Monday, January 25, 2010

Are the Gods Real?

This is to an extent a trick question (fair warning up front) and I'm going to engage in a little logical if-then. And this will be slightly oversimplified, but: the question is, do the Gods (my gods, your gods, the Christian God, Allah, Yahweh, Hindu Gods, Aztec Gods, whatever Gods) have, on some level, objective reality, or are they entirely subjective and the product of the believer's mind?

Corrolary question: is religion (any religion) tapping into something objectively real, or is it purely an aesthetic enterprise?

Now here's the if-then.

There's a tendency among Pagans to say that all religious ideas are valid, and to compartmentalize reality for purposes of faith, so that statements can only be true or false within the context of a particular faith or tradition. In accordance with this idea, there are no statements of a religious nature that can be made, which are true or false for everyone.

If this is true, then the answer to my question above must inevitably be NO: the Gods are NOT real. Their existence is entirely subjective, and all we are doing (and the same is true for all other religious persons, not just Pagans) is playing aesthetic games.

On the other hand, if the Gods ARE real -- that is, if there is on any level an objective reality to them (which is not to say that there is nothing whatever about them that is subjective; I'll get to that in a moment) -- then it follows that the idea of all religious ideas being valid is incorrect. Statements CAN be made which are true or false for everyone, not merely within the context of a particular religion or tradition, and it is possible for a religious doctrine to be, not merely repugnant, but objectively untrue.

We may say, I think, with some confidence that not everything about the Gods is objectively real. The human mind, the human imagination, gives them their humanoid qualities, from appearance to personality. The rites by which we choose to worship (or believe that they ask to be worshiped by) are also subjective and variable. This makes deities of different pantheons fundamentally distinct, despite their similarities. For example, the Greek god Hermes, associated with intelligence, communication, and commerce, is not the same as the Egyptian god Thoth, who is also associated with intelligence and communication. The Greeks personified these elements of the universe in one way, the Egyptians in another. Yet the elements themselves, which both Hermes and Thoth personify, are objectively real, and the same in Greece as in Egypt.

Thoth and Hermes are subjective personifications, but intelligence and communication are objectively real. Do Thoth and Hermes tap into or manifest intelligence and communication, or provide the benefits of these things for their worshipers, in any way that is itself real? If so, then Thoth and Hermes are (to that extent) real as well, and one may make statements about gods who manifest intelligence and communication that are true or false for both equally. If not, if Thoth and Hermes are purely exercises in art and theater without any power to actually tap into or provide the benefit of what they symbolize, then no statement may be made about Thoth which, if true, must also be true about Hermes.

One may of course generalize this. All deities are to a degree products of human imagination, but all of them are associated with aspects of reality, up to and including the universe as a whole, which are not products of human imagination. If a worshiper is, through a deity, genuinely tapping into and receiving the benefit of some aspect (or the whole) of nature, then to that extent the deity is objectively real and statements may be made which are true or false for ALL deities. If not, then again, religion is purely an exercise in theatrical art.

So what do you think? Are the Gods real, or not?

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