One popular quote relating to atheism is by Stephen Henry Roberts:
“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” - Stephen Henry Roberts
On first hearing, this can seem quite jarring. It is, to his credit, a very well-crafted snippet of language. It shows the importance of how we say things, the language we use, in addition to what we say, the actual content of our assertions. Language captivates us. It takes us on a journey. It can even convince us on its merit alone. However, such conviction, without associated reasonable content, is purely a psychological product of the way the human brain processes such language. If we wish to be reasonable in our beliefs, quality of language alone is not sufficient grounds for believing the truth of a statement. One only needs to dip into any number of excellently-written fantasy novels to confirm this – a well-written statement, no matter how convincing-sounding, is little more than an linguistically pleasing jumble of words if it does not contain truth.
So, therefore, what of the truth content of Roberts’ quote? To examine this, we shall unpack more systematically exactly what this statement is claiming, so that we can take as objective view on it as possible:
1) “I contend that we are both atheists.”
This statement is written to the audience of a theist from an atheist perspective, so this is effectively saying, “I content that both you, the theist, and I, the atheist, are both atheists.” Now, in its present form, this statement seems incoherent. In context, it is trying to say that the theist is an atheist with respect to “other gods”. What does this really mean? The belief in the truth of one concept of God implies a dismissal of other conceptions of God, just as the belief in any truth about anything logically implies a rejection of ideas which contradict this truth. To believe that the moon is made of rock logically excludes the belief that the moon is made of cheese (since cheese is not a form of rock!) To say, therefore, that one is atheist simply because one has defined the nature of one’s belief of God, which implies other conceptions of God are dismissed, is a stretch at best.
To give a crude parallel, let’s imagine Bob absolutely loves chocolate ice-cream. He eats it for dessert every evening. However, he hates vanilla ice-cream. It would be a bit like categorising Bob as an “ice-cream hater” on the basis that he hates vanilla, even though he loves and eats chocolate ice-cream every day! This move, this exaggeration, from the specific to the general is subtle and sounds impressive, yet rationally speaking, does not truly represent Bob’s position well.
Technically, therefore, this is not atheism, as one cannot be legitimately defined as “atheist” unless one does not believe in any conception of God whatsoever. In other words, an atheist believes in exactly zero concepts of God, by definition. Thus, one cannot simultaneously be theist and atheist without a logical contradiction.
If one is being strictly rational about this statement, therefore, this first sentence is not technically logically possible. It thus miscategorises theism, and this is part of its rhetorical power.
2) “I just believe in one fewer god than you do”
This statement is also very memorable and well-crafted. It trivialises the assertions of atheism, implying it is simply a matter of rejecting one more concept of God than the theist does. This sounds convincing as any clearly-defined belief in God logically implies the non-acceptance of beliefs incompatible with this. Then, since there are possibly infinite possible conceptions of “God”, simply “believing in one fewer god” sounds trivial and insignificant. The issue with this characterisation of belief is that the same could be said about any belief about reality.
If I believe that the only object on a given table is a single green apple, it logically implies my non-acceptance of the potentially infinite spectrum of other combinations of objects that could have been on the table, such as a red apple, a pear, or an orange. Then, if someone comes along and says “I believe nothing is on the table. I simply believe in one less object than you,” then, while this is technically true, there is nothing rationally preferable about their position simply because the table is clear! A clear table is also simply one possibility out of the infinite set of possibilities for the way the table could be and holds no inherent rational advantage. Likewise, this statement is made slightly more comprehensible if we use the language of “worldview”. A “worldview” in this case is defined simply as “one’s view on reality” or “the sum of one’s beliefs about reality”. Every human being who has ever lived has had a view on reality, a “worldview”, even if the view is that reality is unknowable or utterly uncertain. The theist has a worldview, which (by definition) includes a belief in God. The atheist has a worldview, which (by definition) does not include a belief in God.
Clarified in this way, the statement becomes, “I just believe in a different worldview than you do.” This could be said by either the atheist or the theist, and the atheist worldview is not somehow preferable simply because it does not contain a belief in God. In the same way, a person’s worldview would not be preferable simply because of a lack of belief in an apple on the table. Having a view that a given object does not exist does not automatically give preference to one’s worldview. The worldviews are both worldviews, in the same position rationally.
3) “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours”
This part of the statement, first of all, could be interpreted as a little patronising, implying the theist is simply unable to understand the consequences of why people dismiss conceptions of God. It is my personal conviction that one’s belief, or lack thereof, in God, is completely unrelated to one’s intelligence. Very academically able people have taken both perspectives. Of course, it might feel satisfying to ridicule a belief different to one’s own as inferior, but such petty, subjective competitions are notoriously unhelpful to actually discovering objective truth, and verge on an ad hominem fallacy of dismissing the intelligence of the person rather than addressing the content of their beliefs.
Leaving that aside, why does the theist “dismiss all the other possible gods”? In other words, why do they believe in a certain idea of God? There can be a variety of reasons, such as cumulative evidence for a specific attribute of God, or evidence against an alternative conception of God. (See many excellent posts online by others on these very broad topics!) What’s important here is that the possible reasons given, whether or not one finds them convincing, are undeniably extremely numerous. However, this statement simply assumes these reasons are the same as those which can be used to justify an atheist position. While convenient and catchy as a statement, the idea that every single argument is the same is a gross generalisation at best!
For instance, if I believe God loves all human beings (as I do), it implies I believe there is no man or woman God does not love. I thus dismiss a notion of God who does not love all human beings. Why? Because my positive belief in God’s love excludes this other notion. Thus, much of the time we dismiss alternative beliefs due to positive arguments for the position we hold (e.g. God’s love for all humankind), which then become incompatible with alternative beliefs (e.g. the idea that God does not love all). These positive arguments for belief in God are not arguments for atheism, by definition! An argument for the truth of a certain conception of God is an argument for a form of theism, and thus not for atheism. Yet these positive arguments also logically result in the dismissal of notions of God incompatible with the positive evidence.
Thus for this statement to simplistically claim that one’s reasons for dismissing certain beliefs are also arguments for atheism is simply not realistic. The claim specifically implies one’s reason for dismissing other conceptions for God can also be applied to one’s own conception of God. To be fair, this might be the case for some poorly thought-out arguments. Yet, as shown from the example of an argument for God’s universal love, the majority of the time, this simply isn’t the case. However, prima facie this part of the statement sounds plausible, which is its strength, even though it does not work rationally.
At the end of the day, belief here is the same reason why anyone believes in anything – to take an actual view on something implies a dismissal of contradictory views. Let’s say Bob, our ice-cream lover, holds beliefs A, B and C about the nature of reality. His (extremely simple) worldview could be represented crudely symbolically as [A, B, C]. His friend, John, disagrees and believes A is false, but does believe B and C – let belief F be this belief that A is false, and thus his worldview could be represented as [F, B, C]. Both friends hold worldviews, as we all do. Yet John, by believing [F, B, C], has implicitly dismissed Bob’s worldview of [A, B, C] as not being completely true. Bob, vice versa, has implicitly dismissed [F, B, C] as not being completely true by believing [A, B, C]. Neither Bob not John are in a rationally privileged position. Everyone, in order to believe anything, has to implicitly dismiss thousands, millions, even an infinite set of alternative possibilities. Thus, both the theist and the atheist are in the same position of dismissing an infinity of possible realities in order to come to the one they believe is true. Simply putting the word “god” in there to make it sound as though disbelief in God is somehow uniquely rational seems highly misleading.
Stephen Henry Roberts crafted a well-worded quote which has great linguistic elegance. It’s a good one to use if you like to impress audiences in speeches! However, if one wishes to be reasonable and actually analyse the truth content and internal consistency of the quote, it seems to be little more than a rhetorical device, as it holds very little water as an actual rational argument. Thus, it does not seem a legitimate challenge to belief in God – instead, it highlights just how significant wording and language are in effective dialogue.