Ask An Atheist: If you could talk to any atheist, living or dead, who would it be?


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Q.If you could sit and talk for an hour to any atheist living or dead for an evening, who would it be?

A. Probably Robert Ingersoll, the great 19th century freethinker (and Union general and Republican party bigwig) not only comparing notes on philosophy and how atheism has become a more respectable activity in the 21st century, but also how he approached dealing with his own time about the beliefs he had.

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Mark Hilditch

Probably Friedrich Nietzsche. I’d like to ask him how he came to think that “Christianity is the religion of pity.” Why did he think that “pity” best characterized the Christian faith? And, why he was an Atheist rather than an Agnostic, since -ultimately- no one can prove whether or not God exists; it is all faith – one way or another.

Jim Downard

Since Nietzche also went nutball in the end, one might only discover though conversation more about how he managed to run off the rails rather than insight into a defendable philosophy. Frankly, if the time machine is available, I’d rather interview Jesus himself and skip the middleman, but that wasn’t the frame for the hypothetical.

Veering more off topic, but Mark did bring the issue up, the issue of whether the existence of “God” (and which one do we have in mind there?) can be proven is a slippery one. If the nature of the deity is tweaked so that its existence is cordoned off so as to be intrinsically undisprovable, then its a circular argument not a deductive one.

We have no direct eyewitness “proof” that Alexander the Great ever existed (all accounts of his life dating centuries after the fact) but I don’t think many historians can be found who think he’s mythical. Deities of all kinds (via their prophetic front men) interact in ways paralleling that issue but not quite the same. I have no personal doubt that Jesus and Paul existed, or the Buddha and Joseph Smith for that matter, but the matter of whether the stories about them or what they may have claimed or believed track correctly is what comes into play when the issue of “proving” the existence of gods enter the picture.

I am a philosophical agnostic insofar as I do not claim I can prove that the god of Abraham, Zeus, Tlaloc, Thor, and a host of others cannot exist and therefore don’t, but as I don’t believe any of them do, I am a functional atheist. Nietzshe may well have flopped down on the same side here.

Now it would be much nicer if particular gods gave more interviews, did personal appearances and performed supernatural activities more regularly (for example, amputated limbs getting regenerated miraculously, ala Lourdes) but that’s not what we get. So it becomes a historical “it must be true because they couldn’t have fibbed about that” argument, and turns into an unresolvable issue for that reason.

Mark Hilditch

No, I would be chatting with Nietzche at the time in his life when he made the statement I quoted in my comment, not at the end of it. And yes, if the context of the hypothetical is chatting with an Atheist, then Jesus would be fantastically out of the “frame.”

Your remark about “proof” and historic figures (i.e. Alexander) underscores the limits of the debate and is very much why I asserted that “ultimately- no one can prove whether or not God exists; it is all faith – one way or another.”

Thank you for your unpacking of “philosophical agnostic” and “functional atheist.” The difference between them is probably too subtle for most of us. The irony, from my lived experience, is that I have seen and known thousands of self-proclaimed “Christians” whose lives appear to be indistinguishable from what I would take to be the practical, demonstrated meaning of “functional atheist!”

I want to ask them: If how you live does not flow directly out of what you believe, why believe it at all? And if you insist that you really do believe it, then why isn’t it more obvious in your lifestyle?

If “gods gave more interviews,” (i.e. if they provided concrete, indisputable evidence of their existence) then humans would not need to exercise any faith whatsoever. For reasons not always clear to many of us, God(s) seems to prefer humans to be about faith. If we are willing to let the discussion turn on the matter of faith, it is often more resolvable than some prefer to think.

Jim Downard

I would agree that many people of all faiths are the counterparts of the practical agnostic, raised in a faith with traditions they are used to and so going along with all the rituals as comfort food, not necessarily because they believe it really. I suspect that situation is already being reflected in modern polling that shows more people opting for honesty, having a generalized faith but junking the specific ones they don’t really believe anymore.

As for “For reasons not always clear to many of us, God(s) seems to prefer humans to be about faith. If we are willing to let the discussion turn on the matter of faith…” if there aren’t any god(s) to begin with, the only way belief in them will be sustainable in the long term is to jumpto the “you have to have faith” rock as following the rituals to guarantee the rain god’s intervention will be doomed to eventual failure.

But even if there is no way ot distinguish between “the god(s) exist but need to have their egos stroked by depending on faith not evidence” and “the god(s) don;t exist at all so the believers end up opting for the faith logic” then a rationalist could argue (as a philosophical unprovable opinion of course) that the easier approach is to apply Occam’s razor here and go for the null hypothesis. If the latter case applies to Zeus and Thor, but not YHJH, isn’t that special pleading that effectively gives the game away? That one particular God shall be deemed exempt from the filtering that has been applied to prior ones.

Ain’t philosophical reasoning fun?!

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