Back in September 2010 I addressed a clever rhetorical gem that has become quite popular among atheists. It’s what I’ve come to call the “one less God zinger.” It appears in several different forms, but could be summed up by the following representation: “We’re all atheists. Christians are atheists with respect to all gods but their own, while I am an atheist with respect to all gods, including your own. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you’ll understand why I reject all gods.”
I invited your criticisms of this zinger, and offered a couple of my own. Since then I have stumbled on other apologists’ response to it, allowing me to further develop my own. What follows is an updated evaluation and counter-responses.
One of the most important things to note about the zinger is how ambiguous it is. What message is it attempting to convey? Different versions seem to emphasize different things. So first we must clarify its intended meaning/purpose:
- Is it a challenge to Christians to be rationally consistent? Translation: “Christians are just as rational as atheists when it comes to evaluating the claims of religions other than Christianity. If they would only apply that reason to Christianity they would become atheists too.”
- Is it an argument for atheism? Translation: “Reasonable people reject the existence of all gods.”
- Is the purpose to say atheism and theism aren’t much different after all? Translation: “You already reject the other 14 million gods out there. I simply reject 14 million and one gods. What’s the big difference?”
- Is it supposed to help the theist understand why the atheist is an atheist? Translation: “Just as you reject millions of gods because you have no reason to believe they exist, I take the next step by rejecting all gods because I have no reason to believe any exist.”
Plea for Consistency
If we are to understand it in the first sense, then the zinger fails for two reasons. First, it falsely presupposes that the reason Christians reject all gods other than their own is because they have looked in vain for evidence supporting the existence of those other gods. Most Christians, however, do not reject the existence of other gods because they failed to find evidential support in favor of their existence. They have rejected those gods as false because they know competing religious claims cannot all be right, and they believe Christianity is the true religion. If Christianity is true—and Christianity teaches that there is only one God—then all other so-called deities do not exist. The approach of most Christians to other religions is like the counterfeit expert who is looking for the one genuine bill in the midst of a pile of counterfeits. Once he finds the real thing, he feels no need to continue examining all the remaining bills.
Secondly, it falsely presumes that—like all other religions—there is no evidence to support the truth claims of Christianity. Not so. There are good reasons to think Christian theism is true such as the existence of contingent beginnings, the beginning of the universe, the existence of objective moral values and duties, the existence of consciousness, freedom of the will, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and fulfilled prophecies.
Argument for Atheism
If we are to understand the zinger in the second sense, then it just begs the question against the rationality of theism. If being reasonable is defined as being atheistic, then theism is unreasonable by definitional fiat. Talk about stacking the deck!
If we are to understand the zinger in the third sense, it fails to persuade because the issue is not about the relative number of gods one believes in, but about one’s worldview. Worldviews which include at least one divine being are radically different from worldviews which lack any and all divine beings. A world without God is a world in which existence itself, moral values and duties, consciousness, and free will make little sense and/or lack any ontological foundation.
The fourth sense is probably the least problematic of them all. If the atheist’s purpose is to help theists understand why he is an atheist, then it serves this purpose well. That is not to say that the atheist’s assumption about why Christians reject other gods, or his assumption that the evidential basis for Christianity is equivalent to the evidential basis for all other religions is accurate. It’s not. But it does help Christians better understand the atheist’s reasoning process and reveal his assumptions.
All forms of the zinger fail because they abuse language. To say Christians are atheists with respect to other religions is to use “atheist” in a way that no one recognizes the term today. An atheist is someone who believes no deities exist, not someone who believes in some deity(ies) but not others. A Muslim, for example, would not view me as an atheist, but as a theist who espouses a rival deity.
To make this point clear, turn the tables by offering the following zinger of your own (the best one-liner response, in my opinion): “We are all theists. I just believe in one more god than you do.” This follows the same form as the atheist’s zinger. In the same way he would not accept this characterization as anything less than an abuse of language for rhetorical effect, we should not accept the one-less-God-zinger as anything more than rhetorical showboating intended to impress those who lack critical thinking skills.