Tag Archives: polytheism

Concluding reflections on whether God exists, etc.

As you can imagine, discussions about God/gods (and whether it or they exist) have continued since the last post was uploaded, but, as is so often the case when the topic is discussed, very little has been said that is either novel or convincing. However, the two contributions below offer some worthwhile reflection, although, as with the last post devoted to the subject, I am not in agreement with everything written. The first contribution derives from someone who engaged with the debate from quite early on and the second contribution derives from a historian with an unusually perceptive understanding of things to do with religion and belief.

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Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Morning, S. I hope the confusion about atheists and agnostics has been resolved!!!!

Below, I offer comment on your most recent email. You have certainly posed some important questions about what God/the Divine/the Supreme Being is, and what powers/influence God, etc. has (if any). 

S: the quote from the Guru Granth Sahib (“God created Nature and pervades it”) interests/concerns me. If by “Nature” the Guru Granth Sahib means the universe and everything within it, there is no problem with the idea that God created it in so far as the idea is found in most expressions of religion (God the creator of everything, etc.). But if God also “pervades it” (“Nature”. In other words, God is present in every sentient and insentient thing in the universe. By the way: based on the content of the Guru Granth Sahib and chats with Sikhs, this is exactly how I understand the Sikh “vision” of God – God is present in every sentient and insentient thing in the universe), is God passive or active? Deists insist God created the universe, then became indifferent to its future development/evolution. As a general rule, theists subscribe to the idea that God, having created the universe, remains active as it develops/evolves, or as time unfolds. 

One quote in the email (“He/God remains in a stable state and observes Nature with delight”) suggests that God is passive (not only is God “stable”, but God merely “observes Nature with delight”) – which, combined with the idea that humankind has free will, may explain all the problems that confront planet Earth when the problems are the result of human action/inaction (climate change, environmental degradation, famine, crime, religious intolerance, persecution, racism, war, genocide, etc.). But I imagine that Sikhs are encouraged to believe that God is somehow active as the universe develops/evolves, or that God is somehow active as time unfolds (e.g. as when you said to me some time ago that God saved you when you were a younger man in two life-threatening situations) – and, if this is so, God must therefore take responsibility not only for the good things that happen but also for the bad (the idea that God is present in every sentient and insentient thing reinforces the idea that God, if active at all, is at least partly responsible for everything that happens, whether good or bad). Add to this that you make the case for God being responsible for all the “natural laws” that explain so much about existence, then logic dictates that God must ALSO assume responsibility for the natural disasters that befall our planet (floods, earthquakes, volcanic activity, meteors that wipe out hundreds of animal species, etc.) in so far as such things are a direct result of the “natural laws” God is said to have created.

I quite like how you say at one point that the natural phenomena function on their own “without much interference from the Creator”. This implies God remains active as time unfolds, but that God restricts the degree to which God interferes/shapes things. You therefore clearly agree with the idea of a God still active in how time unfolds, but assign to God a role far inferior to that assigned to God in, say, the Abrahamic religions. Fair enough. If God exists at all, we may be dealing with a God who has powers that God choses not to fully exercise (the existence of human free will may be an aspect of God not exercising God’s powers to the full).

In the email I hear a case being made NOT for a fully passive nor fully active God as time unfolds, but a case for a God who acts only occasionally/sometimes/in certain circumstances. If this is the reality, it may explain why bad as well as good things happen all the time – but it also means that we cannot possibly know with any degree of certainty when a good or a bad outcome is due to God’s intervention. 

Many (most?) people agree that God is either all-powerful and therefore responsible for everything that happens in the universe, whether good or bad, or God is powerless to affect what happens in the universe (perhaps/probably because God does not exist). If the latter (God is powerless to affect what happens in the universe), we can no longer turn to God as an explanation for what happens. Instead, explanations for what happens might be that humankind exercises free will either responsibly or irresponsibly; natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic activity are the result of immutable laws of nature; and sentient creatures and insentient things behave in only particular/certain ways, and they behave in only particular/certain ways, not because of God (or, for humans at least, not because of ethical standards subscribed to for intuitive or intellectual reasons), but because of physics, chemistry and/or human and animal DNA. However, the idea suggested in your email, that God has limited powers/God chooses to exercise God’s powers in a limited way, may offer a compromise position that to some extent is supported by the evidence (there is no rhyme nor reason for many of the things that happen in the universe because there is no rhyme nor reason about whether God will be active or passive. Nor is there any rhyme or reason about whether God will act ethically or unethically on those occasions God is – or appears to be – active).


ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I agree completely with the suggestion that “humans have to assume responsibility for their own actions, actions which might lead to wars, which cause destruction and the loss of human life. To put it bluntly, humans are responsible for persecution, bombs and wars”, because I believe 100% that we have free will and can exercise free will either wisely or unwisely. But this nonetheless throws up a problem with what we have discussed above, the Sikh idea that God exists within everything in the universe and must therefore be present in every human being. If God is present in every human being and, as many people allege, God is capable only of good things, why does God not stop humans doing bad things? Yes, the free will argument might explain bad actions, but this must therefore mean that God lacks the power/influence so often claimed for God. Perhaps God lacks the power/influence for the reason suggested above: God limits the extent to which God interferes. But such an understanding of God leaves wide open the opportunity for people to assert that God therefore acts in inconsistent/arbitrary ways which at times have amoral or immoral consequences. Or, to put it another way, God sometimes acts with mercy and sometimes without mercy. There is no question that thousands of people who say they are inspired by the concept of God act in ways utterly devoid of mercy and/or in ways that most people deem ethically abhorrent (e.g. Muslims belonging to a vast number of extremist groups/organisations, Boko Haram and ISIS included). Some such people even believe that the murder of vast numbers of innocent people is “willed” by God and/or that God derives “pleasure” from such carnage. Of course, God is not responsible for such crimes against humanity. But God is invoked to justify them. 

Holding those to account for crimes against humanity is only right and proper, of course, because we cannot blame God for such crimes (but we can blame some/many human interpretations of God for inspiring the crimes). More problematic is the matter of natural disasters such as meteors, floods, earthquakes and volcanic activity. With the exception of some floods, none of these are the responsibility of humans. Therefore, “responsibility” must lie elsewhere. Scientists, mathematicians and atheists are among those who argue that such things can be explained by the laws of nature, many of which (most of which?) have already been discovered (scientists, etc. would also insist that the laws of nature are not a product of God but an integral and inevitable part of physics). The Guru Granth Sahib seems also to say that natural disasters are a product of “natural laws”, but that such laws were devised by God. Therefore, if God devised the laws that make natural disasters at some point inevitable, God must be responsible for them. Natural disasters affect the innocent at least as much as the guilty and often strike without rhyme or reason. Consequently, God has created a universe in which unpredictability, injustice, unfairness and a lack of mercy are as likely to prevail as predictability, justice, fairness and mercy. There are therefore limits to the extent to which God can be deemed ethically responsible/the source of all that is good/unquestionably worthwhile.

People of faith have a tendency to ascribe every good outcome to God and every bad outcome to some other factor. As I’ve tried to indicate above, this is a wholly unreasonable/illogical position to assume, unless God is somehow far less the influence/power that most religious people allege. It makes much more sense to ascribe all good and all bad things to God, or none of the good and none of the bad things to God – but the idea above, that God interferes as little as possible/infrequently in God’s creation, offers a sort of half-way house between the two positions just summarised. However, the half-way house opens the way for people to question the merits of such a God, a God who will inevitably appear inconsistent/arbitrary/amoral/immoral.

You are aware that we have been scrabbling round the edges of one of theology’s most hot topics, that of theodicy (the issue of evil in light of the existence of God. If God is good and just/forgiving/compassionate, how do evil and misery exist?). Perhaps history’s most famous statement on the problem of evil comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing. Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?


Jesus in Malaga, Spain

To conclude these reflections about God and what God is like, if God exists at all, I share some wisdom deriving from Yuval Noah Harari. Harari is the author of “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind”, one of the most interesting history books I have read in recent years. He says things below that make more sense than many theologians and religious studies scholars addressing the same matters:

As far as we know, only homo sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” The ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of homo sapiens language…

Most scholars agree that animist beliefs were common among ancient foragers. Animism (from “anima”, “soul” or “spirit“ in Latin) is the belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings and can communicate directly with humans… In the animist world, objects and living things are not the only animated beings. There are also immaterial entities – the spirits of the dead, and friendly and malevolent beings, the kind that we today call demons, fairies and angels… (For animists, gods) are not universal gods… (that are) all-powerful (and) run the world as they wish… (they) are local beings…

Theism (from “theos”, “god” in Greek) is the view that the universal order is based on a hierarchical relationship between humans and a small group of ethereal entities called gods… (Each theistic group) viewed the others’ beliefs as weird and heretical…

Two thousand years of monotheistic brainwashing have caused most westerners to see polytheism as ignorant and childish idolatry. This is an unjust stereotype…

Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or law governing the entire universe. In fact, most polytheist and even animist religions recognised such a supreme power that stands behind all the different gods, demons and holy rocks…

The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate and Hindus built no temples to Atman.

The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good – to embrace every defeat, poverty, sickness and death. Thus some Hindus known as Sadhus or Sannyasis devote their lives to uniting with Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment…

Most Hindus, however, are not Sadhus. They are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers…

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Shrine, Hindu-run business, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded and rarely persecutes “heretics” and “infidels”…

The polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion…         

With time, some followers of polytheistic gods became so fond of their particular patron that they drifted away from the basic polytheistic insight. They began to believe that their god was the only god and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war…

Judaism, for example, argued that the supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, yet His chief interest is in the tiny Jewish nation and in the obscure land of Israel…

(Judaism is an example) of “local monotheism”…, (Christianity and Islam are examples of monotheist religions that have an impact) throughout the world…

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Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth. Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.

It worked… Today most people outside East Asia adhere to one monotheist religion or another and the global political order is built on monotheistic foundations.  

Polytheism gave birth not merely to monotheist religions, but also to dualist ones. Dualist religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an independent power, neither created by the good God, nor subordinate to it. Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between these two forces, and that everything that happens in the world is part of the struggle.

Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple answer to the famous problem of evil, one of the fundamental concerns of human thought. “Why is there evil in the world? Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?” Monotheists have to practice intellectual gymnastics to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good God allows so much suffering in the world… What’s undeniable is that monotheists have a hard time dealing with the problem of evil.

For dualists, it’s easy to explain evil. Bad things happen even to good people because the world is not governed single-handedly by a good God. There is an independent evil power loose in the world. The evil power does bad things.

Dualism has its own drawbacks. While solving the problem of evil it is unnerved by the problem of order…

So, monotheism explains order but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.