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The Gods Behind the Names

February 18, 2015

In my last article I discussed the idea of identifying gods not by the overt claims made by their worshippers as to the identity of said gods but by their actions. This is to say that when someone claims to worship Jesus or to worship the creator of humanity (or, for that matter, the god of thunderstorms) this tells you less than you would hope. Learning what these gods demand is much more important in many ways.

Given this, we can now deal with “hidden” gods. By this I do not mean unfound, unworshipped gods. Polythesisms and animisms can lose track of gods (there are, after all, so many) or simply have never discovered some of them (if every habitat on earth is populated by a set of unique gods then it would be rather hard to find them all). Indeed, in some ancient societies the expectation was that some gods remained to be found. Cybele was imported into Rome from Anatolia (at the direction of an oracle) and while this was a rather big deal the big deal was not that the Anatolians had a goddess that Rome didn’t but rather that the Romans were generally sure that their versions of everything were best. If one had said to an ancient Roman that there were even more gods out in India or Russia or Chile the biggest issue one would face is explaining where those places were. The idea that they might have undiscovered gods would not seem surprising – the Romans had their gods (stolen from the Greeks, by and large) and other people had theirs.

However, when I speak of hidden gods I mean gods that are hidden in plain sight and are recognizable by the actions of their worshippers. Take modern neo-paganism. Where I grew up associating oneself with neo-paganism or Wicca (which may be different but my high school friends weren’t the ones to know) was a pretty popular way to piss one’s parents off. Now, granted that my knowledge of modern neo-paganism comes largely from high school students who were often recent converts but a couple of things stuck out to me. First, while modern neo-paganism claims to trace its roots back to ancient British paganism it mostly doesn’t. Old-school British paganism was properly polytheistic (i.e., the gods didn’t necessarily like each other and had real differences in attitudes and desires) and rather bloody. None of my supposedly neo-pagan friends ever sacrificed a horse let alone a human being. Moreover, my friends would express to me that their religion was a nature religion. Again, it was far to sanitized. Nature is, to be frank, terribly brutal. Snowy owls have more young than they can support in anything but a very, very good year. The oldest youngster solves this by killing, and sometimes eating, the youngest offspring, moving up the chain until there is enough food for all the young owls who are left. A significant fraction of fish swallow their prey alive, leaving it to die as it is digested. Rather more prosaically, note that we’ve never found an animal with a sensible “off” switch for pain. In a kind, merciful world a doomed animal would switch off pain and die without suffering. But that’s not the real world. In a larger scope, seeing “nature” itself as a sort of persona, nature makes things work mostly by allowing everything living to produce too many offspring and then killing off the ones who don’t fit. Nature greases its wheels with blood to such an extent that I think one of the best arguments against the Christian vision of the world is that the world is a terrible place full of things that will kill you for any mistake and care nothing for your suffering. And yet my friends who practiced a supposed nature religion were all about altruism and kindness, rather the opposite of nature itself.

Let’s be frank: my friends had not resurrected the old polytheistic gods to worship them. The old polytheistic gods don’t fit modern Western sensibilities. Instead, my friends had made a weakened (and often incoherent) version of the dominant monotheism in their culture (Christianity). Sure, Christianity had some moral rules they didn’t like so they borrowed some of the old god’s attitudes towards sex (properly sanitized of all the rape, of course) and maybe a few other things. They didn’t care for Christianity’s totalizing claims to uniqueness and so they went in for a world of multiple gods that might be kinder towards incorporating other deities but, in fact, was not. The true incorporation of other deities would have involved bringing in their viewpoints which would have left us with an old-style pantheon that fought within itself. Instead, I heard about various schemes in which there were multiple gods (the number ranged widely, from two to an uncountable multitude) who acted more like the appendages of one great being than separate entities. There was, in fact, a hidden god behind my friend’s attempts at novelty. Some great monotheistic, moralizing deity hid being the façade of polytheism and do-it-yourself religion. There were rules – kindness, love, respect – but they didn’t come naturally from the frameworks being presented. They belonged, instead, to the god my friends were fleeing from.

The same is (oddly) true of any number of attempts to be entirely non-religious. The simplest of these to explain is humanism. Humanism is about humans – that’s right in its name. However, humanism is not the science of discovering what humans are like but rather an assertion about the value of every human and an (admirable) attempt to uphold that value. Oddly, however, that value has no basis. In the world before Christianity it was taken as a given that some people were worth less and some were worth more. The gods were thought to not only accept this but approve of and support this. Sometimes this worked out as class structures (kings are worth more than peasants) and sometimes as tribal structures (everyone is your brother in this tribe but those people are nothing but animals) but the basic logic was the same. Indeed, it is basic logic. In a world with uncaring gods, or without gods, why is it actually worse for me to stab a human than stick the same knife in a block of wood? After all, from my perspective it is better that I stab him now than that I allow him to come to the same conclusion and stab me. It was Christianity that brought the idea of worth in low-class, useless others. If God loved even the deformed child of a foreign peasant then it wasn’t permissible to kill that child without thought. The argument “but that child is human” which had been no argument before now became the argument “but that child is made in God’s image and is loved by God”. And so again we have a hidden god. The humanist, or in many cases staunch atheist, who says that a human is ultimately reducible to a collection of atoms without a need to bring in anything else treats a human unlike any other collection of atoms.

Indeed, this goes so far that many attempts in the West to attack Christianity are attempts to attack Christianity using Christian ideas. Does Christianity oppress women? Well, why should anyone care unless God loves men and women equally? Oppressing women is, in fact, a natural occurrence that has happened in thousands of societies given some rather minimal preconditions (or, perhaps, non-oppression requires a strict set of conditions). Have Christians supported bad wars? Sure – but the only reason we care about this as a moral issue (instead of a logistical issue about what’s best for us) is because we believe that “the other” has value. And why? One of the most basic, natural instincts in humans is to band together in tribes and fight the other.

This issue of hidden gods is hardly restricted to the West. I live in the West and see it in the West but I know semi-Muslims and semi-Hindus who worship different hidden gods. I know many Westerners who have embraced semi-Buddhism, or have straightforwardly lifted a general idea of non-attachment from Buddhism and dropped it into a different context. To be sure, there are people who really do detach from the gods they were brought up with and don’t side with imported ones either. However, there are far more gods hidden behind other facades then are normally detected.

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