I have found that a favorite quote of atheists belongs to Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71):
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.
I would like to descontruct this and challenge it’s logic, but let me add this caveat – I am still exploring atheism, and it opens up all kind of fun intellectual avenues to explore, especially in the areas of logic and argumentation around faith. While the atheist reader may rejoice that I may be on "the road to reason and freedom from religion," I would counsel him that I have long been on the road of reason, and find atheism wanting and Christianity compelling, so don’t get your hopes up. One more caveat – I have a wife and kids, so usually write these between midnight and 3AM, so please give me space to backtrack ;).
When I first encountered this quote and took it at face value, I interpreted it entirely differently than atheists have since informed me it is meant.
The contention that a man who believes in one god is an atheist
because he believes in less than two gods is not only technically
incorrect, it assumes that the logical jump from polytheism to
monotheism is the same as going from monotheism to atheism. However, the logic to make these jumps is entirely different.
The polemic trick the atheist is playing on his own mind, and trying
to play on us, is to reduce the argument to a simple mathematical
equation, and then once we have accepted this false premise, to merely
subtract one more and say "see, it’s the same thing, only I’ve used the
same logic that you use to exclude polytheism, and excluded
The problem is, it’s not the same logic, and questions
of philosophy, faith, or morality do not boil down to mathematical
equations. But to the atheist whose entire epistemology
is based soley on reason, and who can not make use of intuition, faith,
revealed truth, or the assumption of objective moral and spiritual law,
I am not surprised that the best argument that Harris can rely on is
the inappropriate reduction of such decisions to mathematical metaphors.
I have since been informed that the above quote means something more like this:
you are an Atheist to 10,000 Gods, both polytheistic and monotheistic
(Allah, Zeus, Mithra, etc), for the same reasons I am an Atheist to
those same 10,000 Gods. The only difference between our Atheism is I am
an Atheist to 10,001 God’s, again for the exact same reasons.
Unfortunately, the original quotation is poorly constructed in that it is overly ambiguous, and so open to multiple interpretations and misunderstanding, so even with this "clarification" I am left with at least two possible meanings, both of which I will now attack like a poorly trained junk yard dog ;)
INTERPRETATION 1: The same process of elimination Christians use to
eliminate other religions, the atheist merely uses to eliminate Christianity as well.
While this is a nice attempt at creating parity between my decisions and the atheist’s, I believe that such a claim is badly mistaken.
My decision about disbelieving other faiths may be similar to the atheist’s in some ways, but in others, it is vastly different, and so to claim that his position is qualitatively or ethically equal to or as reasonable (or unreasonable) as mine is incorrect.
Our decisions are based on various similar and different
assumptions and methods. Not only are the differences critical, their existence proves that the atheist’s comparison above is FALSE.
a. Logical Elimination
First of all, there are logical reasons to eliminate
multiple Gods, and narrow them down to one. This has nothing to do
with faith or unbelief, only with simple philosophic and logical argument. Even if you disagree with the logic, the same logic can NOT be used to argue that there is no God.
The influential positivist philosopher John Stewart Mill argues for the logical superiority of mono over poly theism in his classic Theism, but it is not easy to distill it from his prose. Check this out:
The reason, then, why Monotheism may be accepted as the representative of Theism in the abstract, is not so much because it is the Theism of all the more improved portions of the human race, as because it is the only Theism which can claim for itself any footing on scientific ground. Every other theory of the government of the universe by supernatural beings, is inconsistent either with the carrying on of that government through a continual series of natural antecedents according to fixed laws, or with the interdependence of each of these series upon all the rest, which are the two most general results of science.
Or as gotquestions.org summarizes:
1. If there were more than one God, then the universe would be in disorder because of multiple creators and authorities, but it is not in disorder; therefore, there is only one God.
2. Since God is a completely perfect being, then there cannot be a second God, for they would have to differ in some way, and to differ from complete perfection is to be less than perfect and not be God.
3. Since God is infinite in His existence, then He cannot have parts (for parts cannot be added to reach infinity). If God’s existence is not just a part of Him (which it is for all things which can have existence or not), then He must have infinite existence. Therefore, there cannot be two infinite beings, for one would have to differ from the other, and to differ from infinite existence is to not exist at all.
There is probably more on this argument in God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, but this book is on my Amazon wishlist waiting with about 200 other titles. Note also that some have argued that polytheism is more reasonable than mono (it had to exist, right?).
Summary: Christians use logical arguments to eliminate polytheism which can not be used to eliminate monotheism, so Christians are making some decisions based on logic that atheists would not use to eliminate xianity.
b. Logical Confirmation
This is a little stretch, because "soft" atheism, perhaps the most common, ("I don’t believe in any Gods currently described, though you can’t prove that no God exists"). But this argument definitely applies to hard atheism ("there is NO god"), and applies somewhat to soft atheism, so let me say this anyway.
Atheists’ lack of belief in God crosses the logical arguments FOR God, something a monotheist does not have to do in eliminating other Gods.
Christians posit that there must be at least one God, and use such classic arguments as Gödel’s ontological proof to support that contention. So while Christians do not violate this tenet when eliminating all but one God, atheists DO violate this tenet, when crossing from belief in one God to belief in none. This makes their decision qualitatively different from the Christians in at least this one way, so the decisions are NOT identical, which falsifies the comparative justification of their stance.
c. Historical and Archaeological Proofs and Disproofs
- Nelson Glueck: "It is worth emphasizing that, in all this work, no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a single, properly understood biblical statement."
- W.F. Albright: "Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details [in the Bible], and has brought increasing recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history."
- Linda Harvey, founder and president of Mission America: "Numerous archaeological finds have confirmed the Bible solely on its historical merit. It records many prophecies that were later fulfilled. Its authority was meant to rest on both its spiritual guidance and its historical validity."
In general, while atheists may use archeology to disprove many religions, they can’t honestly do so for Judaism and Christianity. Again, atheists are crossing the chasm from monotheism without considering or being convinced by the weight of archaeological evidence. Perhaps archaeological evidence doesn’t even play a part in their decision to accept or reject a faith. Regardless, their methods for evaluating the evidence are decision process are different, and so again, the comparison to the Christian’s rejection of other religions is not entirely valid.
d. Rejection of miracles and lack of discrimination between incredible claims
In general, atheists reject all miraculous claims, and use this as part of their justification for rejecting faith. This is absolutely not part of the Christian rejection of other faiths.
However, it must also be admitted that Christians do discriminate between the "scientific believability" of one miracle over another. While atheists view all such claims, such as the virgin birth or a giant turtle laying an egg to birth the universe as equally unbelievable, Christians would say that these two claims are not on the same level of incredulity. I’m not really sure what principles might be used to describe such discrimination, but trust me for now, some miraculous claims are more incredible and less believable than others.
Summary: Atheists use the rejection of miracles as part of their decision, Christians in general do not, or they differentiate between "clearly unreasonable claims" and "believable miraculous claims." Whether or not this makes sense to an atheist, the point is that the decision making processes are different, and therefore, equating them as the atheist quote above does is nonsensical.
e. Relying on authoritative revealed truth (the Bible)
Christians rely on the authority of the bible to eliminate other faiths, while atheists have no authoritative book of revealed knowledge. Again, this shows that Robert’s assertion that the decision to be an atheist is qualitatively similar to the Christian’s rejection of other faiths is false.
I’ll stop there, but there are numerous more ways that these decisions are made differently.
Interpretation 2: Why do you
blame me for not believing in your God, if you have done the same for
every other God?
No one is really blaming you at all, except for lying about the parity of our decisions. They are qualitatively different. Sure, you may find my claims as unbelievable as I find the claims of others. But your standard for proof is in many ways vastly different from mine, and I would maintain that yours is much too narrow, to the point of being illogical and, dare I say, fearfully bound to the limits of reason alone. I know that superstition is a bad thing, and that reason and science seem the most trustworthy epistemological method. I do not discount those. However, I do include healthy faith in my equation, while you believe that no such thing exists. I understand your position, but to claim that our decisions in rejecting religions are the same is just not true. The fact that I accept my claims to God means and you do not means that we are NOT using the same rules.
Lastly, I do understand that your rejection of my faith IS similar to my rejection of other faiths – not identical, but similar. However, while I understand, I also disagree with your conclusion, and do not think that this reflects negatively on MY conclusion to eliminate other faiths. It is not wrong, in a general sense, to reject superstition or to not believe everyone. This allows me to justify my unbelief in other systems. HOWEVER, I find fault with your assumptions, methods and approach, which is why I can justify my unbelief but not yours, and why Robert’s quote seems entirely ridiculous to me, even if it is expressing a true sentiment of atheists.
It is 3:10 AM and my brain hurts. Ouch.