Richard Dawkins and other popular atheist authors and advocates are quite fond of the ‘one less god’ argument, and I’ve heard and read quite a few different self-proclaimed atheists using it lately.
It goes something like this: “We’re both atheists; neither one of us believes in Zeus, Pele, Odin, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just believe in one less god than you. So, believing in YOUR god is just as ignorant and silly.”
I have to work very hard to be charitable when presented this argument. First, it really isn’t an argument; it is a statement of belief. Second, as an argument it is not only logically nonsensical, but relies on a category error to reach the conclusion offered.
My first objection is that it is a false argument. Since the conclusion (belief in your God is silly) does not follow from the premise (there are lots of gods neither one of us believes in), it is a false argument that amounts to nothing more than an unsupported opinion. It sounds profound and really smart, but it’s all an intellectual house of cards, falling apart when gently poked with a bit of logic.
One way to knock down this flimsy construction is to point out the basic error of the premise, which is that not only are all ‘gods’ are equal, but that we are both defining ‘God’ in the same way. This is definitely not the case.
When atheists presenting this argument talk of ‘God’ or ‘gods’, they are speaking of any supernatural being that has been worshipped (the Flying Spaghetti Monster is acknowledged as nothing more than a parody of deities in general). In this view, all ‘gods’ are nothing more than made-up fiction by the unsophisticated and ignorant to explain things they can’t understand.
But Christians and theists understand God as the necessary, uncreated, personal (as in a Being that is a person) creator and sustainer of our universe. Here’s the very important point of this worldview – the ‘gods’ of the “one less god” argument come far short of this definition. They are all beings originating from and operating completely within the material universe.
In other words, they are all either created beings or entities constrained by the limits of the material universe in that they do not transcend both space and time. These ‘gods’ are part of the universe, not independent of it.
Which points out how ridiculous the “one less god” argument is. Let me illustrate:
I tell a friend of mine that I’m planning on buying a diesel motorcycle, and his response is, “Curly, that’s ridiculous. We both know that there is no manufacturer that currently makes diesel bikes, and I don’t believe there is such a thing. You shouldn’t either – after all, I just believe in one diesel motorcycle less than you, so just forget about this fairy-tale bike.”
So, if you’re presented with this argument, what do you do? Pointing out how lame it is will only put the presenter on the defensive.
I usually try to gently lead them to come to that conclusion on their own by asking some pointed questions. Here are a few starters for you:
-) What do you mean by “god”?
-) How does the fact that there are many false gods have anything to do with whether there is a real God or not? Does the fact that every motorcycle that I’ve seen on the roads this last month has been either a Harley, Honda, or Beemer prove that Hondas don’t exist?
-) If you accept the definition of God as the unique, uncreated, conscious Being that created and sustains the physical universe (including time), how can Zeus, etc. even qualify as God?
Each of these questions are designed to do two things. First, they encourage the presenter to examine and realize just how lame the argument really is. Second, they open the door for them to actually hear your reasons for believing in and following the One God who has revealed Himself in the Bible.
For more information on the ‘one less god’ argument, take a look at the links below:
The Guardian has a good article from a different perspective
Edward Feser not only presents a refutation of the argument, but a critique of the attitude behind it.
At leesomniac there’s an article that uses the example of a jury trial to illustrate the problems of the argument.
Credo House has an article presenting the differences in the concept of ‘belief’ between the two sides of the OLG argument.