Essay:Sasayaki answers Conservapedia's challenge to atheist Penn Jillette

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In late June 2011, the fine folks over at Conservapedia issued challenge to Penn Jillette in response to Penn Jillette's video response to the Conservapedia article regarding atheism and obesity. As a long time reader and lurker but new poster, this user felt that Penn Jillette would be too busy to answer their challenge- and that the CP fellows were probably gambling on this, much like a Liberal challenging George W. Bush to a debate, then claiming victory when Dubya failed to show up.

The remainder of this piece is set in the first person perspective.

With all the above in mind, I set myself to the task of accepting Conservapedia's challenge myself. The subject of this challenge was "Does God exist?". Since Conservapedia issued the challenge, I feel that I may have the first "round". Let's begin.


In order to prevent moving the goalposts, I will list my assumptions here.

- "God" is defined as the Christian God who not only "exists", but behaves in a manner generally consistent with the idealized version expressed in the Conservapedia Bible Project. We are not debating the existence of Zeus, or Odin, or the possibility of any divine being at all existing, only the existence of this god.

- Neither side will result in profanity, nor baseless, subjective personal insults. This is simply out of respect for my opponents- I am Australian, and we have a culture of swearing. I swear frequently and with vigor, but because of the beliefs of my opponents I will abstain from profanity for the duration of the debate.

- I am assuming that my acceptance of the challenge on behalf of Penn will be seen as legitimate by Conservapedia and its agents. After all, Andy himself advocates a "Best of the Public" approach to these kinds of things- I am neither an expert in religious theology, nor do I hold any qualifications in any religious field of study. I wouldn't say I'm the 'best' at anything, but I do believe I represent the average atheist. Conservapedia asks, "Has the outspoken atheist Penn Jillette ever publicly debated a Bible believing Christian before? If not, why not?" I say to them, "Why not debate me, instead? I'm here. I'm willing."

Answer to: "Proof and Evidence that Atheism is True and Correct"[edit]

The kind contributors at Conservapedia were generous enough to provide some "suggestions" to prepare myself for this debate. For this I am very thankful, but I feel they were unnecessary. Never-the-less, we are all aware that ShockofGod's "One question atheists cannot answer" is coming in this debate, assuming it is accepted by Conservapedia, so I will preemptively answer it now.

The nature of this question misrepresents what atheism is.

Imagine you have a stack of papers. Each paper is a one page summary of every religion ever practiced. Each summarizes, in brief, the core message of the religion and what they believe.

There is no page representing atheism.

Atheism is not a belief. There is no dogma, no commandments, no rules to live your life. It is not a belief structure because it asks nothing of its "adherents". It is the Tabula Rasa, the blank slate, a notepad with nothing written on it- it is a mind unburdened by having to justify an immutable world view to sometimes completely conflicting evidence.

A newborn child is not born with knowledge of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any religion, any more than they are born with a knowledge of science, art, saxophone playing or any other knowledge beside base instinct. They cannot even communicate with speech. A baby is technically an atheist- it has no preconceptions, no beliefs it seeks to validate. Instead it observes its world with its senses, some of which are not fully developed, and reacts accordingly. Touching things that are hot causes pain, so it quickly learns not to do that. A baby studies what it sees, and it uses that observation to form an understanding of its universe.

It is through this process, this entirely natural process, that an atheist lives their lives- in a much more complex and fulfilling way than a baby does, of course, although the principle is the same. An atheist tests their surroundings, observes actions and reactions, and guides future actions accordingly. They look for patterns and reproducible, testable, verifiable chains of causes and effects. If an atheist strikes a match and fire comes, she may link cause and effect (form a hypothesis). If she strikes fifty matches, all producing fire, she can reliably determine that the fifty-first match will also ignite. This is how an atheist sees the world.

But sometimes you strike a match and fire doesn't come. That's because something is different. This would cause most atheists to stop and evaluate their surroundings again- why did the fifty first match not ignite? Perhaps she was holding it wrong, or perhaps the amount of phosphorous in this particular match isn't conducive to forming a flame. Perhaps there's no oxygen. Perhaps it's wet.

It is this drive to understand the errors that motivates an atheist. The world is strange and unknown, and ideally should be studied and understood.

Theism, by contrast, provides a prepackaged world with the big questions already answered, and with a justification for any strangeness pre-provided. Why did the match not provide fire? If our hypothetical atheist was, instead, a theist, they might see in this action the spark of the divine. God did not want that match to ignite- in fact, since every other match ignited and this one did not, that might be considered proof of God's hand, performing impossible things (or miracles).

Herein lies the difference in philosophy between the theist and the atheist. Where an atheist sees something strange and attempts to investigate and explain the strangeness, a theist will attempt to justify how this validates their already established beliefs (whatever they may be). Inevitably, this boils down to, directly or indirectly, the hand of the divine. An atheist says "I don't know, let's find out," while a theist says, "I don't know, God did it."

I hope that this explanation adequately answers your question, by demonstrating it is unanswerable. I am happy to elaborate in future "rounds", should you offer them, but I feel that I have made my primary point and that is this- by asking "Please provide proof that atheism is true and correct", you are searching the pile of papers for the one labelled "atheist". But, much like any criticism of Conservapedia on Conservapedia, no such page exists.

In exchange for your time and consideration reading this section, I would like to propose a question in return. My question is as follows:

"What amount of evidence would you, as a Christian, require to stop believing in God?"

I would ask, humbly, that you be completely honest with your answer. If you believe your faith is immutable and that no evidence, no matter how compelling (up to and including the appearance of, say, Zeus himself made manifest and addressing you personally regarding this issue), could ever sway you away from your faith, then that is an entirely acceptable answer.

I only ask that you ponder the implications of this answer should you give it.

The Question evolution! campaign's 15 questions[edit]

All answered here.

This page addresses every one of the fifteen questions that the Question evolution! campaign posits to the atheist community. It does so cleanly, precisely, and accurately- I could repeat it, but data duplication is undesirable. The answers are extremely comprehensive and express their points better than I can.

In subsequent rounds, at your request, I can elaborate on this section and I can give my own personal "take" on these answers, but that won't change the fact that this page represents a very clear, very precise, point by point response to those questions.

As a personal note, please do not claim any further that atheists are unwilling and/or unable to address the Question evolution! campaign's 15 questions, because we are. As Christians, I will humbly remind you that you have a divine mandate not to be deceitful (a quality you readily assign to your perceived foes) and so I expect that you, being honest people, will update your wiki and include a link to our answers. You may rebutt them and we encourage such a thing- please do. As stated earlier, this can be interesting fodder for subsequent rounds of debate.

In return for your kind consideration in this matter, I will propose 15 questions of my own. Rather than claim that these questions are "unanswerable" or that they represent some kind of "brown note" to Christians, causing them to abandon their faith and forget God, I will say that these represent some questions that should prompt Christians to engage in introspection.

They are questions to encourage you to ask questions. Here goes.

15 Questions to cause Theists to Think[edit]

1. The Epicurean Paradox.[edit]

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?

Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing?

Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing?

Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing?

Then why call him God?”

Epicurus wrote this paradox two or three hundred years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. I have yet to read an adequate answer to this question that doesn't rely on essentially saying, "Who can understand the motives of God?".

A common answer to this question is that God gave humanity free will. It is through man's actions alone that evil exists. The problem with that is that God is all knowing and all powerful- he knows everything, and can do anything. In that way, God would be the novelist of our lives. He could just write whatever he felt like, giving the illusion of 'free will' to his creations, but ultimately if he desired he could rewrite the "book" that is our reality and "remove" anything he didn't like.

But evil things happen every day. Therefore that would mean, according to this paradox, that God if he exists is malevolent... and a malevolent God goes against everything the holy book tells you about him. He's certainly not deserving of worship in any event.

2. Punishment of those without sin[edit]

If unborn babies are sentient lifeforms irrespective of age ("life begins at conception"), then they are under the purvey of God and because of Jesus's sacrifice, born without sin. If that's so, why do one month old babies ever die? What sins could they have committed that are worthy of death? Make dirty nappies? My pet cats sometimes make horrendus stenches in their litter boxes, but I think you'd agree I'd be extremely evil of me to kill them for defecating according to their instincts. If, however, the babies are being killed as a punishment to someone else (such as the parents) isn't that really fundamentally sick of God? To murder people's babies as a punishment? And then, why do babies of Christian parents ever die?

3. The Bible is Unchangable(?)[edit]

Why are things explicitly permitted by the bible so evil? (Condoning slavery, permitting rape, stoning, burning alive, etc). These are in the original Bible going all the way back, so it's not a Liberal conspiracy or whatever. But, okay. If it's just that the Bible reflects morality of days gone past, then why can't we update the bible (hmm...) to reflect our modern ethical behaviors? Why can't we allow gay marriage? Why don't we just make the bible the same as the American constitution, or the constitution of our native land? If so, why don't we just rewrite the Bible to be whatever we want? Who gets to do the rewriting, and what gives them that authority? Can I start my own Bible rewrite project, to change it to what I think it should be?

Alternatively, if the Bible (you may substitute 'first copy of the Bible' if you wish) is truly immutable, then why isn't every aspect of its commands followed? Why can you eat shellfish? Wear polyester? After all, Jesus himself allegedly said,

“For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” - Matthew 5:18-19

Luke also wrote (Luke 16:17) that the Old testament, all of it, was still 100% valid. Why do most modern Christians ignore almost all of it?

4. Secular Morality[edit]

Who is more moral? The woman who does not kill because killing will send her to hell to burn in a firey pit for all eternity, or the woman who doesn't kill because killing someone is kind of a nasty thing to do? Why do Christians require horrid punishments to avoid killing people? Why do they need to be told "Thou shalt not kill"? Wouldn't a moral person automatically not do such a thing without needing the threat of an eternity of agony to dissuade them?

5. Pedophile Priests[edit]

Pedophile priests. If God couldn't protect innocent children, in his own house, under the sole care of his own priests, what could he possibly save me from? See question 1.

6. Why the secrecy?[edit]

Why doesn't God show himself openly on a regular basis to those who are alive, instead of doing most of his fancy-work in the dim past, back before high-def cameras who could objectively record his Miracles for all time? Think of all the arguments, the hate, the war and death and suffering and the bitter anger between human women and men all caused by the debate regarding the presence or absence of various flavours of God. Yes, God allegedly gave us free will (see point 1), but it's the uncertainty and the doubt that's key here. If God manifested himself every year in the sky and said, "I am real. Choose to follow what I say, or not, it's cool," most people would follow him, I'd imagine, but irrespective of the decision made it would be a decision made with all the facts. The most pure form of free will.

7. Questioning the Bible[edit]

Why can you accept without question and without exception (see point 3) a book that is just so twisted and weird and openly inconsistent and strange, but the moment a piece of contradictory evidence appears in something like the theory of evolution, is it leaped upon as absolute proof of its falsity? Do you ever read any part of the Bible and go, "I think this is wrong. I want to find out more about this- I want to question if this possible. I want to examine the reasons behind this, calmly and rationally." If not, see point 3.

8. What if Jesus told you Christianty was a lie?[edit]

Intelligent Design asserts that a high power of some description created life on Earth. If you discount both all knowledge of the theory of Evolution and the Bible and go looking for alternative answers, and you find them, what will you do then? And if you did find the answer to life on Earth that was neither Evolution nor Intelligent Design (some mysterious third option), would you stop believing in Intelligent Design? If you did, would you stop believing in God, since the Bible is immutable (see point 3)? If you wouldn't abandon your faith in God, since the Bible is immutable, doesn't that mean that you cannot be convinced that Intelligent Design is fake, even when presented with the most compelling evidence possible? Even if God and Jesus themselves appeared before you and told you Intelligent Design wasn't real? What would you do then? See the first question I asked.

9. Not Magic[edit]

Why is every Miracle ever discovered, ever, that was able to be examined by science (AKA not documented only in the Bible), always determined to be... not magic? Why can no miracle that has ever occured, ever, stand up to scientific rigor or be reproducable? Wouldn't a omnipotent and all loving God want to create a miracle so undeniable so as to completely and utterly destroy the terrible and evil atheist movement, which does all these allegedly horrible things? See points 1 and 6.

10. Starlight Problem[edit]

If the Earth is only 6,000 years old, why can we see light from galaxies 13 billion light-years ago? Light travels at C- that is, 299 792 458 m / s. A light year is the vast, almost unimaginably huge distance light travels in a year. Therefore, those galaxies must be at the very, absolute least, 13 billion years old. The speed of light is something as well understood as the sky is blue- those galaxies really are 13 billion years old. How can the earth be only 6,000 years old? (Note: Please don't say things like 'the speed of light must have slowed over time'. There is zero evidence of this occurring, a huge array of reasons why it wouldn't and couldn't happen, and is basically something made up to cover a huge, glaring inconsistency in Biblical creation stories. You might as well have said "Flying pink unicorns push the light beams faster so they arrived here earlier").

I'm aware there are some problems with the current scientific model of the universe with what they call the 'Starlight Problem', but while the exact age of the universe doesn't affect atheists too much (we are on a search for the truth, whatever the answer may be, we welcome inconsistencies and wish to investigate them further) it completely undermines the Biblical creation story.

11. Reactive Prayers[edit]

Why does God not response to active prayers, but only to reactive prayers, and never in any material way? If I pray to God for a bicycle, but he doesn't give me one because he isn't real, I don't have a bicycle but otherwise nothing else happens. Yet if I go out and steal a bicycle, and pray for his forgiveness, I'll be forgiven AND have a bicycle. Of course, now some poor soul doesn't have a bicycle anymore. Even if I had to give the bicycle back as part of my apology, I had it for a little while, and the poor sod I stole it off didn't. Why doesn't God just give us what we want via prayer, as long as it's not harming anyone else? Naturally, I accept that while praying for a bicycle is a very selfish prayer, the same principle applies to other very important things. Why does God not answer if I pray for world peace, but answers if I pray for forgiveness for looking at pornography?

12. Science has been wrong[edit]

Some Creationists point out that science has been wrong before about a great many things, and therefore, could be wrong about things like evolution, too. Therefore, the argument goes, we should discount evolution because a few hundred years down the track it's probably going to be disproven anyway.

This is the textbook example of completely missing the point.

The point is not that science has all the answers (it doesn't and never claimed to), or that humanity's current scientific knowledge is the sum and absolute truth... rather, that our scientific knowledge is an approximation of what we think might have happened. It is a search for the truth. Science is fluid. Science is about changing your mind based on what we observe in this world of ours, and not clinging to an idea because you want it to be true. For example, if you take a match and strike it, flame comes almost every time, unless you're very clumsy like myself. This is repeatable. We can therefore deduce that striking a match will not produce water, for example, or a herd of hippopotomi, or cocaine, or dragons- instead, fire is by far the most likely result. That's all it is. It's just observation, looking for reactions that match our previous actions. All science is observation of actions and reactions. That's all it is.

If we observe evolution in a lab, as Lenski did, we then take that observation and apply it to the theory of life on Earth. If new information comes along, discrediting the old, then we change our minds. We say: "Gosh, gee. Wow. This changes EVERYTHING! Homeopathy works! Water has a memory!" (this is a quote from the Tim Minchin's beat poem "Storm", specifically "Tim Minchin's Storm the Animated Movie". It has entirely justified and hilarious swearing so I have not provided a direct link, as per my promise to refrain from cursing).

13. If some parts of Star Wars can be scientifically proven, then The Force must too be real[edit]

Star Trek is a very good TV show (Threshold notwithstanding). Likewise, Star Wars is a good movie series (good thing they only made three of them, back in the 80's). Both shows are full of morals, of heroes facing down evil and the ultimate triumph of righteous people over the wicked. Additionally, many parts of it can be proven by science- Luke and his adopted parents eat and drink, Luke nearly died of exposure on Hoth, when Luke was pulled under the water in the Death Star trash compactor his hair became wet- all these things are provably accurate. It's a wonderful story told very well, and there's no reason why it can't be viewed as a 'manual' for how to live your life. After all, at no point did Star Wars ever say, "This is not real. This story is fiction." All it says is that it was set "A Long Time Ago" in a place far, far away. Just like the Bible.

Yet no Christian I've ever met has believed they could use The Force. So why do Christians who read the Bible assume that the whole of it, all of it (see point 3) is true? While some parts of the Bible are "accurate" in that some parts of it could be plausible, that doesn't mean from an atheist's point of view all of it must be true. No other piece of work is ever given that much latitude, including atheistic works like The God Delusion. Why don't Christians question their bible? See point 3.

14. The Burden of Proof[edit]

Why is the burden of proof on atheists to disprove God? Atheism is the philosophy that you should place your trust in reproducible effects, like striking a match creating fire. Faith is the acceptance of the untestable- such as belief that if one struck a match on the edge of the universe, it would produce water instead of fire. It may be true. It may be false, but there's no proof either way.

Nobody can prove this claim, nor disprove it. That makes it untestable, and untestable things are generally ignored by science because they're not worth worrying about and very rarely affect our lives in any meaningful way. If I say to you "Flying pink unicorns created the universe", you should say, "Prove it." And I should tell you all my proof. If it is comprehensive and rational, you should accept my proposition, or at least give it some thought.

I should not say, "Prove it's NOT true." Or, more correctly, I should not answer with, "What proof and evidence do you have that a match struck at the edge of the universe will produce fire instead of water?".

This is especially true when I clearly really really want a match struck at the end of the universe to produce water and I want this so much that I cannot be convinced of any other alternative (see your answer to the question "What amount of evidence would you, as a Christian, require to stop believing in God?").

15. On Morality[edit]

If a normal person is caught speeding, they are fined. If a police officer is caught speeding, they might lose their job.

It's fairly clear that someone who is (or claims to be) the authority on morality, who violates their own ethical code, should be punished more harshly (and treated to more scrutiny) than someone who does not. Further to this, theists claim that there is divine inspiration behind their moral codes, giving them a vastly superior edge over secular morality codes (such as the law).

Once again, atheism has no built in ethical codes, dogmas, or guidelines for behavior. It is simply lack of belief in any God or Gods.

If that is so...

My 15th and final question is: "How is the FBI investigation into your page vandals going? Do you have a case number so I can follow up on your claims that you contacted the FBI?".

Well, actually, a Freedom of Information request for this information showed that Andy had not, indeed, contacted the FBI over this matter. However, Andy unambiguously and repeated claimed he had. Remember, Christians claim that their belief system provides the ultimate, unquestionable authority on morality found on this Earth- and forbids lying. With that in mind, why did your leader feel the need to lie about something so trivial? Would it have been so hard to just say, "We have banned this user for vandalism. If they show up again, they will once again be banned." Why did he lie to people he didn't even have to justify himself to?

Now, see point 5. If God can't protect your fellow young earth conservative Christians from lies from their own leader, on their own website where they have ultimate power, answer to nobody and never have to explain themselves to anyone except God, then how can God protect me from anything?

And, of course, if we accept that Andy lied about wasting the FBI's limited resources on a trivial slight on the Internet, what else would he tell a bare-faced lie about (and defend his lie to the proverbial death)?

I suppose my question is, if Christians such as Andy and others are the supreme authority on morality, why do they sometimes choose to act so immorally? Shouldn't they be the pinnacles of morality at all times? See point 5.

(Disclaimer: My initial assumptions said "Neither side will result in profanity, nor baseless, subjective personal insults." This claim is neither profane (except in the audacity of Andy), neither is it baseless or subjective, nor insulting. I did not call Andy a liar, I merely pointed out he has provably, demonstrably lied on this occasion. If I am wrong in this matter please, please, please correct me. I welcome being corrected.)

In closing[edit]

"And if perchance I have offended,

Think but this and all is mended,

We'd might as well be five minutes back in time,

For all the chance you'll change your mind." - Tim Minchin, "Storm".