Are Christians Atheists Too?
Wandering the raucous hallways of a facebook apologetics forum the other day and ran across an unbeliever who loved the “I just believe in one less God than you” argument. I mean really loved it. Moving up and down the threads, I saw him employ it numerous times in seemingly one sitting. But what’s the appeal really?
I suppose people may think it’s a winning argument because it attempts to convict the believer of the same irrationality of which we accuse the unbeliever: Certain gods do not exist. And if we, indeed, make the claim that these other gods do not exist, we are then guilty of doing the same thing as atheists do, though not really atheism. In such a case, we would be making a positive knowledge claim [the non-existence of god(s)] that we cannot support observationally. So I would like to advise that we cease doing so, if this is the case, but I’ll get to that later.
The atheist argument follows that the believer denies the existence of all other gods except the God of their own personal choice, presumably the God of the Bible. So we, as believers, assume our own atheism [non-existence of god(s)] or their silly “lack of belief” stance on atheism, regarding Thor and Zeus and Krishna and the like. The popular statement of this position is worded as such by atheist Stephen F. Roberts:
“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
Christian apologist J. Warner Wallace has a tidy answer prepared for those who hold this position:
“In every criminal trial, a jury is asked to evaluate the actions of one defendant related to a particular crime. While there are millions of other people in the world who could have committed the crime under consideration (and indeed, millions of these people were actually available to commit the crime), only one has been charged. If the jury becomes convinced this defendant is the perpetrator, they will convict him based on their beliefs. They will convict the accused even though they haven’t examined the actions (or nature) of millions of other potential suspects. They’ll render a verdict based on the evidence related to this defendant, in spite of the fact they may be ignorant of the history or actions of several million alternatives. If the evidence is persuasive, the jurors will become true believers in the guilt of this man or woman, even as they reject millions of other options . . .At the end of a trial, juries are “unbelievers” when it comes to every other potential suspect, because the evidence confirming the guilt of their particular defendant was sufficient. In a similar way, we can be confident “unbelievers” when it comes to every other potential god because the evidence for Christianity is more than sufficient.”
Wallace’s response deals with our ability to judge rationally which gods exist evidentially through argument and reason. The existence of alternative “gods” do not logically hinder our ability to find one true One or render the existence of one true God irrational. That’s Wallace’s argument. But I want to deal with the first part of Roberts’ claim.
“I CONTEND THAT WE ARE BOTH ATHEISTS . . .”
Atheist Stephen F. Roberts’ argument, well, maybe more of an assertion, is that atheists and theists, if they do reject other gods, do so for the same reasons. This is untrue. Theists reject other gods because of what they know. Atheists, reportedly, reject other gods because of what they don’t know (lack of belief).
See, not too long ago, unbelievers adopted a new definition for atheism. Most of them categorically reject the definition of atheism found in the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” which calls atheism:
“Atheism” is typically defined in terms of “theism”. Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It is often defined as “the belief that God exists”, but here “belief” means “something believed”. It refers to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. If, however, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists (more on this below). The “a-” in “atheism” must be understood as negation instead of absence, as “not” instead of “without”. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).“
They have replaced the definition above with what we will call a “lack of belief”. This position, if they would even agree to call it one, conveniently makes no knowledge claims. This is the upside for the god-denier. No propositions to defend. This “lack of belief” holds that theism must do the heavy lifting to convince them of our claim, since they have made none. The downside of this tactic is that atheism now lacks, among other things, explanatory power. A “lack of belief” only describes a personal deficiency and not reality. Atheism, as such, ceases to have cultural relevance as defined here, since non-beliefs cannot motivate or comment on or improve anything.
ANATOMY OF A TRAP
So Roberts’ argument now becomes a trap, volleying the adherent between two definitions. The unbeliever must admit that they reject gods because of a personal deficiency, rendering the position impotent, or they must make a positive claim that NO gods exist, a knowledge claim that they cannot support with evidence. They can’t really do both, can they?
While theism, Christianity in particular, continually seeks to explain the universe through reason, science, history, and philosophy, atheism reverts to “feels” and spiraling nihilism.
BUT ARE WE ATHEISTS TOO?
But are we atheists too? Well, God never makes these claims. In fact, He acknowledges other “gods” quite boldly in scripture:
“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.” Deut 10:17.
“Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.” Psalm 136:2.
“For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” Psalm 95:3.
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on *all the gods of Egypt* I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.” Exodus 12:12.
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:” Psalm 82:1.
“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” 1 Cor 8:5-6.
And an article by Elizabeth Sloane from www.haaretz.com, an online edition of the Haaretz Newspaper in Israel reasons:
“Early Judaism did not deny the existence of other gods. The Biblical story of Exodus categorically acknowledges and affirms the existence of other gods. It paints the plagues of Egypt not just as war on the pharaoh, but as a war on the gods of Egypt: “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (Ex. 12.12).”
Some may counter with examples of many other passages in scripture that seem to directly contradict the verses above. But what are they saying when they use the word “god” or “gods”. These are man-made idols. These are creations of creation, not of our Good Good Father. None of these stand in opposition to the God of the Bible on their own. They exist but not as the One True God who is worthy of worship, but as idols. False gods. Unholy machinations of our fallen nature.
So, no. We are not “both atheists”. We do not fall into contradiction claiming things we cannot determine through reason and evidence, like the non-existence of false deities. We continue to be able to explain reality by appealing to what best fits the evidence and not revert to a weak position of “lack of belief”.