Which God?


volutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins makes the point that Christians are atheistic about non-Christian gods, and that “we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”[1] The British comedian Ricky Gervais drives the point home:

Since the beginning of recorded history, which is defined by the invention of writing by the Sumerians around 6,000 years ago, historians have cataloged over 3,700 supernatural beings, of which 2,870 can be considered deities. So next time someone tells me they believe in God, I’ll say “Oh which one? Zeus? Hades? Jupiter? Mars? Odin? Thor? Krishna? Vishnu? Ra?…” If they say “Just God. I only believe in the one God,” I’ll point out that they are nearly as atheistic as me. I don’t believe in 2,870 gods, and they don’t believe in 2,869.[2]

In English, god lower case is a synonym for deity, while God upper case is the proper name favored by most monotheists for the individual character they worship. It is not clear that Jews and Christians worship the same god, or even that the various denominations within each religion do, though in their prayers they address their gods by the same whispered (or wailed) name. At the blurry edges of faith there are spiritually minded cynics of organized religion, each of whom reveres a supreme being of their own creation on their own terms, and uses the name God for him/her/it. There are a great many gods called God.

For some, God is merely a poetic term for the collection of mysterious but not supernatural forces that account for human existence and that give rise to the capacity for goodness in our species. We are poetical creatures, capable of personifying just about anything, and we ought to have license to do so when we are being poetical.

For most, though, God is the actual creator of the universe and is a being (or a force) supernatural and supreme. Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe in a personal god, an all powerful character who intervenes materially on their behalf when properly solicited. This concept has its roots in polytheism. In fact, for the majority of human history people have tended to worship multiple gods. The ancient Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Romans, and the Norse were all polytheists. Oh, and of course, so were the Greeks…

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  1. [1] Richard Dawkins made this comment at his talk at TED in Feb 2002, see http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/richard_dawkins_on_militant_atheism.html
  2. [2] A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I’m An Atheist, http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2010/12/19/a-holiday-message-from-ricky-gervais-why-im-an-atheist
 Posted by on February 18, 2012
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