My co-SINner Damion has a post up criticising this familiar atheist meme:
“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.” – Stephen Roberts
His criticism is this:
THE REASON THEY DISMISS ALL THE OTHER GODS IS THAT THEY’VE BEEN TRAINED FROM BIRTH TO ACCEPT ONE RELIGIOUS DOGMA AND NEVER EXAMINE THOSE BELIEFS CRITICALLY.
I think this is true in many cases, but I’m sure Damion is aware that this is an over-generalisation – there are some who converted later in life for instance. But let’s assume that even in these cases the reason for not accepting the existence of, say, Donner* is because of His incompatibility with the worldview of the religion they converted to. Damion adds:
Let us not pretend for a moment that theists made a survey of all the gods and then picked out the ones with the most evidential backing.
Right. Of course, we shouldn’t rule out the idea that they came to their beliefs by weighing up the evidential basis of each position, but this probably applies to the vast majority of theists. So should we, therefore, ‘stop using this meme’, as Damion requests?
I think not. I’m not a fan of spouting memes and slogans to defend my position (it’s rather lazy and can get very boring after the first ten times you hear each one), but I think there’s at least some value in the ideas contained in this one. I’ll divide the meme in half:
I contend we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do.
It isn’t true that we’re both atheists, of course. If they believe in at least one god, they’re not an atheist. However, remember what we’re doing when we regurgitate this meme – we’re trying to get the theist to understand our position and think similarly about their own. Yes, they’re not an atheist, but they’re like an atheist with regard to gods they don’t believe in. If they think being an atheist is so terrible, this statement reminds them that disbelief in gods is a ubiquitous stance (perhaps with the exception in the case of Karen Armstrong). Here’s a humorous illustration of this point by YouTuber NonStampCollector:
Just a point of caution: I don’t think that the positions of the atheist and the monotheist are similar. It only takes one god to create the world, for instance, and this makes for a very different history of the universe than that believed by any atheist. Scrapping that last god is a much bigger change of worldview than moving from polytheistic Hinduism to monotheistic Islam, say.
When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
This is the part that Damion is criticising. If their reasons for dismissing other gods are bad reasons, then they won’t understand why we dismiss their god, since our reasons are good reasons! So this statement is false. I can agree that, in most cases, as a matter of fact this statement is indeed false. But if we’re trying to get the theist to understand our position, and possibly even change their mind then I think there is some truth to be found here.
Imagine you’re a theist who hears this meme. What do you think? “Why do I dismiss Zeus? Because he’s not real! I’ve never seen him – it’s just stories! There’s no evidence. There are no good philosophical arguments for Zeus…” and stuff like that. Whether these are the real reasons for their dismissal of Zeus is beside the point – the theist only has to think they are. After all, they’re not going to think “I dismiss them due to unwavering adherence to dogma, conditioned since birth”. And if they do think that, we’ve scored a pretty nice point!
Admittedly these ‘good reasons’ may be supplemented with reasons that aren’t attractive to an atheist, like “I haven’t had a personal experience with Zeus. Zeus is just a demon from Hell! There is no God but Allah…” and so on.
Still, if the theist happens upon reasons considered to be good ones, they may end up realising that actually the atheist isn’t doing anything too crazy – they are simply applying these ‘good’ reasons to every god. Now, the theist will naturally believe their god to be real, and rationalise this in whatever way they like. Cosmological arguments, ‘presuppositional’ nipple-tweaking, if there’s a building, there has to be a…
But we’ve at least tried to illustrate that while they’re not with us all the way, they do consider our reasoning to work some of the time, and we’re not doing anything that should seem particularly alien to them. That’s all the meme can really communicate.
Please comment and let me know what you think about this meme.
* Thor. My blog is ‘Notung’, so that’s why refer to the God of Thunder by this name! It’s a Wagner reference.