Gods, Ancient and Modern

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People constantly talk about God, whether they believe in God or not, and they clearly have something in mind when they do so.  But, when you move beyond the beliefs of a specific group, there is almost no agreement about what a 'God' (or 'god') is.  This is an attempt to identify the issues and the options, to help us talk clearly and helpfully about the subject.

(A note on language: in this article, we are following the traditional style: when talking about one of many, it is a 'god'; when talking about the only one, it is 'God' with an initial capital.  The distinction is sometimes helpful; there is no deeper meaning implied.)

Because of the lack of clarity concerning the meaning, it is an essentially futile exercise to attempt to define the word.  I know this will annoy many people: I have been told by various people - on numerous occasions - that "I know what I mean when I say, 'God'." - but that is precisely the problem.  You know what you mean, but the rest of us don't.  (It doesn't help that the word 'god' has other equally imprecise terms associated with it - such as 'sacred' or 'worship'.)

So, to be practical, the question is not what the word 'god' means, but how the word is used.  Or, more precisely, how the word 'god' has been used, in what contexts, and at what times.

How to Use the Word 'God'

A god is generally understood to be a spiritual power - that is, a non-material power.  While this seems far too vague for what we want to talk about today, it seems to be pretty close to how the word - the concept - was used in the ancient world.  Fertility, thunder, hunting, war and wisdom are all important things we need to understand so that we can control them.

We use different language today, but in practice there is very little difference in the way these concepts are used.  When we talk about families being torn apart by war, we are referring to war as a non-material power which is shaping our lives - in other words, we are referring to war as a god, which is really the same thing as talking about the god of war.  We don't actually talk about the god of war today, but this seems to be mainly a change of linguistic fashion, rather than any real difference in our thinking.

One objection to this perspective sometimes raised is that people in the ancient world believed that the god of war was a person, and we don't believe that any more.  For example, the Romans believed in a god of war called Mars, and told stories about Mars as a person interacting with other Gods and interfering with human affairs.  But it is almost impossible to talk about spiritual powers without a degree of anthropmorphism: listen to any experienced sailor talking about the sea, or a gambler talking about luck.  We have to use the language of human activity - we don't have any other language available to us.

There is another reason why people in the ancient world used the language of human activity.  When we look at the world, we see a clear distinction between living things and non-living things: living things (like people and animals) move and act, while non-living things (like stones and the water in a puddle) just sit there, unless they are acted on by a living creature.  (Of course, things fall, and water flows downhill, but until Newton came along, this kind of movement did not seem odd enough to need explanation.)  When you see non-living things being moved, it is reasonable to assume there is a living presence behind this.  When you see there a regularities in this activity, like tides, then it is reasonable to assume intention and purpose.  So the gods, these non-material powers which shape the world we live in, must be more like us than they are like unreasoning animals.

It is quite easy to list some of the modern equivalents of the ancient gods: freedom, prosperity, fame, capitalism, materialism, democracy, science, environment, health, greed, ignorance.  People frequently devote their lives to worship these powers, or fight them.

Gods in the Ancient World

The English word 'god' can be a bit misleading: we generally use the term to refer to an important spiritual power, while smaller spiritual powers are given other names.  For us, a 'demon' is an evil spirit, but in the ancient world it was just a 'divine something', so probably a smaller spiritual power - Socrates spoke of his demon, in much the same way as we might speak of a 'guardian angel' or 'guiding spirit'.

We are familiar with the Greek gods, but in their mythology the gods were descended from Titans, and the Titans were descended from more primordial gods: you can perhaps see the evolution of civilization from chaos in this sequence.  And many of their great heroes were descended from gods.  For us, gods and humans are two quite distinct categories, but the ancient world was much more interested in establishing the connections between the human and the divine - between the world we know and the powers which shape it - and much less interested in establishing an unbridgeable gap between them. 

In this context, it was quite reasonable for great people to become gods.  Julius Caesar officially became divine in 42 BC, but the Senate was only ratifying what the majority of the people had already decided.  It makes sense: Julius Caesar was an important figure, one who continued to shape the world, long after his death.

We see a very similar picture when we look at the Norse or Hindu or Chinese gods.  The terminology and the details vary, but the overall picture is essentially familiar.  And in China, not only do great people become gods, but all your ancestors connect you with the gods in some way.  In China, there is also a fairly strong tradition of seeking all the various gods as aspects of a single reality: there is no fundamental contradiction between considering them as distinct powers, and considering them as aspects of a single, universal power.  This flexibility is also found in Hindu (and to a lesser extent in Greek and Norse) mythology.

In an article on the Birth of Religion in National Geographic (June 2011), Charles Mann draws on the work of Jacques Cauvin and Klaus Schmidt: they believe that religion gave rise to agricultures, rather than the other way round as is generally understood - excavations at Göbekli Tepe certainly suggest this.  Their analysis seems sound, but they appear to assume a modern understanding of religion which does not fit the ancient context.  They suggest that the change from a nomadic life to settling in villages created (or maybe enabled) a conceptual shift - which is plausible enough - but then explain that this shift "enabled humans to imagine gods - supernatural beings resembling humans - that existed in a universe beyond the physical world."

But ancient gods did not exist in a "universe beyond the physical world" - this is a modern conceptual framework.  In the past, gods were an unseen but powerful part of this world.  Just as today, we do not see electricity or magnetism, but we see their effects, so they could not see the powers which created a storm or provided an abundant harvest, but they saw the effects.  You may not be able to see love, but this probably does not cause you to believe that love exists in a universe beyond the physical world - and there is nothing to suggest that people who lived 11,600 years ago believed that, either.

One God or Many?

We commonly say that the ancient Israelites were monotheistic: they believed that there is one creator God, Who had chosen them, and called them to worship Him alone.  However, there is extensive evidence in the Hebrew scriptures that they were actually, for much of the time, monoliturgic: they recognized that many other gods existed, but chose to worship only one.  In fact, the first of the Ten Commandments implies the existence of other gods.

The question is: what did they mean?  It's obvious that other gods existed, in that other nations worshiped other gods, and sometimes the Israelites did too.  But there are various passages describing idols as dead lumps of wood, unable to do anything - implying that the gods represented by the idols were equally unable to do anything.  There is very little difference between a god which exists but can't do anything, and a god which does not exist.

The key point for the Israelites was not whether other gods actually existed: the key point was that following other gods (and worshiping them) was wrong - that is, harmful.   Other gods did not require observance of a strict moral law, so these other gods permitted harming others; some even required human sacrifice, which is condemned several times in the Hebrew scriptures.

The Same God?

Sometimes the follower of a monotheistic religion says that followers of another monotheistic religion worship the same God.  Similarly, the follower of a polytheistic religion who understands the many different gods as aspects, or modes of expression, of a unique 'universal' God, may say the same thing.  On the other hand, many believers will strongly insist that their God is not the same as someone else's God, and they can point to differences in the God's activity, attributes and character as evidence that they are really different Gods.

The distinctions between different gods is less clear when it comes to the various polytheistic gods: you might be able to distinguish between the god of war and the god of poetry, but it can be hard to distinguish one harvest god from another, or one storm god from another.  Even when the different traditions tell different stories about them, it can be hard to avoid the feeling that the only real difference between them is the name.

Even with monotheistic Gods, It is arguable that the distinction between them is largely a verbal one.  If there is only one God and several people are seeking to worship the one God,  they may each claim that they are worshiping the true God and the other person is worshiping a lie, but it probably makes more sense to say they are both seeking to worship the one God and one of them (at least one of them!) is mistaken in their understanding of that God.

And even when two people are following the same monotheistic religion, one may worship an angry, jealous God and another may worship a kind and loving God; it can be argued that this is a more fundamental difference than many of the distinctions between the Gods of different religions.  Are they worshiping the same God, but understanding the God differently, or are they worshiping different Gods but using the same name?  The question is more about how you choose to use language than about any objective distinction.


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