In a recent post, Bill Vallicella (The Maverick Philosopher) ably dismantles the “we’re all atheists” canard which has become increasingly common recently. He cites Christopher Hitchens (author of God Is Not Great), from a debate with Shmuley Boteach:
“We’re all atheists,” Hitchens argued in his dry British timbre. “We no longer believe we need to tear the beating heart out of a virgin to make the sun rise. We no longer believe in the sun god Ra or in Zeus, and we now must go one step further.”Vallicella notes the absurdity of this argument by offering a parallel: we all reject certain older scientific propositions – that the sun orbits the earth, that light needs a medium to travel (the ether), etc. By Hitchens’ reasoning, it would be logical to go the next step and reject all scientific propositions:
What people like [Hitchens and] Daniel Dennett, another key Dawkins Gang member, cannot get through their heads is that religion might be subject to development and refinement just as science is. Such people cannot understand development of the God concept as anything different from deformation. They think, quite stupidly, that the crudest anthropomorphic conceptions are those with which religion must remain saddled. But they would never say something similar with respect to science. Why the double standard?
Vallicella is of course correct. The problem is that the “new atheists” seem to accept the fundamentalist claim that religion is only authentic if it falls from heaven fully formed. They look at the obvious developmental nature of religion and seem to think this proves it’s all bunk. Yet this is the very thing they praise about science! If the history of religion evidences a willingness to modify old views in light of new evidence or further reflection, is that not a good thing?
Even more basically, what folks like Hitchens seem to miss is that this denial of polytheism can itself be seen as an inference from Christian experience and theological reflection. We Christians have abandoned humanity's polytheistic roots precisely because we have accepted God's continued revelation. We have rejected those old attempts to manipulate him through human sacrifice precisely because we have accepted a more developed view of God's sovereignty and the value he places on human life.
The Christian denial of paganism is not based on some independent standard we share with atheists and apply to other gods but, inconsistently, fail to apply to our own. We deny the existence of other gods precisely because we accept the Christian story. It is not inconsistent for a monotheist to deny polytheism; it would be inconsistent to do otherwise.