An increasingly popular rhetorical meme in debates about God, it seems, is the idea that the theist is really on the same trajectory as the atheist. After all, the theist has also rejected every god, save one. It seems that it was Stephen Henry Roberts who revived this charge: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Richard Dawkins echoes: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” Or, in Christopher Hitchens’ words: “Everyone in this room is an atheist. Everyone can name a god in which they do not believe.” Interestingly, the charge dates back to at least AD 155, when devotees of the Roman pantheon of gods leveled a similar accusation. At the trial of Polycarp, the Martyrdom of Polycarp records that the crowd yelled: “This is the teacher of atheism, the father of the Christians, the enemy of our gods, who teaches so many to turn from the worship of the gods and not to sacrifice.”1 Despite its pedigree, and however effective it is rhetorically, this meme doesn’t strike me as trenchant in the least. As I see it, the question of God’s existence is a fundamentally different sort of question than whether any one of the purported gods is in fact God. Allow me to draw an analogy. I believe that my mother is Margaret. She told me so and she’s been around as long as I can remember. Not only do I believe that she is my mother, but also that neither are any of the other billion or so women of age. Say that I learn that in fact she adopted me and has concealed this from me my whole life till now. I would be left without belief in any particular mother. And yet, I wouldn’t for a second think that I didn’t have any progenitor whatsoever. That is a different kind of conclusion, and I would still have reason to believe that I was birthed, that I didn’t spontaneously emerge from, say, a dandelion. Likewise, the rejection of belief in God is not merely one of subtraction from the sum total of gods on offer, but more like choosing one kind of geometry over another from the beginning. Just as the reasons I have for believing that Margaret is my mother comprise a different set than those I have for believing I have some mother, so too are the relevant considerations for whether God is versus who God is.
The Role of Natural Theology
To the extent that the traditional arguments for God’s existence play a role, belief in God is logically prior and independent of reasons for belief in any particular deity like Zeus, Odin, or the God of Abraham. I believe that the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments for the existence of God — usually unarticulated — play a significant doxastic role for most theists. They certainly do in my judgment that the existence of God is more likely than not. Were I to conclude that all of our notions of God throughout history were mistaken, I may still be inclined to think that I and the material world are contingent beings, that we bear the marks of intentionality, that we have objective moral obligations. And so, I might still believe it most likely that a first-cause, a designer, a source of morality exists. The preponderance of those who have some vague notion of God on such bases, people like a Stephen King or Antony Flew, are an indication, I think, that beliefs about the existence of God are arrived at for their own reasons. Their trajectory is not the remainder of a process of elimination, but rather the terminus of a positive line of reasoning.
The idea of God in such cases is not entirely empty, of course. In the above scenario, though I wouldn’t know much at all about my birth mother, I could at least know she was human, that she had a womb, that she was of at least a certain age, that she was caucasian, etc. Similarly, though we may not know much about God based on natural theology, we may still think it rational to believe that God is powerful, intelligent, and good. Not surprisingly, we find that these attributes constitute a core of theistic belief that is consistent across a broad spectrum of deities. So, if natural theology carries any weight at all, it is not true, as Roberts suggests, that in understanding the reasons he dismisses all such particular deities, one will also understand why he dismisses the existence of any deity whatsoever.
The Same Sauce for Ganders and Geese?
There is also a more immediate question raised by Roberts’ claim: “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Is it really the case that the reasons for rejecting any one of the competing visions of God are roughly the same in each case? This suggestion strikes me as implausible on the face of it. For example, I’m strongly disinclined toward Mohammed’s vision of God in part because the life of war and plunder that he led does not commend itself to me as befitting that of a spokesperson for God. By contrast, I’d venture to say that few reject the Christian view of God on this basis, due to repugnance at the life of Jesus. Ahistoricial religions, like the many flavors of pantheism, are problematic for other reasons, in part because they often deny the helpfulness of reason itself. The relevant considerations in these examples are incommensurate. It is a gross oversimplification to think that Hinduism and Judaism, Animism and Bahá’í, each of which makes profoundly different kinds of truth claims, could be swept aside by one devastating insight. What exactly would that insight be? That homo sapiens evidently have an almost irrepressible urge to see something supernatural beyond the natural world? That theories about whatever that something is are almost endlessly diverse and contradictory? That by necessity, then, most of them must be wrong, at least in part? If Roberts had supplied the reason (or reasons) he thought that you and I had rejected all the other gods, we could determine whether his reasons were the same as our reasons. But, of course, no such reason is forthcoming, because our reasons for rejecting other beliefs in favor of our own are as diverse as believers themselves, just as the atheist’s reasons for disbelief are many and uniquely personalized in each case. Even were I to acutely understand the reasons I have rejected each of the purported gods I’ve given pause, I wouldn’t presume to guess at what constituted Roberts’ reasons. In this case, what was sauce for the gander may not be sauce for the goose.
Equivocation for the Sake of the Argument
Perhaps the biggest problem in these quotes is the strange use of the term “atheist”. If a Christian theist doesn’t believe in Allah or Ahura Mazda, is it accurate to say that she is an “atheist” with respect to them? Not really. On the contrary, she is likely to observe the common belief that there exists a transcendent being who is good and powerful, the reason for our being. She remains very much a theist with respect to the various understandings of who God is, while differing with a number of supposed attributes of said God. It is a disagreement about properties, not about existence. In Denver, where I live, there is an anonymous merrymaker who each Christmas drops a gold coin in the Salvation Army bucket somewhere in the city and who, dressed as Santa, hands out hundred dollar bills to strangers. I have reason to believe that this individual may be a member of my extended family. Others have other ideas about whom this cheerful soul is. Though we disagree about his identity, whether or not he is bespectacled with a grizzly beard (as I think), nonetheless we are sure that this person exists. We are not “amerrymakers” with respect to each other’s beliefs, so to speak.
Indeed, we always differ to some extent in the properties that we attribute to individuals. If you ask five people to think of the pop icon Madonna, each person will fix their minds on Madonna using a unique set of associations in their minds. (Two cones and a bottle come to my mind. Tsk, tsk.) Some of these associations may be contradictory, even incorrect, but each person is still able to think of and talk about Madonna. How this works is the subject of a subtle and surprisingly puzzling area of the philosophy of language. While there are a number of competing theories of reference, suffice it to say that we generally take for granted that we can talk about the same entity even when we have deep disagreements about its attributes. If not, political, religious, philosophical, and scientific discourse would be impossible. A-theorists and B-theorists simply couldn’t debate the nature of time because they would be unable to talk about the same thing. With respect to the existence of God, Eric Reitan’s advice is apropos.
And, if as most theists would agree, God transcends our finite understanding, wouldn’t it be better to define “God” in a way that makes our understanding of the divine susceptible to development in the light of critical reflection? What we need is a definition that points us to something without presuming to describe every key detail; a definition that gets all of us “looking in the same direction” so that we can have a debate about the properties of what we’re looking at. (Is God a Delusion?, p.45)
Again, there are two questions. First, is there a transcendent person who is the ultimate reason for our being? Second, is that transcendent person like this, or like that? We should not confuse answers to the second question for answers to the first. It is my answer to the first question that determines whether I am a theist or atheist. In this, the theist stands with the plurality of humankind both past and present, in spite of the disconsolate disagreements in virtually every other respect.
A Reductio Ad Absurdum
Over the course of human history, humans have pledged allegiance to an almost limitless diversity of governmental systems, most of which we now consider unjust or unworkable. We largely reject feudalism, monarchism, fascism, theocracy, chiefdoms, communism, pure democracy, tyranny, etcetera, etcetera. I can just imagine, with half a smile, an anarchist appropriating the line of thought considered here to argue that, therefore, we should reject belief in any form of government whatsoever, including representative democracy. After all, we have all rejected most of the governmental systems that have preceded our own. The anarchist merely “goes one step farther” and rejects the legitimacy of any government. Though the analogy may be imperfect, it should be clear that the rejection of a wide diversity of competing visions of governance does not in the least constitute an argument for the wholesale rejection of the necessity and efficacy of some form of government. It would be easy to generate further absurdities following the logic of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Roberts in virtually every field of human inquiry wherein we have discarded former modes of thought in favor of our current theories. Whether it is in physics, climatology, astronomy, or political science, the history of discarded theories in these realms does not imply the non-existence of some underlying reality that is the subject of their investigations, mutatis mutandis. That, simply, does not follow.
There’s no question, loss of faith in a particular God often leads to atheism. John Loftus at Debunking Christianity and Luke Muehlhauser at Common Sense Atheism are but two of many examples. Nonetheless, other roads are also well traveled. My sense is that, perhaps the more likely vector for the theist who rejects the last god whom he thought may have been the God is an attenuated theism. For example, Thomas Paine, who criticized organized religion and the Christian notion of God as vociferously as any of the “new atheists”, was nonetheless a fervent defender of the existence of a Deity.
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. … But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them. I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. ~ The Age of Reason (The Truth Seeker Co.: 1898), p. 50.
Paine’s deism was rather formal, including a defined, though minimal, idea of God and morality. More often, attenuated theism is less delineated, a vague belief or hopeful half-belief that some undefined “higher power” is “out there”. This sort of belief in God is perhaps even more common than belief in any of the particular visions of God advocated by the world’s great religions. As I have said, the reason for this, I think, is that the grounds for rejecting particular gods are of a different sort than those for rejecting belief in God. Disenchantment with the gods of these religions is not uncommon, and if Dawkins and company were right that the next step is the rejection of belief in any God whatsoever, we’d expect them to be in much larger company. Rather, we find that, however limited our knowledge of God, the belief in some God remains remarkably persistent.
I take it that the rhetorical impulse behind the atheologian’s point is to reverse the polarities of human opinion. One might be impressed that the overwhelming majority of humans have believed in a supernatural reality, and that many have thought that reality personal. The atheologian reorients our attention away from that apparent consensus to the almost limitless divergence of beliefs about the supernatural. The radical diversity of theological views is worthy of attention in its own right. Nonetheless, it hardly does away with theism as the commonly held belief that it is, nor is it, in the form considered here, an explanation of or an argument for the move from theism to atheism. When disputants protest, as they often do — “That’s just semantics!” — very rarely is the disagreement just a matter of semantics. In this case, we may have a genuine case of an “argument” that in fact relies crucially on an equivocation about the meaning of a word. Worse still, even if the equivocation is allowed, nothing follows from the fact that atheists believe in one less god than “Christian atheists”. This is a meme that should go the way of the dodo.
1 Veselin Kesich, Formation and Struggles: The Church, AD 33-450 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2007), p. 142.
2 It appears that Richard Carrier has also followed along in this equivocation. “But if the idea of a god is inherently illogical (if the very idea is self-contradictory or meaningless), or if it is contradicted by the evidence, then there are strong positive reasons to take a harder stance as an atheist – with respect to that particular god. For in this sense, even believers are strong atheists – they deny the existence of hundreds of gods. Atheists like me merely deny one more god than everyone else already does – in fact, I deny the existence of the same god already denied by believers in other gods, so I am not doing anything that billions of people don’t do already.” (Sense and Goodness without God, p. 255.)
3 This notion apparently has no bounds. Skeptic Report is now selling t-shirts.
4 In Angels & Demons, the distinction is nicely made during one of its better scenes, a conversation between Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) and Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). McKenna: “Do you believe in God, sir?” Langdon: “Father, I simply believe that religion…” McKenna, interrupting: “I did not ask you if you believe what man says about God. I asked if you believe in God.” Langdon replies: “I’m an academic. My mind tells me that I will never understand God.” McKenna: “And your heart?” Langdon: “Tells me I’m not meant to. Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive.”
5 William Lane Craig addresses the “we’re all atheists” idea in a short clip on YouTube. He also discusses the definition of atheism at Reasonabe Faith. More recently, in a Reasonable Faith podcast (“A Scientist and a Comedian Discuss God, Part 2”), in response to Ricky Gervais’ version of the argument, William Lane Craig asks: “Does this silliness even need refutation?” Craig goes on to surmise: “What this seems to show is that, just as in the Christian subculture there are certain patterns of thinking and lingo that get perpetuated on and on and are insulated from the wider world, I think in the atheist subculture as well there must be this sort of insular pattern of thinking that just gets perpetuated from one generation to the next.” Gervais presents the argument in an interview with Richard Dawkins. As Dawkins chuckles approvingly, Gervais argues: “I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in about 2,700 gods. Christians don’t believe in 2,699 gods. So they’re nearly as atheistic as me. As a percentage, they’re right up there. They’re very nearly an atheist. ”
6 To underscore the extent to which Christian theists are prone to rejecting alternative, specific gods, Luke Muehlhauser maintains an impressive list of the panoply of gods which both Christians and atheists reject.
7 J. W. Warwick offers an analysis of the rational incoherence of this meme in his “On the Statement that ‘We Are All Atheists’” at Always Have a Reason.
9 “On the Alleged Atheism of Early Christians” by J.W. Wartick.