How many gods? -and when an atheist debates…

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The other day I reshared this blog post from the old site.  I reshared it in relation to a discussion that had come up on a friend’s Facebook page. Well, over the years since I first started Faithroots on the previous site, I’ve had an atheist blogger occasionally interact with what I write. I had a strong suspicion that they would react to this article -and lo and behold, within not too long a timeframe, this article was up on their website.   My primary aim in producing material is not to get into debates and arguments but I am happy to engage with people when they respond.  So, here’s a little response to them.

They start not by engaging the subject matter in hand but with a bit of a personal attack.

Now, unsurprisingly, the Chrisitans who put up this bit don’t allow comments on their website.  As usual, they don’t want anyone actually thinking about what they claim is true and definitely don’t want anyone to think that someone can show them wrong. “

 This is a well-known tactic in argument, although it’s not really considered within the spirit of debate. It’s a form of ad-hominem attack, play the person instead of the ball. Here. the interlocuter claims to be able to assess the intellect, character and motives of the other person.  

 However, let’s just address the complaint so we can set it to one side. The basic complaint here is that I’ve not set up my website in the manner that “Club” would like me to.  To be honest, that’s not really her business. There are all manner of online sites, platforms and styles of online engagement and writing, just as there are different ways of engaging offline.  I may speak at an event where one or more speakers are listened to with or without questions at the end. I may also choose to take part in a debate with speeches first and then interaction or I may participate in a panel discussion. Each have their place.

Online, I have chosen not to open up comments as a default feature on my site. That’s my prerogative. I choose to run the site primarily as a vehicle for me to write, or to speak because there seem to be people out there who find some of what I produce useful.  There are forums available with moderators, for example on Reddit where people are given space to debate and argue to their hearts content.  My priority is not to moderate another option for that.  However, this does not mean that I “don’t want anyone actually thinking” or to prevent people from responding. There are plenty of ways in which people can respond – indeed Club has used one. She has written her own article in response. I guess that’s my point. I’d rather someone took the same time I have done to work through the issue rather than simply sticking in an off the cuff comment.  Now that she has responded, you can see a link to her response at the bottom of the original article. She has hardly been censored. 

Club then goes on to say:

Dave Williams, the Christian making the claims starts with this baseless bit of nonsense “Now, belief in the one true God can only come through revelation as he speaks to you, reveals his true character and causes you to see your need for him.”  Well poof goes free will then.  But, as I know very well, Christians don’t agree whether free will or predestination is a thing and neither side can show their nonsense to the right answer.”

Well, that claim may or may not be baseless nonsense (obviously I think not) but if it is, then not on the basis of Club’s point here. This is partly because she has misunderstood the nature of the point made (a theme that continues through her article). There is a discussion to be had about free-will and predestination, one I’ve written plenty on in the past -and where I prioritise predestination anyway.  However, the quote in question isn’t to do with that debate but rather is to do with revelation and knowledge.  Club doesn’t agree with the premise that a personal, eternal, all powerful God exists but she should be able to see that within that worldview then it is not nonsense but the legitimate implication of belief in a personal God that faith in him will be dependent on revelation. How do I know anything about you? How do you know anything about me? Well, to truly know me you are dependent on my self-disclosure. Without that you risk everything that goes with making assumptions about me, my personality and my motives -as ably demonstrated by Club in her assumptions about why I don’t include comments.

There’s then a few more preliminaries that still don’t have much to do with the point of the original article.  For example, am I insisting that there is a right version of Christianity and would it be problematic then if I wasn’t bothered about a right version of Islam?  Well, whilst my original article wasn’t particularly to do with that -the general principle there, namely that the presence of disagreement and multiple options doesn’t undermine the possibility that one option is true.  So, I have no problem with someone taking time to investigate the claims of Islam against Christianity. Indeed, the original article talks about how we set claims alongside each other.

Furthermore, it remains possible to talk objectively about a “right version of Islam.”  This is important for anyone wanting to get to understand what Muslims believe and interact with them.  This is important if we are to debate with them fairly and not set up paper tigers to fight.  If I wanted to critique Islam then I would not want to attack any random, minority viewpoint as representative of the religion I would want to engage with arguments that are faithful to the original Islamic texts and have been accepted as such by the bulk of Muslims throughout history and to this day.

Now, it is possible to do the same with Christianity. There may be diversity of opinions on a variety of issues and there may from time to time be people who pop up with quirky interpretations. However, there has been throughout history a consistent, majority understanding of what it means to be faithful to Christianity in terms of what the Bible says about who God is, who we are, where we have come from and where we are headed.  This is represented by the creeds which sum that up.

But I also believe that Christianity in terms of belief in the Triune Creator God and specifically in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection on our behalf is not only the true and faithful representation of Christianity but that it is The Truth about us and God.  Now, my short article was not an attempt to settle all of that in one go, rather it focused on one very specific claim. 

Just to remind you what that issue was. It was that if there are around 3000 gods out there, then Christians choose not to believe in 2999 meaning that atheists just believe in one less. Fascinatingly, Club suggests that in effect this makes Christians kind of atheists too -which was one of the original accusations made against the early believers!

Club then goes on to say:

He promptly defines his god as the only possible definition of a god.  He claims a binary choice when there is none.  This is a false dichotomy fallacy e.g. “there being a god or there not being a god.”

Now, just to help her out here. Yes, it is possible to set up false dichotomies. However, once again just because some dichotomies are false doesn’t mean that all dichotomies are (are you spotting a theme yet).  So, what I’m doing in the article is not a logical fallacy but rather an example of how when seeking to assess things through logically we work through an ordered process -a series of true/false statements if you like.  We categorize and sort in order to help us make decisions. This is something we find ourselves doing in many aspects of life.

As for whether or not I’m treating my “god as the only possible definition of a god.”  I think that’s kind of the point.  You see, if the atheist says “but you just choose to reject one less god out of 300 to me?” Then it is important to check whether or not we are talking about the same kind of thing. I we comparing apples with apples. Are the same claims being made about these other gods that are being made about YHWH?

You see, when we talk about gods like Thor and Mars  and the various gods of ancient Egypt them we are talking about supposed powerful beings that are able to do incredible deeds and seem to have authority over aspects of life but are however finite. This is important because Christians do not actually reject the existence of such beings. Christians believe in the existence of angels and demons. Fascinatingly, modern comic story writers get the distinction between the idea of an almighty creator God and supernatural beings and so have included “gods” like Thor and Loci into their superhero stories.

So, getting the definition right matters and a debate about God’s existence should in fact start with the very question “what do you mean by ‘God’?” Indeed, let’s be absolutely clear, no atheist is really that bothered about the possible existence of such beings. It doesn’t in anyway affect their worldview. If it turned out that Thor and Loki really did exist then would that cause them to rethink their atheism? Well, why would it.  Atheism conceives of the possibility that we might potentially discover other forms of life within this Universe and that therefore they could conceivably have evolved to an advanced state in terms of intellect and power. 

So Club misses the point when she says:

Then why the difference in terms?  These gods are indeed rivals to Dave’s god in their ontological status.  He tries to pretend they aren’t, by insisting that his god alone deserves worship, but he gives no reason why this should be the case. 

It’s not that I’m trying to dismiss the ontological status and power of these other gods. I’m simply engaging with how those who believe(d) in them understood them. They did not and do not see those gods as rivals to the status of ultimate, infinite, absolute, uncreated originator.  They see them as rivals for finite, territorial power. Indeed, that’s the humour of the Old Testament, Israel’s enemies thought that their gods could rival Yahweh on territorial/regional terms but they could not even do that. Even when they did, it was only by Yahweh’s permission and to fulfil his purposes.

The real question that matters for atheists and theists is not whether or not something else could exist but whether if it does then whether or not it command our loyal obedience and worship. Atheists and Christians agree that even should a being turn up calling itself Thor, carrying a hammer and displaying abilities such as advanced mind reading or even the ability to manipulate the weather that we still would not feel compelled to bow the knee to it.  What really matters then is what we mean by “God” and then if a being worthy of that title does exist.

Now, as I explained in the article, when you look at what those religions and belief systems that do believe in a pantheon of gods  believe  in today and historically believed in then you discover that they too tended to believe in a higher power that might be considered truly divine. Indeed, it was this philosophy that led to the development of Gnosticism. The gods or spirits in most of these systems are really only intermediaries with the true spirit.

 Often too, such systems tended to think of true divinity as distant, disinterested, unknowable, impersonal. That’s why I’ve argued persistently that throughout history it has really come down to a choice between two options when we are ask “Is there something out there from which we came and do we owe worship to it?” The choice is between the personal and the impersonal. And there’s the point.  The structured argument leads us from the option of “God/No God”  “personal/impersonal” to that discussion then about who is this God.  Now, along the way, people will draw different conclusions. I would assume that Club left the conversation at the point where we disagreed on the “God/No God” option. It’s not controlling or arrogant to say that the conversation we are having will lead to a conclusive stage where those staying in it accept that there is a personal God and therefore want to talk more about who that God is.

Club doesn’t like my suggestion that if you go for options where God is distant, unknowable then you in practice choose the atheist option.  She writes:

Dave’s claim “Then, we have in fact denied the eternal and personal God and in practice chosen the atheist option.”  Aka “If you don’t believe in my god, then you are an atheist” Is entirely false.”

She seems to take every comment made by anyone else as a jibe.  Yet not everything is.  But again as a result she misses the point here which is there in those two words “in practice.”   We sometimes talk about practical atheists and the point is that if you theoretically affirm the existence of God but act as though God isn’t involved, doesn’t speak, doesn’t love, doesn’t hear then there is very little to distinguish your day to day experience from that of an atheist.

Club’s article does have a little of the feel of something quickly dashed off.  I do that myself sometimes.  The risk though is that sometimes as a result, we can also be too hasty in our reading. It’s worth slowing down to read something you are about to disagree with in order to make sure that you have read them right and that you are about to disagree with what they actually have said not what you hoped or expected them to say. 

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