The subject of theism and its opposite, usually called “atheism,” has heated up in the past few years, thanks mostly to the New Atheists who have predictably inspired a counterwave of reassurances from the pro-God camp that all is still well and that age-old beliefs don’t have to be discarded just yet. The purpose of this essay is to gather a range of material and arguments wider than is usually found in the writings of New Atheists and to extend their position by claiming that, as the title says, theism should now be considered a failed understanding of the universe. I will focus on five areas:
- Polytheism vs. monotheism;
- Problems of definition;
- Divine attributes;
- Arguments based on reality, specifically geocentricity and anthropocentricity; and, last and most powerful of all,
- Arguments based on morality.
1. How Many Gods?
Here’s a question that no one can answer, unless there really is an omniscient being: How many gods are there? Or, more precisely, how many gods have there been in the long history of our species, going back at least 200,000 years? Since we have no information about the religious ideas of Homo sapiens until the advent of writing just a few thousand years ago—and then only in a very few places—we have no way of telling when and where humans first began to imagine divine beings. Given our inevitable ignorance about the remote past, it’s clear that the question cannot be answered—but if we could somehow get an exact number, it would be huge. A popular misconception in the West is that Hinduism alone has 330,000,000 gods; Japanese Shinto is said to have eight million—and that’s just two religions. In 1999, ancient historian Keith Hopkins published A World Full of Gods—and he was thinking only of the ancient Greco-Roman Mediterranean basin, where, as his subtitle says, Christianity achieved a “strange triumph” over the polytheisms of the Roman Empire. On a larger scale, the World Christian Encyclopedia states that there are some 10,000 distinct religions today. Most of them are probably not monotheistic, and they would all have different gods. A recent book by classicist Page duBois has a title that’s very appropriate in this context: A Million and One Gods.
Obviously, an exact number isn’t attainable—but for simplicity’s sake, let’s use that phrase a million and one gods. Surprising numbers of people will say, with a perfectly straight face, that out of that million and one, there’s only one that’s real—and it’s mine. In simple math, the odds of that must be 1,000,001-to-1. Richard Dawkins likes to say that the atheists and the monotheists are already in near-total agreement—after all, both sides reject the million, so monotheists just need to get rid of one more, and we’ll be in the same camp! And it should be noted that those who insist on monotheism are not entitled to special treatment just because they capitalize the generic word god; the idea doesn’t become more logical or more credible by a spelling convention. Imagining a god named “God” is just a desperate attempt to legitimize an unearned status.