Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

The labels ‘polytheism’ and ‘monotheism’ present one big disadvantage. They might persuade the unwary to think that the difference between the two is one of arithmetic – that polytheism is the assertion that there are multiple examples of the same kind that monotheists believe to have a unique instantiation.

No. Polytheism and monotheism are more different than that. They mean different things by the word ‘god’, and the differences go much deeper than number. They are, fundamentally, very different ways of living in and thinking about the world. Those differences show up in, say, different ways of understanding and practicing human universality (i.e., different ways of thinking about and negotiating encounter with cultural difference, different ways of thinking about and negotiating pursuit of common goods). And those differences are constitutive for what ‘god’ means on each side.

Of course, it is possible to tell a (selective) story about a progression in the Judaeo-Christian tradition from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism – but that trajectory involves precisely these kind of differences in worldview, in social and political practice, in understanding of what the word ‘god’ means. There is no interesting sense in which it is an arithmetical change.

Now, before you object, I know that Dawkins does not actually trade very heavily on claims about the meaning of ‘polytheism’. The whole section is, after all, simply a gesture of impatience with such irrelevant distinctions. Who cares whether you have one god or several? Dawkins’ description of the God Hypothesis covers them all. No, really it does. The differences must be – just must be – trivial subtleties icing over cake made from the same crumbs: explanatory hypotheses for the existence and arrangement of the cosmos involving the efforts of one or more supernatural intelligences. No evidence or argument is needed to substantiate that claim; none at all. It is, apparently, just obvious. As long as you close your eyes.

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