We Both Are Atheists?
If you’ve ever dialogued with an atheist, or read anything they’ve written, you’ve no doubt come across the quote, “I contend 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.” This quote was authored by Stephen F. Roberts (http://freelink.wildlink.com/quote_history.php) some years back. It has rhetorical power, it’s catchy, memorable, and apparently is popular amongst the atheist apologist crowd. The author doesn’t mention Christianity specifically, but says he originally used the quote while debating with “religious people.” Those who have come after him have used it against Christianity. Of course, the weight this statement carries is proportional only to its relevance to a given religion. With that in mind, let’s see whether or not Christianity is affected at all by it.
“I contend that we are both atheists…” – Given Christianity’s belief in 1 God (which is not equal to belief in 0 gods), it’s difficult to tell what the atheist hopes to accomplish. If “atheism” is supposed to describe belief in no gods (or no belief in any gods), then Christianity’s belief in 1 God cannot (without breaking certain logical laws, those pesky things) rightly be called atheistic. And so such a statement only serves to confound terms and bring the debate backwards a step.
“I just believe in one fewer god than you do.” – No contention there. 0 is one less than 1.
“When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” – Here’s where the relevance can be most clearly determined:
Why is it that the atheist dismisses all other gods? Typical responses include that he is not convinced by any alleged evidence for other gods. Of course, proof is different from persuasion, as many of them will even admit. He can also claim the prospect of any gods is self-evidently absurd (which assumes some objective standard for which he cannot account, but we’ll get to that another time).
Atheists often highlight the billions of alleged gods of the many religions around the world. It’s downright difficult to suppose that they’ve seen every piece of evidence for every one of these individual gods. This means that there are many gods they’re forced to reject simply out of hand, and assume inductively that they’re all equivalent, at least in the quality of evidence attesting to them. But for them to be certain no gods exist, and make a claim to that effect (expecting it to be taken seriously), they must evaluate (and perfectly, at that) every single piece of evidence for all of those gods.
So the first apparent problem with the statement is that the atheist cannot rightly make it. The second problem has to do with its insistence that Christians evaluate other gods the same way the atheists do. So why do Christians reject all other gods?
Isaiah 46:9 “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.”
The first and strongest reason for Christians’ rejection of all other gods is simply that there is only one God, and that it is God as the Bible describes Him. This can be further seen through demonstrating that by assuming some other god exists, absurdity ensues. But for the purpose of this post, suffice it to say that, if there is only God, then god #2 cannot exist. Would an atheist really say, “I reject all gods including yours because there is only one real God and it is yours”? Of course not. Clearly, the criteria by which atheists and Christians evaluate the prospect of other gods differs greatly. Furthermore, Christians can be more sure that no other gods exist than the atheist can ever be.
So here’s to hoping another carelessly thought-through piece of atheist rhetoric is laid to rest.
I’ll take the view that a genuine mistake is being made rather than mischief being practised.
If “theism” is belief in a specific definition of a god then “a-theism” can be described as a non-belief in that specific definition.
That’s the important point of the quote.
Your reasoning for rejecting all non-Christian gods is special pleading but actually that’s ok, most religions do the same thing. 🙂
Paul, Thanks for your comment. Sorry I wasn’t able to get yours approved sooner. (Having trouble with site author privileges.)
I’m not quite sure what you mean by your first statement. Are you saying the author of the quote is making a mistake, and not being intentionally misleading? Because I’m inclined to agree.
“Theism” in general usage refers to belief in “a god” as opposed to “no god.” I don’t think it would be correct for me to say, “I contend we are both theists. I just belief in one more god than you.” As I said in my post, such a statement only serves to confuse, and I find it unnecessary.
My reason for rejecting all other non-Christian gods stems from a standard (Christianity) which precludes any other god. Much like my rejection of any answer to 2 + 2 that isn’t 4. My contention is that the atheist doesn’t have a standard by which he can say “there are no gods.”
The atheist’s contention assumes that the theist has reasons for believing in the God of the Bible. Part of those reasons are, necessarily, reasons for rejection of other Gods.
The presuppositionalist appears (to this non-presuppositionalist) to deny that he has “reasons” for believing in the God of the Bible (it’s a pre-supposition).
If that is true then the atheist’s contention, naturally, is inapplicable to the presuppositionalist, but not to other Christians.
Of course the atheist may well deny that the presuppositionalist is correct in claiming a lack of “reasons” for beleiving in the God of the Bible.
Tony, thanks for the comment.
We do, of course, have reasons for rejecting other gods. We do not say otherwise. In fact, I believe I gave a rather strong one in the post. Presuppositionalists do not lack reasons for believing in God (for instance, without God you could not prove anything. That’s one really big reason).
Thinking presuppositionally is the correct way of thinking about the Bible for every Christian. A Christian may not be thinking correctly about Christianity, but the statement does not apply to him either way. It does not apply to Christianity at all.
Saying that one has presuppositions does not mean that one denies reasons for holding to either other things or those presuppositions themselves.
Now I’m very confused about what a “presupposition” is. I was using “reasons for x” to indicate “those premises, other than x, that entail x”. I had thought that a presupposition is not arrived at by being entailed by other premises but was committed to before other premises were considered.
No matter, though. If the Christian has no premises, other than “the Christian God”, that entail “the Christian God” then the McFormtist’s objection to the atheist’s contention is cogent.
The atheist’s contention is still relevant, though, for those Christians who do have reasons, other than “the Christian God, for accepting the proposition “the Christian God” (call these Christians “evidentialists”). That these reasons entail “the Christian God” necessitates that they also entail “not Zeus, not Odin, not Shiva…”. So both the evidentialist and the atheist have reasons for rejecting Zeus, Odin, Shiva etc.; which is the point of the quote.
Now it may be that the evidentialist shouldn’t hold to these reasons, but the fact is that she does and we shouldn’t hold the atheist culpable for addressing someone’s actual position rather than a position that, although it may be considered better, they do not hold.
The atheist may also dispute that the presuppositionalist does not have reasons, other than “the Christian God”, for “the Christian God”. (Indeed he’s getting a bit of support from both of you on that). If the presuppositionalist does have reasons, other that “the Christian God” for dismissing Zeus, Odin, Shiva etc. then the quote is a reasonable point to make to all Christians.
I will admit, there’s a careful distinction that needs to be made. Here’s an example: Say you learn that 2 + 2 = 4. You understand how addition works, and that 2 added to 2 makes 4. Someone asks you, “Why isn’t 2 + 2 = 5?” You can simply answer, “Because it’s 4.” This does not mean you have no reason to think it’s = 4. Upon accepting the authority/general reliability of mathematics, you have access to certain “reasons” why you accept no other answer than 4 for 2 + 2.
“Mathematics is reliable/true” is a presupposition upon which we can say, “2 + 2 = 4.” And then, “2 + 2 = 4” is a presupposition upon which we can say, “2 + 2 does not = 5.” “The Bible is God’s Word” is the presupposition upon which we accept “There is only one God” as being true. And then, “There is only one God” is the presupposition upon which we can say, “therefore there are no other gods.” Granted, this particular reason is not available to atheists, and that’s precisely the point. This does not mean, however, that we do not also accept the reasons for disbelieving Shiva that the atheist has. Of course, those reasons would only be secondary in importance. But the author of the quote is assuming Christians and atheists come to the conclusion in the same way, and that’s incorrect.
There are different levels of ultimacy with respect to presuppositions, as I hope I made plain above. For the Christian, “The Triune God exists, and His Word is truth” is the most ultimate. And I do understand what you’re saying, regarding addressing the person himself and his position rather than what your own idea of his position should be, and in fact it’s good that people be shown that they’re using bad arguments. But to win in a debate against “a Christian” is not equivalent to winning in a debate against “Christianity” biblically-defined (Christians can act/think unbiblically, after all). There is no “Book of Atheism” as far as I’m aware, and so generally we’re stuck addressing many individual positions rather than a general “Atheism.”
Well, I apologize for my verbosity and I hope I didn’t come across as insultingly pedantic. Thanks again for your reply.
“I apologize for my verbosity”
Not a problem at all, it’s good to encounter someone who will “engage”.
This is nothing new, but what irks me about this atheistic argument (which is really more of a sound bite than an argument) is that it assumes that the difference between biblical monotheism and polytheism is merely a matter of mathematics – as though what we believe there is One of, the pagans believe there are several of.
Really, the underlying metaphysics of biblical monotheism is fundamentally at odds with the metaphysics of the various forms of polytheism. It’s not just a matter of adducing evidences for this or that “deity” – it’s a matter of basic ontology and epistemology. The God of the Old and New Testaments is described as self-existent, eternal, all-knowing, immutable, and utterly distinct from creation, which is dependent on him; the gods of polytheism (at least those varieties of polytheism of which I am aware) are supposed to be temporal, having their origins within the universe, possessing various weaknesses, and generally limited in knowledge. These “gods” that the pagans worship may well exist in some form – e.g., they may be deceptive spirits. Our quarrel with polytheistic religions is not primarily that they posit non-existent beings; it is that, whether these beings exist or not, they are unworthy of the worship that is due only to the unique Creator God. Our apologetic should, in some way, be oriented around that truth.
First, you seem to miss the point of the phrase. It is to give better perspective. It is not an absolute.
I laugh anytime I see someone (like you) take a phrase and break it down to show how it is incorrect. Not only do you apply your own biases but you assume the person using the phrase means it in the same context as you have chosen for them.
You mention atheists can not possibly have enough knowledge to dismiss the existence of all gods. You also can not claim to know the context in which the phrase was used since you were not present for every use.
Since there are many instances where your logic could be applied why don’t you do just that? Do not make any claim to know anything unless you have absolute knowledge about it. I wonder if we all followed your thinking what types of conversations we would have. For example -You do not know every reason people have for not believing in god so you can not say there is nothing proving god does not exist. You would have to admit there could be proof somewhere.
I doubt you would apply your reasoning equally to all aspects of your life . If you were to do that then you would be either a non-believer, or a painfully gullible person. Most religious believers I have interacted with apply a different reasoning when it comes to religious belief. As an example I will use your words-
“The first and strongest reason for Christians’ rejection of all other gods is simply that there is only one God, and that it is God as the Bible describes Him. ” How do you know the bible is really describing god? Is it because the bible says so? I have heard that claim many many times so instead of assuming it is also your reasoning I will use it as an example. If so then the bible is self validating. The one book ever written that validates itself, right? Does any other book validate itself? Sure, the book of Mormon. Scientology must have several books that validate themselves ( to be honest I’ve never looked into it too much, those books are pricey) Does Mother Goose validate itself too? Oh no, that’s just silly! You can believe the bible validates itself if you wish but the fact is many people are not that easily convinced, and for good reason. That kind of uneven logic makes no sense. Even if there were a god would he/she/it/they choose such a poor method of communication? The language barrier alone is enough not to mention the way humans are not perfect they get things mixed up and wrong constantly. And why have all those books written only to have some of them left out because a king didn’t think they fit well into his current ruling policy? You can see they way bible verses have been skewed and manipulated over time to fit whatever goal the person using them desires. All these things are typical of something man-made.
If you want to believe in the bible as the word of god then you need to do just that and apply it. No where does it say you are allowed to pick and choose and everyone can have a different understanding of what the bible means, if that were the case it would be pointless, wouldn’t it?
I know I am not going to change anyone’s mind here in all likely-hood. Despite that I would like to point out the way you are so critical and so condescending toward people who take the world as it is. People who apply reason and logic more evenly to all aspects of life. I don’t believe in things “just because” and I don’t claim there is no possibility of some type of creator. I take the world as it is offered to me and I accept the fact there is plenty I don’t know. I am comfortable with that. I am not going to fill in the gaps of my knowledge with my imagination and never try to discover the truth to fill in those empty spaces. Those empty spots, like the bible, do not validate themselves.
Lastly for you to post this and then say “So here’s to hoping another carelessly thought-through piece of atheist rhetoric is laid to rest.” paints a picture of someone who has a bloated ego. So egotistical you think the world has just been sitting around waiting for your incredible intellect to come along and set us all straight. We are so lucky to have you here to explain things to us. Before you the world (myself included) was getting along just fine, the only difference is I have lost a few minutes explaining what should be obvious. Have a nice day.
Thanks for your comment.
Simply stated, there is no context in which the statement would count as a valid objection to Christianity. Where there are countless gods, there are countless reasons for accepting or rejecting each of them, and for anyone without a “cheat sheet,” as it were, to be able to reject all other gods requires 1) that they are all exactly the same, or 2) extensive knowledge of all facts about all gods. Knowledge of neither of these, as I assert, does the atheist have access to. The hazard, of course, in rejecting all gods out of hand in this manner is that you are rejecting the one true God for the wrong reasons.
Your confusion regarding the many different religions and their claims strikes me as saddening, and yet I understand it quite well. I would invite you to take the Bible as true, if only for the sake of argument. Rather than viewing the Bible from behind skeptical spectacles, try to look at the world through the Bible itself. You will find, provided you can bear the view, that all of life makes sense as it should. Your anger over the injustices of the world will find a hole in which to nest itself, and better yet, you will see a solution to it.
Lastly, since your comment is not structured as one that can be answered in a timely and appropriate way here (You have 9 sentences that end in question marks.), I would respectfully ask that you take your contentions to your own blog. Please do not comment here again unless there is something you sincerely want an answer to (Yes, I am assuming you aren’t looking for answers). I’m sure that if you peruse the website (your comment tells me you haven’t), you will find that many of your objections have been answered. Whether or not you accept the answers notwithstanding.
“So here’s to hoping another carelessly thought-through piece of atheist rhetoric is laid to rest.”? Until the bibles rhetoric is laid to rest, only then can we truly stop talking in circles, and have a humanistic conversation.
Was there something you wanted to say?
The point of the quote is to get the believer to think, not necessarily to “fill in the reason” they should not believe.
Quoting Isaiah 46:9 as you have above in an argument with a Muslim would probably elicit hearty agreeement! (Or perhaps an argument about the Christian trinity.) Surely you have some other reasons that you believe that Allah/Mohammed/Kuran aren’t worthy of your devotion? Or Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon?
Then when you have come up with those reasons, you have to ask yourself honestly, how do I know that these same objections can’t be applied to my own beliefs? (See John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith” as an expansion on this idea.)
Thanks for your comment.
You’re probably right. Muslims would likely applaud my quoting of Isaiah, with contention over the Trinity. Since I maintain that God is Trinity, they couldn’t “agree” with me though. Christians do, in fact, have reasons in addition to Isaiah’s passage for believing in no other god. Remember, I said, “The first and strongest reason for Christians’ rejection of all other gods is simply that there is only one God, and that it is God as the Bible describes Him.” This does not preclude other possible reasons, but this first reason is completely sufficient and airtight in itself for the Christian. Other reasons are peripheral, and not necessarily airtight. Since my strongest reason stems precisely from Christianity, it can therefore not be applied to Christianity itself. Once again, Christians evaluate other gods differently than atheists do.
“The first and strongest reason for Christians’ rejection of all other gods is simply that there is only one God, and that it is God as the Bible describes Him.”
I’ll accept that is probably the answer that most Christians would give, but I can’t see why you would claim that this is “completely sufficient and airtight”, all by itself. After all, the holy books of other religions are going to claim the same thing about their god(s). Why wouldn’t you believe the claims of their scriptures at face value?
It still seems to me that your claim still relies on (primarily) a trust in the Bible as reliable, historically accurate, non-contradictory, accurately translated and (ultimately) inspired by God. I’m sure you believe these things (as a very recently former Evangelical Christian, I used to as well), but each of these claims about scriptures are ultimately testable and, in my opinion, come up short.
Why don’t I believe and follow the Book of Mormon? Because it contains obviously made-up stuff, historically inaccurate information, serious errors and contradictions, and blatant copy-pasta from the KJ Bible. It was also written recently enough in history that we have some good outside information that gives us good cause to doubt the claims made by Joseph Smith.
Why don’t I believe and follow the Bible any longer? Because I can now see that it contains obviously made-up stuff, historically inaccurate information, serious errors and contradictions, and blatant copy-pasta from other well-known ancient mythological tales. But it was written long enough ago that most of the outside supporting information (or lack thereof) is lost to history.
Anyway, that is the *kind* of thought-process that the “when you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours” quote is designed to inspire. I can’t say that this quote specifically played a part in my de-conversion, but the thought process behind it did. Obviously, it won’t have that impact on everyone.
If the Bible is completely true, and the Word of an Omniscient God, then what the Bible says is reason enough. I understand you do not agree. That only means you have more work to do. When you gave up belief in God, you gave up the only possible certainty you could possess concerning the existence of gods. The only thing that similarities between religions proves is that there are similarities between religions. To come to the conclusion that no religions are right because of the similarities, simply does not follow.
You said, “your claim still relies on (primarily) a trust in the Bible as reliable, historically accurate, non-contradictory, accurately translated and (ultimately) inspired by God.”
And you are right.
You said, “each of these claims about scriptures are ultimately testable and, in my opinion, come up short.”
With all due respect, to determine that the Bible doesn’t qualify as the ultimate, infallible standard requires that you have already given it up as one. You have only begged the question in favor of some other standard. Could you tell me what that might be and why it is more ultimate?
“Why you dismiss all other gods” is being put forth as allegedly equivalent to “why I dismiss yours.” I demonstrate in the post that that is incorrect. The though process behind the quote (which you admit was the same one behind your leaving Christianity) is a thought process that has already jettisoned the Bible. It leads to nowhere other than where it begins.
“With all due respect, to determine that the Bible doesn’t qualify as the ultimate, infallible standard requires that you have already given it up as one.”
I don’t agree with your statement as a whole, but this does bring up an important point: I did have to at least *allow myself to consider the unlikely possibility* that what I believed about the Bible wasn’t correct before I could really consider arguments about it. Until then, I was very dismissive of any critical claims about the Bible, because “I just knew” the Bible was true. Trying to talk to my still-Christian friends and family, I am finding the same knee-jerk dismissiveness about what I now consider legitimate problems with the Bible. I don’t view this kind of “fingers-in-the-ears” faith as a positive trait.
In retrospect, though, I’d content the exact opposite of what you claim: the ONLY way to view the Bible as the ultimate infallible standard is to PRESUME that it is the ultimate, infallible standard.
To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Greta Christina:
“The problem with citing Scripture as support for your belief is that it’s circular reasoning. You’re essentially saying, “I believe in the Bible because the Bible tells me to.” The thing about the Bible is that, if you don’t already believe in its divine truth, it looks very much like any other book, with parts that are inspiring and parts that are appalling, parts that are accurate and parts that are demonstrably flat-out wrong. The only way to see the Bible as perfect is to start with the assumption that it’s perfect, and then rationalize away all the inaccuracies and inconsistencies and moral atrocities.” (From http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2007/08/19/a-self-referent/ )
You then ask: “You have only begged the question in favor of some other standard. Could you tell me what that might be and why it is more ultimate?”
I’m not convinced that I need to demonstrate a new or better “ultimate standard” to discredit someone else’s. Perhaps “there is no ultimate standard” or “we may never know” is as close as we can ever come. But it sure doesn’t mean that I have to buy yours.
Unless, of course, you’re contending that we as human beings literally don’t have the capacity to make claims about ultimate reality, which, to steal your phrase, just begs the question. After all, we are having a conversation about it, aren’t we?
When someone who is a Christian finds himself believing something that doesn’t quite jibe with what he sees in the Bible, he must be open (understanding that God knows better) to allowing that he isn’t understanding the Bible correctly. At that point he is responsible for, as the Bible says, “Bringing every thought into captivity” to its teachings. He mustn’t follow the route his doubt is leading, if he is to be a responsible Christian. The point at which he does follow that route, he has given up on the Bible’s authority.
Not every Christian has done the study to be able to answer people who have questions about the Bible. Unfortunately, sometimes we do merely dismiss problems, as you said, rather than reason through them. And you are correct, it is not a positive thing, especially since the Bible tells us to study and be ready to give an answer for the hope they have. This is why sites like this exist. This is part of why churches exist.
If it is true that “the ONLY way to view the Bible as the ultimate infallible standard is to PRESUME that it is the ultimate, infallible standard,” then the same must be true of any infallible standard. If your standard for what’s true in the world is your own understanding, then not even you can help but to reason in a circle, constantly rationalizing what you observe so that it fits. Or, as is often the case, one can defer to another “authority” who must do exactly the same thing. And then you presume that individual’s authority. Virtually any observation can be fit into virtually any paradigm. This is why presuppositionalists hold that no piece of mere evidence is able to finally convince an unbeliever. Evidence is only as valuable as the paradigm into which it is fitted, and so the meaning of facts is more pertinent to discussion than the facts themselves.
You said, “I’m not convinced that I need to demonstrate a new or better “ultimate standard” to discredit someone else’s.”
But, unless you have an ultimate standard to appeal to for Logic, for instance, you cannot point out how someone else is reasoning illogically, and therefore discredit their reasoning. Otherwise that person can merely disagree, and no one’s the wiser. If you are stating that there is no ultimate standard, you need to give a reason as to why (i.e. cite a source), and justify whether or not that reason itself is or isn’t ultimate. If you really believe you may never know, then you simply cannot make any claims for certain, on principle, if you are to be consistent.
I am not contending that we are unable to discuss ultimate things. What I do assert, however, is that the Bible is the Word of your Creator. It is the accurate description of how the world is. Therefore, to reason in a way that comports with anything contrary to the Bible results in inconsistency and, consequently, absurdity. This can be shown most clearly through arguments brought against it. This is what we mean by arguing transcendentally. The very fact that we are having a conversation attests to God’s existence.
To conclude, I am compelled to thank you for the cordial manner in which you’ve been conducting yourself. You have been a pleasure to converse with. I invite you to come visit our chat channel some time for some real-time interaction. We have a couple non-Christians who hang out and engage quite regularly. I would only ask that you read and adhere to the chat rules we have provided on the site.
You don’t have to add this to the comments. It isn’t an attempt to spam. I just want to make sure certain people get a chance to hear it and this method has the best chance of making that happen. Thanks -http://www.reapsowradio.com/?p=31145
Thanks for the reply. As a veritable n00b the the whole blogging game, it was cool to see that I’d been responded to, so thanks 🙂
In all honesty, I was a little disappointed with the response. I feel as though the objections you raised were addressed within the post itself. Since my post was intended for Christians primarily, it doesn’t surprise me that non-Christians disagree. It’s not a good argument. And as a rhetorical device it serves no purpose. Anyway, thanks again.
I’m up for that debate if Reap is capable of expressing himself without using swear words like a child who just discovered them.
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I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you don’t believe in all the other possible gods, you will understand why I don’t believe in yours.
Seems to overcomes your formal logic objections, and essentially means the same, without the conjecture that you are an atheist too.
So one more reason to not believe 🙂
I don’t believe in all other gods because there is one God, and it is the God of the Bible. Exactly what kind of light are you saying that’s supposed to shed on your reasons for rejecting the God of the Bible?
First try to twist the original statement, then when somebody points to a logical correction, you just dismiss it for lack of arguments.
I actually love blind faith. Makes people easy to manipulate, extort money, sell pardons, threaten with hell, and reward with benefits in the after life.
Nothing else has had such a power to cause so much despair, crime, and misery in the world.
Don’t confuse a lack of argument with your failure to read or understand them. I asked you a question, and you are the one who refuses to answer.
“When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods…”
The reason I dismiss all other gods: There is only one God. And if there is only One, there can’t be another, different One (definition of “only” and “one”). I understand this perfectly well.
“…you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
The implication is that your reason for rejecting God is the same reason I reject all but one. Unless your reason is, “There is only one God,” then our reasons are not the same. And so I ask again, What relevance does your reason have to mine?
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