Jerry DeWitt is a former Pentecostal minister from Louisiana who began questioning his faith when he was in the pulpit. Yikes! As a PK (that’s “preacher’s kid,” for the uninformed) of an evangelical pastor who had a church about an hour south from Jerry, I can to some degree appreciate that situation. Listening to Jerry speak, the cadence of his speech, he reminds me of my Dad. His book, Hope After Faith is on my “to read” list.
Over on Facebook today, Jerry DeWitt posted a link to a Today Christian article, “10 Questions for Every Atheist.” I’ve never done one of these things, and thought it would be fun. So here goes, starting with the author’s intro:
Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions… [sic]
That’s the lovely thing about atheists and skeptics in general: we love questions. LOVE them. For some of us, myself included, it was asking questions in the first place that opened the door to realizing and embracing our non-belief. You got questions? Bring ’em on!
1. How Did You Become an Atheist?
I answered this in some detail here, but the short version is, in my youth I studied the Bible and had a difficult time reconciling the inconsistencies I found. In college humanities and religion classes I found verification of what I had begun to suspect: the Bible is not the inerrant word of God, but the very fallible word of man. Men whose cultural and social realities were vastly different from my own. That was the start.
2. What happens when we die?
The impact we’ve made on others, the daubs of paint we’ve left on the canvas of their lives continues on. I’m a writer, and I enjoy meeting my audience after a play. Every now and then someone will grasp my hand, look me in the eye, and thank me. Someone will give me sincere thanks, because I touched something deep inside them with my words. That lives on.
Family and friends who know me, who may have taken on one of my mannerisms without realizing it, they carry me forward. Long after my name and my face is forgotten, the ripples that extend outward from my tiny little drop in the ocean of life will continue, intermingling with the waves, becoming an everlasting part of the seamless volume.
That’s pretty damn majestic, if you ask me.
3. What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
If I’m wrong, and the capacity for reason and free will that I was given by a god has led me to doubt his/her/its very existence, I would hope he/she/it’d be okay with that. Otherwise, God is a giant bully forcing you to punch yourself in the head over and over while laughing and saying, “Why are you hitting yourself?” If that’s the case, an eternity worshiping that sort of god would be Hell.
Besides, everything you thought you knew about Hell is wrong.
4. Without God, where do you get your morality from?
I think it’s a combination of nature and nurture. Certain aspects of morality — the Golden Rule, for instance — stem from basic human empathy. That’s cooked into our DNA. Empathy is a boon to survival, and our capacity for it is a result of natural selection. We’re not alone, by the way. There are studies out there about how other animals exhibit what we would call “moral behavior.” That’s half of my answer, nature.
The nurture part is rooted in language and cultural memory. We know to do or not to do certain things because there is a long oral and written tradition of following certain mores. Religion is a big propagator of this sort of morality, but it is rooted in the experiential knowledge of our forebears, not some divine inspiration. For instance, some caveman family lost a child to a saber-toothed tiger, and told their other children, “ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS,” or somesuch. The advice gets passed down through the ages and becomes something like, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” The knowledge is passed down through language, but it’s still a form of nurture.
I think a better question would be, “Without God, from where would you get your morality?” But I’ll get to that with the next question.
5. If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
To paraphrase Penn Jillette, I murder and rape as many people as I want to, which is none. That’s what my morality dictates. How about your belief in God? Are you free to murder and rape? Give Judges 21:10-24 a read. Or Numbers 31:7-18. As long as you have His blessing, it would appear so.
6. If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
I’ve heard atheists answer this one before by talking about their family, friends, interests in life, etc. That’s all true, and it’s a great answer, but I can’t help but think this is like a Star Trek enthusiast in full Klingon make-up and costume, asking a non-Trek fan, “How does your life have any meaning?” — in perfect Klingon. Or a kid asking another kid, “How do you ride a bicycle without any training wheels?”
In a way, I could say I define the meaning I have in life, but that’s not wholly accurate. I have goals and aspirations and dreams. I also have friends and family. I also have demands on my time and my wallet. It all kind of churns together into this thing we call “Life.” It’s a tautology, but you’re used to those, so here goes: Life has meaning because it’s life.
7. Where did the universe come from?
That’s a great question, one that has inspired and motivated people since the dawn of time to create, explore, extrapolate, puzzle, fret, invent the arts, invent philosophy, invent mathematics, invent the sciences, and continue to press ever forward to find an answer. Following scientific developments (I recommend I Fucking Love Science) I think we’re getting closer and closer to an answer every day. At the very least, we’re chipping away at the unknown with wild abandon. It’s an exciting time to be alive!
In all honesty I’d rather not know, and know that I don’t know, than tie it all up in a neat little “God did it,” and leave it at that. I’m fascinated by the unknown.
8. What about miracles? What all the people who claim
to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have
seen saints or angels?
I don’t know what other people have experienced. My father-in-law claims to have seen a UFO land about 20 feet away. Maybe he did, probably he didn’t. I like to hear him tell the story, even if I don’t believe it actually happened. I’ve known people who claimed to have super spiritual powers, but I never witnessed anything other than self-fulfilling prophecies and the occasional coincidence.
In order to believe something, I require some level of evidence. That’s all.
9. What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
I haven’t read any of them. Hitchens I’ve seen in interviews, and I really like his style.
Actually, I take it back: I have read a little Hitchens. He was a big supporter of the War on Terror and apologist for “enhanced interrogation.” It’s not torture, he maintained. He was willing to back up his claim, by being waterboarded:
Needless to say, he sang a different tune after this experience.
Why do I bring this up? Hitchens was willing to test his assertions, to be wrong, and to change his mind. The intellectual honesty that requires is staggering.
10. If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?
One of the wonderful things about how our minds work is our capacity for finding patterns. The problem is, we sometimes “find” patterns where they don’t exist. Remember the “face” on Mars? A low-res photo from an early probe returned this image:
It’s a face!
Many years later, a probe with a better camera returned this image:
Whoops, maybe not.
When we don’t have all the answers, we invent them. Read Ovid’s Metamorphoses as an example of what I’m talking about. Or remember your own childhood, and the monsters you feared in the dark, because you heard a noise or saw a shadow on the wall. Perhaps you’d call out, and a parent would explain the source of the noise or turn on the lights, exposing the source of the shadow. Until you knew the truth, you made up your own truth.
I can’t express how liberating it is to admit you just don’t know, and to demand some level of evidence to support supernatural claims. No more mental gymnastics to justify the horrible stuff in the “good” book. A shift of focus away from “my” experience and “my” relationship with an imaginary god and towards actually helping other people.
But hey, to each his own. I know how scary it is to ask questions. It takes a force of will to really, truthfully evaluate what others have told you your entire life. I don’t begrudge people their comfort, but I do get concerned when ignorance threatens my liberty.