Monday, December 13, 2010

On Gods

All primal human cultures assume the existence of higher powers, that is entities with our reasoning and decision-making capabilities, but without our animal characteristics, present within the world (god-like entities outside of the physical/chronological universe are a later invention [largely out of logical necessity], and will be considered separately). Although there is no direct evidence for the existence of such beings there are myriad phenomena attributed them and despite a long history of philosophical, academic atheism the vast majority of the world’s population continues to place great faith in them with no apparent ill-effects.
Religious and spiritual people are not, on average, any more or less happy with their lives than irreligious people. And although religious justifications have been given for many acts generally thought of as heinous and unjust (although actually just brutally self-serving) the irreligious have shown themselves to be just as capable of such atrocities (Hitler, Stalin and Mao are roughly on par with Cardinal Richelieu, Hernando Cortes and the Knights Templar). Thus a consideration of the existence of higher powers should refrain from calling upon consequential examples - no way of thought so essential can possibly result in a necessarily better life, for the truth, which is the ultimate subject here, is something a great many people are perfectly content without.
It must be noted that what is being dealt with here is probabilities. Religious texts may be considered but will not be given an authoritative status, for nothing nearly as specific as a name or physical attributes can be given to such higher powers. These will be hereafter referred to as gods - this term is used to simplicity’s sake, it is meant to imply nothing as to the sexuality or plurality of said being(s).
Assuming then that such gods exist, the question becomes what, if anything, can be said about them. The fundamental attribute of a god, found in all conceptions of them, is immortality. This shall serve as a premise or definition, rather than a point of discussion. Positing mortal spiritual entities would imply a whole field of study (celestial biology, chemistry, physics) that no one is in any position to study. It is also a matter of the burden of proof, death as we think of it is a peculiarly animalistic trait, for the rest of the universe, including some other forms of life, the distinction between the living and the non-living is not nearly so clear (a severed limb is dead immediately, a flower may be kept alive in water for days before it begins to wilt, all its life systems apparently intact and unless cut down or otherwise destroyed trees of certain species may live for millennia). Thus unless evidence is presented otherwise one must assume that gods do not live and die as we do and are thus immortal; immortal not in the sense of Tolkien’s Quendi but in the sense of the hydrogen molecule or mathematics.
Following from this, the immortality of gods, is the limited quantity of gods. Which is highly useful, as it contradicts the “god as universe” pantheist fallacy. If gods are defined as everything than the attributes of said gods are no different from that of everything, and referring to them as anything other than the universe personified is pointless. The tendency toward this in certain academic circles can be traced to a valid reaction against Indo-European anthropomorphism, but it is not the only escape from it. Therefore, as gods cannot be everywhere and everything, and are immortal, they must be of limited quantity. The arguments of panentheism would offer a logical counter to this, claiming that god is not everything, but everything is contained within god, this however, does not avoid the essential problem, which is a confusion of topic: in speaking of such “gods” one loses any cohesion to the concept. If such an entity which contained all the universe can be called a god, the beings within the world that have been thus-far discussed must be called something else (or vice-versa).
If gods, that is immortal entities possessing conceptual powers akin to that of a man, exist it seems highly unlikely that, given their utter separation form the mammal-primate line of development, they would bear any resemblance to men, even the imposition of human-like thought seems a pretension. Some of the oldest conceptions of gods admit this. The judaic YHWH - I am that I am - clearly defies any attempt at humanization and the later Christian idea of the trinity can, as Nietsche claimed, be said to have killed god. The original Latin and Chinese conceptions of gods were equally vague, prior to their interaction with the Greek and Indian cultures (respectively) neither even deigned to give their gods names and considered them more as immutable forces than as anthropomorphic entities.
In the development of theologies there seems to be a tendency to reduce gods to a simple force of goodness. By the classical era of Greek culture philosophers often spoke of god as a singular entity despite their polytheistic religion (a contradiction Socrates pointed out in the dialogue Euthyphro), by this time the old stories of Zeus’s philandering and Hera’s rivalry with Aphrodite and the like seemed to not have been taken very seriously (anyone trained in critical thinking could tear Helenic religion apart in a few sentences). The resulting religion, emphasizing cults and practical philosophies, eventually morphed over the course of the hellenistic era into a sort of Proto-Christianity. Christianity and later Islam continued this reduction that has been nearly completed by the more liberal contemporary faction of each. “God” has become a embodiment of whatever ideal the culture happens to possess and the scriptures themselves are moralistic enough to be twisted into nearly any message. There are two possible responses to this, one rejects the ethically monolithic basis of the reduction, the other points again to the potential alienness of gods and the unlikeliness that they would follow popular morality so closely.
Indo-European polytheistic spirituality (anthropomorphic or not) is based on a world of competing forces, both in the world around us, the sea contending with the land, and within us, desires for passion, wisdom and glory often seeming to pull in very different directions. In opposition to this monotheistic religions posit one supreme deity, usually either in a patron relationship - the god of the Hebrews, or as a universal force - the Christian god of love. Whether or not love is the ultimate force in the world is a matter for another discussion, but it must be admitted that there are other forces present contrary to love and some that seem to bear no relation to it what-so-ever. Which is how the Greeks and other polytheists would justify gods of love, wisdom, war, the earth, the sky and the sea; though despite its representational superiority to monotheism any sort of spirituality as an explanation of the world suffers from a lack of positive evidence, leading to the second argument against value-centric theism.
Popular religion has created a divinity that is fundamentally humanistic. The first concern of the deity(s) is humans, human concerns, and human morality. Given all that has been stated regarding the otherness of gods, especially relating to the earliest conceptions of them, this seems unlikely. The chances that the will of the supreme power of the universe would fit whatever value society currently holds most idealized are small.
Aside from post-hellenistic religious texts and modern theorizing (which essentially amounts to wishful thinking) there is no reason to believe that gods bear any more relation to us in their values than in their physical appearance. The total otherness of such deities baffles any real attempts to consider their attributes. Issues including their relation to time, human will (free or otherwise), and love presume such essentially human characteristics that the entire discussion is foolish. In short, immortal, bodiless entities may exist, or may not and there may be entirely psychological explanations for spiritualism. Any further development is blind assumption.

An observant reader will notice that this essay, like many platonic dialogues, established almost nothing that it did not presuppose. This was not its intent, but it is a perfectly acceptable result; divinity, like piety or justice, is a problem that defies explanation. All one can do is become familiar with the problem and use the lessons learned in more relevant circumstances.

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