Religious People Really are Atheists

I don’t remember who it was who said, “I contend that we’re both atheists – I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you deny all other gods, you’ll understand why I deny yours.” Now Stentor claims that this argument is bunk on the grounds that it confuses two questions: first, does God exist? And second, if it exists, what is its nature?

In reality, however, most religious people don’t reason like that. The average Christian, or even the average Christian theologian doesn’t consider all religions to be mere variants of theism. Stentor analogizes religion to feminism and cars; but for a feminist, the main distinction is typically between feminism and anti-feminism rather than, say, radical feminism and the rest, and for a car owner the main point is having a car. For a Christian, the main distinction is between Christians and non-Christians.

It’s impossible even in theory to arrive at a religious view by sifting through several religions’ scriptures and choosing the best. Starting by comparing atheism, theism, deism, and so on can at most lead to a very general kind of theism, one that doesn’t condemn atheists and Muslims alike to Hell.

Further, in practice, the second sentence is critical. A Christian denies Islam and Hinduism for the same reasons an atheist denies all religions: because their scriptures don’t make sense to him. They don’t offer any evidence that they’re correct, they tell stories that almost invariably horrify people who didn’t grow up with them.

13 Responses to Religious People Really are Atheists

  1. Stentor says:

    It’s true that the Christian-non Christian distinction is an important one to Christians, but so is the religious-nonreligious distinction. In my own youth, I remember finding atheists far creepier than adherents of non-Christian religions. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Christians say of non-Christian religious people “well at least they believe in *something*.”

  2. Peter Z. says:

    But what about religious people who do not believe in a god or gods? I am sure a lot of buddhists would fall under that category. Gautama Buddha was positively agnostic.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Peter, I don’t extend my criticism of religion to Buddhism for precisely that reason. I don’t know about offline atheist activists, but online this seems to be the norm – indeed, many atheists hold the Dalai Lama as an example of a religious leader who doesn’t mangle science, advocate authoritarianism, or support wars.

    Stentor, I know what you mean; there are many Christians who subscribe to that somewhat relativist idea. But even their view can’t be reached via the two-step process you describe, since examining other religions’ scriptures requires either that you accept more than one religion, which is absurd, or that you be skeptical toward all of them.

  4. Bryan says:

    They don’t offer any evidence that they’re correct, they tell stories that almost invariably horrify people who didn’t grow up with them.

    This isn’t entirely true. I have a very close friend who grew up in a Protestant household but didn’t go to church and remained more or less agnostic throughout high school. We he went to college, he began exploring religions a bit more seriously after going through a period of interest in Taoism. Eventually he settled into the Episcopalian faith which he found made the most sense to him. He’s always been a very logical person and he arrived at his faith in a very logical, academic, and scholarly fashion.

    There are plenty of other people with similar stories. There are also plenty of Christian scholars. It’s not all based on blind faith and fearmongering. I’m an agnostic myself but I can understand where someone might find more credibility in some religions than others. Christianity is a historical religion and has a lot of basis in facts of a sort. Jesus, as far as we know, really was a real guy and the Bible is fairly accurate in that regard. There are other options, of course, but it’s not like there’s no truth behind any of the stories. This is why I’m personally not an atheist; I don’t think there’s enough evidence to believe, but there’s not such a lack that I’d entirely discredit.

  5. Joel Monka says:

    “…since examining other religions’ scriptures requires either that you accept more than one religion, which is absurd, or that you be skeptical toward all of them.” Unless you’re a Pagan, in which case you can accept more than one religion as valid. My most recent post explains how more than one religion can still be objective truth ( What is absurd is to believe that six billion people can be served by a single truth.

  6. erasmus says:

    “What is absurd is to believe that six billion people can be served by a single truth.”

    Surely there can be only one “truth.” Lots of myths, though. Some surely touch on the truth or contain pieces of the truth; some, no doubt, are devoid of any truth at all. But the truth is the truth. Not a truth for jews, one for muslims, one for christians, etc.

    Mind you, I’m not saying I know the truth (I do have a working hypothesis), just that the truth exists and it is singular and unique. Few know it — maybe no one does. But there is a truth. A, as in one, truth.

  7. Joel Monka says:

    And you know this for a certainty? I know you believe this, but how can you KNOW it?

  8. Alon Levy says:

    Well, for a start, the Universe is way bigger than 6 billion people and still has some consistent laws, namely the laws of physics. So since the existence of God is supposed to permeate all that there is, it makes sense that if there is one deity and that this deity gives a damn about humanity, it relates to all people in the same way.

    As for the reality of Christianity, the Bible is no less apocryphal than the Vedas or the Qur’an. Violet Socks’ essay about the Bible remains the best takedown of Biblical historicity I’ve seen on the blogosphere.

  9. Joel Monka says:

    Well, as a Pagan, I don’t accept the Bible as authority. As to the laws of physics, we don’t know that they are universal- we do know, for example, that those laws have a discontinuity at the subatomic level. the Quantum universe has a totally different set of laws than the macro universe has- and it’s not beyond the possibilities of science that if we expand into the universe and actually get to test our theories, that we will find other discontinuities as well.

    We don’t know if there is only one Universe. We don’t know if there is only one God- there are those who have said that any number of dieties greater than zero is equally likely. But we do know that despite our genes being more than 99.9% identical, my kidney would not work in your body (absent special drugs, and maybe not then)… surely our minds and souls are more complex than a kidney; why would you assume your path to the Divine would work for me?

  10. Alon Levy says:

    No, actually the quantum universe has the same laws as the rest of the universe. It’s just more convenient to use a classical approximation on the macro level, just like it’s more convenient to use a Newtonian approximation at low speeds. And quantum mechanics itself appears to be an approximation that works at scales where gravity is negligible while the size is too big for strings to be visible. The whole idea of modern physics is to find the theory underlying all these approximations.

    We can’t know if there’s only one universe, but for all functional intents and purposes, there is only one. We don’t know if there’s a god, but for all functional intents and purposes, there isn’t any.

  11. Mak Dai says:

    Faith is an element in which overthinkers seem not to dwell. In order to know that their is not a God you must know everything there is to know about everything when in fact, even the most intelligent person doesn’t even know 1% of all their is to know. Overthinkers often ignore common sense and give more credit to hypothetical theories than to the obvious. Sometimes things are what they appear to be on the surface. The existence of God can be proven by probability of all things and in all things combined.

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