This morning a friend said she had recently heard an atheist make the “I am atheistic about just one more god than you are” argument. Ricky Gervais makes the argument this way:
So next time someone tells me they believe in God, I’ll say “Oh which one? Zeus? Hades? Jupiter? Mars? Odin? Thor? Krishna? Vishnu? Ra?…” If they say “Just God. I only believe in the one God,” I’ll point out that they are nearly as atheistic as me. I don’t believe in 2,870 gods, and they don’t believe in 2,869.
Like many things the new atheists say, the argument has a kind of first blush plausibility but does not hold up on even a moment’s reflection. As David Bentley Hart explains in The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Gervais has made a glaring category error by lumping the God of the three great monotheistic faiths in with other “gods”:
according to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality – of absolutely everything that is – from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.
Properly understood, the God of the monotheistic faiths is not like the gods in the Greek, Norse or Indian pantheons – contingent creatures all. He is pure being that is the source of all being. He is the necessary being, and by definition there can be only one necessary being. The necessary being cannot be compared to contingent beings. To lump the God of the monotheistic faiths in with Odin demonstrates that you understand neither God nor Odin.
Think of it this way. Gervais says in essense: “There are a bunch of oranges, and I disbelieve in all of the oranges without exception. You are little different from me because you admit that you also disbelieve in all of the oranges, except for that last little orange that you irrationally insist on clinging to.” No, Ricky, just like you I disbelieve in all of the oranges without exception. But I do believe in an apple. Why should I stop believing in an apple just because I don’t believe in oranges?