Friday, March 12, 2010

This God Character

My atheist body includes a theistic ear. I'm not sure if it's my right or left one. Sometimes, I hear an atheist make an argument I more or less agree with, but my theistic ear tells me that, from the perspective of the religious, something is amiss, something that makes the whole thing fall apart. It's like hearing a record needle whine under a symphony.

One such argument is that which takes the following form: Belief in God is like belief in Zeus or Osiris: they are equally indefensible, and the atheist needs no particular argument to even support lack of belief. Do I agree with this? In a sense, yes — God (sometimes accompanied by his son-avatar) is indeed just our culture's current popular deity. But the problem is that, unsurprisingly, the religious don't view that to be the case.

Language is a major obstacle here. God's parents picked a very, very smart name for him, one that makes his existence seem that much more "generic" (think deism) and less "specific" (think Sistine Chapel ceiling). When atheists speak of all those ancient gods, then compare the modern monotheistic God to them, it sort of sounds to theists the way it would sound if someone wished to declare that the chemical periodic table is a fraud from hydrogen to copernicum, and used, by way of example, the Aristotelian elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Whether she's right about this or not (the answer is not), the theist thinks God, a divine Presence, and "gods", those squabbling super-beings, are simply two totally different creatures. God isn't a deity. He is the phenomenon of Deity itself.

Despite its seeming modernness, this is not a new line of thought on the subject. One of history's earliest outspoken monotheists (well, monolotrists) was the famous Akhenaten, predecessor to the even famouser Tutankhamen. Akhenaten wished to establish Atenism, a form of the Egyptian religion that focused solely on the sun figure Aten. For Akhenaten, the other gods were trifles, merely the stars to Aten's sun. (He had, of course, no idea that stars are suns themselves, many of them larger and brighter than ours.) He felt that it was a category error to even call Aten a god — gods were lesser beings.

I think the parallel I'm drawing there is clear. In fact, I'm not sure what my point is beyond that. I do think that by emphasizing those aspects of modern religions which are not exactly pantheistic helps a lot in the retreat of religion into Eagleton-Armstrong-land, where it has ceased to even recognizably be religion (though they'll keep insisting that that's where things always stood).

Okay, I have another point beyond that: the degree to which Akhenaten was hated and opposed by his people (it was their relief at his passing that lead to the popularity, and hence tomb-wealth, of his successor King Tut) strongly suggests that they took their deities seriously. In other words, an ancient Egyptian who heard the word Osiris would not think "childish fairy-tale belief" but "very real divine being". This is part of where the language barrier, how the connotations of words and names change over time, gets in the way. Because of this barrier, the argument seems to fail; "God isn't like those gods; they were fiction, while God is philosophy."

Perhaps the best examples to use in the "compare to other religions" family of arguments are modern religions that bear similarity to whichever religion is being discussed; in contrast to the ancients, it's much harder to think of your fellow present-day humans as being hopelessly deluded. Ask Catholics why they are not Mormons, and Mormons why Muhammad's revelation is less correct than Joseph Smith's. It gets the ball rolling.

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