Is Atheism as impotent as Stephen Prothero thinks?

June 8, 2010

Stephen Prothero likes telling people, like the Dalai Lama, when they are wrong about religion . The Dalai Lama is just wrong that different religions could be talking about the same supreme reality. The Dalai Lama is just wrong that religions have similar perspectives on one ultimate mystery. Religious pluralism, the idea that all religions have some valid perspective on the ultimate reality, is a fraud. Forget world peace, since different religions will always sharply disagree about something.

Able to clearly see what makes different religions so different , Prothero just thinks that it must be false that religions could be trying to refer to the same reality. 

Prothero's sharp logic can't be argued with -- if person A attributes some property X to God, and person B can't find X in God but only Y, then these two people must not be talking about the same God, and their religions cannot overlap. Prothero thinks that its VERY important that religions perpetually disagree about what God is like. It would be a pity if such beautiful diversity were to fade, he thinks [ see an interview with Prothero ]. Wrong, Dr. Prothero -- religious intolerance and bigotry is not beautiful.

What about atheism? Prothero says,

"Atheists account for roughly two percent of the U.S. population."

Way wrong again. According to the ARIS 2008 survey , "roughly 12% of Americans are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unknowable or unsure)."

Prothero adds,

"We live on a religious planet, and arguments from atheists—are at least at this point—are proving impotent to change that."

Still wrong. Skeptical criticism towards religion over the last century is precisely why many people in many countries are no longer confident that their religion has the exclusive truth about God. And this skepticism is growing among younger generations , even in America.  Anyone see a trend?

Why can't Prothero take atheism seriously? His disdain probably is linked to his demand that every religion stay so rigidly different, without overlap or merging. Reminds one of the way that species just had to be so different, before Darwin revised the concept of "species". Even atheists can realize why religions really aren't so rigidly distinct. Since no God really exists, but we are all confronted with deep mysteries about ultimate reality, different religious people project different images and symbols of God upon what little of reality they can experience. A wide, continuous spectrum of faiths is the result, not a collection of a few religions neatly segregated like the crayon colors in a box.

As for atheism, it prefers to say nothing definite about God, because it is skeptical about God's existence. Atheism is skeptical precisely because no human is endowed with transcendent powers to know with certainty what ultimate reality exactly is. No scientist, no saint, no seer, no prophet -- no one. That's too bad for atheism, according to Prothero, since each of the religions seem to have knowledge of God. God forbid that a religious person might admit that their religion only catches a perspective or aspect of the ultimate reality, reduced to human wavelengths of comprehension. According to Prothero, real religious people (unlike speculative theologians like the Dalai Lama or Joseph Campbell) just KNOW their God just fine, and you just can't tell people differently.

So atheism is told to go sit in a corner with its impotent skepticism. But atheism has been far more powerful than Prothero could realize. Skepticism and perspectivism and pluralism are all close cousins, born of the same realization that knowledge is fallible and relative to the human condition. Atheism is a manifestation of the rational force which has been helping to create religious perspectivalism and syncretism, and sometimes even skepticism. Atheism represents the hope that religions could moderate their absolute certainties into fallible attitudes, and then into tolerant lifestances.

But Prothero would tell atheists that we are just wrong.

Yes, religions disagree on many things, and they agree on many other things. Can Prothero explain why? Does he have any historical sense of how religious ideas and symbols have been traveling and mutating across the globe for centuries, and they are now going at the speed of light around the globe? Does he realize that the power of communication and comparison and debate of religious ideas will only accelerate the process of religious overlap and synthesis?

Atheism should respect any religious leader who stands up for humble fallibility and religious pluralism. The terrible enemy is religious certainty and fanaticism and hatred. There is such a thing as religious evolution, and it can be intelligently directed if we try.

[Edit 7/21/10: corrected spelling of "Stephen"—Eds.]


#1 diogenes99 on Tuesday June 08, 2010 at 6:40pm

He had an interesting interview here:

He claims that there are many nontheists, but fewer atheists, and that is because atheists have a brand-name problem.

He also answers the question: Are you an atheist?  He has an interesting answer.

#2 jerrys on Wednesday June 09, 2010 at 2:46pm

As a matter of principle I don’t tell other people what their religion really is.  And I think the Dalai Lama should adopt the same principle.  To validate his claim he would need to get representatives of “all religions” to agree on the “ultimate mystery”. 

However the main reason for this comment is to examine the statement:

“Prothero’s sharp logic can’t be argued with—if person A attributes some property X to God, and person B can’t find X in God but only Y, then these two people must not be talking about the same God, and their religions cannot overlap.”

The argument is clearly wrong.  Replace god by person G and assume person A says G is from California and B says G is from New York then they can’t both be right (assuming they have the same meaning for “is from”), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t referring to the same G.  It just means that at least one of them is wrong.

#3 Lyndon (Guest) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 at 5:43pm


I do not think “property of” and “is from” is analagous here. A property of god seems to be an essential quality of that God, which is created or defined by the one postulating that god. Whereas with people, to say a person “is from somewhere” can be separated from the character of that person. In other words, I can accept that I was wrong about where Johnny was from and we can both acknowledge that we were talking about the same Johnny. But if I say “God” is eternal and you say “God” is not eternal (or most other disparate properties), I think it would be hard for one of us to say, “right or wrong, we are at least talking about the same God,” since such a property would be a central understanding of our concept “God.” Right? Many properties attributed to “God” or a religious viewpoint, at least the ones that are argued about, are unbridgable in some fundamental ways without undoing that “God” or religion.

Not that that was really important. I agree we should welcome those religious leaders that embrace “humble fallibility and pluralistic views,” but there is, on some level, a necessity of acceptance of ones own doctrine in order to make it a workable and livable doctrine or worldview. I think a historical analysis of Christianity has shown that it has become more open to pluralistic views and the possibility of being wrong, and that has had fundamental changes to Christianity and how Christians navigate the world. Where Christians, Muslims, and others refuse to embrace such policies of pluralism, and incorporate them into there life and society, is where secularism and atheism “attacks” the hardest.

#4 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 at 7:49pm

Typical of atheists, you fail to understand the relationship between religious people and the focus of their belief.  The believer is a very limited human being, the focus of their belief is incomprehensibly vaster than our entire focus for our entire lives.  What any human concentrates on won’t be even a significant part of the subject of religion.

How come you think that the chemist and the mathematician are focused on the same universe?  Never mind the philosopher and the chemist.

#5 jerrys on Wednesday June 09, 2010 at 11:42pm

To Lyndon and Anthony.

I think you’ve misunderstood my post.  I was primarily commenting on what John claimed was a logical form of reasoning.  My first paragraph was intended to indicate that I wasn’t saying anything about any particular religions..  I’m not going to decide whether, for example Jews and Christians believe in the “same” god. I’ll leave that to the adherents of those religions. I hear “Judeo-Christian” this and “Judeo-Christian” that all the time so I assume that some people (mostly Christians as far as I can tell) believe that these two religions are worshiping the same god. 

My position as an atheist is that since neither the “Christian God” nor the “Jewish God” exist it isn’t meaningful to ask whether they are the same.

#6 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday June 10, 2010 at 2:26am

jerrys point is similar to the one I brought up but it raises the interesting point of how two things that are held to not exist can be different. 

Is nonexistence variable?  We don’t know about qualitative differences except as they relate to things which exist, even if only as ideas. 

Would truly non-existing entities have that property of variability?

If you address the ideas about non-existing entities in reference to what I just said about ideas that doesn’t get you off the hook because, as in my point, we have different ideas about the physical universe that objectively exists.

In which case holding different ideas about something that isn’t known to have objective existence wouldn’t work very well as evidence that the entity doesn’t exist.

—- Where Christians, Muslims, and others refuse to embrace such policies of pluralism, and incorporate them into there life and society, is where secularism and atheism “attacks” the hardest.  Lyndon

“Attacks”, I’ve never known of quotations used this way to designate something that objectively exist.  What do you think CFI and its related organizations were invented for if not to attack religion indiscriminately?  The Kurtzian tradition that is the most obnoxious common form of atheism consists of nothing else but indiscriminate attacks punctuated by occasional, and often transparently dishonest, displays of “reasonableness”.  It’s developed schisms, as all dogmatic forms eventually do, but that habit is invariable.

#7 Lyndon (Guest) on Thursday June 10, 2010 at 10:35am


I only thought your logic was wrong in your second paragraph when you said “The argument is clearly wrong” and gave reasons. Those reasons did not add up to me. I agreed with the first paragraph of your first post, and with your next post when you say:

“My position as an atheist is that since neither the “Christian God” nor the “Jewish God” exist it isn’t meaningful to ask whether they are the same.”

I certainly agree there, there is better things to worry about, hence I said in the earlier post, “Not that that was really important.” Shook’s post, though, was about a guy worrying about this exact problem and shunning Atheism.

#8 jerrys on Thursday June 10, 2010 at 10:49am

On reflection my statement that it isn’t “meaningful” to ask whether the Christian and Jewish Gods are the same was too strong.  I should have said something more like “I don’t care whether they are the same thing”. 

Neither unicorns nor phoenixes exist, but it is certainly reasonable to say that if they did exist they wouldn’t be the same thing.

#9 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday June 10, 2010 at 1:59pm

Both phoenixes and unicorns are supposed to be animals in the physical world.  Their existence or nonexistence would have nothing to do with the reality of a supernatural God. 

“It isn’t meaningful” in the context it’s being used here is an old fashioned dodge from a superannuated philosophical fashion.  I assure you, if you don’t want to derive meaning from it, most people seem to quite indifferent to your supposed inability.

#10 Dianelos Georgoudis (Guest) on Saturday June 12, 2010 at 2:31am

John Shook writes: “Prothero’s sharp logic can’t be argued with—if person A attributes some property X to God, and person B can’t find X in God but only Y, then these two people must not be talking about the same God, and their religions cannot overlap.”

If person A claims “In my experience this mountain’s peak is sharp” and person B says “In my experience this mountain’s peak is round” then they can both be right, because they may be observing the same mountain from two different points of view.

#11 diogenes99 on Saturday June 12, 2010 at 6:03am

The invalid epistemological argument is: If person A identifies/knows/claims God has X, and B identifies/knows/claims God has Y and not X, then they are not the same God.

This reminds me of the wave–particle duality in quantum mechanics.  It could be that God is experienced in one way or in another, but not both simultaneously.

Of course Prothero is an atheist (he just avoids the brand), and claims to be a Buddhist who believes in no God.

#12 Stephen Prothero (Guest) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 at 10:54am

Hi Jon,
You misspelled my name.
Stephen Prothero

#13 Ron Krumpos (Guest) on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 1:45pm

The true kinship of faiths may be best found in their mystical traditions. You do not have to be religious to be a mystic. Here is a brief quote from my e-book:

Mysticism seeks to join, or unite, our inner self with the divine by spiritual disciplines of devotion, knowledge, selfless service, and/or meditation. What you do matters greatly to what you will become: that is divine justice. How you do it, through Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, or outside these faiths is important when it is the right way for you: that is divine law. One is Truth: true Reality transcends the boundaries of our beliefs. Thou art That: you are in the divine essence; you must be dedicated to fully realizing it.

Our religion may be right for us, nevertheless that does not mean billions of others are wrong. What of the 100 billion people who lived outside of our faith since the origin of our species? Religions do differ in approach, beliefs and practices, although the divine Reality they seek is the same. Their mystics used the words and concepts understood by followers of their faith, but these are just alternate ways of trying to express the One underlying Truth.

#14 Ron Krumpos (Guest) on Monday July 05, 2010 at 3:14pm

Those who believe in the kinship of faiths should join the social network of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Look at

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