Are we alone in the universe?

A guest post by scientist Dr. Michael Smith.

Astronomers have become increasingly successful in identifying exoplanets (that is, planets which are outside our solar system). The first confirmed discovery of an exoplanet was in 1992, and detection rates have accelerated rapidly in the last five years. This year alone, more than 700 have been identified. These planets vary greatly in size, density, composition, and distance from their stars, but we are particularly interested in planets in the so-called Goldilocks zone – that is, not too hot and not too cold, at such a distance from a star that the planet can retain liquid water. Life can exist under a broad range of conditions, but as far as we know it always requires liquid water. The precise location of this zone will vary depending on the size and brightness of the star, the mass of the planet, and the atmospheric pressure on its surface. Only recently has it become possible to detect planets as small as Earth this far away from their stars (such as the recently-discovered planet Kepler-186f). The knowledge that there are other places in the universe that are somewhat similar to Earth has brought a new wave of speculation about what life – if any – might exist on these planets.

While planets in other star systems are exciting, we have no ability to travel to (or even closely observe) any planets outside our own solar system. But we have done a lot of work studying our own planetary neighbours. There are currently two active rovers exploring the surface of Mars, and we have sent dozens of probes to Venus, Mars, and the asteroid belt. We have even sent a few probes to the gas giants in the outer solar system. We have taken pictures, sampled the atmosphere, turned over rocks, drilled ice caps, and analysed soil composition. More than anything else, these missions are hoping to find evidence of alien life.

But what exactly are we looking for?

While we generally think of alien life in science-fiction terms – that is, intelligent complex organisms (usually vaguely humanoid in appearance) – we can be almost certain that such life does not exist in our own solar system. It is far more likely that we would find something resembling bacteria or algae. It is also possible that we could find a “living” organism and not recognise it as such. This is because “life” remains a remarkably tricky thing to define.

Any comprehensive definition of life has to encompass a wide range of organisms, from complex vertebrates to single-celled algae. So biologists tend towards definitions of life which are descriptive: we say that living organisms exhibit most or all of the following traits:

  • Organization (the organism is structurally complex, composed of one or more cells, which are regarded as the basic unit of life)
  • Metabolism (transformation of energy)
  • Growth
  • Response to stimuli
  • Reproduction
  • Homeostasis (regulation of the internal environment)

There is also another vital feature of living organisms: they contain enormous quantities of information, encoded in organic molecules. All of the growth, metabolism, reproduction, and stimuli response requires blueprints and instruction sets. Complex, information-bearing carbon chains are a universal feature of every living organism. (This concept of the information content of life also has important implications for the origin of life, but we will get to that a bit later).

What would extra-terrestrial life look like?

So now that we’ve considered what constitutes life, what might we hope to find? Well, any life that exists in our own solar system is most likely to resemble a group of terrestrial organisms that we call “extremophiles”. These live at the very limits of what we can call a “habitable zone”: they include the alga Thermus aquaticus, which thrives at up to 80°C, and bacteria such as Verrucomicrobia, which uses methane as an energy source, and Deinococcus radiodurans, which can survive under high radiation levels. By studying these organisms, we can better understand the limits of what life can tolerate.

Of course, when life first started on Earth, our own planet was a pretty extreme place. Scientific consensus is that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and for the first 500 million years (the Hadean Eon) it had a partially molten surface and endured high levels of volcanism. Surface temperatures reached over 200°C, and the atmosphere had high concentrations of CO2. And yet, in this inhospitable environment, life seems to have emerged quite rapidly. The oldest dated rocks are 3.8 billion years old, and the oldest fossil evidence for life is about 3.7 billion years old. Fossils of microbial mats (very similar to still-living stromatolites) can be found in 3.6 billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia.

How does life get started, anyway?

Until fairly recently, the origin of life on Earth wasn’t really a big mystery, since it was assumed that living organisms quite regularly arose “from nothing”. This idea of spontaneous generation dates back at least to Aristotle: in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, bees were generated from flowers, and aphids from the dew which falls on plants. This idea went unchallenged until the mid-19th century, since it fits observations so well on a macroscopic level. Mould will indeed spring to life “from nothing” in the presence of a suitable substrate, and algae will “spontaneously” form in water over time. But in the 1860s, Louis Pasteur demonstrated that all of this apparently spontaneous generation relied on the presence of living microbes. He developed the germ theory of disease, and along the way, brought a new challenge to the biological sciences. If the emergence of life requires pre-existing living organisms, where did the first life on Earth come from?

It seemed inconceivable that living organisms could be formed from inorganic material, so science looked further afield for the source of life on Earth. The prevailing scientific consensus in the late 19th century was that the universe was eternal and steady-state, and so it was suggested that life was simply an eternal in-built feature of the universe. This led to the panspermia hypothesis, which proposes that life was “seeded” on the primeval Earth from outside sources (for instance, though a meteorite impact). But in the late 1920s, a Belgian priest named Georges Lemaître developed what is now known as the Big Bang theory, which did away with the “eternal universe”. So the panspermia hypothesis doesn’t really help us with the question of life’s ultimate origin.

This is how we wind up with the most common hypothesis today, which is abiogenesis on the ancient Earth. However, there still isn’t a widely-agreed upon idea of how exactly we can get living organisms from inorganic material. The Miller-Urey experiments (1953) seemed to offer hope: if you take water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen and fire a spark through it, you can create amino acids. And there have been similar experiments and hypotheses over the past 50 years, all with the general goal of creating complex molecules from chemicals that may have been present on the early Earth. (The composition of the early atmosphere is far from agreed upon, so it’s uncertain how realistic these experiments are). But there is a huge gulf between generating simple amino acids and generating proteins or complex carbon chains. And there is a still bigger gulf between amino acids and a cellular structure capable of controlled replication.

Perhaps the biggest gulf of all is the one between random molecules and complex information-bearing genomes. The challenge of combining amino acids into any long random chain is hard enough, but all of life as we know it depends on the creation of extremely specific chains, which carry enormous informational content. The origin of this information is truly mysterious. The science of information theory is still in its infancy, but it appears that information cannot arise spontaneously, and cannot (as far as we know) result from a random mechanical process. Information is only created by an intelligent mind.
Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, had this to say:

“How did self-replicating organisms arise in the first place? It is fair to say that at the present time we simply do not know. No current hypothesis comes close to explaining how in the space of a mere 150 million years, the prebiotic environment that existed on planet earth gave rise to life. That is not to say that reasonable hypotheses have not been put forward, but their statistical probability of accounting for the development of life still seems remote.”

With most of biology the standard answer to seemingly impossible questions is “random mutation plus natural selection plus time”. But it’s important to stress that abiogenesis is entirely unrelated to the theory of evolution. Evolution deals with inheritable modifications over time in existing living organisms, and has nothing to say about how that chain of inheritance may have started. Nevertheless, the interconnectedness of all organisms through the tree of life tells us that, even on Earth, life seems to have only started once. So even on this (apparently) most habitable of planets creating life might not be nearly so easy.

So how does extra-terrestrial life affect my faith in God?

The Bible is silent on the question of life elsewhere in the universe, but I would have no problem accepting that God decided to make life on other planets. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Ps. 19:1), and that includes any possible other life forms. There are fascinating hypothetical questions to consider, such as: is the human redemption story is applicable to intelligent alien life? would they have the capacity to acknowledge the sovereignty of God?, but the answers to these questions is unknowable at this stage.

But there is another question beneath the surface of the search for alien life: would finding life elsewhere in the universe make life on Earth – and particularly human life – less special?

I don’t think it would. Scripture does not say that we are the only intelligent life in the universe, but it does say that humans are uniquely special. Firstly, because we are imbued with the image of God, and secondly because God himself became human in the person of Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that the same Jesus, fully God and fully human, remains our intercessor and saviour (Heb. 7:24-25). This makes humans distinct from other living things, on this or any other planet.

Michael has a PhD in zoology from the University of Melbourne. This piece was written with the assistance of his wife Christina, who holds a PhD in astrophysics. Michael also writes the blog Spiritual Meanderings.

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Comments

Michael,

You wrote - "Scripture does not say that we are the only intelligent life in the universe, but it does say that humans are uniquely special. Firstly, because we are imbued with the image of God, and secondly because God himself became human in the person of Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that the same Jesus, fully God and fully human, remains our intercessor and saviour (Heb. 7:24-25). This makes humans distinct from other living things, on this or any other planet."

How fascinating. After your very admirable description of the current and historical aspects of science relating to the origin of life etc., you ruin it all by quoting scripture as if it was in some way authoritative. Or maybe you are simply describing to the rest of us the thought processes by which you keep your religious delusions in the face of the inevitable advance of scientific knowledge.

Why not forget the Bible Michael and concentrate on evidence. If you and your wife are true scientists you would never quote scripture as if it was true without having evidence that it actually is.

However, if all you are describing is why you still have your faith in spite of science, then all you are giving us is a personal story of your mindset which has absolutely nothing to do with reality, actuality or truth. What goes on inside your own head is interesting but hardly relevant to what is actually so. If you have no evidence for your god, then please do not insult people's intelligence by suggesting that because you are a "scientist" then views which you provide which have no scientific rationale at all should be considered.

Your own personal emotional journey is your own business Michael. But fact and reality may differ wildly from what you wish to believe or have faith in. Any real scientist would know this. You seem not to.

Neil Crellin

Neil Crellin

Neil,

You object to Michael quoting scripture as authoritative. But aren't you simply assuming God can neither speak nor act?

The claim of the Letter to the Hebrews is that God speaks and acts in the life of Jesus. For instance, in chapter 2 the author claims ...

This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord [Jesus], was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
— Hebrews 2.3-4

While not claiming to be an eyewitness of Jesus, the author claims that the words he spoke and the things he did were acts of God.

Is your objection to these claims simply an a priori counter-claim that "Such things cannot be", or have you weighed the evidence?

Dear Neil,

You seem very confident in your assertions about what constitutes "delusion". This confidence seems to lack any supporting evidence. You also seem to insist that "any real scientist" must necessarily be atheist. Given the vast number of religious scientists around the world, this is a remarkable stance to take.

My reasons for taking the Bible seriously are based on evidence. That doesn't mean that I use it to adjudicate scientific claims, and I wouldn't use it for support in a scientific paper. However, the passages that I refer to relate to aspects of human experience which are outside the scientific domain.

As a scientist, I am fully aware of the limits of what is scientifically knowable, and I am not naive enough to seek scientific evidence in an arena where the foundational assumptions of science are not valid.

I am glad that you found the inner workings of my head interesting.

Kind regards,
Michael

Dear Michael

I am reasonably confident (but not absolutely) of my opinion that firm belief in a supernatural creator of the universe (as opposed to an hypothesis that such a creature might possibly exist) comprises delusion of some sort. I can certainly provide reasons and evidence supporting my opinions but that would take up so many pages of philosophical, scientific and historical data that it is completely unreasonable to expect that of me in a forum like this.

Likewise, I would love to hear your evidence that the Bible is something other than a work of ordinary humans like you and me, but I certainly would not expect you to provide that in detail in a forum of relatively short posts like this one and, unlike you, therefore would not imply that the fact that you provided no such evidence in your post had any significance as to the veracity of your argument.

,” the passages that I refer to relate to aspects of human experience which are outside the scientific domain. “
That is a pretty big call to make. Neurologist Sam Harris is but one of many scientists who would disagree with you that there is such a thing as a human experience which is outside the scientific domain.
“As a scientist, I am fully aware of the limits of what is scientifically knowable”
I think you may have forgotten to add the words “at present”.
“I am not naive enough to seek scientific evidence in an arena where the foundational assumptions of science are not valid.”
Sorry Michael, but you cannot have it both ways. Either the Bible is a book inspired by a supernatural god or it isn’t. Either the universe was created by a supernatural god or it wasn’t. Either a man was killed and came back to life or he didn’t. Either a virgin woman who had not copulated with a human man gave birth or she didn’t. These are all scientific claims and to imply that such beliefs are somehow impervious to scientific investigation is surely rather intellectually dishonest, even though I’m sure you did not intend to give that impression.
“You also seem to insist that "any real scientist" must necessarily be atheist. Given the vast number of religious scientists around the world, this is a remarkable stance to take”.
I have no idea what a “real scientist” is but I think I have an idea of what “real science” is. As a scientist you must know that the truth of a proposition is not determined by the number of people who support it. There is also a vast number of scientists who do not believe in a god. Indeed, within the top echalon of scientists they are a massive majority. That of course has no more bearing on the existence of god than your mention of the vast number of god believing scientists. Evidence is the only thing that is relevant.
(In retrospect I probably should have said that belief in a god is “untenable in science” rather than “untenable to a scientist”).
“I am glad that you found the inner workings of my head interesting”.
Michael, just the fact that you claim to be a scientist but, for whatever reason, seem to abandon science when it does not suit your emotional or philosophical needs makes the inner workings of your head an extremely interesting place, in common with all of us.
The primitive limbic brain is part of our evolutionary heritage and its powerful influence on us often over-rides our more recently acquired higher brain attributes. None of us are immune to this but it is an extremely good scientific explanation of why people like yourself, highly intelligent and presumably well read, can still hold to concepts which have no evidential validity.

My principal objection to your presumed stance is that, if you are defending concepts which you say are outside the realm of science, then surely the fact that you are a scientist is then completely irrelevant. If you use your status as a scientist to promote them you are then being, intentionally or otherwise, misleading and intellectually dishonest.

The honest course of action would be to provide, up front, the caveat that your opinions on the existence of god are not in any way related to your status as a scientist.

Regards,

Neil Crellin

Dear Neil,

You wrote:
“As a scientist, I am fully aware of the limits of what is scientifically knowable”
I think you may have forgotten to add the words “at present”.

I did not forget those words. I was speaking very deliberately about the issue of what is KNOWABLE, not what is KNOWN. To clarify: the scientific framework of knowledge operates within a set of assumptions. It is not possible to test the validity of those assumptions from within the framework. Hence, the truth of those assumptions is not knowable scientifically. This is not an issue which can be overcome by increased measurement precision or theoretical advance.

I am not trying to have it both ways: miracles (in the Christian sense) are by definition untestable by science. Yes, I claim that a man was raised back to life after being crucified. Yes, I claim that a virgin gave birth. Yes, those are both claims which seem improbable based on our scientific understanding of the world. No, those claims are not testable by science.

We can say that, based on our understanding of the world, such events would be scientifically inexplicable. But the idea that God intervened directly, changing the normal course of nature in a unique event, is not a scientifically testable hypothesis.

More generally, I'm not sure what you mean when you say that "belief in God is untenable in science". It is not untenable. Science (by its own presuppositions) is silent on the existence of God, and can neither affirm nor deny it. Science, as a discipline and a framework of thought, is necessarily agnostic.

Hence, the caveat that you propose, stating that my opinions on the existence of God are not related to my status as a scientist, is a tautology. Speaking "scientifically" on the existence of God is nonsense, by definition.

This article principally concerns matters of science, and on these topics I claim some authority as a scientist. In the concluding passages (the ones with which you seem to struggle), I make some comments on matters of Christian theology. On these topics, I claim some authority as a Christian. I do not "abandon" theology or science in either part of the essay, any more than I "abandon" physics when studying history.

Kind regards,
Michael

Dear Michael,

You wrote
“Yes, I claim that a man was raised back to life after being crucified. Yes, I claim that a virgin gave birth.”
And I claim that the god Osirus exists. When he was born a voice was heard to claim that he was the lord of creation. He was killed and his body cut into 14 pieces, but these were pieced together and he was resurrected. He is now ruler of the dead in heaven”,
You rightly would reject this claim, dating to 3000BC, as fanciful, as you would reject similar claims about all the other gods, born of virgins, killed, resurrected such as . Dionysus, Inanna, Tammus, Mithra, all but the latter dating to well before the Christian era. These are obviously folklore, and it is just as obvious that the same story was repeated in the Jesus Christ myth. I view your claim in exactly the same way that you probably view claims about Poseidon or belief that Elvis Presley is still alive. I am also amused by the arrogance implicit in the words “I claim” as if the fact that you claim something has anything at all to do with its truth.
The mystery here is not whether any of these miraculous events actually happened, but why anyone nowadays with good education and knowledge could possible even begin to actually believe in such fanciful notions unless there was evidence for them.
Fortunately neurological science gives us plenty of clues as to how the human mind can convince itself of any number of absurdities. I refer you to the marvellous book ”Phantoms in the Brain” by neurologists VS Ramachandran and Sarah Blakeslee.
“ I'm not sure what you mean when you say that "belief in God is untenable in science".
Belief in god is untenable in science in the same way that belief in fairies, goblins, dragons and elves is. All of these beliefs reflect the biological workings of the human brain influenced by culture, education, mental illness and much else rather than anything about physical reality. There is no need for science to investigate things that do not exist except in the minds of humans, and then neurology and psychiatry come to the fore.
Maybe you admire what Tertullian, Bishop of Carthage (c 160 – 220 CE) is reported to have said – “I believe it because it is impossible”. There can be no argument with that of course, but it immediately means that any opinion based on such an attitude deserves no respect whatsoever.
“Speaking "scientifically" on the existence of God is nonsense, by definition.”
You can choose any definition you like to support your argument but the fact is, religion claims things that are absolutely related to the very basics of what we have now learnt about the universe through science and therefore the existence of some supernatural creator is very much in the realm of science. It is also testable, as this creature is supposed to direct events here on earth, answer prayers etc .
But people do not come back to life and virgin mammals do not give birth. If this did ever happen, then that would simply mean that there are things about nature that we have yet to discover, not that some supernatural god is directing the event.
Sorry Michael but you very definitely are trying to have it both ways. Pretending to know things that you cannot possibly know is not only unworthy of a person who claims to be a scientist, it is deeply intellectually dishonest. I know that you are not being deliberately dishonest but unfortunately such unintended dishonesty is often the end result of being in thrall to something as dangerous as faith.
That is the nature of religion and always has been. No wonder the world is in such a mess.

Kind regards,
Neil Crellin

Erm, Neil there is evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. You might want to watch this presentation.

Are there any eyewitness accounts of Dionysus, Inanna, Tammus, Mithra? The reason these are rejected is not because they are 'obviously folklore', but any historical evidence for them actually living and rising from the dead. This is very different with Jesus. 

Thanks for the comment.

 

 

Robert,

"Eyewitness" reports, passed down through years and written down decades later are hardly evidence. It presupposes that people were telling the truth and were not subject to any sort of illusion. Any policeman will tell you that eyewitness testimony is the least reliable of all, and that forensic evidence is the strongest form of evidence.

The similarity of the Jesus story to earlier myths is in itself a strong indication that the Jesus story is a retelling of earlier stories, particularly as the Jesus story is every bit as fantastic as the earlier stories and it was in a time when people were completely ignorant of the real nature of the universe.

Your comment also presupposes that the bible is accurate. In other words, you may be starting with a false premise. If you hypothesis that maybe this happened then that is at least rational. To actually believe it as fact is more a function of brain chemistry rather than an indication of reality. What do you think about the claim that Muhammad rode to heaven on a winged horse. Ridiculous of course, but no more so than the Jesus myth.

Anyway, why does it matter?

Regards,

Neil Crellin

Neil, stop being so snarky without presenting any form of evidence. The reason anyone believes or not in anything is irrelevant. You know not what you're talking about, or else you wouldn't call Jesus a "myth", that's the lowest point an atheist can go to just to deny christianity - just say you don't believe Jesus is God, for example, or that he ressurrectec. That would be enough.
Telling, as well, is that you didn't even bother giving any argument whatsoever to your position. How is that intelectually honest?

As to Jesus' existence, see:
http://www.bethinking.org/jesus/ancient-evidence-for-jesus-from-non-chri...
http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbjesus.aspx?pageid=8589952895
http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm#ch9
http://www.bethinking.org/jesus/did-jesus-exist
http://www.bethinking.org/jesus/who-was-jesus-of-nazareth
http://www.bethinking.org/jesus/sources-a-spectators-guide-to-jesus

Now, before you say "argument from biased sources are no arguments", actually read the arguments and, then, try to engage with them. You don't know everything, and you're not even trying to. Ignorance and arrogance do not go well together.

Dear Igor,

It is a strange and amusing quirk of the religious mindset that, if someone suggests that fondly held beliefs may be wrong, then they are either being “snarky” or operating from a position of ignorance and/or arrogance. May I respectfully suggest that you could not be more wrong about me and I would like to address your comments point by point. Isn’t it marvellous that modern technology allows us these sorts of opportunities for healthy debate. I would welcome your comments on this post.

“The reason anyone believes or not in anything is irrelevant.”

On the contrary. It is highly relevant to be able to justify one’s beliefs and opinions, otherwise truth will forever remain elusive. Your belief that the earth moves around the sun rather than the previously held opposite belief is surely based on the fact that science has discovered the truth, a truth which the Christian religion executed people for suggesting, Giordano Bruno being the obvious example. You have good reason for believing in a solar-centric planetary system therefore your belief is worthy of respect. You seem to have no good reason for believing in some supernatural being so, from my perspective, that belief is not worthy of any respect. Similarly, I would not expect you to respect any belief I have which is not backed by evidence and reason.

“You know not what you're talking about, or else you wouldn't call Jesus a "myth".

I have on my bookshelf the marvellous 1927 work by Dr. Albert Schweitzer, theologian, musician, medical doctor and scientist in which he concluded that the Jesus of the Bible disappears the closer you looked at the supposed evidence. I will be happy to lend it to you at my expense. More recently ex-preacher and theologian Dan Barker has written a very good treatise on the theme that the Jesus of the bible is basically a fiction. From a personal perspective an acquaintance of mine for over fifteen years is the ex-Catholic priest and biblical scholar Richard Buchhorn who certainly recognises the un-historic nature of the Jesus stories and their origin in much earlier writings.

Of course, they may all be wrong to a lesser or greater extent, but so may the writers of the reading list you gave me, but I think that I do know what I am talking about.

“that's the lowest point an atheist can go to just to deny christianity”

I happen to think that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, the Australian aboriginal legend of the rainbow serpent, the god Thor, the god Poseiden, the god Mithra, Dionisis, Annan and any of the hundreds of other gods over the centuries are simply inventions of humans who are trying to understand the universe in which we live. I think that they are all wrong, but why is that a “low point”? Why can’t your beliefs be questioned without you being personally insulted.

“Telling, as well, is that you didn't even bother giving any argument whatsoever to your position. How is that intelectually honest?”
I gave what I thought was a perfectly acceptable argument for my position, viz - “The similarity of the Jesus story to earlier myths is in itself a strong indication that the Jesus story is a retelling of earlier stories, particularly as the Jesus story is every bit as fantastic as the earlier stories and it was in a time when people were completely ignorant of the real nature of the universe.” Did you not read it?
“You don't know everything,”
Of course I don’t, but neither do you. You however, because you have religious faith, are pretending to know things that you cannot possibly know. A man called Jesus may have existed, but it is far from certain. Neither you nor I can know for sure.
“Ignorance and arrogance do not go well together.”
Nonsense. They are constant bedfellows. People of faith who are absolutely sure that they have "the truth" are amongst the most ignorant and arrogant people on this planet, with the obvious negative results that we see on the news every day.
People who do not suffer from the curse of faith are usually ready to admit that they may be wrong and are willing to change their views based on evidence.
I freely admit that any belief that I hold may be completely wrong. That is surely not arrogant.
But for you Igor, it seems that your beliefs MUST be true and therefore any questioning of them results in this rather strange post which you have submitted to this site.
I think that it is you who has the problem, not me. But all is not lost. Simply say to yourself, 100 times a day, “but I may be wrong” You will be astonished at how your mind will suddenly open up when you no longer have to defend indefensible concepts.
Regards,

Neil

"It is a strange and amusing quirk of the religious mindset that, if someone suggests that fondly held beliefs may be wrong, then they are either being “snarky” or operating from a position of ignorance and/or arrogance. May I respectfully suggest that you could not be more wrong about me and I would like to address your comments point by point. Isn’t it marvellous that modern technology allows us these sorts of opportunities for healthy debate. I would welcome your comments on this post."

If there's nothing snarky about calling others delusional and insinuating things about Michael without any shred of evidence to base these assertions on, as well as implying he's not a real scientist (without giving any proof of this), and that his faith cannot be based on anything but his desire to believe (withoug giving any argument as to why), I don't know what is.

"On the contrary. It is highly relevant to be able to justify one’s beliefs and opinions, otherwise truth will forever remain elusive. Your belief that the earth moves around the sun rather than the previously held opposite belief is surely based on the fact that science has discovered the truth, a truth which the Christian religion executed people for suggesting, Giordano Bruno being the obvious example. You have good reason for believing in a solar-centric planetary system therefore your belief is worthy of respect. You seem to have no good reason for believing in some supernatural being so, from my perspective, that belief is not worthy of any respect. Similarly, I would not expect you to respect any belief I have which is not backed by evidence and reason."

I am not talking about "being able to justify one's beliefs", and neither were you. Talks of "delusions", and "emotional needs" and "inner workings of your head" are nothing but petty insults and red herrings. Again, “The reason anyone believes or not in anything is irrelevant.” If one is an atheist because he dislikes flamboyant preachers, or a muslim because it's his culture, that does not, in any way, mean that atheism or islam are false. The subjective reasons why someone believes in anything are irrelevant. The only thing that matters, in a rational discussion, are the arguments given. To attempt to discredit one's position by trying to imply that he only holds it because of some hidden psychological, emotional or genealogical reason is just the good old genetic fallacy. https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/genetic

"I have on my bookshelf the marvellous 1927 work by Dr. Albert Schweitzer, theologian, musician, medical doctor and scientist in which he concluded that the Jesus of the Bible disappears the closer you looked at the supposed evidence. I will be happy to lend it to you at my expense. More recently ex-preacher and theologian Dan Barker has written a very good treatise on the theme that the Jesus of the bible is basically a fiction. From a personal perspective an acquaintance of mine for over fifteen years is the ex-Catholic priest and biblical scholar Richard Buchhorn who certainly recognises the un-historic nature of the Jesus stories and their origin in much earlier writings.

Of course, they may all be wrong to a lesser or greater extent, but so may the writers of the reading list you gave me, but I think that I do know what I am talking about."

A theologian's, musician's, medical doctor's, scientist's and ex-preacher's opinions are as relevant in regards to historic facts as the opinions of a plumber or show host. The fact that people have different opinions and that "they may be wrong" is also irrelevant. They may be wrong about anything. Would you be content with me giving you a link to the Discovery Institute's website and saying "well, all these marvellous books conclude that darwinian evolution cannot account completely for the origins and development of life. They may be wrong, of course, but so may the mainstream biologists"? It's the same issue. The "Jesus-myth" idea has been widely abandoned by the vast majority of biblical scholars and "historical Jesus historians" (the majority of which are very atheistic, by the way), such that this view is no longer the majority view, as it was in the 19th century and, in some places, in the beginning of the 20th. Besides the links I gave you (some of which deal directly with source documents), a quick search would add that there is near unanimity among scholars that Jesus existed historically [1][2][N1][N2][N3][N4] and that the "Christ myth theory" is rejected even by critics.[3][N5][4][5][6], including ex-evangelical and atheist scholars like [7].

[1]Fox, Robin Lane (2005). The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian. Basic Books. p. 48. ISBN 978-0465024971.
[2]Dickson, John. "Best of 2012: The irreligious assault on the historicity of Jesus". Abc.net.au. Retrieved 17 June 2014.
[3]Robert E. Van Voorst (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-4368-5.
[4]Mark Allan Powell (1998). Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-664-25703-3.
[5]James L. Houlden (2003). Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture: Entries A - J.. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-57607-856-3.
[6]Robert E. Van Voorst (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-8028-4368-5.
[7]Bart D. Ehrman (20 March 2012). Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-208994-6.
[N1] While discussing the "striking" fact that "we don't have any Roman records, of any kind, that attest to the existence of Jesus," Ehrman dismisses claims that this means Jesus never existed, saying, "He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on clear and certain evidence." Bart D. Ehrman (22 March 2011). Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. HarperCollins. p. 285. ISBN 978-0-06-207863-6.
[N2]Robert M. Price (a former fundamentalist apologist turned atheist who says the existence of Jesus cannot be ruled out, but is less probable than non-existence) agrees that this perspective runs against the views of the majority of scholars.James Douglas Grant Dunn (1 February 2010). The Historical Jesus: Five Views. SPCK Publishing. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-281-06329-1.
[N3]Michael Grant (a classicist) states that "In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus' or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.". Michael Grant (January 2004). Jesus. Orion. p. 200. ISBN 978-1-898799-88-7.
[N4] "There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more.". Richard A. Burridge; Graham Gould (2004). Jesus Now and Then. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-8028-0977-3.
[N5]"[F]arfetched theories that Jesus' existence was a Christian invention are highly implausible.". Markus Bockmuehl (8 November 2001). The Cambridge Companion to Jesus. Cambridge University Press. pp. 123–124. ISBN 978-0-521-79678-1.

"I happen to think that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, the Australian aboriginal legend of the rainbow serpent, the god Thor, the god Poseiden, the god Mithra, Dionisis, Annan and any of the hundreds of other gods over the centuries are simply inventions of humans who are trying to understand the universe in which we live. I think that they are all wrong, but why is that a “low point”? Why can’t your beliefs be questioned without you being personally insulted."

I called it "the low point" because, instead of being content with not beliving in Jesus (the other one's you mentioned are irrelevant to the current discussion, as I haven't seem no aboriginalist here arguing for the contrary) for whatever reason, you have to falsify history and defend farfetched theories almost no serious scholar believes in, like the defenders of most conspiracy theories.

"I gave what I thought was a perfectly acceptable argument for my position, viz - “The similarity of the Jesus story to earlier myths is in itself a strong indication that the Jesus story is a retelling of earlier stories, particularly as the Jesus story is every bit as fantastic as the earlier stories and it was in a time when people were completely ignorant of the real nature of the universe.” Did you not read it?"

As someone who has actually read earlier myths, I don't accept this at all. This idea, again, was current in the XIX century, but not in current circles. This has sometimes been called the "Eclipse of Mythology" in Life of Jesus research, or "the Jewish reclamation of Jesus". See http://www.reasonablefaith.org/jesus-and-pagan-mythology and http://benwitherington.blogspot.com.br/2007/12/zeitgeist-of-zeitgeist-mo... and http://www.alwaysbeready.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&i..., for example, if you want to buy no books. I'd like to stress, again, that the mere fact that so many people (both christian and non-christian) disagree with your view (and before you say this is an appeal to authority, I'd say: indeed, it is. Appeals to authority are necessarily fallacious only if we appeal to "authorities" that are not authorities in the relevant field being discussed.)

"Of course I don’t, but neither do you. You however, because you have religious faith, are pretending to know things that you cannot possibly know. A man called Jesus may have existed, but it is far from certain. Neither you nor I can know for sure."

Unless you're going to defend some for of historical skepticism, this is irrelevant, and true of most historical facts.

"Nonsense. They are constant bedfellows. People of faith who are absolutely sure that they have "the truth" are amongst the most ignorant and arrogant people on this planet, with the obvious negative results that we see on the news every day.
People who do not suffer from the curse of faith are usually ready to admit that they may be wrong and are willing to change their views based on evidence.
I freely admit that any belief that I hold may be completely wrong. That is surely not arrogant.
But for you Igor, it seems that your beliefs MUST be true and therefore any questioning of them results in this rather strange post which you have submitted to this site.
I think that it is you who has the problem, not me. But all is not lost. Simply say to yourself, 100 times a day, “but I may be wrong” You will be astonished at how your mind will suddenly open up when you no longer have to defend indefensible concepts."

Yes, like Stalin and Mao. Do you have any evidence that "people who do not suffer from the course of faith are usually ready to admit that they may be wrong and are willing to change their views based on evidence" anymore than anyone else of similar background or is this just some slogan? I didn't even claim any belief in this discussion (although I do hold to christian beliefs), I simply questioned your flawed historical knowledge and use of the genetic fallacy - just like a local non-humanist atheist and anti-new-atheism in my country does (curiously, the most common response to him is "You're a stupid person for believing in biblical fairytales"), and many of the atheist scholars quoted by me. You, however, gave us almost nothing.

(To those reading: sorry for any possible mistakes. English is not my first language and I, at the moment, can't use no spellcheck)

It is very simple Igor. You are claiming that things are true, things that you cannot possibly know. Truth is what I am concerned about, and this seems to be the last thing on any religious person's mind. People do not die and come back to life, the earth is not only a few thousand years old, and any "scientist" who claims that such things are true is not behaving like a scientist. Faith is pretending to know that which you cannot possibly know, so stop giving me reading lists as if authority from elsewhere was important. Why do you believe what you do? You do not know how the universe started, or even if it did. You do not know that there is some supernatural magic creature at the bottom of it all. You do not know anything really but simply have opinions which, if they include miracles and supernatural gods, indicate to me delusional thinking. And yes, if Michael is claiming that this supernatural world exists without anything other than his desire to believe as evidence, them he is not operating as a scientist. That is not being snarky at all. When people who suffer from the delusion of faith stop associating non-belief with everything that is bad in the world, then I may regard them with a bit more compassion. but right now, the good fight is the one for reason, logic, science, humanitarianism and being kind to others for the right reasons, not because of some religious indoctrination or belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. I regard all religious belief as quite pathetic, childish and ultimately extremely dangerous.

Why not join the good fight in promoting education, reason, logic, scepticism and true care for others and forget your self centred need to be correct about your religious fantasies and your subservience to some man made supernatural sky daddy.

regards,

Neil

Just the same thing again. Since you have no desire to actually learn about the topics at hand and will keep just using red herrings and false dichotomies (and, it seems, a strawman at the middle), I must go. Obviously, you wish not to know if your historical beliefs are true, as shown by your refusal to learn what the people who actually earn a living investigating these things say, or reading academic articles about them (infidel websites and old books are enough). It seems you're not just an atheist, but a new atheist, basically an "atheist fundamentalist" in the words of Peter Higgs. By the way, if "cannot know" is your greatest argument, you ought to be an agnostic, not an atheist.

Good bye and have a nice day.

Dear Igor,

What I am is a person who has a passion for truth, which is why I realise that the writings of ignorant nomads of thousands of years ago, fascinating and important as they are in the development of various human cultures, do not hold any actual answers as to the reality of what comprises the universe. We have only just started to discover that in the last four hundred years since modern science was developed. But even in that relatively short time of human history, an enormous number of religious beliefs have bitten the dust, never to be seen again. This can only be good for the future of mankind, as superstition and ignorance is probably the greatest threat to human happiness.
So, rather than give up on the debate when you are presented with arguments for which you have no response except rather reactive and completely erroneous superficial accusations about me, why not engage with the argument and actually address what I wrote.
I read most of the articles in the links that you sent me and found them to be the usual self-justification of why belief is important. There was not one piece of evidence presented to show that the supernatural even exists, let alone the Christian version of it.
If you believe something is true only because of tradition, authority or revelation then you are believing for the wrong reasons. Evidence is the only thing that matters, and if it does not exist, then you must suspend judgement.

So, because you present your beliefs without evidence, I can dismiss them without evidence.
However, there is a huge amount of evidence for everything that I believe, so rather than make false and snide assumptions about me, why not ask me some pertinent questions. Maybe you are after all pretty unsure of your beliefs to give up on this conversation as easily as you have done. That is a very good thing which suggests that you are open to learning something new.
The phrase at the very forefront of any thinking human being is “but I may be wrong”. Are you a thinker or a believer?
Regards,
Neil

http://honestbear.blogspot.no/2015/01/alone-in-universe-i-think-not.html

believing you are alone in the universe is beyond presumptious.
this blog states why.