Home » Other blog comments » Conversation on the “one god further” joke

Conversation on the “one god further” joke

This is a summary of some recent dialogue posted in the comments section of a recent blog post by Robert Martin of The City Bible Forum in Melbourne.
Nothing new added here – this is just a re-capture of comments material.

Gosh, this “one god further” joke seems to have really touched a nerve in the Christian community.
Yes – it’s a glib, throw-away line used by non-theists to quickly illustrate a point about supernatural beliefs. Go ahead and poke holes in the semantic logic of it, it makes you feel better.
The real issue here is that you’ve taken the “one god further” punchline – in the same way you take much of the Bible (or the Quran, or whatever holy scriptures you prefer) – way too literally.
“One god further” is actually shorthand for any collection of beliefs based on supernatural, unfalsifiable claims. Read it instead as “one religion further”, or “one set of supernatural beliefs further”, and you might be more sympathetic to it.
Example: Most atheists don’t believe in homeopathy, crystal healing, or the teachings of Deepak Chopra or L. Ron Hubbard, as well not believing in the teachings of Muhammad or Jesus Christ.
I suggest most Christians don’t accept homeopathy either, along with their non-acceptance of Ra, Odin and Vishnu.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t care what you or anyone else believes, provided you don’t try to convert me, lie to my children, or hurt anyone else with those beliefs. And I’m not interested in trying to change those beliefs, with “one god further”, or any other argument based on logic for that matter. But frankly, suggesting it fails as an argument on the grounds of logic is disingenuous and hypocritical.

Marty:

Hi Paul, I think Dickson and co are simply pushing against that joke being used as an argument for the truth of atheism.
A joke is a joke, right? And as a Christian I can certainly take a joke and maybe even tell a good one now and then. The concern is really that some atheists (and even some theists) like to use rhetoric rather than substance to make their point, which is essentially question begging. Stating *that* something is true rather than demonstrating *why* you think it’s true is the problem.

It’s the use of rhetoric rather than substance that Christians are reacting to, because it actually quashes healthy debate and leaves onlookers with the sense that a case has been made when it really hasn’t – a sleight of mind if you will.

I wondered if you could elaborate your thoughts that this reaction is disingenuous and hypocritical? I’m trying to understand the ways in which you think it is either of those.

Also, on your point about falsifiability, I thought you might find this article of interest:http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2013/07/christianity-the-worlds-most-falsifiable-religion/
I disagree with it’s authors in that I do see some atheists trying to make a case for naturalism, but I also see other atheists with a pre-commitment to it who simply hold it as an axiom.

Thanks for making a considered response, Marty, as well as the challenge, which I will take at face value as genuine rather than cynical. Perhaps to understand my statement – about “one god further” being a shorthand for any collection of supernatural beliefs – it might make sense to understand my position as an atheist. It’s difficult to be reasonably brief about it without skipping a lot of important stuff, but I’ll try.
Everything in my experience leads me question assertions of the supernatural and claims of the bizarre. While not all supernatural assertions and bizarre claims have been debunked, every single one of them that has been explained, ever, in history, has been shown to be exactly not supernatural, and exactly natural. It is overwhelmingly likely that if something apparently ‘miraculous’ is observed, then the explanation for that may be either fascinating or prosaic, but definitely not miraculous.
It is also my experience that humans tend to like finding, or assuming, the ‘miraculous’ or supernatural to account for observations they don’t fully understand. Furthermore, given that we now live in the most enlightened time of human history ever, it is probable, in fact a given, that this tendency to assuming the supernatural was even more prevalent the further back you go in history.
The fact that there is plenty of independent documentation about the historical figure known as Jesus Christ, does not move me one iota to accepting bronze-age accounts of miraculous healing, walking on water, or that a dead man, ie., actually dead and not perhaps, very badly injured, can show signs of life again. These things are as plausible as, say, a thousand observers in modern-day New Mexico spotting UFOs in the desert and asserting aliens have arrived, when some other reason for a flying metal object can be proposed.
Let’s extend the line of questioning to the nature of reality and universal creation. I cannot claim at all to have any reasonable or convincing clue about what made the Bing Bang happen. I have vague notions of elusive sub-atomic particles zipping into and out of existence and forced together (or apart) by physical mechanisms I can’t begin to understand. But the point is, I can easier accept the notion that those mechanisms are truly physical, and maybe stochastic and random, rather than intended and designed and orchestrated. The fact that the universe and Earth and fungi and caterpillars and humans are so astonishing is… astonishing. But none of this, at least in my own reductionist mind, requires a design, an intelligence, or even a purpose, in order to arise. Assuming that a design, and intelligence, and a purpose is required is, to me, a particularly ego-centric thing to do. God is not self-evident. God is retro-fitted to a phenomenon that none of us comprehend.

I suggest that most modern civilised people are, to varying degrees and at varying times, also reductionist and sceptical. Most folks with an education dismiss leprechauns and unicorns as fantasy. Most also dismiss homeopathy and iridology as pseudo-sciences born from active imaginations. And most dismiss ancient legends of Poseidon, Ra, Odin and Zeus, as imaginative and fantastical deities that never really existed. What one cannot dismiss, however, is that there are or were, in each of these cases, collections of people that have believed passionately and dogmatically in these supernatural things. Those passionate and dogmatic people too have called upon all of their own experience, inner-knowing, and even ‘evidence’ to their various dogmas. We can all challenge their sophistication, but there’s no reason to doubt the strengths of their convictions about their own truths.

To repeat: “…one god further” is a shorthand for not believing in any supernatural stories or religions. It is disingenuous for a religious person of any faith to deny that they don’t accept as true the conflicting religious beliefs of others. The implication that people of different religions do actually believe in the same purposeful creator, but they just have different names and mythologies surrounding it, is bullshit. You do not believe in the same god(s). You reject them. Rejecting other gods is a rule written into each of your holy books.
The rejection of the “one god further” argument on the basis that it is illogical, is hypocrisy, not just for the same reason above, but because a lack of logic is replete throughout religious teachings.

Regarding the article cited, I actually accept the argument that Christianity is probably the world’s most falsifiable religion on the basis of written evidence of historical characters. However, that does not, in my mind, make it any more “true” in terms of having the answers for divine creation than, say, Islam, or even Roman legends. It doesn’t matter to me that Christianity may well have the greatest collection of supporting independent documentary evidence as to the existence of every historical figure mentioned in the bible. I don’t care if a thousand independent historians witnessed Jesus stand up and walk around after he’d been dead for 3 days. In my mind, it’s far more likely that each of these witnesses saw something they didn’t understand. Perhaps one, or even a few, called it ‘rising from the dead’, and then somehow the idea was compelling enough to take hold. Independent accounts of rising from the dead. That’s not falsifiable evidence. That’s hearsay.

Robert:

Paul and Marty,

Many thanks for your thoughtful and intelligent responses to the article. Your exchange in many ways captures the essence of what this ‘atheist forum’ is designed to achieve – i.e. thoughtful engagement on topics pertaining to atheism.

Paul – You’ve mentioned many things and there isn’t time to discuss them all here now. Yet, one thing that I want to hone in on is your rationale for rejecting the evidence concerning Jesus.

“I don’t care if a thousand independent historians witnessed Jesus stand up and walk around after he’d been dead for 3 days. In my mind, it’s far more likely that each of these witnesses saw something they didn’t understand.”

It seems that you have rejected ‘a priori’ any possibility of this miracle occurring? i.e. you have assumed your conclusion. Would that be fair? What would convince you that this ‘miracle’ actually occurred? Or have you assumed that miracles can’t happen, therefore it didn’t happen.

(also, a minor quibble, but I’m sure you realise that Jesus lived in the Iron Age, not the Bronze age! ;-)

Look forward to your response.

Robert

Rob – fair enough on bronze age vs iron age. It’s OT that’s all that bronze age stuff, right…?

* “It seems that you have rejected ‘a priori’ any possibility of this miracle occurring? i.e. you have assumed your conclusion. Would that be fair? What would convince you that this ‘miracle’ actually occurred? Or have you assumed that miracles can’t happen, therefore it didn’t happen.”

No, Rob. I cannot deny all that such a miracle occurred, because it is unfalsifiable.
The claim of a miracle is an extraordinary claim. It requires significant and compelling evidence for it to be accepted. The burden of proof is on the claimant, and that is scientific rationalism.

As to what would convince me that the miracle occurred, a start would be to repeat it for me.
In fact, it is such an extraordinary claim that merely repeating the event in front of my own eyes probably would not be enough to convince me absolutely of its truth.
To get to this point would likely require repeating it a number of times, in the presence of independent trained observers with relevant equipment and the freedom to take measurements, followed by extensive analysis and peer review, with the respected observers and analysers coming to the same conclusions and communicating those conclusions in a way that made sense.

Until that happens, a far easier explanation to accept is:
1. That the people who witnessed the event saw something that was outside their normal experience.
2. Being from an environment and a time in which superstition was commonplace in the attitudes of most people, it was normal, dare I say ‘natural’, to overlay some supernatural explanation to the unusual events seen.
3. Re-telling and propagation of the account added further supernatural significance and embellishment to the original event.

Robert:

Paul,

Thanks again for the comment. I have had this conversation with other atheists at various times – i.e. that they probably wouldn’t believe a miracle even if they saw it themselves. I don’t even think you’d believe the test you’ve constructed for there is always an element of doubt in the ‘experiment’ e.g. how well trained are the observers (what would they be trained in???) Perhaps there was a measurement problem, bias of the observers.

What if the miracle occurred once in history? How can you establish that? Your method precludes that, which means that you adopt a practical a-priori disposition against miracles. I think that’s unfortunate.

Your 3 points are helpful (and maybe even the source of another blog post – I’ll keep you posted) but inadequate, particularly point 2 – consider the miracle narratives of the Bible, not everyone believed them unreservedly. The ancients could distinguish between miracles and superstition. If the miracles were false, why did the people constantly bring their sick to Jesus to be healed??

Further thougts? Maybe I’ll put together another blog post on your 3 points and we can continue the discussion on miracles there?

Thanks again,

Rob

Thanks Rob – I suspect this line of discussion is probably exhausted because there’s nothing additional in it on either side. But, to the specific points:

“I don’t even think you’d believe the test you’ve constructed for there is always an element of doubt in the ‘experiment…”
Yes – in every science experiment there is an element of doubt. Indeed, this is one of the fundamentals of science. We form a hypothesis, then test it, gather data, strengthen the hypotheses, and eventually build well-formed scientific theories.
Eventually someone will come along with a new hypothesis and test that with different techniques, etc., and the results might lead to a minor modification – or even a wholesale change – to the scientific theory.
Science produces solid world views that fit our observations and behaviour. Science works.
And science adapts when new evidence appears. It’s a simple, beautiful truth.

In the case of a divine resurrection: You’re right in assuming that it would be very difficult to convince me (and many other sceptics) with one or a few simple successful repetitions. The claim is so remarkably extraordinary and fantastical that the robustness of the evidence would have to be extremely compelling…

“…What if the miracle occurred once in history?”
Then that’s convenient for Christians because it’s unfalsiable.
Also inconvenient if you’re trying to convince reasonable people that it was real.

” How can you establish that?”
If it occurred only once, and conveniently at a time in human history when record-keeping wasn’t as good as it is now, then you cannot.

“Your method precludes that, which means that you adopt a practical a-priori disposition against miracles.”
Yep.

“If the miracles were false, why did the people constantly bring their sick to Jesus to be healed??”
Desperation, probably.

“Further thougts? Maybe I’ll put together another blog post on your 3 points and we can continue the discussion on miracles there?”
That’s fine with me. Just a warning though – If you plan to dip deeply into the specific pieces of historical reporting on Christianity, it won’t be of any particular interest to me, because I’m not familiar with any them (ie., Tacitus and the like.)
Basically my position is that I don’t know what independent historical evidence for Jesus (and his exploits) is out there, and I don’t care.
*Prove* to me that miracles occur, or as far as I’m concerned the resurrection has as much veracity as the miracles of say, stigmata, or the Virgin Mary appearing in a toasted cheese sandwich.

Robert:

I think we’re exhausting the miracles thread as it appears there is no test we could possibly devise that would convince you that a once-off miracle occurred in history. Is this correct?

Rob, I sense that is correct – an exhausted point!

Just for fun, another analogy that comes to mind is how we considerhomeopathy – now widely accepted by most folks as quackery. I won’t say I fully understand all the claims of homeopathy, but part of it might be summarised as:
“Water can hold a 
memory of various molecules that once were dissolved in it but are now no longer detectable. Depending on what those molecules were, that water can have the power to heal various diseases, etc…”

To any mature person with a modern Western education, the claim as described sounds like nonsense. But just because it sounds like nonsense doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. The claims can be tested. Let’s see…

A bunch of folks go away and test, and come back and say, “it’s true – this works!” It later turns out that some of those folks had a vested interest in the outcome of the experiments. But we don’t know all the details because they weren’t that well documented. (Does that sound familiar?)

Later, other researchers do more rigorous experiments and discover some patients do indeed improve after taking memory water.
But, hold on… the placebo effect is now a well-recognised (and quantified) phenomenon. Bummer: The size of the positive effect is no better than placebo. Homeopathy still shows no verifiable evidence of working.

Even more recently – and this is an actual case, not a hypothetical one (in the late 80s or early 90s; I think they guy’s name was Beneviste, but I could be mis-remembering) – this well-respected scientist with a fully-equipped modern chemistry lab is doing his biochemistry work. He’s not especially interested in homeopathy, but discovers that when he serially dilutes out his reagent “to extinction”, ie., no molecules left: zero… their effects appear in his assay!
Wha…? Can’t be. Let’s repeat.
Same thing! No way!! Can’t be!!!
And again… same thing!!
So extraordinary that it manages to get published in a respected scientific journal.

“Rejoice!”, cry the homeopathists, “For thou hast shown us the memory of water…!”

So extraordinary a finding that it warrants further investigation by independent researchers. This could lead to some fundamental scientific breakthrough…

But guess what?
The independent biochemists couldn’t repeat his results, and discovered that what was happening, was that some small traces of the reagent molecules were “sticking” to the plastic walls of the test tubes. The original serial dilutions to extinction… weren’t. It was just an artefact of the method used.

The moral of the story is about scepticism and how we respond to remarkable claims.
Everyone else now dismisses it as quackery, but there are still lots of people that cling to the truth of homeopathy. This is despite science debunking it and demonstrating that there are a number of ways to account for weird observations. All of these have been shown to be ‘natural’ effects – including the apparent bias/vested interests/mistaken observations of the very first documentors of the phenomenon.

As an aside, note that there is no claim that “there is definitely no such thing as the memory of water”. This would require some proof of that statement, and the fact that no-one has demonstrated water memory, doesn’t mean the same thing as “it isn’t there”.
It’s conceivable that one day someone might indeed demonstrate water memory. But until they do, there is no practical, plausible truth to it, and the superstitious nature of belief in it deserves no respect.

Robert:

Paul,

Sorry for the delay in responding. Hopefully can get up to date now. Whilst interesting and showing the rigour and importance of the scientific method, I’m not entirely sure what your story of homeopathy has to do with our discussion. I’m suggesting that there are very good reasons to believe in God/miracles etc, which do stand up to rigorous enquiry. Remember the key test with determining the miracles of the Bible is historical, not scientific. But perhaps for another day.

Thanks for the story, I think I’ll use it some time.

Rob

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