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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dumb Atheist Argument

Yes, the title is a pleonasm. But this one is particularly bad:

"Oh, so you believe in God. So which God do you believe in? The Jewish one, or the Muslim one, or the Christian one, or the Hindu?"

All of these religions describe a single source of all being, and ascribe to that source things like divine simplicity, eternal existence, divine conservation, and so on. They also all contain the idea that this ultimate source of being exceeds our powers of description.

Then, when these traditions do try to go any further, and they wind up with somewhat different images of God, the atheist making the above argument claims, "Ha! I got you: different Gods!"

This fellow ought also to think the following are true:

If Ptolemy says the sun goes around the earth, and Copernicus says the earth goes around the sun, then they must be talking about different suns.

If an ancient writer described a whale as a fish, he must be talking about a different animal than a modern writer speaking of a whale.

If Paul Krugman says the American economy benefited from the stimulus packages, and Bob Murphy says it didn't, they are talking about two different American economies.

14 comments:

  1. I imagine there are lots of Christians, Muslims, and Hindus out there that would rather you title this "dumb Universalist response to an atheist argument".

    This is weak, I think. Granted, if there is a God I agree it would work exactly this way - we'd have slightly different stories about him. But that in no way neuters the atheist's argument against a particular brand of theist who thinks he has special knowledge about what God REALLY is like and that he knows that what everyone else thinks he REALLY is like is wrong.

    When a Christian tells an atheist he knows all these detailed characteristics of God, the atheist has every reason to ask "why should I believe you over that Muslim over there?".

    If an atheist gets into an argument with a Universalist, that's a somewhat different story.

    If you take most theists at their word, we are most certainly not talking about the same sun. If you got Ptolemy and Copernicus in the same room, they would agree they were talking about the same sun.

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    1. I don't think a single thing in that comment is correct.

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    2. No wait a second... I do agree with the sentence where you totally concede my point: "Granted, if there is a God I agree it would work exactly this way - we'd have slightly different stories about him."

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    3. Daniel, in Christian understanding, God sent His message in the form of the Apostles. As far as anyone is concerned, that is what God says and you are not in the position to second guess what God says.

      To say the Apostles were wrong in their understanding of God is to (depending on what your belief system is) either flat out contradict God himself or declare those people false prophets.

      Hence, there is no easy middle ground, to say, "if there is a God I agree it would work exactly this way - we'd have slightly different stories about him." If we were religious, we'd have committed serious heresy here itself by suggesting every divinely appointed prophet contains grains of truth and grains of falsehood.

      When Mohammed says that there is no God but God and God is the true God, then every Christian who believes in the Trinity has declared Mohammed a false prophet. As long as you have not accepted Mohammed's message in its entirety, either you have (in Mohammed's view) blasphemed against God himself or you have deemed Mohammed a false prophet.

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    4. Prateek, thank you for sharing your misunderstanding of Christian understanding with us.

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  2. Daniel I'm glad you at least wrote this:

    Granted, if there is a God I agree it would work exactly this way...

    In particular, I love the "Granted." (I'm not being sarcastic.) At my blog, when people launch all sorts of criticisms of my theist worldview, I typically point out how, if my worldview is correct, then what they just described would naturally follow from it. Then they come back and say, "Aha! You're just *assuming* God exists then!"

    But at least you understand how evidence and arguments work, Daniel. So thanks for that.

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  3. I am not too sure about the Hindu religion, but I have read the bible, the Tenakh and the Qur'an. My impression was that all three were worshipping the exact same god, but that these books were different teachings of god's word (ok, the Tenakh and OT are almost exactly the same with slight differences in wording and order). Shoot, the Qur'an even explicitly states that they are worshipping the same god and that Jesus was a prophet. Muhammad's gripe was that Jew's and Christians were worshipping more than one god and that they had essentially bastardized the word of god in the bible and Tenakh.

    I tend to stay out of the religious argument because it is a matter of faith (mine being that there is no god). However, I must say that this particular atheist argument is just as Gene described it: Dumb.

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    1. "Hindu religion" is a very unclear word. In the essential sense, there is no such thing as a Hindu.

      "Hindu" is just a generic word used by colonial British and Europeans to describe all those disparate denominations who weren't classified under Persian or Muslim or Jain or Sikh.

      The roots of the word are in "Hindustan", which itself is derived from the name for the Sindh river. Once, anybody who lived east of the Sindh river was called Hindustani. But that included all the Muslims, Persians, Jews, Christians.etc who lived east of the Sindh river. And that was indeed the name used for them - Hindustani.

      Otherwise, there was next to nothing common in the religious beliefs or practices of the disparate peoples of South Asia. So classifying them as a singular broad ethnic group is a mistake. One made even by South Asians.

      However, the word "Hindu" has very powerful political benefits. In regions where Brahmans once subjugated others, the usurped ancien regime of Brahmans regained their status by pretending that they and the less privileged were all on the same boat. And that boat was called "Hinduism". Not what it should have been called - "Brahmanism". Disparate ethnic groups here knew they couldn't lobby their interests as independent nations, and words like "Hinduism" and "India" gave that excuse for unity. A false unity, given the federal nature of India - so it was all for opportunistic gain, not because there was any genuine unity.\

      Anyway...

      The closest we tend to mean with native religion in South Asia is the Vedic scriptures. Many of them were revived quite late and quite recently, and were lost for ages.

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  4. The purpose of this argument is usually to reveal a non sequitur fallacy that many religious apologetics commit: even if I concede that God exists, it doesn't follow that the apologetic's account of God is correct. It's not an atheist argument per se (a non-denominational theist could use it as well).

    It's quite clearly not true that all the major religions are centered around the same God(s). (Hell, even the Old Testament is partially polytheistic!) If I claim to worship Vishnu, the four-handed blue deity that sustains and pervades all life, an evangelical Christian will probably think "That's blasphemy. Jesus Christ is the only God there is." A devout Muslim will denounce the Christian's worldview, saying "What heresy! Prophet Isa (pbuh) is not God and never claimed to be."

    A liberal Universalist might very well try to strip down these different accounts of God to their most vague and unfalsifiable characteristics and say "See, we're all talking about the same eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-everything God-thingy here!" But if that's what religion is all about, then go and ask your local imam if Hindus are welcome to worship Brahman in his mosque.

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    1. "It's quite clearly not true that all the major religions are centered around the same God(s)..."

      It's quite clearly not true that you know what you are talking about. If you don't want to look like an idiot, may I recommend learning something about a subject before making pronouncements on it?

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    2. OK Gene - instead of telling the rest of us we're idiots, could you maybe explain to us why we're wrong to remember being told by people on a regular basis that they're not talking about the same God? Instead of calling us idiots, could you perhaps give a reason why you think they are talking about the same God? Because right now you haven't offered us that, and if we're really such idiots perhaps we could benefit from a little enlightening.

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  5. "why we're wrong to remember being told by people on a regular basis that they're not talking about the same God?"

    Yes, and I'm sure these people are all uneducated in theology. Who cares what they think? Do you get your opinions on evolution from plumbers? Do you try to learn about quantum mechanics from laundresses?

    "Because right now you haven't offered us that..."

    Right in the post above:

    All of these religions describe a single source of all being, and ascribe to that source things like divine simplicity, eternal existence, divine conservation, and so on. They also all contain the idea that this ultimate source of being exceeds our powers of description.

    "All of these religions describe a single source of all being, and ascribe to that source things like divine simplicity, eternal existence, divine conservation, and so on. They also all contain the idea that this ultimate source of being exceeds our powers of description."

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  6. And, Daniel, in the link I put in the above post:

    "Divine simplicity is affirmed by such Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes. It is central to the theology of pagan thinkers like Plotinus. It is the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church..."

    That's from Ed Feser, who is, you know, a professional on this topic. But I bet you the pork butcher down the street disagrees, so perhaps I'll go with his opinion instead!

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    1. http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/02/to-louse.html#more

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