Jews, Christians, and Atheists Agree: What’s Dead Can Live

A thought occurred to me yesterday, and I want to get it down before I forget it. It seems to be universally agreed upon, whether you are theist or atheist, that one of the characteristics of dead matter is the following: it can sometimes come to life.

Let me say it more explicitly. Whether you’re Jewish and thinking of the dry bones chapter in Ezekiel (“Can these bones live?”), a Christian applying the principle to the resurrection of Jesus, or an atheist applying it to the moment on earth when chemistry, all by its lonesome, turned into biochemistry, all agree that it is in the nature of things that dead matter should sometimes become, out of the blue, alive. It never happens in our experience, but we are all convinced that it can happen, and even that it has happened–that it must have happened.

Isn’t that interesting?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Jews, Christians, and Atheists Agree: What’s Dead Can Live

  1. Gato Precambriano says:

    Unless this is an atempt in humor and irony that’s one of the most distorted conflations i’ve seem in a while.

    all agree that it is in the nature of things that dead matter should sometimes become, out of the blue, alive

    Well… that’s false. Theists definitely don’t think it’s “in the nature” of “dead matter” to become alive. That’s why you need God. Only God can “give” life. Life is some supernatural thing that once given to matter turns it into a living thing.
    Now, for science, so for Phylosophical Naturalists (atheists), there is no such thing as “dead” matter that “becomes alive” out of blue. Life is not a “thing”, a magical substance that once given to matter turns it into a living organism.
    We don’t know what life exactly is yet. But we do know what it is not. And we know that we do not live in a Harry Potter’s reality.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      You make a fair distinction when you say that the theist posits God as necessary to make dead matter live, but my point is still a serious one: all agree that it is possible for what is not alive to, in rare instances, become alive.

      And of course we know what life is. Life resists entropy and reproduces. What we don’t know is how nonorganic chemistry ever became organic chemistry (that is, how what was dead became something with the above living properties). It certainly never happens nowadays. Scientists, at least, have never observed it. And there is no Darwinian mechanism at work prior to life to build up complexity, so it’s dumbfounding as to how what had always been dead suddenly became alive.

      And yet what was dead became alive at some point. How can you not agree with that if you define dead as what is not alive? A rock is dead. Sterilized soil is dead. Once the Earth was dead. It was chemistry obeying entropy. Then what was dead lived.


  2. One distinction is that science strives to understand how chemicals become life while religions are certain that they know. It’s not the same thing. While you can draw thin similarities, not all atheists believe in abiogenesis, nor all in panspermia. The categorization is wrong in your comparison.

    That aside, I do not believe that life is a spark given to matter and brought to life. Rather, life is the extant result of chemical processes. While we tend to think of life as simply that which shows intelligence we must acknowledge that sponges are alive. Unless they have a soul too then no god gave them life unless you want to change the holy text to read that god breathed life into dirt and called it man then gave that man a soul – but that is not the story is it? It can reasonably be argued therefore that that either there is no soul, or having life gives one a soul and sponges get to go to heaven too.

    Given this dichotomy the atheist is not the same as a theist. Life begins the same, ends the same, and means nothing more to the universe for any living thing over another. To the universe, a sponge is as meaningful as a human, perhaps more so. Here we can conclude that your definition of life makes a category mistake also.

    To the theist, all that is written in their book is necessary for life… to science, not so much. There need be no gods, external influence, soul, or even magic spark. Life is. Life eats life eats life eats life eats life. From human apes back through the tree of life to the first replicating strings of acid molecules, life has evolved and continues to evolve. Theists believe it is fixed by their god and that he created it from dirt. Dirt is not nothing. Acids forming freely are not nothing. You make a category mistake on what ‘nothing’ is as well.

    Three of the four RNA strands have been witnessed to form under the right conditions, on their own. This is not from nothing, but from the correct sequence of events required to build that RNA. Life is at its simplest, a chemical reaction. This is not a terribly difficult thing to accept, it is only the chemical reaction that lead to life which befuddles some. And we have plenty of evidence to strongly suggest that this is how life began on this planet. While it is not proof, the theist is certain that life came from their god breathing life into a lump of dirt/clay… for which we have zero evidence. The beliefs are no where near the same, no matter that you might whimsically describe them as similar.

    Resurrection of once alive, now dead life does not happen. It is a category mistake to call this the same as abiogenesis. Though you can imply that stopping a heart attack or drowning from completion is resurrection, it is still not the same as the Jesus story claims. Further to claim so is to denigrate the Jesus story as nothing more than modern science applied in the midst of ignorant desert goat herders.

    In short, theists and atheists do NOT believe in the same things. just the same, it’s a funny observation.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I don’t think I’ve made a category mistake at all. Your position, in so far as I can distill it, implies that life–organic chemistry–is one of the things chemicals–ordinary chemistry–naturally get around to (sooner or later). It’s just a fact. But that, in itself, brings us back to the God and origins question: how is it that we live in a universe where life arrives from nonlife? What a coincidence if it wasn’t set up this way by a god! How absurd if it was! How absurd if it wasn’t!

      Either way, the dead rise. It can happen. It has happened. Theist and atheist agree: there is a power in certain circumstances capable of doing this. In the atheist case, chemistry turns itself into organic chemistry under the right conditions. Dead matter lives.

      If you take the evolution narrative seriously, and I do, then you cannot avoid the moment of crossover. At one moment something was not living, and at the next moment it was.

      The same is true of consciousness, by the way. And existence. These are the big three ontological mysteries (in my view): the movement from nonexistence to existence; dead matter to living matter; nonconscious life to conscious life. These are stunning “resurrection powers.” It seems the best thing to call them.

      If there is no God, these three make for an amazing combination of good fortune. How powerful chance is (if given enough time). But this seems a deeply unsatisfying explanation and drives one to the multiverse hypothesis (which still doesn’t explain the nonexistence-existence barrier).

      I think it’s possible–it’s not an absurd thought–that there is a ground of being doing these things to some purpose; that it is not just chance.


      • The true absurdity is in thinking that gods can exist in the first place. There is absolutely no reason to believe that gods can even exist, never mind thinking that a particular god does exist.

        If you want to get philosophical, lets talk about what it means to be alive and how that is any different than being ‘dead’ … organic chemistry does not re-animate previously living cells. The claim of theist is that of re-animation of the same exact previously living cells. It is not the same category.

        Again, philosophically, is non-life different from life? If in fact we exist only in a simulation, what is the actual difference between what we see as life and non-life? This little philosophical side track is not to derail the conversation, but to show that your point relies on specific presuppositions.

        What is the ‘life’ of a flame on the head of a match? Can conscious life exist in that flame? Is the universe that we know more than the flame on the head of a match? If you want ontological questions, claiming that theist and atheist have the same beliefs is not the right way to do this. Any ontological question cannot honestly be approached with the presupposition that gods exist. Excluding that presupposition exposes the category mistakes you have made.

        “This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”
        ― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

        When you look only at one of a trillion trillion trillion possible worlds it is dishonest to think that this one is special. You presuppose that there is only one universe and that because we exist in this one of trillions or more universes that this one is special and that nature has not already failed to produce life like us an almost infinite number of times. The universe is a vast and complex place. An exploding star is a one in a million event and it happens somewhere in the universe almost continuously. To presuppose that life happened only once in such a huge expanse is hubris and egocentricity. You continue to delude yourself with the notion that life on this planet is special … it’s not. Even if it were the only life in a trillion trillion universes, it is still not special.

        To top that off, your presupposition of the existence of a god (an argument from ignorance as you present it) has absolutely no sound or concrete evidence, never mind proof. You, everyone, has absolutely zero reason to believe that gods can exist and your belief that a specific god (one that is beneficent to you) does exist is delusional wishful thinking.

        You may think that it’s possible that a god exists yet there is more evidence for a multiverse than for your god, and people have been trying to prove the existence of your god for thousands of years… to no avail.

        I don’t care what delusions you entertain in the privacy of your bedroom but I wish you would at least examine the presuppositions that you make, the oppression that worship of your god expresses on the world, and to finally not simply admit that you may not know the answer but to seek the facts anew without the presuppositions given to you by men with agendas and holy texts.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        Good Douglas Adams quote, and you make an interesting point about reanimation. But I can’t agree with you that gods are absurd. The idea that a multitude of spirit beings, ghosts, or gods could exist is not absurd because WE exist. There are 7 billion ghosts possessing matter right now on this planet. Isn’t that crazy?! Talk about the Exorcist writ large!

        You can say, “Yes, well, conscious humans are not really ghosts. They are conscious and they may feel like they are ghosts in a machine pushing their machines around with free will, but they are, every single one, attached to a material brain, and are an epiphenomenon of those brains.”

        I would certainly agree with you. There’s no evidence that conscious beings in our universe can ever exist apart from brains. But here’s the point: minds exist. That very fact suggests that it is not absurd to wonder whether or not a mind existed before matter–call it the Ground of Being or God–and made a universe consisting of dead matter, life, and minds.

        As to reanimation, wouldn’t that be EASIER than what is actually posed by abiogenesis? In other words, a dead body is a soup of biochemistry (proteins, fat, etc.) whereas plain old chemistry turning into biochemistry that then comes alive is even trickier.

        As to the multiverse, well, you’ve basically undermined your own argument that the idea of God’s existence is absurd by posing it. Obviously, matter left to itself is entropic. It doesn’t self organize, even on a local basis, without lots of energy, matter, and time available to it. Otherwise, it needs a mind to order it.

        Our universe is so far from entropy at so many levels that one must naturally ask, “Could this have happened by chance rather than by a mind?” To get a yes to that question, one must pose trillions upon trillions of chaotic multiverse dice rolls to account for each orderly dice roll that is made. Our universe, on your assumption, is just one of those lucky dice rolls.

        Ultimately, the division of atheist-theist comes down to chance vs. mind as the source of the natural order and the appearance of consciousness in it.


  3. Gato Precambriano says:

    I don’t think I’ve made a category mistake at all.

    Yes you did. There is no such thing as “dead matter”, or “live matter”. There is matter that sometimes, under a particular set of circunstances, form particular arrangements, that we call life. To talk about dead matter/live matter is to fall in magical thinking.

    But that, in itself, brings us back to the God and origins question

    Ok, but that is another subject entirely. Do you aknowledge that you’re wrong in saying that “Jews, Christians, and Atheists Agree: What’s Dead Can Live”? That to put things the way you do is misleading? For the reasons I and myatheistlife give to you?
    Aknoewledge that or restate your point, but don’t change the subject until we finish this one. Deal?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      By your definition, you are right that the atheist and theist do not agree, BUT I think you are simply redefining to blunt the obvious point, which is this: where Earth was once sterile, it is now infected with life. If we call something dead that is simply going with the flow of entropy–that is, not resisting entropy, policing no cellular wall, not reproducing itself, not in possession of a blueprint for making more of itself–then the universe, as chemistry and not biochemistry–was dead. Now it’s alive (or, at least, parts of it are).

      And some of those living things are conscious. Another mind-blower. Had you been around at the Earth’s beginning, you would have said, Can this dead thing live? And the answer would have been, Yes.

      • Gato Precambriano says:

        You are changing the subject. We are not discussing the mindblowingness of anything. The point you’d make in the beguining was that religious and atheists agreed that “what’s dead can live”. And I (atheist) say that it makes no sense to say this. Matter is is not dead or alive in itself. So no, atheists and religious do not agree that “what’s dead can live”. And

        If we call something dead that is simply going with the flow of entropy

        Sorry, but have you said something about “redefining”?
        And, please, please, stop this “entropy” bullshit. It really doesn’t makes you look good..

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Well, educate me on why life is not reasonably defined as something that resists entropy in its locale?

        Such a definition goes back to Erwin Schrodinger. And I have the highly praised molecular biology book by D.S. Goodsell on my lap at this moment. In defining life, he quotes ES and writes the following: “living things avoid decay into equilibrium” (29). The book’s title is, “The Machinery of Life.” Nature and Scientific American both praise it on the back cover.

        So if I’m full of shit on making the connection, then I’m in good company.

        But perhaps you are insisting on a distinction that I’m missing.

        As to matter not being dead or alive, you’re being silly. At the atomic level, of course, there’s no distinction between atoms. And a carbon atom in a human and a carbon atom thrown into space by a star are indistinguishable. BUT it is the FORM or order of matter which distinguishes its nature. Some matter is arranged in such a way that it possesses information (such as a strand of DNA or a book) and, therefore, possesses low entropy (it’s not in a random state locally; it’s not just going with the random flow of energy; it’s exploiting energy and increasing entropy elsewhere as opposed to where it is).

        There are also forms of matter in the form of machines (such as proteins within cells). Thus, just as we can speak of matter arranged so as to carry information or not carry information, so we can speak of matter that carries life or does not carry life. You, therefore, posit that matter in a form that was not life and carried no specific information for making life became matter in a form that carried life and information for making life. And that, I submit, is just a fancy way of saying that chemistry became biochemistry; that what was dead turned to what was alive.


  4. You can define life as you wish to suit your needs. In this case to conflate theism and atheism. To define things in a meaningfull usefull way is a complete different story though. “Resists entropy” sugests the existence of intent from the start, it’s teleological. But this is exactly what is under dispute isn’t it? So what you’re doing is circular reasoning.
    To be in good company doesn’t mean you’re right. Newton believed in alchemy and in the occult, so an occultist may claim to be in good company. Right?
    AFAIK entropy is a concept from thermodynamics, and I don’t think it’s usefull in this context. We can say that the Sun, and every star FTM, is “resisting” entropy, but we wouldn’t say that they’re alive would we?

    At the atomic level, of course, there’s no distinction between atoms. And a carbon atom in a human and a carbon atom thrown into space by a star are indistinguishable.

    We agree that matter is matter then. There’s no dead/live matter. Thank you.

    Some matter is arranged in such a way that it possesses information (such as a strand of DNA or a book)

    I’m sorry but you must clarify first what the hell do you mean by “information” in any meaningfull way that allows you to put books (that are product of design) and DNA strands (that are product of Evolution) in the same category. As it goes, when you say “possesses information”, “carry information” as analogous to “carry life”, they’re just words, you know. You’re just defining them in a way that suits you. Circular reasoning.

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