A Clear Mind: Gods

03Jul11

For most people, spirituality seems to be linked with a belief in divinity.  This link is not always obvious.  As an example, a person who rejects the possibility of any conscious, personal gods that transcend nature is not necessarily an atheist.  If s/he believes that s/he has a spiritual connection or oneness with the universe, s/he might be a pantheist.

In many nations, people tend to believe in gods that are conscious, personal, transcendent beings.  They usually believe this because that’s what their parents taught them.  Once a child has been trained to see the world in a certain way, s/he can find it difficult to see things differently.  Even so, other beliefs can sometimes become more persuasive or appealing.  Christianity is an example of a kind of belief that has superseded the received wisdom of many other religions.

Within a religion or culture, people tend to believe in a larger number of gods than would be absolutely necessary.  In this regard, belief is not like science.  Science emphasizes parsimony.  That is, it strives to weed out extraneous explanations.  If both Theory A and Theory B explain a phenomenon, but Theory A does a better job of it, then scientists tend to discard Theory B.

By contrast, belief is more like life itself.  Life is forever producing surplus kinds and quantities of creatures, and endowing them with endlessly variegated features.  Species of beliefs, like species of plants and animals, are constantly evolving, interbreeding, and otherwise adapting to and altering difficult conditions.  Using Christianity again as an example, the gods include not only Lucifer and other angels, and the immortal saints honored in some denominations, but also the several plainly distinct persons of the Trinity.

In Christianity and other religions, belief is further fragmented — again, like life itself — among countless sects.  Indeed, it is fragmented down to the level of the individual believer, sitting in the pew, who quietly accepts or rejects ministerial pronouncements on a sentence-by-sentence basis.

Incompatible beliefs are a bit like species that could not coexist in precisely the same place and time, but that can persist indefinitely when each has its own distinct niche.  That is, mutually contradictory beliefs can survive for a surprisingly long time within a single believer or belief system.  The trick is just to keep incompatible species or beliefs from coming into direct conflict with one another.  The objective of belief, it seems, is not to achieve logical consistency; it is to populate every rocky outcropping of existence with as many species of belief as it can possibly accommodate.

Organized religions typically try to state precisely which gods exist and what they are all about.  So-called primitive religions are not like that.  They often indulge their relative freedom to invent or detect a variety of gods.  The so-called primitives may actually be ahead of the game here.  If the gods are like the beliefs about them — if they are like life itself — then there probably are quite a few of them, and they probably come in many varieties and behave in all sorts of ways.

In other words, organized religions may suppress what appears to be a natural human tendency to treat gods as any other species, with their own diversities and adaptations.  Christianity and other religions focus attention on a limited number of gods, and place restrictions on how those gods behave.  This activity calls to mind the efforts to channel and dam a mighty river, and the great damage that such unnatural constructions can cause in the long term.

Things might be different if one could prove that Gods A and B exist, but God C does not.  There does not appear to be any such proof, or even the hope of any such proof.  Otherwise, scientists would be hot on the trail.  As it is, a scientist who says s/he is looking for proof for the existence of gods will be laughed out of the room.  They are two different subjects.  Mixing “belief” and “proof” in the same sentence misses the point:  belief in the supernatural perseveres precisely where scientific proof is weak, and science is strong in precisely those areas where belief is defenseless.

People tend to believe, or at least to hope, that there is a supernatural dimension to their existence.  This is a sensible response to the many ways in which science cannot yet, and will probably never be able to, resolve real-life concerns that people encounter.  It is an adaptive response, consistent with the nature of life.  Belief in the supernatural does not seem to be scientifically supported, but that can be construed as a weakness of science, not of the belief.

So we have a standoff:  nobody will be able to disprove the existence of an invisible god living in my shoe; but no matter where it lives, it does not seem to have any power in the real world, except through what people believe about it.

The belief in one god is called monotheism, and the belief in multiple gods is called polytheism.  As just noted, many of the world’s religious tendencies (including those in most of Christianity) are polytheistic.  The question of monotheism or polytheism is not something to fight about, except if one has a vested interest in the doctrines of a particular religion.  There’s no proof, one way or the other; it’s just a matter of beliefs, mostly formed in childhood on the basis of how one was raised, and influenced thereafter by what seems most reasonable.

Some people may conclude that what seems most reasonable is (a) to admit that one cannot know for sure whether there are any gods at all and (b) to suspect that, if there are gods, there are probably a variety of them.  The person who does not profess to know for sure about gods is commonly called an agnostic, so this apparently reasonable position could be called agnostic polytheism.

For various reasons, many people are opposed to the kinds of thoughts expressed here.  Some are afraid of the consequences that could ensue if they were to endorse such thoughts.  They could offend someone by doing so; they could go to Hell; they could feel lost without the familiar guidance of their faith; they could feel foolish for changing their minds about beliefs to which they have devoted so much time, money, hope, or effort.  One particularly important factor, influencing many people to favor an organized religion, is that the religion gives them an authoritative written text that tells them what to think.

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