“We are all atheists about most gods. Some of us just go one god further.”
This is possibly one of the most interesting/intriguing of the three billboards that are currently up around New Zealand. Mathematically, the quote seems to argue for theism. In fact for polytheism! I could express it algebraically – but, for the non-mathematician (and the source of the billboard) I’ll use an example to illustrate:
Let’s say that the billboard recognises 437 gods. It then contends we are all atheists about most gods. ie. Jimmy, who denies the existence of 389 gods, certainly fits in with the criteria of being part of the billboard’s “all”; 389 gods is most of the 437 gods. This leaves 48 gods that Jimmy does not deny, is not an atheist about. “Some of us just go one god further” means that some of us deny 390 gods, and believe in 47 gods. Hmmm… very strange assertion for atheist organisations to be making…
Polytheists in our country will certainly not make much sense of this particular billboard…
I suspect that the billboard is (poorly) directed at monotheists, and intends to mean: “Monotheists are atheists about all gods except one. Some of us just go one god further.” This, of course, assumes an exclusivist Philosophy of Religion position.
Keeping things simple:
Exclusivists hold: we are right – you are wrong
Inclusivists hold: we are right – you are right when you agree with us
Pluralistshold : we are right – you are right (models: climbing the same mountain from different sides, blind people describing an elephant, multi-faceted jewel of reality,…)
Exclusivist Christians deny that Jews an Muslims and Sikhs worship the same god as them. So yes, my revised version of what it is possible that the author of the billboard intended, may apply in that context. But for the billboard to claim this, means they regard all kiwis as exclusivists. Now we know that’s not true!
Part of the issue with the billboard concept of “God” is that it treats “God” as an object, a countable object. Ie. according to this idea you can add or remove “God” from a set. “God” plus this laptop makes a set of two objects. Add “God” to to the laptop and the glass of wine sitting next to it and we now have three objects, and so on. This leads to the atheistic contention that belief in “God” is akin to believing in a teapot circling Pluto. Such a comparison with a teapot treats “God” as a countable object which we can add or remove from a set.
In fact the greater (apophatic) tradition would have us, as we grow in our spirituality, acknowledge that God is always far greater than, far different to, the image of God we currently hold. In this sense those along the spiritual journey are atheistic about our own images of “God”. C. S. Lewis said it well:
A Footnote to All Prayers
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.