Saturday, July 28, 2012

On Dismissing "All the Other Possible Gods"

Linda and I, in Columbus
Call this Statement F: "I contend 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." --Stephen F. Roberts

In all my years of teaching philosophy of religion, and reading multitudinous numbers of theists, atheists, and agnostics, I never encountered Statement F. And for good reason, I think. It's just an internet sensation, fit for village atheists such as Nietzsche decried. It has no relevance for the philosophical discussion.

"Theism," in the philosophical discussion, is defined as: belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, omnibenevolent, necessarily existent, creator of all that is, personal agent. "A-theism" is: the denial of the existence of the God of theism.This issue, therefore, is: Does an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, necessarily existent, personal agent who has created all things exist? "Zeus" (et. al.) doesn't fit here. No philosophical theist or atheist I know of is interested in the question "Does Zeus exist?" So, intrinsically, Statement F commits something like a Ryleian category mistake. It would be like someone who chooses to play chess using the rules of checkers. Philosophical theism, from Plato onward, has not played by the language-game of Greek mythology.

See, for example, "Atheism" in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

"‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God. I shall here assume that the God in question is that of a sophisticated monotheism. The tribal gods of the early inhabitants of Palestine are of little or no philosophical interest. They were essentially finite beings, and the god of one tribe or collection of tribes was regarded as good in that it enabled victory in war against tribes with less powerful gods. Similarly the Greek and Roman gods were more like mythical heroes and heroines than like the omnipotent, omniscient and good God postulated in mediaeval and modern philosophy. As the Romans used the word, ‘atheist’ could be used to refer to theists of another religion, notably the Christians, and so merely to signify disbelief in their own mythical heroes."

Statement F is part confessional, part propositional. The propositional part is patently false; viz., "We are both atheists." No. I am not an atheist. That's false, unhelpful, and coercive. It's dramatic, theatrical, and untrue.

The class of academic philosophers who debate the matter of theism don't bring up Statement F. Internet atheists do. There's a vast epistemic gap between these two groups.