Category Archives: Dawkins

On monotheism and polytheism

A phrase sometimes heard from atheists is that atheists and (say) Christians agree on 99.9% (or what have you) of the gods they don’t believe in, but atheists just add one more.

This statement seems to ignore the kinds of evidence which are often a common cause of theistic world-views – that is, gods or God are theoretical posits to explain partially overlapping phenomena.

For example, where an ancient Greek might say Athena was in operation in inspiring someone to speak in a particularly wise and eloquent way that subjectively felt in retrospect in some sense to originate from an unusual source, a Christian will say the Holy Spirit is in operation.

Or consider non-chance coincidings. An ancient Greek polytheist might say a certain god brought about a particular situation that seemed unlikely given mere chance. Similarly, a Christian monotheist would say God in some way brought it about.

The network of the gods (or a particular god) in a polytheistic framework is posited in order to cover some of the same ground as God in a Christian framework. This is why polytheistic paganism in certain forms is closer to Christianity than many forms of secularism – indeed, why Christianity is in a sense a solution to problems that can be more clearly seen (so the idea goes) within various polytheistic world-views than within certain secular ones.

I.e., polytheists and monotheists may disagree on the nature of reality, but they have a significant agreement over certain (so they think) phenomena that call for explanation.

As an analogy, consider an agravitist, who does not believe in gravity. He might respond to a gravitist – someone who thinks the evidence points towards there being something like gravity – by saying they agree on 99.9% (or what have you) of the theories of gravity (for there have been many of these in the history of the world), but the agravitist has merely taken one step further in not believing in one more kind of gravity.

This is to implicitly misstate the evidential situation, because there are large amounts of common evidence which support different theories of gravity.

This is not to ignore that the Christian God is philosophically or theologically very different from most other gods. For example, in classic, Thomistic Christian theology, say, God is not a being (like, say, Thor) but the ground of being, not a good person but the good, and so on. Yet, this is not because the Christian God is therefore not covering a significant amount of similar evidential ground as various gods. Rather, the theoretical understanding has been radically reconceptualized in, say, Neo-Platonic Christianity, just as certain theories of gravity involve radical reconceptualization while still seeking to explain a significant amount of similar going-ons.

So, there are significant differences between the typical conception of a god or gods in polytheistic ancient Greece, say, and of God in contemporary Christianity. Yet, to think of them as almost arbitrary, discrete units, as the atheist sentiment does, is to show an unfamiliarity with some of the similar phenomena that prompt certain theist conceptions.

Are miracles unlikely events?

Richard Dawkins quotes David Hume (the 18th century Scottish philosopher) in The God Delusion (2006, p. 91) concerning the likelihood of miracles:

“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”

As Dawkins goes on to argue in reference to an event at Fatima in 1917, where thousands of pilgrims supposedly saw the sun ‘crashing down’:

“It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. […] Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage [. …] But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. I mean, Portugal is not that isolated.”

This argument (and David Hume’s) seems to rest on a misunderstanding of what a miracle is. A miracle is not a highly unlikely event. Rather, a miracle is an event that seems highly unlikely if certain conventional methods of explanation are used. In the case of Fatima above, the obvious answer to Dawkins’ response is: there is probably something else going on, which is likely. For example, when thousands of people saw the sun ‘crashing down’, it did not involve a literal movement of the sun as Dawkins interprets any ‘miracle’ to have to involve. There is some other explanation, which does not involve very low probabilities.

Indeed, this sort of explanation is probably the explanation that people would accept once it is pointed out (whatever it might be).

For more on a way to define what miracles are, see here.