When the British philosopher Bertrand Russell was put in prison for his opposition to the First World War, he became quite friendly with one of his jailors. Once, during an amiable discussion, the jailor happened to ask Russell about his religion, whereupon Russell replied that he was an agnostic. The jailor reflected for a moment, then said, "Well, I don't suppose it matters what we call him -- we all worship the same God."
Believers always have the option of believing that they and other believers really do worship the same God. They can always assume that God will listen to everyone's prayers, and that it will not terribly concern him what exact words they use to invoke his attention. God, Allah, Gott, dieu, dios -- all of these names can serve equally well to connect us with the one supreme being.
The atheist or the agnostic, however, does not have this option. Non-believers, after all, do not believe that there is a supreme being who is able to recognize that the prayers of a Muslim and those of a Southern Baptist are really intended for His ear, despite the different names that are used. For the non-believer, it is all equally mumbo-jumbo no matter whose prayer it is. (Imagine several billion telephones ringing in a room with no one to answer them.) All religions are simply illusionary systems. This is what August Comte thought; it is what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels thought; it is what Sigmund Freud thought. de
From the non-believer's point of view, it might seem utterly irrelevant to inquire into the specific nature of the different illusions that have animated different human beings under the guise of religion. For example, in the eyes of many modern atheists, all religions are simply bad, and all need to be outgrown by the human race. Furthermore, from their point of view, not only is religion something that mankind does not need in the future -- it was something mankind never needed at all. How much better off we would have been if, on our descent from the apes, we had never been tempted onto the pernicious paths of religious enthusiasm and devotion. How much wiser we would have acted if our early ancestors had immediately begun to arrange our lives with the orderly rationalism of Oxford dons, like Richard Dawkins.
From this point of view religion is bad, was bad, and will forever be bad. Nor does it make the slightest difference which religion we are talking about. All are evil, and none has ever served any useful purpose in promoting human progress.
Yet this purely dismissive approach to religion is not the only way in which non-believers can respond to religion, considered purely as a cultural phenomenon. At the turn of the nineteenth century, for example, there was a number of thinkers who argued that, even if all religions were illusionary, it still made a huge difference which illusion a group of people chose to cling to. The American philosopher William James, a profound student of religion, argued that a man's religious illusions were not mere phantoms without any impact on the world; on the contrary, he saw in these illusions one of the most powerful forces for the transformation of both individual human beings and of entire communities. Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian economist turned sociologist, made the same argument in analyzing whole societies, as did the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, as well as the German sociologists Max Weber and Werner Sombart. So what if there was no God, all these secular thinkers agreed in arguing -- the absence of a supreme being did not make men's religious faith a bit less capable of moving mountains or making deserts bloom or stifling economic progress or of producing capitalism.
The atheist, when confronted with two distinct religious illusions does not jump to the conclusion that they are both aimed at invoking the same supreme being. Instead of looking up toward the transcendent object of the illusion, he is able to look at the quality of the illusion itself, and to the practical and concrete consequences of this illusion on the lives of those who subscribe to it. Religious illusions, when approached from this direction, clearly reveal themselves as distinctive as different forms of social organization -- as distinctive as feudalism and capitalism, communism and meritocracy. Indeed, the atheist will quickly see that few things can differ more profoundly than the diverse ways in which human beings have imagined the nature of the Divine.
Leaving aside the social, economic, and political consequences of certain religious illusions, it is also possible for the atheist to analyze the illusions themselves in terms of the foundational metaphors upon which the illusions have been constructed. Starting from the premise first articulated by Xenophanes, and later developed by Feuerbach and Marx, the atheist can immediately see that the religious illusions of men will naturally reflect the immediate world, both natural and social, in which they have been reared and in which they must struggle to survive.
For a warrior elite, the gods will live lives very much like their own. There will be plenty of battles, much drinking and carousing, and a wanton disregard of all sexual proprieties. For those who must toil so that the warrior elite can live the same life as their indolent hell-raising gods, these gods will naturally appear to be capricious and dangerous -- forces to be appeased and placated, like the warrior elite itself.
On the other hand, consider those men who have created communities in which hard work, and not brute courage, is the key to high status -- what kind of god do you think they will project upon the heavens? Certainly not the worthless bums of the warrior pantheon. Indeed, the first step that such a community will naturally take in the religious field will be to debunk the gods of the warrior elite.
The semi-legendary Persian religious reformer Zoroaster is the paradigmatic example of this debunking process. In his eyes, the old gods of the warrior pantheon were nothing more than demons -- and as demons they deserved to be hated and reviled, and not worshipped and groveled before. In their place, Zoroaster offered an entirely new vision of a supreme god of light and truth -- a hardworking god who was constantly aiding and helping out the good peaceful hardworking people, and fighting valiantly against the demons from the dark side.
If you had asked Zoroaster if we all worship the same god, he would have quickly told you that no we don't. Some worship demons; others worship a god of light.
The atheist, on hearing Zoroaster's response, would say that neither the demons nor the god of light really existed; yet if he were a sociologist of religion, he would be bound to notice the difference in the way in which these two radically distinct illusions have manifested themselves in human communities. Indeed, he would be forced to conclude that there was in fact nothing that distinguished societies more than the illusions that they entertain about the divine. The Aztecs worshipped cruel and ruthless gods who demanded mounds of freshly ripped out human hearts; the Zoroastrians worshipped a god of light who spent day and night watching over men, struggling against evil and working always for the good. Both forms of worship were based, from our point of view, on pure illusion -- and yet what a profound difference it makes to a society which illusion it chooses to go with.
Few things matter more than how men chose to deceive themselves.