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Disbelieving Just One More God

Contains ideas some atheists may find offensive.

No Gods PatchA well-known joke states that since every religion involves disbelieving the gods of other religions, atheism merely involves disbelieving just one more god. The profound truth upon which this joke relies is that atheism is necessarily theology, and as such, does not involve an escape from religious practices, but merely their transformation into yet another form.

This is one of the great oddities of the European diaspora: the presumption that the atheist is the person who has successfully freed themselves of religion. For many, this is essentially their definition of the term, which is thus the source of the valorisation making atheism an appealing identity to adopt. Those who count themselves as an atheist (of the Christian kind, at least) tend to underestimate the extent to which their thought depends upon the thought practices of the very religion they wish most fervently to distance themselves from. This does not make atheism a religion as such; it utterly fails to sustain a community of care, for a start. Rather, it draws a historical connection between individual atheists and the religions they are rejecting – the most common form of atheism today being a rejection of all things Christian, with all other religions taken as mere variations on Christianity.

This odd qualification – the idea of a Christian-flavoured atheist – reads strangely for precisely the reason that the joke works: the concept of religion it relies upon is dependent upon the form of theology that emerges out of European Christianity, and thus from the philosophy of Plato that influenced it. Not coincidentally, this is also the theology that gave rise to the contemporary sciences (and also their valorisation as the nebulous omnicapable ungod Science). It is the equation of religion with belief, understood as the acceptance of propositions without evidence, and this is a very particular and peculiar kind of theology.

We will find no such propositional theology among Buddhist atheists, such as the Dalai Lama, nor among those of the Hindu traditions, whether or not their path involves bakhti, or devotional worship. And it is not entirely clear what a Shinto practitioner would make of any of this. Similarly, if we look at the relationship between what we now term religion around the Mediterranean prior to Christianity, we find that the different gods were not competing propositions, but merely a pool of different names for the same entities, and this never quite managed to generate a contradiction until emperors made themselves gods-on-earth and spoiled the game for everyone.

It is the peculiar legacy of the core traditions of the Abrahamic faiths (and I exclude here traditions like Sufi Islam, which straddles between the God of Abraham and the Dharmic faiths) to risk founding theological thought upon the assumption that our god is the only real god. The story of Bel and the Dragon in the Judaic sacred texts (apocryphal to Christians) is precisely a forensic investigation at to why Bel (or Baal) is not a god. This scripture is the first detective story, the Sherlock Holmes mythos millennia before its time. Yet to equate this kind of exclusionary theology with all religions is terribly misleading. What’s more, the success of Christianity – or better yet what Kierkegaard called Christendomis precisely an artefact of the sheer success of this theology, and a reminder of precisely why our sciences were able to grow out of it.

The question of what kind of atheist someone might be when they claim this identity is thus far more complex than it originally appears, in part because of the sheer historical influence of theology in European culture. For many atheists, the rationality of their atheological position depends upon whether god (and even more so God) is a proposition (equivalently: a hypothesis) and therefore whether that proposition is true, meaning, existing in reality (itself a perverse understanding of theology). In such cases there can be little doubt that the people in question are still practicing a variation on the kind of deistic theology well-known to the men and women of the Enlightenment and the centuries thereafter.

The kind of critique I am advancing here entails an uncovering of the practices of thought entailed in personal identities that thrive on distancing from religion – and this is almost completely obscured by the idea that you must be either a theist or an atheist or agnostic. It is in no way natural from, say, Hindu theology to understand matters this way (nor is it in any way accurate to consider those particular traditions to be polytheistic, i.e. as comprising of a set of gods instead of one God). The three way split is only the false choice between the theist presupposing a certain theology and thus requiring theodicy (i.e. the problem of how God allows evil); the atheist presupposing the failure of theodicy and thus requiring atheology; or playing this game without conclusion for the agnostic. The entire framework here is Christian theology.

Thus anyone for whom the joke about disbelieving just one more god adequately works, not just as a joke but as a mission statement, is necessarily engaged in theological practices that are resolutely and inescapably Christian in their origin and nature. Christian-atheist would be a misleading term, but perhaps achristian atheist is not far from the mark. To reject theology entirely requires a very different capacity, and is what I suspect motivates so many deep thinkers today to focus instead upon ontology, which is effectively non-theology. There is no complete rejection to be found here, only various kinds of righteousness to be generated by different kinds of allegiance or conversion, and various forms of non-participation, whether secular or otherwise.

Over a century ago, Nietzsche remarked that “the complete and definitive victory of atheism might free mankind of this whole feeling of guilty indebtedness toward its origin” – and I suppose he was right, but not in the way that he intended. For what has emerged instead, which Nietzsche would have reviled, is a kind of widespread willed ignorance concerning how most atheological thought comes to reach any kind of conclusion about god-concepts. Disbelieving ‘just one more god’ is not rejecting theology: it is just another version of Christendom’s insistence upon a single mandatory theology. Both the religious and the non-religious can do better.

Comments

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I don't like your article. It's too wordy, and not worded well. It rambles through too many half formed thoughts before it gets to the point. And, the premise you're argueing is built on a shaky foundation.

Chris, every time I've seen the "disbelieving in one more god" line delivered was in response to a Christian asking "How can you not believe in God?" I agree that the argument is fairly rooted in Christian understanding, but that is due to assumptions present in question.

Hi Matt,
It is rambly, certainly, but the premise strikes me as sound.

Hi Drew,
I can see where you're coming from here, but my claim is that the whole concept of 'disbelieving' here is a variation on Christian theology... to think this way is to think with this tradition in practice, and only against it in the details.

Thank you both for sharing your views!

Chris.

I feel like I don't have the background in philosophy necessary to understand what you're saying, but I'm fascinated by what scraps of it I can grasp. So if you'll forgive an ignorant question, what is it about a belief in absolutes that necessitates a Judeo-Christian worldview? And once that idea is introduced into philosophy, is it somehow illegitimate to incorporate that idea into an opposing set of views?

Also, since my exposure to atheists is entirely limited to Jews, I'm curious: If atheism is always shaped by the specificities of the religion it's rejecting, then do you see a difference between "achristian atheism" and "ajewish atheism"?

Hi Mordechai,
It is not so much belief in absolutes as rendering the world as a matter of belief at all, perhaps. Your question is not at all ignorant; I cranked this piece out on the train back from Scotland, and didn't make much effort to polish it for clarity because in the last few years my pieces on religion and non-religion have failed to produce any discussion! I'm pleasantly surprised that this one has produced some interest.

A little philosophical history. This story begins with Judaic tradition, which is the first to take the monotheistic position that our God is real, and your god is smoke and mirrors (cf. Bel and the Dragon). There is a cross-relationship here with Zoroastrianism that is difficult to disentangle, but it doesn't matter for our purposes. Christianity inherits this and cross-breeds it with Plato's idea that there is truth, but it is in 'another world' and thus we only have beliefs that 'track' this deeper truth - but certain special people can bridge the two worlds (philosophers for Plato, more commonly scientists today). When Christianity had major problems with its civilisation in the so-called Dark Ages, Islamic scholars preserved the connections between Abrahamic traditions and Greek philosophers, and helped carry it forward, where it was picked up by the Christian empires centuries later.

The Judaic tradition doesn't, to my knowledge, have this Platonic influence. However contemporary Jews, I suspect, acquire much of this perspective through the sciences, which have grown out of Christianity and Islam on the back of their empires (since scientific research is a cultural luxury). Indeed, because of the influence of the sciences today everyone has inherited this aspect of Platonic thought, which we have inherited via the Christian empires - that's what's marked with the term 'Christendom' in this piece. I present an argument against this perspective in Wikipedia Knows Nothing, which is out in September, and the ebook is free (plug plug).

Regarding specific kinds of atheism, I'm not saying that atheist positions are illegitimate, as such, so much as that they don't escape from the religion that they are rejecting and sometimes act as if that was exactly their strength. Some atheists understand their situation better than others, and there are some very sophisticated kinds of atheism around today. However, as I suggest here, the moment you're drawing on atheism for your identity, you're working in contrast cases. You are saying of yourself 'my position on religion is defined in opposition'. Just as politics ends up defining itself in terms of oppositions of liberal to conservative, atheism is a form of contrast.

I think there is a sense that atheists belong negatively to specific religious traditions, but here I am somewhat speculating as the vast majority of atheists I meet are achristian. I suspect that ajewish atheists would have a slightly different character, but I haven't met any so I don't have the experience to draw upon. You have the opposite experience, which makes it hard for us to compare notes! I wonder if we can find someone who bridges between us?

Again, the influence of the sciences in spreading Platonic thought beyond specific religious traditions muddies the waters... but still, I'd like to know a little more about the kinds of atheism around. I find this whole subject rather fascinating.

Thanks for taking an interest!

Chris.

Hi Chris,

Thought you might find this interesting.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfIYGaslVnA

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