The Many-Gods Objection

I’ve annoyed many of my less-theistically-inclined friends over the years with my desire to discuss the arguments for and against God or religion with them.

Originally, this probably had a bit of a proselytizing aim to it, but from the beginning, and increasingly over time, there was another reason for the activity as well: it’s a chance for me to explore more about myself and my beliefs, and my reasons for belief.

I’m convinced that there’s a God, and that it matters if we live and think like there’s a God. It’s a conviction that I arrived at after much consideration. For a couple years in my early twenties this was very much an open question for me, and doubt was even winning the day for a considerable time. It was in no small part through my focused reading of texts from the history of philosophy (especially ancient philosophy) that my mind was eventually changed and led to my current conclusion.

And it’s a question that still deeply interests me. Just a few years ago I published a small book titled The Gentleman Atheist, in which I discuss some of these arguments from different angles.

So when I have an intelligent friend who’s reached a different conclusion, on this question that seems so important to my mind, I’m often interested to converse about it, if the other person is willing and if the conversation doesn’t look like it’ll go in too cantankerous a direction.

I couldn’t necessarily even articulate why (perhaps I’ll try in a future post), but I love thinking through the constellation of questions that attach to this discussion.

One point that usually comes up sooner or later (generally sooner) is the “many Gods” or “many faiths” objection. Even if an atheist wanted to believe in God, the question goes, which God should be chosen? Which religion?

I was reflecting on this objection recently, and since it comes up so often in such discussions, and appears so compelling in a way, I thought it might be worthwhile to write up a few thoughts I have on the subject.

Let me lay out a few analogous exchanges to introduce some of the directions I’d like to take this discussion, and then after anticipating and answering a predictable response to my analogies, I’ll make explicit the significance I intend in each case.

1. Okay, so in the first place how about we imagine someone saying, “I don’t believe in ties. After all, the word ties can have lots of meanings. Do you mean a bow tie, or a tied game, or a railroad tie? So I just don’t believe in them.”

(I know what you’ll say … but just hold on and let me get a few more of these out!)

2. Second, we can imagine this person: “I don’t believe in lions. After all, I’ve heard stories about lots of different lions in this jungle, and I don’t know which one I might meet, so I just don’t feel the need to believe in any of them. I just walk around the jungle as if there’s no such thing as lions.”

(Stay with me! I know these seem ridiculous, but this is how the many-gods objection sounds to me, and I’ll explain why soon.)

3. Third, how about this person: “I’ve turned off the lighthouse because I don’t believe in boats. After all, different people describe lots of different kinds of boats, and I don’t know which of them will see the light, if any. So I just leave the light off as if all boats are fictional.”

4. Fourth, this one: “I don’t try to communicate with people anymore. I never know if my messages will reach their intended recipient, and even if they do I can never know if the intended recipient was the right person to speak to in the first place. So I don’t try anymore, and furthermore, while I’m at it, I also deny that there are people out there who could hear me even if I did try.”

5. And then last, we could imagine a person like this: “I don’t believe in houses anymore. After all, some people talk about walls, other people talk about doors, other people talk about windows, other people talk about ceilings, or carpets, or roofs, or rooms, and then there’s this confusing business about residences, or homes, or abodes, or mansions. I just don’t know whom to believe anymore, so of course I have to disbelieve all of it.”

Okay, we made it. Now, the foreseeable rebuttal to each one of these, which I know has probably been bursting out of all of us from the very beginning, is:

“But it’s not like that at all, John, you smug little sophist!”

That’s the tried and true defence against any opportunity to learn from a comparison or analogy. “It’s not the same!” And of course it’s not. That’s the whole point. But it’s intended to be instructive.

Let me just promise that it is possible to find an instructive similarity, in each of the above five analogies, something to give us a different angle on the ways that the “many gods” objection might be problematic. If you read my explanations below and then still want to take issue with the analogies, I’m all ears!

1. Okay, so the word “God” has a lot of meanings. Those meanings might all refer to real and meaningful things, or maybe none of them do. But in any case, the number of meanings attached to the word will tell us nothing about whether belief is possible or if people should find themselves perplexed about what to believe.

2. If we’re asserting that there is a whole pack of (perhaps unproven) deities out there, any one of which could hold the power of life and death, misery and happiness, I can’t see that it really makes sense to say, “and therefore I’ll live as if none of them are real.” Surely it makes at least as much sense, and probably a great deal more, to draw a conclusion like, “and therefore I will live the sort of religious life that in my estimation will provide the best possible chance for them to be more favourably disposed toward me, just in case I do ever find myself needing their help or their mercy.”

3. So let’s say we’ve chosen to forego praying and worshipping and living religiously, because we don’t know if it’s Allah or Zeus or the Trinity (etc) who’s out there listening and seeing, or perhaps none of them, or perhaps somehow a combination of the different options. Here’s the problem. How does one start with “I can’t be sure who’s paying attention, how many or how few or what kind” and then get all the way to “I’m pretty sure I should act as if no one is paying attention.” We can turn off the lighthouse if we like, stop up the prayers and the gratitude and the piety, but we’ll have to realize that the reasoning which got us there is about as solid as a rotting log.

4. Say we don’t know who’s getting our prayers. We’re worried that if we pick a religion and enter it, it will be the wrong one and so the real deity won’t give us the goods that we’re looking for, whether that be inner peace or miracles or everlasting joy or all of the above. But consider that maybe the God we’re praying to is the real one. Or maybe it’s not, but the real one doesn’t hold it against us and so listens to our prayer anyway, just as if we had addressed our prayers to the right one in the first place. There’s no reason to think that we have to have everything figured out before our prayers will be heard. Even if there were reason to think so, we still wouldn’t be justified in saying, “well then I guess that means I shouldn’t pray at all.” Better to start somewhere, and then adapt over time as our knowledge (of our faith and of other faiths and of the philosophy of religion) increases.

5. Most religions admit that other religions possess some part of the truth. This means that even if the religion we become a part of does not possess the whole truth, if it has part of the truth then it will bring us closer to truth than we could have been had we remained entirely irreligious and disbelieving.

This list is not meant to be a systematic or all-encompassing response to the many gods objection. It just brings together some of the intuitions that were floating about at the surface of my mind just now, after my having thought about these things let the course of many years. To me, the many-gods objection seems deeply flawed and unconvincing, and from multiple different angles. This list brings together just a few examples of why that is so.

If anyone wants to help me continue to think through these questions, please feel free to chime in below, in the comments! I look forward to learning from you.

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