“Everyone’s an atheist with regards to most faiths – we just take it one step further”.
We see this sort of thing in blog comments:
“When you understand why you don’t believe in Thor and Osiris, you’ll also understand why I don’t believe in your God.”
It paints a picture of atheism as a pure voice of reason towards which all the silly faith-heads are aspiring, and hopefully will one day attain. The implication is that there is a close accord between the beliefs of atheism and Christianity, and that Christians are in fact “almost atheists”.
In fact, the whole discussion is way off-target. The distinction between a Christian and an atheist is not numerical, and my rejection of Osiris and Thor as worthy of worship cannot be usefully described as “atheism” towards them.
It would seem equally banal to say that “Christians believe in infinitely many more gods than atheists”, but in fact this argument is nearer to the truth. The fundamental point is this:
Christians acknowledge the existence of the supernatural realm;
atheists deny it.
This is a very different statement, and it fundamentally affects the way that we approach the conversation. It is useless to invoke the existence of other religions as an argument for atheism. Discrepancies between Christianity and Hinduism do not reinforce the atheist faith, and to even discuss them with an atheist is probably futile. The atheist worldview precludes the possibility that either Hinduism or Christianity can have anything useful to say about the supernatural, because the supernatural does not exist in that worldview. How then, can we discuss spiritual experience in different faiths?
The only function of invoking other faiths in support of atheism is a diversionary tactic. Its intent is to put a Christian in the position of having to defend the validity of supernatural experience while trying not to defend the validity of other faiths, and this position is complicated by the fact that neither person is an expert on all other faiths. It moves the conversation away from the real point of contention and into an area where (usually) neither participant is actually able to talk from personal experience or expertise.
The pivotal step in an inter-faith dialogue between a Christian and an atheist is the existence of God, and the associated reality of the supernatural realm. To discuss intricacies within the supernatural order without acknowledgment of said order is meaningless. It would be like attempting to explore the material world while believing that the material world was just an illusion.
Let’s stop getting distracted by the wrong conversation and start having the right one.