Richard Dawkins, in the book The God Delusion, contends that everyone is an atheist, at least concerning some gods. He says, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Here is what he means. As a Christian, I don’t believe that Zeus was a god. I don’t believe Dagon was either, or Molech, or Horus, or Vishnu, or Thor. Dawkins and I agree 100% on these, since neither of us believe in the divinity of any of these. We both believe they were only myths and stories. We only differ on the issue of one deity among millions. Thus, why not go the whole way and wipe the board clear of all deities, since I’ve already discounted 99.99% of all deities?
Dawkins approaches this as a mathematical problem, so let’s use a mathematical metaphor to look at it a bit closer. Let us compare Hinduism, Christianity, and atheism. If one god equals $1, then the Hindu is a millionaire, the Christian has one dollar, and the atheist is broke (or if you prefer a negative metaphor, the Hindu is hopelessly in debt, the Christian is $1 dollar in debt, and the atheist doesn’t owe anything.) Thus, a Christian is seemingly much closer to an atheist than to a Hindu. Dawkins’s whole argument hinges on this proximity.
Here is why he is wrong.
How much is a god worth?
In the above example with money, someone with one god seems closer to someone with no gods than to someone with 10 gods, since 1 is closer to 0 than to 10. However, how much is a god worth?
To better illustrate what I mean, let’s multiply all the numbers in the above metaphor by a billion. While 1 seems closer to 0 than to 10, we know that in practice a man with 1 billion dollars is vastly closer in status and lifestyle to someone with 10 billion dollars than to someone with no money at all. In fact, for all practical purposes, the two billionaires are identical in how they conduct their lives, and only the number in their bank account shows the difference.
Not all gods are created equal
Of course, the number of discrete deities a person worships is not the whole story, because as everyone knows, the question is not one of gods, but of belief systems. Religion is rarely an à la carte menu where we pick and choose. I doubt you could find a person in the world who worships Thor, Ganesh, and Manitou and only those three.
Not to mention, not all gods are created equal. Most gods who are part of a pantheon are simply overpowered humans, in their behavior, appearance, and actions. There is a reason why Thor is part of the Marvel superhero universe and the God of the Bible is not. A trillion minor nature gods of woods and streams collectively do not compare in the least to the Creator of the universe.
Theism is binary
Finally, the real distinction between polytheists, monotheists and atheists is not one of numbers: it is binary question, a matter of existence versus non-existence. Does the world exist of only the things we can see and experience and measure with our physical senses or does it only contain a spiritual dimension that is unknown to our five senses? The Christian and the Hindu (and all other religions) see the world in the same way, the natural world with a spiritual realm overlaid on it, while atheists see the world as nothing but the natural world.
This is the real distinction, and it is an irreconcilable divide that cannot be bridged. If there is a God, then the purely naturalistic world of atheism is smashed to bits, and if there is no God, then the theistic worldview is destroyed. There is no congress of belief between a monotheist and an atheist merely because the number of deities they believe in differs by one.