The Hooked on Phonics Approach to Deities

fullContinuing on with the ways in which New Atheists misinterpret theism, we get to the argument from other religions. This is a popular meme within the group, and I think it touches on one of their most fundamental mistakes.

So, the topic for today:

If you think “God” and “god” mean the same thing, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

Simply because the words sound alike, are spelled (nearly) alike, and we could draw a few dubious parallels, does not make them the same. The idea that it does usually takes the form of “we’re both atheists with respect to every other god…” or “but, even if that showed that God exists, which god would it be?”.

Or, it simply comes in the form of someone repeatedly failing to capitalize the term “God” in writing. I suppose this is meant to squeeze in another insult to traditional theists, but it really only shows off one’s lack of understanding. And poor grammar doesn’t make for a good argument.

All this is to say that, asked by someone who’s genuinely interested in which particular religion might be true, the question of gods can be an important matter. As a reason to be an atheist, it’s completely worthless.

The only reason it isn’t instantly recognized as worthless is because there are many who simply don’t understand that gods are completely irrelevant to the arguments monotheists actually give for belief in God. Presumably, these same people understand that different proposed scientific theories, political philosophies, and ethical systems can be different–and that we can’t simply dismiss them all because most ideas will turn out to be false, but this same knowledge doesn’t seem to extend to deities.

Of course, I’m aware that it is often demanded that “there is as much evidence” for all gods. But, I’ve been over the “no evidence” argument. If there’s any point in bringing up ancient gods at all–that is, if it is supposed to be a legitimate point, and not just an emotional/rhetorical debate trick–it is to suggest that the reasons for rejecting God would be the same as the reasons to reject Thor or Apollo.

As such, it seems that anyone making this argument simply does not understand why the same reasons don’t apply.

The God of monotheism is transcendent–the ultimate explanation of all things. The gods of ancient temple religions were proposed physical entities, seen as immediate causes of physical events (and so overturned by science in a way that monotheism simply is not); God is an explanation as to why there are any physical events in the first place. The gods are (poor) explanations of the patterns in nature; God is an explanation as to why nature has patterns at all. The gods  (purportedly) exist within the universe, and depend on it for existence; but the universe exists in God, and depends on him for its existence. The gods are subject to moral judgement; God is the paradigm of the good.

And so on it goes. Anyone who can’t see why arguments for God don’t defend the gods, and that arguments against the gods don’t refute God, simply doesn’t understand the basic terms of the conversation.

Nor does it do to simply respond by claiming that these ancient deities aren’t actually scientific either–that they are invisible or otherwise beyond scientific test, as if this somehow defended the point that all deities are the same.

Many have given me exactly this response, and it is easy to answer. If one is simply going to change, step by step, what is meant by the word “Zeus” until it perfectly matches a monotheist view, then one has abandoned everything about Zeus that discredited the idea in the first place. One could, I suppose, alter the meaning of “Zeus” until it is exactly like gravitational theory, but this wouldn’t discredit gravity.

Likewise, this doesn’t discredit monotheism.

What it does instead is drill home how different monotheism actually is from the religions it displaced. The difference between magic and spirit is hard to overstate. Magic is failed science; spirit is another topic altogether.

Of course, I’ve encountered those who, hearing this, insist that I’m simply altering the definition of the monotheist God. And there are two very obvious answers to this:

First is the fact that it simply isn’t true; anyone making this retort is simply unaware of the history of theology.

Second is the fact that it doesn’t, in the end, matter. Even if this were some completely new understanding of God, all this response would be is an admission that I’ve hit upon an idea of God that, while remaining an explanation for everything I’ve said (here and elsewhere) that God explains, is immune to the objections of the New Atheists.

Of course, I can’t claim to be anywhere near that clever. I’m really just presenting the traditional view of God, and pointing out what geniuses of the past have said. But the point is that the “you’re changing definitions” retort is a tacit concession, not a rebuttal.

In the end, one can believe or disbelieve in transcendence. But, if one is going to be rational, one must avoid the sloppy, fallacious thinking that the existence of a monotheist God can be tested in the same way that Poseidon would be.

14 responses to “The Hooked on Phonics Approach to Deities

  • Howie

    I often use gods and also God in writing because I do want people to see things a bit more broadly than what you have written here. There are cultures who do believe in polytheistic gods which are “the explanation of all things” and “outside of the physical”. I think what you have written here may be a bit narrowing of the possibility space.

    • Debilis

      I don’t know of any polytheistic religion that would claim this. Of course, this concept could exist for a polytheist–but it would exist in addition to the gods, not as one of them (and certainly not as all of them; that would be a contradiction).

      If a polytheist cares to argue, I’d be happy to hear her out. But, so far, they’ve agreed with me on this point.

  • violetwisp

    I find it clarifies the situation to talk about the Christian god, God, although I’m probably not as consistent as I should be. You must admit it is rather confusing to give an entity a name that is also the label of the collective group it belongs to. Of course, it does seem kind of limiting to stick to discussing the situation in English – it would be of interest to understand how the distinction is made is other languages around the world, especially in traditionally non-Christian cultures.

    • Debilis

      That would be very interesting.

      I got a glimpse of that in Asia–some interesting differences, actually.

      The only other thing I could say is that these distinctions don’t originate with English speakers. Most of what I’m saying is pulled from Aquinas.

      But I do agree that using the same word to refer to a deity or a group is problematic. I’ve often wished this wasn’t so. I think it creates a false sense of mastery, where we feel like we understand the God because we’re familiar with the group.

      You’ve reminded me of something I heard in Asia, though. I’ll have to look that up later tonight.

      Best to you until then.

  • Arkenaten

    If you insist on a capital letter, then use your god’s name,Yahweh.
    Otherwise he is merely a god.

    • Debilis

      I don’t insist on capitalization. I make far too many typos to correct the grammar of others.

      But I do insist that those who presume to debunk my view of God (particularly those who have repeatedly asked that I “name my God” or otherwise explain what I mean) should understand the difference between the two concepts.

      Until you see the difference, then it doesn’t matter how you spell it–you’ll never be able to understand what others are actually saying.

      • Arkenaten

        You really are becoming so tiresome….

        • Debilis

          You’re free to leave any time you’d like.

          If you stay, however, address the topic. You’ve spent quite a bit of time and energy demanding that I tell you exactly what God I believe in. And, now that I’m spelling it out, you’re suddenly bored.

          I’ll not play armchair psychologist with guesses as to why this is. But, really, if you can’t understand or address this concept of God, then you can’t claim to have a good reason to be an atheist.

        • Arkenaten

          Sorry, I must have missed the comment where you ”spelled out”, your god. I certainly did not see the letters J-E-S-U-S, and until I see these, well, you’re merely blowing smoke, my friend.

          So…you were saying?

        • Debilis

          Read over what I’ve written above. That will get you a lot closer than catchwords.

          That is, don’t skim it looking for a particular word that you can pull out to mock–try to see if you can understand what is being said, and respond to that idea.

          Really, if I’ve presented a view of theism that you can’t answer, that means that you have no good reason to be an atheist–and good reason to be a theist.

          To respond to that by complaining that I’ve not mentioned Jesus is to prove my suspicion: that you weren’t actually looking for an answer.

          But to mock an idea without any intention of learning about it is simply a form of dogmatism.

        • Arkenaten

          Nope. You tell me you worship Jesus and that you believe he is the Creator of th Creator of the Universe or all bet are off.
          That is the bottom line.
          Let me see in writing….

        • Debilis

          Let’s say the bet is off, then.

          If you’d like to understand what I believe, read the blog. If not, I’m not interested in discussing what I believe with someone who isn’t interested.

          Best to you, if you go.

  • jasontrivium

    Absolutely great post, I really enjoyed the distinction you pointed out between the differing concepts of God.

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