The 500 Gods Argument

Moai on Rano Raraku caldera, Easter Island

A few weeks ago the CSU Sacramento Ratio Christi club, a club I co-founded, hosted Dr. Licona and Dr. McCormick for a discussion on the topic “Jesus:History or Mistake?” (here) During that debate, Dr. McCormick presented “The 500 Gods Argument”. A slide was presented with the names of 500 different gods that people throughout history had at one time or another believed in and have since been disbanded. His argument was this: “The only difference between you and me is that Yahweh is not on that list. There is only a one god difference between an Atheist and a Christian.” [paraphrased]. What surprised me so greatly was not the presentation of the argument but the assumed force that this otherwise weak argument possessed.

There are three responses to this argument that I would like to present in turn, from, in my opinion, least to most interesting in terms of implications:

  1. The One God Difference. Many philosophers and theologians have jumped upon the rhetorical irony and manipulation that this statement appears to convey. On the one hand, the “One God Difference” seems to artificially minimize the ontological, or existential, differences while at the same time ignoring the massive cultural, ethical, and worldview implications that those ontological commitments produce. For example, it is quite evident that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all monotheistic religions, they believe in one God; however, it would be quite impossible, or even ignorant, to say, “Well, since they all believe in one God, they’re basically the same religion.”  In the same way, though the ontological difference may be one, the implications are many. For while an Atheist may at surface claim that there is a small difference in our ontology, a difference of one, a more penetrating look will allow us to understand that the difference between, say, two and three is conceptually and numerically less difficult to understand than the difference between zero and one.
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  2. An induction problem. Another objection to this argument is that it is formally invalid. It doesn’t appear to follow that probing the non-existence of one god proves the non-existence of some other god. It would not appear to follow that since Zeus, a Greek god, does not sit upon Mount Olympus, then Thor, a Norse god, does not fly through the heavens. And because we can prove that Thor does not fly through the heavens, I don’t think it serves anything to prove that Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun, does not in fact scorch the earth. In fact, I’m almost certain that we could go down the list of all 500 gods, disprove the existence of each one, and still be left with work to do in disproving the 501st god.
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    Now many readers would ask at this point, and I think quite a reasonably, the question, “When do we just call it quits and say there exists no god?” Before I answer this question, I think it wise to provide two examples: an abstract example and a concrete example.
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    In mathematical systems that are axiomatic we are concerned with the consistency and inconsistency of those system. A consistent system is a system that can produce true statements and not produce any false statements. Or, put another way, an inconsistent system will be able to produce a statement that is both true and false. The problem with an inconsistent system is that if we can produce something that is both true and false, we can, in essence, force the system to make any statement we can imagine to be true. However, a unique problem has arisen in the philosophy of mathematics concerning these systems: when a system reaches a sufficient level of complexity, we can no longer test for consistency, we can only test for inconsistency. What this means is that we can have some system which we have not been able to produce a logical contradiction while still not having sufficient grounds for proving it’s actually consistent. At best we can say, “For all we know, we have not proven it inconsistent.” Far from a satisfactory answer.The reason I provided an abstract example first is because this concrete example is essentially the same thing. There was a time when everyone believed that all swans were white. How did such a belief come to be. Well, it is quite simple. People began to noticed a pattern in nature – the birds we call swans have time and again been white. This pattern was so prevalent that some organization of people came together and, quite reasonably, asserted “all swans are white”. But, little did they know, out in the world, beyond the watchful eye of those pattern-seeking people, there were swans that were black. And one day, to much dismay, such a swan was found. And now, for all we can say, “Most swans are white and some swans are black.”So, to answer the original question, “When do we just call it quits and say there exists no god?” I would propose another question, “When do we just call it quits and say there exists only white swans?”

    Many people will most likely respond with, “Well, that was anti-climatic.” Please read the next point.
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  3. Pushing the Argument the other Way. G.K. Chesterton once addressed a similar argument against Mr. Blatchford of The Clarion. Mr. Blatchford, while living in a different time and presenting a cluster of different arguments, did appear to present a similar argument to The 500 Gods Argument in this way – he appealed to the masses of “christ-like” figures as a disproof for the existence of Christ.
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    The 500 gods argument appears to be argued this way:
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    1. There have been 500 different gods that people have at one time believed in.
    2. No one believes in those gods any more.
    3. Therefore, we should not believe in your god.Notice the form of the argument. It is at once an appeal to a multiplicity of false experience to disprove any future true experiences. Allow me to provide a practical example:
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    Imagine you arrive in a court room and the judge’s responsibility is to only evaluate the evidence provided for any particular case. A flood of people come running in, say 500, and they all claim there was a car accident some distance down the street. Now a judge, while on duty, cannot leave his post, so he is forced to accept only the testimony of those present. Each person gives his testimony, providing the description of the cars involved, the details of the people who were harmed, and the damage to the surrounding area.After the judge listens to each of the 500 people, he comes to find out something quite interesting. The testimonies all conflict in one capacity or another. Some say one car was involved while others say there were multiple vehicles; some say it was a GMC while others argue it was a Honda; some say it was a black car, others say it was a red car; and some say they hit a tree, while others say they hit a person. So the judge, understanding how bizarre it is for 500 people to rush into his courtroom only to provide contradicting evidence, rules that nothing must have happened.

    Chesterton jumps upon this conclusion as somewhat bizarre in itself. Why, when presented with the claim that history is speckled with dozens of “Christ-like” figures, we come to the conclusion, “therefore, there must have been no Christ-like figures”? In the same way, is it not a bit bizarre to say, “Well, since billions of people throughout thousands of years of history have had conflicting descriptions of god, there must be no god?” We have, in a way, tried to legitimize the argument, “from the multiplicity of claims for the existence of god there must be no god.” But, if we put the argument on its head, and say, “Well, let us suppose God does exist, would it be odd then to see that so many people claim that a god exists?” Of course not!

    This response, of course, does not go to argue for the existence of any particular god, as all the testimonies of the car accident wouldn’t go to produce evidence of any particular car accident. But this argument serves to say, “Well, it would seem, if anything, while the multiplicity of testimonies do not serve to argue for a particular car accident, it does seem to serve to prove that something did happen – and it was significant enough that 500 people were willing to testify its happening.”

I’ve always found The 500 Gods Argument to be a bizarre argument because of its lack of force while being presented as if it was an end-all point. But if you do run into a person making this argument or happen to find yourself sitting in on a lecture with a slide, then you have at least three points to argue. First, the difference between no gods and one god is a vast difference with many implications. Second, the induction is a fallacious form of reason. And third, in a more common sense sort of way, it would actually seem to be that this argument favors the theistic position, not provide evidence against it.