Atheist slogans: one fewer god than you?

Egyptian gods

I came across it yesterday, not for the first time, but maybe the 21st. Quoted as if it was significant and telling. You have almost certainly seen it too.

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

The quote is attributed to Stephen Roberts1. It is cute and sounds clever, but does it actually say anything?

A cute reply?

One way to answer a cute, somewhat enigmatic saying is in kind. Here’s one such response

A single man once said to me: “I contend that we are both single. I am just married to one fewer woman than you are. When you understand why you haven’t married all the other possible women, you will understand why I didn’t marry your wife.”

If the original quote can be taken seriously, then this response is an effective counter. But I’d prefer to actually analyse the saying.

Why do I believe in the God of Jesus?

I believe in Jesus for some very clear reasons, which include:

  1. I believe the impartial historical evidence shows that we have good information about what Jesus did and taught.
  2. On the basis of that evidence, I believe that Jesus was the son of God and was resurrected, and therefore has the authority to teach us about God.
  3. I don’t believe there is any comparable historical evidence to support that any other prophet of God or guru was the son of God and was resurrected, and therefore none has as much authority and truth.

So a significant reason I believe other descriptions of God are inferior to the christian description is because they don’t recognise Jesus as the son of God and resurrected.

So if Roberts’ slogan was true, he would have to disbelieve in the God of Jesus for the same reason – namely that christianity disbelieves in Jesus as son of God and resurrected. But that is contradictory, because christianity does believe that. The slogan is contradictory.

The bottom line

There are good reasons to disbelieve in christianity, just as there are good reasons to believe. People disagree over the merit of those reasons.

But to assess the truth requires careful consideration of the historical and philosophical evidence.

This slogan tries to bypass that. I think anyone who uses it without doing the hard yards of presenting their case isn’t really serious. And anyone who does present a well-reasoned case doesn’t need such a question-begging slogan.

Afterthought: do I dismiss all the other possible gods?

I believe there is only one God. Many people have tried to describe God, and I have no doubt that some descriptions are more accurate than others. I believe Jesus gave the most accurate teaching about God, and where others teach the same things about God I believe they too are correct.

For example, Muslims believe God created the universe – I believe they are correct. Muslims believe God is merciful and approves people who are merciful to the poor – and so do I. Muslims believe God doesn’t have a son so Jesus wasn’t the son of God – but I disagree. Overall, I guess I might agree with about half of how Muslims describe God.

So I don’t “dismiss” other gods, I believe people have made partially or mostly inaccurate description of God. But I am not an atheist regarding those descriptions of God, I simply disagree with some parts of those descriptions.

Is that how Stephen Roberts disbelieves? Does he simply disagree with some or most aspects of all descriptions of God, while agreeing with some? Again, the slogan doesn’t work.

Note 1:

Interestingly, the quote has been attributed to several different people named Stephen Roberts. GoodReads infers Roberts is the author of several books on computer modelling, but this appears to be simply opportunistic advertisements for a different Roberts. Wikiquote, based on a comment by Sam Harris, says the author was “Australian historian Stephen Henry Roberts”. But on Ask Atheists, a Stephen F Roberts claims to have originated the quote. Despite some searching, I have no way of knowing which claim is right, or who Stephen Roberts is.

Picture: From the tomb of Pharaoh Horemheb, showing the gods Osiris, Anubis and Horus, in Wikipedia. Original photo modified by A Parrot.

14 Comments

  1. Are there any other gods? You quote, ‘Atheist slogans: one fewer god
    than you?’

    I have been evangelizing for well over 35 years, and I have run across many people, such as those who are of the ‘pagan’ persuasion, and who believe in Greek gods, and I ask them, very simply, “Have you or anyone, at any time, and any place, ever seen one, yes one, of those gods that you talk about or ‘idolize’? The answer is always, “No!” Why is that you ask? Well, the answer is very elementary and basic, isn’t it; there are no gods. There never was. There never will be.

    We have a real God; his name is Jesus. God told us in Isaiah 9:6 that a child would be born to us, and a son given to us, and that dominion will be upon his shoulders, and his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Eternal Father, Mighty God, Prince of Peace. Yes, God, with a capital G! Was He real? Did anyone ever see Him? They surely did, and that is why the whole world is in the year of our Lord, 2015. That’s right! 2015 years ago our God, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, born of a virgin, in Bethlehem, of the tribe of Judah, came to dwell with us on earth. The whole world knows Him, whether they want to worship Him or not, but we all know Him and what He did. Praise Yehovah – Halleluyah!

    Have an awesome day. Please remember this past Sunday, when we celebrated the rising to life again of our Lord on Resurrection Day. He rose up into the clouds of Heaven before over 500, and He said that He would come back as He left, from the clouds. What a mighty and miraculous God we have! Amen! Have a blessed day, y’all!

  2. Hi unkleE,

    For the most part, I agree with what you’re saying. However, I do think this saying can be useful in startling certain people into understanding the atheist mindset a little better. Someone as informed as you doesn’t need it. But I do run into people (usually in person) who don’t have these conversations with the regularity that you and I do, and the concept of atheism is so foreign to them that saying like this sometimes hello make the idea a little more understandable.

  3. I think it’s reasonable if used as a talking point with people to whom atheism as a concept is completely alien (this is hard for me to imagine, but it clearly can happen in societies where atheism is very marginal).

    If it is used as an argument/retort, well… Imagine that you sit on a train and a nudist enters. When you challenge said nudist on being seriously underdressed in the public, imagine the response would go: “I contend that we are both nudists. I just opted for one wardrobe option fewer than you did this morning. When you understand why you dismissed all the other possible wardrobe options, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

  4. G’day Nate, yes I am happy to agree with you here. I think it is useful (for an atheist, not me) as a slogan or an aphorism to get someone’s attention. But from my viewpoint, I see it often enough to think it is worth analysing. Thanks.

    Hi IN, I loved your counter example. It was literally a case of me laughing out loud – so loud that my wife in the next room asked me what was so funny. I will use the nudist example somewhere, I’m sure, so I hope you haven’t copyrighted it!? 🙂

  5. Nate, I’ve been thinking a bit more, and I think there is a parallel (from my viewpoint) to what you mention. I know you are an atheist who has thought deeply about all this stuff, but I find that many internet atheists are not so thoughtful. They are very selective in the data they accept (e.g. in their choice of fringe historical scholars), more inclined to mockery than serious discussion and inclined to repeat slogans rather than interact with the evidence – not all that different to the christians you criticise. In their hands, a slogan like this becomes a barrier to truth. That is why I chose to write about it, and will be writing about a few others.

  6. I won’t say that it makes the case conclusively for atheism, but I think it does serve as a good start, for pointing to the outsider test for faith, and the burden of proof.

    However, you do dismiss Thor, Loki, Zeus, Hercules, Athena, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Baal, Odin, Chemosh, Marduk, Gaia, etc… don’t you?

  7. Oh, and I see an error in my earlier post:

    “in the public” must be “in the public space” or “in public”

  8. Hi ratamacue0, how are you going? Thanks for your comment and question for they raise some interesting issues.

    Yes, Nate made the same point about it being a useful tool, and it could be I suppose, but only if it’s used fairly. The so-called Outsider test, the so-called “burden of proof” and the slogan discussed here, are usually presented in ways that (as I’ve shown here) obscure the facts rather than clarify them, and so they do the cause of truth more harm than good. That is because a slogan can never do the questions justice.

    Of course I don’t believe in any of those entities you mentioned, but it is a matter of definition whether that is relevant to the slogan and whether I dismiss them. I have heard of all those names, but I know next to nothing about some of them and I certainly have never seriously considered individually whether some of them could be true – I have just judged them according to the criteria I laid out in the post. And of course there are hundreds, probably thousands of so-called deities in polytheistic religions around the world that I’ve never even heard of, let alone considered whether they could be true.

    And of course, the same is true for you and Stephen Roberts and every other atheist in the world. So all of us reject many of those so-called deities generically. So if Stephen Roberts is correct, he can reject the christian God generically as well, for that’s what his slogan says. But that is hardly an answer that anyone could respect, and of course it contravenes Clifford’s Principle which is another common atheist slogan (and one I can agree with a little more).

    So neither Roberts nor any other atheist nor I really reject claims about gods consistently. We are more sensible than that, and give attention to the claims with the greatest initial plausibility or the most evidence or the greatest level of belief.

    So the slogan only really makes sense if we apply it to believable and genuine deities, not some vaguely defined entity that really has no real godlike qualities. And for those deities, my comments in the post apply. I did actually write a paragraph on Zeus, but omitted it because I didn’t think it added much value, but maybe I should have left it in.

    Thanks again, it was interesting thinking this through.

  9. I work to believe that which is true and factual. I also work to discard/dismiss my beliefs that which is not true/factual regardless of that I would prefer to believe ..
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    The two different methods humans have developed to to understand existence : (1) belief based upon faith ( Hebrews 11:1) . or in contrast (2) belief in the results of reason and testing ( the scientific process)..

    The FIRST and ancient method, of understanding of existence etc., includes faith based theologies of Christianity ( Jesus) Muslims, Scientology . Mormon. Thor, and others. The continued use and growth of faith based beliefs provide the evidence that humans do need explanations about existence.. These theologies provide the comfort and security that most humans need to thrive..

    The SECOND method, developed in recent times is the scientific process is based upon reason and testing a hypothesis to develop a clearer understanding reality .. . This process has evidence that the sun does not rotate around the earth, that illnesses are not caused by evil spirits, and that prayers do not have and effect on the results of illnesses. etc.
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    If a theological claim is proved by scientific processes I shall accept it.

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  10. Hi Norm,

    Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions please?

    Do you regard the two methods you mention as the only two possible, or is there something in between, or a combination of both?

    Do you apply the scientific method in all of your life? Can you give me an example of how you apply it in your daily life – your relationships, your work, your leisure, etc?

    Thanks.

  11. Hi unkleE,

    How do I use the scientific method ? Simple, I make decisions based on facts I can verify, or on the best estimations on the results I want..
    No, I can’t see how a rational person can function on a science basis AND a mythic ( god) basis at the same time .. Yes, I have heard that there are several noted scientists who claim belief in supernatural. (god) … That requires operating in two separated parts of the brain/mind – some folks say it is possible..

    Believers in supernatural ( ie; Hebrews 11:1) must base decisions on their interpretation of their supernatural .. It may or may not have any base in some reality.. == Belief in supernatural may be comforting , but it’s just as good as a roll of dice.
    God? Which one of the 3500 gods? The claims involved in the gods etc have not been proven.. .. If it wasn’t for reason and testing claims/conjectures, we would still be casting spells and burning witches to eliminate sicknesses. The scientific process has been the only way humans made progress..

    Most of us grew up believing what ever the adults told us – including Santa ( proof? The presents ) and he toothfairy ( proof – the coins ) and the stories of magic .. The supernatural became normal part of life… Whichever supernatural the person adapted..

    Only after a person decides to require evidence produced by reason and scientific process can humans start to see reality … Yes, there are questions that may never be answered – but we should not make up answers (make believe answers) to feel secure..
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    Big family meals during holiday times usually have the kids at their own table to eat from and they can talk about Santa and magic stuff – you know, kids matters.. The adults would be at the adult table and talk about big people stuff ..

    It’s an atheist joke: “Many adult people should be assigned to the childrens table” = Grown-ups should have discarded children make-believes ..

  12. Hi Norm, I see you are not using “scientific method” in the strict sense of hypothesis, prediction, data, test, analysis, comparison, new hypothesis, etc, but much more loosely, which is fine by me. But it shows that your dichotomy of science vs faith is too simplistic, because you yourself don’t appear to be adhering to it.

    But I seem to think the same as you on that – i.e. there are more than two ways to know things.

    Which means I can say quite certainly that you are wrong about me, however right or wrong you may be about others. For I too try to “make decisions based on facts I can verify, or on the best estimations”. It is just likely that each of us assess the “facts” differently.

    I would be interested to know your definition of “mythic”, for you put “god” in brackets which is not part of the dictionary definition. And can you explain how, neurologically, belief in God (or a god) requires a different part of the brain?

    I’m also guessing you don’t use the word faith according to the dictionary definition, so I’d be interested to know what definition you are using there too.

    Thanks.

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