No, a theist is not a kind of atheist.

The following argument is popular:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

(Vox Day gives two proponents, Dawkins is a third, and Lukeprog at “Common Sense Atheism” makes the argument his epigram)

The argument is a sophistry one could use to prove anything. A parallel example is the quickest proof:

Flag waving American: God bless the USA! The greatest government on Earth!

Anarchist: Actually, you and I are both anarchists.

FWA: No, I love government. I’m nothing like you at all!

Anarchist: That’s not true. You’re an anarchist about Communism, Socialism, Monarchy, Oligarchy, and every other government that has ever existed. I just take things one step further.

Get it?  Once you get the swing of this sort of argument, you could prove that Stalin was an anti-communist (since he condemned Trotskyism, Leninism, and innumerable other forms of socialism) or that Adam Smith was against free markets, or that Charles Dickens hated literature (he didn’t have very warm feelings about Thackeray, did he?) And so on ad infinitum.

Aristotle wrote a whole book about such argumentative fool’s gold – the particular mistake in the above is in muddling what is true simply with what is true in some way (the Medieval names for the two are, respectively, the simpliciter and the secundum quid). Confound the two, and you end up contending that theists are kinds of atheists.


  1. Matt said,

    December 28, 2010 at 12:11 am

    Hi James,

    I think when Luke uses that phrase what he means is that we use a double standard for our preferred god that we do not give to other gods. As in, the evidence that causes us to dismiss the existence of Thor or Zeus should cause us to dismiss the existence of Yahweh. While I’m sure there is lots to say about that meaning of the phrase I don’t think it’s quite the same one that you have refuted in this post.

    • December 28, 2010 at 6:39 am

      The argument you describe is an example of what the post was speaking about, since it conflates “those who reject all non-X’s” with “those who choose X”, but the two are not the same, either in theory or in the actual practice of choosing. To be a Zeusian is not the same as “to reject all gods but Zeus” (like Thor), even if, as a matter of fact, one cannot worship both Zeus and Thor. When someone orders a Big Mac, this is not the same as to reject everything on the menu that is not a Big Mac (even in the context of picking just one thing for lunch). Here I’m appealing both to theory and experience: you simply don’t go through the whole menu giving reasons for why you are rejecting everything else, and you don’t need to. Again, choosing a college does not mean rejecting all the colleges other than your choice, even though one cannot go to all the colleges he doesn’t choose. If to make a choice demanded rejecting all contrary to it, no one could ever choose anything.

      In brief, the account can only be against theism if it conflates rejecting all divine beings other than X with accepting divine being X. This is exactly the sort of argument that allows someone to prove anything about anyone. Again, If one wants to talk about “those who reject Thor”, fine, but such persons are not the same as Christians, even Christians with a reason for being what they are,and even if one cannot worship both Christ and Thor.

  2. G. Kyle Essary said,

    December 28, 2010 at 4:49 am

    I think the quote Luke uses is different from the typical “argument” given by atheists. James’s post does respond to the “we just deny one god more” version. It doesn’t directly respond to the “when you understand why you reject Thor you will understand why I reject your god” form.

  3. December 28, 2010 at 7:02 am

    You seem to be implying that the form of the “we are both atheists” argument applies to any view we can reject. For example atheists reject gods, and anarchists reject state rule. Therefore, because a view is rejected in both cases, you imply that the form of the argument is either valid in both cases or not valid in either case.

    This is a mistake however. The form of the argument depends on more than the rejection of a view. It also depends on the nature of the view itself. Specifically, it depends on whether the view alternatives are exclusive. The “we are both atheists” argument applies to exclusive theistic views – views that if a particular god exists, then other gods cannot exist. For example, if Yahweh exists, then Thor cannot exist.

    The argument form doesn’t apply to non-exclusive views like polytheism. For example, it doesn’t apply to a view that “all gods can exist” or “any number of gods can exist”. For this same reason, the argument form doesn’t apply to non-exclusive preferences for alternative forms of government. Anarchy is the preference for no government rule of any kind. The Anarchist in your argument implies that the Flag-waving American will consider only 2 alternatives: the chaos of no-government rule (anarchy), or democratic rule. However, this isn’t the case. The Flag-waving American most likely prefers oligarchies and monarchies over anarchy, even if she prefers democracy over monarchies and oligarchies. The preferences are consistent because they are not exclusive – the Flag-waving American isn’t forced to prefer a monarchy in the United States because she prefers a monarchy in the United Arab Emirates in lieu of anarchy. Preferring democracy over a monarchy is not called “anarchy”.

    A demonstration of how the argument form fails when it is misapplied doesn’t refute the claim: a theist is a kind of atheist (with the exception of some theists who hold polytheistic beliefs).

    (Note: since this is my first post to this blog, I want to point out that I use the lower-case “god” or “gods” to mean a non-specific god or gods, and I use the capitalized “God” to mean a specific god. I mean no disrespect by the lower-case form)

    • December 28, 2010 at 8:16 am

      To explain that the argument applies to “exclusive” theisms raises the question of whether there are such things – I’m not sure there are, since your example is from worshippers of Yahweh, but “Yahwehism” (Judaism?) is not against the existence of other gods, but against giving them worship. “You shall have no other gods before me” is very much compatible with the existence of other gods, and could even presuppose them. While it is true that the atheist worships no God and the Yahwist (Jew?) worships none but one, this fails to account for the very thing that makes the atheist an atheist, namely that he denies worship because he denies existence, while the same thing is not necessary for a Jew.

      But even if I posit arguendo the existence of what you define as exclusive theism,one cannot insist that such a believer is required to marshal evidence against every deity (or even randomly chosen deities) in order to be rational in holding what he holds. This would require that any exclusive choice (like a marriage, say) can only be made rationally after one eliminates all other alternatives. But I don’t see why one has to eliminate any alternatives in order to make an exclusive choice. It suffices to see a compelling reason for the one thing that one chooses, irrespective of whether this choice requires the rejection of all others. This is one reason why (at least in the cases under discussion) it is wrong to confound what is true in some way with what is true simply.

      • December 28, 2010 at 10:23 am

        Good points, James!

        “Yahwehism” (or “El-ism” for that matter) grew out of a Canaanite pantheon. Thus the monotheism of Judaism didn’t always mean that no other gods existed. It came to mean that later as the concept continued to develop. However, this has no bearing on my earlier discussion about exclusivity of belief and the form of the “we are both atheists” argument. If “early monotheists” believed in the existence of other gods, even if they didn’t worship them, then their belief in gods wasn’t the exclusive belief I described. Thus, applying the “we are both atheists” argument form to early monotheists is a misapplication of the argument form in the same way that applying the form to other pantheists is a misapplication of the argument form.

        I don’t require the theist to marshal evidence against other deities. It is sufficient that the theist hold that the existence of his own god is incompatible with the existence of other gods. This in fact is the claim of modern monotheism (vs. the early monotheism of early Judaism). Whether the believer defends his position or not, the fact remains that he must be an atheist with regard to other deities in order to hold his monotheistic beliefs.

      • December 28, 2010 at 10:54 am

        The last comment was about your restriction of the above argument to exclusive theism. That was one point. But leaving that aside, the argument given above is still at odds with the claim that the theist is a kind of atheist! You can say that, for example, a Methodist is “a kind of atheist”, but the word atheist is not being predicated in the same way as when you say “Marxists are atheists”. To insist that the term is predicated in the same way is what I’ve been calling the sophistry since the beginning. Even if one posits that the term “atheism” means the same thing (which I wouldnt’ just concede, except perhaps arguendo) there is still the problem of how the term is predicated, for not all terms are predicated in the same way, and ignoring the differences here, or exploiting them, is the soul of sophistry. Ignore the modes of predication, and you’ll be able to prove anything is anything else. Being will become non-being. Calling a theist an atheist would be small potatoes.

        But do we really need to dispute whether theism – any kind of theism – is atheism? Isn’t this rather like disputing whether Euclidianism is a kind of non-Euclidianism, or whether marriage is a kind of divorce?

      • December 28, 2010 at 6:55 pm


        I’m sure you’ll agree that any sense of outrage at the comparison between a Marxist and a Methodist is beside the point. You and I would still have to agree that Carl Marx and Charles Wesley share at least one common belief: both reject claims that Shiva is divine. In this respect, Marx and Wesley are both atheist when it comes to belief in the divinity of Shiva (they are neither agnostic nor theist in this regard). It would be safe to say that Wesley and Marx would be atheist with respect to belief in any god they knew about, with the exception of the Christian Trinity. While Marx and Wesley would share a common atheistic belief about a myriad of gods, they would differ only in their theistic beliefs about the divinity of the Trinity.

        A relative use of the term “atheist” is as appropriate as the relative use of the term “agnostic”. One may be agnostic about certain aspects of God, without being agnostic about all aspects. One may believe in the existence of a sole Creator but agnostic as to the nature of the Creator. One may believe Jesus is divine while remaining agnostic about His subordination or equality with the Father. Dawkins considers himself an agnostic with respect to as-yet undefined gods, or gods of which he he has never heard tell. However he considers himself an atheist with respect to gods he has heard of. The Methodist is correct to consider himself atheist (neither theist nor agnostic) with respect to the divinity of Shiva, but theist with respect to the divinity of Jesus.

        You conclude that the above argument is at odds with the claim that a theist is a kind of atheist, but I couldn’t see in your posts James,

        I’m sure you’ll agree that any sense of outrage at the comparison between a Marxist and a Methodist is beside the point. You and I would still have to agree that Carl Marx and Charles Wesley share at least one common belief: both reject claims that Shiva is divine. In this respect, Marx and Wesley are both atheist when it comes to belief in the divinity of Shiva (they are neither agnostic nor theist in this regard). It would be safe to say that Wesley and Marx would both be atheist with respect to belief in any god they knew about, with the exception of the Christian Trinity.

        The term “atheist” refering to a relative point of view is as appropriate the term “agnostic” refering to a relative view. One may be agnostic about certain aspects of God, without being agnostic about all aspects. One may believe in the existence of a sole Creator but be agnostic about the nature of the Creator. One may believe Jesus is divine while remaining agnostic about His subordinance or equality with the Father. Dawkins considers himself an agnostic with respect to as-yet undefined gods, or gods of which he he has never heard tell. However he considers himself an atheist with respect to gods he has heard of. The Methodist would be correct to consider himself atheist (neither theist nor agnostic) with respect to the divinity of Shiva, but theist with respect to the divinity of Jesus.

        You conclude that the above argument is at odds with the claim that a theist is a kind of atheist, but I couldn’t see in your posts how you arrived at that conclusion. Where do you find a conflict?how you arrived at that. Where do you see a conflict?

      • G. Kyle Essary said,

        December 28, 2010 at 7:20 pm

        I’ve always (at least since I’ve thought about it), considered myself to be a Christian in regards to other deities. It’s not my assessing their claims or evidential support that makes me reject Shiva and the others, but my Christian faith in the Trinitarian God found in Scripture.

        Whereas you and I agree that Shiva does not exist (although the Christian may see the title Shiva as having some demonic referrant), you and I stand in different relation to this claim. You reject Shiva for reasons wholly different than mine and terming us both as “atheists” in regards to shiva seems to be a stretch. I’m a Christian in regards to Shiva and you’re an atheist.

        Thus, I think Edwards counter slogan listed below better describes not only the Christian position, but how most Christians intuitively think about other deities.

      • December 28, 2010 at 7:27 pm

        Oops! Sorry for the double post!

      • December 28, 2010 at 7:56 pm


        I agree that you are perfectly correct to describe yourself as Christian. Even if your Christian beliefs are your primary reason for rejecting Shiva as divine, it is nevertheless correct to describe yourself as atheist (not theist and not agnostic) in the context of your theistic beliefs about the God, Shiva. When the Theos (God) in question is Shiva, then you are a-theist in this context. In this context, the term “atheist” reflects your rejection of Shiva as deity; it is not a commentary about your reasons for rejecting Shiva.

  4. Edward said,

    December 28, 2010 at 9:16 am

    James, would you agree that the argument also commits the fallacy of equivocation when it speaks of “gods?” The God of monotheism is simply not within a genus, let alone the genus of mythological gods. To insist that they rise or fall together is to simply misunderstand the difference between them.

    In fact, it seems that the argument presupposes that the atheist rejects God for the same reasons that a Christian or Jew would reject Thor, Zeus, or polytheism simply. This, again, is merely a demonstration of a lack of philosophical understanding.

    Rhetorically, it might sound like it is making a point, but like so many slogans that become popular, it really isn’t.

    • December 28, 2010 at 9:46 am

      Whether the argument under discussion is an example of equivocation is not clear to me, though I agree that the rejection of most polytheisms is not the same sort of rejection as the rejection of Christian monotheism (or Platonic monotheism, for that matter). Polytheism is largely a mythical encounter with things, and there is a marked move in later Judaism (see the Book of Wisdom) and in Platonism towards seeing this mythical encounter as in need of critique, since when one tries to translate it into rational terms it can only turn into materialism (hence the critique of the gods of the nations that they have mouths but speak not, eyes but see not – the idea is that this sort of diety – in effect a venerated statue – fails at the sort of existence that is required for a divinity. Plato aims at the same point when he critiques the Homer’s gods for their immorality.) This does hint at what the commenter above called “exclusive” theism, but the critique comes with a built in reason for the critique, and there is a widespread agreement among both theists and atheists about the reason that the Later Jews and Platonists gave. Nowadays both atheists and theists agree that the purely poetic mode of approaching divine things is inadequate. A sign of this is that all sides agree that some sort of theology is necessary; and thus there is a broad consensus for why Zeus and Thor are rejected (though again, I stand by what I said above about how this rejection is related to theism only accidentally or secundum quid.)

      I agree with you so far as I don’t see a level field here between polytheism and the monotheism that critiques it as inadequate. The monotheist critique is a claim that reason in all its amplitude must be allowed to enter the discussion of the gods. Our modern atheist response is frequently a claim that this must be pared back to only one mode of reason – namely that mode that deals with things proportioned to our understanding. This strikes me more as a return of the old polytheism in a new guise – one that seeks to accept only those things that are in proportion to the human mind. The only difference is that the old polytheism used metaphor, while the new guys insist on using the mode of science most connatural to us.

      • Thomas said,

        December 28, 2010 at 10:16 am

        I think Edward has a bigger point here. When different traditions speak of “God”, they mean different things, even if they speak of a single God. The Trinitarian God is radically different from Aristotle’s God, though related; both are distinct from Spinoza’s concept of God. To offer labels (monotheist, deist, pantheist, or whatever) is only helpful if it doesn’t impede a closer look at the concepts themselves.

        Further, the argument assumes that a Christian must either affirm or deny the other concepts of God (or the Gods). That is, Christians simply reject Aristotle and Spinoza’s God. As Hegel would say, the assumption that philosophical thought is carried out merely by affirmation or denial of propositions is a primitive form of thought. Instead, the Christian theologian finds some things in common with Aristotle’s ideas, other things in common with Spinoza’s, and yet has a distinct position of his own. That this sort of thinking should be beyond the New Atheists is no surprise: what distinguishes the New Atheists from other “schools” of atheistm appears to be their remarkable philosophical ineptitude.

    • December 28, 2010 at 10:46 am

      Edward, I think you might be jumping the gun. The argument asserts that a certain class of believers (believers in “exclusive” gods) are atheists with regard to the gods which their exclusive beliefs compel them to reject. We should be able to affirm that the statement is true.

      The argument makes no claim about which gods exist and which don’t. It doesn’t claim that if a particular class of gods don’t exist, then no gods exist. It doesn’t equate the atheist’s reason for rejecting gods with the theists reasons for rejecting gods. You seem to resist the argument based on its ramifications, rather than based on the merit of the argument. However that is no basis for refuting the argument.

      • Edward said,

        December 28, 2010 at 11:05 am

        Wait, you say that the argument does not claim that if a particular class of gods don’t exist then no gods exist, so then why am I supposed to understand why you dismiss God once I understand why you dismiss all of the other “gods?” Without this, the argument appears to make no sense.

      • December 28, 2010 at 4:53 pm


        In my view, the argument is an invitation for introspection. It invites you to reflect on why you personally are not moved by the claims about the existence of other gods. You will likely find yourself thinking like an atheist regarding the existence of, say, Krishna. You may find yourself asking why you should believe that Krishna is real, what evidence points to His existence? Believers in Shiva make extraordinary and impassioned claims about personal encounters with Shiva, but how do I decide if the claims are credible?

        While the question falls short of demonstrating how atheists can “dismiss” the existence god in general, it nevertheless provides a context which can demonstrate to you on a more personal level why atheists doubt the claims about your God.

      • Thomas said,

        December 29, 2010 at 9:52 am

        “Believers in Shiva make extraordinary and impassioned claims about personal encounters with Shiva ….”

        What? This leads me to believe you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. Hinduism isn’t quite as extreme as Buddhism in denying a personal self, but it’s much closer to that (in identifying Atman with Brahman) than it is to the more personal religions like Christianity.

      • December 30, 2010 at 5:06 am


        I’m not sure I understand your objection. How is the denial of self incompatible with impassioned testimony? My larger question to you is what your objection (once clarified) has to do with my discussion about decisions to accept or reject extraordinary claims?

        In any case, here is one example (I’m not sure what the spaminator will allow so I’ll try just one) of personal testimony from Hindus:

      • Thomas said,

        December 30, 2010 at 3:03 pm

        That site is a fundamentalist Christian site containing testimonies from former Hindus that have converted to Christianity. In the “about me” section of the site, the webmaster specifically mentions his personal encounter with Christ as important given the impersonal nature of the Hindu faith. In other words, it proves my point that you are mischaracterizing the Hindu faith as typically involving impassioned accounts of personal encounters with deities. You may be able to dig some up on the internet, but anyone who has studied the Hindu faith at all knows that such accounts are not characteristic of Hinduism.

        The bigger point here: atheists tend to bring up other religious claims in the course of asking how one knows that they are false while one’s own claims are true, but these same atheists often have absolutely no idea of the nature and extent of those other claims, and consequently no possible basis upon which to judge whether the claims are consistent or inconsistent, or simply different, than the claims of their interlocutors.

        The conventional wisdom would seem to counsel that the more one is aware of the existence of other religions, the less one is likely to be religious. In my experience, it is different: those who understand other religions more deeply (and are therefore in a better position to judge the relation of the different religious claims) tend to be religious.

  5. Edward said,

    December 28, 2010 at 10:43 am

    I must say, James, that the last paragraph in your response is very insightful. That there is a fundamental relationship between traditional polytheism and scientism would most certainly be lost on most atheists, modern or otherwise.

    Thomas, your point is well taken. I think it is obvious that the argument assumes that there are no really compelling reasons for believing in any kind of god, and since, as you say, most atheists are too crude in their philosophy to make even the slightest distinctions between deistic conceptions, the argument appears to be forceful even though it is vacuous.

    There is another aspect of this discussion that I think would help illuminate the problem with this argument, namely, that there is a modicum of agreement between the theist and the atheist insofar as the reasons against the existence of a Zeus or a Thor are shared between them. Can we not agree to at least some extent that the atheist critique of Zeus, for example, is correct? If we are speaking of what is reasonable to believe, there is a broad commonality between the thought of both atheists and theists. They both think that there is no real argument for the existence of the gods of polytheism.

    This, though, only again shows that philosophical ignorance of atheists, though. The very reason Aquinas, for instance, would reject polytheism is precisely because there can only be one God. So perhaps we can coin a counter slogan:

    When you understand why I dismiss all other possible gods, you will understand why I do not dismiss my own.

    • December 28, 2010 at 10:49 am

      Edward, I would be interested in understanding in what way you feel atheists are philosophically ignorant. I would also be interested in understanding which atheists you feel are philosophically ignorant and why.

      • Edward said,

        December 28, 2010 at 11:00 am

        Any who think that the argument which inspired the post is worth repeating. Other than that, I am speaking of pop atheists like Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and most on the internet who do not even demonstrate a passing familiarity with the over two thousand year old western philosophical tradition.

      • Thomas said,

        December 28, 2010 at 11:13 am

        Yep. Just take a look at Dawkin’s treatment in “The God Delusion” of the philosophical arguments for God. He does not appear to have even read the original sources, much less have engaged with their substance.

        The sad thing is that many of Dawkin’s cohorts are worse. PZ Myers (despite claiming that he understood all the best arguments for the existence of God) admitted he was utterly baffled by David Hart’s description of God because it used terms like “composite”, “contingent”, “absolute plenitude of being”, and so on–standard philosophical terms.

      • December 28, 2010 at 5:22 pm


        That answers one of my two questions: I personally think that the argument that inspires this post is worth repeating, so that at least qualifies me as one of the atheists that you believe are philosophically ignorant. How does this view demonstrate a lack of even a passing knowledge of western philosophy?

        I found it particularly interesting that you include Dennett in your list of atheists who you feel don’t demonstrate even a passing familiarity with western philosophy. Dennett received a BA in philosophy at Harvard and is currently a Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Not quite as interesting because Dawkins is a scientist rather than a philosopher – but still interesting enough, Dawkins was awarded the Bicentennial Kelvin Medal of The Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow in 2002. Hitchens is a journalist rather than a philosopher but he read philosophy at Oxford.

        This makes me wonder: what is your criteria for judging who is competent as a philosopher?

      • Thomas said,

        December 29, 2010 at 10:28 am

        I don’t think even Dennett’s fans would say he is well versed in philosophy outside contemporary analytic philosophy. For some reason I have yet to understand prestigious American universities have been turning out Ph.D.’s who have little more than a passing familiarity with philosophy written more than two centuries ago, or even with contemporary continental philosophy. I had a philosophy professor who graduated from MIT and who never read Aristotle or Hegel, much less read them closely.

        In any case, Dennett’s hardly philosophically competent when it comes to philosophy of religion or theology. His book “Breaking the Spell” seeks to prove that religion is a natural phenomenon, which, of course, no-one denies, and concludes from this that it’s not true, which, of course does not follow. A real philosopher, David B. Hart, offers a philosophical skewering of “Breaking the Spell” here:

        And if you think Dawkins has a grasp on the relevant philosophy, then all you’re doing is announcing you know nothing of philosophy. Or you’re attempting to pull of an elaborate prank.

      • December 30, 2010 at 5:35 am


        That’s an interesting comment about prestigious American universities. You seem to be on my side in my disagreement with Edward. Edward says that Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens do not even demonstrate a passing familiarity with the over two thousand year old western philosophical tradition. When you say that American universities have been turning out Ph.D.’s who have little more than a passing familiarity with philosophy written more than two centuries ago, do you mean to say that the graduates of these universities have at least a passing familiarity with the over two thousand year old western philosophical tradition? What about external universities like Oxford ( Hitchens, Dawkins and Hitchens were all educated in Oxford)? I’m only seeking to clarify so I can know how to respond.

    • December 28, 2010 at 6:29 pm

      Or how about? I contend that you and I are both polytheists. I just believe in more gods than you do. When you understand why you affirm your one god, you will understand why I affirm my many.

  6. Edward said,

    December 28, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Well, we both agree that there should be some standard for judging who is a competent philosopher and who is not. We do have recourse to their professional credentials, but these credentials, I hope you would agree, are only valuable inasmuch as they reflect actual ability, which is more manifest in the writings and arguments made by these particular men. It is by this latter category, what they say and write, that I judge them incompetent. This is especially egregious for Dennett, who is a professional philosopher. It is, nevertheless, true. And remember, this is not necessarily related to whether they are right or wrong, competent atheist philosophers do exist. It is just that the most popular ones wouldn’t be able to understand a post on this blog, let alone demonstrate a working knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, etc.

    And, finally, yes, if you equate the Christian God with any other “gods” of polytheism, as if they are all equally either reasonable or unreasonable, then you lack knowledge of what men of the past have actually said. The good news is that this can all be remedied. James’ blog might be a good place to begin.

    • December 28, 2010 at 7:24 pm


      I agree that we should judge philosophers by their ability… provided we ourselves are competent to judge.

      What are some of the failings you see in the works of Dennett? In particular, what are some of the indicators you find that lead you to conclude that he is an inept philosopher? I’m not asking why you might disagree with Dennett’s conclusions, I’m asking for a few examples that demonstrate his lack of even a passing familiarity with the over two thousand year old western philosophical tradition.

      While I don’t equate the traditions of the Christian God with the tradition of other gods, I do note certain similarities between some traditions. While I find the reasons I’ve heard for belief in gods to be unreasonable for the most part, I don’t find the reasons to be equally unreasonable – some I find more unreasonable than others, and there are some that I find reasonable.

      What is an example of the knowledge I lack about what men of the past have said?

  7. Edward said,

    December 28, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    No, you misunderstand me. The failings are not merely particular logical flaws, they are broad misunderstandings of the theistic tradition and, sometimes, outright refusals to acknowledge the arguments of the other side. Dennett almost completely ignores traditional theistic thinkers in his most popular book, and when he does mention them he dismisses them because they are full of “scholastic logic” about the “meaning of the word cause.” Dawkins is worse. He spends most of his time arguing against modern intelligent design theory, a school of thought that is most unrelated to traditional theism. Even worse, when he does attempt to speak about the cosmological argument he severely misunderstands it.

    More generally and in relation to the main post, the gods of polytheism are not at all related to God because 1) by definition, there can only be one and 2) knowledge of His existence is arrived at through reason. In this way, God is already something entirely different from any other “gods.” Repeating the above slogan about dismissing gods is an indication that you think the arguments for God’s existence can conclude to anything resembling the gods of polytheism. If you don’t actually think this, great. If you do think this, though, you do not understand what the actual arguments are. Hence, you are ignorant about what “men of the past” have said.

    All of this seems too far from James’ original point, though. Perhaps this can be better dealt with another time.

    • G. Kyle Essary said,

      December 29, 2010 at 6:05 am

      There are good agnostic/atheist philosophers, but the NA movement currently does not have them. I imagine that most NA types who become interested in philosophy will ultimately become embarrassed of the philosophy in the current crop of NA books.

      In regards to the historical philosophical tradition, I actually think Hitchens comes closest to understanding it. Harris/Stenger try to mix philosophy and science in ways that leave them largely rejected by the consensus of scientists and philosophers. Stenger is less known and hasn’t received much published response (he’s not writing for response anyways, but for those within), but many of his philosophical moves fall prey to the same critiques that have been made of Harris’ latest book in just about every review out there from the Times to the New York Review of Books.

      In regards to Dawkins, pages 100-103 of TGD are sufficient to show that he is inept at philosophy. His summaries of Aquinas either show that he does not understand them, or that he is intentiionally misrepresenting them. You can disagree with their conclusions, like Anthony Kenny, but need to at least respond to them in a way that shows you understand them if you want to be taken seriously. Dawkins fails in this regard.

      He actually doesn’t even respond to the Argument from Degree or the Teleological Argument. He parodies the former in a way that shows he doesn’t understand it and then argues against Paley’s design argument in response to Aquinas’ teleological argument, when the two are hardly alike.

      Finally, he says that showing there is a “terminator” doesn’t prove any of the attributes of God. This only shows that he stopped reading Aquinas after the five ways (if he actually read those in Aquinas), because much of the rest of ST is devoted to showing philosophically that such attributes as goodness necessarily entail.

      Dennett likewise struggles in this regard. Breaking the Spell tried to be a book on the philosophy of religion, history of religion and anthropology from an author who is a philosopher of mind. Modern philosophy is very broad and the chasms are evident in this book. It shows that having an expertise in artificial intelligence (as Dennett does) means nothing in regards to your competence in metaphysics, PoR and the like. An amusing review by David Bentley Hart can be found online. It’s called Hunting the Snark I believe. He also had a funny line in his book Atheist Delusins where he said that Dennett succeeded in showing that what Christians have called the natural desire for God was in fact…natural after all.

      • December 29, 2010 at 7:05 am

        My toughts on this thread…

        Popular atheism is dreadful when judged by philosophical standards (I’d bet that Dennett – the most philosophic of the bunch – doesn’t enter into much professional atheist philosophy either, though I could be wrong about this.) But the goal of their writing isn’t to speak to theists, but to redefine atheism from being the quiet, live-and-let-live, intellectual, blue blood, male college professor/ grad student enterprise that it has tended to be among English speakers to being a socially active and agressive force that actively marginalizes others. This is why they are raising so many social questions of manners, morals, and child rearing e.g. “is it child abuse to raise children in religious hoseholds?” or “should we allow any tolerance to public teaching of religious things?” or “Sure, Christianity is wrong, but should we respect Christians?” More to the point, this is why they must afford no intellectual respect to theism of any kind – the whole point of their enterprize is to make Christianity (something like) the new racism, that is, something that popular manners deems unworthy of respect since it can only be practiced by the ignorant and dangerous. Racist attitudes were not changed by reasoning with racists or by faithfully taking up and refuting their arguments, but by changing public manners and morals to recast the racist as an ignorant rube who deserved no intellectual respect. I remember back in the 80’s when it was au courant to call racist statements by definition “ignorant”, as though racism was something that could be immediately seen as backward and dangerous. Twenty years later, racism is so utterly taboo that there is no one in the nation who could utter a racist sentiment at any point in his life and be allowed into public view. Given that it was so effective, even I, with my miniscule blog readership, have to point out that I don’t think that such “political correctness” it is all that terrible. The NA is the thin end of the wedge for a change in manners and morals, leading to new taboos. It doesn’t direct itself to converting classically trained philosophers, but to being for mass consumption to float “in the air” and change attitudes among cafeteria Catholics, the overwhelming percentage of teens who leave the faith to experiment, people who are bored with the vacuity of MegaChurches, etc. Previous to this, such people would just be mediocre Christians all their lives, since atheism was for white, unmarried, grad school males who keep to themselves (as it still largely is). If the NA succeeds in their actual goal, all that will change. Theism will become the new racism. Judged by this standard, I think they show themselves a bit more effective.

      • December 29, 2010 at 7:55 am


        Thanks for the specifics! Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” is the only book I’ve read from the ones you mentioned. I agree that Dennett’s references to AI are unconventional. Without judging the appropriateness of Dennett’s use of AI in his discussion about religious belief (simply because I don’t want to divert us further – we’re already 1 level removed from the original topic), I’ll point out as simply a point of interest that notable philosophical contributions often come from relating established schools of thought with emerging new thought about the modern condition (Hume and science for example). Philosophy about AI is common enough, but its relationship to thought about religious belief is more of a unique and potentially enlightening perspective.

        To take us closer the my questions to Edward that I think you are responding to, suggesting that Dennett and Dawkins argue, even if inadequately, against established schools of thought is an indicator that Dennett and Dawkins both have at least a passing familiarity with those schools of thought. Would you agree?

      • G. Kyle Essary said,

        December 29, 2010 at 9:02 am

        It shows that they’ve heard of it, but not that they are familiar enough to respond. I don’t know if you follow sports or not, but it reminds me of baseball discussions at family gatherings.

        I’m a Texas Rangers fan and have been since the late 80s. My family all knows this and it leads my uncles to make comments about the team in order for small chat. There’s a common perception that the Rangers have had a great offense and no pitching for years, even though this hasn’t been true for the past five years or so. So you often get the comment, “if they could just get some good pitching they’d be great.” Another comment is that the Rangers fall apart when Texas gets hot in August. Once again, this isn’t the case, but a common perception that goes back to the 70s. So you will get comments about how they should play in a dome or more night games to improve.

        Have my uncles ever watched a game? I have no idea, and they haven’t shown me anything to make me think that they have. Are they familiar with the Rangers? Well, they are familiar enough with common misperceptions to the point of being able to make small chat, but if I mention an up and coming minor leaguer or try to discuss the real issues with the team, they have to drop out because they simply aren’t capable of having an adequate discussion.

        That is how I feel in what I’ve read from Dawkins/Dennett. They are clearly familiar with the arguments in that they know they are out there, and know some common perceptions about what the arguments actually are, but when they comment on them it seems clear that they are actually not that familiar with them and know more about misconceptions of them than what they actually say (assuming they are not intentionally misleading, which I doubt).

      • December 30, 2010 at 6:41 am


        You conceded that your examples show that Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins have heard of the philosophical traditions, however you don’t feel that they are familiar enough to respond. Let’s agree then that in our opinions, Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins have heard of the philosophical traditions. We could say that this is at least a passing familiarity, like your uncle’s passing familiarity with the Rangers), but I think we can push beyond that.

        If we may proceed from this point of agreement, do you concede that, even if not sufficiently competent to refute the arguments, the 3 writers demonstrate enough familiarity with the arguments to state some of the primary points of the arguments? I haven’t read TGD so I’ll hazard a guess: are pages 100-103 the section where you say that Dawkins parodies the teleological argument and the argument from design? If so, would you agree that the ability to parody the arguments demonstrates at least a passing familiarity with the arguments?

        By the way, I agree that a philosophical treaties of Aquinas should include a response to Kenny. However, my question isn’t about whether TGD is, or even should be a philosophical treaties, my question is whether you agree that Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens demonstrates even a passing familiarity with the over two thousand year old western philosophical tradition, or if they do not.

      • G. Kyle Essary said,

        December 30, 2010 at 8:22 am

        I’m not sure I would agree with that much. For one thing, it’s difficult from the writings of Hitchens and Harris to know if they are familiar with Aquinas. Harris did an undergraduate degree in philosophy, but that means very little in American schools. You can get a “major” with only three or four courses in the topic, and the vast majority of philosophy courses today do not deal with metaphysics or the philosophical traditions. Furthermore, his writings (particularly his latest), are chock full of basic philosophical mistakes that would be taught in basic philosophy classes. My guess based on his latter research, would be that he focused on artificial intelligence and the philosophy of mind (he’s actually a pretty private guy and I have no idea what he specialized in). But really, he never gets into the theistic arguments in his three books on religion, so all of this is somewhat irrelevant.

        I would assume that Hitchens is aware of the tradition, but in his theology book he doesn’t discuss theistic arguments all that much. Furthermore, I’ve seen him debate in person and watched plenty of his debates online. He doesn’t like to argue “Does God Exist?” but instead prefers the role of religion in society, and the role of Christianity in particular. He isn’t arguing against the existence of God directly, but against the role of religion. Thus, he may be familiar, but has given no evidence for or against such a question.

        Dawkins specifically intends to show that there is probably no god. He throws out the name of philosophers but frequently misquotes or misrepresents them. His summaries of Aquinas’s first three ways actually work against your contention because he misstates them and suggests they are saying something completely different than what they actually say. Thus, he has a “passing familiarity” with the name Aquinas, but has not given evidence that he is familiar with Aquinas’s actual arguments, since he only sets up strawmen. This is also the case with the fourth way, where he parodies a mischaracterization, but gives no evidence that he knows what the actual argument says. As stated above, he clearly is either unfamiliar with the fifth way, or incapable of understanding it since he responds to it by saying that it is the same as Paley’s argument and argues against Paley. Anyone who has taken a basic philosophy course or briefly studied the theistic arguments knows that Paley’s argument and the fifth way are very different.

        Dennett, like Dawkins, specifically refers to Aquinas and is thus familiar with the name, but when he “responds” to him briefly he states that the first way can be summed up as “everything has a cause” and God is the ultimate cause. The argument is nothing like that in reality, so I have no evidence from his writings that he has a “passing familiarity” with Aquinas, unless “passing familiarity” has no real meaning.

        For instance, who has a “passing familiarity” with Aquinas? The person on the street who answers “Name one famous philosopher” with “Aquinas,” even if they have never read anything he’s written? How about the person who knows Aquinas only as the name for which their son’s school got it’s name (Aquinas Academy). What about the undergrad student who wrote a biographical sketch of Aquinas for a course, yet has never read a single page beyond Wikipedia and a few general biographies? Let’s take it even further and say the student has read the five ways for a class, but never discussed what the ways are actually saying, or what the words mean in their appropriate context. Does this student have a “passing familiarity” with the arguments?

        Thus, arguing over the phrase “passing familiarity” seems rather pointless. What seems more pertinent is whether or not Dawkins and Dennett have an adequate grasp of the arguments in order to respond to them in print so as 1. Not to misrepresent them, 2. Not attack strawmen and 3. Achieve their intended goal of showing that there is probably no god.

        As such, 1. they both misrepresent the arguments (stating them in forms that would be unfamiliar to Aquinas and Thomistic scholars, include premises that Aquinas would reject, clearly misunderstand the conclusions of the arguments, etc.), 2. they attack straw men as their responses do not engage the arguments themselves and are not successful if posed against the arguments actual formulations, etc. Thus, they have not adequately achieved their goal as they in effect ignore the actual arguments in order to make their case.

      • December 30, 2010 at 10:43 am


        I’m a little perplexed. I’ve suggested that we might agree that in our opinions, Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins have heard of the philosophical traditions since that’s what you said earlier. You no longer agree?

        I agree – it can be troublesome to talk about a claim that someone throws out without defining terms. “Adequate” is no less troublesome than “passing familiarity” though. Either may be measured against arbitrary criteria. However in my opinion, “passing familiarity” is a bit less troublesome than “adequate” since when we talk about someone having “even a passing familiarity” about any topic, we generally mean any familiarity at all with the topic. By familiarity, we generally mean a rudimentary sort of knowledge. By “passing”, we mean fleeting, a very basic level. We mean that someone with less than a passing familiarity of a topic has no useful knowledge of the topic at all.

      • G. Kyle Essary said,

        December 30, 2010 at 1:11 pm

        I’m perplexed as well, and am not sure why it matters. Are you simply wanting an assessment from someone who has read their works? I have no access to their minds, but have read Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Stenger and from their writings can only make an assessment of what it appears they know and are familiar with. What I actually said above was that Hitchens comes closest to understanding, but he has written enough or I haven’t seen/heard him discuss it to know for sure.

        The rest may be familiar with the tradition but incapable of understanding it. Or possibly, they only read an introduction, or Wikipedia or a biased response without actually having familiarity with it. I guess it is possible that they do have a “passing familiarity” with them and are intentionally setting up strawmen to knock down, but I’d rather assume that they are not. As it stands though, their written works only show that they are familiar with misconceptions and straw men and not with the tradition itself.

        I know the arguments in favor of atheism. I’ve studied them for years and read some of the best minds out there to understand them. As such, I believe I can fairly assess them and be more confident in my Christian theism. After all, we are seeking truth. In the NA literature, which you may not be that familiar with since you haven’t read TGD, this pursuit of truth is lacking in favor of rhetorical attacks. Thus, I cannot honestly say that I think they are familiar with the historical philosophical tradition in any meaningful way.

        It would be amusing if my uncles with their passing knowledge of misconceptions about the Rangers were to argue that I should become a Yankees fan.

        Anyways, I think this thread is done. I keep giving evidence of their lack of familiarity with the works they are critiquing and you keep asking me to admit, against the evidence that I’ve presented, that they have a passing familiarity. As it stands I don’t see the conversation progressing and will end it here. Thanks for the discussion, and if you hang around this site in the future, I look forward to future discussions that we may have.

    • December 29, 2010 at 7:09 am


      I don’t think I misunderstood you. Your charge was not that the 3 authors you mentions had flawed logic, your charge was that none of the 3 demonstrate even a passing familiarity with the over two thousand year old western philosophical tradition. I don’t find it plausible that these particular authors are as uneducated as you claim, given their education background. I’m asking what leads you to your conclusion.

      For example, you say that Dennett mentions and then dismisses certain traditional theistic thinkers. I would consider this to be evidence that Dennett has at least a passing familiarity with at least those particular thinkers. You also mention that Dawkins speaks about the Cosmological Argument, albeit you feel that he misunderstands it. However, even if we agreed that Dawkins doesn’t correctly understand the Cosmological Argument (I don’t necessarily disagree, I simply don’t affirm it since I don’t recall Dawkins discussion of the argument), his treatment of it should be an indicator that he has at least a passing familiarity with the argument perhaps its originators.

      Do you view the evidence differently?

      It is different to include me in a category of atheists who are ignorant about what “men of the past” have said, and to include me in a category of atheists who do not even demonstrate a passing familiarity with the over two thousand year old western philosophical tradition. I’m interested exploring this claim a bit further before moving on to a new claim.

      You said that anyone who thinks that the title argument of this post is worth repeating belongs in this group. I conceded earlier that I think the argument is worth repeating and am therefore a member of this group. I’m interested in understanding how this particular criteria qualifies anyone for the group.

      • G. Kyle Essary said,

        December 29, 2010 at 7:15 am

        I agree, which is why they continue to make inroads in certain demographics and not in others. This is a common tactic in society. Paint others as ignorant and hope your consistency remains ignorant about what the opposition is actually saying.

  8. Edward said,

    December 29, 2010 at 8:57 am

    Ask an Atheist, to be brief, neither Dawkins nor Dennett display any real knowledge whatsoever of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, or any other brilliant philosopher in between. Like many popular atheist writers in libraries and on the internet, they think that to argue for God as a first cause begins with the premise “Everything has a cause.” Proceed to all of the self congratulatory exclaims of “Well, then who caused God?!?!?!” They also think that arguing for God as first cause is predicated on whether the universe began to exist temporally. Proceed to all of the unnecessary references to the Big Bang, modern physics, etc.

    But who could better illustrate this than the author of this blog? I’ll refer you to a post written some time ago. Ask yourself whether any of the pop atheist writers could answer these questions to anyone’s satisfaction.

  9. December 30, 2010 at 3:05 am

    Interesting discussion. Just a quick comment about the original statement about theists being atheist with respect to Vishnu, etc. Not surprisingly, I agree with James that this is misusing language. Particularly, I think it conflates mutual non-affirmation with mutual identity.

    It should be self-evident that theists can never have the identifier ‘atheist’ applied to them in any honest sense. And it should be equally evident that the identifier ‘atheist’ can only ever be honestly applied to those persons who do not affirm any form of god-belief. There are countless things that all of us do not affirm, but this is no cause to identify as each and every one of them.

    James’ marriage analogy is apt. “We’re all bachelors with respect to people we’re not married to” shows up the statement for the language abusing thing it is. “When you understand why you’re not married to everyone other than your wife, then you’ll understand why I’m not married.”

    • December 30, 2010 at 6:51 am

      Hi, Dale. Great to see you here! Haven’t corresponded with you in a while!

      Consider that atheists may only be called atheists with regard to gods they know about. Atheists cannot affirm that no gods exist, they can only reject claims about a particular god. Atheists are necessarily agnostics in the broadest sense.

      Likewise, theists (with exceptions already discussed) reject gods as well. However theists are not agnostic in the broadest sense since they already affirm belief in at least one god.

      Rejecting gods is what makes one an atheist. It isn’t conflation to use the term “atheist” in a broader sense and also in a narrow sense, as long a we don’t attempt to use them interchangeably. I don’t believe I’ve been using them interchangeably.

  10. Kevin said,

    December 30, 2010 at 9:44 am

    There’s a kind of atheist who starts from the assumption that atheists are smarter than believers. Their role, as they see it, is to lecture, cajole, and slander — certainly not to learn. If they are in fact ignorant of the first principles of the sciences about which they try to argue, they’re not about to take instruction from believers.

    Just look at how much time’s been wasted trying to get simpliciter and secundum quid into the head of this Ditchkinite!

  11. Robert King said,

    December 30, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Just to clarify something.

    It seems to me that most of the comments here assume “atheist” means “no-gods/God-whatsoever,” that is, that it is impossible that any divine being of any sort exist., however, has repeated the phrase “atheist with regard to” some god or other. He even goes so far, in the most recent post, to say:
    Atheists cannot affirm that no gods exist, they can only reject claims about a particular god. Atheists are necessarily agnostics in the broadest sense.

    So it seems to me that the term “atheist” is being used equivocally here.

    In the sense that uses it, I can buy his argument that a Christian is “atheist” with respect to, say, Zeus or Kali. However, his argument does not hold if “atheist” has the sense that most others here use.

    Am I understanding the argument aright? Does this help matters?

    • December 30, 2010 at 10:55 am


      You hit the nail on the head. I use the term “atheist” throughout this discussion in the same relative sense that Dawkins uses it in his statement quoted above, which is the topic of our discussion here. Dawkins also says that he considers himself agnostic toward gods he as yet has not contemplated and atheist toward those that he has contemplated, so I believe Dawkins use of the term in a relative sense is intentional. I don’t think I’ve equivocated the term, but the term may be equivocated in the discussion as a whole.

      To answer your question, it might help but I’m not sure. My impression is that many theists simply have an aversion to the label and will have difficulty considering themselves atheist in any context.

      • Robert King said,

        December 30, 2010 at 3:58 pm

        The problem is that the most commonly used and understood definition of “atheist” is that of “no gods whatsoever,” and it is only in very specified contexts that “atheist regarding Zeus, believing regarding Jesus Christ, and agnostic regarding Belial” makes sense.

        Moreover, by defining “atheist” as requiring a “with regard to” modifier, there is no argument. It’s simply an application of a term, and the only disagreement that could arise comes from a misunderstanding of the terms.

        In other words, I don’t see what good it does to an atheist – of any stripe – to repeat the “argument” that “we are all atheists.” It seems simply to be a cause of confusion, at best, and a deliberate attempt at obfuscation at worst.

      • December 31, 2010 at 5:54 am


        I think you’re right that using the term “atheist” in the relative sense without any warning causes unnecessary confusion since we normally don’t use the term that way. But the quote we’re discussing obviously uses the term in this relative sense. If we discuss the quote, we should expect to discuss the term in the same relative sense, or perhaps argue that the term cannot be used in a relative sense. I think G. Kyle Essary came closest to discussing the term in a relative sense when he said: “I’ve always (at least since I’ve thought about it), considered myself to be a Christian in regards to other deities” – in other words, he doesn’t base his rejection of other gods on any evidence as the quote suggests. The webmaster here (is James Chastek the webmaster?) and Dale Campbell argued against accepting the term in the relative sense.

        There has been some good discussion here, but I agree that argument also arises, as you say, over misunderstanding of the term. I also think argument arises over the refusal to accept the term as relative, even when the difference between a relative usage and an absolute usage is understood. And of course argument arises over the disdain for the term and the reticence to associate a “taboo” term to one’s self.

        The value of the quote is in the context of the conversation in which it was first used. It was Stephen Roberts’ response to a theist who asked him why he rejects evidence for God. It can be an enlightening answer to theists who believe that evidence for their God is abundant and that evidence for other gods is scarce. I think a good answer to a common question (arising from a common misconception) bears repeating.

      • G. Kyle Essary said,

        December 31, 2010 at 6:23 am

        You have a gift of twisting straightforward answers into something else entirely. I was done with this thread, but since you twisted my words to say something exactly opposite of what they actually said, I felt I should respond.

        My comment above illustrates someone using it in an absolute sense, and somehow you see this as relative. I am a Christian in regards to all gods, including the God I worship. You are an atheist in regards to all gods, including the God I worship. I am not an atheist in regards to any gods and you are not a Christian in regards to any. That is the exact opposite of using it in the relative sense that you suggest.

        Furthermore, neither quote says anything about evidence unless you read it into it from an atheist perspective. I don’t believe in the Hindu gods because the Christian god exists. That’s not why you reject the Hindu gods, and once again only simplistic equivocations would assume that our reasons are even remotely the same.

        I think that’s pretty clear from the thread, but needed to restate it in case someone came in halfway and was misled by your statement.

    • Codgitator said,

      January 6, 2011 at 7:35 pm

      Good point. I think we can grant that Christians are a kind of secundum quid atheists, not the least because they were accused of just that under Roman caesaropaganism! But again, secundum quid, not simpliciter. Oops, that bowing out thing…!

      • G. Kyle Essary said,

        January 6, 2011 at 7:45 pm

        I’m not even sure that we can grant that Christians are a kind of secundum quid atheist. For instance, I do not believe in the existence of Thor. But does my rejection of Thor make me an atheist “in regards to” Thor? Not really, because I remain a theist simpliciter, and thus a theist in regards to all gods whether or not they are the God I believe in. It doesn’t seem to me that atheist is a term that can be used in a secundum quid manner.

  12. December 30, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I think the point is not that the statement “you’re a bachelor with regard to everyone you know you’re not married to” is false, but that it’s pointless. As is the ‘if/then’ non sequitur: “if you understand why you’re a bachelor as regards those you know you’re not married to, then you’ll understand why I’m a bachelor as regards everyone I know or don’t know…”

    One’s non-affirmation of the Triune God is quite another thing from one’s non-affirmation of a Flying Spaghetti Monster.
    One’s non-affirmation of the Islamic conception of God is quite another thing from one’s non-affirmation of Zeus.
    Stalin’s condemnation of Lenin is quite another thing from someone’s condemnation of communism.
    One’s non-marriage to any number of people is quite another thing from another person’s non-marriage to anyone.

    • December 31, 2010 at 6:18 am


      I agree that there are terms that cannot be used in a relative sense. One can’t be a vegan with respect to beef but a carnivore with respect to pork (reminds me of a quote by Jim Gaffigan: “I’m not a strict vegetarian. I do eat beef and pork. And chicken. But not fish ’cause that’s disgusting!”). We only use the term vegan to mean no animal products of any kind. There are other terms, however, like “knowledgeable” that we usually use in the relative sense. Knowledgeable about what? And there are still other terms, like “wealthy” or “winner” that we can only use in a relative sense. “Wealthy” or “winner” have no meaning outside of a comparison to others. We can’t say that the term “atheist” is never a relative terms because “bachelor” is never a relative term any more than we can say the “knowledgeable” is never a relative term because “bachelor” is never a relative term.

      The form of the argument doesn’t to apply to “bachelor” because unlike “atheist”, we always use bachelor in an absolute sense. While we can talk about “a theist” as either “a rejection of God” or “a rejection of god” (which god?), we can’t talk the way about “bachelorhood”. There’s nothing about the term (either its etymology or traditional usage for example) that would permit us to use it this way without some explicit redefinition of the term.

      Non-affirmation (or rejection) of the Trinity or of Zeus is not identical because what we are asked to believe in each instance is not identical. However, there is an important similarity that this quote addresses – that in both cases, we affirm or reject claims of deity based on a presence or absence evidence, or based on emotional attachment, or we dismiss the claims out of hand.

      • January 3, 2011 at 5:05 pm

        I’d say that ‘atheist’ is a categorical and general term – it’s more like ‘vegan’ then ‘wealthy’. I think this is spelled out well (and with uber patience) by Codgitator below.

      • G. Kyle Essary said,

        January 3, 2011 at 7:59 pm

        Right. Regardless of my stance concerning Thor, Shiva, etc. I’m still categorically a theist. I’m not an “atheist in regards to,” since the term is too general to be used in that way. I may be an aThorist, but not an atheist, because I’m still a theist despite my denial of the specific god being discussed.

        It seems silly to say, “I’m a theist in regards to the Christian God,” because I’m a theist apart from specifying the God I worship.

  13. Codgitator said,

    December 31, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    I wonder how the solipsism vs. realism debate would figure into this.

    “I contend that we are both solipsists. I just believe in one fewer ‘world’ than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible worlds, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    There’s no way to get ‘behind’ thoroughgoing solipsism. You either embrace it or reject it. Likewise, I think there is no getting ‘behind’ the kind of logic at work in the opening atheist argument of this post. There seems to be a quantum shift from the positivist evidentialism on which the opening atheist argument here rests to even a chastened evidentialism. Non-atheists mutually debate the coherence and plausibility of their various worldviews but they all agree on at least a rejection of materialism and the viability of metaphysics.

    • January 1, 2011 at 6:48 am


      Ha! Interesting idea!

      A solipsist can’t say “we”. In any case, a solipsist doesn’t believe in one fewer world than another solipsist. Each believes in different worlds but each believes in (affirms) exactly one world. If a solipsist could conceive of an “other”, then one solipsist presumably understands why the “other” is a solipsist.

      I’m not sure that theists or atheists differ categorically by any wholesale acceptance or rejection of the metaphysical or the material. Both for example accept the existence of “roundness” and “numbers” and “purpose”. I’m also not sure that metaphysics and materialism are completely incompatible. Materialists would say that universals such as “roundness” are not objects since objects occupy space and time; metaphysicist would agree that universals are not material objects. Materialism isn’t necessarily reductionist. Metaphysicists would say that universals rely on the material as a substrate for their existence; materialists would agree.

      I don’t notice any shift in evidentialism in the discussion. No one who has posted here has advocated for fideism, at least as far as I can tell. Even G. Kyle Essary, who maintains that his rejection of other gods is not based in evidence but rather based in his affirmation of the Christian God, is rejecting other gods based on evidence. In this case, his “evidence” is the existence of the Christian God with which the existence of other gods is incompatible.

  14. Codgitator said,

    January 2, 2011 at 6:52 am

    The point I want to make is that the reason Christians reject other gods is not because they deny there is any evidence for “that kind of being”, but rather that the evidence in each specific rival case doesn’t match up with the evidence for the Christian worldview. The opening atheist argument, by contrast, implies there is a categorical lack of evidence for the very kind of being proposed by theists and polytheists. In this sense, it might be more correct to say the atheist is a kind of theist (not the least for etymological reasons), since the atheist, presumably, rejects each and every specific case for a specific god. If he were to assume from the outset that it’s not even coherent to speak of evidence for “a god,” he would be begging the question with old-school positivism, and, more to the point, differing from the theist’s rejection of specific non-theist deities. The upshot is that, at the end of his analysis, the atheist claims there really is no evidence for any such kind of being (deity), and therefore resigns himself to a retroactive positivism: all previously claims about gods which he thought were worth examining turn out, in the light of his atheism, to have been meaningless––categorically vacuous––from the get-go. And it is this positivism––whether antecedent or retroactive–– which distinguishes the atheist from the theist. The former says no being matches up to a certain ontological category, while the latter says only one does.

    The categorical atheist is, thus, much like a solipsist, since a solipsist cannot believe in something called “a world”––the category of “everything else outside his own experience” is categorically vacuous. His metaphysical position prevents him even fomr assessing evidence against it, since there can’t be evidence for what is categorically meaningless. (As an aside, it is not obvious that theists would deny the reality of different religions’ gods, only that theists deny those “powers” or “beings” deserve the name “God”. Many Christians grant the existence of non-Christian gods, but see them as demons.)

    To this I would like to add another reason it’s more correct to reverse the opening argument (i.e. atheists are kinds of theists) is this: naturalists say that all the things theists have been trying to articulate with talk of gods/God actually resolves into confused, pre-scientific claims about the universe. In other words, the “gospel” of naturalism is that everything theists wanted God to be with respect to the universe, is actually true of the universe with respect to humans. The universe is a) eternal, b) necessary, c) absolute, d) immutable, e) beautiful (in a transcendent way), f) known apophatically (i.e. by the progressive but never-ending “march of science”), and g) ordered to its own ends, ends which order all other things. I suppose other attirbutes could be added, even something about the moral superority of the universe, in so far as its absolute “thereness” just is what grounds “good” and “evil”. The upshot is that naturalists have taken up the mantle of theism by giving an absolute explanation of the source of all and thus situaing human existence in a larger narrative. The opening argument claims the opposite and is false (for confusing the orders of intent and for the logical confusion Mr Chastek pointed out to begin with).


    • January 5, 2011 at 6:21 am


      The opening atheist argument doesn’t claim that atheists or theists reject “that kind of god-like being”. It claims explicitly that both theists and atheists reject gods, the same gods for the most part. The implication is that the rejection by both the atheist and the theist is based on 1) lack of evidence for each rejected god and 2) a recognition that we should reject or accept claims of god based on evidence. Generally speaking, the atheist position is not that there is a categorical lack of evidence for god-like beings, it is that there is no [compelling] evidence for the gods that theists claim exist. Conclusions about the existence of “that kind of being” is a generalization which is based in the rejection or acceptance of those gods. The reverse is not true. The rejection of “that kind of being” is not the reason for dismissing claims for specific gods.

      You seem to agree with the opening argument when you first suggest here that an atheist is a type of theist. Here you say that ‘atheists don’t reject “that kind of being” but instead they reject each god’. By extension, you support the understanding of the opening atheist argument being about the rejection of each god. So I’m having a little trouble understanding your objections.

      The number of gods that Christians accept or reject is beside the point, though we would have to modify the opening argument slightly to say “I just believe in fewer gods” rather than “I just believe in one fewer god” if we wish it to be more all encompassing.

      Naturalists can’t say that the universe is a surrogate for a theistic God (are we still talking about a theistic God in this context or do we now mean something else?). The universe offers no grand purpose for our lives and it doesn’t grant wishes. Atheists might be a type of theist based on some set of criteria, but not based on the criteria that you present here. That said, if you do think of a basis for categorizing atheists as a type of theist, it won’t refute the opening argument which categorizes theists as a type of atheist. For example, a square container, “S”, contains only US coins; and a rectangular container, “R”, contains coins from all countries. “S” is a kind of “R” because a square is a kind of rectangle. “R” is a kind of “S” because “R” is a container of coins from the US. The two taxonomies are not mutually exclusive.

      • Robert King said,

        January 6, 2011 at 2:20 pm

        Your example of boxes R & S doesn’t seem to fit the argument at hand. “Atheist” and “theist” are, by common definition, mutually exclusive categories. It is only by redefining “atheist” that you are able to say one is a kind of the other.

        You might say that both “atheist” and “theist” are species of belief systems. But they are, by their ordinary definitions, contradictory species; just as both dogs and cats are kinds of mammals, but a dog is not a kind of cat, nor vice versa.

        Since you admit (by including the word “compelling” in brackets) that there is evidence for the existence and activity of a divine being or beings, the difference seems to be that atheists require the evidence to be compelling whereas theists merely require the evidence to be convincing. In other words, atheists and theists have a different standard by which they judge the existence or non-existence of a divine being or beings. Therefore, it seems that they do not exclude gods on the same basis, and therefore the argument “A theist is a kind of atheist” fails also on this ground.

  15. Codgitator said,

    January 5, 2011 at 8:31 pm


    Let me run a few claims by you.

    1) “I don’t believe in money but I’m still a kind of banker.”

    2) “A solipsist is just a kind of Lewisian realist.”

    3) “A theist is just a kind of polytheist.”

    Anything seem funny to you about the logic in these statements?

    What I “grant” to the argument is that, historically, etymologically, and logically, atheism is a derivative of theism, not vice versa. Theists reject polytheism because what “God” means in theism, excludes the existence of “Gods.” Atheists reject belief in all gods based on dissatisfaction with the evidential claims for them. Theists stop short of that wholesale rejection and therefore stop short of atheism. You might as well say that Greek paganism was a kind of atheism relative to Hinduism, since the Greek pagans reject Hindu gods. The best reconstruction I think you can make of this argument is that “Theists and atheists are both kinds of evidentialists.” Big deal.

    • Robert King said,

      January 6, 2011 at 2:11 pm

      I presume, by “Theists,” you mean monotheists. Otherwise, you are making a similar equivocation as AAA posits: the ordinary meaning of “theist” is one who believes in some kind of god or gods, and a monotheist is a specific kind of theist. To say a “theist” rejects pagan gods implies an ad hoc definition of “theist.”

      Also, on a complete tangent, the Greek pagans, at least in some periods of their history, were promiscuous syncretists: they added other nations’ gods to their pantheon, and believed that most foreign gods were simply their own gods by other names.

      • Codgitator said,

        January 6, 2011 at 7:29 pm

        I don’t know about the “ordinary” meaning of theist, but the vast majority of usage in these discussions I have read over the years deploys theist as monotheist. This is exactly the confusion at play here: just because “-theist” is in “atheist” verbally doesn’t mean theism is in atheism logically, nor just because “poly-” is not in “theist” verbally does it mean that theism is an atheism. Sapientis enim est non curare nominbus.

        Incidentally, there are not a few naturalists these days who would grant the existence of “god-like” beings as compatible with an otherwise complete atheism. Are they therefore syncretist polytheists? This thread is verging on absurdity due to tortuous attempts being made to prop up a merely rhetorical piece of atheist evangelicalism. I must bow out and let greater minds continue bickering.

      • Codgitator said,

        January 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm

        BTW, Robert, your webpage is cool.

  16. Codgitator said,

    January 6, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    A square is a kind of triangle.

  17. Chris said,

    June 20, 2014 at 3:20 am

    The theist-is-a-kind-of-atheist argument really gets on my nerves. It’s like atheists don’t even understand what the word atheism even mean. Atheism is an outright rejection of the possibility of a god, in answer to the question of whether God exists. That’s very different to rejecting a specific god, which is a question that relates to the nature of God, not of His existence

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