By Ed Buckner | 20 January 2023
Letters to a Free Country
About the Friday Freethought Perennials in general: This subset of my blog is to answer questions, nearly always already answered by me and by many others but posed again and again—over many years and in many places—on freethought, atheism, secular humanism, church-state/”This is a Christian Nation,” and similar topics. These are not intended to be original analyses, breaths of fresh air, so much as just putting a whole series of things on the record (I’d say “forever,” except I know better). One source for many of these answers is the 2012 Prometheus Books book by me and my son (Michael E. Buckner), In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty. It’s available in many libraries and pretty readily in the used book after-market. I’ll cite writings of others that answer these things in more depth if I’m aware of them when I post these.
2. It honestly seems as if you are just arbitrarily committed to your position. What would it take to get you to change your mind about God?
The short, honest answer is “I don’t know for sure.” I’ve known of many, many atheists and theists who’ve been asked this, and some in both groups have said—sincerely, I think—that they’re quite sure of their belief (or lack of belief) and that nothing could change their minds.
I’m not undecided about my lack of belief—I’ve thought about this for more than half a century, I’ve read dozens of books on the question, including many on both sides of the question. (At the end of this post I’ll list some of the best ones on the atheist side of the question.) I’ve had formal debates with dozens of theists about this—nearly all Christians (at least one Catholic among them), though with a couple of Muslims as opponents, too. I’ve heard or read scores of reasons that allegedly are the best possible reasons to become a believer. None of it has persuaded me.
If you’re thinking now about “agnostic” versus “atheist,” please be patient—those terms will be discussed in future posts (possibly by me but probably first by Perry or Pam or both.)
I truly think I’ve had an open mind about this, but that’s impossible to assess objectively, of course. Does that mean I’m 50-50 about the existence of any gods? Not even close. As Richard Dawkins notes in The God Delusion (2006), especially in his chapter, “The God Hypothesis,” uncertainty about the existence of a god should rank with uncertainty about things like fairies in the bottom of the garden. That is to say, there are many, many things about which one can only speculate, because no evidence is available. I consider the probability that “God” exists to be roughly the same as the probability that the core of the moon is made of chunky peanut butter or, with Bertrand Russell, the chance of a china teapot orbiting the Sun (see https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/38828-if-i-were-to-suggest-that-between-the-earth-and for more). I’ve no reason at all to think any of these things is true or real, but show me some evidence or logic (better: both), and I might change my mind.
Who remembers Q&A when Pell was knocked out cold by Richard Dawkins?
Pell, a smart enough bloke, was not intellectually ready for the God argument, whereas Dawkins was punching on this topic every day.
What struck me about this was Pell's utter complacency and smugness. pic.twitter.com/EB2GcONGFe
— Walter J. Black (@captain_stavros) January 12, 2023
To which some theists—several of them over the years—say, “Ah, but Ed, no evidence I could produce would convince you. If you were approached, in broad daylight by Jesus Christ Himself and He told you of God’s love for you, you’d just think it was a dream or a vision produced by someone secretly drugging you.” And those theists would have a point, for I would indeed be quite skeptical of any evidence, set as it would be against my nearly eight decades of experience.
As my much missed and great friend, the late Tom Flynn told me, it was the Jesuits of Xavier university in Cincinnati, Ohio, who taught him to be skeptical of all claims. And the Jesuits led him, I think he said, to read William K. Clifford’s famous (and early found online) 1877 essay, “The Ethics of Belief.” Clifford—and ever thereafter, Tom Flynn, and then I—held that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
So what counts as “sufficient evidence,” especially for a skeptic of long standing like me? It is hard to be completely certain, but, as my friend Oliver Halle suggested, if all the children in a city’s hospital, including those who had brain cancer or who had lost a limb, all, on one day, left the hospital completely whole and cured, that would be a persuasive start. Or if, worldwide, every human being heard a voice from above, in his own native language, say, “Be still and know that I am God. Believe and never doubt that I am in control and love you.” That’d be hard to ignore. (But, sorry, a theist handing me a book and saying, “Here, Ed, that’s exactly the message in this book of God’s word, so believe!” would not be the same, for many reasons (more on that in future posts).
Many a theist, especially a Christian, reading this is possibly saying, “But God doesn’t want you to be a puppet or an automaton—He can easily prove He exists, but He wants you to have faith and to come to Him by free will, by the choice He has given you. Pray a prayer of salvation like this—
Heavenly Father, I come to you in Jesus’ name. I thank you for your love for me. Thank you for the plan of salvation and for giving up Jesus Christ, your only begotten son to die for my sin.
I accept that I am a sinner and that Jesus took my place on the cross of Calvary, to pay the full price for my sin and iniquities.
The Bible says if I confess with my mouth that “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in my heart that God raised Him from the dead, I will be saved (Romans 10:9). I believe with my heart and I confess with my mouth that Jesus is the Lord and Savior of my life.
Today, I confess all my wrongdoings and ask that you forgive me all my sins.
I repent of my sins and decide to follow you for the rest of my life.
Thank you for saving me. I am now a child of God. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.
I am repeatedly assured that if I have faith and sincerely pray a prayer like the above, I’ll be born again, will be saved (and presumably will believe God exists). But I have prayed like that, and nothing happened. And I have to ask, why should I or anyone else have faith? How can we know what to have faith in? The Bible? Must I believe that the Bible is God’s “word” before I believe in God’s existence? Why? How can I know whether a priest or clergyman is trying to control me and have power rather than save me for eternity?
"An #Atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor or Baal or the Golden Calf. We are all #Atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion) pic.twitter.com/Cc10jAsY5s
— Tammy Richard (@Tammy_Richard) June 1, 2022
And I also have to say to the theist, of any variation or denomination, “What would lead you to change your mind about any of this? If you can offer no possibility, then how can I know what makes you a believer and trust that you really are?”
Some Good Books to Counter the Alleged Good Book—and More
Compiled, February 2017, and revised in 2022, by Ed Buckner (edbuckner.substack.com)
Barker, Dan. God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, New York: Sterling, 2016. A detailed if sarcastic look at the God of the Bible.
Blaker, Kimberly, ed. The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America, New Boston Books, 2003. As the title suggests, a collection of essays regarding Christian fundamentalists in the US.*
Buckner, Edward M. and Michael E. Buckner. In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012. Comprehensive defense of American secularism (church-state separation) and refutation of the idea that the US is—or should be—a Christian nation.*
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. New York: The Heritage Press, 1963 (original edition, 1859). The classic statement on evolutionary theory; includes (for any with eyes to see and brains to think) refutations of nearly every creationist claim from recent times.**
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. The “new atheist” classic comprehensive defense of atheism and undercutting of theism.
Fitzgerald, David. The Mormons: The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion (Book One). San Bernadino, CA: David Fitzgerald, 2013. Comprehensive and quite readable refutation of all things Mormon.
Flynn, Tom (Thomas W.). The Trouble with Christmas. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993. For anyone who honestly (but mistakenly) thinks that Jesus is the reason for the season, this one’s for you.
Gaylor, Annie Laurie, ed. Women without Superstition: “No Gods—No Masters”: The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries,Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1997. Proof that the allegedly fairer sex may indeed be fairer—as in more just—and smarter and better informed besides.
Grayling, A.C. The GOD Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Examines all the arguments for and against religion and religious belief.
Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. A “new atheist” classic.
Hitchens, Christopher. god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. Another “new atheist” classic.
Hume, David (Ernest C. Mossner, ed.). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding; And Other Essays. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1963 [1748 ed. of Enquiry]. The classic set of essays on how we know what we know and related matters.**
Law, Stephen. Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011. The title and subtitle say it all.
McGowan, Dale. Atheism for Dummies. Mississauga, ON: John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd., 2013. Despite the series title, a book for intelligent people with real questions on atheism—one written with consistent graciousness and wit.*
Paine, Thomas (with preface by Stephen VanEck). The Age of Reason, Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology: 200th Anniversary Edition. Exton, PA: Wet Water Publications, 1992. The Enlightenment forerunner of much of modern atheism.**
Russell, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1957. The great philosopher-mathematician sums it up brilliantly.**
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1995. The brilliant exposition of the necessity and joy of being a skeptic and a scientist.
Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1979. A logically comprehensive rebuttal to believing in any gods.
Stein, Gordon. An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980. A wide range of materials on the subjects.
Warraq, Ibn. Why I Am Not a Muslim. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995. Thorough analysis of why Islam should be rejected.
Wells, Steve, annotator. The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible: The King James Version from a Skeptic’s Point of View. Moscow, ID: SAB Books, LLC, 2012. Verse by verse, why the Bible doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
*Book that Ed Buckner had at least some connection to, as editor, advisor, or writer.
**Primary text is also available online in free electronic version (in the public domain).
Ed Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001 to 2003 and was once the Council’s southern director. He is the author (with Michael E. Buckner) of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (Prometheus Books, 2012).
Harmonic Atheist – Interview with Dr. Ed Buckner
Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)
Ricky Gervais And Stephen Go Head-To-Head On Religion
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