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Identifying Gods to Species

January 5, 2015

In my last article I said that it was remarkably hard to pin down a simple meaning for many commonly-used religious terms including both “religion” and “god”. In this article I intend to discuss the term “god” as a category. Many people use the word “god” to refer to a singular monotheistic deity but this makes defining other gods rather tricky. Singular monotheistic deities are, well, singular. They encompass a vast number of things in their being and no one has to ask which ones make them gods since there are no other gods. However, when we use the term “god” generically it might be nice to identify gods as a class of supernatural organisms, rather like angels (also, as it turns out, ridiculously hard to pin down clearly in modern parlance). To do this I want to take a suggestion that I have halfway-jokingly fielded before, that Santa is a god, and attempt to determine how Santa differs from a god. For the sake of this exercise I shall assume that all beings normally considered gods should be counted as such (not that they are necessarily real, merely that if they were they would be gods) and that all beings generally agreed not to be gods (like Santa) are not but that some alien anthropologist has mistaken Santa for a god and that we need to set this alien straight.

Santa does clearly share several key characteristics with traditional deities. He has a set of supernatural powers that include the ability to deliver gifts all across the world in a short span of time, to be seen in multiple places at once, and (so it seems) to control to some extent whether or not he will be seen at all. He also has a form of supernatural knowledge about the naughtiness or niceness of children. Additionally, alongside many traditional polytheistic deities, he has an unlocatable abode in a locatable place. Just as no Greek appears to have ever been troubled by the fact that a climb up Mount Olympus would not actually get one into Zeus’ court no modern Santa-believer takes issue with the fact that the North Pole has been visited and no workshop with a stable of flying reindeer was found. (The term Santa-believer is cumbersome but since Santa is a deity of polytheists no one is a Santa-only believer, a Clausist, but rather members of a broader religion in which Santa is a minor seasonal deity. We might term this larger religion “Consumerism”.) This places Santa rather firmly into the world of supernatural entities but that is a well-populated world, full of gods, angels, demons, Fae Folk, Norse trolls, ghosts, animist spirits, and, depending on one’s bent, aliens and one or more sasquatch. (Of course, this displays one of the issues with the term “supernatural”. Would a telepathic alien count as supernatural? Why or why not?) So is Santa a god or one of these other creatures?

Monotheistic deities almost always issue moral codes. Does Santa? Sure – the naughty and nice lists presuppose a moral code which is enforced by Santa (although with less hellfire than some other deities use – but Santa is also a less-powerful entity). Moreover, many traditional gods do not issue moral codes, some do not act according to the moral codes issued by other gods (some of the Greco-Roman gods were quite fond of adultery), and some of the gods who might otherwise count as vaguely moral only enforce their own short-term interests. Of course, Santa’s moral codes do not affect one’s salvation in the sense of steering one towards or away from a particular sort of afterlife. But then again, many traditional gods have little or nothing to do with afterlives. Monotheistic gods do everything and so of course they are involved with this task but in many cultures most gods have nothing to do with the dead. Instead, a subset of gods handles the afterlife, perhaps with the aid of creatures like psychopomps (beings who guide the dead to their final destination). A Greek in Athens who primarily venerated the city’s titular deity Athena would expect to live (?) out an afterlife ruled over by Hades. Similarly, in Aztec mythology Mictlantecuhtli was the god of the dead (assisted by his wife Mictecacihuatl) and the dead passed out of the realm ruled by other gods and into Mictlantecuhtli’s realm (Mictlan – in case you needed more “Mict” names).

Surely, though, we can prove to our hypothetical alien anthropologist that Santa is not a god because gods receive worship, often in temples or other sacred areas, and Santa does not. Of course, it would be good if the Santa cult (I use the term “cult” in its anthropological sense and not its pejorative one) would stop erecting miniature depictions of Santa’s holy abode in shopping malls and would stop actively encouraging the belief in Santa by having its priests dress up as Santa and his helpers to receive messages to Santa to be passed on. Explaining why this Santa-focused activity, which ends in some households with a ritual offering to Santa of milk and cookies (often, as is also traditional in many communities of worship, eaten by the local priest of the cult) is not worship might be difficult.

Importantly, Santa is not regarded as real by really anyone in our society aside from small children. (Although our hypothetical anthropologist will be confused to see that some adults believe that Santa is made up but attempt to teach their children otherwise.) Santa, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, and the personification of death (the scythe-holding skeleton in a hooded cape) are cultural symbols that are widely held to be unreal. No adult believes that Santa brings gifts, that the tooth fairy takes teeth and leaves change, that a rabbit runs around laying candy eggs, or that a skeleton in a cape starts hanging around you when you decide to skydive using a second-hand parachute. This might be the make-or-break point. However, it exposes an issue with the definition of gods. Some traditional deities (including some or all of the Hindu deities) are personifications of forces of nature or ideas of the world. Claiming that Santa is the personification of the holiday spirit (wait, are we going to need an article on spirits as well?) would be a stretch but Death certainly seems to be exactly that. Now, again, I don’t think almost anyone really believes that Death has a persona, that this part of the world actually exists as a skeletal creature with a cape and scythe. However, it’s also unclear to me that a Hindu mystic would say that the Hindu gods “exist” in the sense of being the beings they are depicted as being. (In fact, given the variations within Hinduism, there is at least one mystic who asserts that the gods are personifications of realities that are not at all personified in reality and another mystic who takes these personifications quite seriously.)

So far we have a list that suggests that gods are supernatural, receive worship, and …… um….. might have invisible abodes. Effectively all we have is that gods are supernatural beings that receive worship. (A number of dictators have demonstrated that one can be an entirely natural being that receives worship.) So does this separate gods clearly from other supernatural entities? I think so – saints and angels may receive worship but only to pass it along. I originally had thought that hierarchy might be the key (i.e., gods might just be the apex predators of the supernatural ecology) and while this might help separate gods from animist spirits that might be unnecessary and the worship criterion seems to work better. However, this isn’t perfect. Indeed, it suggests that gods might be a bit of a murky category for supernatural entities. If you believed in a fairy queen who lived in the woods behind your house and who you offered kind, chanted words and occasionally food to would this fairy queen be a god? Not in normal thought but only because she is a fairy queen, which suggests that “god” is a wastebasket for supernatural taxonomy. If it isn’t an ancestral spirit, the soul-force of a tree, the messenger of a higher power, or something with a clear, physical form it’s a god. Not surprising, it appears that some ancient cultures used a variety of terms for gods that overlapped with terms for other things. The Hebrew el (אל) can be used for God, pagan gods, or even heroes. The Greek term that we translate as demon (διαμονιον) was widely used for all sorts of supernatural entities, good and bad, including even some of the main Greek gods.

So who cares? I suggest that there are two reasons that Christians should care about this. The first is that it is not infrequent to hear people attack the idea of gods and, as this article suggests, that’s a fairly vague term. People should be made to be more clear about this, especially since many Westerners assume that all gods are effectively monotheistic deities (this includes polytheisms where all gods work together like one).

The second reason is that the vagueness around gods re-opens the question of what else might be a god. It’s common to hear pastors preach on idolatry and deal with the fact that there are very few people in modern American society who actually bow down to carved depictions of gods by broadening the term “idol” to cover all sorts of things that one cares a bit too much about in life. Part of me has always felt like this might be cheating a bit – is your favorite sports team, your passion for good food, or the Internet (I’m talking to you, blog-readers) an idol? However, this might be fairly legitimate. Now, none of the things I listed is a god in the sense that I have described above but there do appear to be more American gods than we thought. Some children no doubt actually do worship Santa (the objection to Santa’s classification as a god is based on adults) although at least some of them understand him to be a servant of a higher god. The Market might classify as a god for some people – it’s invisible, it even defines some people’s moral code, and it can be an object of devotion. (Adam Smith even granted the market an invisible hand – the arm of the market, bared in the sight of all the nations [hopefully no reader has gotten this far without developing some ability to detect satire].) I’ve run into more than a few people who worship their countries (and read about many more in history). While countries have land (normally) there are stateless nations, there are dispossessed nations, and there are claims that the actual governments of nations have betrayed the idea of the nation, placing the nation firmly in the realm of invisible, worshipped objects. In fact, almost any large idea might potentially become an accidental deity. This would be nothing but amusing (to me) silliness if it weren’t for the fact that these gods do appear to be able to compete with the generally-recognized sort. Jesus rather famously says that no one can serve both God and money indicating that money can compete (sometimes successfully) for allegiance with God. (And money is nothing if not an idea that grew legs and started running around stepping on things.)

Part of the problem with deciding that some things just must be religious and that some things clearly aren’t is a blindness to the continuity between them. Just as I have elsewhere argued that separating religions from philosophies is difficult if not impossible I have argued here that separating one’s intangible, worshipfully-held ideas from gods might be nothing but wishful thinking. Even secularists live in a world full of gods. They’ve just renamed them to make them more respectable.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ronnie permalink
    January 6, 2015 6:33 pm

    Of course, another option would that that Santa is really Satan and is, therefore, more of an anti-god. ;)

    • Eric permalink
      January 10, 2015 4:31 pm

      I’ve run across that one before. However, this brings up another important wrinkle in all of this: why is Satan not considered a god? Really only because he is outranked and worshiping him is considered ineffective in the long run. In a polytheism he’d be a god.

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