bookmark_borderOpen Thread: What Does the “One Less God” Quote Mean?

A quotation attributed to Stephen Roberts goes like this:

I contend 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.

I’ve seen this quote floating around the Internet for at least 20 years but I don’t remember reading anything by a professional philosopher specifically about it. One immediate question I have about this is how to interpret it. At the risk of “poisoning the well,” I’m going to mention some different ways this quote might be interpreted before turning it over to the audience to understand what other people think it means.
Interpretation #1: The “Lack of Evidence” Interpretation
According to this interpretation, theists dismiss all the other possible gods (such as Zeus, Thor, and so forth) because there is no evidence for the existence of such deities. Likewise, if Roberts defines “atheist” as a person who lacks belief in the existence of God or gods, then Roberts can be interpreted as saying that atheists are atheists because there is no evidence for the existence of any god, including the God (capital ‘G’) of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Interpretation #2: The “Evidence Against” Interpretation
According to this interpretation, theists dismiss the existence of gods (lowercase ‘g’) because there is evidence for their nonexistence. Likewise, according to this interpretation of Roberts, atheists are atheists because there is evidence for the nonexistence of God (capital ‘G’).
Interpretation #3: The “Plea for Epistemic Consistency” Interpretation
According to this interpretation, Roberts is simply expressing a plea for epistemic consistency. He’s asking theists to evaluate their belief in God using the same standards they apply to all of the lesser deities (gods with a lowercase ‘g’) which they do not believe in.
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I don’t claim those three interpretations are the only ones possible; I’ve described them just as a way to get the conversation going. And note that, as I have defined them, they aren’t even mutually exclusive: 3 is compatible with both 1 and 2. With that said, I am most interested in understanding what everyone else thinks, including both theists and nontheists. One request: if you do decide to comment, please indicate in your comment how you self-identify (atheist, agnostic, mere theist, Christian, Jew, pantheist, etc.).

bookmark_border41,000 Denominations?

Bold Atheism recently tweeted the following meme:


What should we make of this meme?
Continue reading “41,000 Denominations?”

bookmark_borderStupid Atheist Meme #4: “Let’s Put an End to the Philosophy of Religion!”

Note: For the avoidance of doubt, in calling this and other memes”stupid” I’m not claiming–and don’t think–that anyone who agrees with any or all of these memes is a stupid person. 

J.L. Schellenberg has written all that needs to be said on this topic, in a combox on another site (skip down to comment #47). I think it’s worth quoting in full.

Having done philosophy of religion as an atheist for more than twenty years, I find the idea that atheistic belief should lead one to view philosophy of religion as useless or pernicious a bit out of touch with reality. Theistic work in philosophy of religion is, for cultural reasons, getting the lion’s share of attention. But this should not prevent us from noticing that the field is in fact rather well populated by non-theists. Rather, it gives us a reason to try to bring them – people like Paul Draper, Evan Fales, Steve Maitzen, Graham Oppy, Robin LePoidevin, William Rowe, and plenty of others — a lot more visibility. Those who call for an end to philosophy of religion might get some insight into just what they’re talking about (and then productively fall silent) if they consulted the work of people like these to discover why even an atheist might spend a lifetime doing philosophy of religion.

The answer is not that an atheist might spend a lifetime crawling through the minutiae of non-Christian or non-theistic religious belief systems. Here it is helpful to have formed some general conception of what philosophy of religion is about. Philosophy of religion, as I see it, involves bringing to bear on both actual and possible religious ideas and practices the resources of the rest of philosophy (ethics, epistemology, etc.) and, reciprocally, bringing to bear on the rest of philosophy the best results from philosophy of religion. If anyone thinks that the work of Christian philosophers exhausts either of these dimensions of the field, or that the most important such work has been completed if/when we recognize that there is no personal deity, they are sadly mistaken. Even if theism is false, other religious ideas – including the most fundamental (which should therefore be of greater interest to philosophers) – remain to be explored. Many of these ideas and explorations will not bring us into the embrace of some living religious tradition, but rather call for us to stretch our imaginations beyond the results of a few millenia of activity on the part of religious people.

Atheism, as I see it, therefore marks not the end of philosophy of religion but is something more like its beginning. Of course, if one is suffering from such common afflictions as the assumption that there are no real intellectual options in this realm other than traditional theism and metaphysical naturalism, or the virus that subtly turns one’s mind from a love of truth to an activist orientation, then one cannot be expected to make much sense of this. But philosophy is supposed to deliver us from such afflictions. 

(boldface mine)

It’s been suggested that our very own Keith Parsons supported this meme when he famously called the case for theism a “fraud” (see here). Two points. He quickly regretted using the word “fraud” and stated (in the combox for that post) that he wishes he had used the word “vacuous” instead as the word “fraud” implies deceit on the part of theists and he doesn’t consider theistic philosophers dishonest. Second,he confirmed in writing this morning that he does NOT think we should put an end to the philosophy of religion. With his permission, I quote his email to me.

Anybody that read that post with any care would see that I did not state that PoR is a fraud. I said that the case for theism is a fraud. I quickly regretted the word “fraud” because it inevitably seems to imply intentional deceit. I should have said that the case for theism is vacuous. Natural theology has been given a fair hearing for centuries, and as the arguments have gotten more sophisticated, the critiques have more than kept up. PoR will always be around, it just needs to switch focus from the endless attempts to substantiate theistic arguments.
(boldface mine)

Post Edited on 11 August 2015 to add this:
The blogger known as “Ex-Apologist,” who is a nontheist with a Ph.D. in philosophy, has called the suggestion that we should put an end to the philosophy of religion “a joke.” See here.
See Also:
What is Philosophy of Religion?” by Paul Draper

bookmark_borderStupid Atheist Meme #2: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”

This is my second post in my series on stupid atheist memes. (For the previous entry, click here.) I’d like to discuss the following meme, coined by philosopher W.K. Clifford in his famous essay, “The Ethics of Belief.”

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

While I am embarrassed to admit that, in my philosophical youth, I used to agree with this meme, I’m proud to say I got wiser.
The problem with this meme (and the reason I think it’s stupid) is that it is self-defeating. Assume, for the sake of argument, that it’s true. Now ask yourself, “What is the evidence that it’s true?” I’m not sure what would even count as evidence for Clifford’s meme.
Also, as someone who’s been thinking about nontheistic metaethics recently, I think it’s interesting to focus on the word “wrong” for a moment. That word suggests (to me, anyway) that Clifford is stating some sort of normative principle. But which kind of normativity? Moral? Epistemic? Something else? In any case, the word “wrong” suggests a potential practical (if not logical) inconsistency among some of the people who buy into Clifford’s meme. Take, for example, Richard Dawkins’s oft-quoted (if misguided) verdict on morality and purpose:

(1) The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
–Richard Dawkins (boldface mine)

Assuming that Dawkins means that there is no such thing as ontologically objective moral values or duties, then notice this entails that there is nothing (ontologically objectively) morally bad or wrong about believing something without sufficient evidence. In other words, Dawkins’ statement seems to entail this statement.

(2) The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, nothing wrong with believing something upon insufficient evidence.

Since I reject Clifford’s meme, does this mean I think it’s okay to believe anything without sufficient evidence? No, not at all. In fact, in our everyday lives, there might not be much or any practical difference between someone who agrees with this meme and myself. In theory, however, Clifford’s meme is a much too simplistic approach to the justification of belief. And the task of articulating a better alternative is probably more difficult (and complex) than many non-philosophers assume.

bookmark_borderStupid Atheist Meme #1: If You Could Reason with Religious People…

After my post Apologetics Infographic #1, I planned to do a related series titled, “Stupid Atheist Memes.” I see, however, that Ed Brayton had the idea first. (See here for the latest in his series; the others so far are here, here, and here.) I trust he won’t mind if I do my own series with the same title.
For the inaugural entry, I’d like to discuss this.

If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.

The meme is attributed to the fictional atheist Dr. House. (See here; I’ve avoided posting the infographic to avoid any potential copyright issues.)
At best, this meme is an unsupported generalization. Even if you think you know with absolute certainty that God doesn’t exist, it doesn’t follow that every religious person on the planet is unreasonable. An additional argument would be needed to justify the universal generalization implied by the meme. And I have no idea how a finite being would go about gathering such information about every other theist on the planet.
But I think this meme is worse than an unsupported generalization. I think it’s false. There are religious people and then there are religious people. Say what you will about the “average believer” (whoever that is), I think the existence of professional philosophers like Richard Swinburne and Daniel Howard-Snyder, both of whom are theists and very reasonable people, clearly refute this meme.