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September 12, 2006

One Fewer God

In that interview in Salon (which has, for the moment at least, disappeared from the Web) Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, uses this cool line:

Christians today might say, I don't believe in Zeus, that was a silly superstition. Yet for many people that was a real god. So it turns out there are 10,000 gods and yet only one right one. That means we're all atheists on 9,999 gods. The only difference between me and the believers is I'm an atheist on one more god.

I know I've heard this line before. According to the Web (which occasionally does have its limits as a source of knowledge), it was first used by someone named Stephen F. Roberts:

I contend that 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.

Roberts even has a page in which he formally takes credit for it.

However, I suspect the line is much older than that. I found this Bertrand Russell quote which is close:

I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

But I believe this has to go back further -- to Charles Bradlaugh or Baron d'Holbach or someone. Anybody know?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at September 12, 2006 1:23 AM


I would suspect this idea is as old as the first traders who were aware of more than two Gods. We got this "Take this God and shove it" DNA configuration from somewhere, probably from those travelers who had to pretend belief in all local Gods leading to believing in none. Which would lead one to suspect that ideas change the brain. Thanks ancient traders! It also reinforces the idea that being exposed to other cultures makes one more "reasonable". But that may just be my bias.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 12, 2006 12:07 PM

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