Yes, you are a Stamp Collector!
Why Lawrence Krauss, "Non Stamp Collector" and other skeptics miss the point when they say, "We just disbelieve in one more god."
A popular argument is making the rounds in the skeptic memosphere. "You Christians deny all gods but one!" It is said. "We atheists just go that step further, and apply your skepticism about Zeus, Apollo, Kali, Thor and Allah to that obscure Hebrew deity called 'Yahweh.'"
This argument often shows up in surprising places: among leading scientists like Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins, who see it as a trump when the scientific arguments just don't strike paydirt, in "historical Jesus" debates, and commonly among the peasantry of the skeptical on-line community.
Where does the line come from? Its origins are humble. It seems to have come from an otherwise unknown (at least to me) Internet presence. A fellow by the name of Stephen Roberts claims credit for the quote in its present form, from an on-line discussion in 1995:
"I contend 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." I responded to an older version of the meme that Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett use in The Truth Behind the New Atheism. I also gave some of the anthropological evidence undermining the assumptions it is based on, first from China in True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, and then the rest of the world (in response to Karen Armstrong's History of God) in chapter 9 of Jesus and the Religions of Man.
Let's deal with the latest version. I'll begin by offering two examples of how this argument is used, first from Dr. Krauss, in his recent debate with William Lane Craig, then from the popular "Non Stamp Collector" site. I'll then explain several ways in which the argument not only fails, but (as often with skeptical arguments) when the evidence is closely examined, strongly supports the Christian faith.
I. Krauss vs. Craig Dr. Lawrence Krauss is an eminent theoretical physicist who teaches at Arizona State University, and is author of The Physics of Star Trek. Recently he debated William Lane Craig on the existence of God. During the Q & A period, almost exactly two hours into the debate, a questioner asked him which was more plausible, the general argument for God, or the argument for any one particular idea of God within a given religion. In response, Krauss immediately said:
"The only difference between an atheist and a Christian is that a Christian is an atheist about every other religion. And if I call myself an atheist, that is just one more religion I don't believe in.
Krauss went on to admit that he found the idea of deism, of a God who got things running, a "plausible postulate" to explain things like the origin of the universe. "The universe is an amazing place."
However, "Everyone who is fundamental in their religion, believes fervently that their religion is right and everyone else is wrong. And they can't all be right." Krauss concluded by saying he thought that instead, they were all wrong.
So be encouraged! (Or afraid!) What you say in a casual on-line conversation, may wind up in the mouth of famous people speaking at important events.
II. Non Stamp Collector vs. the Stamp. Non Stamp Collector is an Australian who's sometimes clever animated attacks on Christianity have been watched by as many as 400,000 viewers on U-Tube. His cyber name is itself a species of this argument: "Atheism is not who I am," it suggests, "any more than saying that someone doesn't collect stamps tells you who he is."
The funny thing about "Non Stamp Collector" is that he seems to spend a lot of time "not collecting stamps," and has built up quite an identity for this non-hobby of his. It would be a serious philatelist indeed who dedicated as much time to his craft as NSC: like Russell, Dawkins, and Loftus, he seems to have "gone pro," or at least viral, with this business of not believing in God. How much clearer could the flaw in NSC's analogy be?
But let's set this existential inconsistency to the side (for now), and attend to NSC's argument. One of his U-Tubes is called, "Atheism: How many gods do you not believe in?" This is a short stand-up comic routine: "If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color. If atheism is a belief, then off is a TV channel." "Allah? No, that's a don't believe for you guys."
Now actually I agree with Non Stamp Collector's basic point here -- that atheism is not a religion. I think it is an element in many religions -- communism, secular humanism, hedonism, nihilism. And I think all those "religions" involve a lot of "faith." But I'll leave those (oddly controversial) claims for some other day.
III. Why NSC is a stamp collector, after all -- and so is Dr. Krauss. The main problem with the "one more god meme" is the profound, multi-level ignorance it displays of religions in general, and of the Christian religion in particular. .
* First of all, perhaps someone should break it to these skeptics (gently, please) that "Allah" is Arabic for "God." Allah is who Arab Christians pray to. Allah was the name of the Arab high god before Mohammed ever claimed to receive his revelation.
* This points to a general phenomena: God is usually recognized by people within different cultures when he is named and described within some other culture, as the one God of all the universe. This is not limited to Christians. God was known by many different names among different tribes of Australian aborigines, in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific.
It is a common story in missions history, that after the natives have decided not to kill and eat the missionary, and have spun him wild yarns about the gods, when he begins to talk about the God Christians believes in, a hush falls over the crowd and they say, "Atahocan! He is speaking of Atahocan!"
This particular example of the phenomena comes from G. K. Chesterton, in his great book Everlasting Man, written almost a century ago, now. Chesterton misattributed this story to Austalia -- I think he got it from Andrew Lang, who told the story in at least two of his books, but in one case was a little confusing about where it happened. The story actually seems to have occurred among the Algonkin Indians in Canada.
The same thing has happened many times, though. In ancient China, a western people conquered the Shang Dynasty, and founded the Zhou. They readily accepted the Shang name for God, Shang Di (上帝), as meaning the same as their own Supreme God, Tian (天). Two millennia later, a group of Jews arrived in China, and borrowed both words for Yahweh.
A few more centuries passed, and the great missionary Mateo Ricci arrived, and argued forcefully not that "My religion is right, and your's is wrong -- I'm an atheist about all your religions," but that the Chinese had known about the true God from time immemorial. And to this day, tens of millions of Chinese Christians call him Shang Di.
* The same thing happened in the West. First, meditate on the fact that the word we use, "God," is NOT Hebrew. Someone, somewhere, recognized that the word could be used to describe the same God that the Bible talks about -- but it wasn't anyone who wrote the Bible.
But step back a few paces. What word is used for God in the New Testament? Usually, theos (θεοσ). This is a term that referred to the kind of gods Homer wrote about -- tossing thunderbolts from Mount Olympus, tricking fair maidens and rugged youths into precarious love triangles with the immortals, starting wars over apples and keeping poor Odysseus from his beloved Penelope out of pique or loneliness. But by the time of Christ, philosophers had begun to use the term, and sometimes Zeus, the ruler of the gods who owned the thunderbolts . . . . Well, let's see how they used the terms:
"Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful, Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law, Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you, since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image, we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth."
This is from Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school of philosophy. Stoics are supposed to pantheists, and not believe in prayer . . . apparently Cleanthes forgot his own theology long enough to write this hymn. Cleanthes adds that the universe goes where "Zeus" leads it, that "all works of nature" came to be established from chaos by his "thunderbolt," and that mortals will be happy if only they listen to "God's universal Law." This is not Homer's Zeus.
For the early 2nd Century Stoic slave Epictetus, humanity exists to be a "spectator" and "interpreter" of God and his works. He "perceives" all things, indeed it is impossible to conceal our thoughts from Him. Our duty is to sing hymns of praise and thanks as we plough and eat:
"What else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God . . . I will not desert this post, as long as it may be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song." It is with people like this to whom St. Paul preached when he arrived in Athens. In fact, he seems to have borrowed some of their lines in his sermon. And that is how the West was won for the Christian God -- by God getting there first, and preparing the minds of those who heard.
* Krauss is wrong, then, to suppose that for Christians (or really for anyone with sense), the truth of one religion means "everyone else is (just) wrong." No doubt everyone IS wrong, to some extent -- and not just "everyone else." But the first Christian doctrine -- the one he was arguing about with Craig -- is one that Christians agree about with probably most of the world.
* I have argued, in two of my books (and in my dissertation, yes I do see light at the end of the tunnel, thank you) that the most orthodox Christian perspective on the religious traditions of humanity is something called Fulfillment Theology. FT doesn't mean that Christians just meekly affirm all the stupidity and cruelty that human beings produce in the name of religion. It does mean people are usually aware of God, at some level. And often, the deepest truths in a given culture point to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of what is good and beautiful within that culture. There's some amazing stuff, hidden in that last sentence. But don't get me started -- we'll be here all month.
* So what is the difference between a Christian and an atheist? More importantly, what is the difference between the gods none of us believe in, and God whom some of us say we believe, and others say they don't? I'm not going to spoil the moment by spelling it out. Why? Not because it's a secret, but because it is no secret at all. Everyone knows it, including Lawrence Krauss, and Not a Stamp Collector, who spends so much time pretending not to do what he is quite obviously doing all along.
Political philosopher Jay Budziszewski talks about "What we can't not know." He's referring to morality. But I think there are other things that we can't not know, too. There are paradoxes that bite because they are so self-evidently true, and others that go viral because they are so obviously and pleasantly not the case.
Objections By e-mail. "If philatelists spent as much time, effort, and resources trying to convince the rest of the world to take up stamp-collecting as the religious spend trying to convert others to their particular flavor of belief, I'm sure you would see a lot more"non stamp collectors" out there making careers out of arguing against philately. Really, it's simple supply and demand.
Perhaps. But obviously, the best-known evangelical atheists see their atheism as something pretty important about themselves. The stamp collector analogy does not do justice to the fervency of a Dawkins, Hitchens, Marx, Freud, or Russell.
"You are correct in stating that atheism is not a religion. But your supporting argument is flawed, since "communism, secular humanism,hedonism, nihilism" are not religions, either."
Well they are, the way I (and many other scholars of religion, but not all, maybe not most) define religion -- close to Paul Tillich's "ultimate concern." But that's a naked assertion on my part, not a "supporting argument."
(Does Allah mean "God?") "True in a trivial sense, but try telling a radical muslim that Allah is the same being as the Christian God. And you might want to be wearing a Kevlar vest and steel collar when you do. If the two are not identical to the Muslim, than they are not identical."
Islam recognizes that Judaism and Christianity worship the true God. This is in the Koran: it is a non-negotiable part of orthodox Islam.
Also, I'm not sure what you mean by saying "if the two are not identical to a Muslim, then they are not identical." No two concepts of anything are exactly alike. You see the moon from Oregon, I see it from Washington, through different clouds, and a slightly different face. Maybe your view is somewhat obscured by radioactive mist from the Fukushima planet, and you see it wrongly, to some extent. But our planet only has one moon, we agree on that.
Christians, Muslims, theistic Hindus, Confucianists, and tribal people, agree there is one supreme Spirit who created all things, is good, and calls us to righteousness.
"God is usually recognized by people within different cultures when he is named and described within some other culture, as the one God of all the universe." Actually that's a leap to a conclusion.
What that really shows is that the brains of human beings are probably hard-wired to believe in causality, so, left to their own devices, they will seek a causal explanation in most circumstances.
Many cultures have therefore evolved the concept of a universal causal principle, or "first cause", and many have labeled that presumed first cause "God", or some variation of same. This does NOT, however, mean that they have "recognized" the existence of some actual anthropomorphic superbeing, nor that they necessarily have a rational basis for their belief in the causal principle."
There tends to be more to God than just that: for instance, the idea that He should not be worshiped with idols, seems fairly common, and that He should be called "Father" or (sometimes) "Mother."
It's OK for atheists to tell themselves a story about how this common idea arose -- what surprises me is how seldom and how grudgingly they recognize the facts. It's also interesting how often they make the opposite argument: because God is never the same in different cultures, he must be just a cultural construct. Then when it turns out people in different cultures do recognize One God, the argument is suddenly Null and Void.