A god is a god is a god

This is an excerpt from a draft of chapter four of my forthcoming book, Angry Atheists?: Why the Backlash Against Dawkins, Harris, And the Rest Is Silly.

As I said at the beginning of the chapter, the line of thought I’ve just sketched is one of my major reasons for not believing in “God,” or any gods. Given that I’ve been focusing on specific features of Christianity and Mormonism, some people might complain I haven’t said anything about God in general. But “God in general” isn’t really God in general, he’s the Abrahamic God. Many Christians never even think of this because they’re so used to using the word “God” to referred to their God specifically, so it’s like comparisons between their God and other gods don’t even compute.

They say, “the Greek gods (or the Mormon God, or whatever) don’t fit the definition of ‘God,’ so they’re not really gods, so we don’t have to worry about that.” But no, the word “god” refers to all those gods. That’s why we use the same word for all of them. That’s why early Christians used the same Greek and Latin words that pagans used to refer to their gods to refer to the Christian God. And there are obvious similarities between all the beings we refer to with those words.

If Christians have an argument here, it pretty much has to be that they conceive their God as being perfect, and the Greeks, for example, didn’t do that. So Christians get to go back to not even having to think about other gods. When I hear that argument, all I hear is “the reason it’s reasonable to believe in our God and not in Thor is that our God is infinity times better than Thor!” That’s an argument I’m totally incapable of taking seriously so I’m just going to stop there.

Yes, I realize deists will say that their God isn’t the Christian God, but he’s really just the Christian concept of God with the specific claims of Christian revelation stripped away. I applaud the deists for getting rid of all the nasty stuff in Christianity, but there’s still the question of why, if we don’t believe in any of the other supernatural super-beings humans have believed in, we should believe in this particular supernatural super-being?

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  • lesliegriffiths

    Chris, don’t you think it’s both valid and useful to force Judao-Christians to confront comparisons between their god and gods such as Thor or Zeus?

    Or at least between their god and (say) Vishnu or Ganesh?

    One of the arguments I’m always having with the religious is around their claim to truth from experience. (That’s absolute truth, not some kind of self-knowledge)

    But if you ask a Christian about a god such as Ganesh, they will typically scoff at the idea of an Elephant-headed god – they are aware of how ridiculous the idea is. This gives you an opportunity to hold up their beliefs against Hinduism and point out how both are equally ridiculous to an Atheist – yet both Hindu and Christian claim access to knowledge through personal experience and they can’t both be right.

    • mikespeir

      Certainly, there have been conceptions of deity that have been more or less “believable.” Your point is taken. (It is by me.)

      On the other hand, the popular, modern-day conception of Zeus is more fabulous than the that of the best thinking of 2000 years or so ago. During the final centuries BCE both Zeus and Yahweh inflated to fit people’s expanding understanding of the cosmos. (I mean, a creator god has to be greater than its creation, right?) Both became omni-gods during this time. If I understand aright, the Maccabean rebellion probably started when the high priest Menelaus set up the effigy of Zeus in the Temple, probably as a conciliatory gesture, trying to make peace between the Hellenistic Jews and the more traditional Jews. He did this because there was so little material difference between the two deities. Of course, the effort backfired.

      Then, if the book of Acts contains any real history at all, Paul at Athens seems to have been possessed of a similar synthetic impulse. He starts out alluding to “the unknown god,” but then switches gears and says, “In him we live, and move, and have our being, as some of your poets have said.” Primarily, he’s quoting from Cleanthes’ “Ode to Zeus.” Odd as it sounds to Christian ears, what Paul seems to have been saying is, “We really worship the same god. I just know him better than you do.”

      The philosophers on Mars Hill weren’t impressed. But this does go to show that Zeus was every bit the exalted deity in the best of Greek thought as Yahweh was in Jewish thought.

      So, while comparing “God” to, say, Ganesh may be a bit of a mismatch, the overall tactic of making such comparisons is perfectly valid.

      • lesliegriffiths

        I alwys like to try to get Christians (and sometimes Muslims) to be open about what they think of other religions. Mostly, you can get them to air their contempt at what they see as ridiculous (and clearly false (to them) ) practices. Only rarely are they accomodationist.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      The answer to your question is “yes.” If I said somethibg that made you think otherwise, can you point it out so that it’s clearer.in the final version?

      • FredBloggs

        Sorry Chris, I guess I misread the statement

        “When I hear that argument, all I hear is “the reason it’s reasonable to believe in our God and not in Thor is that our God is infinity times better than Thor!” That’s an argument I’m totally incapable of taking seriously so I’m just going to stop there.”

        as you wouldn’t engage that argument simply because it’s so obviously inane. I’m guessing I misread your meaning.

  • khms

    The biggest problem I have with comparisons of gods is the lack of a generally agreed definition.

    I’ve recently concluded that “god” is not a particular class of supernatural being – it is actually a title that some religions give to some of their supernatural beings.

    Christians call the Abrahamic god and his son a god, but not, say, angels, demons, or devils – probably because their tradition says there can only be one (and they need the trinity to cover the son). Other religious traditions count even the current emperor as a god. And I’m sure there are traditions which do not use the title at all.

    Comparing gods is like comparing towers, if you include the WTC, tower computers, and chess. You can do it, sure, but you’ll have a hard time getting interesting results from it.

    Now, on the other hand, if you’d go and classify the various concepts of gods, that might get interesting. Creator god, all-powerful god, god-emperor, nature god, what-have-you …

  • johnhodges

    If I recall correctly, it was Judith Hayes who wrote a book, IN GOD WE TRUST, BUT WHICH ONE? She made that argument that every difference in theology implied a different god. Some people worship a god that prohibits divorce, others a god that allows it; and so forth for every disagreement in theological history. Differences in attributes implies differences in identity. Ultimately, we probably have a different god for each believer.

  • sqlrob

    The thing I don’t get about deism is what the heck is the point? As a hypothesis, sure it makes “sense”. As a religion though? What’s the point of worshiping a god that’s gone, and can’t interact with the world anyway?

    • Cafeeine

      If I were to wager on it, it has probably to do with an existential fear of purposelessness. Even if the creator god has no current effect on reality, we were still the product of a conscious act, not just the arbitrary result of natural forces, a fluke.

      • sqlrob

        But that just really explains why the idea exists. It doesn’t explain the point of worship. If he can’t do squat or even notice the worship, why worship him?

    • josh

      I’m not of the opinion that it makes any sense as a hypothesis to start with. It explains nothing, has no mechanism, offers no tests and raises all sorts of questions to which there are no good answers.

      • sqlrob

        Hence the “sense” in quotes.

        It’s a hell of a lot more sensical than any of the Abrahamic religions. Come on guys, just one more little step, it’s not that hard….

        • josh

          Fair enough. I didn’t quite get the sense of your ” ‘sense’ “. Deism is a vestigial religion.

  • xtog42

    What might be instructive would be to create a survey for your book that you then report and interpret the results of on this topic.

    There are survey sites that are out there that would allow you to do this and get hundreds of responses in a short period of time.

    It might look like this.

    Survey religious people and non-religious people on the questions

    1- Do you believe in Zeus?

    2- Why or why not?

    With these you could see if there is a difference in the way religious and non-religious people justify their non-belief in Zeus.


    3- Do you believe in God?

    4- Why or why not?

    Then, only for those who say No to #1 and Yes to #3 ask,…

    5- Why do you believe in God, but not believe in Zeus?

    At that point then you could detail for religious people that the same reasons they give for not believing Zeus are precisely (or not if the data shows they are different) the reasons free-thinkers give for not believing God.

    And then you could make some points on what you learned from the exercise and what lessons you think both religious and non-religious people might take from the results.

    Also you coulds ask about the mechanics of how it is belief in God is said to make one moral, even though crime data appears to say that God believers are no more moral than anyone else.

    Anyway,…to sum up, I’d suggest you include some science in there somewhere so the reader gets something more than a polemic.

  • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

    I’ve had to bring up the lack of theistic consensus on what “god” means, before. One thing that I find particularly annoying is when they start trying to define their god by what it isn’t (natural, material, spatial, temporal).

  • BKsea

    Do you know what Christians living in arabic-speaking countries call god?


  • amhovgaard

    I’m actually much more certain of the non-existence of omniscient, omnipotent, infinitely good and loving universe-creating gods with no physical characteristics than of more limited gods like Thor. Thor is just extremely unlikely; he’s a sort of super-superhero but there are things he can’t do and rules he has to follow, and he can be harmed. He exists IN the physical world, even if he seems to break its rules a lot. “God” existing is only possible in the same sense that it is possible that the entire world is just a figment of my imagination. If “he” exists, then the difference between reality and imagination is imaginary: the physical world only exists because the god chooses for it to exist. Science would be like figuring out the rules in a video game universe.

  • mnb0

    It will be a crime to shorten this chapter. In general your problem seems to be to chose a main theme and to stick to it. In a few chapters you tend to disgress too much. In this chapter you don’t. So don’t change it. It’s OK to explain, even to explain a lot, as long as the explanations are directly related to the main theme of the chapter.