The Great Conversation:
By Matt McKeown
Few questions are as perennial as whether a God exists, or have received stranger answers.
There is, inherently, something a little ridiculous in any human discussion of God: if there is none, then we are talking about a literal non-issue, and if there is, creatures as small as ourselves deciding what we think about God feels a little lacking in self-awareness. Yet we can hardly avoid the subject, either in principle (due to its importance) or in practice (due to its popularity as an idea). Incidentally, it is worthwhile to draw a distinction between the concept of religion and the concept of theology. The former is a study of human thought and behavior, while the latter is a study of the object of that thought and behavior—much like the distinction between studying the eye and studying light.
Polytheism is often vaguely assumed to be the oldest human idea about the divine, though we cannot really say with certainty. Its salient feature tends to be that its gods have what we may call portfolios: one god rules this place or concept, another that, and while there may be an arch-deity even they often have limited powers or interests. But polytheism tends somehow to slide into some form of monotheism or pantheism when philosophers get ahold of it. Hinduism famously has many pantheistic “schools,” and tends to treat its deities as varying manifestations of a single, transcendent God. Greco-Roman paganism seems to have been developing in a similar direction, partly under the influence of the pantheistic Stoics, as it was challenged by Christianity.
Pantheism, the belief that everything is God or is a manifestation of God, has the intellectual appeal of simplicity. It does also have the sentimental problem of divinizing everything we dislike or condemn, though most pantheists have found some way around this. In the (loosely so called) Western tradition, pantheism was popularized largely by Spinoza, a seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher. Hegel, a devotee of Spinoza’s thought, formulated an idealist philosophy of not only being, but history itself: all things are continually progressing towards a greater awareness of the divine, and even all conflicts contain the elements of a new and higher synthesis.
Dogmatic atheism is a relatively uncommon belief, though “soft” atheism—the belief that God’s existence is not adequately proven, or that it is intrinsically unknowable—is more popular. Curiously enough, certain forms of atheism intersect with what we normally think of as religions. The Buddha seems to have been an atheist, as does Mahavira, his contemporary and the founder of the Jain tradition. On the other hand, some atheists have been highly critical of religion: the Roman poet Lucretius is famous for the line Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, or, roughly, “Religion has power to persuade men to do such evils,” referring to the story of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter to placate Artemis.
Monotheism, in some form or other, is of course the kind of theology we are most familiar with. The Abrahamic faiths are all monotheistic, believing in a God who not only created the world but is directly intensely concerned with it. The Enlightenment saw widespread rejection of this view among scholars, who preferred deism; a sort of philosophical minimum of God was affirmed, sufficient to explain existence and ethics, but not one who intervened in his creation. Alternatively, monotheism may shade into dualism, a belief in two equal deities, one good and one evil, in constant cosmic war. Popular ideas of God and Satan often fall into this pattern
If you liked this piece, try one of our profiles of the names on our author bank, like Boethius, Galileo Galilei, or Franz Kafka. Or check out this post discussing the ideal of education set forth by Founding Father and President John Adams.