheist alike), but not bother a Believer.

    But more than that, there clearly IS no Objective morality: Incest and Slavery are good examples. People say “God never intended homosexuality b/c it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” (same argument as concerns King David’s wives and concubines…God never intended it b/c at creation is was One Husband, One Wife). Then that shows that God DID intend Incest, as there was no other option, just as there was no other option at the time of the Flood. Additionally, the Father of the Faithful married his half-sister and not a Divine Word was uttered in condemnation. But of course now, we find that morally wrong (as well as biologically bad).

    On slavery, the OT gives instructions on the Proper way to treat and trade slaves (or to sell your daughter as a maid-servant), and the NT says “slaves, obey your masters as unto the Lord”. So, God didn’t appear to have a problem with the practice of slavery, and yet Christians (in America) congratulate themselves on being the Leaders of the Abolition movement and basing it on Christian principles.

    At the risk of being long-winded (sorry, though I see I won’t be the first…), Cannibalism is another good example. Different people view the practice with different levels of revulsion; some will do it in the most extreme need, while others would rather die of starvation than stoop that low…in the West. However, in many other parts of the world, like New Guinea, the practice was common (though only to be practiced upon the neighboring/enemy tribe and never upon your own tribe).

    These moral inconsistencies are exactly what one would expect in the absence of the god taught by the monotheisms, though I think are very difficult to explain from the other side (says I, who grew up on the other side and, like Nate, lost faith later in life).

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  63. @kcchief1: just watched the video, though the link you provided didn’t work for me (unless I wanted to buy the episode). Eventually found it, though.

    Very cool–I think I’ll post about it on my blog, the Perpetual Skeptic, as it is certainly a cautionary tale about the need for skepticism and how easily we can be fooled…and remaining “Perpetually Skeptical” is kind of my theme. 😉

    Of course, being fooled doesn’t just apply to believers. This is why some form of Scientific Method is so important–experimentation, examining the results, and then seeing if other people can independently recreate the same experimental results, as well as being receptive to alternative explanations.

    I can see the brain trick that is part of the Nostradomus predictions was at work in the church I was a part of as how we interpreted biblical prophecies. We believed in British Israelism (the US, UK, and much of western Europe are actually the Lost 10 Tribes of Israel, and Germany is the modern-day Assyrians). How? Well, this name in the bible looks a lot like this name today, a prophecy about “possessing the gates of his enemies” was interpreted as the British Empire controlling many of the most important Sea Gates (Gibralter, Suez Canal, etc), and a few other things I won’t bore you with. This line of reasoning was also used to say there is evidence that Job was actually the one who designed the Great Pyramids…even in my church days that kind of reasoning seemed a bit hard to swallow, but as it had no effect on Doctrine I just ignored it.

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  64. I have to say, I’ve never heard some of those prophecy explanations before. Of course, there are things I believed that would have sounded crazy to other people too. Guess it just shows how wildly divergent all the different sects of Christianity really are. And each one can give book, chapter, and verse for why they hold a particular doctrine… only to be shot down by a different Christian using different book, chapter, and verse.

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  65. god, in his wisdom, provided his message to us so that we, through our corruptible minds, could make the divine passages confusing so that we could then argue over who knows god better. praise the god of heaven and his baby and self jesus.

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