Andrew Rosenberg and I Have a Civil Discussion.

Posted on June 16, 2010. Filed under: Atheism, Internet Etiquette, Personal, Religion, Science |

Note from George to the reader:

This post and I hope ones to follow stem from an invitation by me and accepted by Andrew to answer questions he posed to PZ Myers by e-mail.  If you are unfamiliar with the background story, click here for my summary of what happened.  Also note that I am more than happy to accept comments and questions for Andrew, but I will not tolerate the ridiculous hatred and vile threats tossed at Andrew on other blogs, and I reserve the right to delete comments that are not in good taste.


First I’ll give you some background on what informs my point of view.

I grew up in an Anglican family, attended church regularly and read the bible.  My father came from a Calvinist denomination and switched churches when he got married.  He taught Sunday School and was active in the church.  My paternal Grandmother sent me to a Presbyterian youth group when I visited her in the summer where I was exposed to a very different Christianity than the Anglican Church I attended at home.

I tell you this because it was important for me to see that there were differences even within my own faith.

I was fascinated by religion as a teenager, and still am now.  I am positive that I was just like you at 18 years old; trying to make sense of a bunch of contradictory information and ideas.  I remained and even blossomed as a Christian until age 23, when a few experiences turned the tide the other direction:

  1. One of my close friends became a Young Earth Creationist. When we talked, he forced me to question my “accommodationist Christianity” and he made a really good point.  I was forced to re-read the bible with this in mind, and question everything I believed about science and evolution.  The ensuing review of my beliefs led to a very shaken faith.
  2. Reading “Origin of The Species” and “Climbing Mount Improbable” and science websites gave me a real love of science.  I wish often that someone had lit that fire when I was in high school, I may well have become a scientist.
  3. The church I was attending was really odd.  This discomfort surely did nothing to reassure me in my faith.

It was not as though I went to bed a Christian and woke up an atheist.  It was more of an evolution than a revelation.  If you have read my Atheist Disclaimer post than you already know that it may not even be absolute.

Given this as a primer, here is how I answer your questions:

    • “Christianity aside, what makes you an atheist?”

The answer to that question depends  on where you place your default position on theism in relation to the facts you have.  The facts that I have gathered seem to indicate that there is no God, at least not in the sense of a God that is worshiped by religions.  I cannot disprove that a higher power exists, but I can make a strong case that if it does exist, it is not an omnipotent or interventionary one.  Those points alone make the Gods of organized religion highly improbable.  Perhaps a deist or pantheist may have a leg to stand on, but any God like that does not require my belief.

That I cannot prove beyond doubt that god does not exist does not mean that he therefore must exist.  I just choose, when armed with this information, to assume an “absent until proven present” stance where someone else may hold the “present until proven absent” stance.  I cannot disprove with 100% certainty that rabbits didn’t roam around the pre-Cambrian Earth, but I can safely assume that I am right to think they didn’t.

    • “Existence….just the simple existence of a hydrogen atom gives me the thought that something had to, and I hate to say this, create it. With something to create, how could the materials and fabrications that make up the universe–atoms, protons, neautrons, electrons–come to be? What cause the theories such as the big bang? Put the universe’s energy into action. As easy as it is to say that a God does not exist, its just as easy to say that one (multiples?) does.”

I am not a physicist.  I can not give you a really succinct answer to this question.  I can attempt to answer it philosophically.  Our human brains are products of the world which they inhabit.  We perceive solids as solid, even though science shows us that they are mostly empty space.  It is useful for our brains to perceive them as solid, but this would not be so for, let’s say, a sentient atomic particle.  This is the same dilemma that causes us to impart a beginning to things that might not have a beginning.

It is useful for our brains to think of things having a beginning and an end.  Just as there is, to my knowledge, no ultimately high number, there is also no ultimately high creator.  If you have an astronomically high integer (x), then there will always be a value (x) + 1 , or x(x) if you really want to boggle the mind.  So if there is “a creator” then there must be a “creator of the creator”, and a creator of that creator, ad infinitum.  If this were not so, then there are some things in our universe that require a creator, and others that do not; so why not assume that the building blocks of our universe are among those things that do not?  Why is that “non-created creator” designation only available to God?

The rest of your question requires a hefty dose of physics, and I find myself grossly unqualified.  I can however cite the fact that there are rules that govern how elements react with one another, and given this framework it is far from improbable that new elements should come to be, or that they should arrange themselves just so.

It is not just equally but perhaps perhaps more “easy” to say that one or more Gods exist than to say that they don’t.  Just because it gives you a “question stopper” of an opinion does not mean it is right.  It also doesn’t mean it is wrong.  In the absence of a “smoking gun” we are free to err on either side of the divide.

    • “On the topic of evolution, I have further questions– I fully believe in micro evolution, whether it be by mutation of natural selection…but how can the existence of the world’s first bacterium be? How can proteins and other chemicals come together to make an organism? For if you take that same organism apart and puts its pieces back into a jar of water, it will never come back to life or reassemble itself. So how did such a thing happen in the beggining of time?”

I am not sure where to start here.  First a point of clarity.  Whether or not abiogenesis occurred has no bearing on macro-evolution.  That macro-evolution occurred is a fact.  There is no unified theory regarding abiogenesis.  Panspermia has even been given as an alternate theory to the origins of life.  Creationists are all too quick to accept micro-evolution and draw a line in the sand.  Macro-evolution is just micro-evolution multiplied by degrees.  In fact, if you believe in a literal interpretation of the bible, you also have to accept hyper-evolution to account for the plethora of species within a “kind”.  Speciation occurs and can be proven by genetics, and any argument to the contrary is fallacious.

So abiogenesis is your main concern then.  There are in fact, multiple ways with which life can spring from a state of non-life, and settling on just one is a leap for science at this point.  Chemicals bond in predictable ways, and given the right mixture of chemicals in the right conditions, life would eventually happen.

To use your own argument against you, if I take a human and dismember it, it will never come back to life or reassemble itself.  So why should we expect the first life to do the same?  Abiogenesis is a topic that has no clear answers.  We have answered so many questions in the period since the Enlightenment, why should we assume that abiogenesis is any less answerable?

“Something, from nothing. Its a supernatural question in itself that puzzles me, but makes me view atheists as ignorant. No God, yet countless molecules and building blocks that just….appeared? No, it doesn’t make sense.”

Whether or not Atheists are ignorant (and certainly some are) comes down to their reasons for their worldview.  Again, I don’t want to insult you by bringing your age into the equation, but many of the atheists you would encounter in your circle are more likely to be rebellious teenagers.  It is true that to be an atheist because it’s cool to be anti-establishment and controversial is pretty damn ignorant.  Don’t let that fool you into believing that atheism itself is ignorant or an uninformed worldview.  Just as there are many Christians- certainly some within your own congregation- who just choose to accept Christianity for foolish reasons, there are also people within the atheist community who have all the wrong motivations for discounting the concept of God.

I hope you take the time to read this post.  I am aware that these responses likely beg new questions, and I hope you ask them.  Be prepared to answer some of my questions as well.  I hope also that other readers can politely answer or ask questions here.

I look forward to your questions.



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7 Responses to “Andrew Rosenberg and I Have a Civil Discussion.”

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That is all extremely interesting and satisfying to me. I have learned about abiogenesis (a theory I knew in my own head from thinking, but never came upon the term in research). I guess the fact that at this time science cannot answer these questions strengthens my beliefs a little (because I feel eventually science will or may have run into a road block) but also shows me that I cannot say they are wrong. For future discoveries may disprove everything I have believed just like religious ideas in the past have been disproven (spontaneous generation etc).

I still hold to my questions and beliefs that: 1. No matter how the building blocks can form, how would they put themselves together and start functioning as a cell? This seems so bizarre and foreign to me.

2. A Universe from nothing, famous to Krauss’s speech on youtube. But just how is this emergence of protons, neutrons, and electrons something that could just happen? THe 4th grade rule of science is that matter cannot be created or destroyed, so by the physical laws of our universe, how are we existing at all? If according to Newton (or whoever wrote that law) matter cannot be created or destroyed. Then what are we? Is this all just a alternate reality that isn’t real? How do we distinguish what is real and false?

Saying “God did it” is stupid. By all scientific standards it is a weak argument. But would if the time comes where science does have to accept that it ran in to a road block? I doubt that will ever happen, and I don’t believe that it has yet myself, but it is just food for thought that the possibiliy of a creator is not totally out of the question.

I think the argument between theists and atheists is just at a standstill: up to each individualto decide what he or she believes, experiences that lead them to believe that, and whether or not he or she cares that there even could be a heaven/hell/ God.

I understand how the inability of science to yet explain abiogenesis could bolster your faith. We must, however, be careful not to fall into the “god of the gaps” mentality.
To be fair though, science will most likely only be able to postulate ways abiogenesis could have happened, being that we are billions of years removed from the actual event.
The God concept you keep coming back to is only at best a deistic one and at least just a pantheistic one.
With that point stated, I take issue to some degree with the statement you made in your first e-mail to PZ that if a God exists, then a Christian God makes the most sense. It seems as though you are trying to make atheists admit that there might be a God, therefore Yahweh and Jesus are real.
I don’t think that science’s inability to disprove a God is proof positive of Christianity; if it is then it is equally proof positive of Odin or Vishnu. You cannot reasonably strip Christianity down to its most basic nucleus and say that if the nucleus exists then the whole religion is true.
Example: I show you a single cell through a microscope. You cannot infer from that cell that it is from a pre-Cambrian rabbit based on the fact that rabbits are made up of cells.
The fact that there may be a creator does not mean that there must be a creator; and if there is a creator it doesn’t mean that it is a creator in your sense of a creator.

What I think made your original letter so unsettling was that you insisted on stripping all context from your belief while insisting on getting very specific about our belief. I can see how some would find that a very unfair framework for a debate. I also understand your reasoning that not putting Christianity aside leads the “Why are you an atheist?” question down the road of pointless slurs against your faith.

You must be willing to explain your own reasoning if you expect someone to explain theirs.

I will do some basic research on your two points here so that I can try and explain where physics stands on these two questions. In the meantime, think about what I have said. If you have any questions let me know….

Yes. I guess I feel like I was trying to see what atheists thought of “a God.” You are correct in saying that this doesn’t make the Christian God the real one if a creator exists. I, on my own beliefs, just felt that if a “god” did exist, then I would follow the Christian one. It doesn’t make only my religion right, which is why I tried to mainly focus on a creator rather than one specific religion’s god. I only said I was Christian so that PZ would have a little more information on me and see my point of view.

Thank you for responding. Atheism for most atheists is not as fundamental as “there is no God” but more like “there does not appear from any evidence I have available that there is a God, so I choose not to believe in one”.
This is not “agnosticism”. There is a really great post about this subject by my friend Dan Finke over at Camels With Hammers. You should take the time to read it.
I have a post coming up today or tomorrow that touches on this as well, and I wrote a post about your biology and physics questions here. I actually was really looking forward to more questions from you.

If you have them, keep it coming.

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