An ancient Chinese myth tells of ten Suns that existed in primordial times. Prideful and intemperate, as pagan gods are often wont to be, these Suns rode together over the surface of the Earth each day, their combined heat scorching it. Insensitive to the plight of the mortals, the Suns refused to take turns in the sky, and were eventually struck down until only one Sun remained.
I was reminded of this story when I read yet again another example of an atheist inviting religious believers to go “one god more” when critically evaluating their beliefs. For instance, here is noted skeptic Michael Shermer at a recent debate about science and belief in God : “Ten-thousand different religions, a thousand different gods. Our opponents agree with us that 999 of those gods are false gods. They are atheists like we are atheists. What I’m asking you to do is just go one God further with us.”
This cannot be dignified with the label “argument.” But as a clever rhetorical trick, it does deserve a response. It fails as an argument because it just does not follow that if nine propositions are false, a tenth, superficially similar one, must also be false.
Back to the Chinese myth: if I were to claim that a new sun rose on each day of the week, but you demonstrated to me that the “Monday Sun” was the same as the “Tuesday Sun,” and so on with the Suns on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, it would be an error to just “go one Sun further” and conclude that there was in fact no Sun at all.
We might also find an analogy in the history of science itself: no one believes in rudimentary, primitive accounts of physical motion anymore, because ever since Newton we have known that the laws of motion are universal – the Heavens are governed by the same physical laws as the Earth. That is, there are not different sets of laws of motion on Earth, in the solar system, in the stars, and so on. Yet we do not conclude that there are, therefore, no sets of laws; instead, we look for a single, deeper account of what was once thought of as separated phenomena.
This is the correct answer to Shermer’s suggestion. The Christian God is not the last hanger-on of a long line of fading divinities. He is the refinement of a previously vague and inchoate experience of the supernatural.
That reality has some supernatural aspect been universally apparent to mankind, but the understanding of that dimension (just as with the understanding of the natural world) has usually been scattered, imprecise, unrigorous, and idiosyncratic.
With God’s revelation of himself, however, as a singular, absolute God – first to the Jews and then in the person of Christ – the wild pantheon to which humanity has always been attracted is revealed to be under the domain of a single, absolute, yet loving Father.
Mythology has almost universally preserved a dim notion of this single Father God behind all, and the philosophers have been able to come to the same conclusion through the application of reason. The examination of reality and of knowledge leads to the conclusion that there is one Absolute Principle behind it all, and that this Absolute does not so much “exist” as rather encompass existence itself in some way – and “this all men call God.”
This philosophical God, of course, remained distant and unreachable. It was in the Jewish and the Christian revelation of “I AM” that this mythical and intellectual notion of the “One God” Who was the God of gods, became recognized as real and as a Father with whom man can have a relationship. It is this more robust notion of God that conquered the ancient pagan world.
Thus, Shermer is right about one thing: the gods are gone because there has been a certain disenchantment that has occurred as our description of nature has been tested and refined. But the very reason that Shermer is right is also the reason he is wrong. This understanding of a universally ordered, rationally accessible nature developed because of, not despite, monotheism.
When the world was seen as an intentional Creation of God was it understood that Reason could be applied to it in order figure things out – precisely because the world depends on a Reasonable Creator. The many gods have not vanished solely in the light of science. They have, more importantly, vanished in the light of one greater God.
Reasoned investigation and revelation together cast light on the mysterious workings of the reality in which we find ourselves. Shermer believes in the light of Reason, because he correctly judges that that light has dissipated many shadows. When he asks us to go “one God further,” however, he is asking us to put out the ultimate source of the very light by which he sees.
Ten Suns is surely too many, but if the last Sun sets, all that is left is darkness.