Posted on Jul 12, 2008
“You’re really just about as atheistic as I am,” says the debater to the Christian. “The non-Christian religions believe in maybe fourteen million different gods. You’re atheistic about all those fourteen million. I’m atheistic about fourteen million and one. What’s the big deal difference?”
The question has a certain zing to it. What indeed is the big deal difference? Think of it in percentage terms–what’s one in fourteen million? I call it the Arithmetical Atheism Argument. (If it has another name I’m not aware of it.) I’ve heard this question from at least from at least half a dozen sources, including Dr. Bill Cooke in the Craig-Cooke debate. As I recall, the crowd laughed when he asked it. It’s the kind of cute question that makes people chuckle. Phrased the way it is, it’s rather an interesting puzzler.
Phrased the way it is, that is. It reminds me of another question with a similar zing to it, one that bothered me a bit when I first heard it: “Why does a mirror reverse left-and-right but not up-and-down?” That’s kind of a tough one, you know. How does it know the difference?
The answer to the question is that it’s the wrong question. It misdirects you entirely. My son is an amateur magician, and from him I’ve learned the importance of misdirection in magic tricks: get the audience’s eyes off of what’s really going on, and you can fool them every time.
The mirror question is worded to get your mind off of what’s really going on. Why does a mirror reverse things one way and not another? Well, it doesn’t reverse either way. It doesn’t reverse anything at all! It reflects what it’s shown. Take a book to the mirror, and you’ll undoubtedly see the letters appearing reversed left-and-right; but that’s just because of the way we usually hold books. You could have turned it toward the mirror by flipping it top to bottom instead. Then the letters would be in their perfectly normal left-to-right order, but they would be reversed up-and-down instead.
The atheist’s question here does a similar thing: it misdirects the argument, in two ways. First, there is the misdirection employed in the word “atheistic.” The question tries to get you to nodding your head, agreeing that you’re an atheist about fourteen million different gods. Don’t fall for it; don’t nod your head. If you’re a Christian you are not atheistic about any gods, because you are not atheistic at all. Atheism is not, “I don’t agree with this or that particular idea of God.” It is, “I believe there is no God.” If you accept the premise that your questioner and you are both atheists, only in different degrees, you’re falling for the misdirection: you’re failing to see what’s really going on.
Second, it misdirects through trying to make the question about arithmetic. What, indeed, is the big deal difference in the ratio of one to fourteen million? Well, it’s not a matter of quantity in the first place. Theists view the universe in one way, and atheists another. Theists view it as an intentionally caused creation, the product of a personal mind, having a purpose and goal, an intended reason for existing, and much more of the sort. Atheists accept none of that. This is not a matter of number; it is an absolute difference in what we take to be the essence or quality of what exists.
Here’s a rule of reasoning that applies to the mirror question, the arithmetical argument, and many other similar puzzles, I’m sure, like the famous algebraic proof that 1=2. Count on it: the cuter an argument is, the more likely it is there’s a trick in it, a misdirection. Take a good look at the question: is there something in there leading your mind away from what’s really going on?
The Arithmetical Atheism Argument is a prime example of misdirection.