“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 F Roberts
Some years after first penning those words, Roberts provided this modest retrospective:
“Yep, that’s me! I am the author of the above quote which has become a bit of a popular statement throughout the net (and some in the real world too).”
..I first used The Quote as a tag line for postings on the newsgroups alt.atheism and talk.atheism at some point before October 1995. I don’t remember exactly when I started using it, and unfortunately lost my mailer that would have contained the archive. The earliest records that DejaNews.com have is back to 1995, and by October 1995 it apeared ‘widespread’ in taglines, so I must have originated it sometime before then. Most likely early 95 or late 94.
…The Quote is an original quote that came from an online debate I was having with religious people in the newsgroups. I used the a similar comparison in a debate when my opponent wondered why I ignored the evidence for god, and in return, I wondered why my debate opponent chose to ignore the evidence for Shiva, or Zeus, or any of the other possible gods.
…I then slightly refined and shortened it the next day to the ‘modern’ form it is now to use in a tagline. Within days, The Quote was in use by others in their taglines (I added my name as an attribute a few weeks later when people asked me if it was my original quote).
…About a month later, I made another variation of the quote that also appears sometimes: “We are all atheists, some of us just believe in fewer gods than others”… but it never quite got the popularity of the original
I just had the luck to put together the phrase right at the dawn of the modern Internet age. 🙂 (source)
Robert is certainly right to note the surprising impact of his quip. For example, I once participated in a debate/dialogue with an atheist on the question of whether atheists merely have a belief in “one fewer god” than a theist. We probably should have dedicated that event to Roberts.
In that exchange as well as in chapter 13 of my book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails, the focus is on whether atheists can, in fact, have everything belonging to a theistic worldview minus God.
But of course, the main point of that aphorism is not on the first part (unless we interpret the whole as a compound aphorism which is indeed a plausible take). It is, rather found in the conclusion: “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” The idea there, of course, is to claim that people who adhere to one religion somehow arbitrarily and inconsistently dismiss other religions perspectives when they adopt the one they do, in fact, hold. In short, Roberts is chiding the religions adherent for adopting their perspective when they have not equally canvassed the thought-worlds, communal praxis, and evidential basis of the countless other options.
Of course, there is a glaring problem here: Roberts himself has clearly not carefully canvassed the thought-worlds, communal praxis, and evidential basis of the countless world religions. If he had, he would never have said anything as inane as “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” The fact is that distinct adherents to different religions all have distinct levels of intelligence and knowledge about their religious perspective and the supporting evidence for it, a distinct range of experiences and intuitions, and a distinct range of exposure to alternative views.
The real problem, of course, is that Roberts engages in a little game of self-deception by limiting the field of players to those who espouse specific “religions” by some particular socially constructed definition of “religion”. In fact, the real issue is not about religions per se but rather about worldviews, and the epistemic humility to recognize that one’s dismissal of worldviews other than one’s own is always limited by one’s own epistemic horizons. And in the case of Roberts, those horizons are limited indeed.