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.
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.).
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