A few days ago, I wrote a brief post about the use of the phrase "we're all atheists" by atheists who want to try to say that the belief in less than the full pantheon of gods that have ever been invented by the fertile minds of man is simply one step short of the belief in no gods or God. As I lay in bed last night, my own fevered imagination thought of the following analogy to further illustrate the problem with this mindset.
Imagine two air traffic controllers alone in a tower of a little used airfield late at night somewhere in the Rocky Mountain states. No flights are expected for the evening, and the two air traffic controllers are there mainly to communicate with flights heading towards busier destinations and to handle any potential emergency situations. Bored, the two like to pass the time by playing cards. This particular evening, something unusual happens: the radar picks up an object in range. Imagine the following conversation.
"Hmmm," the first air traffic controller murmurs as he looks at the radar screen. "Looks like the radar is picking up a plane in the area."
"Don't be ridiculous," the other says shuffling the deck for another hand of Rummy. "There aren't any planes out there."
"But there's something out there; the radar's showing it."
"Probably just a bird, or perhaps a weather balloon. After all, people are always mistaking those for UFOs -- so why can't our radar pick it up as a plane."
"What are you talking about?" the first air traffic controller said with more than a hint of agitation. "There's something showing up. Why are you so convinced it isn't a plane?"
"Because," the second responded dealing the cards, "there aren't any planes out there at this time of night. There aren't any scheduled until morning and none of the other airports are close enough that we would be picking up one of their planes."
"But the signal on the radar . . . ."
The second air traffic controller picked up his cards and began organizing them in his hand. "Okay, let's see if I can't make this clearer for you. Do you think that's flight 236 from Xenia?"
"Flight 236 from where?"
"Yeah, Xenia, Ohio."
"Of course not."
"Well, why not?"
"Uh . . . to start with, we don't have any flights travel to this airport from Ohio. Second, unless they've built one recently, Xenia doesn't even have an airport."
"Exactly. So, if you can understand why I don't think that's flight 236 from Xenia, you can understand why I don't believe that's there's any airplane out there at all. Hence, you don't believe there's any airplane out there either."
The logic is the same. There is no logical justification to say that because I don't believe that a particular doesn't exist, it means that I am close to believing that none of the set of things of which the particular was a member doesn't exist. In fact, there is a huge difference between the belief that a particular thing doesn't exist and the belief that none of a thing exist. I can believe that Sherlock Holmes doesn't exist, but still believe that detectives exist, can't I?
No, this line of reasoning is simply silly. I would like to say that I'm surprised that so many atheists seem to adopt this saying as if it is somehow profound, but I'm not.