Tuesday, 9 July 2013

"We're all atheists - I just believe in one fewer God than you" - rebutting the oldest atheist joke

One of the more vacuous quotations from atheists is this aphorism from Stephen Roberst: “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.” 

Another variation, attributed to Michael Shermer is "Christians today might say, I don't believe in Zeus, that was a silly superstition. Yet for many people that was a real god. So it turns out there are 10,000 gods and yet only one right one. That means we're all atheists on 9,999 gods. The only difference between me and the believers is I'm an atheist on one more god." This argument is popular, but superficial and ultimately useless.

One problem with this argument is that it attributes ontological equivalence to all these deities. However, it betrays considerable ignorance of comparative religions to equate Yahweh with ancient deities:1. The gods of the ancient world had origins, unlike Yahweh whom the Bible represents as being eternal. As OT scholar John Walton notes:
"When we compare the ancient Near Eastern ideas of ontology and theogony to the biblical portrayal of Yahweh, we see some significant similarities and differences. The most obvious difference is seen in the absence of any theogony in Israel. The biblical text offers no indication that Israel considered Yahweh as having an origin, and there are no other gods to bring into existence either by procreation or separation. Since the cosmos is not viewed as a manifestation of divine attributes, Israel’s cosmogony develops without any need of theogony. The issue of theogony is likewise foreign to contemporary Christian and Jewish theology where God is considered eternally existing. [1]
2. Many of the gods of the ancient world were defined by their functional status, which stands in contrast to how the Bible depicts Yahweh. Walton again:
"The cosmic deities were manifest in that element of the cosmos with which they were associated, and had some jurisdiction there. Sun gods were active in and through the sun—but they did not create the sun, at least not in the material terms that we are used to thinking in. In the ontological concepts that we have already discussed above with regard to the gods, and those that we have yet to discuss with regard to the cosmos, existence is much more closely bound with function and role. Consequently, that the sun and the sun god function together and that their roles coincide suggest a modified “creative” role. The birth of the sun god is coterminous with the origin of the sun (neither functions/exists without the other), thus explaining the oft-mentioned correspondence between theogony and cosmogony. Though the god is the controlling party in the functioning partnership, the god has no existence separate from, outside, or above the sun. The sun is the manifestation of the god and the expression of the god’s attributes. " [2]
One of the polemical functions of the creation narrative in Genesis 1 is to demythologise nature. Rather than being divinities, the sun, moon and stars are reduced to the status of created entities, with no role or room for other gods to act and therefore exist. To equate the sun god with Yahweh is to make something of a category error.

3. Yahweh did not have human attributes or exist in a polytheistic system. As Walton notes, the attributes which other gods had that Yahweh did not: 
"assumed a polytheistic system or human foibles, such as craftiness, lust, deception, sexuality, and a host of others. Many more items would be included on this list than the previous one because the baser qualities came with the fact that the deities of the ancient Near East were perceived in human terms. Israelites had to be constantly reminded by the prophets that Yahweh is not like a human and not like the other gods." [3]
Another argument against this tired aphorism is the simple fact that we haven't personally rejected those 9,999 deities. Outside students and scholars of comparative religion, most would not have heard of Enki, Marduk or Quetzalcoatl for the simple reason that their belief has almost entirely vanished, strongly suggesting from a practical point of view that they do not exist.

Finally, this argument conflates the concept of a creator God who cares for his creation with the various instantiations of this concept. One can reject the latter without the former. Historian John Dickson notes:
"For one thing, believers in any particular religion do not reject the other gods in toto. They deny the manifestations and stories of the other deities, but not necessarily their substance. A Christian may reject the elaborations and add-on characteristics of, say, Ra or Vishnu, but they happily acknowledge the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians and Indians in positing the existence of a powerful Intelligence which orders the universe.
"There is, in other words, an irreducible shared conviction among most worshipers: the rational order of the universe is best explained by the existence of an almighty Mind (or Minds) behind it all. This is why the apostle Paul in Athens (Acts 17) can happily quote a line from a hymn to Zeus in his argument about God: "We are his offspring." Paul did not think the stories about Zeus were true, but he agreed with the idea of divine power and intelligence which belief in Zeus embodied. Fitz and others are simply misguided to liken a Christian's rejection of particular versions of divinity with the atheist's denial of divinity altogether. An analogy highlights the error. In choosing to marry my wife, it is true that I rejected all other potential spouses (not that there were that many). Does this mean I have rejected the idea at the core of other people's marriages? Of course not. But imagine a zealous celibate, who rejected marriage altogether and tried to use my own decision to marry one person as an argument against matrimony itself: "When you consider why you rejected other women in favour of her, then you will see the good sense of rejecting marriage altogether." [4]

This is not, I stress proof that the God of the Christian and Jewish Bibles exists. Far from it. Rather, it is a reminder that many atheists are quite sophomoric in their attempts to rebut theism. Sound bites and cheap laughs are no substitute for critical thinking and a robust understanding of the subject (ex-fundamentalists who become atheists hardly count as informed critics). Jokes such as the 'I believe in one God fewer' warrant nothing more than the mockery of laughter.

This post also can be found here.


1. Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. p 91

2. ibid, p 97

3. ibid, p 110

4. Dickson J "Some atheist jokes deserve to be laughed at" ABC Religion and Ethics 8th July 2013