The above is basically a quippy way of describing oneself as an atheist from a Christian upbringing. I've been quoting it for years with the vague recollection that I'm quoting someone famous, but recently realized that I have no idea who. In its quippy knowingness it reminds me of G.K. Chesterton; but then, so do most things.

At least the way I use the phrase (whether this reflects the intent of the original or not), it means, like, someone who knows the stories from the Christian Bible and just doesn't believe they're true nor uniquely useful. As opposed to someone who feels the same way about Midrashic stories, or hadith, or Hindu stories, or whatever: those folks might say "I'm an atheist, but it's the (Jewish, Islamic, Hindu) god(s) in whom I don't believe."

(This is different from cultural Christianity or humanistic Judaism, which are basically celebrating the unique value of that particular religious milieu without actually believing in the religion. It's also different from the idea of positively rejecting a specific religion's God ("I could never worship a God who..."). It's more like in the movie Little Miss Sunshine, when Dwayne takes a vow of silence, so technically he's not speaking in any language, but honestly, the specific language he's not speaking is English.)

So the question is, what is the origin of this phrase/meme? FWIW, my brain is pretty confident in the inverted phrasing at the end of the quote: "...it's the Christian God in (whom|which) I don't believe." But I could also be completely wrong, and/or it could have been said in some other language and then translated.

  • Serendipitously, this phrase just came up in a random YouTube explainer, "The Alt-Right Playbook: I Hate Mondays" (April 2020) @10:05: "I don't believe in God, but the God I don't believe in is Jehovah." Note the lack of inverted phrasing, but still this is almost exactly the same phrase, used to denote exactly the same idea. Dec 1, 2021 at 17:10

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The idea (usually presented as paradoxical or ironic) that atheism might consist of disbelief in a particular god, rather than gods in general, has a long history, as you’ll see from the quotations below. None of these have the exact wording you are looking for, but once familiar with the idea it would not be difficult for someone to put it into the form given in the question.

First, a discussion by Mrs Oliphant of the spiritual beliefs of the poet Shelley, who had been expelled from Oxford University for his essay, ‘The Necessity of Atheism’:

Those curious indications of instinctive faith in the supernatural seem strange in a man who had so gloried in his unbelief—but to be sure it was God, and especially the Christian God, whom he disbelieved, and not the unseen.

Margaret Oliphant (1882). The Literary History of England in the End of the Eighteenth and Beginning of the Nineteenth Century, volume III, p. 102. New York: Macmillan.

The idea is one paradox among many in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22:

“What the hell are you getting so upset about?” [Yossarian] asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”

Joseph Heller (1961). Catch-22, p. 185. New York: Dell.

A common response to atheism is for Christians to suggest that atheists have misunderstood Christianity and so are directing their disbelief at the wrong god:

I shall always remember the blunt statement of Cardinal Maximos IV, the eighty-year-old Eastern Patriarch who looked so much like one of the apostles, when he said “The God the atheists don’t believe in is a God I don’t believe in either.

Juan Arias (1973). The God I Don’t Believe In, p. 65. Translated by Paul Barrett (1974). St. Meinrad, Indiana: Abbey Press.

(Arias’s book is in large part an exploration of this idea.) By the 1980s the idea was commonplace enough for the editors of The English Spirit to be concerned that it might be “too glib”:

It has to be recognised that [the English spirit] is almost entirely Christian. Even with the agnostics represented in this book, is it too glib to say that it’s the Christian God which they don’t believe in?

Paul Handley, Fiona MacMath, Pat Saunders and Robert Van de Weyer, eds. (1987). The English Spirit, p. 3. London: Darton, Longman & Todd.

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