Are we all atheists about most gods?

The claim: We are all atheists about most gods

In his book Outgrowing God, Richard Dawkins makes the following claims:

Countless Greeks and Romans thought their gods were real – prayed to them, sacrificed animals to them, thanked them for good fortune and blamed them when things went wrong. How do we know those ancient people weren’t right? Why does nobody believe in Zeus any more? We can’t know for sure, but most of us are confident enough to say we are ‘atheists’ with respect to those old gods (a ‘theist’ is somebody who believes in god(s) and an ‘atheist’ – a-theist, the ‘a’ meaning ‘not’ – is someone who doesn’t). Romans at one time said the early Christians were atheists because they didn’t believe in Jupiter or Neptune or any of that crowd. Nowadays we use the word for people who don’t believe in any gods at all. (Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 5). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition).

I don’t believe in any of the hundreds and hundreds of sky gods, river gods, sea gods, sun gods, star gods, moon gods, weather gods, fire gods, forest gods…so many gods to not believe in. (Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 6). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition).

The critical error

The critical error in Dawkin’s argument from the gods of the ancient pagans to the God of Christianity is that he fails to account for the drastic difference between the God of the Jews and the gods of the pagans.

Differences between the God of the Bible and pagan gods

The God of the Bible is different from the pagan gods in at least the following ways:

  • Many of the pagan gods had a beginning and were expected to have an end - they were mortal - part of the creation. The God of the Bible is immortal and stands outside of creation - He is the Creator who has been and is and is to come. As C. S. Lewis has said of God, “He is not a nature-God, but the God of Nature—her inventor, maker, owner, and controller”. In Judaism and Christianity there is no Ragnarok in which the gods are doomed to die.
  • The pagan gods were often used to explain natural phenomena or supposed to have influence over certain domains of life. Thor and Zeus were gods of thunder and Ares the god of war. There were gods to help you make money and to help you make love. But the Judeo-Christian God is the Creator of all things - the laws of nature or an understanding of human anatomy do not make Him obsolete. He created the laws of physics and He created us. God is not an explanation for natural phenomena but an explanation for the universe itself.
  • The pagan gods were created in man’s image. They stole and murdered and lusted and behaved just as reprehensibly as any man or woman. But the God of Scripture appeared in a world of child-sacrifice and idols and commanded His people not to make any images of Him, not to partake in child sacrifice, not to murder and to love their neighbor. In the Judeo-Christian worldview, we are made in God’s image and called to return to that image of moral perfection. The pagan gods were nothing more than projections of ourselves.

Jesus the true myth

Now, someone may say that the Christian God is not dissimilar in some ways from the dying and rising gods of ancient mythology. I would disagree and assert with Ravi Zacharias that these pagan gods are superficially similar to Christ but fundamentally different. However, there is another point to be considered and C. S. Lewis makes it well. Jesus is the true myth - a myth that left footprints in history rather than being only a name in some far off land who knows when or where…

“The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. …God is more than a god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “Pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.” C. S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact, God in the Dock

In conclusion

In summary, I would say to Dawkins that we have every reason not to believe in the pagan gods because they were simply projections of ourselves. But the God of the Bible is not a pagan god at all. We cannot outgrow the God of the Bible - He is bigger than all of our aspirations and pretensions.

C. S. Lewis has a scene in the Narnia series where Lucy notices that Aslan has grown bigger as she has grown bigger. Here is the dialogue:

“Aslan" said Lucy “you’re bigger”.
“That is because you are older, little one” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
"I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

We cannot outgrow God. No matter how much we grow, God has always been greater and our growth is only an opportunity to see more of Him.