Do you get the atheist joke?
I’ve noticed with interest the discussion a recent opinion piece John Dickson began yesterday on the ABC Religion and Ethics page concerning the ‘atheist joke’. The ‘joke’ is when an atheist suggests to a theist (usually a Christian) – “There have been 10,000 gods through history, You reject 9,999 of them. I just go one god further!”
The thing I’ve noticed is how many people have misunderstood not only the original joke, but what John Dickson was actually saying. A case in point is a response to this from Jonathan Meddings at the Young Australian Skeptics (I know Jonathan, and I’m sure he would appreciate engagement with his opinions). Meddings critiques and criticises Dickson’s post and suggests that Dickson has conflated deism with theism in a non sequitur.
Unfortunately Meddings has misunderstood both what Dickson has said and what he has not said. I’ve outlined some responses and further discussion in 5 points here.
1. The fundamental problem with the ‘joke/argument’. The ‘argument’ that Dickson is responding to is not really an argument for atheism at all. The heart of the problem with the ‘joke’, this ‘argument’, is that there is a massive difference between relative atheism and absolute atheism. I am a Christian and it’s true that I reject the god Zeus, Ra, Mithras and the pantheon of other gods, all 9,999 of them. In this sense I am a relative atheist – I am atheist regarding these alternative gods. Yet I am a theist – I am not an absolute atheist. I do believe in some supernatural intelligence overseeing our universe. This is why there is an enormous difference between removing one last god. All theistic (monotheistic and polytheistic) say that there is this supernatural intelligence(s), atheism does not. Theistic claims suggest that our universe had it’s origin in this ‘unmoved mover’, atheism suggests that the universe itself was the ‘unmoved mover’. Theism in it’s various manifestations implies a certain metaphysical structure of the universe which is fundamentally different from atheism. This is why this argument/joke is false – you can’t move from polytheism to atheism by simply doing subtraction.
2. Dickson was not arguing (in this case) for the truth of the particular god he believes in, he was demonstrating the falsity of this ‘atheist joke’. Meddings claims that ‘Dickson has just argued that because believers believe in a god of sorts, the fact they reject all other gods is irrelevant to an argument about belief in a specific god.’ This isn’t true. Contrary to Meddings’ claims, Dickson was not attempting to “provide evidence for why his god (the God of Abraham) is the one true God”, he was demonstrating the weaknesses of the atheist ‘joke/argument’ presented to him (as I outlined above in point 1). He was trying to demonstrate that through a form of natural theology the instinct that the worshipers of Zeus had to worship something greater than themselves, their ‘idea of divine power and intelligence’ was correct.
3. There is evidence for a god from natural theology, but this is insufficient to make an exclusive claim as to the truth of a ‘particular’ god. Further Meddings’ claim that “the argument is simply that the religious don’t believe in all other gods because there is not sufficient evidence supporting their existence.” is spurious. Dickson’s point was that “the rational order of the universe is best explained by the existence of an almighty Mind (or Minds) behind it all.” Dickson’s point, which correct, is that through some form of natural theology, one can come to an understanding that there is a ‘god/supreme power’ in the universe. Dickson has used ‘natural theology (i.e. theology without revelation). Dickson’s argument is a combination of the philosophical arguments of causation and rationality. Note that this isn’t an exclusive claim at this point, Dickson hasn’t presented an argument for his particular ‘god’. He has used natural theology to demonstrate that there is ‘something there’, which those who worship Zeus etc have also realised. This illustrates the fundamental weakness with natural theology – it can give you a clue in a general sense that there is a god, but it doesn’t give you enough information to distinguish between various ‘god claims’. Is it Zeus, Jesus, Yahweh, Ra? We can’t tell, unless we receive special revelation (see point 5).
4. Deism is a form of theism not atheism. Meddings makes a confusing claim when he says, “Deists are atheists regarding all the gods of religion, because deists believe in a god that created the universe and left it alone. They do not believe in a god that intervenes in the Universe […} that is what theists believe” Yet this confuses the nature of the original ‘joke’ and he also implies that deists are in fact atheists! Deists are theists, they simply don’t believe in a personal or knowable god. Hence by conflating deism with atheism, he creates s very confusing situation. Deism is the end result of natural theology, i.e. that you can only know that there is something there, you can never be certain who or what that ‘god’ is.
5. The only way to determine the ‘truth’ and exclusivity of a particular ‘god’ is through special revelation. To make a judgement about which ‘god’ claim is true, requires special revelation. i.e that if there is a god, that if he is a personal god, he will reveal himself. If this god fails to reveal himself (or if he is not there), we must remain in the rut of deism and/or agnosticism. This last point was something that Dickson did not argue for (and hence is unfair to criticise him on). Yet, to add to Dickson’s case, the claim that god has revealed himself in the person and works of Jesus Christ is the reason that I believe the God of the Bible is the true and real God and why I reject the other 9,999 god claims.