“I Just Believe in One Less God Than You Do”–Or Not

atheism-believing-in-one-less-god-than-you-age-quoteIn the spirit of recycling (and nostalgia), I’ve rifled through old conversations I’ve saved from my pre-blogging, internet correspondence to see if there’s anything serviceable. One dialogue in particular found me channeling Tim Keller on the subject of idolatry. One chap, an aggressive atheist of the Dawkinsian sort, was challenging me on my juvenile belief in God and trotted out the now-famous quote among the New Atheist set:

“I contend that 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.”

–Stephen H. Roberts

After giving a lengthy list of reasons I have for believing in God, I addressed the quote (grammar:

At this point, I would like to address your quote. I think the question is not whether or not you believe in one less god than I do. I think the reality of the situation is that irrespective of the particular propositions we affirm, we both worship gods. The difference between you and I is that I’ve chosen the Christian one and that in all likelihood, you remain oblivious to the nature of yours.

Let me explain what I mean.

Functionally-speaking, everybody has a “god”, even if they don’t have a “religion.” You have something that you’ve placed at the center of your life that gives it direction, meaning, purpose, and value. You devote your time, energy, love, and affection to this thing as if it were the most central thing in the universe. That, in the monotheistic traditions, is what is called an idol. It is a god-substitute. The point isn’t whether or not you will worship a god. The point is “which god will you worship?”

The Christian claim is that if you match Jesus up with any other god, he wins all day, every day, and (of course) twice on Sundays. So, if you match Jesus up with the most common American god, Money, Jesus wins. Jesus is totally better than money. Money never satisfies. It never delivers what it promises. You can work for it, slave for it, sacrifice everything at the altar for (like your time, relationships, children, marriage, health) and in the end, even when you get it, it lets you down. You keep needing more and more and it never fills that gap. Also, if you don’t get it, if you fail your god, the crushing despair you feel can’t be relieved. Money doesn’t forgive you. When money is your god, being poor is a sin and you’re gonna have a hard time working that off of your soul.

In any case, money can be devalued, can be lost (think market crash in 2008), and, in the end, will distort your soul if you make it the ultimate thing in your life. Jesus ,on the other hand, well, he’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t accept you based on your performance, but by grace, loving you despite all your flaws. He forgives you when you fail. He delivers on what he promises. I could go on of hours, but you kinda get the point. Jesus > Money. Name anything else, even really good things, (Jesus > relationships, Jesus > your personal freedom, Jesus > sex, Jesus > power, Jesus > fame, Jesus > stuff, Jesus > a career, Jesus > status, Jesus > being a rockstar, etc.), and Jesus wins every time.

And remember, you already worship something. You build your sense of self on something. Something is already your god. I don’t know what your particular god is, but I know you have one. The question is whether or not you recognize it, and how well does it match up against the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That is why I think Mr. Robert’s quote, while being trivially true at the purely propositional level, is fundamentally wrong.

A few years on, I would probably adjust tone and my specific elaboration, and yet the fundamental point still holds. The world isn’t divided up between believers and non-believers, worshippers and non-worshippers–we all believe and we all worship. The fundamental difference is the object of our belief and worship–Jesus, or something else.

Soli Deo Gloria

7 thoughts on ““I Just Believe in One Less God Than You Do”–Or Not

  1. This is based in a loose definition of what is a god. While an atheist is rejecting the concept of an all-mighty being that created the universe, imposes morality, and enforces absolute law, you are saying that he might instead be worshiping money, freedom, sex, power, fame, a career. These are not even close to the concept an atheist is dismissing. I won’t deny that it can be detrimental to pursue these things, but it is not analogous to following a god, and is not restricted to atheists.

    • Oh yes, I get that this definition isn’t as tight as most of us think it ought to be. It’s functional definition, rather than a strict philosophical one. It’s useful nonetheless. My point in highlighting this functional definition is to point out that belief is not only a matter of the intellect but the affections. It’s not just about propositions but about passions. Many of my atheist counterparts like to present themselves as simply having arrived at this purely logical belief and life-structure, unlike the religious believer. My point is that, at a fundamental level, we’re all believers and all worshippers. We can still debate things like the arguments and the evidence, but this is real dimension that ought not be ignored.

      • You’re saying that atheists do, in fact, worship gods, and define these gods to be “any things that are worshiped,” where worship means to revere or adore as if it were a god. You are redefining god. Sure, in ancient days when ideas like fertility and weather were served sacrifices this concept might have been true, but good luck convincing those cultures that they were trying to placate abstract ideas. Those were real, thinking, active beings to in their mind, and it is the real, thinking, active being which atheists don’t believe in.

        Redefining what a god is and saying, “See, you do believe in gods,” is called moving the goalposts.

      • I’m not saying it’s the exact same thing. I’m saying that they function in much the same way. In any case, thinking about a lot of the gods they were dealing with–anthropomorphic representations of their ultimate values–war, beauty, love, etc. Yes, they believed they were beings, but what I’m talking about is their functional character in organizing the rhythms of human existence. For some people market forces function theologically; for others, the State; still others, a conception of Reason functions as an ultimate against which they judge and order their lives.

        In any case, it’s not moving the goalposts. This is a thoroughly biblical understanding–just study the prophets, or Jesus himself. Jesus talked about serving God or Money, and the sense in which he spoke of it was an almost personified one, even though he was a monotheist who disbelieved in any other gods.

        Again, it’s not moving the goalposts, it’s shifting the question away from a very silly little slogan onto a practical reality..

  2. I would actually define this line as sophistry. One can use this argument about almost anything:

    ‘I’m not an anarchist, I just believe in one less government than you.’

    You could more or less prove just about anything you wanted to with this, because it’s sophistry, which, hey, that doesn’t make it *wrong*, just dumb, you know.

  3. I’m reminded of this great quote from David Foster Wallace:

    Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
    -David Foster Wallace, “This is Water” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB122178211966454607)

  4. It’s not the God revealed in Jesus Christ I have a problem with; it’s the God revealed in the Old Testament. Even if it could be proved that that God existed, I wouldn’t worship him. And of course Christianity teaches that Jesus and the O.T. God are one and the same, so that’s where Jesus fails for me as an alternative to thing-worship. I’m a real simpleton and could probably be talked into deism or Taosim, but anything Abrahamic…I don’t know, man. Got a lot of bones to pick with Yahweh.

    Now the Dawkins parroting, that needed to stop like seven years ago. When I start my own denomination of atheist church that’s dogma number one. Quoting some other dude all the time is not an argument, and kind of seems like the opposite of freethinking.

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