Considering all of the conversations with atheists I have had recently, I thought I would bring back to light the fallacy of this common argument.
“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” —Stephen F Roberts
This is a quote that is found often on the lips of atheists these days. It can be summed up this way: “I don’t have to take the time to reject Christ any more than you have to take the time to reject all the millions of gods that are out there. It just happens by default. The justification for my atheism is the same as yours with respect to your rejection of all the other possible gods.”
While I understand the spirit of this quote, I think it fails to understand some of the very basic beliefs that Christians are claiming about their God as opposed to “the other possible gods.”
I have heard my favorite atheist, Christopher Hitchens, compare belief in Jesus to belief in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Clause. This is really saying the same thing using different illustrations. But he also likes the “I don’t believe in other gods thing too.” As he once said, “No, I don’t believe in Yahweh. I don’t believe in Hercules either.”
As effective as these types of implicit appeals of association might be emotionally, they miss the mark completely. All assume a parallel that is simply not present when the claims are understood and the evidence is considered.
Take the “I don’t believe in Hercules” argument for example. This assumes a parallel between belief in Christ and a belief in any one of the millions of gods that have ever existed, especially those who belonged to a system of religion which espoused many gods (polytheism). These type of systems are represented by ancient Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Greek, and Roman cultures (as well as others today). There is really not too much difference between the basic philosophical structure of each.
There are two primary reasons why I believe drawing parallels between belief in these gods (or Tooth Fairies) are misleading:
1. The type of belief
Whether we are speaking of this from a political or rural position, the commitment to religious pantheonism (note: not “pantheism”), especially of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman world, don’t have as committed adherents as we often think. The religious culture that Christianity demands needs to be distinguished here. People did not really believe in Shu, Nut, Hercules, Baal, Wearisomu, Enki, Utu, Diana, and the like in the same way that people believe in Yahweh. Their belief was more of a social convention which included all the pressures that such a system demanded. Their gods were more “faddish” than anything else. Their existence was rather fluid, changing and even morphing into other gods and sometimes moralistic ideals such as “justice” and “reason.” This is why the Caesers could so easily deify themselves and expect people to jump on the bandwagon. Did these people really suddenly believe Caeser was a god? If so, what does this say about the type of belief they had? Both in the philosophical world of the day and among the laity, “belief” as we think of it, was not present.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that we have “faddish” Christianity today where people follow the tide of the culture in believing in Christ the same way that people believed in these ancient gods. In this social folk religion, there is a parallel. But the basis for belief in these other gods was founded on social convention, not philosophical, rational, and historic necessity as is the case with Christianity. Christianity exists not because of rural pragmatism, but because of historic events.
2. The type of god
More importantly, the gods of these pantheons were/are not really gods in the proper sense. In order to call them such is a misunderstanding of what “god” means. In other words, they were functional deities who carried a role that was expedient to the life and happiness of the people. They were the gods of rain, sun, crops, war, fertility, and the like. They were the “go-to” immanent forces who had no transcendence or ultimate creative power. They were more like superheroes from the Justice League than gods. In this system, human beings and these gods shared the same type of life, having similar problems and frustrations. The deistic philosophy of the people did not center around a “universe” in which one god was controlling and holding all things together, but a “multiverse” where each god was responsible for his or her respective career. Therefore, these gods would have much more in common with the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause than they would with the God that the Bible describes.
While most systems had a “top dog,” if you will (Zeus, Re, Enlil, Marduk, etc), these were not thought of as the ultimate creators of all things who, out of necessity, transcend space and time. They were simply really, really powerful beings that happened to be caught up in the same world we are. More powerful than us mortals? Yes. But none qualify for the title “God.”
Christianity believes in only one God (monotheism). We believe this not simply because we want to have the most powerful being out of the millions, but out of theological and philosophical necessity. We believe that God created all things out of nothing. We believe that existence necessitates a “first cause” or an “unmoved mover.” This first cause is by definition God. Simply put, whoever started it all (the time, space, matter creation) is the only true God. There cannot be multiple first causers. God, while able to interact and love mankind, must transcend all that we see and know. He must be outside of our universe holding it all together, not simply the most powerful actor in our current play. We are simply talking about two different species here. One that is transcendently holy, both ontologically (who he is in essence) and morally (what he does) and the other which is but a hair’s breath from us.
In the end, the theistic type of God espoused by Christianity cannot be compared to the pantheon of gods of polytheistic religions. It is comparing apples to oranges.
Let’s look at this statement again:
“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.” —Stephen F Roberts
I understand perfectly why Stephen F Roberts and Christopher Hitchens reject all the other gods. It is because they reject polytheism. But I don’t understand how this parallels to the rejection of the Christian God. It is a slight of hand to make such a comparison (effective as it may be). People believe in these two completely different things for completely different reasons and, therefore, must reject the two differently. The same arguments used against these gods cannot be used effectively against the Christian God. Once polytheism as a worldview is rejected, all the millions of gods go with it. I don’t have to argue against each, one at a time.
My time is up, but I understand the much needed sequel. While there is a philosophical barrier that does not allow us to equate belief in the Christian God to belief in the myriad of gods in polytheistic systems, this does not mean that the Christian God cannot be compared to the god of Islam. However, if Stephen F Roberts would have said, “When you understand why you dismiss Allah, you will understand why I dismiss Yahweh,” then it would be philosophically correct. The comparison would be in tact and the conversation would not be manipulated into this accept-all-or-nothing resolve. However, it still would not make sense. I do reject Allah and my reasons are very specific. But they are not the same reasons why he rejects Christ.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]