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“I just believe in one less god than you” is too modest.

18

“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.

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Calling on the Emperor

Portrait_of_the_Qianlong_Emperor_in_Court_Dress

I was wandering around when I came across a sentiment that I had heard before. Someone pointed out the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal from the Old Testament. The story, for those not familiar with it, is roughly as follows: Elijah was the last prophet of God in Israel during his time, with the rest of the country worshiping the god Baal instead. One day God tells Elijah to go and challenge the priests of Baal to a competition of sorts. They’ll make an alter with a sacrifice, and Elijah will make an altar with a sacrifice. Then they will each pray to their god to light the sacrifice on fire, without human intervention. This would prove which god was real and worthy of being worshipped. Long story short, Baal could not deliver and God sent a fireball down moments after Elijah asked for one.

Having recounted the tale the person in question brought up a challenge to the world in general. If God is real, and has performed such acts in the past, then why doesn’t he prove himself now? The Bible sets a precedent here for testing the legitimacy of various gods. If God is real then he should be able to prove his existence to the skeptics through a miracle. Since he hasn’t we can dismiss him as another Baal.

An excellent point, and a powerful indictment against the existence of God. But something about his argument gnawed at me. It wasn’t until later, after reflection, that I realized what it was. The problem with his argument is that none of what occurred in the story was Elijah’s idea. God told Elijah exactly what to do. He commanded Elijah to challenge the priests, laid out exactly how to build the altar (which was thoroughly doused with water until the wood was soaked, as an insurance against false positives), and promised Elijah that when he prayed the fire would come.

Now when a skeptic tells me that if God exists I should be able to replicate such a miracle the situation is entirely different. God has given me no such assurance that He will choose to answer my request. It would be one thing if I claimed to have heard from God and was assured that a miracle would occur. Then we could test my claim by observing whether the miracle in question actually happens. But if a skeptic comes and asks me out of a blue for an example of God’s power, what is a Christian to do? God is not my pet. He is not some genie who must answer my commands. He is the Lord.

Now of course I can pray and ask that God perform a miracle. But if I do and no such miracle occurs than that cannot be taken as proof that God does not exist. Imagine some faraway land that is ruled by a mighty emperor. This emperor is powerful indeed, but chooses to remain hidden in his palace most days, ruling from afar. One day a loyal subject of the emperor is confronted by a skeptic who believes the whole emperor story is a myth, and that there is no king in the castle. When the loyal subject objects, the skeptic challenges him, saying “If he exists then show him to me. Have him come before me with a grand parade of courtiers, generals, advisors, and horsemen. Show me his gilded coach and his ranks of servants. If he exists and is as grand and powerful as you claim than it would be a simple thing indeed for him to do this.” Now the loyal subject wants very much indeed to prove that the emperor is real. But could anyone blame him for being hesitant to demand that his liege drop whatever he’s doing and have a parade for his sake? Such a servant could go to the palace and ask, politely and humbly, for the emperor to hold such a procession. But if the emperor chooses not to can the loyal subject really be blamed? The argument of the skeptic fails because if such an emperor did exist we have no reason to expect him to do everything (or anything, really) we ask of him. To be sure such a grand procession would prove without a doubt (at least to that one skeptic) that the emperor exists. But the lack of one does not provide a proof that the emperor does not exist.