Saturday, March 29, 2008

The gods we don't believe in

Brendoman presents a comprehensive list* of the "gods" that Christians and atheists share a non-belief in. On it are many familiar names, Aesir and Mars and Shiva among them, and at the bottom of the atheist list there is but one extra, Yahweh. The idea, of course, is that atheists "just believe in one less god" than do Christians.

But the frankly bizarre arguments of some Christians in the comments** aside, I can't help but think that such a list seriously misrepresents one facet of Christianity that is all but ignored in 21st Century America; Christianity has never asserted the non-existence of Aesir, of Mars, of Shiva. In fact, it asserts not only their existence, but their influence in the material world.

Around the middle of the First Century, a Christian church had grown up in the Greek city of Corinth, made up mostly of gentile converts from several of the pagan faiths whose namesakes are listed on the chart. They wrote the Apostle Paul a letter filled with questions, about ethics, about morality, about theology, and though unfortunately we do not retain the original questions, we still have Paul's answers. One of them related to this very thing:
I tell you that the things offered by the pagans are offered to evil spirits and not to God. And my desire is that you not have anything to do with evil spirits. - 1Cor 10:20
The former worshipers of Mars and of Diana, people who believed fervently in their existence and power, were not told by Paul that such beings did not exist, but rather that their true form had been concealed from them. The things sacrificed to Mars were sacrificed to evil spirits (demons or devils, if you will), and few Christians*** will deny that such non-physical beings exist. But even if they do not, even if we moderns believe that they do not, it does not change the historical fact that Christianity has asserted that when the worshipers of Mars sacrificed to Mars, Mars received their sacrifice****. The early Christians believed their pagan neighbors were in real spiritual bondage because they were under the influence of the real spiritual creatures they had chosen to follow.

But lest one think that that backsliding Jew Paul was the inventor of a concept, I probably ought to take it back a little further, like to the Psalmist:
Yes, parents sacrificed their sons and their daughters to devils. They shed the innocent blood of their sons and of their daughters, sacrificing them to the idols of Canaan.
-- Psalm 106:37-8
Or we could take it back to Moses:
[Some Israelites] sacrificed to devils and not to God. They sacrificed to gods they did not understand, to new gods newly arisen, gods whom your fathers did not know. -- Deu 32:16
In short, Judaism long before Jesus and Paul taught that the gods whom the idols represented were real beings. I won't bore you with any more of that*****, as I think the point is made. The Christian and atheist worldviews are not different simply in the inclusion or exclusion of a single non-material being from some list, but of the existence of any such beings in the first place.

Either there are spiritual beings which exist and which have influenced the actions of people and nations - no matter their names, no matter their attributes, the matter the specifics of the faithful who have worshiped them, followed them, killed for them throughout the centuries - or there are not. That is the distinction, and it runs far deeper than one name on a list, whether the modern American materialist Christian or the modern American materialist atheist chooses to believe it or not.

* alas, it's an image file and a big one at that, so presenting it here is, as the Spanish say, muy dificil.

** And in general. It is probably fair to say that most modern American Christians are theologically indistinguishable from materialists with the single exception that Brendoman points out. There remains, however, a difference between what modern American Christians believe and what Christianity historically asserts.

*** Unless they are members of the clergy of a dying denomination. Then that confession is all but required to receive an officer's commission on such a spiritual Titanic.

**** An excellent illustration of this concept can be found in CS Lewis' "The Last Battle," book 7 in the Chronicles of Narnia. In fact, reading even his childrens' fiction is a better use of your time than reading me, if I may say so myself.

***** Though if one is interested, a study of the "prince of the kingdom of Persia" in Daniel 10, "the god of this world" in 2Cor 4, or Jesus' response to Satan's demand for worship in Matt 4 ought to be enough to convince anyone that historical Judaism and Christianity have always asserted the reality of the influence of spiritual beings on this material plane. That those beings have long been called 'gods' is more a fact of history than a point of theology.

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