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Poking at the Talking Points

I disclaim that:

  • I am an atheist, and am not at all shy about that
  • I am not backing off from that in any way
Saying that, there is one quip that I'd suggest we be wary of making in a discussion: "I contend that we are both nearly atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do".

The problem I have with this is that, understanding there are three rough groups (and then some) of religious beliefs; polytheism, monotheism, and atheism/agnosticism. The quip suggests a false similarity between those who believe in one god and those who believe in none, going by numbers. The numbers are not the point; the function of one god and the function of many are substantially similar. The Moirae of greek mythology fill the role of planning the lives of men and giving us the psychological security that somebody's watching in the same way that a single deity of the monotheistic faiths can. The desire for significance of our lives and acknowledgement of our efforts to be civilised is provided by an afterlife and presumably can be met equally in a Celestial Bureaucracy as in monotheism. Even a fuzzy, indistinct deity where one feels that something is out there is still suited to meet the emotional needs of humanity.

Atheism (in most of its forms) and its close cousins are on the other side of a large gap; one where we see and accept that the universe does not care about us, where our morality is only significant for its effects on our behaviour, where we are fragile, temporary, and ephemeral. One where there is nobody looking out for us but our fellow humans, and where the only way we can really hope for good results in our endeavours is to apply the best efforts and intellect to them and hope not to have bad luck or errors.

This, I contend, makes us very distant from most kinds of theism, and marks the theist-atheist divide as far more more fundamental than the monotheist-polytheist divide.

Of course, it's just a quip, and I might be being excessively pedantic about something not meant to be taken seriously :) I recently was reminded of the quip while watching a TED talk by Dawkins. Dawkins remains my favourite pro-secular speaker.


The thing I think you're missing here is this. The argument about the psychological benefits of belief in a deity is _not one that most believers in deities are interested in_. They don't tend to believe it, and they generally don't make it. So when arguing with a believer-in-deities, it's not particularly relevant.

Indeed, a believer-in-deities most often thinks exactly the opposite -- their their particular deity is unique and correct, and that other deities are false. The point of the quote is to challenge that belief by calling to attention the symmetry between their position and that of other believers, who believe in the 'false' gods and do not believe in the 'true' god.

Rather than supply arguments against the 'true' god, it asks believers to _empathize_ with the atheist, by calling up their _feelings and intuitions_ about false gods, and then understanding what it feels like to be an athiest by applying those same feelings to the 'true' god as well.

I don't know whether it's ever effective; but if it's ineffective, I don't think it's because of the similarity in psychological benefits between every god and every other god or pantheon. Believers -- who are the target of the quip -- do not see the world that way.
That's fair; I suppose either I missed the point entirely or I'm not phrasing this in a way understandable to believers.

My intuition is that much religious belief is sustained through an emotional core; the "I feel something when I think of $deity", or "I had these experiences", and the disbelief in other deities is logic based on a false premise (emotional conclusion: my god is real, logical expansion: because the intellectual traditions around my god claim exclusivity, other gods are false). The problem being that people are unwilling to practice enough self-alienation to be skeptical of their own emotions/instincts/mental life to consider them being systemically faulty, and look for crutches (like skeptical reasoning and philosophical/methodological naturalism) that let them begin to compensate.

I would hope that the mental process of the atheist/agnostic is dissimilar from that "other gods are false because I believe in the right god".

But yeah, this is definitely not an explanation easily accessible to most believers. I guess it's an interesting wedge that might lead to good conversation though, and I never really thought about that empathy angle before.
I've never seen the quote in question in its original context, but on its own, it seems to me that there are two distinct interpretations of it. One is, "the number of gods I subscribe to is one fewer than yours," and the other is "the number of gods I discount is one greater than yours". My initial interpretation was the former, and gwillen's response only made sense to me upon rereading it in light of the latter.

I think the quote would have greater impact if it were rephrased to eliminate the first interpretation, which feels too much like "evolution of thought results in fewer gods! I am just one step more evolved than you." (Which of course causes me to start speculating on how one might go even further by believing in negative gods, or even imaginary gods, but then we come full circle. . .)
Uh, I think LJ ate my comment, but anyway, the quote doesn't actually have any original context. See here.

The full quote, however, is "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" -- which I think supports the latter reading.
I agree with what gwillen said, and think your post is exactly why the quip is funny, to both theists and atheists--the quip is intended to be valuable because it makes people laugh-then-think instead of getting defensive. Its humor value is the sheer ridiculosity of the statement. And then you pivot into the "most of you One True God types have *got* to be wrong," hopefully adding the empathy gwillen mentioned into the mix.
It just might be that I sometimes take everything way too seriously ^_^
The true metric is defined on the log-scale.
I don't think this quote is arguing that atheists and monotheists are closer together than monotheists and polytheists. Its point, as gwillen said, is to make a monotheist realize that he or she dismisses a LOT of other gods as ridiculous imaginary beings, in an attempt to get them to understand how we see theirs the same way.

I admit this quote was posted in my "what religion are you" box on Facebook for a long time, because it really resonates with how I found my way to atheism. I was raised Christian and so those teachings seemed pretty normal to me. It was only after getting up close and personal with Islam that I began to realize that Christianity's claims are as outlandish as Islam's. It was a short step from "Wait, you believe in invisible smoke people? Are you serious?" to "Wait, I believe in an invisible creator? Am I serious?" So for me, the step from monotheism to atheism really did involve learning to see my own religion with the same air of incredulity that we feel when exposed to, say, Ancient Egyptian religion.

Of course, there is an immediate rejoinder from the monotheist camp, which I would certainly have made at another point in my life. Most Christians don't really believe that the Muslim god is a figment of people's imagination in the same way that we think he is. Fundamentalist Christians probably mostly think the Muslim god is Satan in disguise, while progressive Christians (like I was) think that the Muslim god is simply a different understanding of the same god -- not a perfect understanding, but still a human response to the divine. Either way, Christians believe that religions have a core of reality; they don't, in fact, "dismiss all other possible gods" in the way atheists do.

As C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity:
"If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole word is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest one, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view."

Of course I don't agree with C. S. Lewis, but I think that the Roberts quote does belie a misunderstanding of how most Christians really view other people's gods.

Edited at 2012-01-18 02:05 am (UTC)
That's fair. I think one of the areas where I originally missed the point was that the quote is probably more about arguments and cross-perception than it is about lifestyle and foundations.

I've seen some surveys of how people of different religions see each other, and while there isn't always a lot of cross-faith respect, one of the really striking patterns in those is that atheists/agnostics are almost universally distrusted and disliked by people of almost all faiths more than they distrust/dislike each other. I think CS Lewis's quote goes some ways towards explaining that. The Abrahamic faiths have common myths, but they're still more gracious to non-abrahamic faiths, by the polls, than to seculars.

FWIW, Buddhism still strikes me as deeply philosophically profound, and the contents of Fiqh in Islam strike me as very intellectually respectable.