Our local atheist group, the KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics (SOMA) was recently contacted by a student doing a project for a senior Apologetics class. For his project, he asked various existential questions from people with various worldviews, including secular worldviews. Since I felt I could answer his questions fairly quickly, I volunteered to answer.
I thought my answers might be useful to other people, so I am posting them here. These existential questions clearly come from a Christian worldview and I addressed this in my answers, where appropriate.
To begin, I personally am an Evidentialist. This means that I believe that beliefs are justified in proportion to the amount of evidence we have for them. If we don’t have evidence for a belief, we are not justified to believe it. The reason I am an a-theist (“not theist”) is because I have not seen enough evidence for God to believe in one. If sufficient evidence were presented, I would gladly believe.
Most atheists I have talked to appear to also base their beliefs on evidence-based reasoning, so I think most atheists would probably agree with most of the answers I will give.
What is the origin of the universe and man?
Based on the physical evidence we have from genetics and geographical species distribution (and, to a lesser extent, fossils), the origin of human beings and all other species appears to be evolution.
Based on the physical evidence of, among other things, the expansion of the universe and cosmic background radiation, the origin of the universe appears to be the big bang.
As for the origin of the big bang, as far as I know, there is no physical evidence available to make that assessment. Therefore, I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does either. Without physical evidence, no justified beliefs can be formed. So my conclusion is that we just need to keep investigating.
One hypothesis that we have some evidence for is that the big bang spontaneously generated from nothing, as explained by Lawrence Krauss.
What is the purpose of mankind?
This is a loaded question. It assumes that something greater than human beings specifically created human beings with an overarching purpose in mind. I have seen no compelling evidence for this assumption.
What is satisfaction and how do I obtain it? How can I be happy?
I think this is a question that we are still gathering evidence for and that we haven’t developed a comprehensive answer to. I think many people think they know the answer because they have experienced happiness before and have had some success in producing their own happiness. But, overall, I think we still have a lot to learn.
I think we have strong evidence that the state of the brain and body are central to the experience of happiness. One book that I think gives some of the most effective, tested advice we currently have for living happily is the book The Depression Cure by Steve Ilardi (a psychology professor at KU).
What has gone wrong with the world? Why is there evil in the world?
These are loaded questions. To say that something has “gone wrong” with the world assumes that there was some predetermined purpose for the world. I have seen no compelling evidence for this assumption. To say there is “evil in the world” assumes that we have a shared understanding of what you mean by “evil”. To answer your question, I would need to know what you personally mean by “evil” and whether I would agree that it is “in the world”.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
By “good people”, I assume you mean people who help others and don’t intentionally cause harm. By “bad things”, I assume you mean emotional and physical harm.
We live in a world that is largely out of our control. There are many sources of harm in the world. It can be physically dangerous. And other people can harm us unintentionally. Or we can be harmed because limited resources are being used by other people. Or other people can harm us out of desperation because of limited resources. Or other people can harm us because they are psychopathic. Unfortunately, while helping others can bring us some protection, some dangers and harms simply can’t be avoided.
What is the solution to the problems we face?
We face many complex, shared challenges. I think the solution depends on the challenge. Some general solutions that have a strong history of evidence of effectiveness are cooperation, hard work, and science.
What happens when I fail, and how do I make things right?
It depends on what you feel you have failed at. Sometimes you should keep trying. Sometimes you should focus on a different goal. The evidence seems to indicate a variety of effective responses depending on the situation.
What is right and wrong? Is moral truth absolute or relative?
“right” and “wrong” are labels that we typically use for behavior we believe to be helpful and harmful, respectively. I don’t think the term “moral truth” is valid for the same reason I don’t think the term “taste truth” is valid. I think that morality, like taste, is a set of preferences that we have evolved to help us survive. And just as we prefer sweet and salty tastes, so too do we prefer that ourselves and other humans are happy and not harmed.
Like our preference for certain tastes, I think our preference for maximized happiness in society has helped us survive and that is why this preference exists.
Given the assumed goals of maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering, some of the best ideas for realizing these goals appear to come from science, as argued by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape.
Is there a universal moral law? Does everyone know the difference between right and wrong?
I don’t think so. As I said before, we appear to have certain shared preferences. Since we have evolved in the same species with similar brain structure and social experiences, we tend to have many of the same preferences. I think this gives the illusion that there is an overarching moral law. And our shared brain structure and social experiences definitely make it easier for us to agree on shared human laws. But if we were not human, I think we may have different ideas about what is “moral”.
What happens at death? Where are we going when we die? How do we know, and what does it look like? If it is heaven, how do we get there?
We have no evidence for anything happening at death other than the cessation of brain and body function. The positive impact we bring to the world and the positive experience we have seems to be limited to our lives and the effects of our lives on others who live on after we die.
What does your worldview do with the person of Jesus?
There is some evidence for the existence of Jesus, though some strong arguments have been made that this evidence is insufficient to establish his historical existence. If Jesus existed, there appears to be little independent evidence to verify his true identity, let alone the supernatural events and claims attributed to him in the Bible.