Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The three characteristics of God

Awhile back, I was reading an argument that God was not just perfectly good, but that he was perfectly good by definition. (Sorry, no link. I don't remember where I was at the time.)

By definition, God had to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent - all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. Indeed, according to this believer, we wouldn't even have the concept of "good" without God.

It struck me at the time that most of our ancestors wouldn't have agreed with this. In fact, this definition would exclude the vast majority of gods human beings have worshiped over the centuries. And I've wondered since then what really would be the characteristics of a god or gods, pretty much by definition.

What can you say about all gods (other than that they don't actually exist outside of our imaginations)? What godly characteristics are inevitable, or nearly so? What characteristics do define the concept?

Well, first of all, gods are powerful, very powerful. Because of that, human beings needed to appease the gods through worship and sacrifice. You really didn't want a god mad at you!

Gods were objects of fear long before they were objects of love, and that still exists today. If you don't obey God, he'll smite you. Or he'll cause natural disasters in your whole country. At any rate, he'll torture you for eternity - lovingly, of course - after you die.

Now gods weren't necessarily all-powerful, certainly not when it came to rival gods. But to an ordinary person, a god was plenty powerful enough. Gods were like kings - indeed, the terminology used with both is very similar - who were also far more powerful than ordinary people, but could be overcome by other kings.

Indeed, gods were similar to powerful human beings in many ways - vain, jealous, randy. You didn't want to anger either gods or kings, so you did what it took to appease them. But in general, the average person was far better off never coming to their attention at all.

Of course, you might petition your god for help, just as you might petition your king. But it wasn't necessarily safe, and help certainly wasn't ensured. As I say, when it came to the very powerful, you were generally better off never coming to their attention at all.

As times changed and people's perception of gods - or God - developed, this fear of coming to a god's attention faded, I think. Maybe that's because believers no longer expected it to happen, since we'd started to understand the natural explanations of diseases and other afflictions, or maybe it was the idea that God wanted prayers and petitions, I don't know.

But one thing that never changed was the idea that God was powerful. God once wiped out the whole world in a flood - every man, woman, and child (and fetus), saving only a handful on Noah's little boat - and he could do it again if he wanted.

So gods are powerful, pretty much by definition - maybe not all-powerful, but far more powerful than us mortals. So how about the all-knowing and the all-good? Well, in the past, gods could be tricked. It would take a very brave, indeed foolhardy, hero to even try to trick a god, and the results weren't always pretty. But it was possible. Gods weren't necessarily omniscient.

And gods weren't necessarily benevolent, either, let alone all-good. Really, I think that idea would have astonished most of our ancestors, as they suffered from floods and droughts, hurricanes and tsunamis, plagues of insects and disease, and all sorts of other calamities. It must have seemed self-evident that the gods weren't always benevolent.

But the gods were - and are - defined by more than just power. Kings are powerful, but they're not necessarily gods. In Europe, kings were divinely appointed, and publicly crowned by God's priests, but they weren't gods themselves. In some ancient cultures, kings might have been considered gods - or were raised to divinity after death - but there was still a difference in those two roles.

I read science fiction stories sometimes where people encounter some powerful creature that either claims to be a god or is actually considered a god. Or sometimes it's human beings who've become gods, due to our advanced science and technology.

But to me, that ignores another fundamental characteristic of gods, that they're magical. God and kings are both powerful, but gods are fundamentally different, because they're magic. (OK, sure, kings are real, too, while gods are just imaginary. I'll get to that in a minute.) Kings are natural creatures, while gods aren't. Call them supernatural, if you wish, but it means magic.

Our ancestors would have considered our technologies to be god-like, no doubt. And we might someday encounter alien creatures even more advanced and more powerful. But power alone doesn't make for gods. Gods are magical creatures. Maybe you could imagine a god that's not powerful, but not one who's not magic, not really.

So if you look at God's fundamental characteristics, it's clear that he must be, by definition, both powerful and magical. What else? Well, as I say, I'd include imaginary. Gods aren't real.

But many people do believe in a god or gods, and we wouldn't have the concept at all if people hadn't believed that they existed (in that respect, gods aren't like orcs or goblins), so I'm not sure if imaginary should be considered a characteristic or not. Hmm,... let's just consider "imaginary" to be implicit in "magical."

But there's one other characteristic that does seem to fit, if not as neatly as "powerful" and "magical." Actually, this particular characteristic is more easily seen today, rather than in the past. In countries where freedom of religion is guaranteed, your God inevitably reflects you.

God likes what you like and hates what you hate. God finds the same things important that you do. God basically agrees with you about everything.

If you think that homosexuality is an abomination, so does your god. If you don't think it's really any of your business, that's what your god thinks, too. If you're a liberal, your god is liberal. If you're a conservative, so is your god.

Basically, your god does what you would do, if you had that kind of power. If you're a kind, gentle person, then your god is going to welcome most people into heaven. If you're Pat Robertson, though, your god is going to smite the wicked. To a huge extent, your god reflects you.

Now this was not usually possible in the past, when you were forced to worship the god your society worshiped. Nevertheless, gods normally reflected the people of the time. You expected your powerful, magical god to be vain, petty, jealous, and randy, because that's pretty much how you'd behave with that kind of power - or, at least, that was your expectation of powerful people.

And although you might not have too much choice when it came to gods, you could still prefer a particular god (while trying to keep all of them happy) or focus on a particular aspect of a god (a goddess, for example, might embody the aspects of maiden, mother, and crone).

And powerful people did have some influence over their gods. Inevitably, gods supported the aristocracy. God wanted your king to be your king. Above all, God always supported his priesthood. Even today, in the Catholic Church, nothing matters more to God than the church itself. That might not be so important to ordinary Catholics, but it is important to priests, bishops, and cardinals who've given their entire lives to the church.

Of course, these days the Catholic Church is somewhat constrained, because it can no longer burn people alive. So, for example, God had to change his mind about divorce. Celibate priests certainly weren't interested in divorce, but their parishioners were, so if God hadn't changed his mind, the church would have suffered.

This is even clearer when it comes to Protestant sects, since believers can and do switch from one church to another to find a god that fits them to a tee. For churches that all supposedly worship the same God and even use the same Bible, they can be night and day different in beliefs. It's not quite as easy for Catholics to switch churches - although something like 25% of American Catholics do end up leaving the church - so their God tends to mirror the Pope's beliefs more than their own.

So what are the three defining characteristics of God, of any god? God is powerful. God is magical. And God thinks exactly what his believers think.

Well, that's exactly what you'd expect from an imaginary being, right?


Chimeradave said...

This was a really good article. It's really made me think.

WCG said...

Thanks, John. I'd been thinking about it for awhile, but it sounded better in my head, I think. :)

Chimeradave said...

It rings true for me, my idea of God believes all the same stuff I do, but like you said that's a Protestant thing. I wonder what a Catholic thinks, rather than a kindred-spirit do they picture God as a pig-headed father who is set in his ways.