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Some atheist jokes deserve to be laughed at

Launching the book For God’s Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion, columnist Peter FitzSimons revelled in the opportunity to offer his favourite atheist one-liners. “There have been 10,000 gods through history,” he said to my colleague Simon Smart, one of the authors of the book. “You reject 9,999 of them. I just go one god further!”

It was a well-rehearsed line straight out of the atheist joke book – Dawkins likes to tell it, too. It got the laugh a witticism deserves. Simon replied laconically, “Is that meant to be an argument, Fitz?” Apparently, it was. “I’ve put this to a lot of believers over the years,” FitzSimons said with gusto, “and none of them has been able to reply.” I was surprised to hear that. So let me give it a go.

“Atheists just go one god further” is an aphorism regularly offered but rarely thought through. The idea it asks us to consider is something like this: when Christians reflect on why they reject Zeus, Ra, Isis, Vishnu et al., they will come to see the good sense of the atheist who simply adds one more deity to the rubbish bin. The arguments Christians employ against other gods, so the logic goes, come back to bite the Christian god as well. It is cute but silly.

For one thing, believers in any particular religion do not reject the other gods in toto

For one thing, believers in any particular religion do not reject the other gods in toto. They deny the manifestations and stories of the other deities, but not necessarily their substance. A Christian may reject the elaborations and add-on characteristics of, say, Ra or Vishnu, but they happily acknowledge the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians and Indians in positing the existence of a powerful Intelligence which orders the universe.

There is, in other words, an irreducible shared conviction among most worshipers: the rational order of the universe is best explained by the existence of an almighty Mind (or Minds) behind it all. This is why the apostle Paul in Athens (Acts 17) can happily quote a line from a hymn to Zeus in his argument about God: “We are his offspring.” Paul did not think the stories about Zeus were true, but he agreed with the idea of divine power and intelligence which belief in Zeus embodied. Fitz and others are simply misguided to liken a Christian’s rejection of particular versions of divinity with the atheist’s denial of divinity altogether.

An analogy highlights the error. In choosing to marry my wife, it is true that I rejected all other potential spouses (not that there were that many). Does this mean I have rejected the idea at the core of other people’s marriages? Of course not. But imagine a zealous celibate, who rejected marriage altogether and tried to use my own decision to marry one person as an argument against matrimony itself: “When you consider why you rejected other women in favour of her, then you will see the good sense of rejecting marriage altogether.”

I hardly need to point out that the difference between committed marriage and deliberate celibacy is not one of degree. Rejecting particular partners is nothing like rejecting the idea of partnership altogether. The analogy isn’t perfect but it makes one point clear: “we atheists just go one god further” is no more compelling than “we celibates just go one partner further.”

A believer’s denial of particular manifestations of the divine offers no support whatsoever for the atheist’s rejection of divinity itself. One-liners like this from the 101 Jokes for Atheists book should indeed be the object of laughter.

John Dickson is an author and historian and is a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity.