Stephen F. Roberts famously said that we are all atheists, he just believes in one less God (or less gods) than others. It is a rather clever statement that many self-described atheists or agnostics have repeated often, but it’s merely a kitschy statement with no substance or meaning.
Atheism could be defined as belief in no God, but atheists often object to that because they don’t perceive themselves, or don’t want to perceive themselves, as believing or having faith in anything. That’s absurd, of course. We we all believe in something – even if what we believe is there are no gods.
Webster’s defines atheism using both the negative sense, “a disbelief in the existence of deity,” and the positive sense, “the doctrine that there is no deity”. But new atheists, like Richard Dawkins, would rather change the meanings of words than deal squarely with common meanings.
Perhaps that is because atheism, ironically, has become more like a belief system than a position of unbelief. But, I digress (only slightly).
Make no mistake about it: the “new atheism” is doctrinal, and as dogmatic as any religious belief. The origin of the term “new atheism” apparently can be traced to a 2006 article in Wired Magazine, The Church of the Non-Believers, by Gary Wolf. In this article, the author called for a commitment to the position of atheism to combat “doctrinaire believers”. The new atheist movement has spawned a generation of doctrinaire nonbelievers.
Flipping the meaning of atheism by applying it to believers is just a tactic. It’s rather cute, but not very sound as far as argument or coherence is concerned. But it’s typical of an attitude that ignores plain meanings and changes definitions of words instead of confronting them head on. It’s a cowardly sidestep.
Christians (and Jews and Muslims and Hindus) are not atheists. They believe in a deity or deities, and that belief (or commitment if you will) in a particular God or gods separates them from atheists who do not believe in any God or gods. In fact, we call believers, generally, theists, because a theist is one who believes in a God or gods.
Those are the given meanings and uses of the terms theist and atheist, and the idea that all believers are atheist because they don’t believe in some gods (and are atheist as to those gods) is meaningless. The statement ignores the plain meaning and distinction of the word (atheist), like saying that a married man and an unmarried man are both bachelors, but the unmarried man is married to one less women.
The real impact of the statement is to dodge the issue, which is whether there is a God, and if so, who or what is God?
We could use Shakespeare as an analogy. We do not know exactly who William Shakespeare was. Some people believe Francis Bacon was Shakespeare. Other people have different theories. Some of those theories might be fantastical. We might even say they are similar to believing in a Flying Spaghetti Monster. No one, however, denies that someone with the pen name, Shakespeare, existed and wrote great poetry and stories.
To say that we don’t believe in any Shakespeare would be ridiculous. The fact that people have various theories on the identity of Shakespeare does not detract from the fact that a Shakespeare existed. Shakespeare might have been a compilation of authors or a single author. But, no one denies that Shakespeare existed and left us a library of literature in his (or her) name.
To say that an atheist is just a person who believes in one less Shakespeare is completely beside the point, which is that some person or persons by the name of Shakespeare existed and wrote lots of literature at a particular time that has particular identifiable elements and characteristics. The issue isn’t whether such a person or persons existed but what is the identity of that person or persons.
The same person who might say we are all atheists, but some atheists believe in less gods ,might (and usually will) say that they don’t believe in Yahweh, and they don’t believe in Zeus either. It’s the same tactic. It’s like saying, I don’t believe in Shakespeare, and I don’t believe in Hamlet either.
It’s really a dishonest and intentionally misleading ploy. For one thing, all rational people believe that Shakespeare was a person or persons who actually existed, but no one believes Hamlet was anything but a fictional character (made up by Shakespeare). To say I don’t believe in one and (likewise) don’t believe in the other suggests that they are equivalent – they are not. And no rational person thinks they are equivalent. A person might not believe that Shakespeare ever existed, but Shakespeare and a fictional character made up by Shakespeare are not equivalents.
Even among the world religions, the concept of the deity or deities differs one from the other. The fact that they do not agree on what God is like does not mean that God does not exist anymore than disagreement on who Shakespeare was means that Shakespeare did not exist.
One atheist tries to explain the meaning of the statement about believing in one less god by asserting that, if we applied the reasons why we dismiss all other gods to the God we believe in, we would not believe in that god either. (Common Sense Atheism) The problem is, though, that the premise doesn’t follow. For instance, I don’t believe Hamlet is a real person because Hamlet is a fictional character in a Shakespeare play. I know Hamlet is fictional, but that same point doesn’t apply to Shakespeare.
Let’s take this back to the main point. I don’t believe in the Greek or Roman gods because there is no evidence that they existed other than in the minds of the Greeks and Romans. An atheist might say the same thing about the God of the Bible, but I have concluded that evidence exists that justifies my faith in the God of the Bible. Therefore, his reason for not believing in the God of the Bible (or any god) is not my reason for not believing in the Greek or Roman gods. The two aren’t equivalent.
If I said I don’t believe in Shakespeare for the same reason that I don’t believe in Hamlet, and someone compelled my to explain why I don’t believe in Hamlet, I would have to say, “Because Hamlet is fictional character.” If asked why I believe he is a fictional character, I would say, “Because Shakespeare made him up.” But Shakespeare didn’t make up Shakespeare!
And if we say that Shakespeare is fictional, meaning an alias for someone by a different name, then it’s just a shell game. The point isn’t whether “Shakespeare” is the correct name for a real person who existed, but whether someone who used that name actually existed. And the answer is, clearly, yes! Even if it was multiple people using the name Shakespeare, some person or persons actually existed who wrote Hamlet; and the reason for not believing in Hamlet clearly doesn’t apply to Shakespeare.
I believe in God for the same reason I believe that someone who called himself (or herself) Shakespeare existed and wrote Hamlet.
The reason I believe in the Christian God is also the reason why I reject all other gods. There are many strains of evidence that I think support that belief, but the primary one is the resurrection. No other religion boasts an originator who rose from the dead.
Now many people don’t believe the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. That’s a point that can examined, but the suggestion that all gods are the same ignores the fact that the claims that support the various different gods are different. They are not all equal in evidentiary proof.
Christianity is unique in its claim to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a man who lived and whose death and claimed resurrection is recorded in the annuls of history, both religious and secular, and in friendly, neutral and hostile writings. That he claimed to be God incarnate and that his followers were convinced that he rose from the dead after being crucified is historical fact. We are left to explain their conviction, but have little doubt of the conviction itself.
The famous atheist New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, states it this way:
Historians, of course, have no difficulty speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection. (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed, p. 253).
Many people, new atheists in particular, dismiss the resurrection out of hand because they have already decided that the universe is nothing but atoms in motion. They believe (and, yes, I use the word intentionally) that miracles and supernatural things don’t exist. They have no room for anything other than the natural world because their worldview will not allow it.
Far be for me it to convince them otherwise, but I might suggest such a view is pointedly unscientific. I say that in the broadest sense of term, because the definition of “science” tends to be limited to the study of the natural world; it excludes the possibility of anything other than the natural world.
I don’t have time or space to get into the proof of the resurrection, but I can’t stress the importance of that one point enough. All of the Christian worldview hangs on it. If the resurrection isn’t true, then none of it is true.
Still, I should note, if the resurrection didn’t occur, that doesn’t mean that Buddhism or Islam is false. They don’t depend at all on the premise on which Christianity rests. And so, we end where we started. Atheists are not equivalent to theists who merely believe in fewer gods.