There is a popular saying that suggests, “We are all atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do” used when replying to Christians (typically) on the charge of being “another atheist”.

The argument is based upon the idea that primitive man’s belief in many gods (pan-theism) has evolved into a belief in one (mono-theism) and that one less god equals no gods at all.

It’s true that the three great monotheistic religions are all descended from a common ancestor and even have sects analogous to species and sub-species - hey, there’s evolution again - but the very idea that atheists believe in fewer gods (1 - 1 = 0) is flawed.

The problem with the argument is one of semantics.

Theist (theology, theologian, etc.) all derive from the greek word “theos” meaning god. However, the critical thing to realise is that prefixing many words “a” actually negates or reverses their meaning. Some dictionaries define the a- prefix as “without”, others have it as “not” but the sense is the same.

Aplastic anemia is an interesting example because both words use the “a” to negate the meaning of the original root words (both of which are greek or ancient greek).

OK, so to atheist. We can see from this that our word atheist descends from a-theos and it’s here the response presented earlier becomes fallacious. Atheists are without god so to suggest in any manner that any monotheist is an atheist who’s lost the other gods is semantically incorrect. This because both the pantheist (pan- = many) believer in many gods and the monotheist (mono- = one believer in one god) are both theists.

I mention this is because I’ve seen the argument used on this site and the last thing I wish to see is one of us being hung by our own petard (which, by the way, means blown up with your own gunpowder).

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the three great monotheistic religions are all descended from a common ancestor

So Judaism, Christianity and Islam it is, or so I assume. It doesn't matter that Sikhism is as much monotheistic as these, with twice the number of followers Judaism can claim. Western bias? :P

By the way, while I agree with your point that this argument is actually a semantic fallacy, I think it still makes sense when you read the untruncated original:

"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." - Stephen F. Roberts
Rat's I mad a pig's ear 'ole out of my own reply there and lost it. ;-)

Used out of context (as it so often is) is what I'm wary of, Don and thanks for the correction on "hung/hoist" - that's a phrase I use so often I think it's old age messing me brain.

Does saltpeter (sodium/potassium) nitrate have any connection here? Given that they are both usable in black-powder of the petards.
Your literal semantic analysis is spot-on, Marc.

But I do appreciate the “We are all atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do” remark as an example of ironic humor.

Dawkins often asks theists in his audiences if they also believe in the likes of "Zeus" or "Amon Ra"... knowing full well that they do not. When they say "No", he then asks them, "Why not?". I think he's using humor to point out that had they been raised in a different culture, their faith would focus on a different deity.

So I don't think that quip is really meant to be semantically correct - I think it's intended to have a humorous sort of shock value - designed to make people examine the reasoning behind their own acculturated religious beliefs.
This because both the pantheist (pan- = many) believer in many gods and the monotheist (mono- = one believer in one god) are both theists.

You should change pan to poly. Pan means all. Pantheists typically believe that everything is a manifestation of god, and therefore god is the universe and vice versa. At least that's my understanding of pantheists. Heck, there is a pantheist group on Atheist Nexus...not sure how that works but it is there.
Poly/Pan. Hang my head in shame and thanks for the correction. I'll go wash my brain now.
And to simply be the contrarian for a moment:

Monotheists are atheist in respect to all other gods. That is they don't believe they exist. They are theist with respect to one particular god claim.

Phrased that way, I'm not sure it is fallacious.
Well, that's what the Romans thought anyway - they deemed the early Christians guilty of atheism and persecuted them for this very reason.
Not sure myself given the root word theos - in boolean logic (which is what the "a-" gives us) you either are or you're not; true or false; positive or negative. There's no such thing as 99% true (in boolean). I expect the distinction may lie in that root word - that is, if it's plural or singular - does theos/theist/theism relate to a single god or does it encompass a belief in the untestable/supernatural.

[Sorry if this re-raises your excellent point above, Don, it wasn't meant to.]

As a purely rhetorical device and in pure context, it's right on the money, but as it's so often used in the common short form, I think it's potentially dangerous. Of course, the challenge there is to think of a better one (perhaps as Einstein did for Newton's laws)!

Larry (succinct as ever!) has the final word though - they [theists] ignore anything which might make them "think"!

If there are 100 gods, and a person believes in none of them except one, is he 99% atheist?

Nah, he is 100% atheist with respect of the 99 gods, and 100% theist with respect to the god he believes in.
In that case he sort of sits in that weird third state - a bit like Schrodinger's Cat (I love the Firefox spelling checker when I need that name).

He's 100% FALSE in one state and 100% TRUE in the other - we can only determine which by observation.

Now, all I need to prove this is a mono-theist, some radioactive material, a box and a phial of fluorine... Oh bugger.
Someone, Dawkins I think, observed that find 100 monotheists and get them to write down a description of god (they precise same thing they all know lots about, worship and love) and you'll get 100 different answers. Presumably the same follows for each order of magnitude above that.

On that note, Hugh Jackman has a documentary coming out next month. I believe it's called Oh My God. He travelled around the world asking people to explain what god is to them. Might be interesting, or self-indulgent crap. Haven't seen enough to guess yet.


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