In today’s episode, Fred is furious because something destroyed his garden. He’s considering and dismissing possible culprits—from aardvarks to zebras—while our hero points out the clues for rabbits. Fred says that it’s not rabbits, either. You’ve dismissed all those other animals? Well, he just goes one animal further.
This is obviously supposed to mimic the atheist argument used by Richard Dawkins and others that the Christian rejects hundreds or thousands of gods; why not just one god further like the atheist?
Bannister generalizes the argument: never pick something out of a collection because it leaves you open to the challenge, “Hold on! You rejected all these other ones, so why not just go one further and reject them all?”
Seidensticker tries to argue that the analogies aren’t, in fact, relevant because there’s a critical difference:
It goes too far only when you force it there. Sometimes “None of the above” is an option and sometimes not. You can suggest that a Christian believe in zero gods, but you can’t tell a vegan to adopt zero dietary regimes (they have to eat something).
Let’s return to Fred’s poor garden, ravaged the previous night by some kind of animal. The constant fight of gardeners against animals that eat their crops is well understood. You know that something trashed Fred’s garden, so “this had zero causes” isn’t an option.
And we’re supposed to see this as analogous to the religion case? Compare many animals with the many religions. We know that all these animals exist. In sharp contrast, most religions must be false and they might all be. There are one or more causes of Fred’s damaged garden, while there could be zero or more gods that actually exist. “Zero” is absolutely not an answer in the garden case, while it is a very live option in the religion case.
Why is he presuming that in the examples “None of the above” isn’t a live option? After all, imagine that Fred really believes that it was an animal that trashed the garden, and the person who is arguing with him insists that it was just natural. This would be pretty much identical to Dawkins’ argument, but we can clearly see that this would fall into the exact problem Bannister criticizes: sure, “None of the above” might be a live option, but that doesn’t mean that the person argument for it can dismiss a particular competing theory just because other similar theories were discarded.
But all of this is actually irrelevant because it in no way defends the argument as an argument. If Bannister is right that the argument depends on saying that one cannot pick any one thing out of a collection without being held to have explicitly rejected all others — presumably, even if the evidence for each thing is different — then it’s an invalid and, well, rather stupid argument. However, the general approach to it as an argument is really something like this: You rejected all of those other gods because you feel that the evidence for them is insufficient, but there is no more evidence for your god than theirs, therefore for epistemic consistency you should reject your god, too. This, at least, is an argument that might work.
Unfortunately, it fails because it presumes that most people have examined the evidence for all of the other gods and on that basis alone rejected them. This is, in general, not the case for most theists. Instead, most of them have come to the belief in a particular god in some way and then reject the others because there isn’t enough evidence to overturn the belief they already have. Thus, epistemically they can accept that their belief is no more evidenced than any of the alternatives — even “None of the above” — and still maintain that they’re sticking with what they’ve got until they get sufficient evidence one way or the other without any contradiction. There is, of course, an important difference between things you already believe — and thus are integrated into your Web of Belief — and new propositions that you are considering. This argument ignores all of that to try to insist that believers be consistent with reasons that they, in fact, aren’t actually using.
Seidensticker’s arguments don’t get any better when he tries to dismiss the idea that Christianity is different and so you can’t reject it on the same standards as other religions:
All religions have the same Achilles Heel—supernatural belief. If that single foundational assumption is wrong, then they’re all wrong—all equally wrong and all in the same way. Only if the supernatural does indeed exist are the differences interesting and worth comparing. Without the supernatural, those differences are trivia, and Bannister does nothing to argue for the existence of the supernatural.
Sure, if that’s wrong, then all religions are wrong. But religious believers don’t accept that naturalistic assumption, and so don’t reject the other religions because those insist on talking about things that are “supernatural”. Seidensticker is fine to argue that for him he rejects them all on the basis of supernatural beliefs, but that doesn’t even apply to me — who merely rejects naturalism as a worldview but does not necessarily think that implies that there really supernatural things in existence — let alone to those who actively believe in the supernatural as an existent category. Again, this is not how religious believers reason about religions, so it’s not something he can use against religious believers to show that they have an inconsistency.
Finally, he takes on another of Bannister’s arguments with a comment about invented gods:
So then make up a new character and call him the Creator. Make him outside. Now Yahweh has a competitor.
You don’t like that he was just invented? All right, then revisit this character after 2000 years has passed so that the origins of this tale are clouded and it has become legend and mythology. That’s Christianity’s advantage—not that it’s correct but that it’s venerable and uncheckable.
Sure … but that advantage is significant when it comes to the argument. If I reject the Flying Spaghetti Monster because I know that it was merely invented, but don’t know that the Christian God was merely invented due to the time lapse, you can’t argue that I ought to reject the Christian God by asserting that the Christian God was invented, too. Even bringing up the possibility that the Christian God might have been invented doesn’t, in fact, make that rise to the level of knowledge, which is what I have for those other invented gods. Again, there is no reason for me to reject the Christian God — or any god that I don’t know was invented — on the basis that I know of some other gods that were explicitly invented. Yes, I know that about them. What does that have to do with the God I do believe in and don’t know was invented?
Ultimately, this argument assumes that the reason that the believer rejects the existence of the other gods is similar to the reason the atheist all of them, which is likely false. It’s a rather poor way to get theists to understand atheism, and doesn’t work as an argument, Seidensticker’s “defenses” notwithstanding.