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We are all atheists?


“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.

Good without God?
man created God
There’s probably no God?
NZ Atheist Campaign

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21 thoughts on “We are all atheists?”

  1. There seems to be a global push for atheism. It saddens me to think that so many people miss the opportunity to know the Creator of the Universe. He is real and the evidence surrounds us. Think for a moment about evolution and how today’s false science tells us we were made. An explosion of something out of nothing and then rocks, gases collided and created life. Even if this were possible, how could a mass of cells create a human spirit? How could this human spirit create another one and so on. We are spiritual creatures created by and for a spiritual God. That God loved us so much he sent his Son to die for our sins so that once again we could have communion with him. I would disagree with the statement that we are all atheists. Thank you for your website.

  2. Interesting sign. I think most people agree that the Gods of the past that were worshiped are generally now considered silly. Certainly there are people today that say even this last one standing is silly. But, the sign just concludes there is *probably* no God. And the aim is to just get people to enjoy life. I like it, but I personally believe there is no way to empirically prove the existence or non existence of God. I don’t think it’s meant to be known. 🙂

  3. Bosco,

    Good analysis of the problem.

    And a wonderful response via the apophatic way.

    The reality, I think, is that many theists really are atheists– not in an apophatic sense, but in the very way you noted the atheists here misconstrue God as an object out there about which the key issue is whether we believe in its existence or agree about particular attributes of it rather than whether we actually relate to such a thing/One as Mystery/Other/Sovereign Love and live that way, or whether our “belief” is just one of a number of other things– a collection of attributes or flair, if you will– we put onto the avatar we call self.

  4. Great post.

    On a side issue, the thing that annoys me most about this sign is the idea that God is a source of worry, intent on preventing me enjoying life, whereas precisely the opposite is true. Once you know the grace of God it relieves you of the need to be anxious and releases you to enjoy life in all its fulness (as someone once said). Otherwise the weight of the world has to be shared between me, me, me and you, you , you – and I certainly couldn’t bear that.

  5. Luckily, the intended message of the billboards is clear, in spite of your attempts to obfuscate. And that is that even Christians are atheists about gods that aren’t their own; yet they refuse to understand why anyone outside their superstition would reject their own god as silly.

    In truth, we *are* all atheists. Those who *think* they have gods really don’t since these gods (or, in the case of Christians, their god) almost certainly exist solely within their minds.

    So, the billboard should read, “We’re all atheists. Some of us just accept it.”

    1. Thanks, Ylooshi, for your contribution, and for your own version of what, in fact, you think this billboard should actually read to present what you perceive to be its “intended message.”

      As to my “attempts to obfuscate” – that, surprisingly (or not?), predicates an intention on my part that you cannot verify and I would certainly deny.

      “Christians are atheists about gods that aren’t their own” – again, the very heart of this post is totally contrary to this contention of yours.

      “[Christians] refuse to understand why anyone outside their superstition would reject their own god as silly.” Again, you appear not to have followed the thread of these posts which this post provides, or you would realise that I certainly understand this, and am respectful, and have good relationships with atheists. As to some antitheist fundamentalists finding “god silly” – I have written about this very thing, again in this thread of posts.

      “[God] almost certainly exist solely within their minds.” You are here, of course, not presenting an atheist position, but an agnostic one. I have again made this distinction earlier. It is an important one which you are not making. Also, “existing solely within their minds” is a fascinating addition to the thread – the definition of “existence” is one that, clearly, is also central to this post.

  6. I’m not a Kiwi but I am an ‘inclusivist’. IOW I do NOT take an ‘atheist’ position with regard to other people’s gods, nor do I think that other beliefs, including those of the past, are silly. Pagan religions have often been represented as silly – as though life were a Tin-tin cartoon – but they are not. Even religions like cargo cults, are not “silly” though they may be deeply tragic, dramatising the woundedness of the earth and the human spirit of a profoundly, painfully crushed culture or worldview.

    According to me, humanists also have a spiritual life and it is not silly either. But that’s because I believe that God is always about God’s work, and that work is us: whether we believe in God or not. Whatever we have eyes for, that is what we’ll see…

    It’s not necessary, according to me, to be a believer in order to write and think intelligently and respectfully about faith, doubt, scepticism and religion, in order to have something worth putting on a billboard. Unfortunately, this organisation seems to have ended up with a statement that is an insult to everybody.

    Childish, ridiculous stuff, symbolic of nothing but the dumbing-down and reduction of culture and scholarship to puerile graffiti. Some Christian sub-cultures are just as dependent on mental pablum, but at least they’re not posing as anyone’s intellectual superiors.

  7. I suppose the atheists who wrote this billboard are guilty of the theological version of the paradox Bertrand Russel pointed out by asking, “is the set of all sets a member of itself?”

  8. Thanks for putting into words what I was thinking. This slogan works if and only if believing in one god is a special case of believing in “n” gods, where “n” happens to be 1. Presumably the people who wrote it are confused enough to believe that there cannot be any distinction between a kind of polytheism which happens to acknowledge only a single god, and the worship of a being who by his nature is the god of all that is, seen and unseen. But I doubt they’re likely to make many converts with such a naïve and superficial analysis, because anyone with the same confusion is presumably not a monotheist anyway.

  9. To me, a billboard like that is a non-issue and something I wouldn’t even waste my time to read. I don’t believe there are any atheists in this world because every person, capable of thought, knows deep down inside themselves there is someone greater then themselves. Rather than not believing it is just they do not want to subject themselves to the will of God.

    1. Thanks for your contribution, Jan. I would differ in interpretation from you in knowing sincere, thoughtful atheists. There is also the issue of how we know God’s will. And thirdly, I know theists who don’t follow God’s will as I understand it, and atheists who do.

  10. I’m sure you are all smart enough to work this one out, despite the full page “round the edges” article. Show me one mainstream religion that believes every single other religion is also true. Otherwise the quote is pertinent in stating that an inherent property of almost all religions is to disregard at least one other religion. i.e. from the point of view of the other religion, an “atheist” view against their beliefs.
    As expounded by this quote, all religions indulge in “selective atheism”, to which a 100% atheist only includes one more fairytale.

    1. Thanks, Tom, for your contribution. Hinduism springs to mind. And you should send your improved billboard statement for the next round to the organisers. I think your version clearer: “an inherent property of almost all religions is to disregard at least one other religion”.

  11. Glad you agree Bosco. Hopefully between us we can illustrate that the mutual exclusivity of one religion to another proves that none can be “true”

  12. It’s strange how theists just do not get what atheists mean when they speak about atheism. It’s as if they do it on purpose and yet…

    Don’t forget that your belief in God is faith-based. There is no empirical evidence. If you claim there is a God/creator/etc, the burden of proof belongs to you.

    Everyone else is entitled to say “I don’t believe what you theists are asserting”

    You seem to think it is the other way around, perhaps because you believe that this God is real. But you too easily forget that it is a faith claim. You can be convinced, but as long as you live on this planet you cannot be sure.

    An atheist believes in no Gods… and you believe in one monotheistic God. How you manage to screw up with yours maths is beyond me. It sounds either very stupid, or just downright dishonest…

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michel.

      I’m not convinced by your generalisation that all theists do not get what all atheists mean – especially as these groups are not perpetually, hermetically sealed, but there is movement between them, a fuzzy border at the edges, and, at least in my case, friendship (long and deep) and appreciation of all I learn through the dialogues.

      Yes, the epistemology is different to Science – no surprise there (I have a degree in Science, and another in Theology, and have taught at secondary and tertiary level).


      1. Of course, it would be preposterous for me to try and generalize every single theist and atheist in the world as if they are supposed to hold a specific view; I think we are both intelligent enough to see nuances in people’s worldview even when they belong to a group. Heck, being a catholic bishop and not believing in the imortal soul is perfectly possible. How many catholics know this? Not many lol As for what people tend to refer to as “New Atheism” there is a general trend, though, and it is not about saying that we know something that we obviously can’t know (since even you can’t know it lol… all you can do is BELIEVE).

        What I find wierd when atheists and theists discuss is this: To you guys this “God” character is so real, and to us it’s just a fictional entity. Like Superman. We can talk about Superman, we can refer to him, we cannot prove that Superman doesn’t exist. But if someone states his firm belief that Superman does exists… let’s just say it’s a bad conversation starter.

        We often feel that you could understand what I wrote in the last paragraph, and it seems disingenious from theists when they keep acting if if they don’t understand our point of view; instead using strawman arguments like “you are saying that you know there is no god”. You could understand, even if you don’t agree, and it always seems like you just don’t.

        Therefore we end up with people telling us that we are in denial. Well no, we aren’t, we are just rejecting your claim of certainty that there is a creator; we don’t believe in certainty (if you find an atheist who is 100% certain I need to have a talk with him, clearly he is missing the point… but I have never met such a stupid atheist).

        Now, are there atheists you wish there was a God but cannot get themselves to believe it? Probably. Are there atheists who are completely convinced that somehow they KNOW that there is no creator? I’d like to hope there aren’t, but who knows.

        The most reasonable approach to atheism is:

        1: Theists are most likely wrong, since their arguments are all based on personal experience (I would trust science over my emotions and intuitions, any day), suggestions and assumptions, not on facts.
        2: Deists would be right by accident, even if they were, what would it change since we can’t know if they’re right at the moment.
        3: The reasonable stanca is to be reasonably skeptical (like we are skeptical about the theories of gravity and evolution, let’s say) but reject the claim since, it is no more likely to be right than Santa Claus, from a scientific point of view; the evidence is simply absent. Philosophical “evidence” doesn’t count, by the way.

        You may want to call it agnosticism, but it’s a bit different since agnostics are pretty much saying that it is impossible to come to a conclusion. They are taking your claims way to seriously, in other words; that is why we think they’re silly…

        Atheists are just saying that you are wrong just like you would say that someone who firmly believes Elvis to be still alive… is wrong (yes, even if you can’t disprove it); and that even if there was a creator, he would most certainly not be what you imagined it to be; and would be right by an extremely unlikely accident, considering the fact that people made it all up; in the middle east; when we didn’t know what a germ was.

        Wow, that felt good… 🙂
        Blessings from Neptune; who will perhaps all send you to eternal punishment for doubting him.

        1. Thanks, Michel. Your generalisation that “To you guys this “God” character is so real, and to us it’s just a fictional entity” bears no resemblance either to the theists nor the atheists I spend most of my time with. In one thing we agree, “[God] would most certainly not be what you/[I] imagined [God] to be”. Blessings.

  13. And OBVIOUSLY, when we say “one God further” it refers to monotheistic religions… If the billboard had been posted in India, it would have had different wordings. Now if you’re going to make fun of it by saying “Hey, he’s leaving out the polytheists, lol They believe in many and he believes in all of that minus one!” Well I have to say to you… Don’t you have anything better to do than pretend you don’t understand? Intellectual dishonesty is all that it looks like. I mean, COME ON… This is ridiculously silly.

    When we atheists speak to “religious people” we realize that you have different beliefs, we cannot even hope to be able to speak to everyone at once. Your beliefs are mutually cancelling. So when we try to speak to you, monotheists, please give us a break and don’t play dumb…

    Seriously, your blog post is insulting, to me it is. There no way I’m going to believe that you didn’t get it. You must have been trying to make fun by pretending you didn’t get it. A little honesty from religion wouldn’t hurt for once.

  14. I find it really sad that the only argument you can make against this is the spurious mathematical one. Obviously you think that everything written down should be taken absolutely literally, like I presume you do with the bible.

    1. Thanks for your visit and comment, Colin. I’m not sure that there is only a single argument here and that a “spurious mathematical one”, but what intrigues me is your suggestion that there is a figurative interpretation of this billboard that I am missing. Please, Colin, could you expand on the figurative meaning of this text. That might help the dialogue and assuage your sadness. Blessigs.

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