In Plato’s Apology, one of the charges against Socrates is that he preaches about different gods than those of the city, and in this respect doesn’t believe in God and is impious. During his defense, he points out that if he believes and teaches certain divinities, but not those of the city, than he can’t be said to be an atheist.
This episode was interesting to me, in part, because I encountered the same confusion when Spinoza is called an atheist during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. For it seemed so strange to me that one could be an atheist and yet at the same time so clearly and unequivocally speak repeatedly of God, even if it were “sive Natura”. Still, today, when philosophers write about Spinoza’s pantheism, this is immediately identified with a certain atheism. My own position on Spinoza’s pantheism and atheism I will here defer until another time.
But there is a certain necessary slippage in speaking of what I might call “hetero-theism” and its indistinction from “atheism.” The reason is this. If we are theists, then we must deny the existence of gods other than our own. Thus, all those whose gods are unlike ours are necessarily pagans, atheists. Whereas, were we to admit the existence of other gods, then we would be admitting doubt about the singular nature of our god. Thus, the hetero-theist shall always be an atheist.