Atheism/Atheism

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Question
Hi!  I am quite aware of probing questions that atheists can ask of believers, and to the best of my knowledge, there are no good answers to these questions, in the Bible or otherwise.  It is primarily on this basis that I join you in rejecting Pascal's wager, and lean heavily towards atheism.  However, I am also struck by the fact that there may well also be questions that believers can ask of atheists that cannot be answered so easily (fortunately, the believers with whom I have argued have never brought these issues up, and the ones they do bring up are easily refuted).  Ideally, for me to fully embrace atheism, I would need a prosaic explanation for all that appears in the Bible, and all the history that surrounds it.  The History Channel had a nice special on how each of the ten plagues followed from the prior ones (in other words, these could be explained without reference to a supreme being).  But what is not so easily explained is the fact that so many believers were willing to martyr themselves.  A simplistic argument would be that 1) these early church goers were much closer to Jesus than I am 2000 years later, so they would be in a better position to decide on the merits of the belief system and 2) they were willing to die for the cause, so clearly they did believe in it, hence 3) I should too.  Now I am aware that their prospects for a long and happy life were not great even if they did not martyr themselves, and also as I understand it Jesus was just a man until Constantine said otherwise in the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, so what they were believing in was not the same as what passes for those beliefs today.  Still, I would love to hear your views on this matter.  Thank you very much.

Answer
Hello Vance, thanks for the questions. I'm no history expert, but I think I've managed to address you philosophical concerns while the limits on my historical knowledge clear. Please don't hesitate to send a follow-up if needed.


The “History” Channel:
I wouldn't, in general, put that much stock in the accuracy of ideas promoted by the History channel. In addition to simply removing much of its solid historical content, and instead has promoted baseless conspiracy theories such as Kennedy assassination [1], ancient aliens [2], UFO claims [3], Nostradamus [4], Da Vinci Code rip-offs, Mayan 2012 Doomsday [5]. The special that you are referring to may have been “The Exodus Decoded” [6], a movie that belongs in the same category as the other conspiracy theories that creatively abuse historical themes, not the serious insight by legitimate historical experts. It's been criticized on evidence, by experts in the field here [7]. here [8], and here [9].

So the historical details matter and they don't just fit the supernatural narrative given in the Bible (including whether there was even a mass exodus of Jewish people out of Egypt [10]). There are plenty of people who have tried to reconcile the clear conflict between the scientific and the supernatural by trying to explain the fantastic tales of religion as a series of unlikely historical accidents and bizarre physical events. Even if the story these people write is technically possible (I'm not aware of a good example), the result of their mental gymnastics fails to be plausible. Rather than an unlikely series of technically possible events, the best explanation will still be that the supernatural stories are just untrue stories that got retold because they are interesting, moralistic, or well-written. Anything else would agree with the laws of physics, but not the rules of empiricism that helped us find the laws of physics in the first place.

We can describe the solution here in terms of the principle of parsimony[11], “A theory that explains more or assumes less is a superior theory to one that explains less or assumes more” [12]. We already know that untrue fantastical stories have been retold by ancient people, so we don't have to assume anything more to explain Exodus as just another one of those stories. Whereas to take the descriptions of the ten plagues literately is to posit atypical meteorological and biological phenomenon while leaving it still a mystery why those events are not better recorded in other historical sources.


Early Christian History in a Paragraph:
First of all I should say that I am not really an expert on the fine details of early Christian history, but let me just state the summary of what I understand happened to make sure we are on the same page. Early Christianity was one of many Jewish cults who claimed to have found a Messiah with a new theological revelation that would be relevant to the conflict the groups faced with the Roman ruling power. Early Christianity was marked by the deaths of many of its members at the hands of the Roman ruling power, and the Early Christians did their best to immortalize those stories as inspiration to current and future Christians. Some of those who died were persecuted by the Romans to establish dominance over the Christian heretics, some of those who died during violent rebellions against Roman forces, and some of those who died sought out their own death as the ultimate fulfillment of their religious beliefs. This continued for about three centuries as Christianity distinguished itself from Judaism, started to write/collect a Biblical canon, and spread through the Roman empire (they decided Jewish heritage was not a requirement for membership). Then Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (or was raised with Christian beliefs by his mother), and decided to stop persecuting Christianity and start promoting it. Christianity became a centralized force organizing the European continent in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. Crusades, Protestant Reformation, Enlightenment, Colonization of the Americas, and now its on the Internet.


Martyrdom- Devotion or Knowledge?:
Your argument for Christianity from Martyrdom relies on this idea that “devotion to a cause is connected to knowledge that the cause is just”. It might not be a bad heuristic to use when you know nothing else about a situation, but fails to be a compelling way to decide when there is better information available. For instance if I turned a corner and saw a crowd of diverse individuals running as fast as they can, I might not wait to discover what they are running from before joining them in fleeing from whatever danger that might be there. But if I discover these people were trampling each other to be the first to claim a flat-screen marked 20% off during a holiday sale, I would be disgusted that they lacked the wisdom to direct their passions towards a more worthwhile cause. So to make a decision about someone else's devotion is essentially to outsource your decision to someone with strong opinions. In this past AllExperts post [13], I argue that one should not accept an idea without critically examining it even from a person who is very well-respected.

I believe that “Getting someone to agree with your ideas on the basis of your sincerity and not on the basis of a critical evaluation of your ideas” has been the game religion has played from the very beginning. What else could it mean to “have faith” then to attempt an emotional display of religious commitment without actually having any evidence that would justify the action? It is a strategy to trick other people into thinking that you know something that you really don't (while perhaps hoping they will return the favor by tricking you into thinking that you know something that you really don't).  If religion were real it might instead have a tradition of testing, careful documentation, and independent confirmation.

As for examples of humans willing to die for a cause, unfortunately the examples one could provide are boundless. How many soldiers have willingly marched to their death in service to their nation? We may say the soldiers believe their nation is ethically superior to the nation of their enemy, but that nation has soldiers of their own marching because they believe just the opposite? Is the self-sacrifice in the conflict between the Christian cult and the Roman Empire fundamentally any different from the self-sacrifice required in World War II? Why should Christian deaths indicate the validity of Christianity but Roman deaths wouldn't indicate the validity of the Roman gods? Sadly it must be acknowledged that there are many times peoples have amassed to kill or die for beliefs that are ultimately untrue or causes that are ultimately unjust.

And there are also many examples of followers dying for their religious beliefs at a time very close to the religion's founding. For example 39 members of a religion called Heaven's Gate committed suicide [14] because they were so fervently devoted to their religion, all of whom were alive when the religion was founded. You may object to the implication that this cult is similar to Christianity, but my point is that if people can be persuaded to kill themselves for no (earthly) reason than they can certainly be pushed by religion into to violently protest oppression or sacrifice themselves for the sake of their neighborhoods.


Links:
[1] http://hnn.us/articles/4504.html
[2] http://ancientaliensdebunked.com/
[3] http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/ufo_hunters_debacle/
[4] http://nostraeffect.blogspot.com/
[5] http://www.alignment2012.com/historychannel.html
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Exodus_Decoded
[7] http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/09/debunking-the-exodus-decoded.aspx
[8] http://drchris.me/higgaion/?page_id=141
[9] http://www.romesburg.com/exodus/index.html
[10] http://www.skepticblog.org/2010/02/04/more-on-ancient-jews-pyramids-pharaohs-and
[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parsimony
[12] “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” - Carl Sagan
[13] http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/2009/12/Response-Testimony.htm
[14] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_suicide

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Jeffrey Ellsworth

Expertise

I am well versed on the arguments for both sides about the existence of God and am especially aware of the philosophical ramifications and psychological reactions to atheism. Also, if you have a question about atheism as that pertains to Science or Skepticism, I may be an especially good pick. However my knowledge of non-Judeo-Christian religions and Biblical archaeology is generally limited to knowledge about directions to more informative resources.

Experience

I've been an atheist for 14 years now, open about it for 9 years after being raised in a Roman Catholic family. In that time I have held many different philosophical perspective on the subject and had different emotional and psychological reactions to atheism. I have absorbed many internet articles, video debates, atheist publications, and secular podcasts in my process of understanding and supporting the atheist movement. I routinely hold conversations on the subject.

Publications
One article in If Journal, an interfaith publication.

Education/Credentials
I have a BS in Physics and Mathematics from the College of William & Mary I am pursuing my Ph.D in Physics at Indiana University at Bloomington. I have very little formal training in philosophy or sociology.

Awards and Honors
I was president of the William & Mary Students for Science & Secularism before graduating.

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