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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.

Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh; pic from

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?

1.1: God, faith and religion
Do they need each other?

1.2: What is God?
God comes in several styles and models

1.3: Perception and reality
Is what we see what we get?

1.4: The evolving God
From prehistory to today

1.5: El, Yahweh et al
The Old Testament family of gods

1.6: Three's company
The Christian Trinity

1.7: Allah
Over to Islam

1.8: Majors and minors

1.9: The unknowable God
Is he there?

1.10: Your god or mine?
Made in our image

1.11: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter Two
Problems with God

The real God – if such a thing exists – may be very different from the god portrayed by Jewish, Christian or Muslim scripture.

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 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.

Next: Chapter One: Section 9
The unknowable God

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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

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