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Jan 15 2013

The greatest common denominator

Thought for the day:

  • Christians think Muslims and Jews and Hindus are wrong about God(s).
  • Muslims think Christians and Jews and Hindus are wrong about God(s).
  • Jews think Christians and Muslims and Hindus are wrong about God(s).
  • Hindus think Christians and Jews and Muslims are wrong about God(s).

And we agree with all of the above.

One of the distinctive traits of religion is that no matter which God or gods you think of as real, most people throughout the world and throughout history have come to the conclusion that you are wrong about Him/Her/It/Them in some fundamental and significant way. While atheists may be a minority as counted by census takers, it is nevertheless true that whenever we criticize any believer’s particular theology, we are taking a majority position. The one thing most people agree on is that any particular belief in God is wrong.

Now consider the things that atheists believe are real. Matter. Energy. Gravity. Planets. People. Computers. All things that virtually everyone else agrees are real too. Once again, the atheist position is the majority position. Religious people may want to adopt superstitious explanations for why these physical things are real, like creationism or intelligent design, but once again you get into Muslim creationists believing that Christian creationists are wrong about the Creator, and so on. Any divine Creator you choose to believe in is a Creator about whom most other people think you are wrong.

Only fads and false beliefs have this characteristics. The reason believers agree with atheists about things that are real is not because atheists are popular, but because the things atheists believe in are really out there, in the real world, where everyone can find them. The gods do not have that advantage. This is why science—the study of real things—is so often perceived as promoting atheism. Atheism is unique in the near universal endorsement it receives for everything that it proposes as being real. No other religious viewpoint can claim a confidence level that high.

Thus, when it comes to what’s real and what is not real, the atheist’s position is the greatest common denominator. Go godless, and you’re going with the majority. No mere religious opinion even comes close.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Bungoton

    Nice to hear the same argument I have used from someone of your stature. My fundamentalist sister asked why I didn’t side with the majority in believing in a god. My answer was that I did side with the majority in not believing in her god. I was also with the majority in not believing in the god(s) of any other religion.

    I have amassed quite an arsenal of arguments against religion from you and a few others. Religious believers never bring up the subject with me any more. Pity, I have so much to offer now and they have so little to support their views.

  2. 2
    Pickman

    This is the clearest statement regarding the atheist position that I have seen for a long time. Thank you.

  3. 3
    hjhornbeck

    What’s great about that argument is that you don’t need a definition for “god;” anything mutually exclusive to what other people call “god” gets swept into it, and by the same logic is dismissed. It applies equally well to the gods we know about, and the gods that will be “discovered” in future. It’s what I’ve dubbed a “universal counter-proof,” for exactly that reason, and this version in particular is a slight re-working of the argument from inconsistent revelations.

  4. 4
    wholething

    Then you can break each of the major religions into their various sects to see each denomination be winnowed into obscurity.

  5. 5
    sqlrob

    Something with this argument doesn’t feel right with me, but I can’t put my finger on it. I’ve frequently used something akin to this (outsider argument), but nothing using numbers.

    1. 5.1
      Len

      Maybe because it only covers what each religion thinks about other religions, rather than what that religion thinks about itself. Otherwise I think it’s pretty strong.

  6. 6
    hjhornbeck

    Something with this argument doesn’t feel right with me, but I can’t put my finger on it.

    If you can think of an explanation, please post it here. I’ve hammered my brain against this one for six months, and found no weakness. I’d love to see someone tear it to shreds!

  7. 7
    Robert B.

    Something with this argument doesn’t feel right with me, but I can’t put my finger on it.

    Um. It’s 100% undisguised bandwagon fallacy? Also, the exact same argument can be made against the specific claims of atheism (that there are no gods or supernatural entities). Also, Judaism and Christianity and Hinduism and Islam are all a lot more like each other than any of them is like atheism – it wouldn’t be hard at all to find claims they would all agree on that most atheists would reject, thus putting us back in the minority. “Humans have souls” would probably do it. Also, if you think there’s a general consensus among the human race about energy, try teaching first year physics, and if you think there’s a consensus even among physicists about gravity, try reading grad school physics.

    1. 7.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Um. It’s 100% undisguised bandwagon fallacy?

      You know, I wouldn’t disagree. What gives it a bit of rhetorical punch, though, is the way it takes a very popular bandwagon fallacy (“X number of believers can’t all be wrong”) and turns it upside down. If you think about it, you can find the fallacy in both. But you have to think. For atheists, that’s not a bad outcome either.

      This argument isn’t entirely fallacious, though. People’s beliefs are the source of all our information about gods, as there is no way to observe any actual gods in the real world. In that context, the absence of a coherent and consistent theism is indeed a valid point to highlight.

      1. Robert B.

        I think once you get to “there is no way to observe actual gods in the real world,” it doesn’t really matter how consistent people’s beliefs about them are or aren’t. “Cannot be observed in the real world” is basically just a longwinded way to say “false.”

        But I can be okay with using one fallacious argument to demonstrate the fallacy in another.

      2. sqlrob

        That might be my problem. When presented in numerical terms, I’m trying to justify it as an argument, when it’s really just a rhetorical device.

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