“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do.” —Stephen F Roberts
The above quote is an argument I’ve heard several times from atheists attempting to discredit Christianity. “You don’t believe in Odin, Zeus, Thor, Ahura Mazda, or the thousands of other deities that man has worshiped. I agree with you; I simply take it the final step and reject belief in any god at all.” It’s a clever thing to say; certainly there is poetic satisfaction in claiming that the Christian you’re arguing with is actually an atheist like yourself. However I feel that as an argument it misses the point entirely.
As a Christian I do believe that God is the only, well, “god” that exists. So it is true that I do not believe in Odin, Zeus, Thor, etc. However as a Christian I do believe that most other religions have many things right. I am not a Hindu, but the Hindus and I agree that there is more to the world than the material, that humans have souls, and that there is objective right and wrong. There are many aspects of Brahmin that I recognize as aspects of my own God. I simply believe that Hindus are wrong on most of the details. Though I don’t believe in Brahmin, and the Hindu doesn’t believe in Yahweh, we both believe in the existence of a supreme supernatural mind that created everything. We have much to agree about.
Similarly though I don’t believe in Odin and Thor I do see much truth in the old Nordic “religion.” The pagan Norseman and myself agree that a man’s spirit survives his death, that our deeds on this Earth have a great effect on our final destination, that courage and valor is to be valued, and that someday this world will be destroyed in fire and be created anew. I don’t believe in Baldur, but I see much of Jesus in his story. And again, we both recognize the existence of the supernatural.
The same is true of every religion. Though as a Christian I reject many ideas and concepts from other religions there is also always something I can find that is true. This is as it should be. After all, I believe we are all created in the image of God and that we all long for him. It is only natural that God can be found, imperfectly, in all religions. Some, like Judaism or Islam, I believe are only wrong on certain important details. Others, like Shintoism, I believe are wrong on many very important aspects. But I agree with them all in the existence of the soul, or of a coming judgment, or that there is more to this world than the material. It’s true I don’t believe in Odin, or Brahmin, or Zeus, and their followers don’t believe in Yahweh. But we all agree that there is a god, or gods.
The atheist on the other hand is in a very different position. The atheist believes that all religions are completely wrong in their most important aspects: that there are no gods, no souls, no spirits, no supernatural. The atheist must reject all these religions outright. This puts him in an extraordinary position: he must believe that the vast majority of all humans who currently exist or who have ever existed were wrong about the most basic beliefs and experiences that they held in common. Now that’s fine if you can believe that. However don’t try to lump me in there with you.
Lets imagine for a moment that I believed in unicorns, and that I believed I had seen one once (though it was very far away and deeply shrouded in mist). Lets say that I found others who believed they had seen it as well. However this person calls it a “Lorecks” instead of a unicorn, and he believes it’s much taller and thinner that what I saw; and this one calls it a “Poojim” and believes it is more like a great horned cat; and this one over here calls it a unicorn like I do, but believes it is a terrible ravaging meat eater, while yet another claims it is a peaceful herbivore. Hearing all this different accounts might make me doubt my own conception of the unicorn: but the last thing it would do is make me doubt that a unicorn exists. Instead my faith would be strengthened by that fact that all these other people did see something. There is a magical creature out there; it is only my own conception of it that is in doubt. In just the same way pointing out that mankind has believed in thousands of other gods and worshipped in other ways may be a decent argument against my own conception of God, but it is a terrible argument to try and make me believe that there are no gods at all. Indeed it only strengthens my faith in the supernatural.
It’s true that I believe in one God, and the atheist believes in none. But the fact is that the atheist doesn’t believe in a whole lot more than that. As a Christian I can rest assured that my belief in the supernatural is shared by, statistically, almost every human who ever existed. It is the atheist who must live with the fact that he believes that he is correct in the face of almost all of humanity.
In any case I think we can agree that the quote in question doesn’t make a very compelling argument for atheism.