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_borderMust-Read Paper on the Confusing Terminology in the Philosophy of Religion

Philosopher Dale Tuggy has written an incredibly helpful paper which seeks to help clarify some of the confusing terminology in the philosophy of religion regarding God vs. gods. Key terms defined in this paper include deity, godhood, ultimate, the Ultimate. So far as I can tell, his modest proposal for terminology does not appear to beg the question in favor of western monotheism vs. other religious beliefs such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Hellenistic polytheism (think: Zeus and the ancient Greek pantheon), Jainism, and so forth.
Of special interest to readers of this blog is how atheism and naturalism fits into his proposed schema. Using his definitions for ultimate, god, and deity, the following terms are of interest:

  • naturalistic adeism: This is the view that (i) there is nothing with supernatural powers and so no deity; (ii) no god; and (iii) no Ultimate.
  • adeistic ultimism: This is the view that (i) there are no deities; (ii) there is no god; and (iii) there is an Ultimate.
  • monodeistic ultimism: This is the view that (i) there is exactly one deity; (ii) there is no god; and (iii) there is an Ultimate.
  • polydeistic, non-ultimistic atheism: This is the view that (i) there are many deities; (ii) there is no god; and (iii) there is no Ultimate.

It would be an interesting exercise to apply Tuggy’s proposed terminology to analyze the famous quotation attributed to Stephen Roberts:

“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.”

For example, based on Tuggy’s distinction between a deity and a god, one could interpret Roberts in a variety of ways. One option would be to interpret it as a statement about belief in deities. In that case, the statement becomes:

“I contend we are both adeists, I just believe in one fewer deity than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible deities, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

I am not certain, but I think this is a faithful “translation” of Roberts’ quotation using Tuggy’s terminology. I’ve seen countless atheists use the Robert’s quotation (or something like it) to compare a dismissal of Yahweh or Allah with a dismissal of Zeus, Thor, Quetzcoatl, etc. Now, as Tuggy points out, on his terminology, godhood implies deity, but deity does not presuppose godhood. For example, Yahweh is a god (and so also a deity), whereas Zeus is a deity but not a god. This is because, on Tuggy’s view, godhood implies ultimacy; Yahweh and Allah are ultimate whereas Zeus, Thor, et al are not.
The upshot of Tuggy’s deity vs god distinction is that it helps clarify Roberts’ “one fewer god” argument. As an argument for dismissing non-god deities, it it looks promising. As an argument for dismissing “gods” (as defined by Tuggy), it looks dubious. The arguments for the existence of ‘mere’ deities would seem to have little, if anything, in common with the arguments for the existence of a god (in Tuggy’s sense of “god”). Or so it seems to me. This is just my kneejerk reaction: please share your thoughts in the comments section on whether Tuggy’s terminology is helpful, if you actually read Tuggy’s paper.
Dale Tuggy, “On Counting Gods” Theologica: An International Journal for Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology 2017: 188-213.  https://doi.org/10.14428/thl.v1i1.153