Atheism with one god less doesn’t work

Christian Atheist
Christian Atheism. Photo (cc) zor­illa.

The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has spoken out this Christmas against fun­da­ment­al­ism, includ­ing fun­da­ment­al­ist athe­ists. It’s the kind of mes­sage I agree with, or at least I would if I knew any fun­da­ment­al­ist athe­ists. I don’t know any. Fair play to Dr Morgan, he doesn’t name any so I may never find out who they are. Presumably it’s not a ref­er­ence to Richard Dawkins because, for reas­ons I’ll show below, that would be a bit silly. It’s not sur­pris­ing Dawkins gets ratty about it. But while Dawkins isn’t a fun­da­ment­al­ist, it’s pos­sible one of his one-liners might explain where these fun­da­ment­al­ists come from.

Everybody nowadays is an athe­ist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.

Technically two lines, but it is a prob­lem because this line doesn’t say what an athe­ist is. It’s a big point because there’s when you’re talk­ing about Thor or Apollo there’s a dif­fer­ence in depend­ing on whether or not you’re the sort of athe­ist who believes in gods.

An athe­ist who believes in a God? That’s the prob­lem.

In the God Delusion (page 73 in my UK paper­back) Dawkins talks about belief. Do you believe in god(s)? Yes or no? The answer might not be that simple. For instance you could be agnostic. So Dawkins offers a seven point scale.

1. Strong Theist. 100% prob­ab­il­ity of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, ‘I do not believe, I know.’
4. Exactly 50%. Completely impar­tial agnostic. ‘God’s exist­ence and nonex­ist­ence are exactly equi­prob­able.’
7. Strong athe­ist. ‘I know there is no God with the same con­vic­tion as Jung “knows” there is one.’

Now to fill out those points, at 2 there are people who accept they can­not know with 100% cer­tainty, but strongly believe in a god. They live their lives in the believe that a god exists. At 3 are people who think there’s prob­ably a god, but have doubts. Believers in gods aren’t uni­form, they’re spread across the scale between 1,2 and 3. At 5 are agnostics who are scep­tical about the idea of a god, but think there might be cir­cum­stan­tial evid­ence for its existence.

At 6 are what Dawkins calls de facto athe­ists. These are people who see no evid­ence for a god and no reason to believe. They live with the assump­tion no gods exist, but they can­not be 100% sure. This is the level that Dawkins would put him­self at. It describes my non-belief. It’s pos­sible I’m a vic­tim of Descartes’ Demon. I’m not sure it’s pos­sible to live my life assum­ing I’m the vic­tim of super­nat­ural beings so I ignore it in day-to-day life.

One of the things Dawkins says is that this belief scale isn’t bal­anced. He states get people between 2,3,4,5 and 6. However you also get a lot of people at 1, 100% cer­tain of a god’s exist­ence. In con­trast he expects very few people at level 7 because this level of cer­tainty requires a level of faith. The prob­lem is that when he equates athor­ism, a lack of belief in Thor, with athe­ism he assumes that people don’t believe in Thor based on the lack of evid­ence when many people don’t believe in Thor because of faith.

If you’re a Christian or an athe­ist then you’re athor­ist. A grade 6 athe­ist is only a grade 6 athor­ist. She can be no more cer­tain Thor does not exist than any other god. In con­trast a grade 1 Christian is a grade 7 athor­ist. A grade 1 Christian knows Thor doesn’t exist because he knows there’s one true God. A Christian any­where between 1 and 3 on the scale could be a grade 7 athor­ist. Therefore going one god fur­ther isn’t neces­sar­ily going to help a Christian become a Dawkins style athe­ist. The dif­fer­ence isn’t in the con­tent of belief, it’s the method of how you get there. This explains in part why dis­cus­sion of faith so often gen­er­ates more heat than light. Dawkins is open in his dis­dain for theo­logy and, when it comes to reli­gion, grade 1 writers show equal dis­reg­ard for evidence.

Who is likely to be at the grade 1 level of reli­gious belief? I would have thought level 1 Christianity, or at least the pre­tence of level 1 Christianity would have been essen­tial for pro­fes­sional Christians. Is it fair to say that dis­reg­ard is a fair word for some of these people? I think so.

Virulent attacks on reli­gion by athe­ists, he says, are under­min­ing Christian soci­ety, lead­ing to new rules such as Christmas being renamed as “Winterval” and Christians being for­bid­den to wear crosses at work.

I don’t know of a single coun­cil that has renamed Christmas “Winterval”. In know that in the late 90s for a couple of years Birmingham City Council had a sea­son of events betwen October and January which they called Winterval. Christmas cel­eb­ra­tions were part of this, but so was Diwali. There For some reason not all Hindus would be happy if Diwali was part of the city’s ‘Christmas’ cel­eb­ra­tions. The prob­lem for some people is that free­dom of reli­gion includes the free­dom to prac­tice reli­gions which don’t match the com­plain­ants own par­tic­u­lar brand of Christianity. Winterval repla­cing Christmas is a well-known urban myth. At least it’s well known among people with an interest in reli­gion. Therefore a solid example would be helpful.

I could be wrong. It is pos­sible that Winterval has replaced Christmas some­where and I don’t know about it, so I’ve con­tac­ted the Dr Morgan’s press office to find out which coun­cils have aban­doned Christmas for Winterval. Unfortunately there’s noth­ing bey­ond an asser­tion in the press release, but that’s me being fix­ated on evid­ence rather than accept­ing his word on faith. Cynics call this kind of approach lying for Jesus, but it’s pos­sibly not a help­ful way of think­ing about how grade 1 Christians deal with evidence.

Theo Hobson is a doc­tor of theo­logy writ­ing for the Guardian and a great expo­nent the ima­gin­ary argu­ment. He’s quite open about invent­ing views for athe­ists like Dawkins and then cas­tig­at­ing them for their beliefs. It’s clear that Dawkins’ argu­ments are irrel­ev­ant to Hobson’s writ­ing. I wouldn’t say Hobson is lying about Dawkins, because it’s a ques­tion about what the word Dawkins means. Dawkins is now a totem for athe­ism as ima­gined by Hobson. The argu­ment is not with Richard Dawkins, but with the mir­ror of Hobson’s own faith. The weak­ness of reas­on­ing he sees is only the reflec­tion of his own argu­ments, but Hobson isn’t inter­ested in epi­stem­o­logy, only in the con­tent of belief. Sadly Hobson is under the illu­sion that his beliefs are some­how con­nec­ted to the actual per­son called Richard Dawkins.

In a sim­ilar way Dr Morgan’s vis­ion of Winterval could carry all the real­ity and mean­ing of a vis­ion of Mary or some other divine com­mu­nic­a­tion without hav­ing to cor­res­pond with what a non-believer might call ‘the real world’. Whether or not people really are repla­cing Christmas with Winterval is not so import­ant as the belief that the only reli­gion to auto­mat­ic­ally have a say in the British gov­ern­ment is being repressed.

Or I could be wrong, and I’ll update this if I am.

The prob­lem with much dis­cus­sion of athe­ism is that some believ­ers assume that it really is simply a case of believ­ing in one god less, rather than ques­tion­ing what grounds you have for a belief. It’s easy to attack faith-based athe­ism, which is what Dr Morgan is attack­ing if you read his full state­ment: “To have a coher­ent and rational debate about the ten­ets of the Christianity is per­fectly nat­ural. To have a vir­u­lent, almost irra­tional attack upon it claim­ing that what is being said is self evid­ently true is dan­ger­ous…” Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett are so far away from self-evident truths that they wrote whole books to defend their pos­i­tion rather than brief unsourced press releases. Ironically state­ments like those of Dr Morgan are argu­ments for evidence-based reas­on­ing. Nonetheless the one god less line, being an appeal to the reli­gious, could be a call to faith-based athe­ism. It’s a shame, because until today I thought it was a cute line.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

5 Responses

  1. Doug Indeap says:

    I didn’t read Dawkins’ “one god fur­ther” com­ment to present some sort of logical explan­a­tion of athe­ism or how to move from the­ism to athe­ism. I read it as a witty, pro­voc­at­ive way to call the­ists’ atten­tion to the fact that they actu­ally under­stand how it is to lack a belief in god(s) pos­ited by vari­ous reli­gions and to think that adher­ents of such reli­gions truly are delud­ing them­selves not­with­stand­ing their “faith” in the truth of their god(s). If the­ists take that under­stand­ing and extend it one god fur­ther, they’ll have an under­stand­ing of how it is to be an athe­ist. Dawkins’ com­ment, I think, wasn’t meant as some sort of logical argu­ment, but rather as a simple verbal device aimed at pro­mot­ing understanding.

  2. Duane says:

    Last night a fam­ily mem­ber asked how it felt not to believe in God. I used a mod­i­fied form of Dawkins line and said, “I feel just the same about God as you feel about Zeus.” So I think you are cor­rect to take the line out of the realm of logic but I think it still has a place in the realm of emo­tion as long as we make clear what realm we are work­ing in. My fam­ily mem­ber asked me a ques­tion about feel­ings and I respon­ded with a descrip­tion of my feel­ings based on a theo­lo­gical ana­logy. Many of the issues in this neigh­bor­hood involve “how could you think that?” kind of responses, i.e. “per­sonal incredu­lity.” In the realm of emo­tion, Dawkin’s line can some­times be help­ful. But you are cor­rect that it can not be used when the issue is one of epi­stem­o­logy rather than emotion.

    Historically it is worth not­ing that, while he rejec­ted the claim at one sense, even Justin Martyr acknow­ledged that in another sense Christians where indeed athe­ists. “Hence are we called athe­ists. And we con­fess that we are athe­ists, so far as gods of this sort are con­cerned, but not with respect to the most true God … [First Apology, VI].” Justin puts this issue in a way that I think sup­ports your argument.

    It maybe worth not­ing that, while he rejec­ted the claim at one sense, even Justin Martyr acknow­ledged that in another sense Christians where indeed athe­ists. “Hence are we called athe­ists. And we con­fess that we are athe­ists, so far as gods of this sort are con­cerned, but not with respect to the most true God … [First Apology, VI].” Justin puts this issue in a way that I think sup­ports your argument.

  3. Doug Indeap says:

    Yes, I agree whole­heartedly that it can be a use­ful con­ver­sa­tional device to let a the­ist get inside an atheist’s head and know how it feels to not believe in god(s). In any given instance, it either works or it doesn’t, and that’s about the end of it.

    I appre­ci­ated your dis­cus­sion about the seven point scale and how, if “athe­ist” is under­stood to per­tain one by one to each god, a Christian can be at point one regard­ing the Christian god and point seven regard­ing the oth­ers. That dis­cus­sion reveals, too, how the “one god fur­ther” device may fall short of enabling some the­ists to actu­ally put them­selves into the mind­set of an athe­ist and recog­nize how it feels.

    Douglas Wilson, in his book Letter from a Christian Nation, countered Sam Harris’s obser­va­tion that Christians under­stand “what it is like to be an athe­ist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims,” since “[i]sn’t it obvi­ous that Muslims are fool­ing them­selves?” As Harris put it: “Understand that the way you [i.e., Christians] view Islam is the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all reli­gions.” Wilson argued that this is a false ana­logy, since both Christians and Muslims at least under­stand that some god cre­ated the uni­verse while athe­ists don’t. I didn’t see this as much of a response since he didn’t explain why it mat­ters that Christians dis­be­lieve both what Muslims and athe­ists think, but for dif­fer­ent reas­ons since they think dif­fer­ent things. Wilson seem­ingly acknow­ledged Harris’s point later in the book, stat­ing that “I believe that Islam is a false reli­gion, and I believe that the people who adhere to it are deluded.”

    Your dis­cus­sion of the seven points, though, sug­gests where Wilson likely was com­ing from. He’s one the­ist, it seems, for whom the “one god fur­ther” idea just didn’t work. Interesting, too, that he treated it like an argu­ment to be refuted.

  4. Alun says:

    This is one of those entries which I wrote quite late at night. I left it a day and tidied it up, but per­haps it’s not clear quite where I am. It’s not the logic that both­ers me as much as it’s a bad descrip­tion. The dif­fer­ence is qual­it­at­ive rather than quant­at­ive. The one god less line gets this exactly wrong.

    Perhaps a bet­ter line would be “I reject gods the same way you reject uni­corns”, because uni­corn dis­be­lief is down to a lack of evid­ence for the­ists and athe­ists alike. Interestingly that line of reas­on­ing tends to be a lot more offens­ive to Christians, espe­cially when you com­pare Jesus to a Tooth Fairy. I’m not sure it should be offens­ive if the listener genu­inely thinks that faith is a reli­able process.

    The thing that set me off are is the Archbishop of Wales’s address, which seemed fool­ish. There’ll be a follow-up, but that’ll be delayed because I’m fact-checking. Presumably the Archbishop is not an idiot, so I was inter­ested in how his reas­on­ing lead him to his con­clu­sions. The dis­cov­ery that the Archbishop has faith should not be a sur­prised, but it seems to be eas­ily over­looked in some writ­ings by both athe­ists and Christians.

    It’s non­ethe­less a cru­cial point because his state­ment could have real-world con­sequences for people and at the moment it’s dressed up as evidence-based reas­on­ing rather than faith. If I sent trouble to people based on a sin­cere feel­ing in my heart, rather than because of any evid­ence, that would be per­sonal bigotry. Wearing a hat and a dress is no help.

    Another reason why the Archbishop is con­cerned about fun­da­ment­al­ist athe­ists could be that he’s been con­tac­ted by some. I’ve never met a Grade 7 athe­ist, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There’s noth­ing so daft that someone isn’t will­ing to believe it. An arch­bishop is likely to be a mag­net for this kind of nut­ter, in much the same way he’d also be a mag­net for let­ters from reli­gious fun­da­ment­al­ists who think he’s erring from the true path.

  5. I was puzzled by his com­ments too. But when you put it into con­text of the right wing press and assor­ted commentators/worthies declar­ing war on the so-called war on Christmas, it kind of makes sense. As the war doesn’t exist, it stands to reason that the enemy has to be invented.