“Basically, you deny one less God than I do. You don’t believe in 2,999 Gods. And I don’t believe in just one more.”
In a much publicised exchange the animal-loving, personable, talented and highly intelligent writer/comedian Ricky Gervais discussed religion with the chat show host and Daily Show alumnus Stephen Colbert. Despite his numerous abilities Mr Gervais made a number of simple category errors in his arguments. None of which, of course, disproves his position as such merely that he has failed to assert it as robustly as he might.
What I find personally fascinating is that in that far distant era when I myself was an atheist none of my contemporary co-thinkers would have advanced along any of these lines of thought, choosing others instead. This suggests that the debate is more influenced by culture and society than by reason alone and will vary not because of ideas or material facts but because of social and political changes.
Be that as it may, the ‘one god less than you’ meme is a popular favourite with internet atheists as well as with Mr Gervais and it is wholly without merit. Essentially it is a playing with words. It implicitly assumes that the word ‘god’ has a single meaning which everyone who has ever used it agrees with and always uses with the same intent. That is, believing in Loki or Athena is the exact same thing as believing in an uncaused First Cause of the universe and everything in it.
This, however, is nonsense on stilts with go-faster stripes. Athena, for example, is the daughter of Zeus who is the son of Kronos. Of none of them can it be posited that they said ‘let there be light and there was light.’ There is a fundamental philosophical difference between belief in a singular universal Creator and a belief in a non-creative being however much power it may possess. Nor is there any necessary contradiction between believing in both a primary unmoved mover and numerous moved creatures of lesser power but still deities in relation to humanity. Such indeed was the position of some classical Greek and Indian philosophers. Belief in a pantheon does not require disbelief in a Creator. Many pantheists might simply not think about the question of ultimate creation at all, or they might assume that the cosmos has always existed and will always exist or they might accept the principle that God is supreme among the gods.
Viewed from the opposite angle belief in a singular Creator God does not necessarily imply disbelief in lesser gods. Even within orthodox Christianity St Simeon the New Theologian could write “God unites with gods and is known by them” (Practical and Theological Precepts 70) That is, humans united to God are deified, they become by grace what God is in His essence. Or, it can be acknowledged that there are purely spiritual creatures at work in the world, angels and demons, who appear as gods to humans but are lesser than He who created and upholds them.
So, the difference between an atheist and a Christian is not ‘one less god’ it is a fundamental understanding about the origin of all that exists. An atheist posits that matter created itself out of nothing and a Christian that spirit, in the form of God, created matter out of nothing. Those who believe in multiple deities can hold either of these propositions because philosophically polytheism is of a different order of belief to monotheism. That is, it doesn’t, as such, attempt to address any of the basic questions which monotheists or indeed atheists look at because it is a different kind of enterprise.
I suppose that Mr Gervais might, as a fall back position, argue that he believes in one less God than the rival monotheistic systems, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantism, etc., believe in. Again this would be a spurious argument since each of these asserts that there is, necessarily, just the One God. A Catholic would say that it is only through Divine Revelation that it is possible to understand God fully but that through the use of reason and imagination we can posit certain things about Him. Non-Catholic monotheists, then, believe in what their unaided minds have taught them about God, which will be true so far as it goes but will lack the fullness of Revealed truth. And, broadly, each of the faiths would make similar assertions so that they accept they worship the same God although differing in how they understand Him.
I hope to look at another category error in a future post.
thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page
My *other* blog is Catholic Scot
The picture is from the Daily Beast and is credited to Mary Kouw