Mike Towers (@miketowerstweet) on Twitter has been doing Skype interviews with atheists, and had asked me to participate. I didn’t really want to do the Skype interview, but I listened to his interviews with @Stooshie and @crispysea. Mike was very respectful; he mostly just listened to what people had to say. I wrote down the questions he asked; here are my answers.
Tell me a little about yourself?
Engineer by training; always interested in science; logical, critical thinker. I’m a pretty boring guy, really. Politically liberal, personally conservative, etc.
Do you consider yourself an atheist or agnostic?
Both, but I self identify as an atheist.
Technically, I would call myself an agnostic atheist, but I think the distinction is pretty meaningless. God has been defined in such a way that he’s impossible to prove or disprove, so everyone who is honest has to admit agnosticism. People who claim to know for certain that God exists are using as evidence things like personal revelation, visions and signs and such. We know that this type of evidence convinces some people that astrology, New Age beliefs, contradictory religions, etc. are true, so we know it isn’t reliable evidence.
I don’t like the term “agnostic” by itself; I think it’s used by nonbelievers when they don’t want to argue, and by believers as a dishonest attempt to make belief look more universal than it is by dividing the world into people who believe in God vs. people who aren’t sure. The question: “Are you certain about your position on the existence of God?” only has meaning after you’ve first established what that position is, with the question “Do you believe in God?” Based on that, I would describe myself as an atheist. I don’t think anyone can claim certainty, but I certainly don’t believe in any god.
When did you become an atheist/agnostic?
I’m embarrassed to say I came to it pretty late. I went to church into my early twenties; and I maintained belief until I stopped attending. Very soon after I stopped getting that weekly reinforcement from church, I started to admit to myself that there is no evidence of a god that answers prayer and intervenes in the operation of the world. I suppose I was briefly a deist; but I don’t think I held that belief for more than a matter of weeks. I quickly came to the conclusion that the simplest and best explanation is that there is no god.
Do you consider yourself a former Christian or other religion?
Yes, I was raised Catholic and stayed in the religion until around 25. I went to church every Sunday and Holy Day for those first 25 years. I was an altar boy, went to Catholic schools, and I even wanted to be a priest when I was young, probably until puberty started and I realized celibacy is a pretty bad idea.
I never had the bad experience with religion that many Christians assume atheists had. I thought church was boring, and I never really “felt God” the way people claim they do, but I wasn’t abused by the church or anything like that. My main problem with religion is just the basic one: I don’t think it’s morally acceptable to present as fact things that you don’t (or can’t) know to be true.
Why do you not believe in God?
I’ve never seen any good reason to believe, and I have looked pretty hard, harder than most Christians have looked, I think. When I was a kid, I would ask hard questions in religion classes; the teacher would usually try to redirect, and when that failed, they would say that smart people like C.S. Lewis or Thomas Aquinas had the answers and I would see them when I was older. When I read “Mere Christianity” and saw how flawed Lewis’ logic was, I realized that they didn’t have any answers. They just try to push the questions off until you’re so invested in the religion that you’ll be willing to accept the weak answers they give.
I think when you look at the world objectively, it is completely inconsistent with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being like the Christian God is claimed to be. The counter arguments to the Argument from Evil fail miserably to explain the problem away.
What would you say to God-believers out there?
Analyze the things you believe. Stop uncritically accepting what your preacher tells you. For example, don’t just accept that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, so that when you see that the Bible conflicts with reality, you must conclude that reality is wrong. Recognize that if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’d almost certainly be using the same logic to argue that Islam/Quran is true and Christianity is false. Think about how you would convince an outsider, someone who had never heard of your god, that your beliefs are correct. Don’t rely on the Bible’s authority.
Are you mad at God?
No, you can’t be mad at something if you don’t believe it exists.
Do you hate the Christian God at all?
Same answer as above. I don’t hate Darth Vader or Sauron and I don’t hate God. I think the character is pretty despicable as written, but no more so than other god myths. If I thought God existed, I would be trying pretty hard to hide my opinion that he’s a monster so he wouldn’t read my thoughts and burn me.
Should I stop believing in God, or stay the way I am?
I’m not here to tell Christians what to do. I’m here to counter people who’ll tell you to accept things on faith, and that they know what a god is thinking and that you need to do what they say. But if you care that the things that you believe are true, then yes, you should stop believing in anything that you accept without good evidence.
Have you or do you currently read the Bible or any religious books?
Unlike most Christians, I read the Bible cover to cover when I was 12 or 13. It always amazes me how many people claim that they believe that the Bible is the One True God’s inerrant Word, and don’t actually read it. I don’t think it’s possible to really believe that way; if you thought it was God word, you would read it, from start to finish, not just the parts that your preacher cherry picks for you.
I use Bible Gateway all the time in my debates with Christians; I particularly like Net Bible (https://net.bible.org/) with its original Greek and Hebrew available with word for word translation.
If you could recommend any one book, what would it be?
To convince people religion is false? The Bible. Isaac Asimov said, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” If you can detach yourself from what you’ve been indoctrinated with your whole life, that idea that the Bible is God’s Word, and just take it on its own merit, I think it will be clear that the Bible is perfectly consistent with the work of Bronze Age men and completely inconsistent with the inspired word of God. Until you bring in a lot of rationalization and excuses, there’s nothing supernatural about the Bible. None of the prophecies are remotely convincing, and some (like the destruction of Tyre) clearly prove the Bible false.
Have you ever heard of “presuppositional apologetics”?
Yes. To me, it’s simply a refusal to discuss the idea of God rationally by claiming that you can’t be rational without God. Presuppositionalism is the philosophical equivalent of saying “I’m taking my ball and going home” when it wasn’t even your ball.
The core idea of critical thinking is to question everything, and see which things can be supported by evidence and reason and which can’t. When you do that, you’ll come down to certain basic things that you can’t prove or disprove, like “I’m not a brain in a vat.” There’s no way we know of to prove that we aren’t, so we accept the appearance that we are not and move on. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t a possibility that we are brains in vats, just that there isn’t any reason to believe we are, and no way to prove we’re not. So you have to accept that idea as unprovable, but the whole point is to make as few of those unprovable assumptions as possible.
Presuppositionalists try to claim that God’s existence is one of those core ideas you just have to accept, but it isn’t. Believers just present the claim that way because there’s no evidence to support it; not because it couldn’t have evidence in principle. We all get our information through our senses, so we are all vulnerable to the brain in a vat problem. We do not all have the experience that there is a God, and in fact it’s hard to find two believers who have the same experience. When I look at reality, I don’t see a god. You may look at the same type of input and say that you do see God. The way you come to believe in God is not through some unknown mystical process; it’s through input from your senses and the conclusions you draw from them. You read the Bible, you hear what your parents tell you, or you take input from your senses and run it though some reasoning process like the Cosmological Argument that’s available to atheists to critique. People believe for different reasons, but it is usually along the lines of questions that they can’t answer that they feel God is the best answer for, and personal experiences, like the way they feel when they pray which they interpret as God’s presence. Both involve getting information through their senses. I look at the same evidence and I don’t see God.
The way rational people settle disputes is with evidence and reason. Presuppositionalists simply refuse to discuss why they might be wrong. I saw the Sye Ten Bruggencate debate with Matt Dilahunty, and thought Bruggencate acted like a child. Instead of answering any question Matt asked him, he just kept saying Matt couldn’t prove he wasn’t a brain in a vat, as if we wouldn’t notice that Sye couldn’t either. He just declared by fiat that he wasn’t. (Note: I am NOT recommending that anyone watch this debate.)
It’s a fair point that the people best qualified to assess the idea of presuppositionalism would be professional philosophers. The majority of philosophers are atheist, and I don’t think any substantial proportion of the minority believers are presuppositionalists, so clearly philosophers don’t take the idea seriously.
I’d like to read you a Bible passage. Is that ok? Romans 1: 18-21 — Do you agree or disagree with that?
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.
You’re basically asking me whether I agree that I am a liar. This verse is pure ad hominem. It says “If anyone claims they don’t believe what I say is true, it is because they are liars that really know I’m right.” This is not the kind of thing that people who are telling the truth say. If I said “You know there’s no god, but you’re just a liar that wants to make a living on religion”, I think you might call me unkind. I would not say that. When I’m telling you the truth, and you question it, I provide reasons to believe that what I say is the truth. It’s pointless and childish to say your opponent is a liar who knows you’re right.
Think about what this verse is actually saying. It’s saying the atheist 93% of the National Academy of Sciences members know that God exists and will torture them infinitely for denying it, but they deny it anyway because they want to sleep in on Sundays or smoke crack or whatever. It’s not an idea worthy of debate. It’s just the kind of thing you say when you have no argument.
It strikes me as odd that Christians put Paul’s word at the same level as Jesus’, and sometimes even use Paul to override Jesus. Paul was a man who never met Jesus when he was alive. It makes no sense to accept Paul’s word as inerrant. If, in another thousand years, another Christian writer’s words get accepted into the Bible, will they become inerrant? Christians often reject questioning of the Bible by saying “it’s man’s word against God’s word”. This ignores the fact that the Bible is ALL man’s word; the question is whether it is true or inspired.
Is there anything in the Bible you strongly disagree with?
There are certainly some good things in the Bible, but so much bad: slavery and genocide, treatment of women, foreigners, and non-believers…
To pick a few things to focus on, the worst of Jesus’ teachings is Hell. Infinite punishment for finite or trivial crime is infinitely unjust. Then there’s the idea of thought crime: if you even think about a woman with desire it’s the same as adultery, so you can be sentenced to infinite punishment for something you can’t even control.
One of my least favorite things in the Bible is reliance on faith. It just seems so obvious that the only people who tell you to take things on faith are people who are lying to you. I might occasionally be a bit hurt by having my honesty questioned, but I wouldn’t be afraid of having my claims checked out unless I had something to hide.
It makes no sense that God would make a universe where you are continually punished for taking things on faith in every area of life, and then demand faith in one area only: belief in God. When you’re walking near a cliff, do you accept without evidence that you won’t fall off, or do you open your eyes and look for the edge? When someone tells you they have a bridge to sell, do you give him your life’s savings on faith, or research the deal so you don’t get scammed?
Accepting things on faith, meaning without evidence, is a sure way to get stung over and over in the world that we live in. Yet Christians believe that, for some unknown reason, God decided that this was the most important thing for people to do, to use faith in this one area only. It sounds a lot like what the guy with the bridge to sell would tell you, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Do you ever debate religion/existence of God with anybody?
All the time; it’s my sole purpose on Twitter. I’m an idea Darwinist. I think the best ideas should survive, so I want to put my ideas to the test. I will debate religion with anyone who will engage. I started out trying to understand why intelligent people believe in something that is so obviously false to me. I have refined my ideas and learned a lot more about religion and philosophy from the experience, but no one has ever given me the slightest reason to believe that the Christian god exists.
Most don’t even try to argue for Christianity. Some are just rude and insulting, but most either ask me to disprove God, or they argue for deism. The problem with that is that deism is closer to my position than it is to Christianity. Think about it: if tomorrow we find out we’re both wrong and deism has the correct answer, whose life would change more? I’d say “Wow, I was wrong about a creator god” and not change anything else about my life. A Christian’s whole basis for life would have to change.
Have Christians ever tried talking to you about becoming a Christian?
Well, I was Christian for 25 years or so. I live on earth, so we know that Mormons & Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door. Christians on Twitter often ignore the points being made against them and tell me to just give up on logic and rationality and believe in their God.
Are you open to the existence of a God?
I am open to anything that is supported by evidence. As far as being open to the existence of the Christian God, I guess I’d say I’m as open to that as I am to the idea of a flat earth. I’ll accept it if good evidence is provided, but I don’t think that it’s possible.
If you discovered that Christianity was true, would you believe it and become a Christian?
Of course. I don’t know what it means to not believe something that I know is true. I would start trying to convince myself that God wasn’t an immoral monster, so I could avoid the eternal torture.