Stalin False Equivalence

A few weeks ago, I posted The Hitler Canard, wherein I replied to theists who point to Hitler as an example of godless morality at its most extreme. I showed that Hitler was actually a devout Christian who explicitly stated he was acting on the behalf of God and Christ.

A few theists replied to that post by bringing up Stalin. “What about Stalin? He was a genocidal dictator who really was an atheist, wasn’t he?”

Yes. As far as historians can tell, Stalin was indeed an atheist.

However, equating Hitler and Stalin this way is a false equivalence, because there’s a critical difference between the two: Hitler committed his actions in the name of his religion. By his own words, he committed atrocities for religious purposes. Stalin, on the other hand, may have been an atheist, but he was not slaughtering people in the name of atheism. He wasn’t committing atrocities to further atheism. He may have considered atheism expedient to his other goals, but it was not the goal on its own. This doesn’t make Stalin any less of a monster, but it also doesn’t implicate atheism in the same way it implicates religion.

Indeed, there have been many acts of mass slaughter committed for religious reasons, such as the Inquisition, the Witch Hunts, and the Crusades. Yet, there have never been any similar mass slaughters committed for the sake of atheism. Whereas religion has been a motivating factor for genocides on numerous occasions — as far is is known, atheism has never been a motivating factor for any genocides in history, even if some atheists have committed genocide. Neither atheism nor theism has consistently people prevented from committing genocide — but theism has incited people to genocide, while atheism has not.

As I said in the Hitler post, lunatics come in all stripes, and I don’t really think focusing on the theological inclinations of those who commit genocide is a productive line of argument, regardless whether you’re arguing for theism or atheism. But since people specifically asked me this question about Stalin, there’s your answer.

Questions from Theists: Who Are You to Judge God?

It’s not uncommon for theists to be taken aback when I criticize the alleged words, actions, and plans of their purported gods (such as here). Which often leads them to ask me….

Question(s):

Who are you to judge God and his actions?

Who are you to criticize God?

Who are you to question the wisdom of God?

etc.

Answer:

I’m someone who strives to live compassionately and rationally, in an effort to be good to others and myself. Such striving requires critically examining claims about truth, knowledge, morality, and purpose — such as the claims people make to me about gods, scriptures, and religions. We’re bombarded with many different claims of these types, and the only way to sort the worthier ones from the lesser ones is to be critical about them.

To be clear, when I render such criticism, I don’t think I’m actually criticizing God. I think I’m merely criticizing people’s claims about God. That said, I would criticize God, if He existed, and if (in my best estimation) his words and actions warranted criticism.

Any god worthy of my respect would appreciate the necessity of putting claims to the test and seeing how they hold up, to separate real ones from false ones, and would not have a problem with people honestly striving for truth the best they can.

If a god is indeed all-knowing and wise, loving and benevolent, and perfect in its plans and actions, then it should be able to come through such scrutiny without any problems. If my examinations of a god you make claims about do turn up issues of injustice, malevolent acts, and erroneous declarations, then the problem isn’t that I criticized your god, the problem is either with your dubious god or with you for worshipping it.

You might say that I cannot assess your god because your god is incomprehensible, and works in mysterious ways. However, if that is true, then you can’t assess your god either, and thus have no grounds for any claims that your god is wise, good, or whatever else. In any case, our limited mental faculties are what we have to help us navigate through the world, and we’re better off using them the best we can, rather than neglecting them because they’re not perfect.

I may not be immune to making errors when applying my critical faculties, but at least the critical process is more reliable than simply taking every claim and assertion that comes my way on faith. So, I’ll dare to judge claims about gods and their actions, while keeping my determinations, themselves, open to criticism and revision. If your god actually exists and actually is good and wise, it’ll understand.

 

Questions from Theists: How Did You Become an Atheist?

Question: How did you become an atheist?

Answer:

Many atheists are ex-theists, with brilliant deconversion stories, such as this one. However, I am not one of them, and I have no such interesting story. Here is my dull non-story.

I never became an atheist. Becoming an atheist requires making a transition from being a theist. Since children are born atheists, i.e., they are born free from any theistic beliefs until such beliefs are inculcated into them, any theist had to become a theist, making a transition from her or his starting point as an atheist. I never became a theist. and so I never became an atheist, once again. I simply started as an atheist, and remained one.

My parents were not religious, and religious belief was simply not a part of my toddler years. My first encounter with religion came from my neighbors, when I was around three or four. I was living in an apartment building in Santa Monica, and one of the neighbors was a little girl named Amber, whom I often played with. One day, Amber’s family took me with them to church / Sunday school. I don’t know why or how my parents agreed to this, but somehow that’s what happened.

When I got to church, they told me some of the typical Christian stuff — about how there was an invisible, all-powerful man who lived in the sky who created everyone and everything; and how I and everyone else was born bad because Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge when a talking snake tempted them; and God’s son died for my badness and then rose from the dead; and Jesus’s blood would wash me clean if I accepted him; and so on. And even at that age, first I thought these people were joking with me; then I thought they were lying to me; then I thought they were crazy. Even as a preschooler, I was amazed that they were so unable to tell make-believe from reality, stunned that they did not understand these were just tall tales.

As I got older, I encountered ever more people who were progressively more insistent about their beliefs in invisible, all-powerful overlords who controlled everything, and who demanded my conviction, praise, submission, and and servitude. I became more aware that what these people told me didn’t add up, and more acutely cognizant that they couldn’t substantiate any of it in the slightest, and more attuned to how distasteful I found the underlying premises and the implications.

My parents sent me to Hebrew school. I disliked it, and found it unproductive.

Eventually, I started to approach the age where people in my life wanted me to be bar mitzvahed. I refused, because I did not believe. The rabbi at my Hebrew school repeatedly took me aside and told me I had to do this. He asked me to promise him. I refused. I eventually quit Hebrew school. My parents hired a private Hebrew and Judaism tutor named Bruce. That went nowhere. My Pa’sMa and Pa’sPa accused me of just being rebellious, and asked me why I always had to be so difficult. My Ma’sMa let me know there would be good rewards if I got bar mitzvahed, like my brother had received. But I still refused, because I didn’t believe in the doctrines. I never got bar mitzvahed, to most everyone’s minor disappointment.

As I grew up, I came to see ever more of the negatives associated with religions, and how much they outweighed the purported positives of religions. I saw the harm religions did to some of the people close to me, and the harm religions did to people all over the world. I’ve been an open nonbeliever and outspoken critic of religions since my adolescence or earlier, and now I’m using this blog as my platform.

I’m not mad at God — a popular notion theists have about atheists, which contradicts itself. You could be mad at people who use their religious beliefs against you, but how could you be mad at a purported entity you don’t think exists? Nor have I ever had any major emotional trauma from religion, as many theists seem to suspect is the case for outspoken atheists. Just a constant stream of minor incidents of exposure to theistic illogic, bigotry, and imposition. Neither did I have any moment when my faith shattered. There was never any such faith, to begin with. Simply, no one could ever present a sound reason why I should be persuaded by their religious beliefs, and so I never believed.

Not much of a story, since I was never a believer, but there it is.

Questions from Theists: How Can the Universe be So Finely Tuned for Life?

When I launched this website a week ago, publishing my About page, I almost immediately got a comment from a theist, arguing in favor of theism. His comment made several different kinds of points in rapid succession. While each assertion and each question deserved its own considered reply, unfortunately, the flurry of them all at once made it hard to do justice to any of them. Assertions can usually be conveyed in a sentence or two, while countering them with substantive arguments takes much longer.

One of the things he asked was this:

How come the world fits together so exactly? If the Earth was a meter closer to the sun, life would not be sustainable, for example.

I picked this one section out, because I knew I could give a quick correction, and — regrettably — was too flippant about the underlying point, that he was asking how the universe can be so finely tuned for life to exist, without an intelligent, omnipotent force (i.e., God) designing the universe for life. I answered that part as follows:

This is false. The Earth has an elliptical orbit, not a circular one. The average distance of the Earth from the sun is ~92,918,000 miles. The Earth’s farthest point from the sun this year is 94,506,507 miles. The Earth’s closest point to the sun this year is 91,401,343 miles. So as you can see, in January, Earth was about one and a half million miles closer to the sun than the average, and right now we’re about one and a half million miles farther away from the sun than average.

He replied to this as follows:

OK, don’t take it as the exact one meter, take it as the principle of the way it works exactly with the seasons, the earth at a certain axle making the seasons as they are, the complete situation that works exactly like it should and with one of these missing it would not work at all.

There are many arguments to be made about fine-tuning, on both sides, and I gave him a several part reply. I’m not going to quote that reply, here, but instead give a similar, expanded and rewritten, reply, for any readers here who have these kinds of questions. [I might also make more posts on the topic, later, and / or add more to this post, since there are many other relevant arguments besides what I included here.] I can’t be certain that this response perfectly suits the gentleman who originally commented, but it might be relevant for readers who are interested in the fine-tuning argument.

(A) Let’s begin by noting how far off the original assertion was:

We don’t know how exactly how much nearer nor farther the Earth could be from the sun while still sustaining life, but we know that the nearest and farthest that the Earth was to the sun this year give us minimum bounds. The numbers are at least this much, and maybe more.

There are 1,609.34 meters per mile, and the difference between the nearest and furthest distances from the sun that the Earth is, this year, comes out to 3,105,164 miles.

3,105,164 x 1,609.34 = 4,997,264,631.76

So, the assertion was off by literally just shy of five-hundred-billion percent, at the very minimum.

I must respectfully suggest to those who both favor the fine-tuning argument and who also use the “meter closer to the sun” example, that finding out one of your primary examples is off by at least five-hundred-billion percent, might be cause for you to reconsider what you know about the topic.

(B) To the best of our knowledge, the universe as a whole appears to be incredibly hostile to life as we know it. The empty stretches of vacuum are almost unimaginably vast, with just tiny spots of matter here and there in between all of the emptiness. The temperature of the universe, on average, is barely above absolute zero. There’s harmful cosmic radiation almost everywhere. If the universe were finely tuned for life by an omnipotent creator, one might expect most of the universe to be habitable, and for life to be flourishing everywhere — an endless grassy plain or woodland, full of all variety of creatures, or something akin to that. Instead, we find that life is almost nowhere. I have heard it said that if the universe were a house, the area habitable for life as we know it would be equivalent to about one atom within that entire house. That’s obviously a very loose analogy, but it’s enough to help one grasp that life as we know it is hardly prospering as we might expect in a universe designed for such life.

(C) The “finely-tuned world is evidence of God,” argument undermines itself.

Why would God need to fine-tune the universe, or our little part of it? What is the reason for fine-tuning?

Think about an architect fine-tuning a house design, or electronics engineers fine-tuning a laptop computer design, or automotive engineers fine-tuning a car design. Architects have to fine-tune houses to make everything that must go into them (such as toilets, oven, electrical wiring, etc.) fit inside the available space, and then they have to fine tune the size of the house itself to fit within the size of the property; they have to fine tune the home to be affordable within the area where it’s being built, to handle the weight of the materials the house is made out of and perhaps handle the weight of things like snow loads on the roof, to withstand the stresses of earthquakes, to withstand local weather patterns, and so on. Electronics engineers have to fine-tune laptop computer designs to accommodate the weight limits of what a person can comfortably carry, the heat a chip can handle, the capacity a battery can store, the cost of memory, and the like. Automotive engineers have to fine tune cars to accommodate how much steel weighs, how strong plastics are, how wide street lanes are, how much air resistance impedes thrust, and the like. Simply put, the only reason one ever fine-tunes anything is because there are external factors that one does not and cannot control. Especially physics and economics. Why don’t architects just design houses with more space on the inside than they take up on the outside, that cost pennies to manufacture? Why don’t electronics engineers make laptop computers that can store an infinite amount of data and never run out of power? Why don’t automotive engineers design cars that travel at the speed of light and can withstand any crash? Because they can’t circumvent the way the world is.

An omnipotent God, on the other hand, would be under no such constraints. He could do whatever He wants. Thus, He would have no need for fine-tuning. He could, for example, just make people fireproof and shockproof by divine will, instead. (After all, gods routinely do miracles which defy physics as we know it, in many of the world’s sacred religious texts.)

Even so, you might think, perhaps God was just in the mood for some fine-tuning, anyway. But this still implies that the world had pre-existing characteristics that were outside of God’s creation. Furthermore, unnecessary fine-tuning would come at steep costs. Think about a laptop computer with infinite data storage capacity, infinite processing speed, and infinite battery power, in comparison to the laptops we have. Likewise, for a god to fine-tune a creation to operate within external factors, rather than divinely will a creation with impunity toward external factors, would be to greatly compromise the design from the absolute best possible, to the best possible within the severe constraints.

If God had to fine-tune the universe, it’s because He was restricted in what He was able to do. He was not omnipotent to make things any way He wanted. And the more fine-tuning was necessary, the more external factors must have been out of His control pressuring the directions of his choices, and the less powerful God was to make things His way. When you start contending that staggeringly huge levels of fine-tuning were required, you are necessarily arguing that God’s creative powers were infinitesimally small. It’s an argument that the way that the world is, was entirely outside of His influence, while God had no choice.

Questions from Theists: What are the Tenets of Atheism?

Question:

What are the tenets of atheism? If all atheism is about is not being a believer of a religion, or being against religion, then what are the principles of atheism? What do atheists stand for?

Answer:

Atheists are not one organized group, and thus they have no semblance of an agreed upon, homogenous set of tenets. Atheists are simply all the people without any theistic beliefs. Each one may have her or his own views and values. They each stand for whatever they individually find important. Like many others, they often stand for things like liberty, equality, and kindness toward others.

In my personal experience, most atheists prefer rationality to faith (which is not necessarily to say that they are always good at being rational), and prefer humanistic morality to theistic morality*. That probably also holds true as a broad generalization, but don’t expect every atheist to hold those views.

 

* I’ll have more to say about what rationality means, and what humanism means, in future posts.

Questions from Theists: Why Don’t More People Read the Bible?

Editorial note: One of the ongoing features on this website will be answering questions I come across, asked by theists. I may slightly modify these questions, for brevity and clarity, but these are their real questions. I will be providing straight answers, from my atheistic perspective. This particular question wasn’t addressed to me, but it’s a question I see believers ask often on religious forums.

Question:

Why do millions of people read bestsellers, cover to cover, but hardly anybody actually reads through the Bible?

Answer:

People read books for reasons such as enjoyment, catharsis, and knowledge. Hundreds of millions of people read the Harry Potter series because the books are entertaining, imaginative, emotionally engaging, resonant with themes that matter to readers, and occasionally wise. They read The Language Instinct because it’s fascinating, intellectually stimulating, full of useful information that helps people better understand ourselves and our world, and good fun.

Conversely, they don’t read the Bible because the Bible is none of those things. People don’t read it because, on some level, they recognize it for what it is. False. Ignorant. Barbaric. Irrelevant to their lives.

If people considered the Bible a worthwhile read, they’d read it. It’s that simple.

That’s not to say there are no beautiful passages, interesting metaphors, or pearls of genuine wisdom in the Bible. There are a few — remarkably few — here and there. But you have to wade through endless rubbish to get to them. Such as the many passages of God’s unparalleled cruelty, like thisthis, and this. And the God-commanded and God-enabled genocides, so myriad that the anonymous Bible authors sometimes had to just compile them into lists, such as this, rather than give full accounts for each. And the numerous divine legal codes ordering execution of non-virginal brides, stubborn kids, witches, blasphemers, beastialistsfalse prophetsfortune-tellersnon-believers, followers of other religionspeople who engage in homosexual acts, people who don’t listen to priests, people who work on weekends, and a variety of other kinds of people who have harmed nobody. And the endless genealogies filled with skipped generations and contradictions, such as this. And all of the primitive magic rituals and spells, as I discussed in my previous post. And the uncomfortably sycophantic flavor of the multitude of praises, such as thisthisthis, and this. And the countless dictates about how to sacrifice animals to God, such as this, with great repetition of the themes that God likes the aroma of burning flesh, but hates yeast. All interspersed with a collection of some of the most vile, perverted, sadistic, pointless stories to be found anywhere in the world history of literature, such as this.

People don’t read the Bible because they don’t want this reprehensible nonsense. Even most of those who begin to read it through soon stop, because it is so detestable. Perhaps those who lament how few people read it should be glad, since, as Penn Jillette has noted many times, the fastest way to make a Christian into an unbeliever is to get her / him to actually read it in its entirety.

A related question should be: If the Bible is what many people say it is — the inspired, inerrant word of God — then why is it so awful that even most believers avoid ever reading it?

Why is the purportedly “Greatest Story Ever Told” an utterly stultifying read, even for most Christians? Is God Almighty really a worse storyteller than J.K. Rowling and Stephen King?

Why is the Bible so unclear that 40,000 different Christian sects disagree with each other over every single point of biblical theology? Is God completely inept at clearly articulating His message?

Why is it filled with false and harmful beliefs, but devoid of any real knowledge that would’ve greatly improved people’s lives through the millennia? For example, why does the Bible attribute leprosy to a curse by God (such as 2 Kings 15:5), to be cured through divine intervention (such as Matthew 8:1-3) — rather than attribute leprosy to infection with the germ Mycobacteria leprae, to be cured with targeted antibiotics?

Why is the Bible filled with thousands of contradictions? For example, why does it give two different dates for when Jesus was born, one before 4 B.C., the other at least a decade later, after 6 A.D.? (Matthew 2:1 & the date of King Herod the Great’s death, April, 4 B.C.; Luke 2:1-4 & the date Quirinius became Governor of Syria, 6 A.D.)

These are questions believers will have to answer for themselves. For me, the answer is apparent: because the Bible was written by fallible, uninformed people, without Heavenly aid.

Questions from Theists: Can Christians Support Same Sex-Marriage?

I recently had some correspondence with a fellow on a Bible forum where I participate as the resident heathen. It started with him asking a question on the forum, “Is it possible to be Christian and support same-sex marriage?”

There were many answers, most of them saying, “no,” many of them including some other interesting comments that might be worth addressing in later blog posts. Amidst all of the comments that it is not possible, I answered that it is possible. A few minutes later, I received a private message from the person who asked. Here it is (slightly edited for clarity):

Hey Mike,

My family has been split in half due to same-sex marriage. Most of my family are Christians that have isolated contact from me for supporting same-sex couples. What I’m experiencing in my life right now is making me question the teachings of the Bible. Most Christians cherry-pick Bible verses that don’t condone same-sex marriage. I am very confused because I am in the process of becoming a pastor. But I am not sure if being a pastor is what I want to do in life, anymore.

I am slightly tired of asking Christians and them telling me to read the Bible. When I obviously know that answer. 

I replied to him as follows (again, slightly edited for clarity).

Hi, N,

It’s nice to meet you.

It does appear to me that there are passages in the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, that are explicitly against homosexual acts.

But as to the question of whether that means you cannot support same-sex couples, it becomes more complex. Some Christians who support same-sex couples say it’s not their place to judge; it’s only God’s place. Some of them note that Jesus commanded followers to love your neighbors as you love yourself and love others as Jesus loves you — and that his love extends even to sinners. Other Christians who support same-sex marriage reject parts of the Bible that are against homosexual acts, for a variety of reasons — some think there are mistranslations, or that parts of the Bible are forgeries, or illegitimate, or the like. Some don’t have answers, but they trust in their hearts that God is loving, and believe that God would not be so petty.

There are 40,000 different sects of Christianity, and they disagree with each other over every single point of theology. You can find Christians who are for or against any position.

As a nonbeliever, it seems that there are no sound reasons for anti-homosexual views, once you reject the religious ones. I would guess that the anonymous, ancient people who made up the books of the Bible were against homosexuality for reasons that shouldn’t matter to you. Because it was a way for Jews to differentiate their culture from the Greeks, Romans, and other surrounding cultures. Because a small population seeking to grow needed to get everyone to procreate as much as possible. Because some people instinctively hate others who are different from themselves. And so on.

It’s one of the saddest and most contemptible aspects of religion that it is so divisive. Look at your situation. Religion is dividing your family over one minor aspect of the Bible, about behaviors that don’t impact anybody else.

Personally, I think it is good to support people loving each other and committing to each other, and to support people’s freedom to do whatever they please that doesn’t harm others. I applaud you for taking the stand you are taking, when your family is making it so difficult for you. 

If you are having a crisis of faith, I think it is reasonable to ask yourself whether it seems believable that your God would really behave like this. 

However, I must warn you against simply rejecting belief in your religion because you don’t like that your religion is anti-gay. The reason I warn you not to do this is because doing this would be appealing to consequences. We should not believe or disbelieve things because of what we want to be true, but rather we should hold our knowledge because of what appears to be true, whether it is the way we want it to be, or not. Believing or disbelieving things because of what you want, without regard for the reality of the matters, is wishful thinking, not rationality. It’s not epistemologically sound.

Cheers,

Mike