Friday, January 2, 2015

God is not a god (part 1)

If you’re a Christian in a Western country, you can find an abundance of information about the common worldviews of the day. You’ll find massive numbers of arguments and counter-arguments for apologetics against atheism, postmodernism and to a lesser extent Mormonism and Islam. (Stand to Reason has some really good material on this.)

There’s just one problem: If you don’t live in the West and you’re talking to people with a different worldview than these, you don’t have a lot to work with. I discovered this when I lived in Taiwan and started talking to people who followed a polytheistic form of Buddhism. There’s not a whole lot of modern apologetics directed at polytheism.

But the earliest Christians were surrounded by polytheists. It’s no surprise then, that early apologists were more helpful than later ones in dealing with this challenge. (I found Tertullian’s arguments against Marcion particularly helpful.) The following is my attempt to formulate a strategy for debates with polytheists.

On the surface, the claim that there is one God and the claim that there are many gods seem pretty similar. But the differences go deeper than basic math. Actually, the type of being posited by monotheists is completely different from the type of beings posited by polytheists.

Monotheism holds that there is a single being who created everything else in existence, who is infinitely powerful, all-knowing and completely good. This being has always existed and will always exist and cannot in any way be diminished. This God is also a person (not an impersonal force) and thus is capable of making free choices and communicating with people. In short, the God of all monotheistic religions is the supreme being – the greatest being in existence, by definition.

In polytheism, however, gods are like humans only greater. They are extremely powerful but not infinitely powerful; each controls an area of life, but some can impinge on others’ areas, since life is complicated. For example, the Greek god Ares was the god of war, but other gods like Zeus also influenced battles. The gods were still way more powerful and more knowledgeable than human beings, so it was important to be on their good side. In most polytheistic systems, the gods are involved in the creation of the world, but it’s sort of a team effort. (The creation stories vary between religions.) Gods in polytheistic systems also tend not to be eternal. Most polytheistic religions have myths explaining how the gods came to be. Thus, polytheistic gods are really powerful, but they’re not infinite like the monotheistic God is. It’s just a different concept.

Actually, it’s logically impossible for more than one being to fit the monotheistic characterization of God. Monotheists define God as the greatest possible being (or at a minimum, the greatest existent being). There cannot be two greatest beings, by definition.

Another way of thinking about this is by looking at the idea of omnipotence. There cannot be more than one omnipotent being. To illustrate this, let’s try to imagine two “omnipotent” beings with the (very creative) names A and B. A intends to move a rock to the north, while at the same moment, B intends to move it to the south. Where does the rock go? If it goes to the north, B is not omnipotent, but if it goes to the south, A is not omnipotent. If the forces cancel each other out so that the rock does not move, neither being is omnipotent. The only way around this is for A and B to agree on everything all the time, in which case either one is subservient or they’re actually the same being.

So if I were going to have a conversation with a polytheist, I’d start by asking whether a being that fits the monotheistic definition of God exists. If the polytheist is inclined to say no, you can pull out all the arguments for God’s existence that have been articulated by really smart people elsewhere.

But it’s possible that they’ll say, “Yes, your God exists, but my gods exist, too.” At this point, I don’t think it’s necessary to prove that the polytheistic deities don’t exist. We just need to persuade them to worship our God instead of the polytheistic deities.

It’s logically possible that there is a single omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc. being (God) and also lesser supernatural being with real but limited powers (gods). Many early Christians actually held this view. They thought the Roman gods were actually demons.

Note that this view is not henotheism. Henotheism is the belief that multiple gods exist but the group one is part of worships only one. It places the worshipped god and the non-worshipped gods on the same level. In contrast, a view that places the worshipped God in a different category than the non-worshiped gods is still monotheism, because it attributes to only one being the traits ascribed to the monotheistic God. In fact, arguably the polytheistic gods shouldn’t even be called “gods” on this view, since they are no longer on top of the metaphysical food chain.

Next question: Why should anyone give up the gods they’ve been worshipping and worship ours instead? I have some ideas about that, but since this post is already pretty long, that will have to wait for part 2.

In the meantime, for those of you who have experience with evangelism in polytheistic cultures: How do you go about it? I like my approach, but I don’t really have anyone to try it out with, so I’d be really interested in hearing about your experiences.

And for those of you who don't, the distinction between the God of monotheism and the gods of polytheism is still relevant. It refutes the atheist claim that atheists reject belief in God for the same reason monotheists reject belief in, say, the Greek gods. But, of course, the kind of being in question here is completely different. This also answers the claim that Christianity is just a rehashing of older myths about dying and rising gods. Christianity presents God as a fundamentally different type of being than do the myths it was supposedly based on. Thus,  the distinction here is relevant even within Western culture.

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