Many Gods, but None True?

One of the common arguments against the existence of God is that humanity has produced a vast number of gods in the mythologies of the world’s peoples, each one different from the other. As each of these gods is different from all the other gods in which people have ever believed, so it is argued that the very concept of god is contradictory and incoherent. And if there is no good reason to believe in one particular god or conception of god, so it is reasoned or implied that there is no good reason to believe in another. All ideas of God are held to be equally invalid.

There’s nothing new in this argument. The Roman Sceptical philosopher, Sextus Empiricus, advanced them in the 2nd century AD in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, stating that

‘Since, then, some of the Dogmatists assert that God is corporeal, others that he is incorporeal, and some that he has human form, others not, and some that he exists in space, others not; and of those who assert that he is in space some put him inside the world, others outside; how shall we be able to reach a conception of God when we have no agreement about his substance or his form or his place of abode? Let them first agree and consent together that God is of such and such a nature, and then, when they have sketched out for us that nature, let them require that we should form a conception of God. But so long as they disagree interminably, we cannot say what agreed notion we are to derive from them.’ 1

Indeed, the modern use of the argument dates from the decades immediately following the first Latin translation of his complete works in 1569, and it’s become one of the major influences on modern atheism.

It is not, however, such a convincing rebuttal of theism as it might appear. Since the 16th century, for example, religious scholars have pointed to the near ubiquity of belief in gods of some kind amongst multitude of the world’s cultures as proof of the existence of God. The fact that just about every people has an idea of supernatural beings with some responsibility for and control over the Earth, despite differences of geography and culture suggests that God really exists, and that humans have an intuitive concept of the Lord.

Some religious scholars have gone even further, and suggested that many of the world’s religions may have a common origin in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob described in the Bible. Winfried Corduan, in his book Eternity in their Hearts very much takes this position, based on the experience of the Christian missionaries around the world who discovered elements in the indigenous religions of the peoples to whom they were preaching that resembled elements of the Judeo-Christian conception of God. Many polytheistic cultures, despite their plurality of gods, nevertheless believe in a single high god who is the creator of the world and the other, subordingate gods. For Corduan, this argues for an original monotheism, which declined into polytheism over time with the ‘disease of language’. The argument that polytheism is a secondary development, a decline from this primeval monotheism is based on the observation that generally in the history of a religion, gods multiply, rather than are simplified into a single deity. For example, contemporary Hinduism features a number of gods, who don’t feature in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of the Indian peoples. It was also suggested in the 19th century by the great British anthropologist and scholar of Indian religion, F.W. Muller, that a major cause of polytheism was the subsequent conception of different names for the same god as separate gods as language became more elaborate. A similar idea appears in Judaism regarding the theological basis for the different names for God used in the Bible. According to Jewish tradition, God Himself explained this to one of the rabbis, explaining that, for example, the name ‘El Shaddai’, translated into English as ‘Lord of Hosts’, referred to God in His military aspect as head of the celestial army, and certainly not to a separate, competing deity.

It’s fair to say that the argument for a primeval monotheism as the origin of all the worlds religions is highly speculative and has been out of favour amongst scholars and philosophers of religion since the 1930s. Nevertheless, many extra-European peoples have argued for the essential dignity of their pre-Christian beliefs as a ‘preparation for the Gospel’, as ancient Platonic philosophy was for the Roman world, based on the concepts of single, transcendent creator above the other gods found in their religions. The pioneering British anthropologist, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, noted in his research amongst the Nuer people of the Sudan, for example, that they worshipped a supreme God, whom they called Kwoth, Spirit, and who believed resided in the heavens. However, Kwoth was not simply a personification of the sky, and although he was most strongly associated with the sky, he wasn’t solely based there. The Nuer believed that Kwoth is everywhere. He is cak ghaua, the creator of the universe, and also kwoth me gargar – the omnipresent/ limitless God. He is also perceived as a distinct person, who loves humanity and who is addressed by the Nuer as gwandong – grandfather, gwandan, our father, and gwadin, the respectful word for ‘father’, for example. 2 Although Nuer religion is very different from Christianity, nevertheless its conception of God, as recorded by Evans-Pritchard, is strikingly similar in some respects. Thus many religions are not so different from each other as to undermine the concept of God itself, as argued by Sceptics like Sextus Empiricus, and so the existence of similar concepts of God in a multitude of different religions across the world could be seen as supporting the existence of God.

If the existence of gods in the cultures across the world argues for the objective existence of God, the differences between these various concepts of God can be seen as the product of human limitation. God, as infinite and transcendent, is conceived in Judaism and Christianity as fundamentally beyond human comprehension. All statements about God, according to the great Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas, were analogies, metaphors, to explain to the limited human intellect what God was like.3 Thus the various names of God were a product of the limited human intellect’s inability to comprehend God wholly:

‘For since we cannot know Him naturally except by reaching Him from His effects, it follows that the terms by which we denote His perfection must be diverse, as also are the perfections which we find in things. If, however, we were able to understand His very essence as it is, and to give Him a proper name, we should express Him by one name only: and this is promised in the last chapter of Zacharias, to those who will see Him in His essence: In that day there shall be one Lord, and His name shall be one.’ 4

Thus, although there may be an innate knowledge of the existence of God, the limited nature of the human intellect, which is only able to comprehend the Lord through analogies with His creations, can produce false images of God, and even false gods altogether. In traditional Christian theology, the crucial factor in the lack of authentic human knowledge of and communion with God is the Fall, which critically separated humanity from God and gradually led to the rise of polytheism and idolatry as humanity mistook God’s works for gods.

Thus, rather than disproving the existence of God, the great variety of gods conceived of and worshipped by humanity actually does the reverse, and acts as evidence for God’s existence. Rather than the great difference in humanity’s gods demonstrating the incoherence of the concept of God itself, it’s evidence only of the inability of the human intellect to form a true conception of an ultimate, transcendent being, an inability created by humanity’s Fall and the resulting separation from both the Lord’s presence and clear knowledge of Him.

Notes

  1. ‘Sextus Empiricus: Concerning God’, in P. Helm, ed., Faith and Reason (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 39.
  2. E.E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘God in Nuer Religion’, in Whitfield Foy, ed., The Religious Quest (London, Routledge 1978), pp. 557-558, 562.
  3. ‘That Terms Applied to God and Creatures Are Employed Analogically’ in Rev. M.C. D’Arcy, ed., Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings (London, Everyman’s Library 1939), pp. 152-153.
  4. ‘That The Divine Perfection And The Plurality of Divine Names Are Not Inconsistent With The Divine Simplicity’, in D’Arcy, ed., Aquinas: Selected Writings, pp. 147-8.

4 Responses to “Many Gods, but None True?”

  1. mattghg Says:

    Thanks, that’s a very helplful post, BR. It also helps in confronting another atheist tactic, where they give a “natural history of religion” of animism -> polytheism -> pantheism -> theism entirely lacking in evidential support.

    I wonder if you’ve seen William Vallicella’s recent post, examining this very “one less God than you” argument as advanced by A.C. Grayling in the Telegraph and rebutting it on his own terms, i.e. anaytic philosophy.

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks, Mattghg. I’m planning to tackle the ‘natural history of religion’ at a later date. I can remember being taught it at school in Religious Education class, which is mandatory in British state schools. It came as a real surprise to me when I found out just how many problems there are with that theory, and that scholars have now rejected it. That said, Daniel C. Dennett still retains the old theory that religion started with shamanism, which he seems to trace to the breakdown of the bicameral mind, as per Julian Jaynes. This is despite the fact that both the theory that shamanism is the origin of religion and Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind have both suffered serious assault. This seems to me to indicate that far from being a cutting edge scholar, Daniel C. Dennett is essentially peddling theories of mind and religion that are well past their sell-by date.

  3. mattghg Says:

    Yes I agree, the whole “intentional stance” thing sounds pretty unconvincing or even crazy from what I’ve heard and been able to understand of it, almost as if he’s saying that intentionality just is the appearance of intentionality. Thanks, that explains a lot…

    Btw I’m British too and had a few years of Religious Studies classes, but somehow managed to avoid that lesson as far as I can remember (thankfully). I actually first heard all the classic theistic and atheistic arguments in R.S. classes in Yr 7, so I have fond memories of that first exposure to philosophy of religion! Anyway, I look forward to that post on “natural history of religion”.

  4. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks, Mattghg. I’m a bit older than you, so I can remember being at school before the National Curriculum was brought in. I went to an Anglican Church school, where evolution was taught as the ‘how’, but not the ‘why’, and we were taught the supposed progress of human religious concepts from animism to polytheism and finally monotheism as a matter of fact. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, and it was only much later that I discovered that these theories, when they were advanced, were believed to disprove religion, rather than actually be incorporated into religious education and used to bolster it.

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