William Vallicella the Maverick Philosopher dissects a familiar argument raised by A.C. Grayling, finding that there is really no argument there. The argument, of course, is the following:
Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.
This remark outrages the sensibilities of those who have deep religious convictions and attachments, and they regard it as insulting. But the truth is that everyone takes this attitude about all but one (or a very few) of the gods that have ever been claimed to exist.
No reasonably orthodox Christian believes in Aphrodite or the rest of the Olympian deities, or in Ganesh the Elephant God or the rest of the Hindu pantheon, or in the Japanese emperor, and so endlessly on - and officially (as a matter of Christian orthodoxy) he or she must say that anyone who sincerely believes in such deities is deluded and blasphemously in pursuit of "false gods".
The atheist adds just one more deity to the list of those not believed in; namely, the one remaining on the Christian's or Jew's or Muslim's list.
William Vallicella argues that any conclusion about the supposed irrationality of religion simply cannot follow from the premises in a non-question-begging manner. But I think the point can be attacked from another angle. Namely, it contains the premise that there is a relevant analogy between the atheist's disbelief and my disbelief in, say, Wotan or Zeus. And this, I think, is false.
For an atheist, a theist's idea of God may be an illusion, a Super-daddy or an imaginary friend which we project our hopes and fears on - or, to Marx, the "heart of a heartless world", a projection that fills the God-shapes hole that our alienation from nature, from the product of our labour, and ultimately from our fellow man leaves. Marx, of course, was way ahead of the current crop of "rationalist" atheists. The centrality of the notion of alienation, and the eschatological hope for a future where the divisions of class, race, gender that cut across society will be removed, is not that unbiblical. The difference is that I would believe that there is a God to fill the God-shaped hole so central in man's hopes and longing... But anyway, to an atheist, there is no divine reality we are somehow mistaken about - there is no divine reality, period.
And, granted Grayling's not wholly undubious point that "anyone who sincerely believes in such deities is deluded and blasphemously in pursuit of "false gods"" no atheist would state that Christians (or Muslims, or Hindus) somehow pursue a false God. As there is no "true God" to blasphemize against. The notion of a "false god" implies some kind of resemblance to the genuine article. It presents itself as a god - but in some crucial aspects the notion of it, and of our relations to is, differs from the true one, leading us astray. Similarly the notion of "antichrist" implies a resemblance to Christ - but leading us astray to very much the opposite of Christ and the Kingdom of God He preached. (I think the history of Christianity has a lot of candidates for possible antichrist status).
I think it is perfectly possible for a Christian to state that the religious experiences of the ancient Greeks, or polytheistic ancient Germans, are real, and that they ultimately include an intuition of the Divine - but that lacking God's self-revelation in Biblical narrative and ultimately culminating in God's incarnation in Christ, those religious experiences remained imprisoned in anthropomorphic metaphors and ultimately led to an instrumental, manipulative relationship between Deity and man which is the opposite of what God's intends us to do (magical thinking, manipulative sacrifice - compare the way state religion in the Roman empire becomes something wholly instrumental, a ritual way of signifying one's loyalty to the state by sacrificing to a deified emperor).
With the usage of "anthropomorphic" above I of course mean that the Gods of the Greek, Roman, and Germanic pantheons are limited beings, existing within the universe rather than the universe existing in God. A new - and from the perspective above, better conception breaks through with the Ahura-Mazda of Zarathustra, the singular Deity of Plato and Xenophanes, and the one God of Israel. A Christian would be bound to assert the validity of the covenant between God and Israel, of course. But I don't think it would be false to state that I and the ancient Greek monotheists and Zoroastrians, and, probablym, at least some Hindus and Buddhists, essentially believe in the same God in that it would be possible to intelligibly disagree on our beliefs about God. The relationship between my religious beliefs and the three Abrahamic faiths is, again, qualitatively more intimate.
So, I have no reason to state that, say, the religious experiences of the ancients engaging in the Dionysian mystery religions were wholly false in that they did not correspond to a religious transcendent reality. I can quite coherently assert the validity of religious reality encountered there while at the same time adhering to the Biblical revelation of God (and perhaps, rejecting polytheism as idolatry dangerous precisely because of the kernels of truth encountered there, and caught in misleading metaphors).
(If I recall correctly, C.S. Lewis at some point remarks on the widespread agrarian religions containing the notion of a dying and rising God - Balder, Dionysus, etc. - seeing them as distant echoes of the death and resurrection of Christ - the momentous event in Palestine creating ripples across time and space, as it were. But of course, death and new life are encountered in a daily fashion in the harvest and the new growth, the passage of the seasons, etc. Here, too, perhaps Christ unites the particular and the universal - actually dying and being resurrected while at the same time being a sign of God's participation in the dying and living of humanity and all of nature, and more specifically of the death of the old world and the coming of a new one - one which is still, to Christians, an object of hope.)
So, I think that the notion that the atheist rejects just one more God, in addition to the theist's rejection of a whole number of Gods, is mistaken: I precisely do not reject Dis or Dionysus in a way analogous to the way the atheist rejects the Biblical God.