The Many Faces of God

Posted by on November 4, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 10 comments

Do you believe in God? If so, which one do you believe in? How would you describe God in human terms? Is it even possible to describe God?

Chances are the god you believe in is the very same god your parents believed in. If you were born in Afghanistan, chances are the god you believe in is Allah, the Islamic god. If you were born in Italy, you probably call yourself a Catholic. If you were born in Punjab, you might believe in multiple gods, the Hindu gods of Vishnu and Shiva and all the rest. It is completely understandable that you believe the same as your parents, since they are the guiding forces in most people’s childhood development. But did you ever stop to ask “How do I know that the God of the bible (or Koran, or Book of Mormon) is the one true God?”

Richard Dawkins speaks to this point in his book “The God Delusion“:

If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents. If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.

God and his many faces seem very much like human in our many guises. The God of the Old Testament is jealous, petty and vengeful. The God of the New Testament is forgiving and wishes to teach us the error of our ways. The god of the Koran, Allah, is warlike and aggressive. The Hindu gods are aspects of the universe, such as love, war, destruction, beauty, as were the extinct gods of the Greek and Roman empires. It seems that the people who posited these gods shared these viewpoints about the world they lived in. The god or god developed in these places arose out of the way that life was lived in that time. Gods hold one thing in common, they are very much like the men who first wrote or spoke of them. (Some may argue that the gods are not like men, but the men are like aspects of the gods and had been chosen to represent or write about god here on earth. Of course there is no proof of this, so let’s leave that aside for the moment.) Greek gods looked and acted like Greeks of the time. Allah acted like Mohammed. Old Testament God was envisioned to be like the ancient Hebrews. Indian gods look like Indian people.

It is no coincidence that people from the same area on earth tend to hold the same spiritual beliefs about gods and deities; The partake in the same rituals, they celebrate the same holy days, and they pray and worship together. This along with their upbringing from their parents makes a religious person. A child id not born with a knowledge of God or gods, they must learn it through years of teachings from parents and society, from culture and from interaction with others.

Every religious belief holds that it is the true one (except possibly for Buddhism, which doesn’t really posit the existence of a god). The ancient Greeks would have sworn that their gods were the only ones, and that their piety and sacrifice to these gods kept them happy, and the people of Greece safe. The indigenous South American gods were worshiped at the time by the people of South America with the same level of conviction, and Norse gods also. The Christian God, Allah, and the gods of Hindu are similarly treated now; They are treated as truths. So what happened to the Greek, Roman and South American gods? Did these immortal beings die? If they died they are not immortal.

The real cause of the extinction of the these gods is the extinction of the cultures which believed in them. Greek, Roman, Aztec and Norse societies, the ones that believed in these gods are now gone, therefore their gods have gone with them. This is not a coincidence. This is the way religion and belief works. If all Christians were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, I daresay the Christian God of the bible would disappear with them.

In Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero With A Thousand Faces“, first published in 1949, then re-published with the inclusions of references to the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV through VI), speaks of the way the hero journey, one of divine birth, development and mentoring, temptation, redemption and finally resurrection appears in mythology and story-telling in throughout history. Homer’s Odyssey, which predates the Jesus story by eight centuries, is just such a tale, as is that of Luke Skywalker. Campbell summarised the story thus:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

This story appears in all religions in one way or another, but represents the journey of a person through birth, development and death, only with the added bonus of being resurrected, either in the emotional, psychological sense, the physical sense (as with Jesus), or the metaphysical sense (afterlife). Is it any wonder that these stories, the ones of Jesus et al, strike a chord with humanity? Every person on earth lives this journey to some extent. Films like “Fern Gully”, “The Matrix” and “Avatar” also share this tale, with these three examples following the exact recipe of the “hero myth”. Jesus, so believed to be the incarnation of “god on earth”, is the exact same story.

This is not to say that there is no God. Personally I see no reason to believe that a god or gods exist, for there is no proof of such an existence. It is possible (though improbable) for example, that a sufficiently intelligent and advanced species “seeded” life on earth with the intention to give rise to humanity in its current form. If it were significantly advanced it would be indistinguishable from a god, for instance, a Type 2 civilization. The movie “Prometheus” plays with this idea (mind you, i disliked this film for its many plot-holes and questionable acting, but the idea behind it was at least of some merit). As it stands, however, this is just science fiction and should remain there for the time being.

With all this in mind, I ask any believer, how they know that the god they believe in is the right one? In order for one god to be the true god, it follows then that all other gods are false gods, yet this is the position for each and every religion. Pascal’s Wager is often used as a reason to believe in a god, but the wager fails to ask what happens when you believe in the wrong god. In fact it assumes, as all religions do, that the belief that he holds is the right one, and that in the scenario of the wager, that belief in his version of god is enough to either deliver him to a happy afterlife, or if there is no god, be without any loss for believing. If however the god he believes in is not in fact the real god, then he could face eternal damnation at the hands of Allah simply for believing in the wrong god.

Susan B Anthony put it well in speaking to the National-American Woman Suffrage Association 1896 Convention:

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do to their fellows, because it always coincides with their own desires.

It seems no coincidence to me that, of the many faces of god, the one a believer chooses to believe in shares the same values and desires as the believer.

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  1. I think we need to get away from the idea that most christians are thinking of Allah or Islam as being “false”.
    It doesn’t gel with the Pew data suggesting that MOST are thinking in terms of “many paths” :
    My suspicion is that jesus fans are more diverse in their thinking about non-christians than today’s spokesmen (yes men) for christendom & biblical morality.

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    • blamer Be that as it may, it just goes to show the hypocrisy with which people deal with their faith. The monotheistic religions of Islam and Christianity both implicitly state that their way is THE ONLY WAY, and all others are doomed to hell. The modern Christian may say that “there are many paths to God”, but unfortunately their bible says otherwise.

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      • martinspribble That sounds approximately right. 
        Though I imagine that from the pews it doesn’t look nor feel anything like “hypocrisy” since they’re merely putting a loving new spin on that (hellish) fable of “saving” being taught from their pulpit.

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      • martinspribble blamer I’ve had a conversation with a pretty savvy Muslim friend who doesn’t see it this way, and argues that most mainstream scholars don’t see it this way either. It’s basically the Pauline loophole appeal to mankind’s ‘conscience’ in Romans 2:15. Theologically, both inclusive and exclusive doctrines can be moulded from the same book. Necessarily so with syncretic religions who wanted to offer something unique, but didn’t want to exclude their largest audiences at the time of conception (and needed to address the problem of those damned before the ‘Final Revelation’).
        I don’t really want to get into theological minutiae more than to say that dissonant stances can be defended from the same scripture. Things aren’t always binary. Vagueness is sometimes the strength of religion – allowing cultural norm and rite to be more easily assimilated. Also, sola scriptura is largely protestant, so in many ways, catholic and orthodox streams are better equipped to co-evolve with culture.
        I like your observations about achetypes, religion as a meme, mythological syncretism, and god as a superego/ubermenschean contrivance. I would really love to create a survey which highlighted the disparity of belief within a congregation at a philosophical level. It’s my contention that even within the most cohesive groups, issues like free-will vs determinism; natural law & rights; the problem of evil; dualism vs monism etc are largely avoided or ignored because they’re simply too difficult to resolve without risking disintegration.

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        • murraybiscuit Yes.
          The historical trend of monotheism is schisming, so we can guess that any large congregation harbours dissent from their pulpit’s (vague) teachings. Including wrt who isn’t saved. 
          Ditto for the readers of any famous theologian’s (vague or otherwise) teachings. Whatever monotheism leaders are teaching children about who isn’t saved, those teachers trust their sect & heart over the professorial consensus of bible scholars.
          Marti is here focusing on the “hypocrisy” of the individual many-paths christian who’s arguably dissenting from their own bible. I see that as uncharitable because Pew shows they’re thinking in terms of their divine saviour judging infidels (damning them) based on the “spirit of” –and not the letter of– The Biblical Law.

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    • In order to hold this concept as true, the Abrahamic faiths must reject central tenets of their religions. The Old Testament, The New Testament, and the Qur’an all have explicit statements to the contrary of any idea of “many paths.” 
      The idea of “many paths” comes not from these religions, but from the diverse world we now live in and many peoples’ genuine desire to not condemn otherwise nice people to the ridiculous concept of Hell.

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      • Steve Barry We see those who aren’t defending those central tenets are simply re-imagining them.
        There is this concept of the “living” bible. The text cannot be altered (that would be science) and yet each generation can re-interpret those same words. Like magic.

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        • blamer  “Like magic.” Priceless.

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  2. ‘Western’ thought is pretty backwards generally, and in religion is particularly hazy.

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  3. ‘In order for one god to be the true god, it follows then that all other gods are false gods, yet this is the position for each and every religion’ – this is not true. Hinduism believes all Gods are true – actually that they are the same with different names. So Hnduism does not not claim that their path alone in the correct one.

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