Answering Objections 1: Monotheism is almost Atheism

Yesterday during facebook argument #25014968076 of my life, some friends and I argued about atheism, faith, meta-ethical theory, scriptural inerrancy, and so on.

I feel a profound déjà vu every time these topics come up. Have they really been exhausted, or does everyone just learn 3/5 of the arguments and then point out the 2/5 hole in their opponent’s claims? We aren’t that comprehensive anyways; it all feels too familiar.

Oh well. Defending the faith is a long-time favorite topic of mine. (It is, roughly speaking, one of my college majors). So this debate makes a good springboard into writing about that for a while. This will be the first post of many, so click the apologetics tag at the bottom to see them all.

 


 

Objector:

There are about 100,000 gods..( actually more) atheist believe none exist.. You believe 999,000 don’t exist.. So you’re nearly as atheistic as i am..

Response:

I will call this argument the “Monotheism is almost Atheism” argument, and I think I remember Christopher Hitchens first saying it.

The numbers in the above statement are woefully incoherent unless you change the second number to be 99,999, after which it makes sense. The claim is that there are zillions of proposed gods throughout human history, and Christians reject nearly all of them on the grounds that there is no evidence, there were merely folklore, they served as a usual coping mechanism for the death of relatives in that society, etc.

Yet, says the objector, those are exactly the criticisms lobbed against the Christian God all the time. So, on what grounds does the Christian reject other gods without rejecting their own? This also bends the perspective, so that instead of saying “Christians believe in one more god than atheists” we are left with “atheists believe in one fewer god than Christians.”

The rephrasing has rhetorical power because it puts Christians into the middle position and simultaneously implies that no middle positions in this scenario are rational. But is that claim true? I have three replies:

  1. There is a lurking false dichotomy here: either believe in no gods and be an atheist, OR, believe in every god that humans have ever believed in. It is feasible that 20,000 gods could exist and yet humans have made up another million. It is feasible that every god proposed does actually exist and humans have never made another up. It is possible that 1 god exists and humans just have varied ways of articulating their experiences with it. All of these positions are feasible and distinct.
  2. Remember that God, in Christianity, is the only being in the category called “things that are divine.” The entire debate over theism is whether that is a legitimate category or not — not, as this objection implies, how we fill that category. Here is another way to say it: the debate is between Naturalism on the one hand, and Naturalism Plus on the other hand. Do things outside the physical observable world exist? By understanding the debate in this way, we see that the real gulf is between atheism and theism, not between monotheism and polytheism. The defeat of atheism (and thus all atheists believing in one more god) would be far more significant than all monotheists becoming bi-theists (and thus believing in one more god) because the real categorical hurdle is between (a)theism.
  3. Consider the way that Anselm and Aristotle conceived of God: he is that than which nothing greater can be conceived; he is the unmoved-first-mover. When we define God as equal to something which is logically necessary, rather than just a humanoid floating around somewhere, it becomes easier to see that the Christian God is more like All The Gods At Once of the other polytheistic religious, a sort of Divinity Itself. This is what makes monotheism distinct from polytheism: not just that they believe in less gods, but that the one god remaining is given Infinity for all his characteristics. Atheism is therefore does not just lose the last divine humanoid being, but loses Divinity itself and becomes naturalism.

So then, this objection’s rhetorical punch masks a deeper misunderstanding about the Christian idea of God’s being. Fix that mistake and the objection loses both its shock effect and its validity.

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