It has become increasingly common—especially on the internet—to hear atheists say, “Christians are atheists too. They’re just atheists of one less god than me.” The “one less god” he’s referring to is, of course, Yahweh. In other words, the Christian is an atheist who believes in one God.
If that sounds weird, it should. First, it just makes no sense to call a Christian an atheist of any kind. That’s a misuse of the word. It’s akin to calling a married man, like me, a bachelor with one wife.
Second, pointing out that Christians and atheists both reject a pantheon of gods is a clever move but tells us nothing about the existence of the Christian God. Christians reject the pantheon for the same reason atheists do: no evidence. And they accept the God of Christianity because there is good evidence. It’s that simple!
Third, the next time you hear someone say, “You’re an atheist of one less god than me,” move towards the objection, not away from it. That is, just agree with them, then point out its irrelevance. Say something like, “You’re right, I am an atheist regarding every other god. Now what?” This neutralizes their rhetorical move and directs the discussion where it belongs: on the evidence for the Christian God.
Hey, Christian, you’re an atheist too—who believes in one God.
This is Red Pen Logic with Mr. B., where we help you assess bad thinking by using good thinking, and we take this job very, very seriously.
In today’s tweet, The Atheist Buddhist offers an argument—scratch that—an observation that he thinks somehow undermines theism. The tweet says, “If you’re a Christian or a Muslim then you’re an atheist too. You’re just an atheist of one less god than me. #Atheism.” The tweet includes an image of three graves—one for Zeus, one for Odin, and one prepared for Yahweh. And it says, “Mythology is where old gods go to die. It’s time to dig a fresh grave.” Well, maybe graves are where bad ideas go to die too. And this challenge is certainly one of them. Well, here we go again.
It’s common to hear atheists make this point, especially on the internet. Note the thinking: Christians are atheists too. They just believe in one less God than me. The “one less God” they’re referring to, of course, is Yahweh. In other words, the Christian is an atheist who believes in one God.
Let me ask you a question. If you’re a married man, are you a bachelor too? You are, on this reasoning, billions of times over, because you’re unmarried to all the other women on the planet. Does this seem right to you?
Let’s get some terms straight. The atheist believes there is no God. The Christian believes there is. This shouldn’t be controversial. So when it comes to the God question, the difference between one and none is pretty important. It’s like the difference between being a bachelor and being married. I’m not going too quickly here, am I?
Now imagine one of my single friends comes to me and says, “Tim, you’re actually a bachelor too. You’re just a bachelor of one less woman than me.” Not exactly profound. Plus, I don’t think my wife would appreciate it. Of course we believe in one more God than the atheist. I mean, that’s the difference between a theist and an atheist.
But there’s another problem. The “I just believe in one less god than you” slogan smuggles in a faulty assumption. It assumes that the evidence for, say, Baal, or Thor, or Zeus and Yahweh is all the same. If you can dismiss one, then you can dismiss them all. In “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins writes, “I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one God further.”
So imagine if someone denied the existence of actor Jack Nicholson. (You know, “You can’t handle the truth.”) Let’s call them an a-jack-ist. They don’t believe in Jack. And let’s say they wrote a book called, I don’t know, maybe “The Jack Delusion?” In it, they state, “I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I’m an a-jack-ist, to point out that they are also an a-jack-ist regarding Jack Bauer, Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher, Jack Frost, and Captain Jack Sparrow. I just go one Jack further.”
Here’s the point: Just because you have no reason to believe in Captain Jack Sparrow does not mean you have no reason to believe in Jack Nicholson. Not all Jacks are equal. We have to weigh the evidence for each. And just because we don’t have good reason to believe in Zeus or Baal does not mean we don’t have good reason to believe in the God of Christianity. It turns out we do have good reason to believe in the Christian God, even if we don’t have good reason to believe in these other gods.
One more thing. Even if we accept the notion that Christians are atheists too, so what? Nothing meaningful follows. Would this mean that God doesn’t exist? No. Would this mean that Christianity is false? Not even close. So this clever meme, even if true, takes us nowhere.
So what have we learned? First, it makes no sense to call a Christian, or a Muslim for that matter, an atheist of any kind. That’s a misuse of the word. Second, pointing out that Christians and atheists both reject the pantheon of gods out there might be a clever move, but it says nothing about our God. Third, the next time you hear someone say, “Well, you’re just an atheist of one less god than me,” move toward the objection, not away from it. Just agree with them, and then point out its irrelevance. Say something like, “You’re right, I’m an atheist with regard to every other god. Now what?” This neutralizes their rhetorical move and directs the discussion where it belongs—on the evidence for the Christian God.
The Atheist Buddhist thinks it’s time to dig Yahweh’s grave? Well, I think it’s time to bury this irrelevant challenge. Class dismissed.