I’ve begun a series of posts addressing arguments from atheists on the popular level. I’ll reiterate that these are not arguments that more philosophically sophisticated atheists will normally make, but they are still worth talking about because they are so prevalent and serve to block discussion.
The second argument I’ll address can be paraphrased as, “You’re an atheist too with regards to all of these other gods; I just choose to believe in one less god than you.” There are, I believe, two distinct ways this is presented, one a bit better than the other (though neither holds water). Some atheists use this to try to be clever, basically saying, “Aha! You’re basically an atheist too! You just need one more step to reject this one last God.” This is, frankly, enormously foolish. Theists are not atheists simply by definition; atheism is not defined as, “You are an atheist with respect to such and such god,” but rather atheism properly defined is a rejection of God or gods completely. Playing word games like this is quite useless. I remember during one Q&A session, some atheist tried to use this on William Lane Craig who merely told him that, by definition, Christians are not atheists, and the atheist amusingly tried to accuse Craig of just playing with semantics. The only person playing semantic games here are atheists who use this nonsense because they’re trying to make “atheist” mean something that it clearly does not. One might as well tell a married man, “You’re a bachelor with respect to every other woman out there.” His response may very well be, “Um, so what? I’m not actually a bachelor because I’m married.” It’s pretty stunning how silly this line of thinking is.
Now the better way this argument is used is to try to draw parallels with why Christians reject all of these other gods and why atheists reject all gods completely. Christians, the argument goes, do not believe in Zeus, Poseidon, Shiva, Odin, etc, nor do they take the time to examine each and every single proposed god out there. Similarly, atheists do not need to take the time to refute the God of Abraham because he’s just one in a long line of gods that they can just reject categorically. Thus, Christians are really no different than atheists except that atheists extend the same reasons they reject Zeus to rejecting Yahweh. The implication is that Christians or other theists should do the same.
While this is better, it still doesn’t amount to much. What these atheists are assuming is that A) The case for the Judeo-Christian God is materially the same as these other gods, which is rather presumptuous and B) That the reasons Christians reject these other gods are exactly the same as why atheists/naturalists reject these gods. I’ll focus on the second one first. One of the main reasons why Christians and similar theists would reject other gods such as Odin is in fact because the God we believe in requires exclusivity. In other words, it is not merely due to the lack of evidence for these gods and positive evidence against these gods, but it’s also because of belief in Christian theism itself that belief in Zeus and other gods is passed over. Of course, naturalists reject these other gods for a much different reason, and that is their allegiance to naturalism. Do you know what that requires? Some positive case for their naturalism, a case that many atheists tried to avoid making as a pointed out in my previous post. However, this is important: Regardless if they attempt to make that case, it nonetheless becomes clear that this perceived parallel breaks down. They cannot accuse Christians of somehow making an exception for the God of the Bible that they do not make for Odin, and so this so-called argument is easily dismissed.
As for Assumption A, these atheists are correct that it would be unreasonable to expect detailed examination of every single god ever conceived, but who, exactly, is giving forth a case for Poseidon? The majority of these other gods are not, what philosophers would call, “live options” for people. They are not ideas that are seriously in contention. Does the fact that the general theistic view of God is in “serious contention” mean its true? No, but it does mean that the case for this God’s existence very much deserves attention. Trying to lump this God with the gods of the Greek pantheon is both question-begging as well as a clear avoidance of intellectual work. Besides, even if one were to grant this terrible argument, all that would prove is that Christians and other theists are being lazier than they should; it would not absolve atheists of the responsibility to examine the claims of theism, nor would it compel the theist to drop his belief in God.
A good example for this comes from J. Warner Wallace of Cold Case Christianity, who is a former detective:
In every criminal trial, a jury is asked to evaluate the actions of one defendant related to a particular crime. While there are millions of other people in the world who could have committed the crime under consideration (and indeed, millions of these people were actually available to commit the crime), only one has been charged. If the jury becomes convinced this defendant is the perpetrator, they will convict him based on their beliefs. They will convict the accused even though they haven’t examined the actions (or nature) of millions of other potential suspects. They’ll render a verdict based on the evidence related to this defendant, in spite of the fact they may be ignorant of the history or actions of several million alternatives. If the evidence is persuasive, the jurors will become true believers in the guilt of this man or woman, even as they reject millions of other options.
I’ll add on to this illustration: If a guilty verdict levied at this man naturally excludes everyone else (it is clear there was only one perpetrator), then the jury is rationally justified to proclaim this person the sole guilty party even if they do not examine thousands of other people who happened to be around. No analogy is perfect, but this one shows two things: 1) Not all potential options are equal, nor are all options even offered, and therefore some options deserve much more attention than others and 2) One can make a rational decision even if not every possible option is exhaustively investigated. It would be utterly absurd for someone, after a guilty verdict is given, to complain that the prosecution did not put 50,000 other people in the city on trial for the same crime to “make sure” they’re right and to therefore argue that the convicted person should go free because they clearly didn’t even bother to investigate everyone else.
To review, the central error in this weak “I just believe in one less God than you” business is twofold (ignoring the sillier version): First, and I think most importantly, it draws a close parallel between the reasoning of theists and atheists regarding these other gods when there isn’t one, and that alone destroys whatever this argument is trying to prove. Second, it presumes that all the options should be equal for the theist and therefore the theist cannot make a rational decision on one God, but this is clearly false. Once again, while arguments such as this one have some utility for atheists for wiggling away from actually examining the case for theism with an open mind, they really are easily dismantled when they are reviewed with any sort of logic, amounting to nothing more than sophistry.