Short Answers for Tom Short

For those unfamiliar with him, Tom Short is a travelling preacher who tends to visit our campus once a year, and stay for about a week. You can get a sense of the kind of thing he preaches by reading his “Where I Stand” page.

Last Week, Tom Short posted 25 24 questions for atheists in honor of National Ask an Atheist Day. These questions aren’t particularly profound or interesting by themselves, but they do deserve a response, and it’s an excellent opportunity to clarify some common misconceptions.

A disclaimer before I begin: I do not, and cannot, claim to speak for all atheists, or even all contributors to this blog, especially on matters of ethics and morality. I should also warn that these are as short as I could make them, but no shorter.

With that out of the way, let’s begin:

1. How could Nobody + Nothing = Everything?

No one is claiming that. You may be thinking of the Big Bang Theory, which states that the universe exploded out of a singularity, which is all matter, energy, laws of nature, and the very fabric of spacetime, compressed to a single point.

I’m not sure how you got from “absolutely everything” to “nobody + nothing.”

My own position is that I don’t know enough about the origin of the universe to have a coherent idea. Since atheism is the lack of a position, there is no burden on the atheist to explain the origin of the Universe. However, if you want to posit a god, there’s a burden on you to explain how it was done — and, for that matter, where that god came from.

2. Where did life come from? Do you honestly believe that non-living matter could produce life?

I don’t know where life came from. They’re working on it. However, from what I’ve seen, the theories of abiogenesis seem viable.

Do you honestly believe that this is so much more unbelievable than the revelation that matter and energy are interchangeable, and that there is enough energy in a walnut to destroy the world?

3. Do you believe Chaos + Time = Order?

You’ll need to define these terms much more precisely if you want a meaningful answer. What do you mean by “chaos”? It certainly seems that early stages of the Universe, and early stages of life, were more “ordered” in a sense — for instance, a cloud of lipid bubbles in the ocean is certainly more uniform than the diversity of life that exists today.

4. Why do human beings universally believe in some sort of god and an afterlife?

These are two separate questions. Not all humans who believe in a god believe in an afterlife, and vice versa.

Why do people believe in gods? The most likely explanation seems to be hyperactive agent detection. Consider our ancestors on the savannah. Those who don’t see a tiger when there is one get eaten. Those who see a tiger when there isn’t one are paranoid, but survive to reproduce. We’re the descendants of survivors — we see tigers when they aren’t there, but we’re alive.

Why do people believe in an afterlife? That’s a lot simpler: We don’t want to die. (Granted, the actual invention of the afterlife wouldn’t have been in a modern hospital, but it certainly could have been something like this.)

5. Do you believe in moral absolutes? If yes, where did they come from? If no, why was Hitler wrong?

Some atheists do believe in ethical absolutes, some don’t. My answer is a bit more complicated — I don’t believe that there are any axiological claims which are absolutely true, except within the context of one person’s opinion.

That is, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so are ethics.

So, why is Hitler wrong? Because he murdered millions, and his only justification, even if it were valid, was based on things which he should have known were factually wrong.

Why is it wrong to do that? Because I said so. Unless you actually disagree with me — unless you want to say that Hitler was right — I’m not sure I have more to say.

6. Why do all humans seek to love and be loved — especially when true love is often so self-sacrificial?

What kind of love are you talking about?

Romantic love is easy to explain — the need to reproduce and to care for those offspring. Love for your extended family would be because of kin selection — it helps if genes like yours survive.

7. Why does it bother you when you see another person — say some starving kid in Africa that you will never know — suffering or being oppressed?

Why does it bother me personally? Because I have a deep, visceral reaction to suffering, especially human suffering. I may never know that kid, but I wouldn’t wish what they’re going through on anyone. I don’t know that my basic human empathy towards another human needs a deeper justification than that.

It also bothers me in a rational sense, because I know that suffering and oppression tend to lead to more suffering and oppression. The children of the oppressed can easily become the oppressor. On the other hand, that suffering child is still human, still basically capable of the same things I am, given the opportunity.

8. Where did the laws of mathematics and science come from?

Humans.

A trivial example: Gravity is an inherent property of reality. The law of gravity is our description of it. I would argue that while reality is itself objective, it is somewhat subjective how we divide it into properties. For instance, classical mechanics has concepts of work and energy which are entirely artificial and directly derived from Newton’s three laws.

Mathematics is similar — we invented the laws of mathematics to describe how the universe actually works. Take consistency, or the insistence that P=P is true and P=¬P is false: We insist that a thing is what it is, and isn’t what it isn’t, because in the reality we find ourselves in, things never are what they aren’t. Yet paraconsistent logic exists, and may even be useful, it just doesn’t generally describe reality.

If you want to know why reality is the way it is, there are two problems with this question: First, do we really know that it could have been different? And second, why is God the way he is? If God was just the tiniest bit less loving, or the tiniest bit more jealous, we might not exist today, right?

9. Does it bother you at all that the worst atrocities in history have been committed by atheists?

It might, if it were true. I’m not convinced it is.

What would bother me is if there were a causal link between the two. You can’t get from “There probably isn’t a god” to “I should kill five million Jews,” and you certainly agreed with me when we spoke that Hitler wasn’t an atheist at all.

10. What would you accept to be legitimate evidence for the existence of God? What type of “proof” are you looking for?

That’s your job. I’m a bit surprised you asked a question like this, when you asked for short answers.

However, I can give examples of things which would certainly make me take a second look:

  • The stars rearrange themselves in the sky to display some sort of message, in an event visible by everyone everywhere in the world that it’s night.
  • Jesus just shows up, physically, and gives me the same evidence Thomas had — let me touch him, and let me see him float.
  • Someone finally claims the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge, and they do so using something directly related to their faith.

For a more complete list — not all of which would instantly convert me, but all of which are a good start — I would recommend this two-part series on YouTube: Part 1 Part 2

11. If you were to conclude there is a God and Jesus Christ is, in fact, the Son of God, how would your life need to change?

I would spend a lot more time investigating his life and his message. That’s all I can promise.

Right now, when I read the Bible, I see a petty, vengeful, jealous god who makes the Greek gods look like saints. I’d need a lot of questions answered before I decided to actually follow Jesus and God.

Before you rush to reply, consider: These are questions for after I’m convinced there’s a real possibility that there is actually a God. Many people I talk to get it the other way around, and as much fun as it is listening to someone try to justify God’s genocide, it’s beside the point. First prove he exists, then we can argue about whether he’s good.

12. Have you ever personally sought for God and, if so, how did you do it?

In all sorts of ways, and there is no way this can possibly be a short answer.

I sought God as a child — I built my own little Ark of the Covenant and my own Ten Commandments, and put them in my room. I didn’t so much pray as talk to God, and sometimes I imagined I heard answers.

I was Bar-Mitzvah’d, and while I remember a few difficult-to-learn bits of Hebrew, I don’t remember the particular Torah passage I read and explained.

As a young adult, I meditated, which I felt brought me closer to God and the divine. I suppose I prayed often, but unconventionally — I tried to keep it to the point, as I would imagine God would like to hear. Over a meal, I would just say “Thanks,” and hold onto that feeling of gratitude for a moment, imagining that God wanted my actual gratitude, not ritual words of praise recited so often they’re rendered meaningless to me.

I remember visiting the synagogue Frank Lloyd Wright designed, and saying to my father, “I think that God is here, and that this is one of his favorite places.” It was empty at the time, especially the giant upper sanctuary, which was normally closed because the roof was starting to fail, but I felt he was there.

I remember visiting a funeral of a friend of my father’s, and while it wasn’t God directly, I felt a sudden wave of sadness and love wash over me as soon as I stepped into the church. It was as if the entire place was filled with the love people had for this man, and I wished I had known him.

When I lost my faith, but still held onto the possibility, I often searched for an appropriate blessing, something like, “I wish you well, whatever form that may take, I’m not attached to who or what blesses you, interpret it however you like.” The closest I came was “Namaste.”

I no longer actively seek God. I still seek truth, and I try to do that with reason, humility, and curiosity — the tools of science. But so far as I can tell, God is a dead end. There is so much else to know, and only one lifetime to know it in! Why waste time on God?

13. In the past, in what ways do you believe God hurt you or failed you?

I don’t believe he exists, so how can he have done any such things?

There was no traumatic moment when I expected God to do something, and he didn’t. There was only the moment when I realized I could no longer justify my own belief.

14. Can you name a person who is more admirable and worth emulating than Jesus Christ?

If we ignore the supernatural aspect, Norman Borlaug. Among many other awards, his Congressional Gold Medal is for saving the lives of over a billion people. Suppose Jesus did somehow cure disease, blindness, etc — how many lives did he save? (Again, if we’re ignoring the supernatural, we must also ignore those he saves from Hell.)

If we allow myths and stories, then I would choose Prometheus. Jesus died for your sins, yes, and by some accounts spent the next three days in Hell. Then he returned to Earth for a bit, before ascending to Heaven to rule the Universe. Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to mortals, and in return, he was chained to a rock and has his liver eaten out by an eagle once a day, to this very day.

15. What do you believe to be your purpose in life?

I believe there is no absolute purpose, so whatever purpose I have is mine to choose.

My purpose, then, is to contribute to the legacy I am born into — of scientists, philosophers, and curious minds; to contribute something, no matter how small, to the knowledge of mankind; to live with integrity and compassion; to be the kind of person I can be proud of.

16. What do you think about when you gaze up into the starry night or stand by the ocean and watch the waves come in?

By themselves? I tend not to think, so much as stand in awe…

When I watch the ocean, I think of my grandfather, who loved to sail, and of my other grandfather, who loved to fish. I think of going sailing, or bluefishing, or swimming…

When I look at the stars — at the real starry night sky, away from city lights — when I finally catch my breath, I mutter, my voice catching with the beauty, “A still more glorious dawn awaits…” and chills run down my spine.

17. What do you think happened to the body of Jesus?

I’m not convinced Jesus existed at all — there are enough people I respect on both sides of the debate. Supposing he existed, I don’t really know — I would guess he was buried, but maybe he was burned at Gehenna, maybe he was left in the desert to die, who knows?

18. Why do you think so few people agree with you?

Oh, quite a lot of people agree with me on quite a lot of things. We both agree Hitler was wrong, for example. Around 1.5 billion Muslims agree with me that Jesus did not die for my sins, and that he was never resurrected, and that he was not the son of God, though they are convinced that he existed, while I am not.

If you mean atheism specifically, I answered this in question 4, I thought.

19. How well do you know and get along with your earthly father? Would your father say that you respect him?

I imagine he would, but I wouldn’t presume. I certainly respect him. Both of my parents, in fact — why is this question about my father, and not my mother?

It isn’t just that my parents are the reason I exist, it’s that my parents are, likely as you read this, working hard — both of them — to make the money to put me and my brother through college. They both know my opinions on religion and God all too well — they can’t get me to shut up about them — yet when they see me doing something in line with the purpose I outlined above, something that should make them proud, they support me, even if they wish I had chosen a different path. My father is the one who is still religious, yet he is the one who first told me about AAS at Iowa State.

20. Does the number of famous atheists who died in despair and hopeless concern you? What is it like for you to live with no ultimate hope?

Why would you assume I have no ultimate hope? And why would fame be relevant? Does the number of famous preachers who were later caught in profoundly ironic scandal concern you? (Ted Haggard, Kent Hovind, etc.)

I have all kinds of hope, it just extends beyond my own ego. I have hope for humanity, hope for the rest of the world. And I have hope for myself, for the rest of my life.

But I have so much more than hope. I have integrity, determination, and passion. I wake up every day excited about what I know that day will be.

And I know from my elders that this is not a young person thing.

21. When was the last time you personally read the New Testament with an open mind — and, more importantly, with an open heart?

This is a loaded question. Whenever an atheist mentions having read the Bible, the assumption is that they didn’t have an “open heart” or an “open mind”, or that some lessons can only be understood with faith. In other words, “Unless you agree with my interpretation of the Bible, you must not have read it, or you must have read it wrong.”

I have never read the entire New Testament cover to cover. I did read one book, in high school — I think it was the book of John — and I read the two stories of Genesis. Since then, I’ve read bits and pieces, whatever seems relevant, often entire passages.

The fact is, unless it’s the word of God, it’s not a terribly good book. I still intend to read it at some point, because it does have a massive cultural impact, but it just isn’t that interesting on its own.

22. If there is a hell, do you think you will go there?

I have no idea.

At one point, I would have answered definitively, “No.” I believed, then, that any god judging my entire life, my entire being, with full knowledge of my point of view, would see my side of things.

If there is a good God, I don’t believe I will go to Hell, because I don’t believe a good God would allow Hell to exist. But I have no idea what sort of god might exist, and I certainly have no idea what sort of hell might exist.

If there is a Valhalla, do you think you will go there?

23. If there is a heaven where God reigns and is worshiped, would you want to go there?

That depends — see question 11. Right now, if it’s the god of the Bible, or the Heaven I hear about most often from religion, I would not want to go there. I would not want to spend an eternity with the kind of being who allows babies to die in fires, who deliberately kills or orders the deaths of entire civilizations, and who has such a fragile ego as to demand eternal worship.

If there actually is such a thing as a good God and a Heaven in which he reigns, I imagine I would like to go there, though I’d still like to know more about that Heaven before making a decision.

24. If you are wrong, would you want to know it?

Absolutely. That is what learning is: Finding out when you’re wrong.

Oddly, Tom, your answer to this question was unequivocably “No.” You said, “If this is a delusion, don’t save me from it!” If you’re not willing to be proven wrong, how can we have an honest conversation? How can you ever learn the truth when you believe you have absolute truth, and by your own admission, you’re willing to hold onto that belief whether or not it’s true?

Why ask questions, if you’re already prepared to ignore the answers?

But that’s not me, not ever. AronRa said it best: “I would much rather be proven wrong than forever be wrong.”

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3 comments on “Short Answers for Tom Short

  1. Zachary Aletheia says:

    Great post Dave. WRT to the where do moral absolutes “come from” nice presumption of theism there tom!

    What does reading a book “with an open heart” mean? I’ve read parts of the new testament and basically agree with you. It depicts a god who created a moral system that he then had to create a loophole since the beings he created couldn’t fit his moral system and was having to throw all of them in a place of eternal punishment. This loophole requires a damn blood sacrifice (even though it wasn’t a sacrifice who wouldn’t give 2 and a half days to rule the universe for ever).

    In response to number 13 i did it in an intellectual way unlike i’m guessing he did.

    Number 20 where the hell does he get this idea that so many atheists died in despair. I know Carl Sagan did not. I suppose he’s talking neitczhe (almost every christian apologist i know of thinks hes the pentacle of atheists and who all atheists look up to. I highly doubt that’s true).

    On another note how was tom short week. Was there much pwnage to be had?

    • Dave says:

      Well, yes and no. I actually tried to stay relatively civil — difficult when for at least the first day, he wasn’t interested in having a conversation.

      However, the two arguments he gave for the existence of God were a design argument, and an argument from popularity _of_ the design argument — asking how many people there thought it was a good argument. Everything else was based on the assumption that the Bible is true and correct, and science can only apply to the natural world, not the supernatural.

      I now understand Dave Silverman’s expression on Bill O’Reilly, and why he didn’t immediately answer “THE MOON” to O’Reilly’s “Tides come in, tides go out, you can’t explain that.” That is what it felt like.

      So, a lot of stupid arguments, but not really any curb stomping, no. That’s also not the purpose of this post — more that his questions deserved a response.

      I should let him know about it, though.

  2. Deborah Jeffries says:

    Great answers and responses to the typical questions most theologians will throw at atheists because they’re trying to get us to join their team.

    My favorite was the assumption that history’s greatest atrocities were committed by atheists.

    Hitler, as most would know if they took world history in school, was a roman catholic and many historians had concluded that his hatred of jews came from the teachings he was given in religious school under vatican one council which was blatantly anti-semitic and historically inaccurate by claiming jews killed christ.

    About the issue of morals and ethics. I think when you turn on the TV and see these christian evangelical preachers and their sow a seed and get a financial windfall or the fake faith healers, some of them could use a crash course on morality.

    It’s truly sinful (forgive the pun) to con so many people to make millions.

    And they say we atheists got it all wrong?

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