It is not uncommon, in interacting with Christians, for an atheist to claim that Christians and atheists are both atheists, differing only in the scope of their respective atheism. “We’re both atheists with respect to the Homeric gods,” we are told. This implies that Christians and atheists are really more alike than it might at first seem, except for one small detail – belief in one fewer deity. Perhaps it is even suggested that if the Christian were more consistent with his fundamental atheism, that he would become a full atheist as well! Unfortunately, for the atheist, this line of argumentation is untenable, as is demonstrated below.
In making this argument, the atheist is asserting that the atheist and the Christian are fundamentally similar, differing only in the details. The Christian is told: “You’re an atheist too. You just believe in one more deity than we do.” Thus, atheists and Christians are both atheists, though they differ in the scope of that atheism. The fundamental characteristic that supposedly unites the Christian and the atheist, then, is unbelief in a number of deities. The argument is as follows:
P1. Unbelief in a number of deities is sufficient for fundamental similarity.
P2. Christians have unbelief in a number of deities.
P3. Atheists have unbelief in a number of deities.
P4. Relative to P1, belief in one deity is not sufficient for fundamental dissimilarity.
C. Therefore, the atheist and the Christian are fundamentally similar.
From C, it then follows that the Christian really is an “atheist,” but just with respect to one deity fewer than the atheist who denies the existence of all deities.
Problems with the Argument
It should first be noted that P4 is not well-founded. How many deities does one have to believe in, before this becomes sufficient for a fundamental dissimilarity, relative to P1? Two deities? Five? Ten? Hundreds? Thousands? An infinite regress of deities? After all, a believer in the Norse pantheon is an atheist with respect to the Greek pantheon, and vice versa. Is a believer in the Norse pantheon then not so dissimilar from an atheist? Is such a person more dissimilar than a Christian? Is he dissimilar enough to be not fundamentally similar? Where is this boundary to be defined? Even a person who believes in an infinite regress of deities (such as a Mormon) would not necessarily believe in the Greek pantheon. Is such a person an atheist with respect to the Greek pantheon? Is such a person fundamentally similar to an atheist? It seems hardly likely that this would be the case, given that such a person would believe in infinitely more gods than the atheist. Of course, an atheist is welcome to try to set a limit on this issue, but it is hard to see how such a limit would not be purely subjective and arbitrary.
But to the main point, P1 is unacceptable, because it ignores the fundamental reasons as to why an atheist is an atheist, and a Christian a Christian. In general, a principle p is not sufficient for fundamental similarity if there are two other principles, p1 and p2 that are 1) more fundamental than p, 2) different, and 3) both imply p. In this case, the atheist’s claim that a Christian is also an “atheist” presupposes the Numerical Atheism Principle (NAP) as a sufficient criterion for fundamental similarity.
NAP: I do not believe in the existence of a number of given deities.
Of, course, NAP does not eliminate belief in one deity, or a few deities, but only requires that one does not believe in the existence of some number of given deities. Both the atheist and the Christian accept NAP. However, both the atheist and the Christian believe that the sky is blue, but that doesn’t make them similar in any relevant ideological sense. NAP is not a sufficient criterion for fundamental similarity because there are two other principles that are more fundamental that explain why the Christian accepts NAP and why the atheist accepts NAP, but also demonstrate a more fundamental difference between the atheist and the Christian. If a more fundamental difference exists that demonstrates why two people believe something similar, then that similarity is not a fundamental similarity, since it is caused by an even more fundamental dissimilarity. These two principles are the General Atheism Principle (GAP) and the Christian Monotheism Principle (CMP).
GAP: I do not believe in the existence of any deity.
CMP: I believe in the existence of the God of the Bible.
Now, it should be evident to all that GAP and CMP are fundamentally different. One is a categorical denial of the existence of any thing that is a deity, while the other is a fundamental commitment to the existence of one such being. GAP pertains to a category of entities (deities), while CMP pertains to a specific entity in that category (the God of the Bible). Hence, the fundamental difference between the two principles, and by extension, the atheist and the Christian.
The Christian-as-inconsistent-atheist sentiment can also be expressed in a slightly different manner, regarding the method by which the atheist and the Christian arrive at the rejection of the existence of some number of deities. Such a sentiment can be expressed by statements such as: “When you [the Christian] understand why you reject the existence of other gods, then you will understand why I [the atheist] reject the existence of yours.” Such statements have reference to the idea of rejecting the existence of a particular deity due to a lack of evidence for that being’s existence. Christians are purported to reject the existence of other gods because there is no evidence for them (just as the atheist does), but accept the existence of the God of the Bible on blind faith, in the face of a lack of evidence for His existence. Thus, it is implied that if the Christian were consistent with making judgements on the basis of the evidence, he would be a full atheist as well. But, for his inconsistency in the case of the God of the Bible, he is something of an inconsistent “atheist.”
The first problem with this sentiment is that there is abundant evidence for God’s existence and the truths of the Christian faith. Indeed, the existence and history of the disciplines of Classical and Evidential Apologetics testify to the existence of such evidence. Now, the atheist has access to the same material that the Christian claims to be evidence for the existence of the Christian God. Yet, in the light of the same material, the Christian finds convincing evidence for God’s existence, while the atheist does not. This presents a problem for the idea that Christian is simply an atheist with one more god. Evidence, as such, does not exist in and of itself, but is the result of interpreting certain facts, observations, and/or propositions in light of some fundamental presuppositions. If the result of this interpretation makes some other proposition more probable, then the facts, observations, and/or propositions at hand are evidence for the proposition that is made more probable. In this context, the fact that the atheist and Christian evaluate the same material and come to different conclusions as to whether or not it constitutes evidence for the existence of God indicates that the atheist and Christian have different presuppositions concerning the interpretation of facts and observations. Given that the Christian and the atheist interpret evidence differently, this would not imply a methodological similarity, but rather a methodological dissimilarity! The Christian is not one who has the same evidential presuppositions as the atheist, but simply takes the existence of the Christian God on blind faith. Rather, the Christian has different evidential presuppositions, and this refutes the claim that he is simply an inconsistent atheist with one more deity.
In addition, the Christian need not simply reject the existence of other gods on the sole basis of lack of evidence for their existence. On the contrary, the Christian can claim the positive knowledge that other gods do not exist. To believe in the God of the Bible is to accept the Bible as God’s true and authoritative revelation, and thus one’s authority of knowledge. This revelation states that no other deities besides the God of the Bible exist (e.g. Is. 45:5-6). Therefore, it is an object of knowledge for the Christian that no other deities besides the God of the Bible exist. This is indicative of a further dissimilarity between the Christian, who claims positive knowledge that no other gods exist, and the atheist, who merely rejects their existence for lack of evidence.
Hence, the Christian, who holds to CMP (by definition, being a Christian), arrives at NAP. NAP follows naturally from CMP – if one believes that the God of the Bible exists, and God states that there are no other deities besides Him, then given some other specific deities, one will not believe in their existence. Similarly, the atheist holds to GAP (by definition, being an atheist). NAP follows naturally from GAP – if one does not believe in the existence of any deities whatsoever, then given some specific deities, one will not believe in their existence. Thus, both the Christian and the atheist arrive at NAP, but for fundamentally different reasons, which is indicative of their fundamental dissimilarity.
The position that the Christian is really an “atheist” with belief in one more deity is untenable. The fundamental error that the atheist makes in this kind of argument is asserting that because both the Christian and the atheist accept NAP, that the Christian and the atheist are fundamentally similar in atheism, differing only in the scope of their respective atheism. This is fallacious, because the Christian and the atheist arrive at NAP for fundamentally different reasons. In addition, the atheist may claim a methodological similarity to the Christian, but this is also incorrect, as the manner in which the Christian and atheist interpret evidence for God’s existence reveals a fundamental presuppositional dissimilarity.
Soli Deo Gloria!