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The Gods By Any Other Names

February 11, 2015
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In my last article I mentioned, more or less in passing, the difficulties in identifying whether two people worshipped the same god. In this article I wish to expand upon that.

The difficulties come in two flavors. The first is the establishment of a “neutral” pantheon within which to assign gods. The second is determining whether two people’s gods match.

I’ve treated the issue of a neutral pantheon in more depth elsewhere but this issue deserves some recap here. When I say “neutral pantheon” (a term you won’t find in the article I just referenced) I mean that we need to attempt to match gods without favoring any set of claims. The more usual way to match gods is to pick a base set of claims and attempt to match gods on to that. This is how some people’s gods end up as other people’s devils – one group assumes that they are right and matches the other group’s gods to their own devils. I’d like to point out that this is perfectly sane. If you believe, as I do, that God’s basic nature is expressed in His self-sacrificial love then a god who is depicted as being in favor of human sacrifice (especially that of unwilling victims) must be either a terrible figment of the human imagination or a demon. Religious neutrality as such is often held to be a value in the modern world but it is ultimately also moral neutrality. You really don’t want to embrace most of the Mesoamerican gods with open arms.

However, in the attempt to match gods religious neutrality may be required to do the job right. If I were to seriously test the Islamic claim that we worship the same god but I’ve got the details wrong then I would need to establish a religiously-neutral intellectual space for me to work in. I would need to assume that either one of us could be wrong, or that both of us could be getting some third option wrong (note that the option “everyone is correct” doesn’t exist unless everyone agrees already). Now, this claim of religious neutrality is often made in modern society but it rarely actually done right. Instead, a less-defined but equally dogmatic religion is used as the reality to which all else must be matched. In many cases that base is essentially monotheistic, or even monist, and holds that most religions are basically wrong except where they all agree which will almost inevitably force the identification of all major deities with one another. This, of course, ignores central claims made by the religions being treated about what is actually important.

This leads naturally to our second issue. Assuming that we’ve done a decent job being properly neutral (and since we’re only human let’s not pretend we did better than “decent”) we can now ask whether god A is the same as god B. The classic place to start is names. This is often a fairly stupid place to start as well.

The first issue with names is the term “god”. Monotheistic deities and polytheistic deities both get called gods but are really entirely different species. Monotheistic deities are, by definition, the only gods. They are almost always omni-everything (omniscient, omnipotent, etc). Polytheistic gods are more like superheroes. (Of course, one of the better known polytheisms, Hinduism, isn’t like this because it isn’t technically polytheist. Instead, each smaller god is an aspect, sort of, of a larger god and eventually every single thing in the universe can be rolled into one thing. This is very different than a traditional polytheism where the gods squabble, kill each other, block each other’s designs, and exercise limited powers over particular types of issues.) Monotheistic gods also tend to get named “God” because they are the only one around. So, for instance, Christians in the West normally think of “Allah” as the name of the Islamic god but in some areas of West Africa it’s the name Christians use as well because it’s the only word that mean “monotheistic deity” available.

The second issue with names is that they aren’t necessarily unique identifiers. Revelational religions claim that a god (or gods) revealed themselves to humans and presumably used some names for themselves. In that case maybe the names are useful – unless one posits that these same gods used other names in other languages. In other sorts of religions is less clear that the gods are supposed to have directly passed along their names. Certainly the Romans and the Egyptians seem to have occasionally believed that other people worshipped the same gods as they did but under different names, in some cases apparently under the assumption that these people noticed the presence of these gods but didn’t know what to call them.

Given this it’s worth looking at other identifiers. If we were discussing a possible mutual acquaintance and were unable to determine if they were the same person based on name we might start with descriptions. Of course, descriptors like, “About six feet tall with red hair,” don’t work for a lot of gods in the modern world. Even in the ancient world where characteristics like, “The head of a wild cat and feathered wings,” might be thought to be useful identifiers there seems to have often been the impression that gods were able to choose to look different. However, even with people we often use non-physical descriptors – “Works as an IT specialist and builds intricate replicas of WWII aircraft in his spare time”. (With people and some flavors of gods one might also use familial relations.) These sorts of descriptors are what is actually useful for the identification of gods. This is one reason why no one is likely to identify a god who demands regular human sacrifice with Jesus, for instance.

The trick here is that we often deal with cases where gods are identified by rather useless characteristics. With people we know better than to say, “Two eyes, arms, has hair on his head, does not have fangs,” and expect that to be helpful. With gods it’s not uncommon to find people pointing to the most common characteristics of gods and using those to identify them. This is based on a failure to establish a neutral pantheon – if one walks into the task assuming that gods are all the same because gods often match in some basic characteristics then one will match almost all gods together but only because of one’s assumption. To do a better job the assumption that the commonalities between gods are important must be examined. It may be instead that the commonalities between gods are the result of natural forces. A religion that says, “Murder all your co-religionists,” disappears quickly while a religion that says, “Help you co-religionists,” has a better shot at making it. Similarly, religions that evangelize do better on the world stage than ones that don’t. Monotheisms probably have an inbuilt advantage over polytheisms when it comes to philosophical plausibility. Some of the ideas that are supposed to be evidence that all religions hold similar ideas are accidents of history. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share some ancestry and yet are also fairly familiar in the West. (Similarly, Hinduism is the root stock for Buddhism.) Comparing them and finding that they share characteristics is completely unremarkable. When biologists compare lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars (thought to share an ancestor relatively recently in geologic time) they are generally not amazed that all four cats have bones, legs, strong canine teeth, shortened faces, and whiskers but are instead interested to note the variety of color patterns and social organizations within this group as well as changes like a leopard’s rearrangement of some limb structure to allow it to climb better or a jaguar’s incredible bite strength. The differences between related descendants is what is most intriguing.

Of course, some similarities might be important. However, weighing similarities carefully is worth doing. For instance, I expect all monotheistic deities to be designated as creator of the universe. Failure to attribute the creation of the universe to a monotheistic deity would indicate one of two things: 1) a belief in an uncreated universe or 2) a rather sorry sort of monotheistic deity. I would not use that particular characteristic to match up gods.

Most importantly, we must recognize that even gods with the same name might not be the same. In the West lots of people claim to worship Jesus (as I said in a previous article being able to claim the tradition of Christianity lends gravitas to all sorts of religious claims). However, their worship can differ widely. Now, if we were discussing people this would be automatically suspicious. If both you and I took orders via email from a person named Richard Smith and I received emails urging me to be extremely cautious with money and you claimed to receive emails telling you to spend money wildly I would suspect that you were either lying or were in contact with a completely different Richard Smith. With gods this is, for some reason, often treated as a rather insulting assumption. If I get totally different orders from my god than you get from yours I think it is probably fair to question whether they are the same deity. However, in much of modern Western culture that is considered offensive.

This is particular idea can be extended again into another interesting realm, the detection of “hidden” gods. However, this article is far too long already and so I’ll deal with that topic next week.

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