One Less God - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Defending Christianity

One Less God

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.

Stephen Roberts

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

Richard Dawkins

I've seen statements like the above quoted by a number of atheists. Some seem to see it as a serious argument, others as simply a clever quip.

But a little thought will show that, as an argument against Christianity, it is seriously flawed.

Consider this "argument", based on the same logic:

"The traitor is really no different from the patriot. The traitor is just loyal to one fewer country than the patriot. We all show no allegiance to many countries, some of us just show allegiance to fewer countries than others."

There are about 196 countries in the world. (We could debate the count, but that's not the point here.) The patriot is loyal to one of these and has no loyalty to the other 195. The traitor has no loyalty to any of the 196. Does that mean that the difference between them is miniscule?

The idea behind this argument is apparently that if there have been, say, 100 religions in the history of the world -- again, we could debate the number, the exact number is irrelevant to the point -- and you agree that 99 of them are false, then by the same reasoning you must concede that the 100th is false also. If numbers 1 through 99 are wrong, then number 100 must also be wrong. As Mr Roberts says, "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Does that really follow? Suppose you were taking a multiple-choice history test, and you came to a question like this:

Who was president of the United States during the Civil War?

  1. George Washington
  2. Abraham Lincoln
  3. Ronald Reagan
  4. Winston Churchill
  5. None

Would it be reasonable to say, "Hmm, there are a bunch of names there. They can't all have been president at the same time. At least three of them must be wrong. So if at least three of the four are wrong, the fourth is probably wrong, too. The U.S. must not have had any president during the Civil War. The answer must be 'None'."

That would be silly. The fact that three of the names are wrong doesn't prove that all four are wrong. Just the opposite. The fact that one of the answers is right -- Lincoln, for those of you who are weak on American history -- makes the others wrong.

So sure, Christians say that Hindus and Moslems and Zoroastrians are wrong. Hindus say that Moslems and Zoroastrians and Christians are wrong. Moslems say that, etc. But to say that this somehow proves that all of them are wrong and atheists are right doesn't follow at all. For every question, there are many wrong answers.

Indeed, the atheist makes much of the fact that all the answers to the question except his are very similar. Christians, Moslems, Hindus, etc, all agree that there is some sort of God or gods out there. The atheist then says that if, as a Christian (for example), you believe that all these other answers are wrong, you must concede that by the same reasoning your similar answer is also wrong. Therefore the atheist, with a very different answer -- no god at all -- must be right.

If anything, this proves the opposite. 99% of the people in the history of the world have come up with very similar answers to this question. This includes many very smart and well-educated people who have studied the question very carefully. The atheist says that because they all come up with very similar answers but disagree about the details, that this proves that they are all completely wrong.

Earlier I mentioned that the count of the number of countries in the world is debatable. Suppose you checked three sources, and one said 196, one said 197, and one said 185. All three answers are close to each other, but they are all different. Perhaps they are using different definitions of "country". Perhaps one or more simply made a mistake. Whatever. I'd conclude that the correct answer is "somewhere around 190". Apparently the atheist would conclude that because the three numbers are different, that this proves that they are all completely wrong, and therefore there are no countries in the world.

© 2011 by Jay Johansen


Sasquatch May 23, 2014

I've never taken this quip as an attack on Christianity. I've always seen it as a defense of atheism. The point being that it shows how easy it is to not believe in something. We all disbelieve many things. The quip just makes it clear that atheists merely go one tiny step further.

Dale May 30, 2015

But your not just going one step further. You're going one step in a totally different direction. As people throughout history have had many different religions, going one step further might mean inventing yet another religion. But rejecting all religions is not "one step further". It's leaping to the side.

freedomlover Dec 26, 2015

Of course we all "disbelieve many things". Christopher Hitchens's book "Letter to a Christian Nation" spent most of a chapter on this, "proving" that there are lots of things that Christians don't believe, like he thought that this would be some startling idea to Christians, that we thought that everybody believed everything they heard, and if he can just convince us that there might be something that someone, somewhere, sometime said that we concluded was not true, that then we would suddenly realize that we are just like atheists because we both have things that we've heard that we don't believe. News flash: That was never the question. It's not that we can't comprehend the idea of not believing something you read or hear. It's that we think this particular set of things, Christianity, should be believed because they have good historical evidence, logic, etc.

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