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1.4b The function of the gods
These gods lasted had distinct characters and personalities. For the Greeks and Romans there were Zeus and Jupiter, the powerful ruler of the gods; Athena and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom; Ares & Mars, the god of war and many others. The Viking pantheon included Odin the king, Thor the thunder-god, Loki the malignant and Sif, goddess of the earth. Hinduism brought the world Ganesh, lord of the earth; Garuda the messenger, Kali, goddess of transformation and hundreds more. The Aztecs prayed to Patecatl the god of medicine, Huitilopochtli the sun god, Centeotl the maize god and many others.
These gods were human in that they loved and quarreled, fought and made peace with each other. They were also divine, in that they lived forever, but unlike today's monotheist God, they were neither all-powerful nor all-knowing.
Like today's God, these gods fulfilled several important functions in human society. They offered an explanation for the apparently inexplicable - natural disasters and unexpected death. They were a repository for hope - people could pray to them and make offerings to appeal for favours for themselves or others; they offered a better life to come and vengeance on one's oppressers and enemies. Often, the gods were a symbol of the community and a means of uniting people. And in some - but not every tradition - the gods were seen as the definers of good and evil and the source of morality.
1.4c Changing God
As time passed, however, it became to some people that natural phenomena such as the rising of the sun or changing of the seasons were the product of immutable laws and not the whims of deities. In Greece and elsewhere, philosophers began to doubt the existence of the familiar gods, although it did not yet seem reasonable that the world might exist without any god or creator. From about three thousand years ago, from the Eastern Mediterranean to Northern India, the concept of god / gods began to evolve.
We could refer to the polytheistic gods of ancient Greece, Viking Scandinavia and early India as Stage One gods, and the early monotheistic God worshipped by Jews as Stage Two. Stage One comes in a variety of models, but each model is a variation on the idea of human beings who happen to be immortal and more powerful than we are and who live close to us, in a temple, on a nearby mountain or under the land or sea. The Stage Two god comes in only one single model. All-knowing and all-powerful, he inhabits a more distant realm where he is often surrounded by the beings who resemble Stage One gods - angels and demons.
The Stage Two god is more remote than his predecessors, but he still has very human - particularly male - qualities. He’s prone to anger and violence and like all men who lack self-confidence, he is obsessed with sex and determined to control other people's sex behaviour, only allowing them to express their instincts when certain conditions are met. Yahweh is particularly strict, but his alter ego Allah is more generous to men, offering them multiple partners both now and in the afterlife.
As the Stage One gods evolved into Stage Two, the Stage Two god has evolved again. The Stage Three god, personified by Jesus, has lost the masculine, often immature anger that characterises his Old Testament antecedent; this god's primary characteristic is a more mature, offering love and compassion more than violence and hate.
Most believers today are split between Stages Two and Three Gods. Fundamentalists, irrespective of religion, insist on the former version; their God is angry, violent and misogynist and they are angry, violent and misogynist in his name. Moderates are inspired by the more recent incarnation, insisting that God's primary characteristic is love and forgiveness.
Some believers, who find these versions of God as deficient as Stage One, find faith in a God that we can call Stage Four. This God is so distant from our lives that he is either uninvolved in his creation, as in Deism, or so inconsequential that he has faded into nothingness, as in Buddhism. Atheists would argue that there is a Stage Five, the moment when all belief fades and the deity, like the dinosaurs before him, becomes extinct.
These Stages are, of course, a simplification, but they demonstrate the basic point - our concept of God has changed over millennia and will almost certainly continue to evolve.
Next: Chapter One: Section 5
El, Yahweh et al
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If God existed, he would...
admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create
recognize that eternity is meaningless
deny both heaven and hell
disown all men and women who speak in his name
denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"
help the human race to thrive without him
If God existed, he would be an atheist.
What is the difference between science and faith?
science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything
faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing
Which do you trust?
"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"
Check the answer