It is interesting to note that modern atheists of the internet-infidel variety share much with Pagan counterparts in the first few centuries after Christ. “How can this be?” one might ask. Well, the charge of atheism against Christians is shared both by the common internet-infidel comment that “We’re all atheists, I [the atheist] just take it one god further” and Pagans in the Roman Empire. Oddly, some atheists have gone so far as to suggest that the Pagan accusation is somehow evidence for their position.
The early Christians, it is true, were accused of being atheists. However, to suggest that this is somehow synonymous with contemporary usage of the term “atheist” is ahistorical and anachronistic. Frances Young notes several facets of the charge of atheism leveled against Christians:
What the charge [of atheism leveled against Christians] really amounted to was an expression of dismay and distaste over the fact that people were abandoning conventional ritual practices… The charge of atheism against Christians focused on their refusal after conversion to continue to participate in traditional religious customs… Religion, embedded in the ethnic cultures, was a matter not of belief but of loyalty. (99, 101, cited below)
The charge against Christians, then, was that they were abandoning the ways of the Romans. They were outsiders, outcasts, and, by extension, atheists. By refusing to worship the gods of Rome, they became targets. The fact that the Christians did this conscientiously–they intentionally abandoned the gods–led to the charge of atheism. It was a charge related not to belief in deity, but rather to rejection of shared societal practice, with a culturally charged impetus for making it.
In fact, others who yet believed in the gods were also charged with atheism. The Epicureans were accused of atheism, despite believing that the gods existed:
It is significant that these ‘atheists’ [Epicureans] did not question the existence of the gods. Rather, they liberated people from religion by suggesting that the blessed immortals were not the slightest bit interested in what goes on among human beings… (ibid, 100)
Thus, when modern atheists continue to perpetuate the claim that “we’re all atheists,” and then move on to argue that Christians should agree with them because, after all, Christians were considered ‘atheists’ by the Romans, it is difficult to take them seriously. The Pagan charge was made for cultural reasons, and is tied up in the notion of rejection of the societal norms of the time. It was also made even against those who acknowledged those gods existence. This last point is very important, because one attempted rebuttal I have seen from the modern atheist is that “You are an atheist to other religions.” Well, according to ancient Pagans, you could even be an atheist to your own religion! Of course, the point is that Christians are not atheists, but theists.
The word “atheism” was used back then as a damning charge of societal blasphemy–rejecting the ethnic practices of your own society in pursuit of another’s. Now, modern atheists attempt to forcibly include others in atheism with this kind of pithy phrase. The historical charge is interesting, but clearly entirely different from the modern one. Either charge, however, is inaccurate. Christians, by definition, are not atheists–theists cannot be atheists. The ancient cultural charge is of interest for its historical implications, but it is hardly evidence for the modern use of the charge of atheism against Christians.
I suspect that this post won’t silence many who will continue to persist in saying Christians are atheists. At that point, I suggest to others the following: the people who persist in this mislabeling should be written off as being just as irrelevant as the ancient Pagans with whom they share at least this part of their worldview.
On the statement that “We are all atheists”– I evaluate the claim that atheists make which say that “we are all atheists.” I evaluate it from a philosophical point of view here.
On the Shoulders of Giants: Rediscovering the lost defenses of Christianity– I have written on how we may discover these enormous resources historical apologists have left behind for us. Take and read!
Frances Young, “Greek Apologists of the Second Century” in Mark Edwards, Martin Goodman, and Simon Price, eds., Apologetics in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford, 1999).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
There are so many fantastic posts out there it has been hard for me to keep up. I actually have another RRP scheduled with all the backlogged posts I’ve run into. Let me know which posts you’ve enjoyed. I feature here a diverse spread of posts. The necessity of apologetics, atheism, the Gospel of Barnabas (!?), young earth creationism, and resisting sin are all featured. Check ’em!
Sarah Geis provides pointers for constructive debate and disagreement– A creative look at how to debate constructively by showing how not to do so.
Why Apologetics Should Be A Requirement For Every Pastor– Fellow Christians, I hope this post convicts you like it convicted me. We need to be doing apologetics. We owe it to our youths, we owe it to the adults in our congregations, and we owe it to ourselves.
Born Atheists?– Yes, you have heard it somewhere. We’re all born atheists. Really? What is that even supposed to mean? I found this post really excellent and it got me thinking. Check it out.
What is the Gospel of Barnabas?– Some Muslims have been claiming that the so-called Gospel of Barnabas falsifies the Christian doctrine of the Son of God. It is not, however, a serious threat. Check out this post to get some great historical information on this attempt to refute Christianity.
Atheism, Agnosticism, and the New Atheists– It never gets old. What does “atheist” mean? Don’t atheists just believe in one fewer god than believers? I’ve written about this topic myself. Check out this great post on the subject.
A Young Earth Chronometer?– One of my favorite websites has recently taken an intense three-part look at the claim that the amount of salt in the ocean is evidence for a young earth. I highly, heartily recommend the site itself to all my readers, Naturalis Historia.
How to Start a Preemptive Strike on a Sinful Inclination– Another one of my favorite and highly recommended sites, No Apologies Allowed, posted this thought-provoking comic about resisting sin.
The phrase initially has some kind of shock value, and then it gets you thinking. As a Christian, it may have you thinking, “Wow, I never thought of it that way… maybe there is something to this ‘atheism’ thing.” As an atheist, it may have you saying “Yeah, you Christians are just as rational/skeptical as we atheists about other religions, why not just apply that same logic to your own?”
I’ve addressed this statement/argument/quip/whathaveyou before: here. Yet I keep seeing it pop up in everyday conversation and even from people like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in his debate with William Lane Craig.
There’s a problem though, in fact, there’s more than one problem:
1) The statement is false
2) The statement is irrational
3) The statement–as with many false or irrational statements–proves too much (or too little).
Let’s examine to each of these in turn.
The Statement is False
The idea that Christians are atheists to all other religions is simply false. As I’ve explained elsewhere, to other religions, I am not an atheist, I am a rival theist–an adherent of another religion. I’m not an atheist to a Hindu, I am a theist of a different tradition. To the Muslim, I’m not an atheist–I’m a rival theistic believer. So, simply put, the statement is false.
Atheism, by definition, is the belief that there is no God. Therefore, because I believe in a God, I am not an atheist, by definition. William Lane Craig addresses this statement here. The person who brought up the question curiously counters Craig by saying “That’s semantics.” Funny, considering that’s what the atheists are doing: making up semantic word games. Redefine terms to win a debate: atheism at any cost.
The Statement Is Irrational
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the statement is simply irrational. The atheist is literally saying that the theist is an atheist:
necessarily, for any human b, b is either theist (T) or ~T. But Christians are T, therefore they are necessarily ~~T. In English, it is true that any human being is either an atheist or a theist. Christians are theists, therefore, they are necessarily not atheists. (here)
But then what the atheist is saying is that the b who is T = ~T in regards to T`, T“, etc. This is simply false, however, because the b who is T is necessarily ~~T. So the atheist is claiming that a contradiction is true.
The Statement Proves Too Much
Consider the following statement:
there are a theoretically infinite number of possible answers to the equation “Two plus two,” but only one actually true answer. To say that “Two plus two equals four” is to automatically make me an unbeliever in all the other possible answers. It’s not rational, however, for the atheist to say, “Well I just go one step further and choose to disbelieve that four is the answer either.” (Dean Todd)
The same type of argument could be made for any true statement. Therefore, the type of reasoning employed in the “we’re all atheists” statement would undermine all true belief.
But it’s just a quip
In regards to my previous post on this statement, several respondents said variations of “You’re taking it too seriously, it’s just a phrase meant to inspire discussion” or “It’s just a quip”. As one respondent put it:
The original formulation didn’t use the word “atheist.” It simply said, “You disbelieve in all the gods of all the religions other than your own. Well, we godless folks only disbelieve in one more than you do. We disbelieve in them all.” Stated this way, your hair splitting over the poetic use of “atheist” becomes irrelevant and the central point stands
But it can be seen that this falls victim to the same difficulties already pointed out above. For it could be said that “You disbelieve in all the possible answers to the statement 2+2=? except one , I just disbelieve in them all.” It’s simply positively irrational to even use it as a talking point. That, or it’s trivially true and therefore pointless.
Finally, consider the reasoning behind the statement that “it’s just a quip.” Does using a phrase as a mere expression excuse it from being contradictory or false? Suppose I were to go around saying “atheists are theists too, they just don’t know it!” After all, in the Bible it says God’s existence is plain and can be easily discerned (Romans 1:18-20). So it follows that atheists are theists! Obviously, if I were to use this as a “quip” or “expression” it would be seen as an insult or a jab. Not only that, but it would be seen as obviously false “I’m not a theist,” the atheist would respond. “But it’s just a quip!” I could reply. That doesn’t excuse it from being utterly false. Or again, many Hindus claim that all people are really Hindus, they just don’t know it. After all, Brahma is all, so anyone is really Brahma and part of Hinduism, whether they know it or not. But this is clearly false. I am not a Hindu. I think the concept of Brahman is self-referentially incoherent. To assign a label to me that is false is not to make a quip, but an insult; to assign a label that is incoherent is irrational.
I present a dilemma:
Those who assert the “We are all atheists” phrase are either:
1) Making an argument for atheism from the phrase, which is irrational and contradictory
2) Being disingenuous and actively making ad hominem jabs at theists (and therefore being irrational)
To maintain the use of this phrase is to live in a world of either irrationality or insult: either way, it is to disrespect ourselves and our fellows.
The Underlying Reasons For Making the Statement
In discussing this statement with atheists, I’ve found that often it is seen as a simple attempt to try to point out to Christians their “inconsistency.” The reasoning is that Christians use their cognitive abilities when rejecting other faiths, but they apparently don’t in regards to their own. Following from this, it is argued that if Christians were to just be as skeptical about their own faith as they were about others’, they’d be atheists too (or at least understand atheism).
There are problems with this reasoning. The first is that it begs the question against Christianity by assuming that there are no good reasons to be a theist (i.e. if you examined Christianity, you’d reject it too). There have been many who have examined Christianity and found it to be epistemologically robust; so the reasoning of the atheist is question begging. But it also assumes that atheism is a kind of epistemic neutral ground (something I examined here): if one is an atheist, he/she can examine all worldviews without bias. Again, the problem is that this is false. Atheism is grounded upon the idea that “there is no God.” As such, that doesn’t make in unbiased–rather, it makes it biased against the existence of a God(s). So to assume that atheism is an unbiased viewpoint through which all religions should be viewed is to once more beg the question.
Therefore, it appears as though we are once more left wanting any good reason to use the phrase. The statement that “we are all atheists” is false, irrational, insulting, and epistemically question begging.
Edward Feser has a phenomenal discussion of this same topic in his post: “The ‘one god further’ objection”
Dissecting the ‘One Less God’ Meme– Prayson Daniel takes on a meme based on this argument which has been recently circling the web.
William Lane Craig discusses the definition of atheism in writing. Interestingly, Anthony Flew, the renowned atheistic philosopher (who turned deist late in life) admits that atheists have twisted the meaning of atheism so as to weaken it and allow for agnostics to enter the fold of atheism (and therefore they don’t have to argue for the position that “there is no God”). Craig quotes him herein.
Craig also discusses it in another video here.
Another interesting post on this topic.
The featured picture is a poster featuring Soviet Anti-Religion Propaganda.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.