Two Questions For Atheists
By: Dean Tersigni
Dennis Prager wrote an article called "Two Questions For Atheists" where he asks two basic questions which don't directly address any religious arguments, but helps him to, as he says, "understand the
atheist as a person and as a thinker." You can read his original article here, and my answers to
his questions, as well as my commentary on his responses, are below.
1.) Do you hope you're right or wrong?
Most atheists with which I'm familiar would raise a suspicious eyebrow at this question. Naturally, it doesn't matter if I hope a fact of reality is right or wrong, all that matters is if it is
right or wrong. Despite what you may read in The Secret, nothing is going to change if you hope you're a billionaire or hope you'll
live a long healthy life. You may as well ask, "do you hope you're Superman?" But to address the spirit of his question, like any variation of
Pascal's Wager, it would depend on which gods I'd be right or wrong about. The vast majority of gods that have ever been thought up by
humans, especially the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim gods, are horrendous monsters who rape, murder, torture, and terrorize everyone and everything in their paths. For them, I sincerely hope my atheism is
right. However, if we were to entertain an egalitarian god who cared enough about the well-being of sentient life to intervene when something terrible is about to happen, (a god of which, disturbingly, no
religion has ever conceived), then I hope my atheism is wrong.
Prager's explains that he has respect for atheists who hope they're wrong because they, "understand the terrible consequences of atheism," specifically, "that all existence is random; that there is
no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality -- right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other
things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe -- murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing." Of course, this says
nothing about atheism, which is just the lack of a belief in gods; what he is really critiquing is non-supernatural world views, or Naturalism. But are these fair critiques of Naturalism? Prager writes,
"That's why I suspect atheists who think that way have not fully thought through their atheism." That's incredibly condescending, so allow me to do what he thinks I never do: consider my own world
Random - In order for something to be random, its cause must be unknowable. However, the cause of the universe is merely unknown. It's still an open question that may very well turn out to have a
knowable answer. Unlike religious people, most secularists I've met don't assign certainty to unknowns. While I want to know the answer to this question, I don't have a preference; purposeful or random, neither
would alter how I live my life.
Ultimate Meaning - By this, I'm presuming Prager means a meaning that all people must share. Personally, if the meaning of my life were decided for me, I would have a hard time calling my life "mine."
On this topic, I'd prefer that there is no ultimate meaning because I'd rather decide a meaning for myself. Furthermore, I've never heard a useful religious answer to this question. I don't see much meaning
behind a life created simply to be subservient to a being that can, without any effort, have whatever it wants in the first place.
Objective Morality - Not only does objective morality exist in a purely secular world view, but it does not exist in any religious world
view I've ever seen. The heroes of most holy books are murderers, torturers, rapists, etc., but ask any religious person if these heroes are in their religion's version of Heaven, and they'll all say yes.
Likewise, God wipes out innocent people by the millions, and believers say he's morally justified, even obligated, to doing so. I don't need to hope I'm right about secular objective morality, it is already a
Oblivion - Would I prefer a reality where I would never have to say a forever goodbye to my loved ones? Yes. However, the belief that I will never see someone again after they die motivates me to enjoy
my time with them and try not to hold grudges. Belief of an eternal afterlife lacks this inherent motivation because you're under the assumption you can always see them or forgive them in Heaven.
Ultimate Justice - The problem of evil, proves that a specific type of god -- one that has both the desire and power to stop
terrible things from happening -- doesn't exist (because terrible things do happen). But Prager confusingly invokes the Problem as a reason to hope for the existence of the very thing the Problem proves
doesn't exist! This is like pointing out that: you are a person / all people are mortal / therefore, you are mortal... but don't you hope that you're actually immortal? To answer his question, yes, I would love
for justice to be mandatory in the world, but it clearly isn't, and I am disgusted with the idea of a god who would wait until everyone is dead before administering justice. Also, the very concept of Hell ruins
any semblance of justice. For justice to be served, the punishment must fit the crime, but the sum total of transgressions in a finite life are never enough to afford infinite torture in Hell.
2.) Do you ever doubt your atheism?
Of course; all the time. In fact, like every atheist I've ever met, my goal is to doubt pretty much everything about my life. How else would we determine if we were mistaken? Honestly, the only people I know
who don't have doubts (or at least claim they don't have doubts) are religious people. I've never met an atheist who claimed they could prove that all definitions of gods don't exist. However, the bulk
of believers I ask claim to be 100% sure their god exists while all others do not. Prager claims to have had the exact opposite experience, but when he explains how he poses the question to atheists, you can see
why: "how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain -- none of these has ever prompted you to wonder
whether there really might be a God?" That is a very different question! Someone needs to inform him that sexual reproduction is the result of chemistry and evolution, sunsets are a result of gravity
and the Doppler effect, Mozart is overrated, and the human brain, though complex, is finitely so. None of these examples are evidence of a god or the supernatural, and when your question is framed around an
argument from ignorance, you should expect such an answer from rational people.
Prager wraps up by saying (in not as many words), if an atheist doesn't agree that:
1.) A secular world view is bleak and terrible.
2.) Reality would be waaaaay better if the god that drowned a bunch of babies existed.
then the atheist clearly hasn't thought about their beliefs very well.
It's because of this that I have a hard time taking seriously Prager's onset remark, "their answers would enable me to understand the atheist as a person and as a thinker." To me, it doesn't look like
Prager is interested in understanding the thoughts of an atheist, but rather seeing how well they measure up to his own beliefs. And I'm fine with that, after all, the purpose of my commentary is to compare his
beliefs to my own, but its quite disingenuous to call "understanding" what should really labeled "critiquing."