I agree with much of your thinking, but I'm a lot more optimistic.
Religion can keep people from seeking a better life in the here and now. Here's an extreme example: Christianity was drummed into African slaves around the world, at least partly to give them a better existence to look forward to that did not at any stage involve killing their masters.
However, look at what happened in the end. While there were a few slave uprisings, that's not what freed them as a whole. Freed slaves and their descendants slowly gathered the political, financial and social impetus to change basic attitudes toward slavery worldwide, until they had enough public support for such achievements as the Emancipation Proclamation. The cause wasn't only championed by believers; William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Ingersoll were all atheists or agnostics, and Abraham Lincoln thought pretty darn freely even if he was finally a believer.
To answer your question directly:
I'm not confident that there will ever be a proof of the nonexistence of gods. It's the ultimate unprovable negative. If it did happen, however, I see two major reasons why we would likely avoid anarchy:
Firstly, pragmatism. As the slaves would have realised, violently subjugating others and/or completely destroying the society in which you live is probably not the best way to improve your lot. Peaceful advancement from wherever you are will win you the respect of your peers and any observers, rather than widespread condemnation and retaliation.
Secondly, empathy. After you realise you have only one life to live, if you care for your fellow humans at all you extend this epiphany, and it dawns that they each only have one life themselves. Finding ways to be happier without harming others will reward whatever conscience you have.
Finally, C510, don't take this the wrong way but consider that your question is rather patronising towards its subjects. The idea that while you and I do fine without faith, "people" deprived of it would go off the rails is somewhat elitist in itself.
Thankyou for sharing your feelings, Monica. I'm sorry you were so upset. Among the most imporatnt things about the actions and media you describe is the very fact that you and other regular everyday religious people take them so personally. Sadly, although you would not make fun of atheism there are many Christians who would gladly denounce it, ridicule it and tear it to pieces. Some of us feel the need to respond in kind. It's unfortunate.
In brief, the Challenge is an invitation to publicly deny the Holy Spirit, precisely because the Bible says that doing so prevents one from ever being forgiven (Mark 3:29). It's a commitment to disbelief in response to those who say that everyone's a believer underneath, or that we should worship God just in case he exists. It's also an ongoing opportunity for atheists to declare themselves and show their numbers in the face of the majority religion of the Western world.
David Mills went past declarations and desecrated a Bible to show that it holds no special value to him. All the things he said and did were calculated to put him beyond "saving". That's how confident he is that the Christian God does not exist. It's not intended as an insult to Christians, but to Christianity itself. To individual Christians it is simply an emphatic statement of disagreement.
This brings us back to you, Monica.
- Were you upset because Mills somehow did God or Jesus an injury by soiling their supposed words? What possible harm could a mortal do to those two?
- Were you upset because Mills damned himself? If so, that's considerate of you, but Mills is quite confident that he cannot be damned in this way. He's an adult and he can make his own decisions.
- Were you upset because you have learned to revere physical Bibles as they contain the word of God? Whatever is written in a book, Monica, it's still just a book. The words transcend the paper. That's why burning books never accomplishes anything.
- Were you upset because Mills attacked your beliefs directly? Then keep in mind that he did not attack you. His ultimate message to Christians themselves was simply, "I think you are wrong." Not stupid, not bad, not dangerous, just wrong. Anyone can be wrong; this is not an insult at all. (I will admit, as he would, that he was very rude about saying it.)
It's the same idea with the Imagine No Religion poster. Religion is the target, not religious people. Nobody expects the general populace to suddenly turn extremist en masse and join Al Qaeda or the Westboro Baptist Church.
The poster makes two points:
- Some atrocities are committed explicitly in the name of religion. Whether by Muslim terrorists now or Japanese generals in WWII (under the banner of their god-emperor Hirohito) or Catholic and Protestant soldiers in the Thirty Years War or by island tribes millenia ago, religion has many deaths to answer for. While of course atrocities are also committed for other causes unrelated to religion, lack of religion by itself is not motivation to do any such thing.
- Those who fly planes into buildings and ruin soldiers' funerals are working from exactly the same basic texts as other religious people. Only the interpretations are different. While not everyone chooses the interpretations which lead to violence and bigotry, they are always available. Those who defend their religions as valid, justified and in need of protection sadly make it easier for the extremists within those religions to do the same with their own versions.
You have every right to be offended by whatever strikes you that way, but there's no reason to be personally insulted. It's not our intention to upset you, either; that achieves nothing. We're just trying to make points forcefully and encourage people to think.
Christians remain tireless in selling the Bible to the masses, hence the continued hotel-room deposits by the Gideons. They just realise that some people might not accept the whole thing at once.
Believing in a god counts as religion all right, but what they're really talking about is organised religion.
Many people with Christian backgrounds maintain a core belief in God and sometimes Jesus while rejecting the majority of church dogma and no longer attending services. The pastor you mention is targeting these people with his statement, doing his best to reach them where they are and encourage them to be more devout. His hope is that they will eventually find their way back to church, preferably his church.
On the flip side, there are also those who no longer believe at all and yet go to church regularly, out of loyalty or tradition or sense of community or what have you. Perhaps they just enjoy the ceremony and the music. Some call themselves "cultural Christians".
Nothing yet adequately addresses the reality of a rational universe, Jack, not even gods.
You're a little too focused on the multiple-universe hypothesis. It's not intended to be authoratively substituted for Creation myths in the same way as the theory of evolution can be substituted for religious accounts of the origin of modern animals. There's really no evidence for it yet, whereas evolution is supported by vast amounts.
The point of infinite multiple universes in these discussions is that there is at least one conceivable alternative to the hypothesis that an intelligent being created this particular universe to exact specifications, and therefore the theistic or deistic view cannot be presented as the only possible way. It's the standard response to the classic argument from ignorance, or as Dawkins puts it, the "argument from personal incredulity".
In simple terms, theists will often try to prove the existence of gods by pointing to something amazing and rhetorically asking, "How else could that possibly have happened?" The obvious response, in general form: "Like this, for example." Multiple universes are one such "this".
One other alternative hypothesis which serves the above purpose is that the universe is eternal in both directions, going back before the Big Bang. This removes the need for it to be created, or to emerge, or whatever, at all. Again, no evidence yet, but not impossible and therefore lethal to any attempted proof by elimination of a god's necessity.
But let's go in another direction. We'll take your stated view a bit further and reject as implausible (though not impossible) any unintelligent, undirected origins for our universe conceived so far, including the multiple-universe idea.
Where does that leave us? With an intelligent or directed origin, facilitated by an entity which can be satisfactorily described as a god. But then where did the god come from? If no undirected origin will suffice for a collection of matter and energy capable of behaving rationally (in the absence of a clear definition of "rationally" in this context, I would have used "predictably"), what undirected origin would suffice for a fully-formed intelligent entity with the unimaginable power and knowledge required to start (and, for a theist, maintain) a rational universe? Such an entity would be even harder to make without directed labour!
One solution to this is to posit an even more powerful entity to make the god; let's call it an uber-god. If you do this, however, the uber-god itself has to have been brought about by an uber-uber-god, and so on. An infinite regress is set in motion, and we're soon drowning in ubers.
Another solution is to posit an undirected origin for the god, or a lack of origin in the case of an eternal god. But what such solution cannot then be applied directly to the universe, eliminating the necessity of the god and making for a simpler hypothesis all round?
The origin of the universe is a profound mystery indeed. It remains so because the god hypothesis is an inadequate explanation; it requires an even grander explanation for itself, or it forces you to find a viable alternative which can then replace it.
Deny: "to state that (something declared or believed to be true) is not true". Dude didn't have a leg to stand on.
I don't know about the worst attempted proof I've ever heard (probably something about impossibly pretty sunsets), but here's my favourite bad one, courtesy of a well-known YouTube evangelist.
Here's a paraphrasing: If I say something will happen after an infinite amount of time, will it ever happen? No. Could there have been an infinite amount of time before the present? No, because if there were then we would never have reached the present. Therefore there has only been a finite amount of time, and God started it off.
The central problem is that infinity can end at a given instant. An infinite amount of time can have passed before the present if time extends backwards to negative infinity, rather than starting at a definite point. The same way positive infinity can start at a given number, e.g. (4,5,6,...), negative infinity can end at a given number, e.g. (...-1,0,1,2,3,4). Imagine two arrows starting in the same spot and pointing in opposite directions.
There are other issues of course. Even if the universe were finite, there are plenty of theories for its origin which do not involve gods (and often point to very eccentric properties of early time). Even if it proved a god, it provides no link to the Christian god advocated in the video.
However it's the way the argument makes a pig's breakfast of high school mathematics which really stands out to me as an occasional maths tutor. You have to wonder whether the guy genuinely doesn't get it, or he just hopes the video will reach others who don't, in which case the video is pure sophistry. Considering that he doesn't allow any critical comments, let alone official video responses, I tend to think the latter.
It's always possible that there is evidence for the events in the Bible which hasn't yet been found. That doesn't mean it's definitely out there, and the uncertainty does not imply a 50% chance either. Extraordinary claims demand lots of real evidence.
Bryant Wood is better known outside the apologist community for another claim he made in 1990. He dated the destruction of the ancient city of Jericho to a period which meant that part of the Biblical chronology is accurate.
He was up against another dating by revered archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon. In the 1950s she placed it 150 years earlier. Wood's claims were immediately regarded as highly suspect, and eventually debunked completely by further discoveries in 1995. The evidence still supports Kenyon's date, which in turn supports the idea that the Old Testament is out of whack.
Wood's latest claim rejects the widely accepted site of Ai, Et-Tell, which was evidently completely unoccupied at the supposed time of its conquest, and substitutes another site where apparently there was a population and a battle around the right time. It's currently difficult to find any mention of this claim at all outside of religious books and websites, and even they are waiting for more evidence before really shouting about it.
If and when a full archaeological case for Khirbet El-Maqatir as Ai is presented for approval by the larger scientific community, other archaeologists will do their best to rip it to pieces. That's not because it's Bible-related, it's because they do that to everything. That's how they find out what truly stands up to scrutiny.
If in fact Khirbet El-Maqatir were generally accepted as Ai, and there was a battle when the Bible says there was, it would be a very general boost in credibility for the historical aspects of the Old Testament. However it wouldn't say a thing about who did the fighting, where the people went afterwards or whether God and his chosen marauders had anything to do with it. The hypothesis that the stories of conquest are mythology loosely based on real local events would likely be advanced as much as the probability of the Biblical account's veracity.
It remains to be seen whether Wood's new claim will get that far.
Firstly, congratulations on your newfound independence and on increasing your self-knowledge. It can sometimes take a reprieve from the constant background noise of belief to even imagine an alternative to it, even if it's already your position deep down.
You seem to have a good grasp of your situation. I don't know what religion your family adheres to (from the Revelation reference I presume it's some kind of Christianity) or how devout they all are, but the sudden revelation of an atheist in their midst (especially for the first time) will doubtless provoke strong reactions.
It will indeed occur to them that you think they've wasted a lot of effort over the years. It works both ways, too; they'll think you're wasting the effort you've put in all your life. All that work to save your soul, and you're just throwing it away. The important thing is to emphasise that it is nothing personal. Your problem is with the beliefs themselves, not your family. Rejecting the beliefs does not invalidate everything you and your family have done with their church - the socialising, the charity work, the philosophical discussions. Conversely, though, the work they have done does not by itself make the objects of their faith (God, a resurrected Jesus) real.
Your parents in particular may feel they have somehow failed you, and God, by bringing you up to be the kind of person who could reject God. It's not their fault, because all they did was bring you up to think about what you are told and examine things on their merits. This prevents you from living in blind faith, and if you continue to believe you are the best kind of believer: one equipped to defend the faith. There was always the possibility that you would come to the opposite conclusion, and that's the risk. They might find this idea reassuring.
There's one thing I really need to warn you about. Your family may be intelligent, but I get the impression that they aren't terribly familiar with non-belief. They will feel a tremendous urge to try their hand at apologetics to bring you back around.
You expect this, but here's the thing: most of them will not be very good at it. You'll get the most facile, intrinsically flawed arguments in existence thrown at you as if they're irrefutable. They do seem that way to them, because they've accepted them without really trying to test them. Your very delicate task will be to respond to each one as simply and patiently as you can without getting frustrated.
I invite anyone reading this to share their own experiences of coming out to their friends and families as an atheist. It can be every bit as bad as coming out as a homosexual, so some mutual support is always welcome.