Just One Fewer God?

Atheists can't make their case if they insist on straw-manning faith.

I wish atheists were better at atheist-ing. In college, I went through my own outspoken “New Atheist” phase, and I cringe today thinking about it. Not because I gave up atheism. I’m a Buddhist, but don’t consider my Buddhism to be a religion as that term is typically understood—and, anyway, Buddhists are atheists. Rather, I cringe because the way your typical, self-conscious atheist approaches making the case against religious faith is to basically strawman believers, and so isn’t helpful and is unfairly dismissive of why religious people find belief in god persuasive.

Let’s take one example. Over on Threads (Meta’s Twitter competitor, which I’m finding I like quite a lot), I ran across a post from @secularstudents that included this cartoon, shared with the comment, “Pretty much. 🤷‍♀️”

It’s a common argument in atheist circles. Richard Dawkins—who’s done more than anyone to make atheism synonymous with antisocial misanthropes—puts it like this, paraphrasing Stephen F. Roberts: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

So what’s wrong with it?

In a logical sense, it’s of course true. Any monotheist believes in one god, or one all-powerful god, and so there are lots of gods offered up by the world’s myriad religions that the monotheist doesn’t believe are real. (Or doesn’t believe are the one, true god.) Thus they have the subjective experience of not believing in particular gods, and so the atheist’s non-belief in their god is, as the cartoon says, “like that.”

Except it’s not. Because there’s a world of difference between “in one fewer god,” as Roberts’s original version puts it, and no god. The argument makes an unstated—and perhaps unconscious—move in interpreting “What’s it like to be an atheist?” as “What’s it like to not believe in a particular god?” when, instead, the actual question being asked is “What is it like to not believe in any god?” In other words, the atheist who makes the “one fewer god” rebuttal is subtly giving an answer to a question about quantitative difference, when the question asked is instead about qualitative difference.

This matters because the religious worldview isn’t just the secular worldview with one fewer supernatural entity out there somewhere. Rather, religion is, as my friend puts it, a “cluster concept.” And, yes, that cluster includes “belief in one or more supernatural beings,” but also, and among others, “Observance of a distinction between sacred and profane objects,” “A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the god,” “Religious feelings (awe, mystery, etc.),” and “A worldview according the individual a significant place in the universe.”

That’s a lot. It means, for the major monotheisms that are the target of most atheist ire, as well as for the cross-wearing student in the cartoon, a universe created and guided by a divine being. It is one where the supernatural is an omnipresent fact about reality—and not a mere contingent fact, but the fact central to the very nature of existence. Further, it’s the fact that provides not only an explanation and cause of reality, but gives everything within it meaning, as well.

Responding “What’s it like to not believe in Zeus?” to “What’s it like to be an atheist?” isn't analogous to responding “What’s it like to not watch hockey?” when asked “What’s it like to not watch football?” It’s not like answering “It’s just one fewer” if someone asks you, “What’s it like having just one car for your family instead of two?”  Rather, it’s as if you answered “What is it like to not believe the universe has purpose and meaning?” with “What’s it like to not believe in unicorns?” The answer doesn’t just fail to address the question, but by believing that it does, the atheist also fails to demonstrate that they have an understanding of what the religious worldview is in the first place. 

For the faithful, religion presents a universe that is full and purposeful. It provides not just metaphysical solutions to thorny philosophical problems (cosmology, free will, morality, and so on), but also a sense that one has a place, that one’s life has meaning, that one is part of something bigger than oneself. All of that is really important stuff. What the “one fewer god” quip does is brush all of it aside without acknowledging its importance, and without offering anything to fill those gaps.

Of course, atheists have all kinds of ways to fill them. And an atheistic universe can be quite full of meaning, purpose, awe, and wonder. But that’s a big conversation, and a fascinating one, but having it—or at least having it in a fruitful way—demands taking seriously the nature of faith, the reasons it is so appealing, and the role religious beliefs play in the lives of believers. Dismissiveness sidesteps all of that, and shows a lack of appreciation for the weightiness of these beliefs. If atheists are to make their case, they have to take the arguments they ultimately reject seriously. They have to understand instead of wave away. They have to abandon the Dawkins-style “everyone who disagrees with me is irrational” sneering of internet atheism and instead approach debates about faith—and all philosophical questions—with humility, a desire to learn, and a delight in the diverse ways people imagine themselves and their place in the world.

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