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.)
Let’s wrap up by exploring the last few arguments.
13a. The Mere Christianity argument
When I first encountered C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, I found the title confusing. Was he dismissing or denigrating Christianity? No, by “mere” he meant those traits of Christianity that were common among the many denominations. One source sees this kind of commonality with religions as well.
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.
The author goes on to make a similar comparison with Norse religion, noting that both he and the Norseman agree on the supernatural, life after death, and that we will be judged based on our work on earth.
It’s true that many societies share a few core supernatural beliefs, but they may also share racism and sexism. They may share beliefs in superstitions and astrology. Does, “Yeah, but look at all the societies that shared this thinking!” still sound like a good way to discover the truth?
And you’re making too much from this observation since you and your fellow believers across the world’s religions can’t even agree on the names the god(s), the number of god(s), and how to placate them. Those are some substantial details to disagree on.
Can you be a Christian and declare that all roads lead to God? If not, then this all-encompassing Kumbaya thinking is just a smoke screen, and we’re back to the Christians and atheists agreeing on 99+% of the gods that don’t exist.
13b. God as unicorn
Here’s a variation on that argument. One source imagines that he believes in unicorns. His belief is strengthened when he learns of another person who believes in them as well, though this person calls them something else and describes them completely differently. And then there’s another believer, though he also has a different name and description.
Hearing all [these] 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.
But unicorns don’t exist! How can this example get off the ground when it nicely illustrates how pre-scientific people create legendary animals?
And let’s imagine duplicating this author’s experiment. If you describe a “unicorn” as a horse with a horn, and someone else describes a “Bigfoot” as a giant hairy man, and a third person describes “Nessie” as a fresh water sea monster, why would all this strengthen your unicorn belief? If anything, it shows that cultures worldwide have turned imagination into creatures that probably don’t exist.
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.
You look around and see thousands of gods that societies have invented and that strengthens your belief in the supernatural? Why not see thousands of instances of a particular mental error and try to identify the same error in your own thinking?
Are there any gods in that pile that actually exist? Maybe, but you’ve got an uphill climb to give us good reason to believe so. The study of religion shows that mankind has a strong need to invent the supernatural, and this should only undercut your belief in it.
14. We both have gods. “God” is just the thing central to one’s life—money in your case.
Functionally-speaking, everybody has a “god”, even if they don’t have a “religion.” You have something that you’ve placed at the center of your life that gives it direction, meaning, purpose, and value. You devote your time, energy, love, and affection to this thing as if it were the most central thing in the universe. That, in the monotheistic traditions, is what is called an idol. . . . The point isn’t whether or not you will worship a god. The point is “which god will you worship?” (Source)
Uh oh—I think it’s tough-love time.
If you match Jesus up with the most common American god, Money, Jesus wins. Jesus is totally better than money.
And yet we know that money exists. Money 1, Jesus 0.
Money never satisfies.
While I agree that successful people can seek wealth beyond the point where it is helpful, money actually solves a lot of problems. One influential U.S. study said that money can buy happiness—happiness correlates with income up to $75,000 per year. Greed isn’t pretty, but neither is poverty.
[Money] never delivers what it promises.
Sounds like Jesus! Only by making him unfalsifiable can Christians put him in the ring with a competitor that actually exists.
Jesus, on the other hand, well, he’s not going anywhere. . . . I could go on [for] hours, but you kinda get the point. Jesus > Money. Name anything else, even really good things, (Jesus > relationships, Jesus > your personal freedom, Jesus > sex, Jesus > power, Jesus > fame, Jesus > stuff, Jesus > a career, Jesus > status, Jesus > being a rockstar, etc.), and Jesus wins every time.
Jesus goes where you tell him to go because he’s just pretend. If you say he’s not going anywhere, then I’m sure he’s not. He’s just a meme in your mind and you’ve made him immune to evidence.
Money, relationships, career, and so on actually exist. Look at your list and notice that Jesus is the odd man out.
15. A final critique.
There are more arguments on the internet, but let’s round it out to 15.
There are problems with this reasoning. The first is that it begs the question against Christianity by assuming that there are no good reasons to be a theist (i.e. if you examined Christianity, you’d reject it too). (Source)
That’s not the way I see the “I just believe in one less god than you do” argument. It makes no declaration that Christianity is false; it’s just trying to provoke thought. What does it say that our positions are so similar with respect to the other religions? Sure, Christianity could be, against all odds, the needle in the haystack, but understand how much evidence you’ll need to convince us (or yourself).
There have been many who have examined Christianity and found it to be epistemologically robust; so the reasoning of the atheist is question begging.
I’m not assuming Christianity false from the outset (which would beg the question). So what if some have found it robust? Others have found it not so. Or found other contradicting religions to be robust.
But it also assumes that atheism is a kind of epistemic neutral ground . . . : if one is an atheist, he/she can examine all worldviews without bias. Again, the problem is that this is false.
Again, this is not where I’m going. It’s not that atheism is neutral ground or the atheist is somehow in sole possession of the clear-seeing glasses. Rather, it’s that atheism is the null hypothesis. It’s the starting point. The Christian is making the bold claim and so has the burden of proof.
I anticipate the “Yes, but most people have been theists throughout history” argument again. To that, I simply repeat: you make the bold claim, so you have the burden of proof.
An important caveat
There’s one more point to make, and this helps explain the Christian side of the argument (h/t to long-time commenter avalon, who helped me see this point). Going from belief in n gods to n – 1 gods may not be too painful a process until you’re making that final step down to zero gods. That is a different kind of jump, because in addition to changing the number of gods, it discards the supernatural world. That can be a big deal.
We have been exploring and debunking charges that the atheist argument “I just believe in one less god than you do” is a fallacy. I think that argument can be effective when it shows that the gulf between the atheist and Christian positions is a little smaller. This final caveat helps illustrate why that gulf is not nonexistent.
but we should see their effects.
We can’t observe the Christian God,
but we should see his effects.
— Victor Stenger,
“Faith in Anything is Unreasonable”
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/25/16.)