“I Just Believe in One Less God Than You Do”: an Atheist Fallacy? (3 of 4)

“I Just Believe in One Less God Than You Do”: an Atheist Fallacy? (3 of 4) October 9, 2020

The idea behind this argument is that humanity has invented thousands of gods throughout history. The atheist and the Christian both reject these many gods, so rejecting gods can’t be something the Christian would object to. Why then complain when the atheist rejects that one final god? (Part 1 here.)

Sharpen your wits by seeing how you’d respond to these Christian rebuttals.

9. Courtier’s Reply

Unless one has made a serious study of philosophical theology as it has been developed within the Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Thomistic and other Scholastic traditions, one’s understanding of traditional Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theology, not to mention philosophical theism, is simply infantile. …

The [objection represents] a failure to understand even the fundamentals of the position one is attacking. (Source)

In other words: Christianity has had 2000 years to develop sophisticated theology, and by bypassing that, your “I just believe in one less god than you do” argument is beneath contempt. And don’t get me started on the uselessness of parodies like the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

This is a nice example of the Courtier’s Reply, a logical fallacy in which an opponent is declared at the outset unqualified to even enter the field of combat, let alone make a thoughtful contribution to the debate. (It was developed by PZ Myers in 2006 as the imagined reply by one of the Emperor’s self-important courtiers to the charge that the Emperor wore no clothes.)

What matters in evaluating classical theism is not what your Grandpa or your Pastor Bob have to say about it, but rather what serious thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, and countless others have to say.

Your mistake is imagining that “serious thinkers” speak with one voice. By starting with one Christian perspective and then selecting scholars, you can hide behind their writings. But other Christian scholars could be collected to argue a different story, and each camp finds heresy in the thinking of the others. Add in theologians from outside Christianity, and the chaos increases.

That’s the power of the “one less god” argument. It bypasses not just the “sophisticated theology” of Christianity but that of all the other religions and challenges the Christian to justify why, if dismissing religions by the hundreds is reasonable, one religion must be kept.

10. Car analogy

Here is a thought experiment. Let’s say that you and I both own cars, and we use our cars almost every day. They’re essential to our lives, but we each need just one. We don’t own hundreds of cars. And then one day, you lose your car—say you’re in an accident and you can’t afford a new one. You wouldn’t tell me, “It’s no big deal—I just have one less car than you do.”

My first response would be to ask why this is a good analogy. We understand cars and how useful they can be. Show me that your god exists and is useful in the same way. They seem very different to me.

We can map this onto a world with Christians and atheists by imagining that you (the guy who has no car) switches over to mass transit, taxis, Uber, rental cars, Zipcar, and so on as appropriate. You get where you want to go, though in a different way, just like the atheist has answers to the big questions of life, though different ones than the Christian has. So, no—getting rid of your supernatural “car” isn’t a big deal. Just ask an atheist.

11. Arithmetic analogy

There are a theoretically infinite number of possible answers to the equation “Two plus two,” but only one actually true answer. To say that “Two plus two equals four” is to automatically make me an unbeliever in all the other possible answers. It’s not rational, however, for the atheist to say, “Well I just go one step further and choose to disbelieve that four is the answer either.” (Source)

This source has deliberately chosen an example where “one” is the correct answer to “How many answers are valid?” I wonder if it’s a coincidence that “one” is also the answer the Christian wants from “How many gods are there?” While arithmetic problems always have one correct answer, the correct answer to “How many gods are there?” could be one or twenty or zero.

Note also that arithmetic has proved itself, but religion has not. The many incompatible religions look like they’re all manmade. Comparing religion to arithmetic is to illegitimately appropriate arithmetic’s success. (More in this analysis of the map of world religions.)

12. Who needs evidence? Not the Christian.

This argument cautions us to not assume that the Christian reaches his worldview as an atheist might. Don’t assume that the Christian has sifted through the evidence for the hundreds of other gods, found none, and concluded that his original Christian belief is correct. Instead, some Christians say they have had a personal revelation. They also point to “self-verification of the Holy Spirit within.”

On this, William Lane Craig adds,

It is the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that gives us the fundamental knowledge of Christianity’s truth. Therefore, the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role. (Reasonable Faith, Third Edition, p. 47)

Self-authenticating? Evidence in a subsidiary role? I hope you’re consistent and allow the other guy to have the same careless attitude toward reality.

(Craig takes this thinking much further, and I analyze that here and here.)

Concluded in part 4.

“What would you replace Christianity with?”
“When a man has smallpox, you don’t replace it with anything.
You cure him and send him on his way.”
Cross Examined


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/23/16.)

Image from Tighten up! (license CC BY 2.0)


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