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Chapter One: Defining God
Section 8: Majors and minors
In other religions there may be many gods who do not come together in one being. They may or may not be creator and judge and our souls may not be eternal.
As we saw in Section Four, religious belief started with polytheism - the
idea that there are many gods - and only moved towards monotheism
- the idea that there is only one god - more than two thousand years ago.
Section Six reminded us that echoes of
polytheism remain today in Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism
with its worship of the Virgin and the saints.
1.8a Many in one
What about Hinduism, the worldwide religion that arose
in India over four thousand years ago? With a pantheon of dozens, hundreds, thousands - some say millions - of gods, Hinduism appears to be pure polytheism. Yet at the core of Hindu belief is the idea that there is only one god, Brahman, a trinity composed of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. (Some Hindu sects believe that Brahman has five personalities - Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Surya and Ganesha.)
Brahman himself is transcendent, eternal, self-existent and unknowable
(discussed in Section Two and in the next section.)
His component personalities share the first three qualities but are to some extent knowable - Vishnu is dark-blue and his four arms hold a lotus, mace, conch and wheel; Shiva (pictured above with his wife Parvati and child Ganesha) is often represented as meditating or dancing on the demon of ignorance.
Like Catholic and Orthodox saints, the lesser
Chapter One: Defining God
Does God exist? Before we try to answer that question we
need to have a clear idea of who or what God is. How do we
describe God? What versions of God are on offer?
The real God – if such a thing exists – may be very different
from the god portrayed by Jewish, Christian or Muslim
But whichever picture of God we look at - from the
Bible and Koran to the images presented by other
faiths and believers - we are confronted by problems.
When examined closely, God's nature is so contradictory
that it is unlikely, if not impossible, for him to exist.
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Indian gods represent specific aspects of
human life. Durga, the Divine Mother, is
associated with health, education and wealth; she protects humanity by destroying evil emotions such as jealousy and hatred.
Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, symbolises knowledge and thought. Kali is the devourer of time and destroyer of life. Krishna embodies joy, freedom and love. And so on.
1.8b Other varieties
Hinduism is the best known and most widely practised polytheistic faith, but it is not the only one. African religions which traveled with the slaves to the Caribbean and South America, partly merged with Christianity and survive in modern form as Vodou (Haiti - one god, but 21 spirits deserving of worship) and
Candomblé (Brazil - one supreme god and many lesser gods).
women in traditional Candomblé costume
Small rural communities, such as Amazon tribes that have not been absorbed into modern life maintain their religious practices, usually worship gods in the form of nature spirits (paganism). And some religions have been revived, such as
ancient Greek polytheism
and Ásatrú, whose believers worship the old Norse gods.
1.8c Creator and judge
The names and details of their powers may be different, but can the gods in these religions - either the supreme god or his lesser manifestations - be considered identical to the Jewish-Christian-Muslim version? In some ways, yes: if the highest god is, like Brahman, transcendent and eternal, then it shares these qualities with Yahweh-God-Allah. But there are three other characteristics that may distinguish other gods from the god of the Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Firstly: did God, or the highest god, create the universe? Not every religion says he did. Some claim that the universe may always have existed, or that the god and the universe are one, or the whole concept of god and creation are murky and beyond human comprehension.
Secondly, does god judge us in the afterlife? In Buddhism, for example, the universal law, karma, is independent of the gods. Like a machine automatically scanning our souls for evil, it alone determines what our next incarnation will be. Karma is mechanistic and has no consciousness; we can no more pray to karma than we can to the wind.
Thirdly, in Christianity and Islam and, to a lesser extent, Judaism, we have only a single life, after which our souls remain as individual conscious beings, spending eternity either burning in hell or in God's paradise. The Hindu and Buddhist Nirvana, however, can be reached only after many reincarnations; that is the point when our separate consciousness dissolves and becomes one with the godhead; as individuals we no longer exist.
Buddhism evolved from Hinduism and shares many of its concepts. One key difference is that in Buddhism the gods do not exist or are
irrelevant; they are merely higher beings on the same path as humans, subject to the same trials and tribulations. People are responsible for their own fate and the gods are unable to or uninterested in helping them.
In summary, in other religions there may be many gods who do not come together in one being.
They may or may not be creator and judge and our souls may not be eternal.
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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"
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